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Psychoanalytical Theories of Gender

Before you start reading this material in horror, you must know that this theory is not believed by any serious Psychologist as an explanation for gender; and is just one of the more bizare theories of Sigmund Freud; who is considered the 'father' of Psychology.


Freud believed that alot of our thought processes are subconscious meaning we are not aware of them.

In terms of child development, he said children go through several phases. At each one they derieve pleasure from a particular part of the body. The first stage is the oral stage, this relates to the time the child breast feeds. After that at 18-36 months comes the anal stage relating to toilet training. And finally is the phallic stage relating to the penis, and this will be discussed further below.

He also believed it was possible to become fixated at any of these stages; so if one becomes fixated in the oral stage could become verbally agressive or a smoker and chew pens etc.

Oedipus and Electra Complexes

During the phallic stage it was believed that gender developed. In boys this was as a result of the Oedipus complex and in girls it was the Electra complex, outlined below:

In the Oedipus Complex the boy's sexual energy is directed towards the penis, and he develops a sexual attraction for the mother. He sees the father as a love rival and fears he will be castrated by the father because of his feelings for the mother. To resolve his conflict he identifies with the father to avoid castration and learns his gender from the father.

In the Electra Complex the girl becomes aware of the penis (phallus) and sees it as a symbol of power; and realises she and her mother don't have one so develops a penis envy. She desires a baby with the father converts the penis-envy to a penis baby making project. She realises she can not have the father and so returns to the pre-Electra state and identifies with the mother.

Freud tried to provide evidence for the Oedipus Complex, by using the case study of Little Hans, who had a fear of horses, especially lying down, and this was developed at the time that Hans' mother was pregnant. Freud said this anxiety was because his mother was pregnant with his Father's baby when Hans (according to the Oedipus complex) sexually desired his mother. And the fear of horses represented Hans' desire to see his father dead.


A great big problem with this theory of gender acquisition is the lack of evidence. And the only evidence that was provied was a case study which therefore cannot be generalised to everyone. And there was also a more logical explanation for Hans' phobia: he had seen a large horses fall over whilst his mother was pregnant.

Freud said that without a male role-model a boy would become homosexual, however in a study by Golombok (1983) children raised by lesbian parents don't differ from those raised by heterosexual parents in terms of gender role and sexual orientation.

And fianally Freuds data was unreliable because he used people's memories of childhood, only took notes at the end of a session and got this data by interview where it is very probable he influenced what the participant said.