The Freud Museum


Are Freud's Theories All About Sex?

The quick answer is 'No'. If you look at the Interpretation of Dreams exhibition you will see that many of the dreams are about 'ambition' for instance. Freud was not like a modern evolutionary psychologist reducing human nature to a basic drive to reproduce genes. At the heart of psychoanalysis is the concept of 'psychic conflict' and that means that at the heart of Freud's theories there is always a play of forces pushing first one way and then another. At various stages in his work Freud distinguished between sexual instincts and ego instincts, sex and aggression, 'narcissistic libido' and 'object libido', or the sexual drive (binding things together) and the 'death' drive (taking them apart). So Freud's theory is always at least a dualistic theory involving internal conflict. He thought 'monocausal' theories miss something about the contradictory nature of human beings.
Freud's theory of the Oedipus Complex is a theory of such conflict stemming from our early relationships to parents and siblings. The Oedipus Complex is not a theory about 'sexuality', but a theory about sensuous-emotional relationships. As Freud put it: "a person's emotional attitude toward his family, or in the narrower sense towards his father and mother". Love and jealousy, rivalry and dependence are all mixed up together, directed to parents or their substitutes. Ambivalence is the order of the day. Not so much a story of 'sex' as an unavoidable psycho-drama with an infinite capacity for disguise and variation.

But there is one indissoluble link in Freud's sexual theories which may give us some hint as to why they have proved to be so disturbing. That is the intimate association between sexuality and anxiety. At first Freud thought that anxiety was caused if sexuality did not have an adequate outlet, as if some noxious hormonal substance built up in the body and poisoned it. Then he thought that anxiety was caused by repression of the sexual instinct. Repression meant there was an ill-defined sense of unease in the person, forever wary lest the banished impulses and phantasies break through the barrier of repression. The anxiety is a generalised feeling, more or less pronounced in different people and provoked by stressful circumstances, that something catastrophic or overwhelming will happen to you.

Finally Freud reasoned that it was not the repression that caused the anxiety, it must be the anxiety that caused the repression. We achieve our sense of sexual identity by overcoming various anxiety situations that scare us to death along the way. For instance, how does a little boy become secure about the ownership of his penis? He has confronted the terror that he might lose it. It sounds strange, but small children sometimes only feel they fully possess something when they think it might be taken away. Many games between adults and children play with this theme.

Whatever the merits of Freud's particular ideas, his overall thesis is surely capable of investigation. He says sexuality is always linked with anxiety. If we find a society or social group where this is not so, we have disproved Freud's thesis. The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead thought she had found such a society when she wrote her book 'The Coming of Age in Samoa'. Unfortunately subsequent research showed that this was not the case; the South Sea Islanders seemed just as hung up about sexual matters as Mead's contemporaries. Perhaps modern society has overcome the anxiety surrounding sex? We certainly seem more 'open' about it. What do you think?

adapted from the forthcoming book Introducing Psychoanalysis by Ivan Ward, illustrated by Oscar Zarate

Discussion topics:

Have modern societies overcome the embarrassment, shame, and fears surrounding sexuality?

Think of a specific situation of sexual embarrassment. How would you interpret where the embarrassment comes from?

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