Freud, sex and the socialist imagination

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Freud’s methods may not have been very scientific, but his insights into the social construction of gender and sexual identity were remarkably radical for a middle class man in conservative Vienna a century ago. Socialists can take those radical insights far further, writes Mark O’Brien.

Freud presents an intriguing paradox for Marxists. His explicit theory of the psyche was clearly not revolutionary. He believed that the psychological repression of desire was the necessary price for the achievements of “civilisation”.

He was also deeply pessimistic about the possibility of human transformation.

While Freud’s thinking clearly borrowed concepts from fields such as thermodynamics, hydraulics and Lamarckian evolutionary theory, it is difficult to see a consistent interpretive methodology that can be held up to any modern standard of research in the human sciences.

His work then was not very scientific, containing just a handful of case studies published over a 20 year period; and within these his leaps of inference can be simply confounding.

And yet in his day, and since his death, Freud’s ideas have outraged bourgeois sentiments regarding sex and sexuality. He looked to the Enlightenment, regarding the psychoanalysis he had founded as a new science of humanity. There is also a directness in his discussions of sex that was startling to his contemporary readership.

He argued that all of us are at a fundamental level bisexual: having male and female polarities within our outward sexual behaviours. His aim was to liberate the individual from mental obstacles to personal happiness created by traumas in early life. He was an enemy of bourgeois moralism and the hypocrisies and psychological cruelties of his society.

It is this aspect that W H Auden mourned in his poem “In memory of Sigmund Freud” when he said, on the death of Freud “Only Hate was happy.”

So, while he was a deeply paradoxical figure, Freud does need to be appreciated according to the mores of his times and for the deeper nature of his intellectual project. Indeed the most interesting thing about Freud is the sense of a latent radicalism of his theorising of sex. And here we need to be specific to see just how under-appreciated this is, even by many of Freud’s defenders on the left.

It is the question of the roots of male and female sexual attraction, the mystery of heterosexuality and the question of the role of biology, with which Freud struggled for most of his career, that really conveys this side of his thought and over which he was ahead of even his closest followers to the end.

In 1905, in the famous “Three Essays on Sexuality” Freud had published in full form his theory of the Oedipus Complex. Focused exclusively on the attachments and frustrated jealousies of the boy-child, Freud had established a “male model” of sexual development.


The Oedipus Complex had little to say about the sexual development of the girl-child that was truly distinctive of later female sexuality.

At this point Freud resorted to a type of parallelism by which, while the boy fought the father for the mother’s affections (later transferring these energies to womankind), the girl merely mirrored this dynamic and so “therefore” came to form an attachment with the father (and later an attraction to the phallus).

Freud was aware of the theoretical gap that this created in his account of human sexuality, revolving around the simple question of why? Why should it be that the girl, suffering the same disruptive intrusions by the father, should go on to form such an attachment with the father and not, just as in the case of the boy, her mother? It was a problem that Freud struggled with for the next 20 years through a series of disputes within the psychoanalytical community.

Underlying the controversy was the following question: are we born male and female or do we become so once we have entered the world? Or, putting it differently, is our mature sexual identification in some sense there at our birth, awaiting its cultural triggers; or is the “maleness” or “femaleness” of the infant simply a matter of anatomical labelling, with no intrinsic meaning for later sexual attachments?

Freud held to the latter view. He was unhappy with each and every attempt to square the circle on this question by his followers. All of these either required or allowed for an original gendering biology. Far from Freud being a biological reductionist then, this was precisely the thing that on this question he was desperate to avoid.

It took Freud 20 years before he could resolve the issue to his own satisfaction, and it took a major theoretical adjustment to do it. Over these decades of intense controversy, Freud came to the view that the sexual development of the girl was asymmetric to that of the boy.

By 1924 Freud rejected the idea that anatomy directly determined sexual difference and arrived at a revision of the Oedipus Complex that substantially altered its dynamic.

This shift occurred through the mobilisation of a hitherto minor element in the earlier theory that was now to assume centre stage: the Castration Complex. It was presented in his 1925 essay, “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Differences Between the Sexes”.

In Freud’s original theory the boy becomes aware at a very young age of the penis as the mark of sexual difference between his mother and father and between himself and his mother and sisters. Pained by the dominance of his father for his mother’s affections, the boy develops an anxiety at the realisation that the penis is something that need not exist and so, in his infantile imagination, something also that he might lose.


It is the suppression of this anxiety that creates the gendered unconscious in the young boy. It also marks the point at which the principle of “law” (or authority) becomes established in his psyche: the beginning of socially regulated behaviour. This is the “superego” in Freud’s scheme.

This process could clearly not occur in the same way in the girl given the actual absence of the penis. Freud had talked of the girl’s “penis envy” resulting from her necessarily unsuccessful attempts to compete with the father.

Freud was not advocating an anatomical reductionism. He was insistent that the penis “cannot be the motive, only the trigger of the child’s envy”. In other words, the body could not alone confer meaning, sexual or otherwise, on drives or sensations.

Nonetheless, Freud did now see anatomical difference as the trigger of genderising processes, organised around the principle of castration.

In the boy this meant the imagining of the literal loss of the penis combined with the father’s injunctions to shake off his need for the mother’s caress. In the girl, Freud’s “castration” referred to the psychical suppression of the clitoris and its sensations. Within the family it also meant the discouragement of boyish expressions of rivalry with the father and the prohibitive “command” to remain by the mother’s side.

The suppression that this entailed created the feminine sexualised unconscious. Only with the onset of puberty did sex “return” but now, in Freud’s revised theory, centred on the vagina; the clitoris remaining outside the reach of consciousness.

This transfer of the primary locus of female sexual identity to the vagina as a site of receptivity (passively “awaiting the phallus”), driven by the “castration” of the clitoris, gave Freud his asymmetric model of gendering processes.

Now, the notion of an “unawareness” of the clitoris reads oddly today given the profound impact of the Women’s Liberation Movement on our understanding of its importance for an active female sexuality.

Freud’s model was, of course, the repressed middle class Viennese family of his time. It is also true that anthropologists have identified societies in which the Oedipal dialectic, even in this amended form, quite evidently does not apply: it is not the universal feature of human sexual development that Freud took it to be.

However, the importance of the specific account Freud gives of female sexual development lies not so much in the question of its necessary scientific correctness, but rather in a consideration of the radical implications of his theory of sex in a more ideological sense.

For if there is no original maleness or femaleness, if biology (and so genetics) plays no role in sexual behaviour at all, if differences between the male infant and the female infant are anatomical only, then the “norms” of sexual identity and attraction are social — and only social.

In this model of sexual development, psycho-social processes lay down a gendering foundation upon which cultural influences will later work. This establishes the basic male and female identities within the unconscious parts of our psyche “spontaneously”; in other words gender is something we experience as “natural” as we develop through childhood. The social “determinations” behind our sexual behaviour then are of two orders: the obvious culture that surrounds us; and more obscure cultural forces at work in the young child.

This all means that sexual difference is not a natural fact of human development in need of a biological explanation: things would be quite different in a different type of society.

It also means that homosexuality and transgender orientations are not peculiarities in need of special explanation, but are rather variants (or sets of variants) of attraction, coupling and personal expression along a complex (but essentially social) sexual spectrum.


For many Marxists this conclusion will not be a revelation, despite the ongoing debate about the role of biology in sex. The surprise though may be in the fact that Freud also came to these conclusions via his own very distinctive theoretical route.

Freud may not have realised the full implications of his position: it takes a socialist imagination to grasp them. Seen in that light however, Freud’s theorising (unconsciously) anticipated the possibility of human sexual liberation — and far more fundamentally than is usually acknowledged.