Sexual Theories of Children

views updated


In Freud's view, children's sexual theories arise neither in response to "some inborn need for established causality" nor out of an interest in sex that assumes a theoretical dimension. Rather, they are the product of a life need (Lebensnot ) that encourages the child to master in thought, and perhaps even to avert, the feared arrival in the family of a new, younger sibling with whom the parents' love will have to be shared.

Such theories seek to explain the differences between the sexes and the origins of sexual relations. Three aspects may be considered for each theory: its content, the modalities of its development, and the sexual (not theoretical) cathexis that the child can thereby mobilize. In this last aspect, the child's sexual theories closely resemble fantasies in that they are largely excluded from the demands of critical reasoning. Freud describes children's sexual theories as the direct expression, uninhibited and untransformed, of infantile sexual component instincts. This explains why children can maintain "accurate" theories, imparted by adults, alongside their own, for which they have a preference of an instinctual kind. "For a long time after they have been given sexual enlightenment [children] behave like primitive races who have had Christianity thrust upon them and who continue to worship their old idols in secret" (Freud, 1937c, p. 234).

More generally, the sexual fantasies of adults, especially masturbatory fantasies, may be looked upon as remnants of childhood theories. They are never abstract, for they are accompanied by a sexual excitement that supports the ideational content.

The sexual cathexis of a "theoretical" realm offers the best possible example of the origin of the sublimating function, which makes possible a diversion of sexual excitation to a theoretical activity dissociated from sexual questions (investigation and the invention of answers to riddles). This process, however, may be eliminated, impeded (as in inhibition), or aborted (as in obsessional rumination). According to Freud, the construction of childhood sexual theories is based on information provided by adults and other children and also on the sensations of the child's own body that accompany the work of thinking: "If children could follow the hints given by the excitation of the penis they would get a little nearer to the solution of their problem" (Freud, 1905d, p. 218). Observation of the animal world can also be a source of "exact" knowledge and the basis of projections, as with "little Hans" and the horse (Freud, 1909b).

It is fair to say, even though Freud does not theorize matters thus, that the case history of little Hans reveals the role of language in how children work out their theories. Before it is possible to speak of a theory, and not merely of a fantasy, what is being represented must be capable of attaching itself to words. If in general the naming of affects always falls short of reality, this is especially flagrant when a child has to relate direct experience as murky and violent as that associated with the primal scene (adults engaged in sex) or birth. So the child sets up a divide: the child reacts to experience by either abdicating or else relentlessly pursuing a quest for a theory that no setback can stop, since it merely supplies another motive for research.

The content of childhood sexual theories, as described by Freud, is confined to a few typical ideas that can also be found in folklore and that constitute the basis of complexes (as for example the castration complex). However, the subject matter of these theories is just as varied as the content of ordinary fantasies (as distinct from primal fantasies). The content depends on whatever elements the child happens to come across: magical words, formulas, distorted words given a sexual meaning by the child (like the phrase "horse way" for Little Hans), or obscenities (Ferenczi, 1910).

At first sight, the term "sexual theories" might seem open to objection, but the great utility of the notion has been demonstrated by the link it makes between abstract theorizing and the sexual origins of such theorizing. These theories are clearly marked by a childish manner of thinking, a cumulative logic in which one causal explanation can be superimposed upon another without creating any contradiction overall. The child's research does not proceed by making use of known elements in order to master other, unknown elements, which is the usual form of the theoretical approach; instead, the child collects heterogeneous clues, because one mystery may stand for another and can therefore be conjoined with it (Mijolla-Mellor, 1999).

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Infantile sexual curiosity; Family romance; Feces; Historical reality; Knowledge or research, instinct for; Modesty; Pregnancy, fantasy of; Primal scene; Psychic revision; "Sexual Enlightenment Of Children, The"; Trauma of Birth, The ; "Vagina dentata," fantasy of.


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

. (1908c). On the sexual theories of children. SE, 9: 205-226.

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

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

. (1937c). Analysis terminable and interminable. SE, 23: 209-253.

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1996). Le meurtre comme théorie sexuelle infantile. Topique, 59, 15-29.

. (1999). Les mythes magico-sexuels autour de l'origine et de la fin. Topique, 68, 19-32.

Further Reading

Maldonado, J.L. (1998). Panel: Childhood sexual theories and childhood sexuality. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 79, 148-151.

About this article

Sexual Theories of Children

Updated About content Print Article