Penis envy

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Penis envy (German: Penisneid) is a stage theorized by Sigmund Freud regarding female psychosexual development, in which female adolescents experience anxiety upon realization that they do not have a penis. Freud considered this realization a defining moment in a series of transitions toward a mature female sexuality and gender identity. In Freudian theory, the penis envy stage begins the transition from an attachment to the mother to competition with the mother for the attention, recognition and affection of the father.[1] The parallel reaction of a boy's realization that women do not have a penis is castration anxiety.

Freud's theories regarding psychosexual development, and in particular the phallic stage, were criticized and refined by other psychoanalysts, such as Karen Horney, Otto Fenichel, Ernest Jones, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, Juliet Mitchell, Clara Thompson.

Feminists argue that Freud's developmental theory is heteronormative and denies women a mature sexuality independent of men and for privileging the vagina over the clitoris as the center of women's sexuality. Freud's sociosexual theory has additionally come under criticism from feminists for privileging heterosexual sexual activity and penile penetration in defining women's "mature state of sexuality".[2][3][4] Counter-critics have responded that feminists misunderstand penis envy, which was not intended by Freud to refer literally to the envy of the male physical penis but to be understood as an abstract, evolving force in psychosexual development. Penis envy is theorized as a discrete event and reoccurring force in psychosexual development, not as "envy of the penis," but is sometimes used inexactly in contemporary culture to refer to women who are presumed to wish they were men.[5]

Freud's theory

Freud introduced his theory of the concept of interest in—and envy of—the penis in his 1908 article "On the Sexual Theories of Children":[6] it was not mentioned in the first edition of Freud's earlier Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex (1905), but a synopsis of the 1908 article was added to the third edition in 1915.[7] In On Narcissism (1914) he described how some women develop a masculine ideal as "a survival of the boyish nature that they themselves once possessed".[8] The term grew in significance as Freud gradually refined his views of sexuality, coming to describe a mental process he believed occurred as one went from the phallic stage to the latency stage (see Psychosexual development).[9]

Psychosexual development: child

In Freud's psychosexual development theory, the phallic stage (approximately between the ages of 3.5 and 6) is the first period of development in which the libidinal focus is primarily on the genital area. Prior to this stage, the libido (broadly defined by Freud as the primary motivating energy force within the mind) focuses on other physiological areas. For instance, in the oral stage, in the first 12 to 18 months of life, libidinal needs concentrate on the desire to eat, sleep, suck and bite. The theory suggests that the penis becomes the organ of principal interest to both sexes in the phallic stage. This becomes the catalyst for a series of pivotal events in psychosexual development. These events, known as the Oedipus complex for boys, and the Electra complex for girls, result in significantly different outcomes for each gender because of differences in anatomy.

Freud thought girls:

  • Soon after the libidinal shift to the penis, the child develops her first sexual impulses towards her mother.
  • The girl realizes that she is not physically equipped to have a heterosexual relationship with her mother, since she does not have a penis.
  • She desires a penis, and the power that it represents. This is described as penis envy. She sees the solution as obtaining her father's penis.
  • She develops a sexual desire for her father.
  • The girl blames her mother for her apparent castration (what she sees as punishment by the mother for being attracted to the father) assisting a shift in the focus of her sexual impulses from her mother to her father.
  • Sexual desire for her father leads to the desire to replace and eliminate her mother.
  • The girl identifies with her mother so that she might learn to mimic her, and thus replace her.
  • The child anticipates that both aforementioned desires will incur punishment (by the principle of lex talionis).
  • The girl employs the defence mechanism of displacement to shift the object of her sexual desires from her father to men in general.

A similar process occurs in boys of the same age as they pass through the phallic stage of development; the key differences being that the focus of sexual impulses need not switch from mother to father, and that the fear of castration (castration anxiety) remains. The boy desires his mother, and identifies with his father, whom he sees as having the object of his sexual impulses. Furthermore, the boy's father, being the powerful aggressor of the family unit, is sufficiently menacing that the boy employs the defense mechanism of displacement to shift the object of his sexual desires from his mother to women in general.

Freud thought this series of events occurred prior to the development of a wider sense of sexual identity, and was required for an individual to continue to enter into his or her gender role.

Psychosexual development: adult

Freud considered that in normal female development penis envy transformed into the wish for a man and/or a baby.[10]

Karl Abraham differentiated two types of adult women in whom penis envy remained intense as the wish-fulfilling and the vindictive types:[11] The former were dominated by fantasies of having or becoming a penis—as with the singing/dancing/performing women who felt that in their acts they magically incorporated the [parental] phallus.[12] The latter sought revenge on the male through humiliation or deprivation (whether by removing the man from the penis or the penis from the man).[13]

Criticisms of Freud's theory

Within psychoanalytic circles

Freud's theories regarding psychosexual development, and in particular the phallic stage, were early challenged by other psychoanalysts, such as Karen Horney, Otto Fenichel and Ernest Jones,[14] though Freud did not accept their view of penis envy as a secondary, rather than a primary, female reaction.[15] Later psychologists, such as Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget, challenged the Freudian model of child psychological development as a whole.

Jacques Lacan, however, took up and developed Freud's theory of the importance of what he called "penisneid in the unconscious of women"[16] in linguistic terms, seeing what he called the phallus as the privileged signifier of humanity's subordination to language: "the phallus (by virtue of which the unconscious is language)".[17] He thereby opened up a new field of debate around phallogocentrism[18]—some figures like Juliet Mitchell endorsing a view of penis envy which "uses, not the man, but the phallus to which the man has to lay claim, as its key term",[19] others strongly repudiating it.[20]

Feminist and sociological criticisms

In Freud's theory, the female sexual center shifts from the clitoris to the vagina during a heterosexual life event. Freud believed in a duality between how genders construct mature sexuality in terms of the opposite gender, whereas feminists reject the notion that female sexuality can only be defined in relation to the male. Feminists development theorists instead believe that the clitoris, not the vagina, is the mature center of female sexuality because it allows a construction of mature female sexuality independent of the penis.

A significant number of feminists have been highly critical of penis envy theory as a concept and psychoanalysis as a discipline, arguing that the assumptions and approaches of the psychoanalytic project are profoundly patriarchal, anti-feminist, and misogynistic and represent women as broken or deficient men.[21] Karen Horney—a German psychoanalyst who also placed great emphasis on childhood experiences in psychological development—was a particular advocate of this view. She asserted the concept of "womb envy", and saw "masculine narcissism"[22] as underlying the mainstream Freudian view.

In her influential paper "Women and Penis Envy" (1943), Clara Thompson reformulated the latter as social envy for the trappings of the (then) dominant gender,[23] a sociological response to female subordination under patriarchy.[24]

Betty Friedan referred to penis envy as a purely parasitic social bias typical of Victorianism and particularly of Freud's own biography, and showed how the concept played a key role in discrediting alternative notions of femininity in the early to mid twentieth century: "Because Freud's followers could only see woman in the image defined by Freud – inferior, childish, helpless, with no possibility of happiness unless she adjusted to being man's passive object – they wanted to help women get rid of their suppressed envy, their neurotic desire to be equal. They wanted to help women find sexual fulfilment as women, by affirming their natural inferiority".[25]

A small but influential number of Feminist philosophers, working in Psychoanalytic feminism, and including Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva,[26] and Hélène Cixous, have taken varying post-structuralist views on the question, inspired or at least challenged by figures such as Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida.[27]

Juliet Mitchell in her early work attempted to reconcile Freud's thoughts on psychosexual development with Feminism and Marxism by declaring his theories to be simply observations of gender identity under capitalism.[citation needed]

See also


  1. Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (PFL 2) p. 158-163
  2. Peter Gay, Freud (1989) p. 520-2
  3. Jane Gallup, Feminism and Psychoanalysis (1982) p. 69 and p. 84
  4. R. Appiganesi/C. Garratt, Postmodernism for Beginners (1995) p. 94-101
  5. Betty Friedan (1963), The Feminine Mystique, Chapter 5, The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud,
  6. Sigmund Freud, On Sexuality (PFL 7) p. 195-6
  7. Freud, On Sexuality p. 112-4
  8. Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL 11) p. 83-4
  9. Freud, On Sexuality p. 336-40
  10. Freud, On Sexuality p. 297-301
  11. Fenichel, p. 494-5
  12. Mary Jacobus, The Poetics of Psychoanalysis (2005) p. 29-30 and p. 6
  13. David Cooper, The Death of the Family (1974) p. 152
  14. Peter Gay, Freud (1989) p. 520-2
  15. Freud, On Sexuality p. 391-2
  16. Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection (1997) p. 281
  17. Lacan, p. 288
  18. J. Childers/G. Hentzi, The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism (1995) p. 224-6 and p. 39-40
  19. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, Feminine Sexuality (1982) p. 7-8
  20. Jane Gallup, Feminism and Psychoanalysis (1982) p. 69 and p. 84
  21. Gay, p. 520-1
  22. Quoted in Gay, p. 520
  23. Nancy Friday, Women on Top (1991) p. 420
  24. G. Legman, Rationale of the Dirty Joke Vol I (1973) p. 332-3
  25. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 1963, p. 110.
  26. R. Appiganesi/C. Garratt, Postmodernism for Beginners (1995) p. 94-101
  27. Childers, p. 40

Further reading

  • Ferrell, Robyn (1996). Passion in Theory: Conceptions of Freud and Lacan. London: Routledge. ISBN 0203012267.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Friedan, Betty (2013) [1963]. "The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud". The Feminine Mystique (50th anniversary ed.). New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 9780393063790.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Kaplan, H.; Saddock, B.; Grebb, J. (1994). Kaplan and Saddock's Synopsis of Psychiatry (7th ed.). Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins. ISBN 0-683-04530-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Irigaray, Luce (1985). This Sex Which is Not One. Ithaka: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801415462.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links