Infantile Sexuality

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Infantile Sexuality

In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) the psychologist Sigmund Freud explored dream processes and from that analysis developed his early psychoanalytic ideas about mental functioning. He posited a dynamic unconscious mind motivated by love and aggression, the idea of psychic determinism (all human behavior is has a cause, often involving multiple forces), and the idea that people are motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Five years later Freud published The Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), which is considered his second most important work.

At that time strong objections were made to the second essay, "Infantile Sexuality," but soon the influence of Freud's ideas could be affirmed by observing the omnipresence of sexuality in everyday behavior. Freud initially saw infantile sexuality as a precursor of adult sexual behavior but later described sexuality as the mainspring of psychic development. He used the Latin word libido, meaning "desire" or "longing," which has a sexualized quality. In this way sexuality is defined broadly, transcending the narrow perspective of genital pleasure. The term infantile sexuality acknowledged the existence of sexual stimuli that involve specific body areas and phases of development (oral, anal, and genital) in which the individual seeks pleasure independently of a biological function. In the normal evolution of sexuality the instincts of childhood are integrated into the genital sexuality of the adult. Freud believed that excessive repression or excessive stimulation of infantile sexuality can lead to neurotic or pathological symptoms.

Infantile sexuality in effect begins with the gratification received from sucking. Freud felt that the sucking activity observed in infants should be considered the prototype of all sexual gratification. The hungry infant at the mother's breast has a pleasurable experience being held and pleasurable sensations around the mouth as she or he sucks the breast. The next time the infant is hungry, she or he will remember the earlier experience of satisfaction (Lear 2005). Sucking originally serves the purpose of taking in nourishment but later becomes separate from that function, at which time its sole purpose is pleasure. Freud also suggests that as a result of an infant's fundamentally sensual and sexual nature, it has a polymorphously perverse disposition, suggesting that there is satisfaction in all erogenous zones in childhood; only later is that satisfaction focused primarily in the genitals. Freud also discovered that childhood sexuality is not remembered because of infantile amnesia. The oral, anal, and genital zones are sensitive areas and are profoundly important sites of both stimulation and interaction with caretakers. Thus, they become arenas for formative experiences with others. These early sensual experiences shape personality development.

Freud's discovery of infantile sexuality radically altered the perception of the child from one of idealized innocence to one of a person struggling to achieve control of his or her biological needs and make them acceptable to society through the influence of his or her caregivers (Fonagay and Target 2003). In his own time Freud's descriptions of infantile sexuality were considered scandalous, but in the early twenty-first century it generally is accepted that infants and children are sensual and sexual in nature and that their sexual development contributes significantly to their adult personalities.


Fonagy, Peter, and Mary Target. 2003. Psychoanalytic Theories: Perspectives from Developmental Psychology. London: Whurr Publications.

Freud, Sigmund. 1900. "The Interpretation of Dreams." In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press.

Freud, Sigmund. 1905. "Three Essays on Theory of Sexuality." In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press.

Lear, Jonathan. 2005. Freud. New York: Routledge.

                                          Michael R. Bieber