Psychosexual development

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Psychosexual development
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Id, ego, and super-ego

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Alfred AdlerOtto Rank
Anna FreudMargaret Mahler
Karen HorneyJacques Lacan
Ronald FairbairnMelanie Klein
Harry Stack Sullivan
Erik EriksonNancy Chodorow
Susan Sutherland Isaacs
Ernest JonesHeinz Kohut

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The Interpretation of Dreams
Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis
"Beyond the Pleasure Principle"
Civilization and Its Discontents

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The concept of psychosexual development, as envisioned by Sigmund Freud at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, is a central element in the theory of psychology. It consists of five separate phases: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. In the development of his theories, Freud's main concern was with sexual desire, defined in terms of formative drives, instincts and appetites that result in the formation of an adult personality.

Terminology associated with Freud's stages of psychosexual development has found wide, popular usage in a variety of registers and fields of activity (see, Freud and Popular Culture).


Freud theorized that the libido developed in individuals by changing its object, through the process of transference. He argued that humans are born "polymorphous perverse"[1], meaning that any number of objects could be a source of pleasure. However, to this day, there is no scientific justification of this theory and generally not an accepted model among practicing psychologists. Following a biological logic, Freud established a rigid model for that "normal" sexual development of the human being, or the "libido development". Each child passes through five psychosexual stages. During each stage, the id focuses on a distinct erogenous zone on the body. The term "psychosexual infantilism," refers to those who become fixated in this way and fail to mature through the psychosexual stages into heterosexuality. Freud related the resolutions of the stages with adult personalities and personality disorders.

Despite their popularity among psychoanalytical psychologists, Freud's psychosexual theories are commonly criticized as being sexist. For example, Freud stated that young females develop "penis envy" toward the males during their psychosexual development. In response, Karen Horney, a German Freudian psychoanalyst, argued that young females develop "power envy" instead of "penis envy" toward the male.

Freud's model of psychosexual development

Stage Age Range Erogenous zone(s) Consequences of Fixation
Oral 0-18 months Mouth Orally aggressive:

Involves chewing gum or ends of pens.

Orally Passive:

Involves smoking/eating/kissing/fellatio/cunnilingus[2]

Anal 18-36 months Bowel and bladder elimination Anal-retentive:

Obsession with organization or excessive neatness
Reckless, careless, defiant, disorganized, Coprophiliac

Phallic 3-6 years Genitals Oedipus complex (in boys only according to Freud)

Electra complex (in girls according to Jung not Freud)

Latency 6 years-puberty Dormant sexual feelings (People do not tend to fixate at this stage, but if they do, they tend to be extremely sexually unfulfilled.)
Genital Puberty and beyond Sexual interests mature Frigidity, impotence, unsatisfactory relationships

Oral phase

The oral stage in psychology is the term used by Sigmund Freud to describe the child's development during the first eighteen months of life, in which an infant's pleasure centers are in the mouth. This is the first of Freud's psychosexual stages.

This is the infant's first relationship with its mother; it is a nutritive one. The length of this stage depends on the society. In some societies it is common for a child to be nursed by its mother for several years, whereas in others the stage is much shorter. Suckling and eating, however, compose the earliest memories for infants in every society. This stage holds special importance because some, especially those in tribal societies commonly found in the Southwest Pacific and Africa, consider the stomach to be the seat of emotions.

Anal phase

The next stage of psychosexual development is centered around the rectum, but can also include bladder functions. This phase usually occurs from eighteen months to thirty-six months of age. In this stage children learn to control the expulsion of feces causing their libidinal energy to become focused in this area. The added awareness of this erogenous zone arises in children from concentrating on controlling their defecation. They come to see it as just another way to experience pleasure, and begin to take pride in either defecating in a fashion that may be considered socially unacceptable, or, in the case of very strict parents, they may begin to resist the urge to defecate to the extent where it becomes pathological. Two types of characters can develop out of this: the expulsive and the retentive. The expulsive character would have been prone to malicious excretion either just before they were placed on the toilet or just after they were removed from the toilet. The retentive character takes pleasure in holding in the feces in spite of his or her parents' training. The child comes to view the feces as a possession which he does not want to relinquish. Freud postulated that such children develop into adults who are usually neat, organized, careful, meticulous, and obstinate.

Phallic phase

At thirty-six months to about seventy-two months of age the libidinal energy shifts from the anal region to the genital region. At this point, according to Freud's model, the Oedipus or Electra complex can develop. The Oedipus complex is central to the psychodynamic fixations in this time period for men; the Electra complex for women.

Around this time in males, according to Freud, the young boy falls in love with his mother and wishes that his father was not in the way of his love. At this point he notices that women have no penis and fears that the punishment of his father for being in love with his wife is castration. This fear is enhanced if he is castigated for masturbation at this stage. Once the fear of retaliation has subsided the boy will learn to earn his mother's love by becoming as much like his father as possible. Thus, the superego is born. He will adopt his father's beliefs and ideals as his own and move on to the latency stage.

Freud's theory regarding the psychosexual dynamic present in female children in this point of their psychosexual development is termed, though not by Freud himself, the Electra complex. According to Freud, young girls, after they come to the realization that they have no penis, begin to blame the mother for having taken it, and look to the father as a substitute for the loss that they perceive. This is termed "penis envy." Freud's theory of feminine sexuality, particularly penis envy, has been sharply criticized in both gender and feminist theory.

Latency phase

The latency period begins sometime around the age of six and ends when puberty starts to begin. Freud believed that in this phase the Oedipus complex was dissolved and set free, resulting in a relatively conflict-free period of development. In this phase, the child begins to make connections to siblings, other children, and adults. This phase is typified by a solidifying of the habits that the child developed in the earlier stages.

Genital phase

The genital stage starts at puberty, allowing the child to develop opposite sex relationships with the libidinal energy again focused on the genital area. According to Freud, if any of the stages are fixated on, there is not enough libidinal energy for this stage to develop untroubled. To have a fully functional adulthood, the previous stages need to be fully resolved and there needs to be a balance between love and work.

Criticism of Freud's theory of psychosexual development

Feminist critique

Freud's theories were decidedly androcentric, which is why he has received a great deal of criticism from feminists, as well as from gender theory practitioners. Freud had difficulty incorporating female desire into his theories. Freud attempted to provide a theoretical explanation for feminine psychosexual development only rather late in his career. Freud personally confessed a lack of understanding of female sexuality and did not hold out hope that psychology would ever explain the phenomenon.

Freud argued that young girls followed more or less the same psychosexual development as boys. Whereas the boy would develop a castration conflict, the girl would go on to develop penis envy, "the envy the female feels toward the male because the male possesses a penis." The envy is rooted in the fact that without a penis, the female cannot sexually posess the mother as driven to by the Id. As a result of this realization, she is driven to desire sexual union with the father. After this stage, the woman has an extra stage in her development when the clitoris should wholly or in part hand over its sensitivity and its importance to the vagina. The young girl must also at some point give up her first object-choice, the mother, in order to take the father as her new proper object-choice. Her eventual move into heterosexual femininity, which culminates in giving birth, grows out of her earlier infantile desires, with her own child taking place of the penis in accordance with an ancient symbolic equivalence. Freud wrote: "girls feel deeply their lack of a sexual organ that is equal in value to the male one; they regard themselves on that account as inferior and this envy for the penis is the origin of a whole number of characteristic feminine reactions."


  1. Myre, Sim (1974). "Guide to Psychiatry, 3rd edition" Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh and London, ISBN 0 443 01161 3. page 396
  2. Myre, Sim (1974). "Guide to Psychiatry, 3rd edition" Churchill Livingstone, Edinburgh and London, ISBN 0 443 01161 3. page 35, page 407

See also

de:Triebtheorie is:Kynferðisleg stig he:המודל הפסיכוסקסואלי sv:Psykosexuell utvecklingsteori