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According to Sigmund Freud and psychoanalytic theory, what is "penis envy"?

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Freud believed that when little girls realize that boys have penises, they compare the size and proportion of the male member to their own sexual organs and find vaginas to be inferior; they immediately wish to have penises instead.  They now, and forever after, Freud argues, have penis envy.

The first articulation of this concept appear in Freud’s essay On the Sexual Theories of Children  (1908); by 1913, in Observations and Analyses Drawn from Analytical Practice, Freud had coined the term “peniseid,” which appears again in 1914 in his essay On Narcissism.  Penis envy, Freud explains, does not mean a female child would prefer to be a boy, only that she wishes to possess the organ itself. She wishes to have the social advantages that possessing a penis affords. This can be an especially strong feeling if she thinks that her parents show preference to a male sibling.

Furthermore, little girls blame their mothers for not having given her a penis; she then turns to her father as her object of love.  Unlike the male child, who eventually comes out of the Oedipal complex (wherein a boy falls in love with his mother), a girl never overcomes her transferred love for her father (see Freud’s 1924 essay The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex).  When this happens, the little girl has replaced her desire for a penis with the desire for her father.  Boys see the father as a forbidding rival and thus they develop a superego, but female children do not ever develop a similarly strong superego. Thus, Freud argues, women woman exhibit “a lesser sense of justice, a lesser inclination to submit herself to the great necessities of life.”  Freud also claimed that women often allow themselves “to be guided in her decisions by tender and hostile sentiments. For these reasons, he warns men “not… to be misled by the argumentations of feminists who want to impose on us a complete parity of position and appreciation between the sexes." 

One of Freud’s shortcomings was that he failed to take into account the impact his own overwhelmingly patriarchal culture.  His phallocentrism narrowed his focus; he studied the cases of male children in depth and from these findings, leading to mutatis mutandis, that is, changing only the things that need to be changed. For Freud, women did not exist in a positive space; he was only able to define women in comparison to their perceived negatives to men.  He could imagine that a woman might want a penis, but it never occurred to him that a man might want a vagina, or have breasts, or possess any feminine qualities.  Freud believed that women had to accept the sense that they had been castrated, and that they simply had to live with the fact that they were inferior to men.

Source: International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, ©2005 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved

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In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933), Sigmund Freud expanded upon his earlier Interpretation of Dreams in terms of the importance of genitalia in emotional development and in understanding the psychological structure of human beings.  In Interpretation of Dreams, Freud posited that the key to understanding the meaning of dreams was to interpret dreams in terms of sexual identification and repressed sexual desires.  Every facet of dreams, according to Freud, lent themselves to some sort of sexual representation.  In that groundbreaking work from the turn of the 20th Century, the famed psychoanalyst suggested that even clothing represented sexual identify: 

“Of articles of dress, a woman's hat may very often be interpreted with certainty as the male genitals. In the dreams of men, one often finds the necktie as a symbol for the penis; this is not only because neckties hang down in front of the body, and are characteristic of men, but also because one can select them at pleasure, a freedom which nature prohibits as regards the original of the symbol.”

In perhaps the most referenced, and most misused quotation from Freud’s study, he applied weaponry to genitalia in a manner that would resonate for the foreseeable future: 

“All complicated machines and appliances are very probably the genitals - as a rule the male genitals - in the description of which the symbolism of dreams is as indefatigable as human wit. It is quite unmistakable that all weapons and tools are used as symbols for the male organ: e.g., ploughshare, hammer, gun, revolver, dagger, sword, etc.” 

The subject of “penis envy” is an extension of Freud’s psychoanalytic approach to human thought.  In his Introductory Lectures, he suggested that during the first few years of a child’s life, he or she is preoccupied with the mother, with perhaps a suggestion of Oedipal influences present.  By the age of three, however, children become increasingly aware of their gender distinctions and girls begin to gravitate towards the father because he has a penis, in obvious contrast to the mother, and represents authority and strength.  As he stated, "Girls hold their mother responsible for their lack of a penis and do not forgive her for their being thus put at a disadvantage."  Thus was born the theory of “penis envy.”  Girls interpret authority in terms of the possession of a penis, and regret that they were born without one. 

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In terms of psychology, what exactly is the idea of penis envy?

The term originated with the early theories of Sigmund Freud. According to these theories, female sexuality is the same as male sexuality until the "phallic development." It is then that girls develop penis envy. In Freud's On Narcissism he described women as developing an ideal of masculinity as "a survival of the boyish nature that they themselves once possessed."

Penis envy was supposedly the driving force of a girl's desire for her father and the power that having a penis seems to give. Until the Women's Rights Movement of the 1960's many girls wished to be boys not so much because they really wanted the genitals of boys, but because they wanted the opportunities afforded males, in being able to participate in sporting activities, travel, etc. In the 1960's the feminist movement campaigned for political and social equality, especially in the workplace, and women no longer needed to envy males.

Freud's theory of penis envy is considered very shortsighted in its scope. For, Freud believed that women were sexually passive and only engaged in sexual relations in order to reproduce men.This dismissal of women's sexuality poses problems today as Freud's theories remain prevalent and yet influence sexologists and psychologists (Jayne, 1984).

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