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Gender and Psychoanalysis


The differences between men and women has been an enduring interest throughout history. In the nineteenth century with the rise of science, such differences naturally came under scrutiny.

The work on erotic sexuality, or sexology, by Krafft Ebing and Havelock Ellis, for instance, still inform psychiatry and psychosexual counselling. These will be discussed in more detail elsewhere in this review.

The psychoanalysis of Freud and his followers had its roots in philosophy but, based on case studies of their clients, it became the foundation of the later study of psychoanalysis.

Clearly their work was not primarily to do with gender and sex differences, however their theories did include attempts to describe the psychological processes involved in the development of children as men or women.

Complex and innovative new theories rarely, of course, spring, fresh and new-born out of one person's mind. Freud was influenced by the philosophical ideas and social attitudes of his time. It was his genius to bring them together into a whole. His emphasis on sex, of course, drew attention, arousing the negative attitudes that persist today, and are evident in many of the interpretations of his work. It was possibly helpful that it became fashionable for the middle-class of Vienna to attend his consulting rooms.

There could be said to be three main threads in the theory. Firstly, the endless negotiation between the socialised self, the ego, and the primitive animal self, the id. It is a formalisation of the age-old problem of human being's struggle against their carnal urges, in religious terms, 'original sin', yet the Church of the time was not pleased about the idea that the mind was not, after all, some divine device unconnected with our earthly existence.

Secondly, he introduced the idea of the subconscious mind behind our everyday thinking processes, giving rise to unexpected and unintended actions, so-called 'Freudian slips' but more importantly, the defence mechanisms that we use to protect ourselves emotionally.

Thirdly, he attempted to produce a formal model of the way early experiences colour our individual behaviour in later life.

Among small children, his work was developed by Emma Freud, Karen Horney, and Virginia Axline.(1) Dibs - In Search of Self is in every trainee counsellor's and child psychologist's booklist, or should be. Notable among his other followers were Jung, Adler and Erikson.

As far as we know, of all the species, only humans alone ask questions about themselves, not least "Why am I here?" We seem to be the only species that feels there should be a purpose to life. We speculate on the quality and construction of that existence.

Since at least 5000BC we have been asking a question to which even now there is no answer: "What is human consciousness and what is its meaning?" Since at least Grecian times philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle have tried to work out how humans work, what makes us who we are.

In the 1920's there was a reaction against the subjectivity of psychoanalysis, a schism that can still be observed. Psychology was to become a science, a precise account of cause and effect.

As Lord Kelvin put it, in another context:"When you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers - you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be."

It also needed credibility. The idea that the mind was something divine and not to be understood, was still important to many people, especially those in charge of our education. Even as late as 1936, psychology was not considered a fit subject to teach in our universities.

The new psychology sought to model itself on the traditional sciences and gain credibility, by only dealing with those behaviours that could be observed and measured objectively. It therefore rejected any innate characteristics or internal processes. This was in complete opposition to psychoanalysis, which was based on case studies, personal introspective accounts and subjective awareness.

There was no poetry or music in the new scientific psychology. The complex internal mental processes that have led to the world's great literature had no place in it. Emotion could not be measured, and Jung's cultural myths became ignored,

Instead the individual was governed by a series of responses to a series of stimuli, passively responding to its environment. Learning such responses began at birth. Since any innate characteristics could not be measured, they could not form part of the hypotheses.

In its essence, it was simply a model, a way of beginning from a reference point, but it soon became a dogma, especially in what was known as behaviourism, which was never seriously challenged until the 1960's, when psychology as a study might be said to have come of age.

Bibliography and good reading.

  1. Axline, V., (1964)Dibs - In Search of Self, London: Penguin Books
  2. Stevens, R., (1983)Freud and Psychoanalysis: An Exposition and Appraisal, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
  3. Fordham. F, (1966)An Introduction to Jung's Psychology, London: Penguin Books

Gender and Psychoanalysis
Freud, the Father of Psychoanalysis
Jung - The Golden Flower

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Bland, J., (1998) Gender and Psychoanalysis
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Web page copyright Derby TV/TS Group. Text copyright Jed Bland.
Last amended 08.04.98