Sigmund Freud’s Infantile Sexuality and the role in the genesis of the neuroses of adults and in the psychology of normal adults


To Freud, sexuality covers much wider than genital intercourse between a male and female. But whatever shape or form of sexuality one eventually takes, Freud asserts, it inevitably has its roots in the infantile sexuality, which is described in terms of sexual development in the first few years of a life of an infant. This essay will explain the concept of infantile sexuality in relation to sexual life of the adults and the neuroses made explainable by the concept. The criticisms and supporting arguments and examples by Freud will also be looked at.


The concept of sexuality has been given an extension from Freud. Firstly, it is divorced from its close connection with genitals to concentrate rather on the purpose of achieving pleasure. It is only secondary to serve as the means to reproductive function. Secondly, all feelings and relations are thought to have their roots in the very same sexual impulses that manifest themselves in various forms and degrees. Freud’s attempt is to understand this common foundation in order to make human behaviours intelligible. This extension is derived from his laborious clinical researches and psycho-analyses, on which all the theories and observations are based on. Furthermore, he asserts that, human sexuality actually begins at birth, not at puberty as popularly viewed at that time. All forms of sexuality, “normal” or “pervert” or “neurotic”, have their roots in the infantile sexuality which is described by the sexual development during the period from birth to about 6 years old, through the three phases, namely, oral, anal and genital (phallic) phase. The infantile sexuality is followed by the period of latency where a child gets an education in school. After that is the puberty period. One normally develops his/her sexuality into a “normal” one when they reach puberty, possibly with the trace from the more primitive stage coexisting with the more developed one.  However, if one was regressed back to the more primitive phases, or the primary phases persisted uninterruptedly until puberty, the deviation from what is normal as having been laid down for civilised men, neuroses and some kind of perversions might arise as a result.


The oral phase of the infantile sexuality corresponds to the period from birth to about one and a half years old. During this period, the infant still cannot distinguish between itself and the external world, having only been out of its mother’s womb for a short period. The erotogenic zone, which is the term given to an area of bodily organ that is susceptible to stimulation of sexual impulse, in this period, is the mouth. The sexual activity is not yet separated form the ingestion of food so the pleasure of sucking the milk from mother’s breast derives from the pleasure to satisfy its hunger. At the same time, it satisfies its “libido” which is the term for sexual desire. It is the time when an infant learns about its dependence on the external world, about its need to be fed by something external and the deprivation of satisfaction. The object of sexual satisfaction and self-preservation (i.e. eating, drinking) is therefore the same.


It is also the time an infant learns to find pleasure from its own body in order to achieve satisfaction independently. Since the first erotogenic it finds is the mouth, it then starts an activity such as thumb sucking. In fact, any object, its toe, another person’s organ, can be the object of satisfaction. It will try to grab these objects to the mouth for sucking. The pleasure obtained from the action leads to a sleep or motor reaction, which is claimed by Freud to be the same as in the nature of orgasm in the adults. Later in adult life, this stage of development can still exist along with the more highly developed one and manifests in the act of seeking the lips of another person in kissing. Even though eating and drinking are still activities in which sexual impulses are generated but they are much weaker. For many children, combining with the finding of pleasure from rubbing sensitive organ, this is one of the possible first steps towards masturbation. If regression occurred, the manifestation of this phase will be in the form of addiction or a neurosis which appears as a psychomatic disturbance with symptoms in the mouth or digestive system of the adults. This form of neurosis caused by the conflict of the guilty feeling of performing an oral sex and the desire for oral sexual impulses derived from the oral phase of infantile sexuality. 


The anal phase corresponds to the following period when an infant is one and a half to three and a half years old. During this period, an infant becomes more independent. It is the period when parents are the authority determining when the infants should defecated as they try to discipline their infants. Having found a new erotogenic zone, the anus, which gives a pleasurable sensation when the faeces are let go, the child often disobeys and holds back the faeces when put on the pot. The accumulation produces a violent muscular attraction with as much pain as pleasure and this habit is usually found in a child. The distinction into the masculine and the feminine is not yet developed but rather as the active and the passive. The object of satisfaction here is not identical for the active and the passive unlike the case of oral phase. The active wants to have a control of its own and to be the authority whereas the passive has to submit to the authority. The anal phase can manifest itself later in adults in authoritarian and rebellious personality.


Also in this period, the infants will be preoccupied with anus and faeces. Children often treat faeces as a gift and they also like to play with them. Being told by their parents not to, the children then play with something similar like mud or clay. Adults who regress to the anal phase are sometimes found to play with their faeces in confined cells or hospital. Money is also a symbolic substitute of faeces, deriving from being a substitution of gold, a substitution of faeces. So playing with money in the adults is an acceptable substitution for the unconscious desire to play with faeces.


The sadomasochism is a form of sexual perversion characterised by the enjoyment in inflicting pain or suffering on others and vice versa. It was first thought of as resulting from a child having prematurely seen a sexual intercourse between a male and a female with a sadistic impression. From the infant’s point of view, the female has been mistreated with cruelty in the sexual intercourse. Freud later asserts that the sadomasochism arises from the regression to the anal phase of the infantile sexuality where both active(sadistic) and passive(masochistic) form can be exhibited. The capacity of pity is not yet developed during this period and hence the nature of sadomasochism therefore can emerge in these adults. Again, the conflict between the sexual desire and the pity feeling can lead to some forms of neuroses. Repression of the impulses generated by the anal phase sexuality can cause a neurosis with symptoms in the bowel region. Also, it is found in adults the trace of regression to this stage in desire to have an anal intercourse, again, in either active or passive form. Additionally, again using symbolic substitution, Freud proposes that this phase is the first step where the female starts developing the wish to have a baby. Here the faeces symbolise babies since the concept of birth in the mind of an infant is just about letting things out of the bowel. Faeces can also be a symbolic substitution of a penis and the anal phase is the first step towards the aim of possessing a penis in a female. This will reappear more notoriously later in the next phase, the genital phase.     


The genital or phallic phase corresponds to the period of three and a half to six years old. In this period, the children become aware of the difference between the sexes. The girl will notice what they do not have and the boys learn that the girls do not possess what they have. However, initially in the mind of children, the polarity is not yet distinguished as “male” and “female” but rather as “possession of a penis” and “castrated condition”. Combining with the threat of punishment from the parents when they are seen playing with their genitals, the boys will seriously fear of castration, thinking that some unworthy girls have been punished by being castrated. On the other hand, girls become envy of the boys for what they have. This is termed by Freud, the “penis envy” which leads the girls to blame their mothers for not giving them penises and hence transfer the affection to their fathers instead. The term Oedipus Complex is used by Freud to explain why children about this age feel more passionate towards the parent of the opposite sex and tend to “hate” the parent of the same sex. The feeling of the girl as mentioned shows that the Oedipus Complex coincides with this period of development of sexuality. The wish to possess a penis also leads a female to unconsciously develop a wish for a baby, which is a symbolic substitution of a penis.


The unity of the erotic functions of all separate sexual activities for the purpose of reproduction is required to take place at puberty if a normal sexual life were to take place. If the genital zone can be a strong stimulant and a leading factor, beginning in this phase of the infantile sexuality, this combining process is possible. Otherwise, the other components of sexuality will continue their activity as perversion. Adults who have gone through this stage of development are found to treat their partners as equal and the relationships are mutual and loving. This can be attributed to the function of combining that the genital zone is responsible since one is then able to focus all desires upon a single object, a single person.


The period of infantile sexuality as described is followed by the latency period(6 to 11 years old) when children get educated according to the ways laid down by the “civilised” society. The feeling of shame, disgust, morality and pity are here developed into their “ego”, or in another word, consciousness, to impede the sexual instincts. Because they are relatively later constructed, the infantile sexuality is then mostly in the form of perversion as Freud terms,  “polymorphously pervert”. With the pleasure principle dominating, infants seek to find pleasure in whatever forms, in any symbolic substitution and in any direction, hence the term polymorphously pervert. This is coupled with another characteristic of the infantile sexuality, which is the auto-erotism i.e. the infants find the pleasurable stimulation from their own body, without external object. It then means that, they can stick to sexual preferences they find from the stimulation from whichever part of the body, whether it is the genital or not. In adults, the polymorphousness even extends to the object, which is external and symbolic. Fetishism where a person’s sexual desire is attracted by a particular object is one of the consequences of this polymorphousness in the childhood. Since normal adult’s view of pregenital sexual pleasure is perverse, the regression to the primary stages of infantile sexuality results in a pervert adult who is merely a sexually disturbed person who fails to attain the sexual aim and is condemned to seek the satisfaction in the pregenital sphere. Sometimes conflicts arise from education and the regressed sexuality, causing neuroses later in the puberty period (from 11 years old on). The function of the psychoanalysis is then to reduce this conflict in order to cure.


The auto-erotism characteristic of the infantile sexuality also shows how the sexual instinct inherited in living things tend to restore the earlier state. Here, the infants want to repeat the same pleasurable sensual experience they have discovered and so continue doing it for itself. All development follows are therefore attributed to external disturbances, otherwise, an organic life will just be in the same state without any wish to change. Therefore, the process of development in the infantile sexuality as discussed move dynamically forward or backward because of the external disturbances such as deprivation, being forbidden or finding new form of pleasure. Also as a consequence, there is an inclusion of the external objects towards which one can sexually aim, resulting in Fetishism.


Freud’s theory of the infantile sexuality receives criticisms obviously from those who feel that the theory corrodes the perception of infants and consequently will destroy the foundation of the society. However, Freud indicates clearly that his theory is derived from the clinical researches and laborious collection of data and information. He is open to academic and constructive criticisms and suggests the stop of self-denial.


The “penis envy” and the explanations which somewhat indicate disadvantages and inferiority in female also cause the rage and criticism from woman activists. Freud is accused of writing his theory in the male-constructed world. In fact, quite the opposite of what he is accused for, he suggests that female, both in childhood or puberty, explore and experience more instead of totally repressed until puberty. The female tend to repress more than the male and that is one of the reasons evidently stated by Freud that make women more prone to hysteria. His view is that during the pregenital infantile sexuality, there is no difference between the male and the female. Only in the genital phase that the difference becomes apparent and not until puberty that the clear distinction is completed. In fact, to Freud, the clitoris in the female is equally competent as the penis in male in terms of its erotic functioning. However, an acceptance of the difference and dependency, seeing the other sex as the complementary opposite, is the way to achieve the feeling of regaining the wholeness one normally feels lost shortly after birth. By uniting with the complementary opposite, the symbolic feeling of love and wholeness will be present. Freud later wrote about this as the “life instinct” as opposing to the “death instinct” which is characterised by the denial of dependency and incompleteness. It leads to an attempt to undo the difference, violence in order to eliminate the other and the quest for power as evident in the phenomenon such as sexism where men try to suppress women.   


Another criticism is that Freud’s theory is based on data collection from the samples of only a particular group of people in Vienna. Many then argue that the infantile sexuality should differ from one society and culture to another. For example, in eastern society where the family is not a nuclear one, unlike most western families, the Oedipus Complex should not be as Freud suggests since their are more objects to direct the love and hate to. This is indeed true but again, even if Freud’s work is just a representation of the western, it still gives a lot of credible explanations of what does really happen in the western society in terms of neuroses, behaviours and psychology.


On homosexuality, criticisms also arise in that Freud’s work leads people to see homosexuality as pathological. In fact, Freud’s intention is only to test his psychoanalysis method of finding and to make observations with no bias in order to find the truth and cure for neuroses, which cause people’s distress in life. Freud even asserts that each person is potentially capable of having sexual relations with a person of either sex, although there could be exceptions at either end. There is a relationship between the degree of bisexuality and the socialisation experiences the child undergoes in family circumstances. There is therefore actually nothing natural in heterosexuality from his point of view.


Despite the criticism and doubts casting on Freud’s controversial theories and assertions, his works still serve as an important clinical observation and foundation of psychotherapy. His theory of the infantile sexuality and its relation to neuroses and perversions in the adults does have a great effect in curing people who suffered. They actually went through the same struggle as any other normal person with the only difference in the failure to cope with the instincts and conflicts arose inside themselves. With more understanding and realisation of some evident phenomena obtained experimentally, one can raise a child with more understanding and the society will surely benefit from that.   












1)      Sigmund Freud, The Essentials of Psycho-Analysis, selected by Anna Freud, Penguin Books, 1986.

2)      Freud and Modern Society, Robert Bocock, Chapman and Hall, 1976.

3)      The Cambridge Companion to Freud, ed. Jerome Neu, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

4)      Lecture notes.