Conceptualizing Gender (4)

Freud’s fear of castration and penis envy


Conceptualizing Gender (4)
by Azadeh Azad

Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Keywords: Oedipus complex, infantile sexuality, fear of castration, Penis envy, femininity, masculinity, bisexuality

4. Psychoanalytic theories


Freud made the first lasting endeavor to give a scientific explanation of gender in psychoanalysis, the discipline he founded. He tampered with the seemingly natural matters of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ by investigating into their components. He realized that gender and adult sexuality were not naturally rigid, but were constructed through a lengthy and troubled process.

According to Freud, humans have a bisexual disposition, and feminine and masculine inclinations cohabit in everyone. This suggests that adult gender is somehow as much a multifaceted as an unstable formation. He claims gender is both a psychological and a physical construction, that it is fully engaged in children’s youthful sexuality, their relationships with their parents and their growth.

For Freud, one of the phases of the psychosexual development is the genital phase, which occurs in middle childhood - between the ages of three and six. During this phase, the libidinal energy relocates from the anal zone to the genital zone and the Oedipus complex takes effect. The ‘Oedipus complex’ is the emotional complication of this phase of development, which consists of desire for one parent and hatred of the other as its central moment.

Children of both sexes experience the ‘phallic phase’ in the same way, through masturbation via stimulation of the penis or clitoris. At the ‘genital phase’ of development, girl and boy children view their father as an enemy and rival for the undivided love of their mother. The development of gender roles and identity depends on the positive outcome of the Oedipus complex. Freud proposes that daughters and sons work out the conflicts in different ways because of castration anxiety in boys and penis envy in girls. (1)

The boy-child and the formation of masculinity

The mother is the first object of love for a boy. As his masculinity is created, he continues his early masturbatory activities. The boy’s Oedipus complex consists of identification with the father, rivalry with him over the sexual desire for the mother, and a desire to kill him, which is expected to arouse the father's anger. The boy assumes the father will react by castrating him. Thus, the production of the castration anxiety in the boy-child.

The successful resolution of the boy’s complex entails repressing all these hostile and fearful tendencies in the subconscious mind, and identifying with the father in order to develop a mature sexual role and identity.

The girl-child and the formation of femininity

Freud asserts that when girls discover they do not have a penis, they are afflicted by the castration complex. This leads to penis envy. He explains the difference between girls’ and boys’ castration complex in these terms:

"Whereas in boys the Oedipus complex is destroyed by the castration complex, in girls it is made possible and led to by the castration complex" (2).

The mother is, obviously, the first object of love and emotional attachment for a girl as well, which makes the girl’s initial oedipal wishes homosexual desires for the mother. As the girl’s femininity is created, she is socialized and conditioned to give up the clitoral part of sexual pleasure in favour of vaginal stimulation whereas the boy continues his early masturbatory activities. In spite of this, as the girl-child grows, she abandons her desire for the mother and begins an Oedipal relationship with her father, who replaces her mother as her object of love. For Freud, such a change has its root in the girl’s discovery that her mother, too, lacks a penis. Amazingly, Freud never contemplates the possibility of a girl’s desire to kill her mother.

According to Freud, becoming a “normal” female happens when the girl-child renounces her clitoral masturbations, which happens during the phase when she veers towards her father and accepts becoming passive. Later on, in the ‘normal’ sequence of her growth, a girl will replace her fatherly object of love with a last object -- her husband. Also, the girl-child now substitutes her symbolic desire for the penis with a longing for a baby by identifying with her mother. This infantile wish to have a baby is associated with a wish to deliberately adopt her mother’s role and be like her, which is different from a later wish to have a baby as an adult woman. For Freud, the former case originates in the girl’s wish to carry her father’s baby, and the latter instance is about an adult woman’s wish for a baby boy in order to satisfy her desire for a penis. (3)

He argues that a woman experiences the most fulfillment in the birth of a son because she has the opportunity to transpose her frustrated desire for the penis on to him. In spite of this, her marriage will be happy only if she treats her husband like a son. In Freud’s view, it is more difficult for a girl to deal with her perceived ‘lack’ of a penis than for a boy to deal with his fear of castration.


Evidently, there are at least two problematic propositions in such a model: 1) the mature girl must move her interest in her clitoris to her vagina, which would not serve her; and 2) bisexual and lesbian women, by not experiencing this early shift, are simply ‘underdeveloped’.

Freud’s purpose for building the Oedipus complex theory was also to explain the foundation of the super-ego. As a result of the Oedipus complex, the internalized restrictions by the parents (especially the father) become the super-ego, the unconscious part of the psyche that impedes, judges and offers values and models to be emulated.

The identification of the boy with his father and the love of the girl for her father lead to children of both sexes internalizing the rules voiced by their father, which is cognate to the production of the super-ego. For the girl-child, it is the love for her father that makes her accept and internalize his rules. In his works on culture, Freud recognized the effects of a sociological aspect to the super-ego. He asserted that society controlled an individual’s drives, particularly aggression (when it was reprimanded), through the instrument of super-ego. (4)

Freud's belief that the Oedipus complex is a universal experience has been disputed. For instance, the well-known anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, who lived and worked among the Trobriand Islanders during the 1920s, critiqued psychoanalysis and proved that the Oedipus complex did not exist among his research subjects, and thus was not universal. (5)

Freud's theories are the most phallocentric ones ever developed. Following the patriarchal society’s ruling by men, these theories acknowledge only the phallus as the ‘real’ sexual organ. In this context, the female tries to appropriate that phallus for herself by being subordinate to a male love-object. Expectedly, these theories have been the subject of much criticism by both feminists and gender theorists. Freud had a hard time with theorizing female psychosexual development and, in fact, confessed his inability to understand female sexuality.

However, Freud’s positive contribution to the study of gender was his insistence that femininity and masculinity did not exist in a rigid and unchanging state, that they were empirical results of complex and contradictory emotions. He considered every woman’s or man’s personality to be a multi-layered and complex structure, and insisted on the presence of femininity within men and masculinity within women.


1. Freud, Sigmund. 2000 (1905). Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Basic Books Publication: New York.

2. Freud, Sigmund. 1961 (1925). Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes, Standard Edition, vol. XIX. Hogarth Press: London. P.256

3. Freud, Sigmund. 1999 (1931). Female Sexuality, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XXI. Vintage Books, New York.

4. Freud, Sigmund. 2002 (1930). Civilization and its Discontents. Penguin: London, UK.

5. Malinowski, Bronislaw. 2010 (1927). Sex and repression in savage society. Routledge Classics, New York.


~ Dr. A. Azad is a sociologist and an independent scholar.


more from Azadeh Azad
Azin Izadifar

I remember when I first

by Azin Izadifar on

I remember when I first read Freud saying that girls are jealous and feel NOT having IT, I was shocked. I never had felt that. And of course Freud fans always say oh no you're just in denial. The whole theory fall apart when one day my 4 years old niece saw her brothers genital. She asked her mother what it was. Her mother explained to her that her brother andher father has THAT (Az oona)and she and heself have This (Az ina). Her mother told me that the little girl take a look down there and laughed cheerfully. Later she wanted to see his father's THING. The mother told her that his father has left it somewhere and when they find it they will show it to her. One day the father was wearing a short and playing with them, when she suddenly grabed his penis shouting: Mom , Mom, I found it! The whole story was so fun and far away from Freud's Sad and full of frustraion story of sexual development.