A comparison of understandings of female sexuality from Freudian and existential perspectives.


A comparison of understandings of female sexuality from Freudian and existential perspectives. 

In 1976 Foucault argued, contrary to popular belief, that there was no essential human sexuality that could be repressed in one era and liberated in another, but that there is only a potential for consciousness, behaviour and experience that can be developed or incited by social forces of definition, regulation organisation and categorisation (Foucault, 1976). Here lies the crux of any debate on sexuality. The debate between the social constructivists and the determinists continues to roar with new publications constantly adding fire to the already hotly contentious issue. A recent example is Louann Brizendine’s first book, The Female Brain (2006), which caused quite a media storm when it challenged feminists to rethink ‘difference’ arguing (for many unsuccessfully) that hormones and crucial differences in the brain made for real and essential differences between the sexes but that difference did not mean inferiority.


Person and Ovesey (1983) credit Freud with the insight that the existence of personality differences between the sexes required an explanation and perhaps they are right to do so. But many questions remain and of those most significant is of what value is this most fiercely sought after explanation? This essay will examine Freud’s ideas about female sexuality from a broadly existential perspective and offer some criticisms and comparisons between the Freudian model and existential notions.


Central to any comparison of psychological and philosophical understandings of sexuality is an exploration of the determinism debate in terms of biological and social forces. Always important in any understanding of models of sexuality, the notion of determinism as well as its arguable failures is elevated when one is approaching the subject from an existential perspective.  Sartre’s oft-quoted statement that “existence precedes essence” (Sartre, 1943) illuminates why this is so. At the core of an existential approach (to anything, but in this case to female sexuality) is the belief that in a meaningless world we strive to create meaning but ultimately the values, meanings and Platonic “essences” with which we adorn ourselves, our things and our world are created by us, post-existence, and are definitively not pre-determined. “It is not nature that defines woman; it is she who defines herself by dealing with nature in her own account in her emotional life” (de Beauvoir, 1949). Through the eyes of the determinist if the world was rewound it would replay exactly the same again but through the eyes of the existentialist it could be altered by active agents defined (and for Sartre condemned) by their freedom.


Returning the focus to Freud, female sexuality and existentialism, this essay will begin with an explanation of Freud’s ideas on sexuality, specifically female sexuality. It will then provide an existential critique before returning to a psychoanalytical critique of the existentialists’ arguments. Ultimately it will conclude by illustrating the achievements and failures of the two approaches to female sexuality before briefly outlining where this debate might take psychology and philosophy next.


Freudian psychoanalysis emphasises the importance of infantile sexuality in healthy mental development. The three original stages of development, for Freud, were oral, anal-sadistic and genital but later a pre-genital stage known as the phallic stage was added by Freud pushing the genital stage to puberty (Jacobs, 1992). During the oral stage sexual activity is not distinguished from feeding. The anal-sadistic stage reveals the instinct for mastery through agency; through muscular activity sexual pleasure is gained but excretory functions are not solely auto-erotic. In fact, they are an important part of the infant’s relationship with its parents – a gift from the infant’s body; a part of his whole. By producing the infant can express compliance and by withholding, disobedience. The genital stage, first stimulated in bathing, caused Freud to speculate as to whether the mother was the first person to arouse the child and therefore implant fantasies of seduction later to manifest in the Oedipus complex (Freud, 1931). Throughout these early stages of development, in much of Freud’s work, differences between male and female sexual development are not emphasised however it has been suggested by critics (for example de Beauvoir, 1949) that his theory of early development is based on the normalcy of the male child.


In our examination of the later devised idea of a phallic stage the distinctions between male and female development and sexuality become more pronounced. Whilst Freud’s opinions change over time, the centrality of maleness remains a constant. In 1905, Freud writes that boys deny that girls are different seeing the clitoris as a substitute for the penis resulting in a fear of castration (Freud, 1905). In the female child this is manifested as penis envy, which is significant both in setting the scene for Freud’s writings specifically on female sexuality and also because in this dichotomy of castration fear and penis envy the normalcy of maleness and centrality of the phallus is revealed in contrast to the lack of emphasis on the female form. As de Beauvoir writes: “He assumes that woman feels that she is a mutilated man” (de Beauvoir, 1949).


It is from the realisation that she does not have a penis that the Oedipus complex is born in the female, according to Freudian discourse (Jacobs, 1992). Pre-Oedipus complex, the female infant is said to have an exclusive attachment to the mother, but penis envy begets inferiority inciting her to blame her mother for sending her into the world ill-equipped. First she will long for her father’s penis, but this longing will morph into a desire to have his baby and the mother will become her love-rival. The theory suggests that she will never work through the Oedipus complex to the same extent as her male counterpart. A crucial difference is that penis envy ushers in the Oedipus complex in girls but in boys it is the fear of castration that drives him to reject his mother (who previously had been the object of his desire) and turn his attention towards the authoritative father (once love-rival) thus resolving the Oedipus complex.


It is due to her inability to conquer the Oedipus complex and overcome her penis-envy induced inferiority that the super-ego is less well developed in the female. Later research sought to compound this notion attempting to demonstrate that women tended to focus on people’s wants, needs and interests as opposed to the male focus on justice, rules and rights (Gilligan, 1982). According to Freud, the female infant will also reproach her mother for not suckling her enough. Whilst there is no evidence that mothers suckle female infants less than male, there is evidence of a distinction between handling of baby girls and boys and some studies have shown that women are more likely to feel ‘empty of oneself’ and find it more difficult to develop a separate self as mothers give a more definitive identity to their sons than to their daughters (Chodorow, 1978).


Freud’s work chronically depicts the added difficulties afforded to female (sexual) development and mental health. In adolescence he documents their greater difficulty in detachment from parental authority to enable crucial sentimental friendships with the same sex to develop stating that they exhibit “childish love far beyond puberty” (Freud, 1905). In 1908, he acknowledged that society’s double standard on male and female sexuality was a conspicuous hindrance on female development causing repression in women who were unable to express their sexuality as freely as their male counterparts. Freud blames spiritual disillusionment and bodily deprivation in marriage for regression in adult women who are set back to a pre-marital state. De Beauvoir adds to Freud’s list of greater difficulties in female sexual development by arguing that because the woman must develop both vaginal and clitoral genitals her genital stage is more complex and therefore it is more likely that the girl will fail to complete this stage of development (de Beauvoir, 1949). However Freud maintained throughout his caution on writing about female development stating that in this area his work was “more obscure and full of gaps” (Freud, 1924).


Freudian theory is largely concerned with adult perversions and neuroses, which can be explained by looking back to the early stages of development and identifying which stages were unsuccessfully completed. Herein lays the substratum of the existential critique of Freudian female sexuality: “Phenomenologically the butterfly is different but not superior to the caterpillar” (Cohn, 1997). The Freudian model is based upon a linear understanding of temporal existence whereas in existential thought the past is always part of our present experiential capacity. Regression is not compatible with this view which instead illustrates how we construct and interpret our memories and our past in keeping with our current state of mind, goals, and individually created values. The implicit Freudian objective to normalise individuals by taking them successfully through pre-determined and necessary developmental stages is in stark contrast to the existential given that whatever meaning we attach to a normal female sexuality or a perversion is created and can be altered by us.  As Cohn (1997) elucidates, anatomical differences give rise to socio-cultural assumptions as opposed to setting forth definitive gender roles to strive for and protect as universal givens.


De Beauvoir’s critique of the Freudian model of female sexuality and her existential alternative explanations in The Second Sex (1949) compliment Cohn’s shrewd observations. To begin, on investigating penis envy philosophically, she questions the origin of pride and envy and the social status already attached to the penis and the male. The penis for the male child is a lived experience but for the female child all is known is the outward appearance, and for many even that discovery is late. “This outgrowth, this weak little rod of flesh can in itself inspire them only with indifference, or even disgust.” says de Beauvoir as she expounds that female inferiority, penis-envy and desire for the father are not innate but part of a system of values, the origin of which she berates Freud for failing to seek. Why is father sovereign? Why should the female feel shame for urinating in the squatting position – whence comes this shame? asks de Beauvoir. Why is society patriarchal?


De Beauvoir’s work seeks to answer this last but fundamental question. Freudian notions of inferiority, fear of castration and penis envy – this phallic-centric model – serves for Freudians as the basis of all mental health and demonstrates the a priori import attached to the male form. De Beauvoir demands of Freudian psychology an origin. The existential core struggle with the contingency of existence (I am here, but I may not have been, and the only certainty is that I will die) serves as an insightful possible explanation.


The anxiety of existence largely rooted in our contingency and our freedom to choose leads us to a tendency to separate towards alienation and to see ourselves in “things”; tangible, stable, meaningful “things”. From totem poles in history, to the infants gaze in the mirror to the infant boy’s penis, de Beauvoir illustrates this all too human desire. The penis is treated as a person by the mother and the child, and the boy can measure its worth through size, force of urine and ejaculation and through this sees his own worth. The girl, not having this convenient alter-ego, makes an object of her whole self setting herself up as the perpetual other to man’s subject (de Beauvoir, 1949). However, de Beauvoir also suggests that an alter-ego could be made from a doll and describes matriarchal societies in which women keep special masks and the penis loses much of its glory. Why one society would be patriarchal and another not is a question for a different essay, but suffice to say “psychoanalysis can establish its truth only in the historical context” (de Beauvoir, 1949).


Central to existential notions of (female) sexuality is the nature of one’s ‘being-in-the-world’. For de Beauvoir this is crucial as she denies the emphasis on sexual symbolism and sees instead primary realities that hold an interest for man not dictated by libido. For instance, she propounds that digging a hole is as much a part of human existence and subsequent desire to be at one with the world as is an embrace. Sartre too takes this stance arguing that sexuality is not determined by biological instincts but by one’s “upsurge into a world where there are others” (Sartre, 1943). Merleau-Ponty acquiesces explaining that sexuality is an intrinsic aspect of existence and that ‘being-in-the-world’ means implicitly ‘being with others’, ‘being towards death’, ‘being in the body’, and ‘being sexually’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1962).


If existential thought resonates with one’s experience of life, one is likely to confirm that life is in relation to the world and that the individual defines herself by making choices through the world around her. For de Beauvoir an intrinsic weakness of the Freudian model of sexuality is that it suggests that the drama of an individual unfolds within him rather than through a fluid existence shaped through our relation to the world and to others. Concomitantly, woman cannot be defined by her own femininity any more than by saying that she is a female for she acquires this consciousness under circumstances dependent on society and her relation to it. For de Beauvoir every female is not a woman as to be a woman means to share in a mysterious and almost abstract femininity defined outside of one’s self. It is in this sense that the climatic comparison between Freud’s model of female sexuality and the existential notion can take place. Freudian female sexuality is based in specific gender roles rooted in physiology and develops through a pre-determined and essential path which if deviated from or unsuccessful causes pathology. Existential female sexuality in comparison, is seen as just one of many essential parts of human relatedness to the world rather than the crux of all mental health and development. Furthermore, it is seen as socially defined and definitively not universal. Female sexuality is shaped by the female and by the world in which she finds herself; context is paramount. Freud’s model, scientific in nature, would be expected to transgress culture and time. The existential model says this is not possible; Freud’s phallus-centric model is a debt to his time and his experience of the world. As Nietzsche wrote “Every great philosophy so far has been the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir.” (Nietzsche, 1886).


Existentialist critiques of Freudian theory have themselves been subject to rebuttals, including a notable reply to de Beauvoir’s discussion from Mitchell (1974). Mitchell argues that de Beauvoir misunderstands some of Freud’s key ideas about female sexuality. De Beauvoir reproaches Freud for basing his model on male sexual development and failing to consider the female outside of the template created for and most suited to the study of the male. Mitchell however argues that Freud was greatly concerned by female development and honestly confessed in his work to having difficultly as opposed to failing to acknowledge its importance. In addition, Mitchell rebukes de Beauvoir for criticising psychoanalysis as a whole rather than just Freud, failing to distinguish between Jungian and Adlerian notions that neither she nor Freud held in esteem. Mitchell’s key point is that there is much in psychoanalysis that would compliment de Beauvoir’s position and some that wouldn’t, but that de Beauvoir seems to Mitchell only to compare that with which she is at odds as opposed to either comparing all of psychoanalysis or just Freudian psychoanalysis. For example, says Mitchell, both Freud and de Beauvoir found the notion of a passive female libido absurd yet de Beauvoir criticises Freud for claiming the passivity of women. In actual fact he agreed that the passivity of the female was a forced social passivity rather than an innate biological one (Mitchell, 1974).


It is here that one can observe some scarce similarities in Freudian and existential theories of female sexuality. Certainly both see the role of society as playing an important role in sexual development and behaviour. However, the dynamics of society in Freudian sexuality are obstacles on the path to a pre-determined climax of sexually-centred maturity, whereas existential society and individual relations to it create and define the definitions of normality, perversion and development in the first place. They are fluid and can change, through time, culture and agency.


In conclusion, the psychology and philosophy of female sexuality remains an important debate. Whether we are determined to exist sexually in a gender specific way or not continues to permeate the media and literature as campaigners and politicians alike seek an answer to the many debates on which sexual behaviours are socially acceptable. Freud’s work on sexuality, whilst for the existentialists was over-emphasised and failed to understand the free and meaningless nature of human existence, at least brought the importance of sexual development and gender issues to the forefront of the intellectual debate.


Freud’s theories of the impact of childhood serve as the basis for a great deal of modern psychotherapy, and whilst the existentialists do not see the past as an unalterable step on a pre-determined path, largely they would not be adverse to discussing it with a client in order to understand what effect it may or may not be having in the present (Cohn, 1997). The crucial difference would be that the aim of the existentialist would not be to somehow fix the past and subsequently the person, but to enable the individual to understand and shape their perspective of the past to allow them to live more freely in the present. For de Beauvoir, Freudian female sexuality looks backward whereas existential female sexuality looks forward. Freedom of choices allows individuals to deal with biological and social givens in a unique and creative way thus shaping their sexuality as an active architect of their own destiny (de Beauvoir, 1949).


For some, biological determinism and notions of a fixed Freudian course of development will appeal and for others a pre-determined existence is just another way to shirk ultimate responsibility. However, regardless of personal philosophy, existential notions of female sexuality explain how what is normal changes through time and culture. It places on women (and men) a freedom to choose a sexual identity and simultaneously condemns them to responsibility – for their ideas, their society, and their understanding of the world in which they find themselves. Accepting freedom and responsibility and insisting that we look beyond our immediate time to the potentials ahead and behind serves as a far fuller basis for discussions of female sexuality than that offered by Sigmund Freud. Through freedom and responsibility and an understanding of our role in creating the meanings and values that we live by can the path to progression and change, in individuals and society, be found.



Brizendine, L. (2006). The Female Brain. Broadway

Chodorow, N. (1978). The Reproduction of Mothering. London, Yale University Press.

Cohn, H. W. (1997). Existential Thought and Therapeutic Practice.: An Introduction to Existential Psychotherapy. Sage Publications.

de Beauvoir, S. (1949). The Second Sex. Vintage Classics, Random House.

Foucault, M. (1976). The History of Sexulaity:1, The Will to Knowledge. Penguin.

Freud, S. (1905). Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Penguin Freud Library, Volume 7.

Freud, S. (1924). The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex. Penguin Freud Library, Volume 7.

Freud, S. (1931). Female Sexuality. Penguin Freud Library, Volume 7.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a Different Voice. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Jacobs, M. (1992). Sigmund Freud. Sage Publications.

Mitchell, J. (1974). Psychoanalysis and Feminism. Allen Lane.

Nietzsche, F. (1886). Beyond Good and Evil. Penguin Classics.

Person, E. and Ovesey, L. (1983). ‘Psycho-analytic Theories of Gender Identity’. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis. 11 (2):203-26

Sartre, J.P. (1943). Being and Nothingness. Vintage Classics, Random House.

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