Freud and Penises: Why Psychology and Anthropology Need to Hang Out

His almost constant cigar shows his clear fascination.

I am currently reading A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penisby Daivd M. Friedman and have just reached the section where they talk about Freud.  I will be writing a review of it once I finish it, but for now I just want to discuss Freud.  My knowledge of him is limited, especially since my focuses are more anthropological and sociological than psychological (when I get into psychology I tend to prefer the extremes, especially serial killers), but the book gives a pretty decent description of the penis related psychology.   My understanding is that his ideas about the penis are no longer widely used*, but they are handy for my point (and they annoy me).

My point here boils down to the fact that anthropology and cultural studies are often ignored when it comes to psychology.  The reverse is true, as well, as anyone who watches Bones regularly will know.  The opinion an individual has about their genitalia, beyond the arguably instinctual desire for it to remain there (which I would imagine is true for any body part), is learned.  The ideal size and shape, the prominence in one’s identity and its relation to your social standing are all created by culture.  Then it is taught to children.

This is clearest to me in two of Freud’s ideas, the male infant’s fear of castration (after realizing mom doesn’t have a penis) and the female’s jealousy of the penis.  As for the first, children are like little learning sponges and I have a feeling that infants value their arms and legs far more than their penises at that stage.  That is assuming they are capable or bother to worry about anything at all other than being comfortable.  Some figure out it is fun early on, but I don’t think the hormonal desire to use has much, if any, influence until puberty.    He also said  the father threatens to castrate the boy if he doesn’t stop masturbating and eventually that becomes the superego (I guess the little voice in his head) and he goes on to do the same to his son(s).  This is not just psychology, though.  This is where culture norms and psychology intersect.  The culture thinks masturbation is gross and a “sin”, so the child is punished.  This is not something born into a child.  It is something obviously taught.

As for the second, the girl’s penis envy, it is ridiculous.  The basic idea, if you are unaware, is that one day a girl realizes she doesn’t have a penis and the rest of her relations with men and her opinion of herself is based on this perceived lack and the results are not positive.  This, to me, is not an example of a young girl wishing she had a penis.  This is a symptom of a culture that does not allow females the same freedom as their male counterparts .  Assuming penis envy existed, it seems far more likely to be jealously not of the organ, but of the lifestyle and freedoms the penis, as the main difference, symbolized!  Boys get to run around and play in the dirt and do “boy” things, but she has to do “girl” stuff, which is historically more restrictive and boring.  Most children, no matter the gender, do not enjoy sedentary tasks**.  And remember, Freud was alive from 1856 – 1939, so that should give you a picture of the lady-like activities.  It probably sucked to be a girl and then you were socialized in restriction.  Western culture has been biased towards the penis from the start and only now is there potential for this to change.

The penis was the symbol for all things productive, so why wouldn’t a woman want one?  Why wouldn’t infants be terrified to lose their power?  Not understanding this cultural bias (anthropology) leads to a misunderstanding of the individual mind (psychology).  Culture and the individual are a cycle, with individuals creating culture and culture creating individuals. This is why anthropologists and psychologists really need to work together.  If we can understand why there are inequalities and misunderstandings on both levels, then we can actually figure out how to do something about it.

*If I am wrong please let me know.  As I said, my knowledge of psychology is limited, so if you have a good (and preferably concise) article or site to direct me to that would be great.

**This is before tv and video games, which many children will sit still for.

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About Tori

I am a graduate student working on my masters in Women and Gender studies. My masters thesis is on the gender nonconformity and ambiguity in modern film.
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3 Responses to Freud and Penises: Why Psychology and Anthropology Need to Hang Out

  1. Sita says:

    In the class I just took about critical theory, we definitely discussed Freud and some of his theories about the phallus. I wrote a paper on Freud’s theory of male fear of castration affecting the Uncanny. Luckily we didn’t talk much about penis envy, because I think the women in the room would have risen up against the males, and penis envy is just wrong anyway. I can see your point about how penis envy would be better applied as a symptom of wanting the freedoms enjoyed by men simply because they have a different organ–I think this makes much more sense than jealousy of the organ itself. So his theories are definitely still discussed and sometimes applied, but I don’t think many people give them much credence anymore (since by and large, he’s been proven wrong on a lot of stuff at this point).

    I love psychology! It’s fascinating, but I’ve never been a fan of Freud.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Penis envy makes sense to me, BECAAAAUSE:

    As a little girl potty training, and attending preschool with girls AND boys, I noticed the boys got a whole lot more attention. The boys had words for their things, peepees, dingdongs, what have you. I had no words, no understanding. As a curious toddler I bent over and looked for something, saw the bump and the parting of skin, and wondered. I supposed it was my peepee. It’s all I’d ever heard people talk about down there. I supposed I had one, but mine looked weird – I had only seen the boys at preschool, where the teachers had to leave the bathroom door ajar so they could keep an eye on all of us as they helped the boys do their business. I’d seen my babysitter’s sons when she gave them their bath. I had never seen another girl naked down yonder, except for my mother, whose parts I found fascinating but got no answers except an embarrassed and stern command to not TOUCH that, please.

    And so I saw my genitals as a lack. They weren’t, I eventually figured out, a penis, but I had no alternative understanding of/words for genitals. It truly made me sad.

    This, I agree, is completely conditioned. I once babysat a 5-year-old girl who was altogether too proud of her “hoochie” – too proud for a repressed me to handle, anyway! – but that’s another story.

    • Tori says:

      That’s an excellent example of my point! It sounds like you were jealous of their attention and add to that a lack of education. Freud seemed to think it was innate, when it is DEFINITELY not.

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