So Ancient, It is Modern: Freud’s Approach to Sexuality

Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) begins his famous, breakthrough work on sexuality – his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality[1] – by making a reference to Plato’s (385 – 370 BCE)


Painting By Anselm Feuerback – The Symposium – actually a bunch of Athenians in ancient Greece getting drunk and telling stories about love

celebrated dialogue “The Symposium” (369 BCE) in which Socrates and a group of famous Athenians get roaring drunk and tell stories about love.

In one of the stories by Aristophanes, the comedian, the origin of love is supposed to have been a punishment by the Gods. The original human being was a spherical entity with four arms and four legs and two heads. Also of note was that they had two sets of genitals and other parts – a hermaphrodite. Its form of locomotion was that it rolled around, backward and forward. Quite a comical picture. Due to a sin of pride, the Gods punished these humans by dividing them into two – which results in the male and female human beings as we know them today. The two halves are incomplete; and each wants to be reunited with the other half. Hence, the current situation of humanity and with people running around attempting to get a date with that “special someone.”

Many definitions of love are proposed in the Symposium, including one that anticipates Agape, the love of Saint Paul, proposed some 400 years later. However, what is not often acknowledged is that this comic tale by Aristophanes is the only story of the seven stories in the Symposium told that is about heterosexual love. All the examples, except the one exception of the hermaphroditic spherical creature, are about the love of beautify young men (boys), homoerotic love. The examples are all without exception about men attracted to young men or other men. From our day and age what is not appreciated is that physical intimacy between men and boys was part of the process of education whereby the younger less experienced individual was brought to adulthood in a culture in which women were in charge of the household and reproductive activities to furnish the community with babies. Without wishing to excuse the many injustices in 4th century BC Athens whereby children, women, and slaves were treated as chattel – that is, property – the point is to create a context for an empowering conversation about Freud’s Three Essays on a Theory of Sexuality.

Freud argues against the conventional wisdom of his time (and to a lesser extent ours) that sex is a unified, coherent instinct or drive. He argues against the idea that prior to puberty individuals are basically without sexual drive or interest. The key point on which this argument turns and which is responsible for the surprising results that shocked Freud’s contemporaries is the distinction between the sexual drive (or instinct (“Trieb”)), which always aims at satisfaction, and the sexual object, which is highly variable. We shall have to work with this; but, as noted, basically the drive or instinct aims at satisfaction. The sexual object is highly variable and different objects are relatively readily substitutable for one another. The substitutions are where things really get interesting. The substitution of one sexual object for another accounts for the variety of what Freud describe as inversions and perversions in which non-standard objects such as erogenous zones, fetishes, or one’s own genitals are substituted for the sex organs of the opposite sex as the targets of the sexual drive.

If standard sex is regarded as a unified, coherent, drive, then those individuals who display non-standard sexuality – gays, lesbians, heterosexual individuals that prefer oral or anal – are considered abnormal. For example, Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840 – 1902) collected literally hundreds examples of non standard sexual behavior in his Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). His work was a “hit” and went through numerous editions, provoking a deep interest in sex among the public and using the terms “sadism” and “masochism” for the first time in print. However, nearly everyone of the non-standard forms of sexuality – perversions – had to be regarded as pathological precisely because normal sexuality does not include a logical space for components or variable sex objects. However, once the sex drive allows for variable objects according to diverse erogenous zones – oral, anal, phallic genital – then such variations fall on a continuum that includes standard sexuality. Yes, all of these diverse forms of sexuality exist, but they vary in terms of their object, not in terms of the underlying aim, which remains sexual satisfaction. By the way, this also gives the lie to the assertion that scientists were not interested in sex until Freud arrived on the scene. They were extremely interested; but they published the “good parts” in Latin or in specialized journals to which access was restricted, given the explosive and dangerous nature to the community of sexuality, protecting the delicate sensibilities of the common folk.

This leads immediately to one of Freud’s first innovations and most dramatic results. Bisexuality is not the exception, but the common condition of most human beings. Freud’s gets around to surfacing and discussing bisexuality about eight pages into the first essay. Instead of an absolute distinction between male and female, Freud argues for a continuum between male and female with a mixture of male and female aspects supporting the bisexuality of people. As further evidence of this, Freud cites the facts of those individuals born with external sex organs that are ambiguous as to their gender – biological, physical hermaphroditism – now called intersex. This is a separate discussion in itself, but is apparently a more common condition – one in a hundred live births – than is recognized even today (e.g., see ). However, Freud immediately notes that physical hermaphroditism does NOT line up or correlate with psychical hermaphroditism. Thus, one reportedly gay spokesman is quoted by Freud as speaking of “a feminine brain in a masculine body” (SE 7: 142), which is the politically correct description today of a transgender person, except that we would speak about genetic determination. Freud describes men who are comfortable with their masculinity but just are attracted to other men. Freud describes men who want to make themselves attractive to other men by emphasizing their own bisexual – in this case, feminine – traits.

One update to Freud. Today we know about congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) that results in higher-than-normal levels of androgens. Androgens are a group of hormones sometimes called masculinizing hormones. These promote the development of sex differentiated tissues (e.g., genital tissue, breast tissue, brain tissue) in a male-typical direction during sex development, even if one has ovaries (see Dreger 2015: 192). This results in what might be described as “boyish” girls – girls who resemble pretty boys. It also results in a fetus born with masculinized external sex organs and is the most common cause of congenital ambiguous genitals in genetic females. This was not a debate that Freud had to wage – whether to intervene surgically or with prenatal drugs, etc. – though Freud provides a foundation for understanding the debate with his approach to bisexuality.

To cut to the chase, Freud uses the term “perversion” as a technical term for any sexual object other than the genitals of the opposite sex. He provides two example of perversion that resonate across the many years and which we today would endorse as unambiguous examples of perversions, namely, sex with animals and sex with children of tender age. Here there does seem to be something pathological, if not criminal. However, in other cases of consenting adults Freud states “how inappropriate it is to use the word perversion as a term of reproach” (SE 7: 160). Freud provides examples of such flexibility in the aim of sexual satisfaction in normal life. While Freud is not explicit in this passage, obvious examples to which he refers in other writings(e.g., Dora, the Rat Man) include masturbation, oral sex, and anal sex.

Freud is explicit that individuals whose sexual object is a member of the same sex and not the standard one of a member of the opposite sex are NOT degenerate, and not insane. Such consenting adults are not even neurotic in the strict Freudian sense of a compromise formation that symbolizes a conflict between a sexual drive and the judgment of the conscience of superego that rejects (and represses (once again, a technical term)) the objectionable impulse. Indeed while the choice of sex object and aim is not the standard one, this collection of individuals is quite sound and even talented in their chosen professional fields, which tend to be artistic, innovative and unconventional. However, Freud is at some pains to distinguish and decouple the sexual drive itself from its object. The drive (or instinct) is constant but the object is highly variable.

In a 1910 footnote (SE 7: 149) Freud uses this distinct to account for the Athenian system of making beautiful young men (boys) the object of their sexual aim. Significant work gets done in the lengthy footnotes in this essay, and Freud makes the point that a process called sublimation – which is published for the first time in this essay – changes the aim of the sex drive and not just its object. Whereas the sex drive aims at sexual satisfaction (e.g., orgasm), the sublimated sex drive is no longer sexual stimulation (Reiz) but takes as its aim an idealized satisfaction, the enjoyment of the charm (Reiz) of beautiful art. Note: the term “inversion” is borrowed by Freud from Havelock Ellis, (1897/1915) Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Vol. II: Sexual Inversion, 3rd ed., Philadelphia, (1st Engl. ed., London, 1897): 140, 142. While “inversion” is perhaps superior to “perversion,” which Freud also uses as a catch all for non-standard sex such as having sex with animals, reserving “inversion” for homo-eroticism such as gay and lesbian objet choices, “inversion” did not gain currency and today “perversion” has a devaluing connotation, which was not part of Freud’s intended use.

Not to be overlooked, Freud performs a masterful intellectual Tai Chi movement to dodge the “innate acquired” debate, citing evidence that some men that we would today describe as “gay” – and that Freud describes as “inverts” (not “perverts”!). Instead Freud endorses a non-trivial dynamic relationship between inborn bisexuality and the influence of experience. There are some gay and lesbian individuals (I use the current terms, Freud would have said “inverts,” a terminology that did not catch on and sounds strange to our ears today) that no amount of experience or trauma would cause to stray from their preferred object choice. But object choice is the most flexible and easily changed aspect of sexuality. The aim is always the same – sexual satisfaction, satisfaction, satisfaction! But up to a certain point and given a suitably flexible conscience, the object is readily substitutable. This leads naturally to a consideration of the fetish and fetishism.

The term itself comes from 19th Century anthropology, referring to a small carved stone animal believed to have magical powers. Given the flexibility of the sexual object, the target of the sexual aim, the fetish is the substitution of a part for the whole. The foot or an article of clothing is substituted for the person who is the target of the sexual desire.

Other perversions that require treatment include the sadomasochistic and voyeur-exhibitionist dyads. Freud claims that psychoanalytic investigations demonstrate that in their heart of hearts sadists are really masochists and exhibitionists are voyeurs (and vice versa). These stand in a compensatory relationship. So if one is aware of one’s sadism, one will unconsciously be a masochist. If one is aware of one’s exhibitionism, then one will be unaware of one’s voyeurism. If one is aware of neither, then one’s acting out – whether as a voyeur or as someone who prefers “rough sex” – will indicate that one is unconscious of one’s exhibitionism or masochism. This will come out in one’s dreams, slips, and symptoms.

Freud gets around to discussing foreplay of which he appreciates and approves the role:

“TOUCHING AND LOOKING A certain amount of touching is indispensable (at all events among human beings) before the normal sexual aim can be attained. And everyone knows what a source of pleasure on the one hand and what an influx of fresh excitation on the other is afforded by tactile sensations of the skin of the sexual object. So that lingering over the stage of touching can scarcely be counted a perversion, provided that in the long run the sexual act is carried further” (SE 7: 156).

So Freud understands foreplay and how important (and fun) it is. His limitation – if one wants to call it that – is his commitment to reproductive sexuality. That is the Gold Standard of sexual behavior – propagating the species. To be sure, we must also let our historic empathy be informed by the vast differences between our own situation and the historical Vienna of 1905. Freud’s was a world prior to the birth control pill or readily available abortion, so woman’s reproductive freedom of choice was problematic. It was a world prior to penicillin, so venereal disease was basically incurable, or, more precisely, the “cures” by means of poisons such as arsenic or mercury were near trade-offs that were as bad as the disease itself. True, Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of disease and vaccination (1885) were abroad in the land; but adoption was inconsistent, and, anyway, the ideas were French. Infant mortality was significant and childbirth remained risky undertakings for both the child and the mother. The society was paternalistic in the extreme and women were not permitted to study at the university level and had few forms to contribute to the community other than primary school education and raising families. Some of the best and brightest found their opportunities for self-expression so appallingly oppressed that their bodies and unconscious minds fought back in the only way they could – they collapsed with epileptic-like symptoms or took to their beds with a variety of painful complaints in a fraught attempt to win back a measure of power over their lives. Such cases came to Freud but the happenings were different than taking as an intimate partner a member of the same gender, which Freud did not regard as anything that was “pathological” or in need of a “cure” by psychoanalysis. However, such matters became of interest to psychoanalysis when the individual wanting to relate sexually to a member of the same sex but the individual was so rigorous in his or her adherence to the community’s heterosexual, Victorian norms that the individual did not even dare admit such an impulse to her- or himself. That is when symptoms and suffering suffering can erupt.

This brings us back to the issue. If perversion is not to be a devaluing term but one that technically means distinguishing the sexual aim of satisfaction from the sexual object, when does a perversion become pathological? We would tend that having sex with a dead body is not wholesome or healthy. It is not only perverse but pathological. Though Freud would agree, even here he insists that the heart of the matter is not so much the aim of the sexual drive, which is unremittingly driven in the direction of sexual satisfaction, but the highly variable object. What makes the perversion pathological is the exclusivity and fixation (SE 7: 161). If the only way that the individual can attain sexual satisfaction is through arousal with the beloved’s foot or shoe, on which the individual is fixated to the exclusion of other forms of arousal, then that is technically speaking pathological – and a symptom of a disorder.

At this point, Freud establishes the relationship between perversion and neurosis. Examples of neuroses include hysteria, obsessive neurosis, and, in this passage, Freud throws dementia praecox and paranoia into the mix (SE 7: 163). Freud strikes “neurasthenia” – weak nerves – from the list without further explanation. At this point, Freud provides a short account of the emergence of the neurotic symptoms of hysteria. The sex drives provides the energy for neurosis. The sex drive is unable to find expression in the hysteric individual due to what we would today call psychosocial factors such as certain forms of strict parenting, leading to a scrupulous conscience, lack of sex education, and a predisposition to translate stress into physical, bodily symptoms. The drive is unable to be expressed and being objectionable is actively repressed (another technical term meaning, among other things, deleted from consciousness). The drive regresses back to a point of fixation, based on individual experience, acquired during feeding, toilet training, sex play with siblings, or other stimulating (or event traumatic) episode. In the case of hysteria, the emotional energy is converted into a physical symbol from which the individual suffers. So, for example, the grande mal seizures from which some hysterics suffered were dramatic reenactments of child birth or sexual intercourse. The paralysis of the leg of Elizabeth R represented her conflict between her desire to marry her late sister’s husband (her brother in law) and the guilt over wanting to do away with her beloved sister, rendering her unable to move forward in life as represented by the paralyzed leg. The treatment envisioned by psychoanalysis was supposed to make the individual aware of the hidden emotional conflict by a process of free association, enabling the unconscious ideas to be dealt with in a responsible, grown up manner. Freud further alludes to the secondary gain from the illness as when a person escapes into illness rather than develop sexually in marriage and deal with all the responsibilities and obligations thereby implied.

What then is the relationship between perversion and neurosis? Freud states that neurosis is the “negative of perversion” (SE 7: 165). It is an over-simplification (but a useful one) to assert: If the would be pervert had the assertiveness to engage in her or his unconventional sex act of choice such as oral or anal sex or masturbation or sex with a member of the same gender, then she or he would not fall ill with a neurosis. But the individual’s conscience is too strong or scrupulous. Since the sex drive will be expressed and will come out in spite of being held back – technically, repressed – then individual’s body “symbols forth” the desire in a symptom which is otherwise not a function of an anatomical lesion and may therefore seem incomprehensible. Now this does not necessarily imply that the way to emotional (mental) health is to give into or indulge any arbitrary nonstandard sexual inclinations that one may have. Rather it implies a level of self-understanding and awareness about the strictness of one’s conscience and the power of one’s sex drives.

Freud concludes the first essay by asserting that instinct is one that lies on the boundary between the mental and the physical. Whatever may be the underlying physiology, by the time the instinct is represented in consciousness, it has fragmented into diverse erotic zones corresponding to the various organs – oral, anal, phallic, genital. Stimulation of the mucous membranes – for example, in kissing – remains a source of sexual arousal and foreplay. Also on the list, though not systematically integrated are the skin, which arguably is one giant erotic zone, and the eye, which is a source of erotic stimulation in looking for the missing penis. By the time one has reached mature adult sexuality these different erotic zones have been subordinated to the goal of reproductive sexuality. But this subordination is a tenuous one. That is evident in the importance of foreplay and the variety of sexual pleasures to be derived in the uninhibited exploration of the erotic zones by consenting adult partners. Freud emphasizes that, though admitting some conditions and qualifications, there is nothing pathological unless the sexual act in question is the only exclusive and fixed way that the individual can obtain satisfaction (or it would be harmful for other reasons – such as child abuse). In short, we are all perverts now.


Dreger, Alice. (2015). Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science. New York: Penguin Press.

Freud, S. (1905). Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 7 (1901-1905): A Case of Hysteria, Three Essays on Sexuality and Other Works: 123-246)).

Krafft-Ebing, Richard von. (1886) Psychopathia Sexualis cited in Ellenberger, Henri, (1970), The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic Books: 297 – 299.

Plato. (369 BCE). “The Symposium” cited in Plato, Plato: The Collected Dialogues, Princeton: Princeton University Press (Bollingen Series): 526 – 574.


[1] Freud, S. (1905). Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 7 (1901-1905): A Case of Hysteria, Three Essays on Sexuality and Other Works: 123-246)).

Written By Lou Agosta

So Ancient, It is Modern: Freud’s Approach to Sexuality was originally published @ Listening With Empathy and has been syndicated with permission.

Photo by kyz


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