An Introduction to Understanding Freud's Theory of Infantile Sexuality
Whether or not you agree with the theory, Sigmund Freud’s ideas on infantile sexuality directed the attention of the world to sexuality in early childhood and how it affected the future adult. In his theory of infantile sexuality, Freud argued that sexual impulses and activities are not discovered at puberty, but are instead they are there from the beginning, that is, from our infancy. Freud suggested that the erotogenic zones and auto-erotism explored during infancy and early childhood act as a basis for our expression of sexual satisfaction later in our lives. While Freud conceded that there are pre-determined erotogenic zones, he argued that during the exploration of infantile sexuality, the main concern is the pleasurable feeling obtained, rather than which part of the body is used to obtain that feeling. He used examples of infantile thumb-sucking, breast feeding, and self-inflicted constipation to highlight how children connect erotic stimulation to their bodies and their need for pleasure and food. Freud also suggested that through learning about seduction, resulting in different phases of infantile masturbation; children can become perverse and possess different kinds of sexual irregularities. However, Freud concluded that our infantile explorations are repressed from our conscious mind until puberty, by which time we have been moulded by an education and understanding of shame, disgust and morality, which limits our previously free infantile sexuality to obtain a ‘normal’ adult sex life.
Discovering Pleasure as an Infant
Freud suggested in his infantile sexuality theory that not all sexual impulses begin at puberty, but instead they are there at the beginning of your life, that you bring into the world and explore as an infant. Freud explained that it’s our exploration of our ‘erotogenic zones’ during infancy that drives our basic understanding for pleasure later in life. Freud defined the ‘erotogenic zones’ as “a part of the skin or mucous membrane in which all stimuli of a certain sort evoke a feeling of pleasure possessing a particular quality.” He suggested that it is during infancy when the stimulation of the erotogenic zones on the body is first experienced, which leads to the child wanting to renew the feelings of pleasure. It is through the activities of sucking a thumb, or breast feeding that an infant develops a pleasurable erotogenic experience, causing pleasurable stimulation. Because this is act of discovering pleasure is achieved during infancy, it then goes on to lead and develop our sexual experiences later in life.
Freud’s theory of infantile sexuality stated that there are predetermined erotogenic zones, but that during infancy it is more about producing a pleasurable feeling, rather than which part of the body is used to obtain that feeling. Unlike during our adult life where our sexual stimulation is usually limited to certain and specific erotogenic zones on the body, mainly that being the genital area, Freud argued that during infancy any part of the body could be used as an erotogenic zone. An example that Freud used was thumb sucking. This example points out that any part of the body, not just the genitals, can become a pleasurable erotogenic zone during infancy. In his theory of infantile sexuality, Freud suggested that during our infancy, any part of the body can serve as a stimulus for pleasure, and that this leads us to understand our erotogenic zones.
Another example Freud used to explain infantile sexuality was self-inflicting constipation. Freud suggests that along with the act of thumb sucking, a child who withholds back their poo is creative an erotic stimulation of the anal area. Freud explained that by participating in this self-constipation, a child is able to control their muscles to induce both pain and pleasure in release. Freud goes on to suggest that it is this hold and release stimulating act that is the forerunner for the penis, which becomes sexually active and stimulated in later life. Freud’s theory of infantile sexuality suggested that it is through this type of stimulating masturbation that we discover our erotogenic zones through the exploration of auto-erotism during infancy.
Freud’s theory of infantile sexuality also suggested that the sexual activities and exploration of the genital zone during childhood is ultimately the beginning of what will later become a ‘normal’ sexual life. It is through “accidental stimulation” as a child through bathing, rubbing and washing that a child learns the pleasurable feeling, and which part of the body is capable of producing pleasure. By exploring our genital zone during infancy, Freud argued that our sexual erotogenic zones are established by early infantile masturbation, but this activity then disappears until puberty. It is the repression of our infantile sexuality that normalized our sex life in adulthood. It is only as children that we are free to explore and develop sexual expression, as we haven’t been shaped by the ideas of shame, disgust and morals.
Another idea attached to Freud’s theory of infantile sexuality is that seduction can lead children to have sexual irregularities. However, because our infantile sexuality is repressed into our unconscious until puberty, where it is then shaped and moulded by our education and understanding of shame, disgust and morals, there is little chance of our infantile sexual irregularities being carried out into adulthood. It is through our social development heading towards puberty that shapes our adult sexual life to become more ‘normal’, as opposed to our free exploration during infancy. Freud suggested that it is because children don’t have or understand the concept of shame, they have the freedom to express themselves and explore their erotogenic zones through auto-erotism. However, because we repress our infantile sexuality, they don’t play a part in the final shaping of our sexual life. Freud suggested that even before puberty occurs, we have been educated on sexual conduct and procedure, as well as developed a mental force and barriers of shame, disgust and morals, which hinder our sexual expressions we developed as infants. Freud argued that our social education before puberty limits our sexual exploration to a more accepted and normalised standard during puberty.
Concluding Freud's Theory of Infantile Sexuality
In his theory of infantile sexuality, Freud suggested that it’s our free exploration and the pleasurable stimulation achieved brought on by our erotogenic zones that develops our sexual pleasures later in adulthood. It’s also during our infancy that any part of our body can be used as a stimulus for pleasure, and that this leads us to understand our erotogenic zones. Freud stated that it is through this stimulating exploration during infancy that we discover our erotogenic zones through the exploration of auto-erotism. Freud stated that it is the repression of our free infantile sexuality into our unconscious that ‘normalizes’ our sex life later in life. Furthermore, Freud argued in his infantile sexuality theory that our sexual expression is only free during our infancy, when we haven’t been shaped by the ideas of shame, disgust and morals. While Freud suggested that seduction can create sexual irregularities in children, they are repressed and then normalized by our social education and understanding of shame, disgust and morals. Freud argued that it is this limitation and repression on our infantile sexuality that normalizes our adult sex life.
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Davidson, A 1987, ‘Sex and the Emergence of Sexuality’, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp.16-48.
Freud, S. 1962 Extracts from Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, trans. J. Strachey, New York: Basic Books.
Freud, S 1910, ‘The Origin and Development of Psychoanalysis’, The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 21, No. 2, pp.181-218.