Why Are We STILL Talking About Freud?

By Kate Ringer

Freud. Even if you have never taken a Psychology class, you’ve probably heard of him. His psychoanalytic theory is one of the most pervasive psychological theories Freudin Western culture, but there’s a catch: we don’t know if any of it is true. Freud’s concepts of the unconscious, the Oedipus Complex, libido, and sexual repression are ideas that the masses have accepted as fact even though none of it can be proven scientifically. However, Freud is still one of the most talked about psychologists, even in an educational setting. Educators will claim that they teach Freud to give a historical basis to their psychology classes, but oftentimes there is little distinction between what is fact and what is fiction. This leads to a whole new generation thinking that Freud’s concepts are legitimate, even though these ideas have been contested by scientists for almost a century.

Why should you care? I mean, there’s plenty of misinformation in the world, but I decided to single Freud out because his concepts are extremely sexist. Let’s debunk some Freudian Myths. 

The Female Orgasm

Freud wasn’t all bad. He started conducting “research” shortly after the end of the Victorian Era, a time of extreme sexual repression (Kellogg invented corn flakes to curb masturbation during this time, just to give you an idea).  He started the conversation about sex despite it being such a taboo subject. But, as part of this sexual revolution of sorts Freud began to perpetuate a myth of two different kinds of female orgasms: a more masculine clitoral orgasm and a more womanly and powerful vaginal orgasm. For many sexual partners, this myth raises a lot of questions. The majority of women who have orgasms exclusively have orgasms through clitoral stimulation. But, because of Freud, they believe that when they are having sexual intercourse with their partners, they should be achieving an orgasm through penetration alone. Not only that, but they believe that if they were able to achieve a vaginal orgasm, it would be better than the clitoral orgasms they have experienced in the past. This can lead to a lot of frustration for women and their partners, and it is completely unfounded. Modern research has led to the understanding that all female orgasms are clitoral orgasms, even if they are achieved through penetration, due to the dispersed nerve endings of the clitoris throughout the vulva.

There are a few reasons why Freud’s myth about the female orgasm really ticks me off. First of all, it makes women feel like the orgasms they are having aren’t good enough. There’s already enough shame surrounding a female and her sexuality without this concept of a superior orgasm. Second of all, it implies that a biological female needs some type of penetration or phallus in order to achieve mature sexual pleasure. Again, there’s already enough misinformation and shame surrounding the female sexuality and masturbation; in my ideal world a woman should be able to masturbate without having to wonder if she is missing out on something.

The Electra Complex

According to Psychoanalytic theory, there are five stages of development, each characterized by an erogenous zone: the oral stage, anal stage, phallic stage, latency stage, and genital stage. As a child develops, they put all of their libido, or sexual energy, into one erogenous zone, and this greatly affects their behavior. Although there is so much that is wrong with this theory of development, I’m going to focus on the phallic stage.

In this stage, when a boy is around the age of five or six, he begins to take notice of his penis. He becomes obsessed with masturbating and hates his father, as he sees him as a rival for his mother’s affections. This phenomenon is known as an Oedipus Complex. Eventually, the boy will become afraid that his father will castrate him, and the anxiety is so intense that he weens his affections off of his mother and begins to identify more with his father. For a girl, the phallic stage is a little more complicated. Around the same age, a girl will realize that she doesn’t have a penis and begin to feel penis envy. To substitute for the impossibility of obtaining a penis, a girl will begin to desire her father, and wish to become impregnated by him. This is known as the Electra Complex. Freud theorizes that a young girl can never fully recover from this stage and is slightly less mature for the rest of her life.

There are many reasons to be discouraged by this theory, but the main one is simple. Even with the title of this stage (phallic), Freud views all female experiences through a masculine lens. Many feminists critique this theory because he implies that a woman will feel incomplete if she doesn’t have a penis. Not only that, but Freud views development through a lens that is completely gender-binary. What does the development process look like to a transgender woman? Or to someone who is intersex? These are perspectives that still aren’t researched enough today, but Freud’s generalizations make his theory obsolete in the modern age. We now know a lot more about how psychological research should be conducted, and how diverse human sexuality actually is. 

These are just a few reasons why Freud’s ideas are harmful to our culture, especially to women. We need to debunk Freud’s myths by teaching him through a completely historical perspective, not a scientific one.

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One thought on “Why Are We STILL Talking About Freud?

  1. In part, as not only a faculty member who teaches critical theory but also as a member of the Women’s Center Advocacy Council and as a faculty member of the Women’s Studies minor, I want first to appreciate Kate Ringer’s well-considered/expressed significant concerns about some aspects of Freud’s theories and his legacy. I’m not sure if many faculty who may teach Freud, still present his theories in an unquestioning way, whether ‘historical’ or ’scientific.’ I do think that there remains much value in studying and reading Freud, and particularly there is value in his ‘legacy’ and influence, especially in matters of how as Michael Roth emphasizes, it is likely to be worthwhile to continue to try to ponder the ways in which unconscious desires and motivations/interests and the problems and necessity of repression structure our lives and our interpretive habits. And I would add that even the Oedipus complex—the ways in which we develop and find bases for identification in relation to models of authority, including patriarchal authority, continue to structure our identities in profound, intimate ways. Many theorists, including feminists/philosophers, along with critiques of Freud’s assumptions, as Kate points out, also continue in their writings to drawn upon such ways of “Freudian-influenced’ thinking and analysis in trying to determine how we become ‘gendered’ and the limits of such categories. Thanks for the provocative blog post, Kate.
    Here’s a weblink (https://shar.es/1r4f5o) to a bit more on Freud, via Roth (on The Chronicle of Higher Education). As Michael Roth writes, about Freud’s legacy and why he still ‘haunts us’: “No matter how much we question, we will never get to the bottom of our own motivations, let alone those of other people. Something will always remain repressed. Sigmund became a Freudian when he created the model of an interpreter who showed how our actions and words indirectly expressed conflicts of desire of which we were unaware. The conflicts among our desires never disappeared; they became the fuel of our histories. Making sense of those conflicts, understanding our desires, he thought, gave us an opportunity to give our stories—our histories—meaning.” https://shar.es/1r4f5o
    -Stephan Flores, UI Department of English

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