Sigmund Freud

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What are three reasons for Freud's emphasis on sex?

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First, Freud believed people were driven by the pleasure principle, which is the will to gratification of pleasurable desires, prominently including sexual pleasure. In this, Freud differed from Nietzsche, who believed people were motivated primarily by the will to power, and later, Victor Frankl, who argued that people were chiefly motivated by a desire to lead meaningful lives.

Freud believed that sexual gratification was highly important to people, and more particularly, influenced how the young child developed between the ages of three and six. At this age, Freud wrote, the child is focused on genital pleasure. The young boy child therefore unconsciously wants to kill his father so he can have sex with his mother. Freud called this the Oedipal complex. He argued that in order to successfully enter the social order, the young boy must come to identify with his father and, in the process, develop self-control and abandon the desire for the mother. Resolution of the Oedipal complex is extremely important to a person's healthy psychological development in Freudianism; the Oedipal complex therefore places the satisfactory resolution of unconscious sexual impulses at the center of mental health.

Finally, in Freud's early work with hysterical or maladjusted women, many of them told him they had been sexually abused as children. Freud believed them, and thus sexuality became key to his work. He realized that mental health was based largely on a healthy resolution of childhood sexual tensions, reinforcing the centrality of sex in his work.

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First, Freud's emphasis on sex was part of his overall emphasis on the importance of the subconscious mind. He came to believe that the subconscious was the site of internal conflicts, the resolution of which was crucial to mental health. It was his interactions with his patients (Freud was a practicing psychotherapist) that led him to that conclusion, which he then extrapolated into his complex, yet somewhat reductive understanding of the subconscious driven by the libido. This in turn led him, in Society and its Discontents, to explain society itself as the product of the interaction of people driven by the repression or expression of these urges. 

Of course, to successfully navigate society, one needs to be able to repress their urges. Freud's early work was done in late nineteenth-century Vienna, a time when very strict sexual mores prevailed throughout Europe and the United States. (For an important, though somewhat controversial analysis of Freud's intellectual and social milleu, see Carl Schorske, Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture.) So it does, to some extent, stand to reason that Freud would zero in on sexual energy as the "engine" driving the unconscious. His work with the famous Anna O. was particularly instrumental in forming his wider conclusions.

Finally, we should note that Freud reached many of his conclusions through self-analysis. His understanding of the Oedipal complex, in particular, was based on his memories of his own childhood. Freud's own experiences thus may have shaped his view of the human psyche. In short, Freud was a revolutionary, astonishingly innovative, but he was also a product of his time.

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