Psychosexual development  

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli

The concept of psychosexual development, as envisioned by Sigmund Freud at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, is a central element in the theory of psychology. It consists of five separate phases: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. In the development of his theories, Freud's main concern was with sexual desire, defined in terms of formative drives, instincts and appetites that result in the formation of an adult personality.

Terminology associated with Freud's stages of psychosexual development has found wide, popular usage in a variety of registers and fields of activity (see, Freud and Popular Culture).

Contents

Background

Freud theorized that the libido developed in individuals by changing its object, through the process of transference. He argued that humans are born "polymorphous perverse", meaning that any number of objects could be a source of pleasure. However, to this day, there is no scientific justification of this theory and generally not an accepted model among practicing psychologists. Following a biological logic, Freud established a rigid model for that "normal" sexual development of the human being, or the "libido development". Each child passes through five psychosexual stages. During each stage, the id focuses on a distinct erogenous zone on the body. The term "psychosexual infantilism," refers to those who become fixated in this way and fail to mature through the psychosexual stages into heterosexuality. Freud related the resolutions of the stages with adult personalities and personality disorders.

Despite their popularity among psychoanalytical psychologists, Freud's psychosexual theories are commonly criticized as being sexist. For example, Freud stated that young females develop "penis envy" toward the males during their psychosexual development. In response, Karen Horney, a German Freudian psychoanalyst, argued that young females develop "power envy" instead of "penis envy" toward the male.

Freudian psychosexual development

Sexual infantilism — In pursuing and satisfying his or her libido (sexual drive), the child might experience failure (parental and societal disapproval) and thus might associate anxiety with the given erogenous zone. To avoid anxiety, the child becomes fixated, preoccupied with the psychologic themes related to the erogenous zone in question, which persist into adulthood, and underlie the personality and psychopathology of the man or woman, as neurosis, hysteria, personality disorders, et cetera.

Stage Age Range Erogenous zone Consequences of psychologic fixation
Oral Birth–1 year Mouth Orally aggressive: chewing gum and the ends of pencils, etc.
Orally Passive: smoking, eating, kissing, oral sexual practices
Oral stage fixation might result in a passive, gullible, immature, manipulative personality.
Anal 1–3 years Bowel and bladder elimination Anal retentive: Obsessively organized, or excessively neat
Anal expulsive: reckless, careless, defiant, disorganized, coprophiliac
Phallic 3–6 years Genitalia Oedipus complex (in boys and girls); according to Sigmund Freud.

Electra complex (in girls); according to Carl Jung.

Latency 6–puberty Dormant sexual feelings Sexual unfulfillment if fixation occurs in this stage.
Genital Puberty–death Sexual interests mature Frigidity, impotence, unsatisfactory relationships

Oral stage

Oral stage

The first stage of psychosexual development is the oral stage, spanning from birth until the age of two years, wherein the infant's mouth is the focus of libidinal gratification derived from the pleasure of feeding at the mother's breast, and from the oral exploration of his or her environment, i.e. the tendency to place objects in the mouth. The id dominates, because neither the ego nor the super ego is yet fully developed, and, since the infant has no personality (identity), every action is based upon the pleasure principle. Nonetheless, the infantile ego is forming during the oral stage; two factors contribute to its formation: (i) in developing a body image, he or she is discrete from the external world, e.g. the child understands pain when it is applied to his or her body, thus identifying the physical boundaries between body and environment; (ii) experiencing delayed gratification leads to understanding that specific behaviors satisfy some needs, e.g. crying gratifies certain needs.

Weaning is the key experience in the infant's oral stage of psychosexual development, his or her first feeling of loss consequent to losing the physical intimacy of feeding at mother's breast. Yet, weaning increases the infant's self-awareness that he or she does not control the environment, and thus learns of delayed gratification, which leads to the formation of the capacities for independence (awareness of the limits of the self) and trust (behaviors leading to gratification). Yet, thwarting of the oral-stage — too much or too little gratification of desire — might lead to an oral-stage fixation, characterised by passivity, gullibility, immaturity, unrealistic optimism, which is manifested in a manipulative personality consequent to ego malformation. In the case of too much gratification, the child does not learn that he or she does not control the environment, and that gratification is not always immediate, thereby forming an immature personality. In the case of too little gratification, the infant might become passive upon learning that gratification is not forthcoming, despite having produced the gratifying behavior.

Anal stage

Anal stage

The second stage of psychosexual development is the anal stage, spanning from the age of eighteen months to three years, wherein the infant's erogenous zone changes from the mouth (the upper digestive tract) to the anus (the lower digestive tract), while the ego formation continues. Toilet training is the child's key anal-stage experience, occurring at about the age of two years, and results in conflict between the Id (demanding immediate gratification) and the Ego (demanding delayed gratification) in eliminating bodily wastes, and handling related activities (e.g. manipulating excrement, coping with parental demands). The style of parenting influences the resolution of the Id–Ego conflict, which can be either gradual and psychologically uneventful, or which can be sudden and psychologically traumatic. The ideal resolution of the Id–Ego conflict is in the child's adjusting to moderate parental demands that teach the value and importance of physical cleanliness and environmental order, thus producing a self-controlled adult. Yet, if the parents make immoderate demands of the child, by over-emphasizing toilet training, it might lead to the development of a compulsive personality, a person too concerned with neatness and order. If the child obeys the Id, and the parents yield, he or she might develop a self-indulgent personality characterized by personal slovenliness and environmental disorder. If the parents respond to that, the child must comply, but might develop a weak sense of Self, because it was the parents' will, and not the child's ego, who controlled the toilet training.

Phallic stage

Phallic stage

The third stage of psychosexual development is the phallic stage, spanning the ages of three to six years, wherein the child's genitalia are his or her primary erogenous zone. It is in this third infantile development stage that children become aware of their bodies, the bodies of other children, and the bodies of their parents; they gratify physical curiosity by undressing and exploring each other and their genitals, and so learn the physical (sexual) differences between "male" and "female" and the gender differences between "boy" and "girl". In the phallic stage, a boy's decisive psychosexual experience is the Oedipus complex, his son–father competition for possession of mother. This psychological complex derives from the 5th-century BC Greek mythologic character Oedipus, who unwittingly killed his father, Laius, and sexually possessed his mother, Jocasta. Analogously, in the phallic stage, a girl's decisive psychosexual experience is the Electra complex, her daughter–mother competition for psychosexual possession of father. This psychological complex derives from the 5th-century BC Greek mythologic Electra, who plotted matricidal revenge with Orestes, her brother, against Clytemnestra, their mother, and Aegisthus, their stepfather, for their murder of Agamemnon, their father, (cf. Electra, by Sophocles).

Initially, Freud equally applied the Oedipus complex to the psychosexual development of boys and girls, but later developed the female aspects of the theory as the feminine Oedipus attitude and the negative Oedipus complex; yet, it was his student–collaborator, Carl Jung, who coined the term Electra complex in 1913. Nonetheless, Freud rejected Jung's term as psychoanalytically inaccurate: "that what we have said about the Oedipus complex applies with complete strictness to the male child only, and that we are right in rejecting the term 'Electra complex', which seeks to emphasize the analogy between the attitude of the two sexes".

Oedipus — Despite mother being the parent who primarily gratifies the child's desires, the child begins forming a discrete sexual identity — "boy", "girl" — that alters the dynamics of the parent and child relationship; the parents become the focus of infantile libidinal energy. The boy focuses his libido (sexual desire) upon his mother, and focuses jealousy and emotional rivalry against his father — because it is he who sleeps with mother. To facilitate uniting him with his mother, the boy's id wants to kill father (as did Oedipus), but the ego, pragmatically based upon the reality principle, knows that the father is the stronger of the two males competing to possess the one female. Nevertheless, the boy remains ambivalent about his father's place in the family, which is manifested as fear of castration by the physically greater father; the fear is an irrational, subconscious manifestation of the infantile Id

Electra — Whereas boys develop castration anxiety, girls develop penis envy that is rooted in anatomic fact: without a penis, she cannot sexually possess mother, as the infantile id demands. Resultantly, the girl redirects her desire for sexual union upon father; thus, she progresses towards heterosexual femininity that culminates in bearing a child who replaces the absent penis. Moreover, after the phallic stage, the girl's psychosexual development includes transferring her primary erogenous zone from the infantile clitoris to the adult vagina. Freud thus considered a girl's Oedipal conflict to be more emotionally intense than that of a boy, resulting, potentially, in a submissive woman of insecure personality.

Psychologic defense — In both sexes, defense mechanisms provide transitory resolutions of the conflict between the drives of the Id and the drives of the Ego. The first defense mechanism is repression, the blocking of memories, emotional impulses, and ideas from the conscious mind; yet it does not resolve the Id–Ego conflict. The second defense mechanism is Identification, by which the child incorporates, to his or her ego, the personality characteristics of the same-sex parent; in so adapting, the boy diminishes his castration anxiety, because his likeness to father protects him from father's wrath as a rival for mother; by so adapting, the girl facilitates identifying with mother, who understands that, in being females, neither of them possesses a penis, and thus they are not antagonists.

Dénouement — Unresolved psychosexual competition for the opposite-sex parent might produce a phallic-stage fixation leading a girl to become a woman who continually strives to dominate men (viz. penis envy), either as an unusually seductive woman (high self-esteem) or as an unusually submissive woman (low self-esteem). In a boy, a phallic-stage fixation might lead him to become an aggressive, over-ambitious, vain man. Therefore, the satisfactory parental handling and resolution of the Oedipus complex and of the Electra complex are most important in developing the infantile super-ego, because, by identifying with a parent, the child internalizes morality, thereby, choosing to comply with societal rules, rather than having to reflexively comply in fear of punishment.

Latency stage

Latency stage

The fourth stage of psychosexual development is the latency stage that spans from the age of six years until puberty, wherein the child consolidates the character habits he or she developed in the three, earlier stages of psychologic and sexual development. Whether or not the child has successfully resolved the Oedipal conflict, the instinctual drives of the id are inaccessible to the Ego, because his or her defense mechanisms repressed them during the phallic stage. Hence, because said drives are latent (hidden) and gratification is delayed — unlike during the preceding oral, anal, and phallic stages — the child must derive the pleasure of gratification from secondary process-thinking that directs the libidinal drives towards external activities, such as schooling, friendships, hobbies, etc. Any neuroses established during the fourth, latent stage, of psychosexual development might derive from the inadequate resolution either of the Oedipus conflict or of the Ego's failure to direct his or her energies towards socially acceptable activities.

Genital stage

Genital stage

The fifth stage of psychosexual development is the genital stage that spans puberty and adult life, and thus occupies most of the life of a man and of a woman; its purpose is the psychologic detachment and independence from the parents. The genital stage affords the person the ability to confront and resolve his or her remaining psychosexual childhood conflicts. As in the phallic stage, the genital stage is centered upon the genitalia, but the sexuality is consensual and adult, rather than solitary and infantile. The psychological difference between the phallic and genital stages is that the ego is established in the latter; the person's concern shifts from primary-drive gratification (instinct) to applying secondary process-thinking to gratify desire symbolically and intellectually by means of friendships, a love relationship, family and adult responsibilities.

Criticism of Freud's theory of psychosexual development

Feminist critique

Freud's theories were decidedly androcentric, which is why he has received a great deal of criticism from feminists, as well as from gender theory practitioners. Freud had difficulty incorporating female desire into his theories. Freud attempted to provide a theoretical explanation for feminine psychosexual development only rather late in his career. Freud personally confessed a lack of understanding of female sexuality and did not hold out hope that psychology would ever explain the phenomenon.

Freud argued that young girls followed more or less the same psychosexual development as boys. Whereas the boy would develop a castration conflict, the girl would go on to develop penis envy, "the envy the female feels toward the male because the male possesses a penis." The envy is rooted in the fact that without a penis, the female cannot sexually posess the mother as driven to by the Id. As a result of this realization, she is driven to desire sexual union with the father. After this stage, the woman has an extra stage in her development when the clitoris should wholly or in part hand over its sensitivity and its importance to the vagina. The young girl must also at some point give up her first object-choice, the mother, in order to take the father as her new proper object-choice. Her eventual move into heterosexual femininity, which culminates in giving birth, grows out of her earlier infantile desires, with her own child taking place of the penis in accordance with an ancient symbolic equivalence. Freud wrote: "girls feel deeply their lack of a sexual organ that is equal in value to the male one; they regard themselves on that account as inferior and this envy for the penis is the origin of a whole number of characteristic feminine reactions."

See also




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