On the Sexual Theories of Children

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Freud's article "On the Sexual Theories of Children" was first published in the same periodical as "'Civilized' Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness" (1908d). In fact it is part of a whole set of writings, beginning with the Three Essays (1905d), in which Freud developed the themes of childhood sexuality and of the role, not just of childhood sexuality but of sexuality in general, in the face of the demands of civilization. These issues are illustrated by the case of "Little Hans" (1909b), and further explored in Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (1910c) and in the "Rat Man" case history (1918b [1914]).

In connection with the sexual theories of childhood Freud here evokes various repressed primal ideas (among them ideas of a woman with a penis, castration, and the sexual use of mouth or anus) that are to be met with as readily in dreams and folklore as in neurotic symptoms and perversions. He bases his understanding on both the direct observation of children and on the unconscious memories of neurotics, isolating a number of juvenile theories that he considers typical.

The child's curiosity about origins ("Where do babies come from?) arises, according to Freud, from a "vital exigency" (Lebensnot ), namely the need to guard against the birth of younger siblings with whom parental love must be shared. This question is the point of departure of an "instinct for research" which will continue to operate independently.

The theories that the child conceives are directly related to its own sexuality, which means that they are true, albeit in a distorted way. Freud identifies three typical theories. The first consists in the attribution to all human beings, including females, of a peniswhence the belief in a castration that accounts for the actual configuration of the woman's genitalia. A second theory concerns birth. This is the cloacal theory, according to which the baby is evacuated like a stool from the mother's body. The third deals with parental coitus, picturing it as a struggle in which the father is attacking the mother.

These theories are all products of a curiosity that deconsecrates the parents by portraying them as engaged in dirty or forbidden activities (fantasy of the primal scene). The wish to know (Wissbegierde ) is a sexual wish, and in Freud's view the source of our intellectual interest in riddles.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Castration complex; Fantasy; Femininity; Nuclear complex; Penis envy; Secret; Sexual theories of children; Thought; Truth.

Source Citation

Freud, Sigmund. (1908c).Über infantile Sexualtheorien. Sexual-Probleme, IV, 763-779; G.W., VII, 171-188; On the sexual theories of children. SE, 9: 209-26.


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

. (1908d). "Civilized" sexual morality and modern nervous illness. SE, 9: 177-204.

. (1909b). Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy. SE, 10: 1-149.

. (1910c). Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. SE, 11: 57-137.

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

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