Childhood Sexuality

views updated

Childhood Sexuality

Childhood theories on sexuality in the early twenty-first century have been influenced by psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, object relations theorists, psychologists, and sociologists. Although multiple theorists have written on what kind of childhood experiences influence character, they do not say what the cause of childhood sexuality is or that it lies at the base of adult knowledge and being. Those who treat what causes childhood sexuality, such as feminist authors Dorothy Dinnerstein or psychologist Nancy Chodorow, give a sociological, behavioral interpretation of how sexual difference is created. Physicist and feminist author Evelyn Keller Fox argues for a sociobiological evolution of the genes. Feminist writers on this topic seem to split between believing in an essential woman, as does psychologist Luce Irigaray, and an enslavement of women to heterosexual norms, as do gender theorists Adrienne Rich and Judith Butler. But none tie this sexuality to different ways of knowing or suffering. Object-relations theorists argue for good and bad mothering as the source of behavior, but not of sexuality. Thus psychoanalysts Donald Winnicott, Melanie Klein, Jessica Benjamin, and Heinz Kohut are more concerned with identity than sexuality (Wright 1992).

Indeed contemporary views of childhood sexuality can be traced to Freud's revolutionary find that children are sexual beings. Consideration of childhood sexuality must begin with a review of his groundbreaking book, Three Essays on Sexuality (1905), which was written in several parts through 1925.

Freud argued that sexual factors lie at the basis of anxiety neuroses (conditions of acute and unmotivated anxiety) and nervous maladies (the psychoneuroses), and later at the base of character and knowledge itself. Early in his career, Freud argued that erotogenic zones were developed and later repressed after being connected with perversions, which had been widely studied by psychiatrist Richard von Kraft-Ebbing and psychologist Havelock Ellis but never linked to childhood sexuality.

Before viewing children as sexually polymorphous perverse, Freud's initial notion was that sexuality was caused by hysteria developed in childhood and traceable to sexual seduction. In 1897 Freud abandoned his seduction theory and turned to infantile sexuality, which had previously been considered dormant. The catalyst for this change was Freud's discovery of the Oedipus complex in his own analysis, the experience in which both male and female children initially see the mother as a love object. Discontent with this theory as explaining the cause of sexuality, he says the boy chooses his mother and the girl her father, thus making feminine object choice harder for girls since they must relinquish the primordial love object. Lacan makes the adult stage harder for men in that they must choose the partner from which they have had to deviate in order to define themselves as men and differentiate themselves from the primordial symbiosis with the mother. The most important infantile trace retained at puberty is the child's love for his or her parents. In "To Interpret the Cause" (1989) Jacques-Alain Miller argues that Lacan sees the Oedipal structure as an infant's response to the mother's desire. The mother's unconscious desire is an interpretation of the sexual difference, i.e., of the father's name signifier. The function of the mother's desire times the father's name signifiers, means that representations reside in the social other which stands over a quota of libido and makes of the Oedipus (the father's name) the other over jouissance. That is, the reality principle stands over the pleasure principle.

Having decided that sexual impulses operated normatively in the youngest of children, Freud had moved far beyond his theory that sexuality began at puberty, as well as away from the general idea of childhood as innocence and happiness. In the preface to the third edition of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Freud stressed that biology did not influence him, but believed psychology shed light on the causality of human behavior and understanding that sexuality is determined by libido or desire (lust). Freud stressed that biology was not an influence on him, but it is psychology that sheds light on the causality of human behavior and knowledge in that sexuality is determined by a non-biological libidinal desire that comes from fantasy and identifications.

In his analyses of infantile sexuality, Freud points to the issue of sexual object which defies the myth of harmonious heterosexual love. Homosexuality also gives lie to that fable. As to perversion, no innate or acquired explanation is right. Rather one must look to an originary bisexuality. He argues against an innate hermaphrodism, pointing out that one partner in a male homosexual relationship will take on feminine characteristics. The key point is that sexual drive is independent of its objects. What is consistent in the sexual aim is the goal of pleasure found, whether the source of that pleasure is the mouth or the anus. There is no normal heterosexual intercourse. Even fetishes can become the aim of libidinal desire. One can include touching and looking. Freud comes up with the notion of passivity as feminine and activity as masculine. Nonetheless he retains a belief in normal versus pathological sexuality.

In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Freud studies the infantile character of sexuality and implies that a certain perversion is common to everyone from infancy on. Later in life adults repress their childhood sexual feelings and experience a kind of amnesia built around disgust, shame, or morality. These memories function unconsciously to the strongest degree. Repression gives the key to a before, because if there is nothing before, what comes forth in analysis could not have been placed there. Indeed sexuality can even be found in the newborn child. The drives, however, are slippery and reaction-formation and sublimation, as well as repression, hide the naked real of the sexual drive. Lacan argued in 1960 that the erotogenic zones are eight Ur-objects that have no alterity, but are constituted in infancy as the cause of desire. The four Freud discovered are the breast, the feces, the urinary flow, and the (imaginary phallus), and Lacan added four others: the gaze, the voice, the phoneme, and the nothing. Later these Urobjects give rise to four constant drives, the oral, anal, scopic, and invocatory.

Freud argues that primitive manifestations of infantile sexuality appear in sucking, such as thumb sucking, where sucking itself often accompanies the child's rubbing of some sensitive part of his body. Sexual activity is autoerotic. More than nourishment is at stake, the search for pleasure tending to repetition and self-preservation, not to an object. Thus the infant's sexual aim is satisfaction provided by the erotogenic zone itself. Both the labial zone and the anal zone, give themselves up for focus in sexual activity. That toilet functions can arouse sexual excitement is not so unusual. Such stimulations lead to masturbatory functions. In boys the glans part of the penis is in play, in girls, the clitoris. Bathing can also stimulate these sensitive areas.

Freud thus distinguishes three phases of infantile childhood sexuality: early infancy, sexual activity around year four, and the phase of pubertal masturbation. In the fourth year the genital zones become active targets for sexual pleasure until societal pressure suppresses such public displays. The cultural superego is strong enough to induce repression and sublimation. At about the same time that the sexual life of a child reaches its peak between three to five years of age, the child substitutes a craving for knowledge or research. Lacan explained that once sexual difference is discovered by children, even at very early ages, they develop a response to the idea of castration—lack on the part of each sex; he has the penis and she is proof to him that he could lose it. Once this difference—itself a third thing—is discovered, the castration complex develops in boys and penis envy evolves in girls. Lacan translates Freud's terms into the wish to compete in men and the desire to succeed socially in women. Taking us from the infantile to structure, Lacan argues that the experience of lack gives rise to four structures of libidinal being: normative masquerade, the neuroses, the psychoses, and perversion.

Freud further develops the organization of childhood, or pregenital sexual life into the oral and the anal. Later linking these to character types, he sees the neuroses as exemplifications of one or the other fixation. For Lacan the oral and anal drives remain for everyone throughout life. These are structures that make up the drives whose vicissitudes link us to the world and objects in it. The oral, says Freud, is cannibalistic and narcissistic, while the anal is compulsive and sadistic. These drives are active and passive, not yet masculine or feminine, a distinction that Lacan will retain—calling them fixions, not fixations—while arguing that neither is sex specific in terms of biological gender.

Having given us a view of childhood sexuality as progressing from the oral stage (narcissistic) to the anal stage (social control), Freud introduces the adult stage of reciprocity where the woman gives up on clitoral pleasure and emphasizes vaginal pleasure. Physician William Masters and psychologist Virginia Johnson, as well as numbers of feminist scholars, and Lacan with his theory of a sexual non-rapport have proved this to be a fictional developmental step. Thus Freud incorrectly departs from his own revolutionary theory. Lacan points out that finding an object is not the adult's goal, but the refinding is a repetition of whatever gave pleasure in childhood.

see also Adolescent Sexuality; Freud, Sigmund; Infantile Sexuality; Lacan, Jacques.


Benjamin, Jessica. 1988. The Bonds of Love. New York: Pantheon.

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London and New York: Routledge.

Ellis, Havelock. 1905–1942. Studies in the Psychology of Sex. New York: Random House.

Freud, Sigmund. 1974. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vols. 1-24, ed. by James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis.

Freud, Sigmund. 1974. "Freud's Correspondence with Fliess." In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 4, ed. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis. (Orig. pub. 1894.)

Freud, Sigmund. 1974. "On the Grounds for Detaching a Particular Syndrome from Neurasthenia under the Description' Anxiety Neurosis'." In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 3, ed. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis. (Orig. pub. 1894.)

Freud, Sigmund. 1974. "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality." In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 3, ed. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis. (Orig. pub. 1894.)

Klein, Melanie. 1975. Love, Guilt, Reparation and Other Works, 1921–1945. New York: Delta.

Kohut, Heinz. 1978. The Search for the Self: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut, 1950–1978, 2 vols, ed. R. H. Ornstein. New York: International Universities Press.

Krafft-Ebbing Richard 1965. Psychopathia sexualis, trans. Harry E. Wedeck. New York: G.P. Putnams's Sons. (Orig. pub.1886.)

Lacan, Jacques. 1966. "The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious." Ecrits, trans. Bruce Fink. New York: W. W. Norton.

Miller, Jacques-Alain. 1989. "To Interpret the Cause: From Freud to Lacan." Newsletter of the Freudian Field 3(1&2): 30-50.

Rich, Adrienne. 1979. Of Woman Born. London: Virago.

Winnicott, Donald W. 1971. Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock.

Wright, Elizabeth, ed. 1992. Feminism and Psychoanalysis: A Critical Dictionary. Oxford: Blackwell Press Ltd.

                                               Ellie Ragland

About this article

Childhood Sexuality

Updated About content Print Article