In a series of 3 essays, Freud explores in great detail human sexuality and provides a theory for why it might come to be expressed in the ways that it is.
Who is this book for? Anyone interested in the origins of Psychoanalysis. People who have read Studies in Hysteria (1895) and looking to follow the story of psychoanalysis further.
Many of us hear vaguely in university or from a friend that Freud had some wacky theories about development and sexuality but few decide to see what Freud himself had to say about it.
Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) begins by exploring the varying ways in which individuals derive sexual pleasure apart from genital sex. From kissing to homosexuality, sadism and masochism. Freud then describes a theory to explain why humans can experience sexual pleasure in any way that isn’t purely genital.
“Here again we cannot escape from the fact that people whose behaviour is in other respects normal can, under the domination of the most unruly of all the instincts, put themselves in the category of sick persons in the single sphere of sexual life. On the other hand, manifest abnormality in the other relations of life can invariably be shown to have a background of abnormal sexual conduct.”
Freuds Psychosexual Theory Summarised
Infants are “polymorphously perverse”. Meaning their sexual instinct is like a blank slate in how it seeks pleasure. Because of this, the sexual instinct expresses itself in changing ways as the person develops. In Psychosexual Development, these pleasure-seeking behaviours involve parts of the body which bring immediate biological satisfaction, i.e. eating, defecating, urinating, and masturbating. People can get ‘hang ups’ in their psyche, as they are required to manage both the desire for immediate biological pleasure, with societal pressure to repress these behaviours. For example, too much pressure in toilet training could imprint a strong sense of the need for order & the desire to follow the rules in someone’s life. Hence they become what we now call ‘being anal’. Or an infant neglected (underfed) might suck their thumb, or as an adult turn to smoking, or drinking (oral fixations) to satisfy an unmet oral need from childhood.
As the person develops, these erotogenic zones eventually organise themselves underneath the genital area and its ultimate goal of sexual release. In this way, erotogenic zones become used as foreplay (kissing, touching, oral sex), which ultimately lead to the genital expression of the reproductive sexual aim.
Freud explains how increasing sexual energy (as a result of development) is channelled and how this is key in understanding neurosis. For example, an individual may sublimate their sexual feelings (channelling them to healthy expression) or have a reaction-formation where they repress/suppress these feelings using what Freud described as ‘Dams’ of morality, disgust etc. Sublimation implies the flow of energy, whereas a reaction-formation implies pushing back and repression of sexual energy. Illness occurs when an individual represses sexual urges rather than sublimating or expressing them.
“Neurotic symptoms are based on the one hand on the demands of the libidinal instincts and on the other hand on those made by the ego by way of reaction to them… They must be subjected to psycho-analytic investigation, which is employed in the therapeutic procedure introduced by Josef Breuer and myself in 1893 and known at that time as ’catharsis’.”
Regarding Freud’s description of “Psychical Energy”: Freud studied under Ernest Brook, who developed a theory that all living organisms are energy systems, and because of this, the principle of the conservation of energy should also apply to them. Freud has taken a page from Ernest here to describe the mind as a sort of ‘psychical energy’ system, of which the key energy is sexual energy. Breuer wrote about this in more detail in his & Freud’s Studies in Hysteria (1895). Click here to read my summary of that book. Here Breuer describes the mind as an electrical network through which energy flows (or doesn’t flow i.e. repression). Freud builds on this with an emphasis on the sexual libido as a key psychic force. He acknowledges that without brain imaging techniques, such analogies are the closest thing to an accurate description they can come to.
Regarding Freud’s theories being out-there and strange: I disagree, these essays are the well thought through arguments of a genius and caring physician. Yes, he was wrong in a lot of ways, but I can see that you sometimes have to be wrong in a lot of things in order to give a topic its due analysis. Where I believe he faltered was in his ideological application of sexuality as a theory to understand and explain everything, and an unwillingness to budge on this topic. This is evident in this book as he discusses his opinion on Carl Jung’s differing views:
“It would, however, be sacrificing all that we have gained hitherto from psycho-analytic observation, if we were to follow the example of C. G. Jung and water down the meaning of the concept of libido itself by equating it with psychical instinctual force in general. The distinguishing of the sexual instinctual impulses from the rest and the consequent restriction of the concept of libido to the former receives strong support from the assumption which I have already discussed that there is a special chemistry of the sexual function.”
Sexuality is undoubtedly an influential part of the human experience. However, it is flawed to use it as the single explanation for every ailment a person might have. It is this overemphasis on sexuality that led the cognitive therapists (Aaron Beck & Albert Ellis) the emerge, unsatisfied with psychoanalysis’ ability to properly explain and address mental illness. Freud aptly quoted his own doubters in his 1901 book The Psychoanalysis of Everyday Life, stating:
“You Freudians will go on looking for the causes of mental illnesses until you fall mentally ill yourselves.”