While Freud’s views on women’s sexuality pushed some of the boundaries of Victorian thinking and were somewhat progressive for their time, his outlook on the issue also stayed within the basic Victorian ideas of his day.
As Judith Walkowitz noted (p. 140), for the most part even the members of the Men and Women’s Club should hardly be considered to have been the types to espouse a “free love” values. The club’s accepted philosophies were within a heteronormative context: within marriage and monogamy. They denounced most other sex acts as “dangerous,” but Walkowitz pointed out that “like Stead, they too were implicated in and imaginatively engaged with the same dangerous sexualities they had banished from club practices and discussions” (Walkowitz, p. 136). However, they were avid proponents of marriage taking on a different form, one in which procreation was not the sole reason to engage in sex, and one in which people would be attracted to each other mentally and emotionally. This was all a change from typical Victorian thinking.
The Victorian “ideal” was that sex would be solely for reproduction and that generally women didn’t have any sexual feelings of their own but in a way they adopted the attraction of the man pursuing them. And Walkowitz showed again how it manifested itself in the Men and Women’s Club when she wrote “there was another impediment to free and equal conversation: the tendency of the men to treat the women as objects of study rather than as equal participants in a joint inquiry” (p. 146). The treatment of human sexual nature as a science led the men to ignore the women’s subjective experiences and feelings. And Pearson’s essay displayed many of his bizarre thoughts such as questions of “intellectual deficiencies” of “nonchildbearing women” and (p. 148) “could men and women be friends”? And later Pearson began arousing ire with his assertion that there was a rift between single women and married women as well as with his defense of “preventative checks” for “unwelcome motherhood” (p. 157).
In addition to having many similar assumptions and attitudes, Freud continued in the tradition of taking a “scientific” approach to the study of sexuality that took hold in the Victorian era. Sometimes this took the form of simply labeling everything but Freud took it a step further and was one of the first to attempt a real study of people’s sexuality without a moral component, though he still was unable to disassociate himself from the assumptions about sex that most people had at the time.
There are certainly ways in which Freud’s work transgresses the ideas espoused in the Victorian age. The Oedipus Complex, problematic as it may be, first put forth the idea that sexual development begins very early on. This theory, created by Freud, asserted that there are very specific phases each individual goes through on their way to becoming a “mature” sexual being. Everyone purportedly begins life desiring their mother and eventually believes that it might arouse anger in the father. At this point boys are said to go through castration anxiety, eventually deciding to become like their father so they can find a woman of their own. Girls, on the other hand, supposedly go through penis envy realize they can have children. Once this happens they try to seek out a man of their own. Ultimately, it did a lot to promote the idea that the development of one’s sexuality begins very early on, much more so than almost anyone else in the late 19th century would have suggested. However, it does have some problems. First, the idea that boys and girls are focused on the penis seems to be a very arbitrarily chosen organ. Perhaps boys have “womb envy” as some have proposed. Additionally, Freud’s notion of what it means to be a “mature” or “complete” or “adult” sexual being always equals being heterosexual, married, and monogamous. It’s simply offensive that everyone else is considered to be “broken” or “less than whole.” There are so many colors on the spectrum of the sexual rainbow and to think that the only “correct” possibility is one subset of a subset of a subset is quite boring. And also, the theory is too culturally specific. It is clearly the product of someone who lived in a society in which women traditionally had one role and men generally had another. For the theory to be applicable to all people the roles would have to be universal across all cultures past, present, and future, which is certainly not the case. But just the notion that sexuality was something people began developing as children was a novel idea that had far-reaching implications.
The Oedipus Complex happens in each individual, as do Freud’s proposed stages of sexual development: the oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital stages. The oral stage refers to babies’ fixation on breastfeeding and it goes on for approximately the first 18 months of life, while children are nursing. The anal and phallic stages follow this, which begin when people get control of their bodily functions. The latent phase takes place from when people are approximately seven years old to about 14 years old and during this phase it is suggested that people aren’t terribly interested in sexual desire of any kind, which is a positive thing because we need to focus on socializing and on education. And at about 15 years, people reach “maturity” (which for Freud means a desire for heterosexual monogamy) and this lasts us throughout our lives. Again, this is an example of a way in which Freud both transgressed Victorian thoughts on sexuality and also conformed to them.
Similarly, Freud’s developed the theory involving the ego, the super-ego, and the id. The ego is what attempts to negotiate between the id and the super-ego in favor of a realistic balance. It uses reason and rationality to broker a “truce” between the two other extremist parts of the mind and is responsible for individuality and preferences. The super-ego is the “moral-compass” of the mind and it attempts to influence a person to follow what is fair or honorable in an almost puritanical way. This portion of the mind is also responsible for emotions such as fear, guilt, shame, and others. The id is a part of each person from birth to death (and at birth a child’s mind is said to be primarily or entirely composed of the id) and because it is responsible for, among other things, the desire of sexual pleasure it must follow that all people have a desire for sexual gratification. The idea of women having their own sex drive was antagonistic to the Victorian ideals and this was another way in which Freud’s theories were progressive for their time and stretched comfort levels.
However, Freud was limited by his reliance on many of the assumption and Victorian ideas. First, Freud ignores Herr K’s obsession with Dora and the multitude of gifts and money that he gave her. Freud also ignored the possibility that Dora might not have been attracted to Herr K. Victorian society’s ideas and ideals gave women little choice and they were simply supposed to take on the attraction of the man who was pursuing them. Freud was incapable of seeing past this and couldn’t imagine that she might not want to have anything to do with Herr K. We are not given much information about the man’s physical attributes, and the fact that we earlier discovered that Herr K denied coming on to Dora by the lake certainly makes him appear like a less than desirable individual. The age difference alone may or may not have been enough to repel Dora. So when Freud wrote “this was surely just the situation to call up a distinct feeling of sexual excitement in a girl of fourteen who had never before been approached” (p. 21) and later “the behavior of this child of fourteen was already entirely and completely hysterical” (p. 22) it was completely ignoring all of Dora’s input. Her thoughts and subjective experiences weren’t taken as legitimate pieces of information to be seriously considered. It is very similar to what Walkowitz said of the Men and Women’s Club (p. 146) “w omen were expected to work within a scientific ideology that denied the validity of female subjective experience.” This is a very similar situation: a man attempting to analyze a woman and her behavior without taking into account her thoughts and feelings, and without considering the way outside forces are affecting her.
Freud did push some of the borders that Victorian society set up around their ideas of women’s sexuality. This was particularly true in the area of childhood development of sexuality, though he wavered back and forth when it came to women having their own independent sexual desires. His theories accounted for their development but obviously he didn’t always apply the principles. But when he did transgress boundaries, he did so publicly. This gave the issue a lot of public attention.
Freud, Sigmund. Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1963.
Walkowitz, Judith. City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of sexal Danger in Late Victorian
London. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.