Feminine Sexuality and Identity – Unravelling the Male Perspective

Throughout and beyond recorded history there have been many civilisations that have come and gone, leaving behind a trail of evidence alluding to their existence. It could be argued that many of them were relatively modern, when judged upon the plethora of artefacts that remain testament to a once thriving, but now silent culture. Many of these artefacts generously depict the phallus (appendix A), highlighting the importance that has been historically attributed to this ‘symbolic’ organ. Jacques Lacan, who based much of his work on Freudian psychosexuality, expands further on this concept. The phallus as understood by Lacan, is the signifier of an ‘imaginary’ penis with functions only in the symbolic realm, and by which both sexes are demarcated symmetrically either through possession of an actual penis, or as having been castrated (lacking a penis). This however, is a point of strong contestation by many post-modern feminist thinkers that deem ‘Phallocratism’ as being deeply ingrained in our culture. One such critic can be found in Elizabeth Grosz, who summarises that,

Lacan’s distinction between the penis and the phallus enables Freud’s biologistic account of male superiority and women’s penis-envy to be explained in linguistic and symbolic, and thus historical terms”, (Grosz, 1990: 123).

And so it is through this historical connection in the symbolic realm that the masculine biased phallus can be seen as a meaningful constant throughout human history. With phallocratism so central to social, cultural and hence, ideological development, it is not unfathomable to think that psychosexual theories have historically been tainted, with far-reaching implications.

To add to this problem, before Freud, there was little in the way of psychiatric empirical research or philosophical studies of sexuality. In “The History of Sexuality”, Michel Foucault explains how since the middle ages, Western civilisation had abandoned the ‘Ars Erotica’ in favour of ‘Scientia Sexualis’. However, studies of sexuality were blurred further by religion and a questionable morality forged from social consciousness.

This was in fact a science made up of evasions since, given its inability or refusal to speak of sex itself, it concerned itself primarily with aberrations, perversions, exceptional oddities, pathological abatements, and morbid aggravations”, (Foucault, 1976: 53).

Like their predecessors in the field of psychosexuality, Freud and Lacan were born into this ideology themselves, and were undoubtedly also subject to its systematic underpinning of the patriarchal society that ensued. As Louis Althusser explains vis-à-vis ideology as inescapable,

Before its birth, the child is therefore always-already a subject, appointed as a subject in and by the specific familial ideological configuration in which it is expected once it has been conceived”, (Althusser, 1970).

Althusser goes on to relate this inevitability to Freud’s very own theories of psychosexual development and the unconscious, theories that Freud derived unsympathetically in this sense, as shall now be explained.

Freud on Femininity

Sigmund Freud was as well known for developing the practice of ‘psychoanalysis’ (in a bid to bridge the gap between the realm of psychology and an inherently more scientific medical practice), as for his theories on the psychosexual development of a child. The third stage of this development is central to this study in that it is based entirely on the phallus, to the point that it has also come to be known as the ‘Phallic Stage’ (as opposed to a more gender-neutral term). It is precisely how these theories are derived based on the masculine child, and applied generically to feminine psychosexual development, that is often targeted by feminist critics. 

The ‘Oedipus Complex’ is entered into by both masculine and feminine infants, on the discovery of their genitalia (usually when they reach around four or five years of age). By the time of this discovery, the masculine child has already developed a very strong bond with the mother by virtue of the pleasures that the child associates with nursing and toilet. But the male Oedipus complex dictates that this bond culminates in the child wanting to possess the mother, and replace the father as her love-interest. A resolution to this stage is arrived at on further discovering the mother as lacking a penis, or as having been castrated by the more dominant father. It is this fear of castration that brings about an abandonment of this pursuit, in favour of a new identification with the father and the subsequent development of his masculine persona. However, feminine psychosexuality is derived entirely from a negative interpretation of this model.

Freud suggests that the feminine child immediately identifies not having a penis as a difference, as falling into the opposing category of ‘Other’: a state which leads the feminine child to develop ‘Penis Envy’. Like the masculine child, the girl has by this stage, also bonded with the mother for the same reasons. But her abandonment of this bond weighs heavily on her state of ‘Otherness’, in that she develops remorse and contempt for her mother for not having brought her into this world as a male. During this detachment from the mother, she identifies with the father, an identification with the masculine that is then replaced by wanting to have a child of her own: a way to finally possess a penis, at first through intercourse, and later through the prospect of baring a male child. On resolution of the female Oedipus complex, a re-identification with the mother (as the original catalyst for her identification with the father), ensures her identity develops as feminine.

This negative interpretation of the masculine Oedipal complex, as is applied to feminine psychosexual development, has been the subject of much criticism by feminist thinkers who categorise…

  • Penis envy as a catalyst to jealousy, a character trait often attributed to the female persona: a persona centred on ‘Lack’.
  • Remorse towards her mother in a bid to associate with masculinity, as a precursor to developing contempt for her own sex: a manifestation of this ‘Lack’.
  • Sexual intercourse and having a child as de-naturalised, and seen as still in arduous pursuit of possessing a penis: an obsession.
  • Re-identification with the mother as acceptance of the penis as unobtainable, and her status as the subordinate sex: an acceptance of this ‘Lack’.

This Freudian psychological construction of female sexuality leaves femininity as lacking and unattributed. It is therefore no surprise that women generally, and feminist philosophers in particular, would take issue with Freud’s theories on the Oedipus complex.

The Feminist Argument

There have been many feminist thinkers and theorists who have vigorously contested Freudian psychosexual theory. But it is Irigaray’s challenge on the Freudian model of feminine psychosexuality, and the resulting ‘Female Imaginary’ as a repressed entity, that is predominant in the field. That its very conception seems most conveniently, to not destabilise the masculine model of the Oedipus complex, almost as if it were a necessary afterthought, is at the core of her argument.

To begin breaking down such problems, Luce Irigaray highlights that clitoral activity (on entering the Oedipal stage) is understood as masculine activity, and vaginal passivity (on resolution of the Oedipal stage) is seen as feminine passivity. Returning to the psychosexual development of the feminine child as seemingly an afterthought, Irigaray points out how both phases are in binary opposition to each other and yet, are both derived according to male sexuality: they comprise female genitalia in its entirety but are given no unique definition as such,

an opposition which…seems rather too clearly required by the practice of masculine sexuality”, (Irigaray, 1985: P23).

Further to this notion she argues that in such light, women’s erogenous zones never amount to anything, and that the clitoris is rendered an incomparable alternative to the “noble phallic organ”. The vagina remains only as a “hole envelope that serves to sheathe and massage the penis in intercourse: a non-sex, or a masculine organ turned back upon itself, self embracing”. What little is attributed, is only attributable in masculine terminology. 

Another point to which she calls attention to is ‘Autoeroticism’, which marks female sexuality as apart from masculine but yet again, is defined by a disruption during the parting of the lips by the penis for the purpose of intercourse. In essence, any such sexual function that is, inversely now, unattainable by man, is simply robbed from the woman. Women are hence reduced to commodities, they can only be fulfilled in life by man’s intervention.

Woman, in this sexual imaginary, is only a more or less obliging prop for the enactment of man’s fantasies. That she may find pleasure in that role, by proxy, is possible, even certain. But such pleasure is above all masochistic prostitution of her body to a desire that is not her own, and it leaves her in a familiar state of dependency upon man”, (Irigaray, 1985: 25).

If we consider women and their identity, then Irigaray’s thoughts on female genitalia defined as a lack of phallus – nothing to see – come to the fore. In this context she describes female genitalia as “a hole in the scoptophilic lens”. This ‘nothingness’ is used to characterise female identity, and Irigaray takes issue with the fact that women are robbed of their romantic mystique in favour of the more vulgar notion that is penis envy. As a consequence, the female imaginary, which is as multi-faceted sexually as it is in language, is understood as a repressed entity.

Must this multiplicity of female desire and female language be understood as shards, scattered remnants of a violated sexuality? A sexuality denied?”, (Irigaray, 1985: 30).

However, Freud’s theories forgo individuality altogether, instead focusing on psychosexuality which after all, is only one facet of a child’s development. Irigaray argues that in so doing, and basing his theories entirely on a flawed model of the feminine child, Freud goes a long way to fostering the notion of female identity as fragmented.

The rejection, the exclusion of a female imaginary certainly puts woman in the position of experiencing herself only fragmentarily, in the little structured margins of a dominant ideology”, (Irigaray, 1985:30).


In her studies of homophobia, Eve Sedgwick highlights the consequences of negating individuality, lending support to Irigaray’s desire for a deconstruction of the phallus.

To alienate conclusively, definitionally, from anyone on any theoretical ground the authority to describe and name their own sexual desire is a terribly consequential seizure”, (Sedgwick, 1990: P26).

However, Irigaray and other feminist thinkers, do not offer an alternative construction of female psychosexuality, but instead focus on…

the paradoxes and consequences generated for female sexuality by a culture, a value system, forms of knowledge and systems of representation that can only ever take female sexuality as object, as external, and as alien to the only set of perspectives presenting themselves as true – men’s”, (Grosz, 1995: P222).

One solution that Irigaray fleetingly entertains is the idea of women embracing lesbianism as an escape from phallocratism: as an opportunity to regroup and strengthen their resolve. This comes as no surprise since,

Lesbianism remains the site of the most threatening challenge to this phallocentrism…insofar as it evidences the existence of a female sexuality and sexual pleasure outside of the male pleasure and control”, (Grosz, 1995: P224).

Although Irigaray portrays feminine sexuality as better than masculine sexuality in many ways; autoeroticism, multiple erogenous zones, the ability to bear children but to name a few, femininity is still reduced through phallomorphism and denied through phallocratism: female sexuality remains undefined in its own right. Freud himself admits that his own understanding of women remains obscure, particularly that of a girl child, as one would have to go back to an archaic civilisation to find a society in which,

Woman’s desire would not be expected to speak the same language as man’s; woman’s desire has doubtless been submerged by the logic that has dominated the West since the time of the Greeks”, (Irigaray, 1985: 25).

Although Irigaray’s notion of femininity seems a more factual account than Freud’s psychosexual construction of female sexuality, she leaves women with little hope for future recognition of their true nature. The fact that this historical phallocratism remains so inextricably ingrained in the very fabric of society renders it unchangeable, despite all contestations.

History would repeat itself in the long run, would revert to sameness: to phallocratism. It would leave room neither for women’s sexuality, nor for women’s imaginary, nor for women’s language to take (their) place”, (Irigaray, 1985: 33).

Christian Gadd (1999 words).

Semester 4 (January – May 2015) : Media, Identity and Difference.

Appendix A                                                                                     

Chinese sex museum

Tongli Sex Museum, Jiangsu province, East China. An undated, yet fairly recent sculpture called “Man in Chains”.

Penis Temple Bangkok (Chao Mae Tuptim Shrine)

Penis Temple, Chao Mae Tuptim, Bangkok, Thailand. Early 20th century shrine to the phallus.

Hindu Phallus

15th century Hindu Temple in Java, Indonesia. Statue of a man holding his erect penis.

Venus and Mars

Roman Gods Venus and Mars. Conceived into ancient Roman religion from Greek mythology around the 7th century BC.

Priapus Ancient Greek Mythology

Priapus, ancient Greek God of fertility. Born into Greek Mythology around the 8th century BC. he was always depicted with an oversized, erect penis.

Min Egyptian God of Fertility (Lettuce)

Min, ancient Egyptian God of fertility, 4th millennium BC. When depicted in human form, his penis was always erect.



Althusser, Louis, (1970), “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, Marxists Internet Archive [Accessed 22nd March 2015] http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm

Foucault, Michel, (1977), “The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction”, trans. Robert Hurley. London: Penguin.

Freud, Sigmund, (1991), “Female Sexuality”, in SE Volume 7. London: Penguin.

Freud, Sigmund, (1991), “Infantile Sexuality”, in SE Volume 7. London: Penguin.

Freud, Sigmund, (1991), “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Differences Between the Sexes”, in SE Volume 7. London: Penguin.

Grosz, Elizabeth, (1990), “Jacques Lacan, A Feminist Introduction”, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Grosz, Elizabeth, (1995), “Space Time and Perversion: The Politics of Bodies”, Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Irigaray, Luce, (1985), “The Sex Which Is Not One”, trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press.

Lacan, Jacques, (1966), “Écrits“, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Sedgwick, Eve, (1990), “Epistemologies of the Closet”, London: Penguin.

Simpson, Susanne, (1987), “Freud Under Analysis”, Nova [Accessed 28th March 2015]



About Christian Gadd

Christian Gadd
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