Study Guide

The Interpretation of Dreams Sexuality and Sexual Identity

By Sigmund Freud

Sexuality and Sexual Identity

Chapter 2

He had at that time confided some ideas to me on the subject of the chemistry of the sexual processes, and had mentioned among other things that he believed that one of the products of sexual metabolism was trimethylamin. Thus this substance led me to sexuality, the factor to which I attributed to greatest importance in the origin of the nervous disorders which it was my aim to cure. (2.1.39)

As he analyzes his Dream of Irma's Injection, Freud interprets the appearance of "trimethylamin" in the dream as an obscure allusion to the theme of sexuality. As he notes in this passage, Freud believed that unconscious sexual instincts were the cause of the nervous disorders he treated in his patients.

Chapter 3

Though we think highly of the happiness of childhood because it is still innocent of sexual desires, we should not forget what a fruitful source of disappointment and renunciation, and consequently what a stimulus to dreaming, may be provided by the other of the two great vital instincts. (3.1.17)

Freud is playing to his conservative readers here when he speaks of childhood as being "innocent of sexual desires." In fact, his theory of dreaming is based largely on the idea that children do have sexual wishes and desires, which are later repressed and inaccessible to the waking minds of their adult selves. In fact, even here Freud adds a footnote to say that "sexual instinctual forces, in infantile form, play a large enough part, and one that has been too long overlooked, in the psychical activity of children" (3.1.17).

Chapter 4

The distressing feeling aroused by these dreams is no doubt identical with the repugnance which tends (usually with success) to restrain us from discussing or mentioning such topics, and which each of us has to overcome if we nevertheless find ourselves compelled to embark on them. But the unpleasurable feeling which thus recurs in dreams does not disprove the existence of a wish. Everyone has wishes that he would prefer not to disclose to other people, and wishes that he will not admit even to himself. (4.1.52)

Although not all of the distressing dreams that Freud analyzes throughout The Interpretation of Dreams have hidden sexual content, many of them do. In this passage, Freud begins to lay the foundation for his lengthy discussion of sexual repression.

In a short paper on anxiety-neurosis, I argued some time ago that neurotic anxiety is derived from sexual life and corresponds to libido which has been diverted from its purpose and has found no employment. Since then this formula has met the test of time; and it enables us now to infer from it that anxiety-dreams are dreams with a sexual content, the libido belonging to which has been transformed into anxiety. (4.1.52)

Because Freud's theories are quite well-known today, it's difficult to imagine the effects that this argument might have had on his early readers. Imagine being told that all of your distressing dreams stem from an unconscious fear of potato chips. That's how strange these ideas might have seemed to those turn-of-the-century readers who weren't used to thinking about the formative influence of sexuality and sexual identity in their lives.

Identification is most frequently used in hysteria to express a common sexual element. A hysterical woman identifies herself in her symptoms most readily—though not exclusively—with people with whom she has had sexual relations or with people who have had sexual relations with the same people as herself. […] In hysterical phantasies, just as in dreams, it is enough for purposes of identification that the subject should have thoughts of sexual relations without their having necessarily taken place in reality. (4.1.36)

Freud's work on hysteria and other neuroses in women has inspired decades of feminist analysis, and his treatment of women's sexuality has often been critiqued. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory is one good place to start dipping your toes into the controversies that Freud's theories provoked.

Chapter 5, Section A

She was putting a candle into a candlestick; but the candle broke so that it wouldn't stand up properly. The girls at her school said she was clumsy; but the mistress said it was not her fault. (5.2.39)

Freud records this short dream as part of a long list of examples of dreams that have hidden ("latent") sexual significance. We're sure you can anticipate his interpretation of it if you put your dirty-mind thinking caps on. Here's a hint: in Freud's view, the dream includes phallic symbols and references to masturbation and impotence.

Chapter 5, Section B

If a woman dreams of falling, it almost invariably has a sexual sense: she is imagining herself as a "fallen woman." (5.3.26)

Interpretations like this one reveal how deeply Freud's theories were shaped by the cultural norms of his time. Both the phrase "fallen woman" and the notion of a sexual "fall" come from Judeo-Christian concepts of sexual sin. It's not necessarily true that Freud himself thinks this way; the point is more that these cultural norms tended to be formative for most people within Freud's society, including women, so it's no surprise that they play out in people's unconscious minds.

Chapter 5, Section D

If, then, a child's death-wishes against his brothers and sisters are explained by the childish egoism which makes him regard them as his rivals, how are we to explain his death-wishes against his parents, who surround him with love and fulfil his needs and whose preservation that same egoism should lead him to desire? (5.5.30)

This crucial question may not seem to have anything to do with sexuality or sexual identity, but it totally underlies Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex. What Freud wants to know is this: why is it that young children seem capable of such extreme hostility toward their parents?

Chapter 7, Section D

It is, I may say, a matter of daily experience that sexual intercourse between adults strikes any children who may observe it as something uncanny and that it arouses anxiety in them. I have explained this anxiety by arguing that what we are dealing with is a sexual excitation with which their understanding is unable to cope and which they also, no doubt, repudiate because their parents are involved in it, and which is therefore transformed into anxiety. (7.5.21)

Freud thought of the sexual instincts as basic bodily drives that were just as practical and ordinary as hunger, and he saw no reason to deny that children experience sexual "excitation" as well. On the other hand, Freud didn't assume that children were capable of understanding adult sexuality and sexual practices. In fact, in his view, childhood confusion about adult sexuality was a formative part of psychical (or psychological) development.

A solution of this difficulty is afforded by the observation that dreams of the death of parents apply with preponderant frequency to the parent who is of the same sex as the dreamer: that men, that is, dream mostly of their fathers death and women of their mothers. […] It is as though—to put it bluntly—a sexual preference were making itself felt at an early age: as though boys regarded their fathers and girls their mothers as their rivals in love, whose elimination could not fail to be to their advantage. (5.5.31)

In response to his earlier question about young children's death-wishes toward their parents, Freud now offers a startling theory: children think of their parents as sexual rivals. Freud anticipated that many of his readers might find this idea "monstrous" (5.5.32), but in his view, it not only helped to explain the nature of dreaming, but it also helped explain the neurotic conditions that he treated in his patients every day.

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