What is Psychoanalysis? – Sexuality

Freud's account of sexuality was very different to mainstream ideas about it.

These films are intended to facilitate first encounters with Freud’s thought.

If you’re studying the psychodynamic approach, this resource is for you!

In this episode:

  • An enlarged concept of sexuality
  • Infantile sexuality
  • Perversion is something we’re born with
  • Normal and abnormal
  • Psychosexual stages of development: oral, anal, phallic
  • Repression
  • Sexuality and symptoms

A factsheet (PDF) accompanies this series.



Strictly speaking, the question for Freud is not: ‘how does one become a pervert?’ The question is: ‘how does one become sexually normal?’ because he was of the conviction that human sexuality is instrinsically, is fundamentally disturbed.

The first thing we need to understand is that when Freud talked about sexuality, he employed an enlarged concept of sexuality. It no longer meant genital, penetrative sexual acts but any practice that was invested with libido, that had an erotic charge for that person.

In a lot of contemporary theories about sexuality, people still speak using evolutionary theory and say: ‘you know, men like this and women like that because we’re sort of designed to breed.’ But everybody knows that it’s not really like that. Human beings are so much more complex than that and more perverse, and more difficult and look for totally other things. They might not be interested in reproductive sex at all.

Which means that we need to move away from thinking that Freud’s concept of sexuality is all about people having sex. It’s about that too but it’s about much more than that.

Our sexuality is not bound up with simply the task of reproduction, but rather we can find pleasure and joy as well as disturbance all over the body.

What he had discovered very early on was that young children experience intense sexual desires. Not in the adult form, but in the form of that they get pleasure from the ‘oral drive’, we would say, from oral activities, from anal activities, from touching, from their skin, from being tickled.

After a baby is born, the caregivers will focus on particular parts of the body. There’ll be an exchange of looks, sustained eye contact with the baby. There’ll be feeding, which obviously involves the mouth. There will be speaking, which involves the ears. There will be all sorts of other cleaning activity bathing, changing nappies and so on. All the things one imagines in the care of children. They are early forms of what later becomes organised into adult sexuality.

Adult sexuality is quite a complex thing. It includes all the various forms of infantile sexuality like the oral pleasures, say, kissing, anal pleasures, which may be more or less repressed and acted on touching, looking, being looked at. But in adult sexuality these are subordinated, usually, to the main form of sexual activity, which is genital sex, and getting excitement and pleasure through that.

But then, if these infantile forms of sexuality become the main sexual activity of the adult, say, a voyeurist who gets off just by watching somebody getting undressed we could call this perversion. But this watching is a normal part of infantile sexuality. So in a way he’s making the point that aspects of sexuality which in an adult might be regarded as perverse are there in infantile life.

Sexuality, the way we think of it as an adult, is a much more restricted version of this sense of sensation and enjoyment in the body that is part of ordinary childhood.

So for Freud, perversion is not really something that one acquires. Perversion is something with which one is born and, if all goes well during the process of social development, the perversion becomes contained under the aegis of processes of socialisation but also under the aegises of shame and guilt and the net result is a form of sexuality that is more normative, one could say.

But Freud is interested in challenging the idea of a split between the so-called ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’.

Freud made his first discoveries by working with patients who were suffering from some distressing, debilitating symptoms, so something ‘abnormal’, you could say. But what he discovered was that the underlying processes were processes that are normal to every person. So part of what’s challenging in Freud is that he doesn’t allow us comfortably to assume that we are simply part of a category called ‘normal’ and that there’s some other class of being called the ‘abnormal’ but that many of these processes and traits are familiar, really, in everyone.

Freud showed that our sexuality will be built up through our interactions with our early caregivers. Basically, the family. And he’s interested in how this develops through phases that he describes: he talks about the oral, the anal, the genital, phallic, and so on. Different zones of the body that are particularly excitable in the young child, starting with the mouth, that gets stimulated when the child is being fed and the child gets pleasure from it. So we speak of an oral stage. Then there would be the anal phase which would be to do with potty training or learning about how to just sort of organise this thing. You know, ‘it’s bad to do it this way’, ‘it’s good to do it that way’. Something important about it. You’re just beginning to learn to speak. You have to understand the messages you’re receiving about it. When you pee, or when you poo, or all that sort of thing suddenly becomes something important that needs to be thought about and dealt with. And then comes a phase when both boys and girls become interested in the penis. And that is what is called the phallic stage. And it would be phallic for boys as well as girls. It would be to do with sexuality and dealing with what it is to get satisfaction from that part of the body. What means that there’s something interesting about it.

The interesting thing about those activities, those ‘phases’, as they’re called, is that they’re so obvious to parents of young children. You spend all your time with poo poo and pee pee and willies and then a few years later everyone’s forgotten it. The parents have forgotten it and the children have forgotten it. Children in particular, at the age of nine, would be deeply ashamed to remember the things they got up to when they were three or four. Some ideas get pushed out of consciousness and then become unavailable but they don’t just go away. They still try to, you know, they look for expression. So they try to come out, but they always come out as something else.

Perhaps Freud’s most radical idea here was that the human symptom is itself a form of sexual activity, that it takes up an erotic charge linked to themes of sexuality, linked to one’s early history. Behind many neurotic symptoms is some conflict that involves a sexual desire. One of the promises of psychoanalysis is that those ideas can come out as themselves sometimes, and then they become much less worrying, less frightening, less disturbing. So psychoanalytic work will often involve unravelling those threads to bring out the components, these threads that make up the symptom. And in doing that, in many cases, though not all, the symptom will evaporate.