Sexual Difference

Freud was supposed once to have said at a party, ‘What does a woman want?’ (in German, Was will das Weib).[1] Why should we think that women would know less what they want than men do? We might want to dismiss out of hand Freud’s remark as being sexist. Obviously there are many places in Freud’s work that one could find evidence for such a thing, and this would just be one more example out of many. I don’t want to defend Freud in this regard. I would think it would be very hard for someone at that time not to be sexist, and Freud is hardly special concerning these matters. After we have made our accusations, however, there might be something more interesting to say. I am reminded of something that Adorno said about Freud that when he is his at most exaggerated that is when he is true.[2]

Why was it that most of Freud’s patients were women? Do we have to look at the answer to this question in some aspect of Freud’s personality? Is not the real answer that it is entirely unsurprising that if you were an educated women of the early 20th that you would not have been driven quite literally hysterical? The fact that Freud’s treatment room was full of women tells us nothing about women (that women are more susceptible to hysteria than men, for example), but tells us everything about the society that they lived in at the time, which pretty much closed off every opportunity to them. Take for example, the patient at the heart of Freud’s first case study (though it was his friend Breuer’s patient), Anna O., whose real name was Bertha Pappenheim, who later became had a leading role in the development of German social work. Could we not say that her symptoms were caused by the world that she lived in? The real question, then, is why was this world more damaging to woman than men, and is it still so today? What then is the difference between men and women that one could be more damaged than the other? The answer to this question, I want to convince you, must be social rather than biological. There is nothing in the nature of women that would make them less equal than men.

In speaking, thinking and writing about sexual difference, you might imagine that the most important word in this expression is ‘sexual’ and not ‘difference’, since after all what we are interested in is sex. Yet, to understand the possibility of their being two kinds of sexes, one first of all has to know what kind of difference it is that you want, because this choice will determine completely how you understanding your own sexuality. There are two ways that we can think this difference. Either we think that it is real, or we think that it is symbolic. In the first case, difference is determined by nature. This is a very old idea, even though today the new language of genes and evolutionary psychology might dress it up in apparent objective and neutral discourse. The difference between men and women, then, has been laid down in 250,000 year ago when the human species first emerged, and the whole search for equality and justice between the sexes is just liberal wish fulfilment. What might make us a little sceptical about this thesis is that the behaviour of our distant ancestors, which we know very little about, just happens to be exactly the same as the prejudices of our more traditional and conservative fellow citizens. In the symbolic universe, on the contrary, it is not nature that determines the difference between the sexes, but language; that is to say, sexual differences are cultural, and if there is a biological element within sexuality, then it is moulded, shaped and transformed by social pressures and forces that interpret and place a certain value on them. This is the line that Freud takes, but we might conclude that he does not take it far enough, because he still wants to look for something universal that determines the difference between the sexes, even though it is no longer natural. Or if we want to be more precise, it is not that he stills seeks for something universal that makes his interpretation of sexual difference finally inadequate, but that he finds it in the wrong place. This is why we’re going to end with Lacan (well at least Lacan as he is reinterpreted by Zizek).

It is to Freud that we must thank for the invention of the symbolic interpretation of sexual difference. It is in his Three Essays on Sexuality, where we first see a committed and resolute argument against a biological and natural interpretation of human sexuality, which only sees sexuality in teleological or utilitarian terms. We only have sex for the sake of something else, for procreation or serial monogamy. For Freud, on the contrary, human sexuality is highly complex and differentiated, and what we find sexuality expands well beyond any purpose or useful value, a general sexuality, which he called ‘polymorphous perversity’(Freud 1991, p.109). To understand, however, the meaning of this perversity, we have to go back to the genesis of human sexuality. How is it that the child becomes a man or a woman, and takes on sexual difference, which is something that we are born into rather than are?

First of all, this is not primarily a biological process, although biology, of course must come into it, but an accomplishment. You have to become a man or woman in the full sense of the terms. You aren’t just naturally a man or a woman. The key essay for us here is a much latter work of Freud’s, ‘Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes’(Freud 1991, pp.323–43). When we look at this essay in detail, we can see that there are two different series one for the girl and one for the boy. This series is not innate as such. This means that you have to live in a society, and society, as such, determines how this series works. Now Freud has a word for how this pressure of society works and it is the Phallus. It is very important not to confuse this with the Penis. The phallus is not biological, but symbolic and as we have said above what characterises human sexuality is that it is symbolic.

Of course this does not mean that there are no biological elements in human sexuality, otherwise it might be hard to imagine how we could have ended up with the difference between the sexes, but this difference is not enough by itself to explain the complexity of our sexuality (what it is to be a man or a woman), however many chimpanzees one looks at. Our biology is always interpreted through a symbolic universe which is given in advance and determines how we are going to interpret the fact that we have a penis or we do not.

It is Freud’s absolute conviction that we live in a male society. Many people will say that he is sexist, and when I tell you about his theories about human sexual development you might agree with him, but I think he is quite correct about this. We do live in a male society.[3] It is certainly the case when Freud was writing (it is no surprise, as we said right at the beginning, that nearly all his cases where women) and I think it is still the case now, even though there might have been all kinds of advancements in the meantime in terms of the law and work. If we do live in a male society, then being born biologically a girl means that you are going to be seriously disadvantaged from the start and this drawback has nothing at all to do with biology, but how this biological destiny is interpreted. Or in Freud’s words, how the logic of the Phallus operates on one’s sexual development.

Let is then see how Freud himself explains how one becomes a boy or a girl; that is to say, how one ends up fulfilling one’s destiny and become what one already was. First of all let us take the series of the little boy. At the earliest stage of the child’s relation to the parents, which Freud calls the ‘phallic phase’, there is no distinction between the sexes. This is because what determines one’s sexual identity is the object of ones desire and it is clear that both the girl and the boy have the same object which is the mother (or more precisely the mother’s breast). For the little girl, however, to become a woman, she has to change her object of desire from her mother to her father. The explanation of this transformation is given by what Freud calls the ‘masculine ideal’. It is this ideal which gives to the physical differences of the sexes their negative and positive significance and explains the divergence in their development: from the phallic to the Oedipal phase to the castration complex and its dissolution for the little boy; from the phallic phase to penis envy to the Oedipal complex for the little girl. You might notice in these divergent series that the little girl never leaves the Oedipal complex.

What one has to understand, however, is that none of this makes sense without the masculine ideal being in operation from the very start. It is this ideal which ensures that the development of the two series is divergent, and at one end we end up with the little girl and at the other the little boy. For why would the little girl feel different in this way unless she did not measure herself against the masculine ideal? Now such an idealisation cannot be made sense of biologically. Sure there is a difference between the sexes, but that is not sufficient to explain why having a penis is a good thing and not having one is bad. The possibility of such a structure of idealisation is not to found in our bodies but in language, and how it already structures our experience of them, and how the little girl experiences her body as lacking something which then affects the rest of her psychological development.

It is Freud’s disciple Lacan who, following the teaching of the French linguist Saussure, who showed that this process of the sexual differentiation depended entirely on the structure of language and not on our biological fate alone. For Lacan, Saussure’s fundamental discovery was that language was divided between the function of the signifier and the signified. The signifier being the word itself and the signified what the word represented or signified. Such a difference is not important in itself, but the realisation that the signifier can operate without the signified. It is this separation of the two aspects of language that explains the possible existence of the ideal which can structure our experience.

No one more than the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizêk has explained more clearly how this split works and the example he gives is the ordinary coke bottle (Zizek 1989, p.96). How is it that this object, when I look at it, somehow represents the ideal of America? Common sense tells us that the idea of America is first, and then this idea is somehow ‘symbolised’ by the coke bottle. This is to interpret the relation between the two elements however after the relation has been constructed. It is not an explanation of how it is created, for it is clear that it is the coke bottle, which is the origin of the idea of America and not the other way around by capturing something that is rather hazy and ill-defined into a definite object which then can pin this picture of the ideal of the American life down for us. It is not, of course, the properties of Coke which make it this symbol, for there is no reason that such a strange tasting liquid should do that; rather it is its formal function. In this instance, the coke bottle (and it does not have to this object, it could have been anything else), is operating as a pure signifier. It is a kind of like an empty box in which we can project our fantasy of what America is and which can then organise and consolidate this reality. It isn’t that the coke bottle signifies the American ideal, because it could not exist without it; rather it is the place through which this ideal is produced. It is precisely because it doesn’t mean anything, that it is ‘it’, as the advertisement goes, that it can act as the empty signifier through which the idea of America can be coalesced.

The masculine ideal operates in exactly the same way as the coke bottle. There is nothing empirical about the male sex that would make it ideal. Rather masculinity has to go through a process of idealisation through which it can then be translated into a norm by which the status of the two sexes can be measured, the one as positive and the other as negative. Although there is something fixed about sexual differences there is nothing stable about the ideal which fixes our fantasies. One day the coke bottle could just be a container for a strange tasting brown liquid, and nothing else. And equally the male sex may no longer occupy the space of the ideal from which the development of the two sexes is measured. The ideal space is precisely empty. Anything can occupy it, so that one might imagine in the future, for example, a feminine ideal, where the little boy would experience himself as mutilated rather than the little girl. What then is universal is not the masculine ideal, as such, but the ideality which language make possible. Equally, even when an ideal works, it is never a total success. This is why the elevation of coke to an ideal strikes us as a bit corny and over the top. Surely reality just isn’t like that, and we only have to visit the real America to think that what is represents is a fantasy. In the same way, the reality of women is always escaping the masculine ideal all the time and in fact it is the men who are more under its power than her. Reality might be structured by language, but it is always being destabilized by it from within.

Works Cited

Adorno, T.W., 2010. Minima Moralia : Reflections on a Damaged Life, London: Verso.

Elms, A.C., 2001. Apocryphal Freud: Sigmund Freud’s Most Famous “Quotations.” In J. A. Winer et al., ed. Sigmund Freud and his Impact on the Modern World. New York: Routledge, pp. 83–104.

Freud, S., 1991. On Sexuality : Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works A. Richards & J. Strachey, eds., London: Penguin Books.

Graeber, D., 2011. Debt : the First 5,000 Years, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House.

Zizek, S., 1989. The Sublime Object of Ideology, London; New York: Verso.


[1] According to Freud’s biographer Ernst Jones, he was supposed to have said this to Marie Bonaparte who was a patient of his, though this phrase never appears in his work or his diaries (Elms 2001, pp.84–8).

[2] What he actually wrote is ‘In psychoanalysis nothing is true except the exaggerations’ (Adorno 2010, p.49).

[3] Anthropologists tell us that there have been examples of female societies in the past, but they have long since disappeared with the rise of agriculture and the state (Graeber 2011, pp.176–82).

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