Phallic fear, not penis envy

Psychosexual development – as proposed by Freud – describes the development of an instinctual libido, or sexual energy, in five stages. Each stage is characterized by a distinct fixation of the libido on different areas of the body. Each of the psychosexual stages is associated with a particular conflict that must be resolved before the individual can successfully advance to the next stage.

In the phallic stage, the third stage of development, the fixation of the libido centers around the genitals. The child discovers that the genitals are a source of pleasure. Furthermore, the child becomes aware of anatomical sex differences, which sets in motion erotic attraction, jealousy and rivalry. Freud has called this the Oedipus complex.

The Oedipus complex – or conflict – arises when the boy develops sexual desires for his mother. Consequently, the boy wishes to rid himself of his father in the hopes of gaining exclusive sexual possession of his mother. However, the boy will come to learn (and eventually accept) that his competition with father, the strong and powerful figure that he is, can never be won. 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. Irrationally, the boy believes that if his father were to find out any of this, he would take away what he loves most – his penis. Freud called this ‘castration anxiety’.

The Oedipus conflict is resolved through the process of identification, which involves the child adopting the characteristics of the same sex parent. The consequence of this is that the boy takes on the male gender role, and adopts an ego ideal and values that become the superego.

For girls, this whole process is somewhat different. Briefly, the girl desires the father, but realizes that she does not have a penis. This leads to the development of a so called ‘penis envy’. The girl would blame her mother for her ‘castrated state’, giving rise to feelings of anger and hatred. The girl would then repress her feelings – in order to remove her state of anger – and identify with the mother so as to take on the female gender role. But since the girl experiences feelings of anger instead of fear, the identification process is different from boys, making them – at least according to Freud – inherently morally inferior.

When I first studied Freud, I remember my initial feeling when Freud claimed women to be morally inferior. I always knew that feminists were among Freud’s harshest critics, and I immediately understood why. I myself could never come to accept Freud’s vision about female psychosexual development. I always thought it more plausible that men and women would fundamentally experience the same psychosexual development, given my personal conviction that both sexes – despite anatomical differences
– are inherently the same.

If Freud is correct about the development of the superego of boys – through the identification process after ‘castration anxiety’ – I would argue that girls experience something similar, something other than what Freud has described. If we assume that psychosexual development is the same for boys and girls, the girl would not develop a ‘penis envy’. The girl would develop precisely the opposite.

I would call this a ‘phallic fear’. After all, the whole reason why the boy develops a ‘castration anxiety’, is because the loss of the penis represents the loss of the potential sexual possession of the mother. For girls, this idea is perfectly reversible. Since girls develop a sexual attraction towards the father, they will mirror themselves to their mother – the one who is in sexual possession of their object of desire. The most important reason why mother is in a position where she can sexually possess the father, is precisely because she lacks a penis. I never understood why girls would be envious of a penis, when they require anything but the male genitals in their quest to sexually possess father. If anything, girls should fear the possession of a penis, because such a thing make their quest to sexually possess father utterly impossible.

Since a ‘phallic fear’ would cause the girl to experience feelings of anxiety instead of rage, the identification process is completely parallel to that of boys. Consequently, girls would then develop a superego and defy Freud’s (dare I say hideous?) claim of being morally inferior.

Note: the notion of a ‘phallic fear’ is somewhat supported by the next stage in psychosexual development: the latency stage. This stage isn’t associated with many sexual conflicts and children will develop a sort of ‘distaste’ for the opposite sex. This is something Freud’s theory doesn’t seem to explain. I can understand why boys would ‘dislike’ girls at that age. Girls represent the ‘lack of a penis’ – something that reminds them of their castration anxiety. But how does that work for girls? Why would girls suddenly ‘dislike’ boys – boys in possession of a penis, mind you – when girls experienced precisely that: a ‘penis envy’? My postulation, namely the existence of a ‘phallic fear’ instead of a ‘penis envy’, would properly explain why that is.

Auteur: S. E. George

Steven Joris

Steven Joris is klinisch psycholoog (erkenningsnummer 901118073) en onderzoeker. Steven is werkzaam binnen het Psychodiagnostisch Centrum (Thomas More Antwerpen) en is tevens werkzaam als psychodiagnosticus op zelfstandige basis.

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