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Sex, Freud, and Weininger (ii)

Notes on Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality

“Infantile Sexuality”

Of the third or fourth year of life:

It is during this period of total or only partial latency that are built up the mental forces which are later to impede the course of the sexual instinct and, like dams, restrict its flow—disgust, feelings of shame and the claims of aesthetic and moral ideals. One gets the impression from civilized children that the construction of these dams is a product of education, and no doubt education has much to do with it. But in reality this development is organically determined and fixed by heredity, and it can occasionally occur without any help at all from education.

Knowing it to make children ineducable, childhood sexual activity is stigmatized as vice by parents and educators. [Or at least they believe it to impede education.]


[Masturbation and the beginning of moral wisdom]

On why neurotics are prone to guilt concerning memories of masturbation (from a note added in 1920):

The most general and important factor concerned must no doubt be that masturbation represents the executive agency of the whole of infantile sexuality and is, therefore, able to take over the sense of guilt attaching to it.

[As a secret taking of pleasure, they imagine that it must be paid for—as with all other pleasures surely it, too, exacts a price. The child imagines there is a price. He or she just does not know it yet or imagines it will end in blindness or some future unspecifiable debility or the world is contaminated thereby or cheated—again, for which something will come due.

The neurosis blossoms into a sense of responsibility in every pleasure taken. Note the expression “pleasure taken” reflects this. For all pleasure is taken, stolen, never simply enjoyed. Executive agency develops alongside increasingly universal responsibility, ending in “moral hypertrophy”—a phrase used to describe Weininger’s “condition.”

There are only two other paths: 1) the wholesale rebellion against responsibility of the determinist, the abdication of executive agency altogether, or 2), what usually happens, a retreat into a “who, me?” forced ignorance. Morally speaking, ignorance is the only legitimate excuse for the individual who has declined the offer of universal exculpation in the first option. The individual, long after it ceases to be believable, cultivates moral ignorance by invoking the complexity of contingency in the face of a humble capacity for comprehension. Thus, the compatibilist can comfortably avoid responsibility while retaining at least the virtue of not appearing arrogant. “It is beyond me. What do I know?”

But morality, unlike Nature, is uneasy with degrees. It is suspicious of them. You either know or should know—there is no moral difference between these two—or you can’t know, are not of the right type of being to know: you are mineral, vegetable, or pitiable animal, infantile, or mental defective.

The doctrine of original sin comes down to this: you are born into a certain type of existence that does not permit excuse. You are guilty, on the path to guilt, or in denial of it. And only grace can absolve you. You cannot invoke the privileges of the cretin and appeal to morality in your judgment of others in the same breath.

One does not need to be a Calvinist to see that at the hypertrophic extreme to which it tends with fierce determination the doctrine curiously converges with the verdict of Nature: to the extent you seek* ultimate meaning, justification—indeed ultimate anything—you are as hopelessly adiaphorous as the next species or periodic element. You have your little theatre, but beyond that, there is only grace or this moment.

*To the extent you don’t seek it, of course, you have a legitimate claim to the privileges of the cretin.]


…seduction is not required in order to arouse a child’s sexual life; that can also come about spontaneously through internal causes.

[There is always self-seduction or our compulsion for complicity.]

Freud’s comparison between children and women:

Polymorphously Perverse Disposition

It is an instructive fact that under the influence of seduction children can become polymorphously perverse, and can be led into all possible kinds of sexual irregularities. This shows that an aptitude for them is innately present in their disposition. There is consequently little resistance towards carrying them out, since the mental dams against sexual excesses—shame, disgust and morality—have either not yet been constructed at all or are only in course of construction, according to the age of the child. In this respect children behave in the same kind of way as an average uncultivated woman in whom the same polymorphously perverse disposition persists. Under ordinary conditions she may remain normal sexually, but if she is led on by a clever seducer she will find every kind of perversion to her taste, and will retain them as part of her own sexual activities. Prostitutes exploit the same polymorphous, that is, infantile, disposition for the purposes of their profession; and, considering the immense number of women who are prostitutes or who may be supposed to have an aptitude for prostitution without becoming engaged in it, it becomes impossible not to recognize that this same disposition to perversions of every kind is a general and fundamental human characteristic.

[Something about Freud’s remark—seldom noticed—is the implication that the sexual provocation of “polymorphous perversions” is by men. The disposition may be innate in children and women but the tendency for instigation, the catalyst, is unambiguously male. The “clever seducer,” needless to say, unencumbered by “shame, disgust and morality,” is, nevertheless, one who should be cumbered.

It is not that Freud consciously intended to imply this. It is that it does imply this. That it does so, that it is phenomenologically correct is what makes, for example, Steven Marcus’ embarrassed comment on this passage somewhat less than sincere. If “one doesn’t know where to look for a handle” on these remarks, if their relevance is baffling, if they seem gratuitous, it is because a whole world of disturbing implications has been summarily dismissed from serious consideration. A can of worms that needs to be opened is not.

Evasive remarks like those of Marcus actually perpetuate the moral—not to say, intellectual—injustice presumably they are meant to assuage.

In so many words, Freud is, like Weininger before him, normatively implicating men more than women if we take him to be implicating anyone at all. The only other interpretation possible, the one more consonant with his scientific ambitions, if not his practice, is that he is doing phenomenology. He might as well be recording the bazaar sexual proclivities of a tropical insect. “Perversion,” then, is stripped of all but statistical significance: it denotes instead of connotes… But is this level of objectivity even possible on this subject? Freud, the therapist—let alone the man—can scarcely have been such a disinterested researcher.

Another thing is how close Freud comes to Weininger—tangentially close—but then veers away. Freud intended to live a good while. It shows. Weininger, despite his youth, seemed more aware than Freud of what he was doing. Weininger may have started with a genuine belief that he had some scientific discovery to offer on the subject of the characterization of the sexes, but scarcely a third into his book and he shifts to moral revelation, less characterization than discourse on the deep characters of the masculine and feminine as principles or structural pillars of moral perception. Well before the end of his book he drops explicitly the pretense to be doing science anymore (hence, Part II, the “principal” part). Needless to say, he was criticized for this by the reigning scientism of his day, whose grip still held Freud for most of his career (though not without frequently remarked strain).

At the end of the book, if not at the beginning, Weininger was clear about what he was doing. It was not science, destined to be superseded, but a moral contribution of “great and fantastic” proportions. How “great” we are just beginning to see. “Fantastic” because it could not appear otherwise until a whole slew of presuppositions about the nature of the human, centering on its essentially unitary and not irremediably dual character, had been revised.]


Cruelty in general comes easily to the childish nature, since the obstacle that brings the instinct for mastery to a halt at another’s pain—namely a capacity for pity—is developed relatively late.

[Late, perhaps, but typically earlier for girls than boys. And then its internal dynamic is different: the pain of another separate individual (boys) versus damage to an enlarged self (girls). (Cf, for example, C. Gilligan, In a Different Voice.)]

The budding scientist and “the instinct for knowledge and research”:

Its activity corresponds on the one hand to a sublimated manner of obtaining mastery, while on the other hand it makes use of the energy of scopophilia.

[The titillations of scientific illustration and photography are related to the allure of pornography and erotica. Technology, like sexual technique, aims at accessible gratification…

In science, as elsewhere, the sex of the investigator colors perception and determines motivation. The presumption of scientific objectivity is masculine. The desire for understanding our situation in relation to all the tangible, sensory, and consequential universe is profoundly feminine.

The objectivity, never pure but in aspiration, would, nevertheless, left to its own, lead away from any application whatsoever or from human relevance entirely.

For her part, she demands relevance.

Intercourse could always end in consummation and remain materially inconsequential, if his wish were all that mattered.]

Footnote added in 1920:

We are justified in speaking of a castration complex in women as well. Both male and female children form a theory that women no less than men originally had a penis, but that they have lost it by castration. The conviction which is finally reached by males that women have no penis often leads them to an enduringly low opinion of the other sex.

[A few questions: why this anatomical difference and why, given that much will be made of it, will it result in a negative judgment?

Her breasts develop, his don’t. This arrested development doesn’t seem to bother him? In this regard, she has too much. Is it her surplus that causes or reinforces his negative opinion? Or is the negative opinion predisposed and any difference—lack, excess or whatnot—will become a handle for its expression?*

And, further, why doesn’t the conviction always lead boys to see girls as miscreations? Or does it? Is it that many, perhaps, most boys manage to repress it successfully? Tugged by competing considerations, sublimate it enough so that they can mature into reasonably normal males with only unremarkable residues of symptoms of their having been once thorough-going misogynists? The others, less matured, recognizable jerks?

And what of these “competing considerations”? What does he come to realize, if he does, that makes him tolerant of, if not humbled by her?

That he wants to live more than he wants to die? That through her and only through her intercession will he survive in some measure?

But the desire to die is never wholly absent.

*It may be said that Freud is only addressing an impressionability peculiar to a very early stage of development: post-pubertal perception may not follow suit. Any changes occurring after puberty cannot undo the effects of early ones. But there are any number of only slightly more subtle differences between boys and girls, evident to them, that, if they were compelled to look (and usually are) and felt a need to latch onto one in order build a rationalization, would offer themselves. They would include a host of non-genital anatomical differences as well as behavioral, not to mention social cues. There are boys who reach puberty never having seen, even in pictures, female genitalia.

How is it his curiosity is first piqued to want to see her private parts, if he had not already noticed that she was different in other intriguing respects?

The point is, penis or no penis, he is from the earliest states of his consciousness confronted by her differences from him and senses that they have fateful significance.]


It may be that nothing of considerable importance can occur in the organism without contributing some component to the excitation of the sexual instinct.

Intro | Part I | Part II | Part III

Posted by luno in sexualities, Freud, philosophy and sex, sex differences, Weininger (Saturday August 11, 2007 at 12:06 pm)

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