Freud and the Liberation of Sexual Desire


This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Since his death in London in 1939 aged 83, Freud’s theories, especially those concerning sexuality, have often been vulgarised and misrepresented. In particular, the American neo-Freudians, who dominated psychoanalysis in the post-war period, have negated Freud’s sexual liberalism by re-pathologising sexual diversity in general and lesbianism and gayness in particular.

Reinterpreting psychoanalysis, neo-Freudians like Irving Bieber turned it into a theory of sexual conformity and social control. In their view, every variation from the ‘biologic norm’ of coital heterosexuality is a ‘sexual deviance’ and a ‘personality disorder’ which requires therapy and cure.

This repressive abuse of psychoanalysis has led many people to condemn not only the neo-Freudians, but Freud himself, as a sexual reactionary and homophobe. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some of Freud’s ideas certainly are confused and ambiguous. Others are downright mistaken and contradictory. Much of his writing deals with male homosexuality to the neglect of lesbianism. In several instances, it appears to suggest that heterosexuality is the end goal of sexual development.

There is also a strong element of misogyny in Freud’s theories which often results in a male-centred view of sexuality. Nevertheless, while Freud can be justifiably criticised for developing a male-orientated psychoanalysis, his theories are also a reflection of social reality: the domination of masculinity and the subjection of women which existed in Europe at the turn of the century when he was beginning to articulate his conceptions of sexual desire.

In this sense, Freudian psychoanalysis is more a documentation of how sexuality and gender were culturally constructed in Viennese society in the early 1900s than a discourse on how they could or ought to evolve in an ideal society of the future.

Whatever errors Freud may have made, however, these should not be allowed to obscure the progressive aspects of his theories. When it comes to the question of sexual desire, the results of Freud’s psychological inquiries forced him to struggle against his own deeply conservative inclinations and to overcome the limitations of his profoundly conventional bourgeois background. The end result is a series of psychoanalytic insights which confront sexual ignorance and prejudice and which offer an emancipatory understanding of sexual desire. Today, these insights are just as radical, revolutionary even, as they were when Freud first formulated them nearly a century ago.

In diametric opposition to the prevailing morality of Church and the State, Freud rejected the conventional wisdom that sexuality was biologically innate and pre-ordained by nature. Rather than being ready-made and universally the same he suggested that sexuality is a complex developmental process which evolves through an individual’s interaction with his or her external environment, particularly parents, and that it includes an immense diversity of expression.

For Freud, the sexual drive has no predetermined objective or method of satisfaction. Potentially, it can be attracted to a person of the opposite sex, the same sex or the self (and sometimes to children and animals). Desire can also be directed towards a particular part of the body such as feet and the breasts, or to inanimate objects like leather boots and silk underwear.

Similarly, Freud argued the method of sexual satisfaction varies widely. It can be concentrated on the genitals, a mouth or any of the many other erogenous zones. It involves everything from masturbation to intercourse, fellatio, sadism, necrophilia, cunnilingus and voyeurism. In bring this vast range of sexual expression to public attention and scientific understanding, and asserting its often commonplace occurrence, Freud struck a major blow against the denials and strictures of puritan morality. Instead of marginalising or moralising about sexual practices that had hitherto been regarded as eccentric or degenerate, Freud saw them as an integral part of normal sexual development and something which everyone could potentially experience.

He argued that sexual desire begins in childhood and is, in its original form, ‘polymorphously perverse’. The objects and methods of sexual satisfaction are multifarious are undifferentiated. These polymorphous perversions include, Freud argued, a general inclination to homosexuality. This categorisation of lesbianism and gayness as a perversion has provoked many people to dismiss Freud’s theories as homophobic. Yet, contrary to its pejorative connotations today, Freud used the term ‘perversion’ in an entirely non-judgmental manner, without inferring sickness or immorality. For him, it was simply a generic term for sexual acts not involving heterosexual intercourse. Indeed, Freud constantly emphasised that psychoanalysis ‘has no concern whatever with… ‘judgements of value’ (An Autobiographical Study).

In Freud’s view, perversion was a typical feature of normal sexual development: ‘A disposition to perversions is an original and universal disposition of the human sexual instinct and no healthy person … can fail to make some addition that might be called perverse’ (Three Essays on Sexuality).

Much of Freud’s writing was, however, premised on the notion that perversion involved sexual arrest, fixation and regression. This implied stages of sexual development with the end stage being heterosexual genital union. Contradictorily, this model of sexuality was both refuted and reinforced in Freud’s letter to an American mother in 1935 when he wrote that homosexuality was a “variation of the sexual function produced by a certain arrest of sexual development’ (my italics). Freud’s switch to describing gayness as an ‘arrest’ of sexual development, as opposed to a ‘variation’, suggests that he had a goal-orientated model of sexual maturation where desire is seen as having the ultimate objective of penis-vagina heterosexuality. Lesbian and gay relations, by implication, fall short of this objective; hence the accusations of heterosexism levelled against Freud’s theories.

Towards the end of his life Freud seemed to recognise the weakness of the teleological model of sexuality. Indeed, in some of his later writings, most notably An Outline Of Psychoanalysis, Freud moved away from a chronological notion of successive stages of sexual development towards a theory of co-equal, parallel, overlapping and simultaneous desires.

In articulating his radical propositions about the diverse and developmental character of sexuality, Freud implied the plurality and plasticity of human sexual desire and alluded that sexuality was essentially a social construction rather than an unchanging biological one.

Writing in Fragments Of An Analysis Of A Case of Hysteria, Freud acknowledged the cultural influences on sexuality when he contrasted the repression of lesbians and gay men in Western societies with their frequent acceptance by ‘different races and different epochs’. His recognition of the social determination of sexual desire was reinforced when Freud argued that sexual repression is primarily the result of the ‘structures of morality and authority erected by society’ (Three essays on Sexuality). This not only intimates that sexual repression is due to the moral values and criminal laws of the State, but that, by transforming the social order, sexual repression can be overcome and sexual emancipation achieved.

Whereas most of his contemporaries believed that sexual desire was a subordinate part of the reproductive process, Freud inverted the relationship. He not only insisted that sexual desire and sexual reproduction were two completely separate things (on its own, a radical enough proposition at the turn of the century), but that desire was the primary motive force and a valid end in itself. ‘Sexuality’, he said, ‘is regarded as the more comprehensive bodily function, having pleasure as its goal and only secondarily coming to serve the ends of reproduction’ (An Autobiographical Study).

Remarkably for his time, Freud went on to question the naturalistic and normative assumptions about heterosexual desire. In his supplementary note to Three Essays on Sexuality, he refused to accept heterosexual attraction as something given. Instead, he viewed it as problematic and requiring scientific explanation. ‘From the point of view of psychoanalysis, the exclusive sexual interest felt by men for women is also a problem that needs elucidating, and is not a self-evident fact.’

Freud’s conclusion was that sexual desire begins with a universal bisexuality and free-ranging sexual exploration. Writing in An Autobiographical Study, he proclaims ‘the constitutional bisexuality of all human beings’. Exclusive heterosexuality, he suggests, is only achieved after great effort. It is far from natural or automatic. Heterosexuality evolves through a long and difficult process requiring the progressive repression of all our original objects and methods of sexual desire, apart from people of the opposite sex and penis-vagina intercourse. Freud thus implies that the existence of heterosexuality is dependent on the repression of the homosexual desire which lies within us all. Indeed, he stressed that since homosexuality is ‘constitutional’ to all people, it ‘scarcely deserves’ being the denied equal status with heterosexuality, let alone being classified as a perversion (An Autobiographical Study).

Freud’s theory of a universal bisexual potential represented a profound challenge not only to right-wing moralists, but also to the biologism of his contemporary liberal sexologists and campaigners for homosexual rights, such as Karl Ulrichs and Magnus Hirschfield, who insisted that lesbians and gay men were ‘born that way’. Rejecting their view of homosexuality as a fixed biological condition affecting only a minority of the population, Freud argued: “All human beings are capable of making a homosexual object-choice and, in fact, have made one in their unconscious. Indeed, libidinal attachments to persons of the same sex play no less a part as factors in normal mental life…than do similar attachments to the opposite sex’ (Three essays on Sexuality).

If in childhood we all have the potential to choose homosexuality, which is what Freud appears to insinuate, then it follows that in a more enlightened society a much higher proportion of the population might take that option, at least for a significant period of their life. In opposition to homophobic opinion, Freud strongly defended gay people: ‘Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness’ (Letters of Sigmund Freud, 1873-1937).

Freud was also quick to condemn those who spoke about homosexuality ‘with moral indignation and without understanding’ (An Autobiographical Study). Investing gayness with considerable dignity and respect, he rebuked such people with the reminder ‘We surely ought not to forget that … the sensual love of a man for a man, was not only tolerated by a people so far our superiors in cultivation as were the Greeks, but was actually entrusted by them with important social functions’ (Fragments Of An Analysis Of A Case Of Hysteria).

Even more significantly, perhaps, Freud recognised that the suffering of lesbians and gay men is not the result of some in-born sorrow which is intrinsic to the homosexual condition, but of a socially-decreed sexual repression. Acknowledging that the ‘cultural requirements’ for the repression of homosexuality lead to ‘suffering for a certain proportion of mankind’, Freud wrote: ‘It is one of the obvious social injustices that the standard of civilisation should demand from everyone the same conduct of sexual life’(‘Civilised’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness).

Despite putting forward such radical ideas about sexuality, Freud saw himself as a scientist rather than a sexual revolutionary. His commitment to scientific objectivity led him to eschew political controversy and the politicisation of insights. This does not mean, however, that his writings are apolitical. Far from it. Though many of Freud’s most subversive theories concerning sexuality are sometimes ambiguous and more often implied than explicitly stated, they nevertheless repeatedly suggest the rejection of sexual ignorance and prejudice.

We do not have to accept Freud’s misogyny or the many other dimensions of his theories which are culturally specific to his particular time and place. What is needed is the wisdom, sophistication and courage to distinguish between the liberating and enslaving elements of psychoanalysis. This means eschewing crude caricatures of Freudianism and rejecting those ideas which are reactionary, while retaining those aspects which are progressive.

Fifty years after Freud’s death, in this era of Section 28 and the moralistic backlash surrounding AIDS, we urgently need to rescue Freud’s emancipatory understanding of human sexuality from debasement by the neo-Freudians. We also need to recognise and proclaim the radical dimensions of Freudian psychoanalysis as a powerful intellectual ally in our struggle for lesbian and gay liberation.


Rouge magazine, Winter 1989/90

Peter Tatchell is the author of:


THE BATTLE FOR BERMONDSEY, Heretic Books, 1983, £2.95.

DEMOCRATIC DEFENCE: A Non-Nuclear Alternative, GMP, 1985, £3.95.

AIDS: A Guide To Survival, GMP, 1986, £3.95.

© Copyright Peter Tatchell, 1989. All rights reserved.