Phallic Stage

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The phallic stage is an infantile organization of libido which follows the oral and anal stages and is characterized by a unification of the component instincts under the primacy of the genital organs. During this period the child, whether boy or girl, conceives, according to Freud, of but one genital organ, the male one, and the antithesis between the sexes is experienced by him or her as one between phallic and castrated. The phallic stage coincides with the culmination and decline of the Oedipus complex. It disintegrates under the pressure of the castration complex.

The phallic phase, according to Freud, precedes and ushers in problems attending the oedipal complex and the castration complex. It is connected with a relative unification of the component instincts under the primacy of the genital organs, and arises after the oral and anal pregenital phases, around the third year of life, along with the first manifestations of infantile sexual curiosity. This is the time when the child becomes aware of the anatomical difference between the sexes, that is to say, of the presence or absence of a penis (1923e).

At the same time, this phase is to be distinguished from the full (post-pubertal) genital organization in one essential respect: the child recognizes and sets store by a single genital organthe male one. The little boy deals with the threat of castration by disavowing his perception of the female genitals and persisting in his belief that the mother possesses a penis; the little girl reveals her "penis envy" by imagining that she will later grow a penis of her own.

The phallic phase is thus still a pregenital stage. The penis is conceived of as a phallic organ embodying power and completeness rather than a narrowly genital organ: the phallic phase implies the primacy of the phallus, not of the genital.

The male organ is seen as a "small detachable part of the body" that may be lost after the fashion of the contents of the bowel, and thus the difference between the sexes is interpreted in terms of the theory of castration. According to this pregenital logic, the activity/passivity polarity typical of the anal stage is transposed into the antithesis between phallic and castrated. Only with puberty will the masculine/feminine dichotomy be constructed.

For Freud, the phallic phase, which is also the phase of the Oedipus complex, is destined to disappear with the decline of that complex, which is brought about by the threat of castration. The phallic phase is then "submerged" and gives way to the period of latency (1924d, p. 174).

A phallic organization exists in girls. When the little girl notices the difference between the sexes, specifically, the woman's lack of a penis, she develops a desire for a penis. This "penis envy" creates resentment toward the mother who has given her no penis and leads her to take her father as a love-object, inasmuch as he can offer her the symbolic equivalent of a penis: a baby.

The relative importance of the phallic phase, and especially of penis envy, a concept considered too phallocentric by some, has given rise to significant debates within the analytic movement.

Melanie Klein and a good number of other authors have postulated the existence of an early phase of female sexual development and, notably, related the vaginal sensations felt by the little girl as early as the second year of life to the development of orality and anality. This has led them to treat the phallic phase as nothing more than a secondary formation with a defensive function only. Thus penis envy, which Freud had placed at the center of his theory of female sexuality, was in Klein's view (1975 [1957], pp. 199-200) merely a relatively late derivative of the primal wish for the breast and the counterpart of the male's envious identification with the mother who bears children.

Jean-FranÇois Rabain

See also: Genital stage; Oedipus complex; Oral stage; Phallus; Stage or phase.


Brusset, Bernard. (1992). Le développement libidinal. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Freud, Sigmund. (1923e). The infantile genital organization. SE, 19: 141-145.

. (1924d). The dissolution of the Oedipus complex. SE, 19: 171-179.

Golse, Bernard. (1992). Cauchemars, rêves et processus de pensée. Psychiatrie de l'enfant, 37, 2, p. 395-413.

. (1992). Le développement affectif et intellectuel de l'enfant. Paris: Masson.

Klein, Melanie. (1975 [1957]). Envy and gratitude. In Envy and gratitude and other works, 1946-1963 (The works of Melanie Klein, vol. 3). London: Hogarth/Institute of Psycho-Analysis; New York: Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence.

Further Reading

Greenacre, Phyllis. (1964). Nature of inspiration: A special consideration regarding the phallic phase. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 12, 6-31.

Loewenstein, Rudolph M. (1950). Conflict, autonomous ego development during the phallic phase. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 5, 47-52.