Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Freud and his mother, Amalie

There’s no doubt that Sigmund Freud is the most well-known figure in the history of psychology. His theories changed the field of psychology and remain influential even today. His many theories on human sexuality also helped shape sexology as a discipline, especially his stages of psychosexual development, through which infants and children attempt to satisfy their libido. Despite his many important and influential contributions to psychology, there are many criticisms of his theories. One of the major criticisms is his views on women, or, more accurately, the huge gap in his theories about women.

In his early theories, Freud simply extended his views of male sexuality to women, viewing women as simply men without penises (Cohler & Galatzer-Levy, 2008). His male perspective of sexuality is understandable, but nonetheless problematic, as it marginalizes female sexuality. Female sexuality, according to early Freudian theory, is exactly the same as male sexuality up until the phallic stage of psychosexual development; since women don’t have a penis, however, they experience penis envy, which is the jealousy little girls feel towards boys and the resentment towards their mothers (whom they blame for not having a penis). Though Freud didn’t propose the “Electra complex,” it can be inferred from his theories that little girls switch their affections from their mother to their father in an attempt to “gain” a penis. Being female, they cannot come to identify with their father, however, and when they realize they cannot “gain” a penis, seek to have children instead (Denmark & Paludi, 2008).

Freud and his daughter, Anna

Like the early sexologists, Freud believed that women were sexually passive, engaging in sex only because they want children. Because they do not have a penis, girls come to believe they have lost theirs, and eventually, seek to have male children in an attempt to “gain” a penis. Penis envy in women is a problem that Freud believed could never be completely resolved, thus condemning all women to underdeveloped superegos, implying that women will always be morally inferior to men, who are capable of having fully developed superegos (Schultz & Schultz, 2009). For someone whose theories are centered on sex, Freud seemed content to remain willfully ignorant of female sexuality and how it may differ from male sexuality. Karen Horney, a psychoanalyst who broke away from Freudian theory, criticized his work, particularly his theory of penis envy. Freud never directly responded to Horney’s criticisms, though he called her “able but malicious,” and wrote of female psychoanalysts, “We shall not be very greatly surprised if a woman analyst, who has not been sufficiently convinced of the intensity of her own wish for a penis, also fails to attach the proper importance to that factor in her patients” (Schultz & Schultz, 2009).

Freud’s views of women and female sexuality were clearly phallic-centered, which made his exploration into female sexuality extremely limited (Cohler & Galatzer-Levy, 2008). It’s interesting to note that despite working with both female patients and psychoanalysts, including his daughter Anna, Freud’s theories on female sexuality remained restricted and male-centered. He also fell prey to the general sexism of the time, writing that in men alone is “the sexual life…accessible to investigation, whereas in the woman it is veiled in impenetrable darkness, partly in consequence of cultural stunting and partly on account of the conventional reticence and dishonesty of women” (Freud, 1905). Dismissing women and their sexuality in such a way seems troublesome not only because he treated many female patients, but because his theories are still so prevalent today, continuing to influence psychologists and sexologists alike (Jayne, 1984).

By Kylie McFatridge

Cohler, B. J. & Galatzer-Levy, R. M. (2008). Freud, Anna, and the problem of female sexuality. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 28, 3-26.

Denmark, F. & Paludi, M. A. (2008). Psychology of women: a handbook of issues and theories (2nd ed.). Westport, CT: Praegar Publishers.

Freud, S. (1905). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. Retrieved from

Jayne, C. (1984). Freud, Grafenberg, and the neglected vagina: thoughts concerning an historical omission in sexology. The Journal of Sex Research, 20(2), 212-215.

Schultz, D. P. & Schultz, S. E. (2009). Theories of personality. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


Comments are closed.