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Freud Was a Sexist Jerk (But We Love Him!)


Sigmund Freud changed the way that the mind was understood. He developed a view of human nature and personality development which was essentially deterministic. He outlined a way of understanding human beings which many now consider sexist, underdeveloped, or incomplete, but his theories continue to impact modern psychology and our understanding of the human being. Psychoanalysis is explored in its historical context, and reflected upon from the author’s religious perspective.

The Historical Context

Freud was a pioneer in the medical field because he made the study of the mind and personality into a pursuit worthy of scientific investigation. While he was born in Victorian times, an era of sexual repression and morality that still effects us today, he also witnessed both World Wars, and T.S. Elliots “Wasteland” and the deterioration of civilization was on everyone’s mind. Before Freud, mental illness was treated as “some kind of deterioration or disease of the brain. Research on treating mental illness was primarily concerned–at least theoretically–with discovering exactly which kinds of changes in the brain led to insanity.” The line between “sane” and “insane” was clear—either your brain was diseased or not. But Freud blurred those lines (Sparknotes).

I wonder who she is?

The Major Contributors

  • Sigmund Freud (1859-1939) Firstborn in a Jewish Viennese family of eight children, he used his own experiences growing up to develop his theory of psychoanalysis and spent the rest of his career revising and promoting his material. (Corey)
  • Anna Freud (1895-1982) was a psychoanalyst trained by her father Sigmund. She believed that his “definition of adolescence was too sketchy. She suggested that her father overemphasized his discovery that sexuality begins not at puberty but in early infancy. Anna Freud spent the major part of her professional life trying to extend and modify psychoanalytic theory as applied to adolescence”. (Dacey et al 42).
  • Peter Blos is a newer psychoanalytic theorist who postulates that “changes in relationships with others, rather than physiological changes such as the development of the sexual system, play the most important role” in development. Changes are not so much sexual so much as they are interpersonal.(Dacey et al)
  • Jacques Lacan is most often cited by literary critics because of his break with Freudian thinking: “According to Lacan, one must always distinguish between reality (the fantasy world we convince ourselves is the world around us) and the real (a materiality of existence beyond language and thus beyond expressibility). The development of the subject, in other words, is made possible by an endless misrecognition of the real because of our need to construct our sense of “reality” in and through language.” He postulated that personality development was less incumbent on bodily functions (like instincts and libido) and more based in ideological structures which we can understand through language. (Felluga) In other worlds, he focused psychoanalysis back into the mind, instead of projecting it onto the body.

Key Concepts

§  Human Nature is basically deterministic: governed by life vs death instincts, conscious thought vs unconscious motivations.

§  Personality is broken into:

o   Id (biological, subjective components

o   Ego (psychological components ruled by reality and logic

o   Superego (the social, moral and judicial component that has been internalized)

o   These each get power over behavior (called psychic energy) at the expense of the others.

§  Instincts (or libido) make up the total psychic energy available to a person. The reservoir is in the id, which supplies power for the other two. Ego and Superego manage the basic instincts. (Corey)

§  The developing personality goes through stages, each discrete from the other with an erogenous zone. If each pleasure center is stimulated in appropriately (that is, too much or too little) the person becomes fixated and is “unable to develop into a fully mature person” (Dacey et al) and anxiety results.

o   Oral Stage (birth to 1.5 years old). The oral cavity (mouth, lips, tongue, gums) is the pleasure center. It must obtain an appropriate amount of sucking, eating, biting and talking.

o   Anal Stage (1.5-3 years old). The anus is the pleasure center. The function is successful toilet training.

o   Phallic Stage (3-5 years). The glans of the penis and the clitoris are the pleasure centers and in the two remaining stages. The function of this stage is to develop healthy sexual interest through masturbation and “an unconscious desire for the parent of the opposite sex”. Resolution of the Oedipus or Electra complex is the goal. Males resolve around six years old, but females do not resolve Electra complex until adolescence—according to Freud.

o   The Latency Stage (5-12 years old). Sexual desire becomes latent during this time. Boys reject affection from their mother, but because our society tolerates female affection for her father, it does not repress a girls’ sexual feelings.

o   The Genital Stage (12 years and up). Adolescence brings a surge of hormones to both genders which causes a recurrence of the phallic stage. Teens redirect their inappropriate parent affection towards establishing relationships with age-mates of the opposite sex. (Dacey et al 43)

Do you see people having sex? Or a bunch of dolphins? The answer depends on your age!

§  Psychoanalytic theory is utilized as a form of literary criticism:  “it analyzes the interiority of the self and of the self’s kinship systems. By analyzing the formation of the individual, however, psychoanalysis also helps us to understand the formation of ideology at large—and can therefore be extended to the analysis of various cultural and societal phenomena. Indeed, for this reason, psychoanalysis has been especially influential over the last two decades in culture studies and film analysis.” (Felluga)

§  Much of behavior stems from the unconscious. You cure someone by uncovering the meaning of their behavior, which can be accessed in a few ways:

o   Symbolic representation of our inner desires and conflicts through dreams

o   Freudian “slips of the tongue” and forgetting familiar things

o   Post-hypnotic suggestions

o   Material from free-association techniques

o   Material from projective techniques (how the patient treats the “blank” psychiatrist)

o   And the symbolic content of psychotic symptoms (Corey 62)

§  The use of psychoanalysis in therapy in practice has specific features:

o   Maintaining the analytic framework such as relative anonymity of the therapist, consistent meeting times and regular sessions.

o   Free association technique which encourages material from the unconscious to come forward.

o   Interpretation of the client’s behavior and symbols by the therapist.

o   Dream analysis to find the latent and manifest content.

o   Analyzing and interpreting different forms of resistance and ego defense mechanisms.

o   Analysis and interpretation of the clients transference-that is, how the client treats the therapist represents an unconscious desire to work through repressed feelings about another person.

§  Freud’s initial work may be outdated, but he changed the way people thought about mental health, invented therapy, and blurred the line between sane and insane. (Sparknotes)

Evaluation of the Theory from My Religious Perspective

In Wicca, we value personal responsibility above all else. The basic tenants of “Know Thyself” and “face your shadow” have deep roots that are both applicable in Freudian Psychoanalysis. As we value women as highly as we value men, Freud’s inability to explain women, or to differentiate or even account for gender variation makes me feel that his theory is incomplete. While early Wiccan practitioners utilized the polarities to explain the world, like Freud does, we now tend to seek holistic answers and categorizations, rather than binary ones.

One Wiccan tradition called Reclaiming understands personality in parts very similar to Freud. The Younger Self is similar to the Id, in that it is amoral and illogical. It enjoys play, music and color. Younger Self is the source of imagination, and the gateway to the Gods. Older Self is all the things imposed on us by our society and culture. There is also Deeper Self, which is the collective unconscious and from which we draw life, where healing takes place, and where we understand our individual selves and our purpose. You have to go through the Younger Self to get to Deeper Self.


Corey, G. “Psychoanalytic Therapy”. Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy. 8th Edition. 2009

Dacey, J, Kenny, M, Margolis, D. “General Theories of Adolescence: An Overview”.  Adolescent Development. 3rd Edition. 2000

Felluga, D. “Terms Used by Psychoanalysis.” Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. 17 July 2002. Purdue U. 13 May 2009.<http://www.purdue.edu/guidetotheory/psychoanalysis/psychterms.html&gt;.

“Spark Notes: Sigmund Freud: Context” ©2009 SparkNotes LLC. 15 May 2009. <http://www.sparknotes.com/biography/freud/context.html&gt;

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