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by Robert M. Young

In recent decades Freud has had a bad press from practically every direction. He was thought a biological determinist and reductionist by both the upholders of traditional morality and then by feminists who wanted to contest the idea that biology is destiny and that not having a penis was an irreparable disadvantage. My initial encounter with psychoanalysis was as a first-year undergraduate in 1953 certainly supported this view. My new roommate, a New Yorker, had been to a grand private school in New England (the equivalent of an English public school -- called a prep school in America), while I had been to a state school in Texas. He hooted when he learned that I had not heard of Freud or psychoanalysis: ‘He’s the guy who says everything is sex; all neckties are dicks, and all doorways are cunts.’ I confess that it made a kind of instant sense to me. When I began to read Freud for myself a couple of years later I had little reason to think again about this characterization of sex as basic to all human relations and its symbolism as ubiquitous.

Now, nearly half a century later, I cannot imagine myself thinking that way or characterising psychoanalysis in those terms. The concept of libido, which meant sex drive to me then, means something as wide as negative entropy to me now. (Entropy is a concept in thermodynamics indicating the tendency of systems to disorganise, for their energy to run down to equilibrium; negative entropy characterises energised, complex, relatively organised systems.) The libido theory, which I will sketch anon, is out of fashion in most quarters and has been replaced by object relations theory. In the great Freudian triad of instinct, aim and object, the emphasis has shifted decisively from aim to object, and the mental representations of instincts are to the fore rather than their biological roots. Indeed, one of the founders of object relations theory, Ronald Fairbairn, went so far to say that libidinal attitudes do not determine object relations. On the contrary, object relations determine libidinal attitudes (Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983, p. 137). One way to characterise the change is that what was once rooted in biology has come to be grounded in relationships; what was focused on sexual areas -- erogenous zones -- is now focused on the unconscious phantasies in the inner world. In some circles the privileging of certain body parts in Freudian theory has been replaced by a claim that any part of the body, any function, anything at all can be the legitimate focus of sexual preoccupation, excitement and gratification. Still others (e.g., O’Connor and Ryan, 1993, p. 246) seek to root out all naturalism from sexual identity, orientation and behaviour.

Don’t get me wrong. Sexuality, sexual parts, erogenous zones and phases of psychosexual development have not been purged from psychoanalytic theory. The most helpful thing that can be said is that they have moved from the foreground to the background. My approach to sketching the history of psychoanalytic ideas of psychosexual development is to try to ‘locate’ Freud’s thinking and then to show how other psychoanalytic ideas have stretched his ideas, while still others have broken with them -- with the consequence that sexuality has been progressively relocated.

One feature of the libido theory has, in certain quarters, been placed under critical scrutiny: the centrality of the Oedipus complex in psychosexual and moral development. There are those -- I am not among them -- who seek to discard any notion that there is a privileged path of development which we must all pass through if we are to attain maturity. They also reject the claim that failure successfully to negotiate the Oedipus complex is certain to land one in psychological trouble. On this matter there can be no compromise as far as Freudians are concerned. Freud called the Oedipus complex, the painful working out (from about three and a half to five years in childhood) of psychosexual relations between the child and the parents, 'the core complex' or the nuclear complex of every neurosis. In a footnote added to the 1920 edition of Three Essays on Sexuality, he made it clear that the Oedipus complex is the immovable foundation stone on which the whole edifice of psychoanalysis is based: ' It has justly been said that the Oedipus complex is the nuclear complex of the neuroses, and constitutes the essential part of their content. It represents the peak of infantile sexuality, which, through its after-effects, exercises a decisive influence on the sexuality of adults. Every new arrival on this planet is faced with the task of mastering the Oedipus complex; anyone who fails to do so falls a victim to neurosis. With the progress of psycho-analytic studies the importance of the Oedipus complex has become more and more clearly evident; its recognition has become the shibboleth that distinguishes the adherents of psycho-analysis from its opponents' (Freud, 1905, p. 226n). 

No compromise is possible with respect to the significance of the Oedipus complex, then. However, if you read the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality with an open mind, Freud’s ideas about sexuality come across as rather more liberal and tolerant of aberration than many of his critics represent them as being. For example, the first essay is not about normality but about sexual aberrations. The second essay is about infantile sexuality, and the third is about puberty. You could say that normal adult sex comes last. Indeed, ‘The Finding of an Object’ of one’s affections turns up in the very last section of the third and last essay. You could say that normal love is something reached by a circuitous path from polymorphous perversity through a series of fixations and incestuous wishes, eventually renounced, although the girl does not finally sort out hers until she has a child, i.e., a symbolic substitute penis. (Nagera, 1981, pp. 67-72; Klein, 1928, 1945, pp. 50 sqq.. and 72-74).

In the first essay Freud stresses just how wide the range of human sexual behaviour is. His is not a rigid position. He says quite straightforwardly that everyone is to some extent a deviant. Freud wrote, 'No healthy person, it appears, can fail to make some addition that might be called perverse to the normal sexual aim; and the universality of this finding is in itself enough to show how inappropriate it is to use the word perversion as a term of reproach. In the sphere of sexual life we are brought up against peculiar, and, indeed, insoluble difficulties as soon as we try to draw a sharp line to distinguish mere variations within the range of what is physiological from pathological symptoms' (Freud, 1905, pp. 160-61). This allows for quite a lot of latitude, but there is still a definite limit. His model is one of norm and deviation – deviation up to a point, but you are supposed to get back onto the appropriate path in the end. There were definite taboos, as well. According to Freud, it was a perversion if the lips or tongue of one person came into contact with the genitals of another or if one lingered over aspects of foreplay which, as he quaintly put it, 'should normally be traversed rapidly on the path towards the final sexual aim’ (Freud, 1905, pp. 151, 150; cf. p. 211). He regarded 'any established aberration from normal sexuality as an instance of developmental inhibition and infantilism' (Freud, 1905, p. 231). On the other hand, contrary to what many Freudians believe, Freud did not himself regard homosexuality or perversion as illnesses (Abelove, 1986, pp. 59, 60).

So, although Freud was adamant about the Oedipus complex, he was somewhat flexible about sexual behaviour and allowed for a degree of deviance. What, then, is Freudian orthodoxy with respect to sexual development? You can read straightforward accounts of this in Humberto Nagera’s Basic Psychoanalytic Concepts: The Libido Theory (1981), which claims to include every reference Freud made to this matter, and in Phyllis and Robert Tyson’s Psychoanalytic Theories of Development: An Integration (1990). If we want to locate Freud in a wide spectrum of theories, we would have to say that he is toward the fixed or biologically determinist end of the spectrum. At this end of the spectrum we encounter the findings of ethologists and the claims of the sociobiologists (Wilson, 1975, 1978). Among the most startling discoveries of the science of animal behaviour are the highly ritualised mating patterns of practically all subhuman species, replete with innately determined releasers, fixed patterns, displays. Biology is veritably destiny, whether one is observing fighting fish, spiders, greylag geese, peacocks, walruses, elk or chimpanzees. Students of human behaviour from an ethological point of view claim to detect similar patterns and rituals, biologically determined at base but varied and flexible in expression -- so much so that much of our money gets spent on artificial adornments, cosmetics, ways of altering the odours we give off, means of affecting our shape and appearance so as to continue to appear youthful and sexually alluring. Human ethologists and sociobiologists claim that there is no discontinuity between animal sexual determinism and human.

I will now offer a summary of Freudian orthodoxy on human psychosexual development. It starts with a definite developmental scheme, as modified and enriched by Karl Abraham and, some would say, Erik Erikson. We begin with primary narcissism and pass through psychosexual phases, in which the child is preoccupied with successive erogenous zones -- oral, anal, phallic and genital (oral for the first year and a half, anal for the next year and a half and phallic beginning toward the close of the third year. See Brenner, 1973, p. 26 and Meltzer, 1973, pp. 21-27). As I have said, the classical Oedipal period is ages three and a half to six (some say five). This leads on to the formation of the superego and a period of relative latency, during which boys are quintessentially boyish and horrid, with their bikes, hobbies and play, and girls are sugar and spice and everything nice, playing nurse and mommy (or so it is said; cf. Chodorow, 1978). There are zones of variation and various subdivisions within this framework, but its basis is as determined as any analogous developmental scheme in any other part of the animal kingdom. At the earlier end of the scheme Abraham offers some quite detailed subdivisions of the basic phases, e.g., anal retentive and anal expulsive (Abraham, 1924). Things get fraught again in adolescence when biological changes coincide with agonising problems about gender identity (Waddell, 1992, esp. pp. 9-10), sexual exploration and maturation, conflict with parents, competitiveness and achievement. Erik Erikson spells out a further set of stages, beginning with a psychosocial moratorium in late adolescence, followed by young adulthood, adulthood and mature age, the last of which he characterises as a period in which the central conflict is between integrity, on the one hand, and disgust and despair, on the other.(Erikson, 1959, p. 120).

The classical Freudian scheme defines 'normal' as remaining within this chronological developmental framework. If you miss out a phase or fail to move on from one or try to skip one and miss out a developmental task, you are liable to fixation and perversion or even to psychosis. A common definition of perversion is pseudo-maturity, gaining sexual gratification from a substitute object because one is afraid of the appropriate, mature one. According to Robert Stoller (1986), all perversions involve immaturity and all are aggressive. He calls perversion 'the erotic form of hatred' but claims that every perversion, like every neurosis, is a compromise involving holding onto some connection with a mature object. Chasseguet Smirgel (1985) dwells on the putative pervert's attempt to substitute an immature sexual organ for a grown-up one, and describes the dishonesty of trying to pass a little penis off for a daddy one, without bearing the pain of passing through the Oedipus complex and coming to terms with one's limitations and ambivalence. Limentani (1989) breaks homosexuality into three categories — a situational behaviour which goes away after one leaves, for example, school, the navy or prison; a pseudo-homosexual one which is focused on fear of women and of castration; and true homosexuality, which is a defence against psychotic breakdown and which one approaches psychotherapeutically at one's peril. This completes my exposition of Freudian orthodoxy

I want now to turn to developments in psychoanalysis and in broader debates about sexuality which have challenged this orthodoxy and which have led many to relocate sexuality in psychoanalytic theory. The key claim is that the relevant framework for considering these issues is that sexuality is inside the symbolic order, not purely an expression of instinctual needs. Biological determinants are not wholly cast aside, but the rigidity of their determining role is greatly reduced. More space is claimed for a range of sexual needs, feelings and practices — a range which is as broad as symbolism, rather than as narrow as instinctual determinism. At one level, all but the most conservative and fundamentalists moralists and religious zealots concede something to this way of thinking. It is now a commonplace that sexuality has a history, that is, it is inside the contingency of culture, not merely fixed and innate in a stereotyped way. To place it inside history is to grant a lot to the dissidents. In my own lifetime and my own sexual history there have been important changes in all sorts of areas. Things which were taboo when I was a boy are now commonplace, starting with public discussion of sex, including programmes on the radio and television and sex books prominently displayed in all book shops. In the writings of Alex Comfort (1950, 1972, 1975) and others, foreplay has been extended indefinitely, and the boundary between exploration and abnormality has been blurred.

As I write about these things I am moving into the domain of ‘plastic sexuality’, a phrase drawn from the writings of Anthony Giddens, whose book The Transformation of Intimacy (1992), provides a useful perspective on the changes which we are in the midst of. I do not feel altogether comfortable with the degree of relativism involved in this way of thinking, but I have no doubt that this is a useful way of summarising the current debate in culture and in psychoanalysis. Defenders of plastic sexuality attack the boundary between the normal and the abnormal or perverse. They argue that the statistically normal should no longer be confused with medical and moral categories. Indeed, new statistics are put forward by the advocates of greater latitude. For example, it is claimed that 40% or more of married men in the United States have regular sex with other men at some point in their married lives (p. 146). As Giddens puts it, 'Plastic sexuality might become a sphere which no longer contains the detritus of external compulsions, but instead takes its place as one among other forms of self-exploration and moral constitution' (p. 144). Sex is no longer confined to certain sorts of relationships; the rule of the phallus and power relations are subverted (pp. 140, 147). ' The "biological justification" for heterosexuality as "normal", it might be argued, has fallen apart. What used to be called perversions are merely ways in which sexuality can legitimately be expressed and self-identity defined. Recognition of diverse sexual proclivities corresponds to acceptance of a plurality of possible life-styles... "normal sexuality" is simply one type of life-style among others' (p. 179). Giddens calls this a 'radical pluralism' (ibid.).

Looking at the cultural and philosophical dimensions of the debate, he concludes that this 'incipient replacement of perversion by pluralism is part of a broad-based set of changes integral to the expansion of modernity. Modernity is associated with the socialisation of the natural world — the progressive replacement of structures and events that were external parameters of human activity by socially organised processes. Not only social life itself, but what used to be "nature" becomes dominated by socially organised systems. Reproduction was once a part of nature, and heterosexual activity was inevitably its focal point. Once sexuality has become an "integral" component of social relations... heterosexuality is no longer a standard by which everything else is judged. We have not yet reached a stage in which heterosexuality is accepted as only one taste among others, but such is the implication of the socialisation of reproduction' (p. 34). He is right about the changes in social and philosophical theory, and one point at issue — a profound one — is whether being right about what is happening in history is more or less fundamental than what is claimed about nature. The tradition he is describing asserts that nature is a societal category, that truth is made, not found and that our ideas of nature, including those about human nature, are social constructs. People who think this way are called ‘social constructivists’ if you agree with them and ‘relativists’ if you don’t (Young, 1992).

Certain broad — and other particular — developments in psychoanalysis can be seen as compatible with this approach to sexuality. The broad movement is the decline in adherence to biologism and the classical libido theory and the rise of object relations theory. Object relations theory developed in the work of Melanie Klein, Ronald Fairbairn and Donald Winnicott (Greenberg and Mitchell, 1983). There are important differences between their formulations. For example, Fairbairn was explicitly turning his back on biology in a way which Klein did not. But the effect on psychoanalytic thinking was to point to relations with the good and bad aspects of the mother and other important figures and part-objects and to treat relations with objects in the inner world, rather than the expression of instincts, as the basic preoccupation of psychoanalytic thinking and clinical work. The focus is on relations rather than drives, on 'the object of my affection [who] can change my complexion from white to rosy red' (as the song says), rather than the aim of the instinct as specified in a biologistic metapsychology (Greenberg and Mitchell, 1983, p. 126). Once you do this, sex, sexuality and sexual energy no longer provide either the rhetoric or the conceptual framework for how we think about the inner world. Love, hatred, unconscious phantasy, anxiety and defences have come to the foreground (p. 137). As I mentioned above, for Freud, 'sexual' was all-embracing and meant any attribute of living tissue expressing negative entropy. This is what he meant by 'libido' (Stoller, 1986, p. 12). Object relations theorists approach the matter the other way round: libido is not seen as pleasure-seeking but object-seeking (Greenberg and Mitchell, 1983, p. 154). It has been my recent experience that sex in its narrow sense plays a surprisingly small role in psychotherapy training and supervision and the literature. Indeed, some years ago I went to a public lecture by a psychoanalyst, Dr. Dennis Duncan, with the title 'What Ever Happened to Sex in Psychoanalysis?'.

Along with the turn away from the libido theory has come less attention devoted to the psychosexual developmental scheme and fairly strict chronology which it specified. If you read Klein and her followers, you find phrases like 'oral, anal and phallic elements' jumbled up and part of a pot-pourri. What emerged later in the orthodox Freudian scheme at specified developmental and chronological points in the libido theory, somehow gets mixed in at an earlier stage in Klein's approach.

I now want to say something about alternative developmental paths. Some of the most interesting writers in this debate make this their most important point: 'What's so wonderful about the developmental path specified by the libido theory?' In asking this question they are attacking the centrality of the Oedipus complex in orthodox Freudianism. They write in explicit opposition to the Freudian Law of the Father on which the importance of the Oedipus complex is based (Fletcher, 1989, p. 113) As the gay theorist John Fletcher puts it, 'What is refused here is not masculinity or the phallus in itself, but the polarity at the heart of the Oedipal injunction: "You cannot be what you desire, you cannot desire what you wish to be." (p. 114). What the Freudians claim as natural is what the sexual dissidents attack as a cultural norm to be struggled against. They argue for a re-symbolisation and re-investment in a new kind of sexuality.

Support for this approach is found in the writings of the eminent French psychoanalyst, Jean Laplanche, co-author of the standard work defining psychoanalytic concepts, The Language of Psycho-analysis (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1973). The list of erogenous zones specified by the libido theory is accepted: mouth, anus, urethra, genitals. However, they are described less biologistically as places of exchange between inside and outside (Fletcher, 1989, p. 96). However, any bodily zone can take on a sexual level of excitement, as can ideas. The traditional understanding of perversion is an alteration or deviation from the fixed, biologically determined order of privileged zones, culminating in genital intercourse to orgasm. But if we refuse to accept this spontaneous unfolding of a unitary instinctual programme, sexuality itself can be seen as polymorphous and therefore, to put it ironically, perverse. Laplanche expresses this starkly by saying that 'the exception - i.e., the perversion - ends up by taking the rule along with it. The exception, which should presuppose the existence of a definite instinct, a pre-existent sexual function, with its well-defined norms of accomplishment: that exception ends up by undermining and destroying the very notion of a biological norm. The whole of sexuality, or at least the whole of infantile sexuality, ends up becoming perversion' (Laplanche, 1970, p. 23).

Fletcher puts this in symbolic terms, terms which increase the range, scope and flexibility of sexuality: 'The whole of sexuality as a mobile field of displaceable and substitutable signs and mental representations is a perversion of the order of biological needs and fixed objects (Fletcher, 1989, pp. 98-9). If perversion is ubiquitous, it cannot be called exceptional; it is commonplace, the rule, normal: hence ‘“perversion” as “normal”’, and the pejorative connotations of the term become obsolete.

Writing about bisexuality and lesbianism, Beverly Burch takes a similarly line in opposition to biologism and in favour social constructivism. She says that 'Lesbianism and heterosexual identities are social constructs that incorporate psychological elements' (Burch, 1993, pp. 84-85). These differ from one woman to another and have manifestations and sources as varied as individual biographies. ‘The unity of heterosexual theory does not live up to the diversity of sexual orientations' (p. 85). She places sexual orientations on a continuum and argues that any point on it might be defensive; 'no position is necessarily or inevitably pathological' (p. 91). She surveys the literature and finds a relativism of theory to match her relativism of developmental pathways: 'The point is that no one view is complete, and there are divergent routes on the way to final object choice. The road is not a straight one toward heterosexuality, and we cannot regard other destinations as a wrong turn' (p. 97)

Writers on these issues draw different lines between what they consider pathological and what they treat as merely human diversity. As I said, Robert Stoller defines perversion as 'the erotic form of hatred' and offers critical analyses of fetishism, rape, sex murder, sadism, masochism, voyeurism, paedophilia. He sees in each of these 'hostility, revenge, triumph and a dehumanised object' (Stoller, 1986, p. 9). On the subject of homosexuality, however, he is a champion of pluralism: ' What evidence is there that heterosexuality is less complicated than homosexuality, less a product of infantile-childhood struggles to master trauma, conflict, frustration, and the like? As a result of innumerable analyses, the burden of proof... has shifted to those who use the heterosexual as the standard of health, normality, mature genital characterhood, or whatever other ambiguous criterion serves one's philosophy these days... Thus far, the counting, if it is done from published reports puts the heterosexual and the homosexual in a tie: 100 percent abnormals' (Stoller, 1985, quoted in Burch, 1993, p. 97)' Another gem from Stoller: 'Beware the concept "normal," It is beyond the reach of objectivity. It tries to connote statistical validity but hides brute judgments on social and private goodness that, if admitted, would promote honesty and modesty we do not yet have in patriots, lawmakers, psychoanalysts and philosophers' (Stoller, 1985, p.41, quoted in Burch, 1993, p. 98).

The extreme point in this debate in psychoanalytic theory is that of certain lesbian theoreticians on gender identity who have reached the point, as we have seen, where they can claim that the exceptions overwhelm the rule and can put forward the long-term goal of ‘eschewing all forms of naturalism in psychoanalytic thinking’ (O’Connor and Ryan, 1993, p. 246).

Wouldn't that be a lovely note on which to end? Unfortunately, my own sense of reality is not that optimistic, ringing and tidy. It would be convenient to argue that abandoning the bad old libido theory and embracing object relations and social constructivism combine to hold out hope of a new pluralistic consensus in psychoanalytic theory and in cultural and moral norms. Alas, I don't think it does, and the fly in the ointment is recent Kleinian ideas about the Oedipus complex. This may not trouble those convinced by the line of argument I have just been spelling out, but it troubles me, because I cannot square what I have written so far with what I write below. I wish I could, but I can't.

Kleinians, as we have seen, go along with the tendency to abandon strict adherence to the chronology of the libido theory. Indeed, Klein's assertion that she had found the superego operating years earlier in the development of the child than Freudians thought it existed was the most obvious bone of contention in the heated controversies which culminated in the famous or infamous (depending on how you feel about such rows) 'controversial discussions' between Kleinians and Freudians at the British Psycho-analytical Society from 1941 to 1945 (King and Steiner, 1991). I am not trying to draw you into an esoteric spat. I think they were right to be so exercised. I think this, because I think two importantly different views of human nature and the basis of morality were in play and that how we think about sexuality and, indeed, civility and civilisation may very well hang on what we decide about these matters.

Put very simply, as we have seen, the Freudians claimed that development consisted of a set of preordained tasks which one came upon at biologically predetermined stages on life's way. There is a sense that one can complete a developmental task and have its fruits under one's belt, as it were. The advocates of plastic sexuality reject this idea of human nature and development and argue for a plurality of paths and destinations or objects, and the Freudians deny them this postmodernist supermarket of satisfactions.

      At first glance there is a similarity between the advocates of plastic sexuality and Kleinian ideas. Kleinians slide all round the chronology. It has been cogently argued by Ruth Stein that they don't even have a theory of psychic structures but rely fundamentally on a set of 'core feelings and nuclear affective structures' (Stein, 1990, p. 504), in particular, the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions. But what Kleinians appear to give with one hand — slipping all over the chronology and eschewing a basic set of mental structures — they take back with the other. That is, the Oedipus complex may not be the centrepiece of development at say, three and a half to six, reprised at adolescence. Instead, under the name 'Oedipal constellation', this hurdle reappears at every important point in life when one is faced with crises and moral dilemmas. According to Kleinian psychoanalysis, the struggle between love and hate is unresolveable and recurrently centres on the Oedipal triangle. Indeed, far from being something one can refuse a la Fletcher's rhetoric about the normality of polymorphousness, it becomes a precondition for being a responsible person who can love and make moral and intellectual judgments of a profound kind and be capable of integrated insights and deep concern for others.

As the Kleinian analyst David Bell puts it, 'The primitive Oedipal conflict described by Klein takes place in the paranoid-schizoid position when the infant's world is widely split and relations are mainly to part objects. This means that any object which threatens the exclusive possession of the idealised breast/mother is felt as a persecutor and has projected into it all the hostile feelings deriving from pregenital impulses' (Bell, 1992, p. 172)

If development proceeds satisfactorily, secure relations with good internal objects leads to integration, healing of splits and taking back projections. 'The mother is then, so to speak, free to be involved with a third object in a loving intercourse which, instead of being a threat, becomes the foundation of a secure relation to internal and external reality. The capacity to represent internally the loving intercourse between the parents as whole objects results, through the ensuing identifications, in the capacity for full genital maturity. For Klein, the resolution of the Oedipus complex and the achievement of the depressive position refer to the same phenomena viewed from different perspectives' (ibid.). Another Kleinian, Ronald Britton, puts it very elegantly: 'the two situations are inextricably intertwined in such a way that one cannot be resolved without the other: we resolve the Oedipus complex by working through the depressive position and the depressive position by working through the Oedipus complex' (Britton, 1992, p. 35).  Hence, the ability to tolerate the mixture which is life, to be concerned with whole objects and to integrate experience and make reparation are the fruits of negotiating the Oedipal triangle.

That provides a key to translating between the Freudian and Kleinian conceptual schemes? In the work of post-Kleinians this way of thinking has been applied to broader issues, in particular, the ability to symbolise and learn from experience. Integration of the depressive position, which we can now see as resolution of the Oedipus complex is the sine qua non of the development of 'a capacity for symbol formation and rational thought' (p. 37). Greater knowledge of the object 'includes awareness of its continuity of existence in time and space and also therefore of the other relationships of the object implied by that realisation. The Oedipus situation exemplifies that knowledge. Hence the depressive position cannot be worked through without working through the Oedipus complex and vice versa' (p. 39). Once again, Britton also sees 'the depressive position and the Oedipus situation as never finished but as having to be re-worked in each new life situation, at each stage of development, and with each major addition to experience or knowledge' (p. 38).

This way of looking at the Oedipal situation offers a very attractive, even profound, way of thinking of self-knowledge or insight: 'The primal family triangle provides the child with two links connecting him separately with each parent and confronts him with the link between them which excludes him. Initially this parental link is conceived in primitive part-object terms and in the modes of his own oral, anal and genital desires, and in terms of his hatred expressed in oral, anal and genital terms. If the link between the parents perceived in love and hate can be tolerated in the child's mind, it provides him with a prototype for an object relationship of a third kind in which he is a witness and not a participant. A third position then comes into existence from which object relationships can be observed. Given this, we can also envisage being observed. This provides us with a capacity for seeing ourselves in interaction with others and for entertaining another point of view whilst retaining our own, for reflecting on ourselves whilst being ourselves' (Britton, 1989, p. 87

I am going to leave it here. If it were not for Klein and recent developments of the Kleinian way of thinking, I believe plastic sexuality might have relatively plain sailing. But the point of view I have just outlined says as starkly as any orthodox Freudian ever did that the problem posed by the Oedipal triangle cannot be evaded if one is to become a person capable of profound thoughts and concern for others. This recalls the intolerance of Chasseguet-Smirgel's Freudian orthodoxy, whereby the creations of perverts (a term she insists on using) could only be pseudo-creations.

This dilemma between the developing credibility of pluralism, on the one hand, and Kleinian thinking, on the other, is a stark one. Freud said in 1903, 'I advocate the standpoint that the homosexual does not belong before the tribunal of a court of law. I am even of the firm conviction that homosexuals must not be treated as sick people, for a perverse orientation is far from being a sickness. Wouldn't that oblige us to characterise as sick many great thinkers and scholars whom we admire precisely because of their mental health?' (quoted in Abelove, 1986, p. 60).

Freud is making a very basic point. Are we to so pathologise the character and creations of Oscar Wilde, Benjamin Britten, Francis Bacon, Ludwig Wittgenstein, E. M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood, Vita Sackville-West, David Hockney, Jean Genet, Colette, Gertrude Stein, Michelangelo, Marcel Proust, Rock Hudson, Randolph Scott, Tyrone Power, Robert Ryan, Cary Grant, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, W. H. Auden, K. D. Lang, Tennessee Williams, William Burroughs, James Baldwin, Simone de Beauvoir, Roman Polansky, Derek Jarman, Michael Jackson, Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Michel Foucault, Alan Turing, Alfred Hitchcock, Socrates?

In closing, I can only pose the dilemma and offer it as food for thought. Psychoanalysis has come a long way from the classical Freudian concept of sexuality by way of the object relations tradition and developments in cultural norms. On the other hand, plastic sexuality and the Kleinian concept of maturity, as defined in the depressive position, don’t mix, though I dare say that enlightened Kleinians may one day re-think their position, one which currently leads to an illiberal clash. Something called ‘perversion’ may be normal for gays, lesbians, Laplanchians and some avant garde sociologists, but it’s still neurotic for orthodox Kleinians. It is clear that concepts of sexuality and gender are no longer moored to the biological reductionism of the libido theory of the original Freudian concept of sexuality. However, it remains unclear where, if at all, these debates will settle. It appears that they are permanently on the move, that is, that they are historical -- both in theory and in practice -- rather than purely biological.

This is the text of a chapter for Sexuality: Psychoanalytic Perspectives, edited by Celia Harding (Routledge). It draws on two earlier essays (Young, 1994, 1996).


Abelove, Henry (1986) ‘Freud, Homosexuality and the Americans’, Dissent Winter, pp. 59-69.

Abraham, Karl (1917) ‘Ejaculatio Praecox’, in Abraham (1979), pp. 280-98.

______ (1921-25) ‘Psycho-Analytical Studies on Character-Formation, in Abraham (1979), pp. 370-417.

______ (1924) ‘A Short Study of the Development of the Libido, viewed in the Light of Mental Disorders’, in Abraham (1979), pp. 418-501.

______ (1979) Selected Papers on Psycho-Analysis. London: Maresfield.

Bell, D. (1992) 'Hysteria - A Contemporary Kleinian Perspective',  Brit. J. Psychother. 9:169-80.

Brenner, C. (1973) An Elementary Textbook of Psychoanalysis., revised ed. N. Y.: International Universities.

Britton, Ronald (1989) 'The Missing Link: Parental Sexuality in the Oedipus Complex', in Britton et al. (1989), pp. 83-102.

______ (1992) 'The Oedipus Situation and the Depressive Position', in R. Anderson, ed., Clinical Lectures on Klein and Bion. London: Routledge, pp. 34-45.

______ et al. (1989) The Oedipus Complex Today: Clinical Implications. London: Karnac.

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