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Journal of the American


As the Wheel Turns: A Centennial Reflection On Freud's tHree Essays On

the Theory of Sexuality
Ethel Spector Person
J Am Psychoanal Assoc 2005 53: 1257
DOI: 10.1177/00030651050530041201

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jap a

Ethel Spector Person



Freuds theories of psychosexual development, while highly original, were
anchored in the explosion of scientific studies of sex in the nineteenth
century. Most of these studies were based on masturbation, homosexuality, and deviance, with little attention given to normal sexuality. Around
the turn of the century, the narrow interest in pathological sexuality and
sexual physiology gradually gave way to a broader interest in normal sexuality. It was in the context of these expanding studies of sexuality that
Freud proposed the first psychological view of sexuality, a theory that
defined sex as being at the interface between soma and psyche. Libido
theory, which Freud developed, is a theory of drives and conflicts. For
Freud, libido was the major force in personality development, and he
posited sexual conflicts as the heart of neuroses, sexual fixations as
the essence of perversions. This article traces the way Freuds libido
theory has served as one of the mainsprings in the development of psychoanalytic theory. It also addresses the major revisions that have taken
place in libido theory, with a focus primarily on object relations theory,
and the impact of culture on the way sex and sexual mores are parsed.

his year marks the centennial of Freuds Three Essays on the

Theory of Sexuality, an original, bold, and brilliant exploration of
the role of sexuality in our psyches. Freuds most revolutionary contribution in Three Essays is his formulation of a unified theory of mind
in which mental life is viewed as active from infancy on. What is astonishing is that he came to this insight without any direct observation of
Professor of Clinical Psychiatry, College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia
University; Training and Supervising Analyst, Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research.
The author is grateful to Arnold Cooper and Morris Eagle for their helpful comments in response to an earlier draft. Submitted for publication June 3, 2005.
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infants (with the exception, of course, of his contacts with his own children). He extrapolated his conclusion from the perversions, but even
without observing infants, he was uncannily on the mark. Moreover,
he made sexuality central to psyche. Freuds overarching achievement was to conceptualize what we might now call the mentalization
of biological processes.
I will explore Three Essays from three vantage points: first, Freuds
groundbreaking work in establishing sexuality as integral to childhood
development and his depiction of libido, a concept that evolved into
his articulation of drive theory; second, contemporary perspectives
that build on Freuds original formulations, addressing object relations
theory; third, the role of culture in shaping our ideas about sex. Finally,
I will discuss newer conceptualizations of gender theory, heterosexuality, and homosexuality. I will conclude by advocating for the lasting
importance of Three Essays.
The very f irst two sentences of Three Essays proclaim Freuds
bold thesis that libido is a sexual instinct: The fact of the existence of
sexual needs in human beings and animals is expressed in biology
by the assumption of a sexual instinct, on the analogy of the instinct
of nutrition, that is, of hunger. Everyday language possesses no counterpart to the word hunger, but science makes use of the word libido
for that purpose (1905, p. 135). Freuds major formulations were guided
by his familiarity both with the insights of the leading sexologists
of the late nineteenth century and with Darwins groundbreaking insights into evolution.
Freud acknowledged in a footnote that the information on which
he based the first essay, The Sexual Aberrations, was not firsthand,
but had been derived from the well-known writings of Krafft-Ebing,
Moll, Moebius, Havelock Ellis, Schrenck-Notzing, Lwenfeld,
Eulenburg, Bloch and Hirschfield, and from the sex journal published
under Hirschfields direction (p. 135). The move to sexual modernism
that antedated Freud can be traced back to the very beginnings of
the scientific study of sex in the 1870s. Most of the early studies on
sexuality originated in the German- speaking world, with little attention
paid to normal sexuality with the exception of the biology of reproduction. Their major focus was on masturbation, homosexuality, and
deviance. One of the first phenomena that sexologists attempted to
explain, substituting a medical for a moral perspective, was homosexuality (Sulloway 1979, chap. 8). Earlier in the nineteenth century,
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sexual deviance had been classif ied as wrong, even perverse, and
as an hereditary, degenerative failure. Ulrichs (18621895), a homosexual lawyer, introduced a theory that homosexuality was not
criminal or insane, but the result of an error in embryonic differentiation that produced a female soul in a male body (Sulloway 1979,
p. 281). This was a crossover idea from the then revolutionary studies
taking place in embryology, and it illustrates how a scientific breakthrough in one field often inspires new ideas in an apparently unrelated
f ield. It is also a classic case of how the liberation of any stigmatized group is most often initiated by members of that group, not by
outside observers.
Krafft-Ebing (18401902), professor of psychiatry at the University of Vienna, the true founder of modern sexual pathology, according to the sexologist Bloch (Sulloway 1979, p. 279) was influenced by
Ulrichs. But he came to a different conclusion, theorizing that homosexuals had failed, due to genetic flaws, to move beyond the stage of
fetal bisexuality. Although this idea was not original with him, it was
influential in changing the approach to homosexuality from moral and
legal condemnation to medical concern. (This newer, medical model of
homosexuality, which posited it as a disease, came to be resented by
homosexuals just as much as the legal model that saw it as a crime.)
In contrast to Ulrich, Krafft-Ebings sympathetic stance was shaped not
by any personal identification as a sexual deviant, but by the example
and mentoring of his maternal grandfather, a criminal lawyer known as
the last help of the damned, who defended homosexuals in the midnineteenth century (Sulloway 1979, p. 280). During the same period in
which homosexuality gradually came to be regarded in a more tolerant
light, masturbation continued to be maligned. In the scientific community, masturbation was widely believed to result in depletion and insanitylifelong degenerative effects that were clinically documented to
the satisfaction of most of the medical profession.
Around the turn of the century, the narrow interest in pathological
sexuality and sexual physiology gradually gave way to a broader interest in normal sexuality. Whereas part of the shift in focus stemmed from
a psychiatric interest in concepts of normality, it also came about,
ironically, as a result of the contemporary fascination with deviance.
The study of perversion (for example pain dependence in sexual
masochists) necessarily led to the perception that the domain of sexuality extended beyond the genitals. This necessitated an emphasis on the
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distinction between sex and procreation, and the idea of erotic zones
other than the genitals entered the literature.
Freuds earlier great work, The Interpretation of Dreams, had been
published in 1900, five years before the appearance of Three Essays.
What took him five years to articulate the groundbreaking ideas he
set forth in the latter work? Part of what he was dealing with was
the integration in his own mind of the connection between sexual
life in human beings and what he knew not only of the sexologists
work, but also of Charles Darwins theories of evolution. Darwin certainly figured heavily in Freuds thinking. The literary critic Steven
Marcus pointed out how Freud used an essentially Darwinian or evolutionary model to demonstrate the component nature of the sexual instinct:
Like Darwin, Freud is concerned with the variations in form and
structure that the sexual instinct takes, and he is interested in arranging
or classifying these variations in such a way that both their resemblances and differences be rendered in full account (1975, p. 519).
Freuds use of Darwinian insights is another example of how
insights in one area of science provide new ways of perceiving and
organizing data in other fieldsitself a kind of evolution within the
domain of science. It is not at all unusual to be inspired, on either a
subliminal or a conscious level, by ideas that are first introduced in
fields other than ones own. Indeed, Darwins biographers suggest that
his masterful work, On the Origin of Species, was itself inspired by
Sir Charles Lyells observations about the evolution of changes in
the earths crust (Desmond and Moore 1991, pp. 117118, 131, 185).
But Freud used the idea of evolution with a twist on the Darwinian
concept. What he pointed out in Three Essays was that writers who
concern themselves with explaining the characteristics and reactions
of the adult have devoted much more attention to the primaeval
period which is comprised in the life of the individuals ancestors
have, that is, ascribed much more influence to hereditythan to the
other primaeval period, which falls within the lifetime of the individual
himselfthat is, to childhood. One would surely have supposed that
the influence of this latter period would be easier to understand and
could claim to be considered before that of heredity (Freud 1905,
p. 173). Here he is addressing the psychological evolution within the
individuals lifetime.
Many sexologists achieved great prominence within their lifetimes
and are still remembered for the magnitude of their contributions
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Krafft-Ebing (1886) and Havelock Ellis (1857) in particular. But Freud,

who radically changed our ideas and attitudes about sex, was the
first student of sex to be given serious attention by todays intellectual
historians. Freud achieved such prominence precisely because he was
not solely a sexologist or sexual theorist; his sexual theories were not
in the service of sexual liberalization, but formed the core of a larger
psychological theory (Robinson 1976). Through Freuds pioneering
studies, the impact of sex on both psyche and culture became obvious,
and sexual studies and theories assumed a new position of importance
in intellectual discourse.

Freuds discovery of the laws governing unconscious mental life and the
significance of infantile sexuality (expounded in The Interpretation of
Dreams (1900) and Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905),
respectively) are generally regarded as profoundly original insights. But
it is also said that Freud discovered what he admitted every nursemaid already knew about the sexuality of children (Mitchell 1974,
p. 17). Not just nursemaids, but a number of sexologists, should be given
priority for the observation that sexuality does not first emerge in adolescence along with maturation of the sex organs, but has a long
antecedent history in childhood. Although Freuds theories were continuous with previous theories (as regards his emphasis on bisexuality and
erotogenic zones), his revolutionary insight was that infantile sexual
development had profound consequences for the adults erotic life and
character structure.
Three Essays begins with a strikingly cogent analysis of the nature
of sexuality in the human being, including sexual aberrations. As I have
noted, Freud proposed that to explain the existence of sexual needs in
human beings and animals one must presume the preexistence of a
sexual instinct, and suggested that libido is to the sexual instinct as
hunger is to the instinct of nutrition. But he recognized that there were
numerous deviations in both the sexual object and the sexual aim, and
that minor perverse elements are frequently present in the lives of
healthy people, not only neurotics. Through his discovery that elements
of both perversions and neuroses occur as minor strains in healthy people, Freud concluded that he had demonstrated a connected series. This
finding led him to propose that perverse wishes are normal components
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in the development of the sexual instincts. Therefore, the nature of sexual

perversions could be understood as the manifestation of one element in
the composition of the sexual instinct that has not undergone the repression that would have subsumed it into conventional mature sexuality.
Freud also described variations or deviations in respect to the
sexual object, by which he meant that there are men whose sexual
object is a man and not a woman, and women whose sexual object
is a woman and not a man, and he described this finding as a great
surprise to many (p. 136). Although Freud himself never viewed
homosexuality as perverse per se, psychoanalysis in general absorbed
the values of normal and perverse sexuality explicit in the science
and culture of the day, a position not discarded by psychoanalysts in
the United States until the 1960s.
Observing the array of diverse practices in perversions, Freud
introduced an important distinction between the object and the aim of
the sexual instincts. The object is defined as the person (or animal or
fetish) toward which the sexual act is directed, whereas the aim is the
sexual act that is desired. This distinction enabled Freud to document
his hypothesis that the sexual instinct is made up of component parts.
He objected to labeling inversion as a form of deviance, and noted
that it exists in people who exhibit no other serious deviations from
the normal (p. 138). Freud believed that, for some, inversion is not
innate, but acquired, that is, that in some instances, it might be the
result of what would now be called a trauma or special circumstance.
Long predating our contemporary theories about homosexuality as
a normal variant, he concluded that it may be questioned whether the
various accidental influences would be sufficient to explain the acquisition of inversion without the co-operation of something in the subject
himself. . . . the existence of this last factor is not to be denied (p. 141).
Freuds difficulty in arriving at a fundamental understanding of
homosexuality led him to a serious consideration of bisexuality. Unable
to account for homosexuality in any systematic way, he drew a distinction between the sexual instinct and the sexual object, suggesting that
we had believed the relationship between them to be more intimate than
it actually is: It seems probable that the sexual instinct is in the first
instance independent of its object; nor is its origin likely to be due to its
objects attractions (p. 148).
Because Freuds study of the so-called perversions had led him
to understand the existence of component instincts and erotogenic zones
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in early life, it was a logical and necessary segue to his exploration of

infantile sexuality. Sexuality was no longer understood as manifesting
itself only at the onset of puberty. Freuds liberating insight, following
the lead of several nineteenth-century sexologists, was to see evidence of early sexuality and perverse infantile behavior as the rule
rather than the exception, and as normal rather than pathological,
thus demonstrating that sexuality is broader than genitality alone.
Freud discovered that childhood sexuality encompasses dif ferent
sequential pleasures related to different body parts. He labeled as pregenital those organizations of sexual life that antedate the primacy
of the genital zones.
Freuds contemporaries were critical of his insistence on the presence of sexuality in childhood. But what Freud had achieved was a profound change in our understanding of sexuality; sexual feelings were
no longer viewed as restricted to adults. Moreover, the idea of the
exclusive tie of sex to the genitals and to reproduction was shattered.
Freud had established evidence of childhood sexuality, of sexual feelings in relation to objects other than genitals, and pleasurable sexual
activities de-linked from concerns with reproduction.1
From Freuds discoveries of the composite nature of the sexual
instinct, the universal disposition to bisexuality, and the childhood condition of polymorphous perversion, he concluded that normal sexuality
is precarious and difficult to achieve. In fact, he suggested that without
cultural repression the sexuality of a much greater number of persons
would be perverse.2 Although his insistence on the presence of sexuality in childhood elicited criticism from his contemporaries, Freud had
in fact enlarged the concept of sexuality beyond sexual practices by and
between adults and beyond any exclusive tie to the genitals and reproduction. He had demonstrated the existence of sexuality in childhood,
This is still another tie between Darwin and Freud: both of them observed that
the infant sucks for the sake of sucking. For Darwin, infants feel pleasure whilst
sucking, and the expression of their flitting eye seems to show that this is the
case (A Biographical Sketch of an Infants Mind, 1877, quoted in Babcock 1994,
p. 119).
This last idea would later be picked up by a number of sexual liberationists who
believed that society causes the individual to repress sexuality to his or her grave
detriment and (incorrectly) used Freud to bolster the idea that repression must
be undone. Norman O. Brown, in Life against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning
of History (1959), and Herbert Marcuse, in Eros and Civilization (1955), interpreted
Freuds findings variously as a plea to ease the sexual repression of childhood, to
tolerate the perversions, and even to liberate and embrace ones own polymorphous
perverse sexuality.

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of sensual pleasure in body parts other than genitals, and in pleasurable

activities far removed from any concerns with reproduction.
Freud fluctuated between two conflictual/complementary theories
about sex, centered on a nature-nurture controversy.3 But he ultimately
integrated these different theories in what he called a complemental
series (Freud 1905, pp. 239240). He concluded that the controversy
over nature versus nurture missed the point, insofar as both might
together or independently act to create a psychological problem.
Freuds phrase, a complemental series, was based on Goethes insight
that [fate and chance] and not one or the other is decisive (Ritvo
1990, p. 42).4
Freud depicted libido as a psychological force, and the mind, not
just the body, as steeped in it. In On Narcissism: An Introduction, he
wrote that separation of the sexual instincts from the ego instincts
would simply reflect the twofold function of the individual; he established that sexuality is not exclusively tied to reproduction, and thus
that the individual maintains his (or her) own goals and so is more
than the mortal vehicle of an immortal substance (1914, p. 78). For
Babcock (1994), the libido and the narcissism that Freud discovered
relate to what to Darwins critics was so importantthe survival of the
individual organism, at least prior to reproduction (p. 124).

Despite its vast explanatory powers, the concept of libido is not universally accepted. While some psychoanalysts have argued that Freud
used the concept of instinct in its traditional sense (as preformed behavior), still others propose that Freud used instinct to mean drive (or motivational source) and not inherited patterns for discharge insofar as he
used the word Trieb (drive) rather than instinkt. Although these two
meanings may appear blurred, Ernest Jones (1955) suggested that on
Lucille Ritvo (1990) points out that Freud first considered an emphasis on
heredity (Charcot), then on experience (childhood seductions), back to the innate
(Oedipus Complex), to the recognition of the interplay between them (also recognized by Goethe), and that he struggled with the question of the innate versus the
accidental . . . (p. 40).
While Freud advocated some sexual reform, he believed that there is an
inevitable conflict between instinctual (sexual) life, on the one hand, and civilization,
on the other, and that cultural pursuits depend on sexual sublimation. This is at the
heart of his tragic vision, perhaps more fully elaborated in Civilization and Its
Discontents (1930).

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the whole, the word [Trieb] in Freuds writings more often means
instinct in our sense and that this definitely implies an inborn and
inherited character (p. 317).
What is the source of libido or the sexual drive for Freud? In one
passage in Three Essays, Freud addresses this central question. He
points out that at a time at which the first beginnings of sexual satisfaction are still linked with the taking of nourishment, the sexual
instinct has a sexual object outside the infants own body in the shape
of his mothers breast. It is only later that the instinct loses that object,
just at the time, perhaps, when the child is able to form a total idea of
the person to whom the organ that is giving him satisfaction belongs. As
a rule, the sexual instinct then becomes auto-erotic, and not until the
period of latency has been passed through is the original relation
restored. There are thus good reasons why a child sucking at his mothers
breast has become the prototype of every relation of love. The finding of
an object is in fact a refinding of it (1905, p. 222). To some degree,
this passage antedates some future critiques of Freud in that it projects
two different concepts of drive: on the one hand, libido as an independent force; on the other, as inevitably tied to early object relations.
Kardiner, Karush, and Ovesey (1959), in an early critique of libido
theory, pointed out that libido has two different sets of connotations,
an appetitive component and an energic one. As for to the first, they
regarded sex as a physiological need, like that for food, water, oxygen,
or warmth. Their quarrel with Freud was not only that he equated
appetite (instinct) with drive, but that he regarded the behavior which
brings gratification as instinctual (p. 502). While they acknowledged
that the goals of such needs [for food, sex, etc.] are not learned, and
one may, if one wishes, call them instinctual (p. 503), they nonetheless maintained that the route to satisfaction of those needs is learned.
They rejected the idea that there is an inborn need either for a sexual
object in general or for a sexual object of a particular gender (p. 507).
They argued that although libido cannot be observed, it was used to
explain different intensities of behavior, even while these different
intensities were said to demonstrate the existence of libido. Thus, they
viewed the concept as tautological, and believed it had been of little
value in formulating testable hypotheses.
Some psychoanalysts think of libido or drive as instinctual, as analogous to the instinct of hunger, as proposed by Freud. Others theorize
the sexual drive as the end product of the mental consolidation of
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sexual gratification from different body parts as they are stroked or

petted, thereby creating sexual pleasure. These diverse sexual pleasures are coalesced into a coherent entity that constitutes sexual
drive. Sexual drive, then, would be viewed as the product of early life
pleasures that are mentalized and cohere into drive status.
George Klein (1976) argued in Freuds Two Theories of Sexuality
that it is possible to preserve the idea of the central importance of
sexuality in the etiology of neuroses (and motivation in general) without adhering to libido theory. He believed that Freud had proposed
two theories of sexualitylibido theory and what he called Freuds
clinical theory. But he found it unlikely that Freud himself would
believe that he had formulated two different theories.
Yet Klein suggested that Freud had proposedalthough piecemeala theory of sexual behavior that did not rely on accepting libido
as a necessary construct. He pointed out that in the clinical theory,
sexuality is viewed as appetitive activity within a reticulum of motivational meanings rather than the manifestations of a linear force impelling
itself against a barrier (p. 41). For Klein, Freud had correctly identified
sensual pleasure as the shared factor in different sexual experiences,
both infantile and adult, nongenital and genital. Such pleasure was considered primary because it came from the direct stimulation of dermal
surfaces. The pleasure in foreplay is the product of the stimuli of the
dermal surfaces and is thus different from the relief or removal of
unpleasure. Because libido theory primarily emphasized pleasure as the
outcome of tension reduction, the focus on forepleasure never achieved
its deserved status. (These observations antedated but dovetail with later
theories that the connection of pleasure with dermal stimulation becomes
internalized/mentalized and consolidated into drive.)
Klein suggested, perhaps paradoxically, that Freuds major contribution to the theory of sexuality was his discovery that nongenital
components of infantile sexuality are in emotional continuity with
genital, adult sexuality. Essentially, the capacity for sexual pleasure
and the means of eliciting it undergo serial development. In clinical
(or psychological) theory this is a guided process, one in which societal sanctions, values, and encouragements are vital (p. 21).
Lichtenstein (1977) believed that the evolutionary purpose of pregenital sexuality is to promote bonding between the infant and significant others (p. 27). In object relations theory, the close relationship
between infantile sensuality and early object relations is definitive for
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mental life. The earliest bonding between mother (or surrogate) and
child takes place in the experiential context of the tactile-sensual
modality. We now know that physical skin contact between human
infant and caretaker is essential to the infants emotional and cognitive development (Lichtenstein 1977; Ross 1979; Spitz 1945, 1946).
Because sensuality arises directly from body surfaces that are not
primarily of a sexual nature, sensual and sexual experiences may
become symbolically interlocked with nonsensual activities or aims,
and provide an important component of sexuality (e.g. the stroking of
an arm to soothe a baby or an adult, or to arouse an erotic partner).
Greenberg and Mitchell (1983) follow these earlier theorists, but
make the case for drive as opposed to libido even more forcefully:
At the beginnings of life the sexual drive as a unified, organized motivational force has not yet come into existence; the infant is a creature
of independently operating component drives. As these partial sexual
drives, through their anaclitic relationship with the self-preservative
drives, are carried outside of the infants own body (as autoeroticism
is gradually replaced), the infant accrues a set of satisfying and frustrating experiences. These experiences, particularly the satisfying ones,
lead him to form an image of what satisfaction is like. The association
of these satisfactions with the conditions under which they were experienced leads to object formation (p. 41).
They go on to argue that formation of the whole object depends
upon the integration of the discrete currents of childhood sexual
impulses (each of which has generated its own part object) into a single
current of genital sexuality which can, by its nature, cathect a whole
object (pp. 4142). They differ with Freud insofar as they insist that
sexuality and object relations are inevitably intertwined in the sequential elaboration of sexuality.
For Kernberg too, Libido is a drive: hunger is an instinct. He suggests that the Strachey translation links Freuds drive concept too
closely with biology, inhibiting psychoanalytic research into the nature
of the mediating processes that bridge biological instincts with drives,
defined as purely psychic motivation (1992, p. 4).
An unusual case supports the proposition of sexual drive as
distinct from instinct (hunger). A well-known sex therapist, the late
Helen Kaplan, treated a woman patient whose chief complaint was
that she had no sexual pleasure whatever, whether masturbating or
in lovemaking with her husband or anyone else. She could not be
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sexually aroused by any form of stimulation. Her neurologist eventually established that she lacked innervation of her clitoris and vagina.
Kaplan (personal communication) concluded that her patients anatomical abnormality foreclosed the sensual pleasure that normally gets
consolidated into a sexual drive/instinct. While one case is not definitive, this one suggests that elaboration of the sexual instinct depends
on sensory input from various parts of the body. The idea of libido as
a drive rather than an instinct facilitates our understanding of the
various ways sexual drive intersects with early object relations. Let
me suggest, however, that this stance may create something of a conundrum. Many of us who propose that libido is in part the product of
experience (that is, is not entirely innate) simultaneously hold to
the position that sexual object choice, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is innate. I doubt that we can have it both ways.


As early as 1952, Fairbairn proposed that sexuality does not stand

alone but serves as a signpost to objects, or, as he put it, that the ultimate goal of libido is the object (1952, p. 31). Object relations theory
downplays the emphasis on sex as instinct, but postulates a developmental sequence by which sex comes to have central significance in
personality, with particular focus on the relationship between the capacity for sensuality and the development of object relations. It offers great
flexibility and coherence in integrating biology, social reality, and psychic representations.
For Freud, the person from whom the sexual attraction proceeds
[is] the sexual object . . . (1905, pp. 135136). Greenberg and Mitchell
point out that the term object first appeared in Three Essays, and
suggest that Freud rejected the idea that the sexual instinct is attached
to a particular object, an almost inevitable conclusion given his
hypothesis that autoeroticism is the original libidinal position. They
quote Freuds observation that we have been in the habit of regarding
the connection between the sexual instinct and the sexual object as
more intimate than it in fact is (Freud 1905, pp. 147148; quoted in
Greenberg and Mitchell 1983, p. 39).
For Freud, drive necessarily creates the object. Greenberg (1991)
argues that Freud therefore viewed object relations theory as a function
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of drive ( pp. 2021). Greenberg suggests instead that object relations are
intrinsic to sexuality and so proposes a rapprochement between drive
theory and object relations theory (pp. 117118). As he puts it, the mind
is exposed to many stimuli and human experience is the result of those
stimuli filtered through the psychological tendencies that [he] calls the
drive (p. 118). However, the relation between drive theory and object
relations theory is still debated. For example, Andr Green, in 1996,
wrote a paper titled Has Sexuality Anything to Do with Psychoanalysis? as a plea to avoid the kind of desexualization that appeared
to him to be part of contemporary theory. Muriel Dimen, too, fears that
psychoanalysis has become de-sexed (1999, p. 135).
The peremptory nature of sexuality is certainly linked to the intense
pleasure it provides. But sexuality is also stoked by its links to other
motivations. A clear expression of the union between sexual and nonsexual motives can be observed in clinical instances in which an individual feels driven by compulsive sexual acts that incorporate other ends.
Just as Don Juan experiences power in his sexual conquests, so does pain
play a significant role for the masochist. Insofar as sexual pleasure
becomes a major vehicle for establishing object ties, sexuality encompasses an enormous variety of nonsexual motives, among them dependency and hostility. Sexual release can also be used in the service of
stabilizing ones sense of self, assuaging anxiety, or restoring self-esteem.
Eagle (1984) emphasizes Kohuts idea that compulsive sex is often mobilized in the service of countering feelings of a fragmented self (p. 31).
While all psychoanalytic theory acknowledges the internalization
of external values and prohibitions in the formation of ego ideal and
superego, there is more emphasis in object relations theory on the way
subjectivity (relatedness, fantasies, wishes, desires) is influenced by the
experiential. But the psychological power of both libido theory and
object relations theory rests on the observation that sexuality is registered in the mind, and that it partners sexual longing with other desires
(whether with connectedness, love, merger, intimacy, aggression,
humiliation, or, at the extreme, with sadomasochism and even murder).

Fantasy is an important element in our sexual lives. More than an amalgam of objects tied to pleasure, sexuality is stoked by desire, which
draws on fantasy. Fantasy, in turn, draws not only on the sum of ones
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cumulative experience, but also on exposure to fantasy material in the

culture (Person 1995, 2004).
The first major revolution in psychoanalytic theory moved it from
a predominantly one-person psychology (drive theory) to a psychology
that incorporates a two-person perspective, whether in the form of
interpersonal relations, object relations theory, or intersubjective
theory. In recent years a number of psychoanalysts have introduced,
or reintroduced, an important additional perspectivethe culturalist
point of view. Although the cultural perspective has old and honorable
roots in psychoanalysis, having been prefigured in the writings of a
number of the early analysts, some analysts have been loath to bring
it into contemporary psychoanalytic theory, fearing that it would detract from a necessary emphasis on inner life and the unconscious. Yet
the fact is that not only lived experience, but also cultural material,
infuses our psychic lives, shaping our desires, reframing our fantasies,
and becoming part of preconscious mental content.
As I have suggested elsewhere (Person 2004), we mobilize fantasy narratives that are shaped not just by our earliest longings and
experiences but also by our exposure to fantasy material, whether
fairy tales, books, movies, or what we observe around us. We become
acculturated to the larger world through its cultural myths, just as
earlier in life, we participated in shared fantasies with both our family
and our nursery school friends (pp. 8182).
However, my argument is not simply that we are susceptible to
whatever we hear and that we borrow fantasies at random, but rather
that we are able to bring to consciousness those already existing bits of
unconscious fantasy material or wishes that become conscious when
something in the culture gives us permission to access a wish previously suppressed. Change, in our fantasies as well as in our lives,
depends on the discovery of new possibilities, on the awareness of new
pathways through which to access our deepest wishes and create new
life trajectories.
In recent years, sexual liberation, gay liberation, and the womens
movement significantly contributed to the broader range of desires and
behaviors now judged to be acceptable. All of us are influenced by the
zeitgeist and use what we observe to release preexisting, but subliminal
or preconscious wishes of which we had previously been unaware. The
cultural perspective within psychoanalysis, like psychoanalysis itself, is
impacted by the current state of cultural awareness.
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What of the nature of fantasy itself? Helen Kaplan (1995) observed

that sexual arousal and excitation are most often first mediated through
a mental act, the invocation of sexual fantasies. But fantasies are not
always consciously invoked; they often flit into consciousness stoked
by any number of motives, desires, and internal (psychic) or external
circumstances. In contrast to fantasy, the sexual act itself is dependent
on the friction of particular dermal surfaces. Thus, one might say that
sexuality is compounded of fantasy and friction. Early life fantasies are
recruited to genital excitement so that the conglomerate (or composite)
of the fantasies gratified during sex are not restricted to genital longings alone, but incorporate other longings, desires, wishes, and compensations, among them a feeling of power (Person 1998). Sexual fantasies lend themselves to the symbolic enactment of a variety of object
relationships, whether loving, merging, exploitative or exploited, dominant or submissive, sadistic or masochistic (Person 1980; Mitchell
1988). It is the conglomeration of genital feelings, other body sensations associated with memories, story lines internalized from the culture, reaction formations, emotions, and the longing for sexual gratification that make the subjective sense of desire so compelling (Person
1998, p. 225).
Chasseguet-Smirgel (1995) observed that a number of unconscious fantasies are initially connected with bodily sensations and not
attached to words and visual representations (p. 111). Stoller (1979)
privileged hostility as the motor force of excitement: in the absence of
special physiological factors . . . it is hostilitythe desire, overt or
hidden, to harm another personthat generates and enhances sexual
excitement (p. 6). Kernberg (1991) suggests that polymorphous perverse fantasies, activities, and capabilities are an essential part of
human sexuality at all levels of pathology and normality and implicates
sadomasochism as an essential part of sexual excitement (p. 267).
Right now, two diametrically opposed cultural trends are simultaneously at play in the United States. On the one hand, sexual and
gender liberations of all kinds proceed apace. Consider, for example,
the youthful, self-styled Homo-f lexibles who engage in gender f lipflopping, participating in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships simultaneously and in both dominant and submissive roles (thus
enacting the double meaning of bisexuality). Consider, too, the relatively recent arrival on the scene of she-males (men with breasts) and
clients who seek the services of she-males selling sexual favors. I first
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became aware of she-males when I saw Almodovars film All About

My Mother, in which two such men were depicted as prostitutes,
one self-interested and irresponsible, the other with a heart of gold.
The film depicted a relatively new kind of sexual ambiguity and may
well have released latent fantasies in some viewers of the film, who
were so inclined on a subliminal level. While sex has always served as
a premier stage not only for sexual release and pleasure but also for
the expression of diverse fantasies, impulses, narcissistic gratification,
and acts of transgression, the content is inevitably impacted by the variety of scripts available in the culture. Today our culture seems more
divided in those scripts than it has been since the years prior to the
Stonewall uprising in 1969. At the same time that new sexual (and
gender) enactments are in full display, there exists increasingly burgeoning sexual conservatism, replete with denunciations of homosexuality by a segment of the religious right, mobilized in opposition
to sexual behavior deemed licentious and irreligious. The struggle
between these two groups may well have political ramifications far
beyond anyones views about sexuality. My point here is not political,
but rather to show how our beliefs about healthy and perverse sexuality are connected to our political and religious belief systems.

Freud gave us a basic theory of sexuality, accompanied by a methodology with which to enlarge and modify some of his precepts.
Contemporary contributions address theories of gender; heterosexuality,
homosexuality, and bisexuality; and the spectrum between normal and
perverse. We need to take account both of the f lexibility of gender
and of the looseness of the fit between instinct and object.

A mid-twentieth-century breakthrough was the identification of

gender as a distinct self-identification in and of itself, discrete from
ones sexual self- identification. As Stimpson (in press) puts it, gender
is a master category, an overarching way of organizing reality. . . . Nor
does it work in isolation. It connects to other social structures and
sources of identity. In brief, human beings are gender-bound.
The sexologist Money and his associates derived the distinction
between sex and gender from their primary study of hermaphroditism
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(Money 1956; Money et al. 1955a,b). They demonstrated that the first
and crucial step in gender differentiation is self-designation by the
child as female or male in accordance with sex assignment and rearing.5
Gender differentiation is prephallic, observable by the end of the first
year of life, and generally immutable by the third year.
In order to distinguish between the sex of the genitalia and spontaneous erotic activities, on the one hand, and sex roles and activities that
are culturally and historically prescribed, on the other, Money and his
associates (Money et al. 1955a,b) distinguished between biological sex
and gender. They originated the term core gender role, defined as all
those things that a person says or does to disclose himself as having
the status of a boy or man, girl or woman, respectively, including, but not
restricted to sexuality in the sense of eroticism (1955a, pp. 301302).
While the term gender role was intended to be all-inclusive, it drew
criticism because of a distinction between what a person knows and
feels about him- or herself and what an outside observer perceives. In
response, Money suggested two terms, gender role and gender identity:
Gender identity is the private experience of gender role, and gender
role is the public expression of gender identity (Money 1973, p. 397).
Stoller sharpened the distinction between femaleness and maleness
(sex) and femininity and masculinity (gender) when he originated the
term core gender identity, meaning self-identification as female or
male.6 Gender plays an organizing role in psychic structure much like
other modalities of cognition such as self-object differentiation, space,
time, and causation. Why core gender is of such crucial importance in
organizing personality and why there are only two gender possibilities
were long considered open questions. But Freud was prescient in sensing the limitations to theorizing two genders, as his acknowledgment
of bisexuality demonstrates. Our knowledge of transvestites and transsexuals demonstrates that internalized identifications may be split or
contrary to anatomical markers.
Even so, core gender generally orders sexuality.7 It is usually (but
not invariably) irreversible by eighteen months, and generally complete
There are exceptions in which sex assignment fails to establish the appropriate gender identity for the child.
Ovesey and I altered the term gender role to gender role identity to make
it parallel with core gender identity, thus wearing on its face the fact that gender
role, too, is a form of self- identification (Ovesey and Person 1973).
For example, genetic males misdiagnosed as females and reared as female
most often (though not inevitably) grow up dreaming the dreams of women.

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by about four and a half years of age. Gender self-identif ication

launches the individual into a particular psychosexual pathway; it is
decisive for the shape of the oedipal conf iguration, which is a crucial event in acculturation. In addition, socialization into passivity or
activity, subordination or autonomy, is decisive for the way sexuality
(or sensuality) is experienced and for the fantasies that attach to it.
Gender training, not just the previous record of sexual experience,
molds sexuality. Masculinity and femininity are parallel constructs
(Person and Ovesey 1983). There is no evidence that the original (or
natural) gender state is either masculine, as proposed by Freud, or feminine, as suggested by Stoller. Whether masculinity and femininity are
innate, as proposed by Horney and Jones, is an open question. But
by and large, core gender identity arises from the sex of assignment. By
contrast, gender role identity is a psychological achievement and frequently encompasses psychological conflict (Person and Ovesey 1983).
Early object relations, different in the two sexes, decisively influence certain attributes of femininity and masculinity. They are operative in gender assignment and in child rearing practices. They are
operative also in those oedipal identif ications and fantasies that
emerge as soon as the infant or young child begins to differentiate itself
from the parent. It would seem that gender precedes sexuality in development and organizes sexuality, rather than the reverse (Person 1980).8
But as with all generalities about sex and gender, there are exceptions.
So, for example, masculinity can coexist with the object choice of a
male, and so on.
Heterosexuality, Homosexuality, Bisexuality

For a long time, psychoanalytic as well as general opinion held that

sexual object choice and gender identity automatically go together.
The consensus was that each person [has] one sex, one sexuality, and
one gender, congruent with each other and fixed for life, and . . . [that]
these categories [comprise] only two sexes, two sexualities, and two
genders (Lorman 1994, p. 96). But the consensus was wrong.
The idea of such congruency should have been suspect from the
time it was proposed. Homosexuality challenged any such formulation
In cases of ambiguous gender, a child may be assigned the gender corresponding to the appearance of the genitals, not to the chromosomal sex. While the
child generally grows up in the sex of assignment, there are cases where this is
not the case, demonstrating the impossibility of making absolutist statements about
sex and gender.

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insofar as not all gay men are feminine, nor all lesbians masculine.
Nor, of course, are all heterosexual men masculine and all heterosexual women feminine. However, these exceptions to the dominant
mind-set were not noted; instead, it was reasoned that a gay mans
object choice demonstrated his femininity, a lesbians her masculinity, and so ona bit of circular thinking that gave priority to
sexual object choice in defining gender role identity.
This thinking has been effectively revised in recent years. Observations on the interrelation of biological sex, sexual orientation, and
gender identity in a group of intersexed patients demonstrate that sex
and gender are separate, though sometimes intersecting, developmental pathways, more subject to change over time than was previously thought. However, even when we acknowledge the complexity
of the interrelation between sex and gender, the argument for essentially unlimited fluidity over the life cycle is exaggerated. Chodorow
(1994) points out that any heterosexuality [like any homosexuality]
is a developmental outcome [that] results from fantasy, conf lict,
defenses, regression, making and breaking relationships internally
and externally, and trying to constitute a stable self and maintain selfesteem (p. 294).
Traditionally, psychoanalysts had regarded homosexuality as a
distortion of the normal drive to be heterosexual. However, Freud
was always of two minds. He viewed everyone as bisexual in the
beginning of life. In a footnote in 1920, he described a lesbian patient
as in no way neurotic (p. 158, n. 2). He wrote to an American mother
about her gay son that homosexuals were no more or less ill than
anyone else and pointed out that they had vastly contributed to the
civilization. Yet it was only in 1973 that the American Psychiatric
Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual, and homosexuality come to be understood as a
natural variant.
Authentic bisexuals appear to constitute a signif icant minority.
Most bisexual men have been aware of their dual dispositions from
early in life, as have many female bisexuals. But among women,
some conver t from heterosexuality to homosexuality in midlife, with no previous awareness of any dual attraction (Person
1998, pp. 226227). Moreover, bisexuality can be viewed in two
ways, either as a sexual interest in both sexes or as a sense of being
both male and female.
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The Spectrum between Normal and Perverse


As I have noted, Freuds comprehensive theory of sexuality began

with a study of perversions. In Three Essays, he characterized infantile
sexuality as polymorphous perverse in that much of the sexual excitement originates in extragenital stimulation and not from genital stimulation alone. The resemblances between perversions in adults, where
nongenital erotic currents often prevail, and the polymorphous perverse sexuality of children led Freud to view adult perversion as the
direct expression of unrepressed partial sexual aims of childhood.
Neuroses, by contrast, were understood as the symptomatic (disguised)
expressions of fixated partial sexual aims that have been repressed
and defended againsthence, the Freudian dictum, neuroses are the
negative of perversions. We now know that homosexuals, like heterosexuals, may or may not be perverse.
The purpose of any perversion is to facilitate orgasmic discharge,
and in many instances the perversion is a prerequisite for any discharge
to take place. The conclusion became inescapable that a perversion
in some way alleviates an anxiety that inhibits orgasm. Consequently,
although the Freudian dictum that neuroses are the negative of perversions was retained as part of libido theory, its theoretical meaning was considerably modified. Both neuroses and perversions came
to be viewed as the result of conflict inherent in sexual development,
in males most frequently as the result of castration anxiety embedded
in the oedipal struggle. In the male, enactment of the perversion is
believed to circumvent castration anxiety and thereby permit orgasmic
release. Sadomasochistic practices are common in both sexes and
seem to have as much to do with issues of powersubmission and
dominationas with sex. Power issues are almost inevitably incorporated into the sexual actwho initiates, who is top and who is bottom,
who sets the limits or stretches the boundaries.

Any viable theory of sex and gender must encompass early life experiences or lack thereof (including feelings experienced in the sexual
organs), object relations as the internalization of early life relationships, the role of cultural beliefs and injunctions, and the disconnect
that can occur between sex and gender. In theorizing the development
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of sexuality, it is necessary to invoke a theoretical amalgam between

drive theory and object relations theory, and to incorporate considerations of desire, gender, sexual object choice, and perversion. What is
mandated is a shift away from any theory that posits development as the
outcome of libido alone. To put it simply, mental processes cannot be
reduced to biology.
Within psychoanalysis in the United States, contemporary reformulations of sex and gender were first prompted by the new insights
emerging from gay liberation and the womens movement. Essentially,
changes in the culture provided new data that demanded reconceptualizations of sex and gender. This sequence makes transparent the need
to incorporate the cultural zeitgeist in our understanding of the organization of the psyche.
Freud was limited by his assumption that what he observed of
the two sexes was inherent to their nature, and was not in large part
cultural. As Schafer (1974) suggested, misogyny entered into Freuds
psychology of women by virtue of the fact that he chose to adhere
to a biological evolutionary perspective . . . (p. 468).
Freud had relied on a biopsychological translation that defined
masculine libido as active and pleasure-seeking (in both men and
women) and feminine libido as passive and closely related to anxiety
(in both men and women). But in Freuds emphasis on the role of bisexuality, it became intuitively obvious that the formulation of the
origins of masculinity and femininity as he originally posited them
could not be the whole story.
Despite these caveats, Freuds achievements in Three Essays
are staggering. In fact, it would be true to say with Davidson (1987)
that the essence of Freuds endeavor in that work is to deconstruct
the biological evolutionary schema into its component parts, each of
which is to be animated by its own instinctual energy in order to show
how a different analysis of these components can provide a psychobiological scaffolding for the development of perversions in the adult.
A deconstructed schema is necessary to account for the kind of
cultural expressions of sexuality and the expanded range of sexual
identities and sexual fantasies such as we have witnessed in the last
several decades.
In theorizing bisexuality, Freud provided a template for theorizing some of the conjunctions and dysjunctions we see in gender and
sex. While Freud proposed that masculinity is tied to assertiveness,
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femininity to passivity, he left enough roomthrough the observation/theory of bisexualityto address a variety of disparate adaptations. Thus, a masculine-appearing woman may be completely heterosexual, just as an effeminate man may be heterosexual. Bisexuality
appears to be a universal possibility, the expression of which is as
much tied to personal experiences and cultural constructs as to biological givens. As I have noted, contemporary theorists have raised
the question as to whether bisexuality consists of attraction to both
sexes or to a sense of experiencing oneself as both male and female.
Freuds observation on the way the feelings attached to sexuality
infuse mental life cannot be altogether usurped by object relations
theory. It may be more productive to view sexuality and object relationships as intertwined from earliest life, and to acknowledge the
importance of sensuality as intrinsic to sexual life and both sensuality
and sexuality as critical in the development of object relations. Such a
perspective need not be dependent on libido theory, but must acknowledge the importance of drives or some biological thrust (that is, some
innate components) and their development in early life. Essentially,
Three Essays traces developmental protomental origins (Michels
1999, p. 190). Its major contribution is that it proposes a unified theory
of mind.
Freuds breakthroughs in understanding the nature of sexuality and
its intrinsic relation to psychic life constitute an extraordinary achievement. What prevented Freud from going even further in his studies of
sex and the mind was his essentially ahistorical analysis, which set
limits to his understanding of a number of subjects, chief among them
the psychology of women. Paradoxically, even though Freud drew
heavily on Darwin, he seemed relatively unaware that his own culture
was but one variation in the cultural evolution of the human species
this despite the fact that he must have known something of the sexual
variations expressed in Weimar Germany.
Nonetheless, we should take heed of Freuds ability to make use
of data from dif ferent sources and acknowledge the usefulness of
an interdisciplinary approach in addressing a variety of psychoanalytic questions. Data from any one time frame can never answer all
our questions about sex and gender. In fact, the wide cultural swings
in what is allowed and what is prohibited in various cultures may be
fueled by the fear of unbridled sexuality on the one hand, or the resentment of a too puritanical mind-set, on the other.
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To the degree that we have in the past taken the wrong turn in some
of our appraisalsfor example, in our failure to recognize homosexuality as a natural variant and in our corollary proposition that it
could and should be cured, and in our low expectations of the female
potential for achievementI would argue that our theories were based
on too little evidence, a little like to trying to write the history of
England through reading Victorian novels. It took gay liberation and
the womans movement to provide the wake-up call.
Freuds studies on sexuality were interdisciplinary at the inception,
and they should remain so. Few of us can push aside the values of
the culture at any given moment. (I by no means consider myself
immune from that failing.) But we would do well to follow Freuds
example and supplement the crucial information we glean from the
couch with information garnered from the street, as well as from
dif ferent historical epochs, different cultures, and other academic and
scientific disciplines, information that is relevant to fine-tuning our
observations and ever changing theories.

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135 Central Park West, Suite 11S
New York, NY 10023
Fax: 2124969593
E-mail: espersonny@aol.com


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