Seduction Scenes

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Seduction scenes are real or imaginary situations of a sexual character involving a child, whether as a spectator or forced participant. During the first period in his work, Freud placed under the rubric of "seduction scenes" both the child's observation of sexual relations between adults (generally the parents) and sexual advances made by an adult (often the father) or by an older child.

Freud early on had the idea of seeking the cause of the neuroses in traumas brought on by premature sexual experiences imposed on a child by an adult. In a letter to Wilhelm Fliess dated May 30, 1893, he reported having "analysed two such cases, and the cause was an apprehensive terror of sexuality, against the background of things [a child] had seen or heard and only half-understood; thus the aetiology was purely emotional, but still of a sexual nature" (1950c, p. 73).

This theme was central to Freud's contribution to Studies on Hysteria (1895d), written in collaboration with Josef Breuer. The case of Katharina reported there (pp. 125-134) is typical: Freud related the young woman's trouble to the fact that she has been a furtive witness to sexual relations between her elder sister and their father and then herself suffered similar assaults from him (in Freud's original account, the father was discreetly described as an uncle).

To begin with, Freud believed that such "seductions" were imposed upon children still in an asexual state. Their fright arose from incomprehensible scenes that they interpreted as violent and from their mystification by the adults' apparent excitement. The immature child thereafter retained a trace of an event whose traumatic character emerged only later, at puberty, when new events revived it.

Freud's initial misapprehension of childhood sexuality gave rise to two major psychoanalytic notions: the idea of the diphasic character of sexuality (the notion that psychosexual development occurred in two steps) and the idea of deferred action (according to which a mental event could derive its meaning and force from later events, by which it was reorganized retrospectively). From the outset, Freud faced the problem of how such a potential trauma could actually be deferred in this way. He first attempted to delineate an obscure "sexual-presexual" period (1950c, p. 127). He acknowledged that excitement and pleasure in response to a scene of seduction could exist in boys, if not in girls. Boys, he argued, being more active, tended toward obsessional neurosis, whereas girls, who experienced such scenes passively, were more likely fated to relive them in a hysterical mode (1950a, pp. 223-224, 228). The unsatisfactory nature of such attempted solutions led Freud, in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), unequivocally to accept the role of infantile sexuality.

A correlated major revision is foreshadowed in Freud's letter to Wilhelm Fliess of September 21, 1897. There he conceded that the scenes of "seduction" by the father that his hysterics recounted probably related "in every case" not to real events but to fantasies (1950a, p. 259). Although this startled Freud at first, he made a swift recovery, as he later recounted in vivid terms in his Autobiographical Study (1925d [1924]). The psychic implications of fantasies were much more important than the real event, he there claimed, and fantasies could be nourished by apparently banal or minor incidents (for example, the copulation of animals might be related in the child's imagination to sexual activity between the parents).

Freud never disavowed his theory of trauma, but in his second period, in which he focused his attention on the "primal scene" (the real or fantasized observation of sexual relations between the parents), he returned again and again to the issue of the relationship between "psychic" and "historical" (event-governed) reality. In his account of the "Wolf Man" case (1918b [1914]), the following question forms a veritable leitmotif: did the eighteen-month-old child really see his parents engaged in coitus a tergo (vaginal penetration from behind), with the trauma making its appearance by way of a dream only when he was four, or was the entire scene merely a "product of the imagination" (p. 49)? Freud was thus led to postulate that primal scenes, bequeathed to every individual by the history of humanity itself, helped form the psychic apparatus (1912-1913a).

Sándor Ferenczi (1955), who fully acknowledged the role of childhood sexuality, emphasized the traumatic character not of the seduction itself but rather of the frustration that the child dramatically experiences when an adult, in the wake of exciting solicitations, disappoints the child by a rejection that points up the child's powerlessness. This is perhaps inevitable if, as Freud himself emphasized, the mother, as the earliest caregiver, is, by force of circumstance, the first seductress (psychoanalytically conceived). Along similar lines, Jean Laplanche has made his "general theory of seduction" the centerpiece of his New Foundations for Psychoanalysis (1989).

Roger Perron

See also: "Confusion of Tongues between Adults and the Child"; Deferred action; "From the History of an Infantile Neurosis (Wolf Man)"; General theory of seduction; Katharina, case of; Seduction; Sexual trauma.


Ferenczi, Sándor. (1955). Confusion of tongues between adults and the child. In his Final contributions to the problems and methods of psycho-analysis. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Original work published 1933)

Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1912-1913a). Totem and taboo. SE, 13: 1-161.

. (1918b [1914]). From the history of an infantile neurosis. SE, 17: 1-122.

. (1925d [1924]). An autobiographical study. SE, 20: 1-74.

. (1950a [1887-1902]). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.

. (1950c [1895]). The origins of psycho-analysis: Letters to Wilhelm Fliess, drafts and notes, 1887-1902 (Eric Mosbacher and James Strachey, Trans.). London: Imago, 1954.

. (1895d). Studies on hysteria. SE, 2: 48-106.

Laplanche, Jean. (1989). New foundations for psychoanalysis (David Macey, Trans.). Oxford: Blackwell. (Original work published 1987)