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social sciences

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Freud, Sigmund (1856-1939)  
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Fifteen years later, in a letter written in English to the mother of a homosexual man, Freud made it clear that "homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness."

Despite these reassuring words, however, Freud's next phrase reveals the teleological normativity that underlies his assessment of perversions in general: "we consider it [that is, homosexuality] to be a variation of the sexual function, produced by a certain arrest of sexual development."

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In the last resort, homosexuality appears as a falling short of or a deviancy from heterosexual development that leads to procreation. Even if Freud underlines in his letter that several of the "greatest men" were homosexuals and that it is a "great injustice" to persecute homosexuality as a crime, his theoretical approach to the issue amounts at most to a tolerant attitude, not a radical dismantling of the ideological structures that privilege heterosexuality.

The Unique Male Libido and the Two Female Orgasms

One of the most criticized aspects of Freud's psychoanalytical theory is its understanding of female sexuality. If psychoanalysis--as Freud once pointed out--does not intend to explain the essence of "male" and "female," but simply assumes the validity of their conventional and biological meaning, it is no wonder that Freud's account of female sexuality is seriously impaired by the ideological hierarchies and asymmetries he inherited from his background and intellectual environment.

The anatomical sexual difference of man and woman, and their divergent psychic organizations notwithstanding, Freud assumed in 1905 the existence in the unconscious of a unique male libido that determines the sexuality of both male and female individuals. The asymmetry implied by Freud's phallic monism forces the female child into a sexual regime determined by the organ she misses in herself.

Being marked in her sexual organization by phallic absence, the female child interprets her own clitoris as a castrated organ homologous to the penis. When during puberty, the child becomes aware of her vagina, her early clitoral sexuality has to be repressed in favor of what Freud assumed to be a mature vaginal sexuality that prepares the young woman for the procreational duties of motherhood.

In Freud's account, the attainment of female sexual maturity presupposes a displacement of the pleasure center from the male-like clitoris to the exclusively female vagina. Freud's claim regarding the occurrence of vaginal orgasm, however, cannot be substantiated by biological or medical evidence. At the most, such a claim could be interpreted, in the words of Thomas Laqueur, as a "parable of culture" in which anatomy is re-invented for the sake of prevalent cultural aims.

With the imagined migration of erotogenic sensibility to a functional non-site, Freud was granting, in the last resort, psychoanalytical sanction to the subordination of female sexuality to the social aims of cultural patriarchy.

Culture, Religion, and Drive Duality

Freud never shunned daring analogical reasoning when it promised to enlarge the scope of application of his theories. Significant in this connection is the parallelism he drew between the equally menacing and protective father and the specific ambivalences of culture with regard to the individual. On this account, culture protects the individual against destructive natural forces at the price of imposing a hostile regime of privations that includes drive renunciation, or at least drive control.

Since there are natural forces against which culture is of no avail, however, man developed, according to Freud, a mechanism that humanizes and transforms these forces into protective "fathers" or "gods" capable of granting compensation for the constraints of civilized life.

Upon consideration of their psychological genesis, Freud concludes that religious ideas are illusions, which, although not necessarily false, are primarily the product of wishful thinking. In the last resort, Freud considered religion a phenomenon comparable to child neurosis, and, as such, liable of being overcome by "the education for the sake of reality" ("die Erziehung zur Wirklichkeit") fostered by psychoanalysis.

After reasserting in Die Zukunft einer Illusion (The Future of an Illusion, 1927) the non-illusory character of psychoanalysis, Freud not surprisingly ends the book with the sober injunction that it would be an illusion to believe one could obtain somewhere else what psychoanalysis is not capable of granting.

Besides its protective function against external nature, culture provides an instrumentality designed to cope with the human condition as expressed in Thomas Hobbes' classical formulation: homo homini lupus (Man is a wolf to man). In view of the hostility and destructiveness inherent in human nature, Freud postulated in Jenseits des Lustprinzips (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920) a drive duality consisting of Eros (the life principle that includes the sexual and ego drives) and Thanatos (the destruction and death principle, which, when directed to the external world, takes the form of aggression).

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