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social sciences

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Freud: An Ambivalent View of Homosexuality

In part one of his Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex (1905), Sigmund Freud reviews the earlier literature on same-sex sexual attraction and finds it wanting. From his readings in this literature, including the works of Ulrichs and Hirschfeld, Freud could identify no consistently meaningful link between human biology or morphology and sexual behavior or identity. Both the degenerative and congenital models of explanation were insufficient; for Freud, therefore, so-called "sexual inversion" must reside in early childhood socialization.

Like his predecessors, however, Freud argued that while inversion might be deviant it could not be described as pathological; in the tradition of sexological writing, he drew on case studies of highly functional persons of good social standing as well as citing the example of Greek antiquity, a society taken by his contemporaries to represent some of the greatest achievements of European civilization that was nonetheless characterized by widespread male homosexuality.

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This view was epitomized by his famous and frequently cited 1935 letter to an American mother who had written to Freud regarding her concerns about her homosexual son: "Many highly respected individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest among them (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.) It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime and cruelty too."

Freud's etiology of homosexuality has been tremendously influential and continues to drive speculations about the phenomenon among both scientists and laypersons. All humans, he argued, are born with the capacity for both homosexual and heterosexual expression. Childhood development can be understood as a gradual process by which the individual comes to understand himself or herself as a gendered being, and by which his or her libido, or sex drive, comes to be fixed upon particular objects.

Childhood trauma or faulty sexual socialization could lead to what Freud termed the "Oedipus complex." Named for the figure in Sophocles's tragic drama who unwittingly murders his father and marries his mother, the Oedipus complex in men was characterized by an incomplete break with the mother and hence an insufficient identification with the role of the father. Homosexuals were thus men who identified with their mothers and desired to be sexually satisfied by a father-figure. Successful sexual socialization, on the other hand, was indicated by men who were able to surmount this developmental hurdle and identify with their fathers.

Freud boldly claimed that such a developmental trajectory was universal, having its origins in a single episode in prehistory when early human males engaged in parricide in order to have access to women. Their collective guilt over the murder of the father compelled the men to develop a system for the exchange of women, which was allegedly the foundational moment of human civilization.

This theory resonated strongly with late-nineteenth century anthropologists' explorations of social organization in "primitive" (that is, non-European) societies. A belief in so-called "primitive promiscuity," understood to be a developmental stage in culture where heterosexual congress was unregulated by taboos on incest or proscriptions for marriage--akin to the individual libido prior to its fixation--drove much of this research, notably among Aboriginal populations in Australia.

While Freud, in Totem and Taboo (1918), cited this work as the basis for his theory of the Oedipus complex, a later generation of anthropological research (notably the works of Bronislaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead) demonstrated that assumptions of its universal nature were largely unfounded, and that models of social organization and sexual socialization were highly culturally specific.

Many scholars have argued that Freud's relatively tolerant view of male homosexuality, as well as his etiological conception of it, were shaped by his own proximity to his mother as well as his emotionally intimate friendship with Wilhelm Fliess as a young man.

Nonetheless, Freud's understanding of how homosexual feelings were engendered did partly follow that of the degeneration theorists insofar as he imagined the roots of homosexuality to lie in arrested childhood sexual development in individuals, viewed as an analog to the development of entire societies along a trajectory from "primitive" to "modern." Since the object of the libido was conditioned by early socialization, homosexuality was inevitably described as a circumvention of normal, heterosexual development that might possibly be avoided by a more complete, normative socialization--or corrected through the medium of analysis.

Witness Freud's pronouncements to the concerned mother, from later in the same letter quoted above: "By asking me if I can help, you mean, I suppose, if I can abolish homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place. The answer is, in a general way, we cannot promise to achieve it. In a certain number of cases we succeed in developing the blighted germs of heterosexual tendencies which are present in every homosexual, in the majority of cases it is no more possible. It is a question of the quality and the age of the individual. The result of treatment cannot be predicted."

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