Freud’s innovations in his essay “Infantile Sexuality”

Freud’s innovations in his essay “Infantile Sexuality” (1905) transformed our understanding of human development. They changed our way of thinking about and tenderAgeKissingengaging with human relations so that we can never go back. In particular, Erik Erikson (1950/1963) and Anna Freud (1966/1980) unpack the idea that the human being is a work in progress, propelled by emerging distinctions that cut across biology, individual psychology and human community. While the distinctions oral, anal, phallic, genital have become conventional wisdom in thinking in terms of “ages and stages,” the deep truth of the paradigm shift introduced by Freud in 1905 lives on in the totality of the organism as a cognitive-emotional-somatic self in encounter with its social-cultural environment. The idea that children are just small adults was the prevailing view of childhood during much of history. In that regard the 19th century was not distinct from the middle ages. Though this view has been criticized, it has received widespread discussion through Philippe Ariès L’Enfant et la Vie Familiale sous l’Ancien Régime (1960), which was translated into English as Centuries of Childhood (1962).

Along comes Freud to call attention to the critique both sides of the story. No, children are not just small adults, but there is a continuity between adult sexuality and infantile sexuality prior to puberty. So there is a grain of truth after all to the misguided notion that children are small adults. There is a continuity between the immature forms of sexuality that can be found in childhood and the issues and prospects of healthy, adult sexuality.

Though we are significantly more sophisticated today in terms of our appreciation of the child as a developing person, including the child’s sexuality, we are still sometimes uncomfortable with this discussion.

Freud acknowledge issues of sexual modesty, but says we need to pay more attention to a hitherto overlooked phenomenon, namely, infantile amnesia – the fact that grown up persons can recall very few things about their lives prior to being five years old. These few memories were described as “screen memories,” and require a separate discussion. But in brief they provide access to important emotions, wishes, and fears of early childhood.

Freud makes it a point to note that during childhood individuals are highly impressionable. This provides the context for his position that childhood experiences are major input to the processes that are entrained in adult neurotics.

In fact, Freud is engaged in a reversal similar to “the tail wagging the dog.” Freud proposes to use the data gathered from psychoanalyzes of adult neurotics to explore infantile and childhood sexuality.

Freud’s position is consistent with what we have learned about the brain and nervous system since then. Myelin was discovered in 1854 by Rudolf Virchow. But the process whereby myelination of the nervous systems begins in the third trimester of pregnancy and continues throughout adolescence was not well understood. At about the time that Freud was publishing his Three Essays (1905), the man who would eventually invent behaviorism, John Watson, was producing his PhD dissertation at the University of Chicago. Watson was not yet a behaviorist. In his dissertation, “Animal Education: An Experimental Study on the Psychical Development of the White Rat, Correlated with the Growth of its Nervous System” (1903), he described the relationship between brain myelination and learning ability in rats at different ages. Therefore, it seems unlikely that Freud appreciated the key role of myelination to the degree that we do so today.

Freud’s point is that the amnesia of childhood is significantly similar to the forgetfulness of neurotics, in particular, what were called “hysterics.” Freud asserts that if we could solve the puzzle of why psycho-neurotics are so selective in their forgetting we would also solve the riddle of childhood amnesia. This leads to the first use of the term “repression” in the second of the Three Essays (SE 7: 175). There is something objectionable about sexuality according to the standards of polite society that arouses disgust, shame, and guilt.

I believe, then, that infantile amnesia, which turns everyone’s childhood into something like a prehistoric epoch and conceals from him the beginnings of his own sexual life, is responsible for the fact that in general no importance is attached to childhood in the development of sexual life. The gaps in our knowledge which have arisen in this way cannot be bridged by a single observer. As long ago as in the year 1896 I insisted on the significance of the years of childhood in the origin of certain important phenomena connected with sexual life, and since then I have never ceased to emphasize the part played in sexuality by the infantile factor (SE 7: 176).

So while babies are quite uninhibited about masturbation or bowel movements, once weaning, toilet training, and learning to follow social conventions around eating and elimination set in, the early recollections get condensed and displaced into a few fragmentary recollections.

In the interest of scientific objectivity, it must be acknowledged that the ongoing development of the brain may mean that some early experiences are not really forgotten but are never properly imprinted or acquired because the structures for adult level long term memory are not yet in place. For example, prior to the the acquisition of language the cognitive structures required for recollecting episodic (narrative) memory do not exist. Yet the extraordinary flexibility of the brain – what today we call “plasticity” – is never greater than in childhood, latency, and adolescence, and learning is dramatic and explosive unless psychosocial factors such as poverty, abuse, disease, or other trauma derail the process.

Regarding the state of memory research at the time, Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850 – 1909) published Über das Gedächtnis (“On Memory”) in 1885. Alois Alzheimer (1864 – 1915) identified the form of dementia which now bears his name, characterized by deterioration of the memory among other features (in 1910). Emile Kraepelin called out “Alzheimer’s” in the chapter on “Presenile and Senile Dementia” in the 8th edition of his Handbook of Psychiatry. Ebbinghaus was dealing with short term memory and the learning curve (which he defined). The distinction between short term, working memory and long term memory was clearly delineated experimentally by Joseph Jacobs, who (similar to Ebbinghaus) tested his students’ ability to retain a series of digits (Jacobs, J. “Experiments in ‘prehension’.” Mind, 12, 75-79, 1887. ). (See also Ribot, T. (1882) Diseases of Memory: An essay in the positive psychology. London: D. Appleton and company.)

Though trauma does not play a significant role in the discussion in the Three Essays, many of Freud’s Studies on Hysteria and case histories involve some aspect of trauma. When a traumatic event occurs, one possible fate is that it is repressed. It is forgotten. This maps nicely to the modern theory of trauma from van der Kolk (1995) whereby the trauma is sequestered and the treatment consists in taking steps to symbolize the trauma so that it can be reintegrated into consciousness. The sequestered segment of the central nervous system (which, however, is function and has never been physiologically mapped) is a strong analog of the unconscious.

Freud engages with the transformations of the sexual impulses in infancy. Education turns the sexual impulse against itself in the form of a reaction formation (SE 7: 178). The infant is at first so attached to his own bowel movement that he cries when the caretaker takes it away. As a result of toilet training and instruction that, in effect, the bad, stinky stuff has to be put in its proper place and go down the drain, the growing child reacts with disgust to human waste. Thus, the wish and the fear constitutes the basis of reaction formation. the individual who is scrupulously clean is compensating for her or his love of dirt. I would not need to be so scrupulously clean except that I am so fond of dirt.

This reaction formation to one’s infantile engagements with messing one’s food, bowel movements is the beginning of latency. Latency is the period in childhood when the growing child gains an apparent innocence of the uncivilized albeit immature sexuality of the infant and very young child. This latency makes possible the change in the aim of the sexual drive through sublimation:

It is possible further to form some idea of the mechanism of this process of sublimation. On the one hand, it would seem, the sexual impulses cannot be utilized during these years of childhood, since the reproductive functions have been deferred—a fact which constitutes the main feature of the period of latency (SE 7: 178)

Sublimation actually shifts the aim of the sexual drive, not merely the object. Instead of sexual satisfaction, the desire change their aim to forms of productivity that are endorsed by the community such as education, art, knowledge, learning, and aim-inhibited idealizations such as love of community. This will be interrupted by puberty, but until then well brought up middle class children are notoriously scrupulous in their morals and dislike of disorder.

Having covered in broad outline the transition from infantile sexuality to latency Freud returns to the problem of how sexuality emerges from the primary activity of the neonate, which is to gain nourishment at the breast. At first, no differentiation exists between hunger, the instinct of self-preservation, and libido (desire):

It was the child’s first and most vital activity, his sucking at his mother’s breast, or at substitutes for it, that must have familiarized him with this pleasure. The child’s lips, in our view, behave like an erotogenic zone, and no doubt stimulation by the warm flow of milk is the cause of the pleasurable sensation. The satisfaction of the erotogenic zone is associated, in the first instance, with the satisfaction of the need for nourishment. To begin with, sexual activity attaches itself to one of the functions serving the purpose of self-preservation and does not become independent of them until later. No one who has seen a baby sinking back satiated from the breast and falling asleep with flushed cheeks and a blissful smile can escape the reflection that this picture persists as a prototype of the expression of sexual satisfaction in later life (SE 7 181–182).

Freud’s principle of interpretation is that sexual desire (libido) attaches itself to basic somatic functions. Thus, sensual sucking leverages the mucus membranes of the mouth and the pleasure of warm milk to establish the lips and mouth as an erogenous zone. Though Freud’s interpretation of this experience is original, the interest in sex was by no means unique to Freud and Freud borrows the term “autoerotism” from Havelock Ellis (Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1899/1910)).

Freud anticipates an account of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) (Freud 7: 185–186) as the mucus member of the inside of the intestines. The dynamics of anal eroticism the withholding and delivering of the stool as a “gift” are considered (SE 7: 186).

In addition to the interest in masturbation that emerges in puberty, Freud distinguishes two other phases of masturbation. Infants get masturbatory pleasure in being bathed and having their genitals cleaned and they engage in clumsy attempts to masturbate on their own. By the time they get to the age of three or four, children are enormously curious about their own genitals and those of their friends and will try to engage in a form of childish sex play unless they are prevented from doing so by grown up intervention and sanctions.

This brings us to one of the main results of Freud’s research. The sex drive is not the single unitary phenomenon that we encounter in the mature adult who has completed her or his sexual development in being married with children. ON the contrary, the sex drive is diverse and various. In addition to the pleases of the oral, anal, and phallic zones, there is please in scopophilia, exhibitionism, and cruelty. These component drives (instincts) mean that the child is polymorphous perverse:

Small children are essentially without shame, and at some periods of their earliest years show an unmistakable satisfaction in exposing their bodies, with especial emphasis on the sexual parts (SE 7: 192)

…[T]he impulse of cruelty arises from the instinct for mastery and appears at a period of sexual life at which the genitals have not yet taken over their later role. It then dominates a phase of sexual life which we shall later describe as a pregenital organization (SE 7: 193)

If there were still any doubt that children of tender age are sexual beings, the interest that children take in investigating where babies comes from should put to rest any doubt. It is important to note that this is not a theoretical interest, though research to answer this question can form the basis of the subsequent adult’s relationship to learning. If the curiosity is treated as a welcome area of questioning, it can become the basis for a life long openness to learning; whereas if the interest is treated in a devaluing way and sanctioned, the child risks getting the impression that it is risky to ask questions and think for oneself with the follow on dampening of any authentic interest in learning.

Freud’s observations in this area are astute and incisive. Freud notes that children are skeptical and even contemptuous when told such stories as that the stork brings babies. The footnote refers to the case of Little Hans, a boy whose father was one of Freud’s early followers and who, guided by Freud, dealt with the childhood and anxieties of his son upon the birth of his sister. This charming case history has Hans as the young scientist saying in effect, “I have been down by the river and there is no evidence of any babies down there with the storks. Liar!”

However, though children are adept in ferreting out the inaccuracies of the stories told them about the origin of babies, they are really not very good at inventing the truth on their own. They have some amazing ideas, which are often confirmed as the result of the psychoanalyses of grown up persons as the latter overcome their infantile amnesia. For example:

It is self-evident to a male child that a genital like his own is to be attributed to everyone he knows, and he cannot make its absence tally with his picture of these other people (SE 7: 195)

The assumption that all human beings have the same (male) form of genital is the first of the many remarkable and momentous sexual theories of children. It is of little use to a child that the science of biology justifies his prejudice and has been obliged to recognize the female clitoris as a true substitute for the penis (SE 7: 195)

Thus, when boys of tender age see the genitals of girls, the latter lacking a penis, they become concerned that something has gone missing and are concerned that such a thing not happen to their own sex organs. On the other hand, when girls of tender age learn about the penis they often think they would like to have one of those and feel slighted that they do not. The way in which such discoveries are handled by caretakers and parents can often have a significant effect on the formation of later neuroses. If the opportunity for explaining the difference between the sexes is handled with empathy, giving each sex its proper, due then any issues that later arise are likely to be amenable to relatively easy treatment; whereas if the approach is a punitive and guilt-inspiring one, then the prospect of complications and emotional suffering are increased.

When left to their own imagination, children invent the theory that babies are formed by eating certain foods as occurs in fairy tales, that they are discharged through the bowel like stool, or that they emerge from the navel or breast. This points to the cloacal theory of sexuality whereby there is a single opening for both elimination and sex such as occurs in certain birds. When children, for whatever reason, accidently witness grown ups having sexual intercourse, they inevitably misinterpret what they see as an act of violence – sadism – with the larger person (usually the man) over-powering the smaller one. Freud further asserts that children’s sexual theories, no matter how imaginative and amazing, never succeed in figuring out the role of semen in reproduction or the existence of the vagina as the entry and exit point for reproductive activity (SE 7: 197).

This leads to a traversal of the phases of pregenital sexual organization. Oral organization has as its aim not sexual satisfaction in the sense of an adult orgasm but a quasi-cannibalistic incorporation of the object. The anal organization has as its aim the quasi-sadistic mastery of the object through the turning of active into passive.

At the risk of an over-simplification, opposing pairs of component drives can be schematized as mapping to a wish and a fear. The exhibitionist wishes wish to be a voyeur and fears passivity, which he tries to master through the activity of showing off. The masochist wishes to be the sadist and fears aggression, which he master through passivity. This ambivalence leads directly to two phase object choice whereby the infantile components of the sexual drives are united with the mature development of affection and intimacy. “Ambivalence” expresses the mixed nature of the pairs of component drives and is a term taken over by Freud and credited to Eugen Bleuler, C.G. Jung’s boss at the Burghölzli Sanatorium at the University of Zurich.

The second essay ends with Freud collecting reminders as to the sources of infantile sexuality. These include the sexual drives amalgamating with the somatic process of incorporation, elimination, and aggression. The stimulation of the muscus membranes of the erotogenic zones of the lips, anus, and skin. The separable dirves of sadism and scopophilia (“watching”), which “are not well understood” (SE 7: 200 – 201). Freud also finds that frightening experiences – such as stressful exams at school – can result in a spike in what we would today call “acting out” such as masturbation (SE 7: 201), presumably as a way of restoring affective (emotional) equilibrium.


 Erikson, Erik. (1950/1963). Childhood and Society. New York: W.W. Norton.

Freud, Anna. (1966/1980). Normality and Pathology in Childhood. London: Karnac Books, 1989.

 Freud, Sigmund. (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)).

Van der Kolk, Bessel and Onno van der Hart. (1995). “The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Memory. In Caruth, Cathy (1995), Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Virchow, Rudolph. (1854). “Über das ausgebreitete Vorkommen einer dem Nervenmark analogen Substanz in den tierischen Geweben”. Archiv für pathologische Anatomie und Physiologie und für klinische Medizin (in German) 6 (4): 562–72. doi:10.1007/BF02116709.

(c) Lou Agosta, Ph.D. and The Chicago Empathy Project

Categories: Empathy, Freud, Freud's Three Essays on Sexuality Reviewed, infantile sexuality, Love, Psychoanalysis, psychotherapy

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