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Castration anxiety

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Castration anxiety

Castration anxiety is the fear of emasculation in both the literal and metaphorical sense. Castration anxiety is an overwhelming fear of damage to, or loss of, the penis; one of Sigmund Freud's earliest psychoanalytic theories. Although Freud regarded castration anxiety as a universal human experience, few empirical studies have been conducted on the topic. Much of the research that has been done on the topic was done decades ago, although still relevant today. The theory is that a child has a fear of damage being done to their genitalia by the parent of the same sex (i.e. a son being afraid of his father) as punishment for sexual feelings toward the parent of the opposite sex (i.e. a son toward his mother). It has been theorized that castration anxiety begins between the ages of 3 and 5, otherwise known as the phallic stage of development according to Freud. Although typically associated with males, castration anxiety is theorized to be experienced in differing ways for both the male and female sexes.



Castration anxiety is the conscious or unconscious fear of losing all or part of the sex organs, or the function of such. In the literal sense, castration anxiety refers to the fear of having one's genitalia disfigured or removed to punish sexual desires of a child.

In Freudian psychoanalysis, castration anxiety (Kastrationsangst) refers to an unconscious fear of penile loss originating during the phallic stage of psychosexual development and lasting a lifetime. According to Freud, when the infantile male becomes aware of differences between male and female genitalia he assumes that the female's penis has been removed and becomes anxious that his penis will be cut off by his rival, the father figure, as punishment for desiring the mother figure.

In 19th century Europe it was not unheard of for parents to threaten their misbehaving sons with castration or otherwise threaten their genitals. This theme is explored in the story Tupik by French writer Michel Tournier in his collection of stories entitled Le Coq de Bruyère (1978) and is a phenomenon Freud documents several times. In this same period, Dr. Kellogg and others in America and English-speaking countries offered to Victorian parents circumcision and in grave instances, castration of their boys and girls as a terminal cure and punishment for a wide variety of misbehaviours (notably masturbation) and ills, becoming very popular over time.


Castration anxiety can also refer to being castrated symbolically. In the metaphorical sense, castration anxiety refers to the idea of feeling or being insignificant; there is a need to keep one's self from being dominated; whether it be socially or in a relationship. Symbolic castration anxiety refers to the fear of being degraded, dominated or made insignificant, usually an irrational fear where the person will go to extreme lengths to save their pride and/or perceives trivial things as being degrading making their anxiety restrictive and sometimes damaging. This can also tie in with literal castration anxiety in fearing the loss of virility or sexual dominance.

Relation to power and control

The anxiety aspect of this topic can be completely overwhelming to the individual, and can often breach other aspects of their lives. A link has been found between castration anxiety and fear of death. Although differing degrees of anxiety are common, young men who felt the most threatened in their youth tended to show chronic anxiety. Because the consequences are extreme, the fear can evolve from potential disfigurement to life-threatening situations. Essentially, castration anxiety can lead to a fear of death, and a feeling of loss of control over one's life.

To feel so powerless can be detrimental to an individual's mental health. One of the most concerning problems with all of this is the idea that the individual does not recognize that their sexual desires are the cause of the emotional distress. Because of unconscious thoughts, as theorized in the ideas of psychoanalysis, the anxiety is brought to the surface where it is experienced symbolically. This will lead to the fear associated with bodily injury in castration anxiety, which can then lead to the fear of dying or being killed.

Counterpart in females

It is implied in Freudian psychology that both girls and boys pass through the same developmental stages: oral, anal, and phallic stages. Freud, however, believed that the results may be different because the anatomy of the different sexes is different.

The counterpart of castration anxiety for females is penis envy. Penis envy, and the concept of such, was first introduced by Freud in an article published in 1908 titled "On the Sexual Theories of Children." The idea was presumed that females/girls envied those (mostly their fathers) with a penis because theirs was taken from them - essentially they were already "castrated". Freud entertained that the envy they experienced was their unconscious wish to be like a boy and to have a penis.

Penis envy, in Freudian psychology, refers to the reaction of the female/young girl during development when she realizes that she does not possess a penis. According to Freud, this was a major development in the identity (gender and sexual) of the girl. The contemporary culture assumes that penis envy is the woman wishing they were in fact a man. This is unrelated to the notion of "small penis syndrome" which is the assumption by the man that his penis is too small. According to Freud's beliefs, girls developed a stronger superego, which he considered a consequence of penis envy.

Sigmund Freud's views on women created/creates great debate between professionals and nonprofessionals interested in this field. In his 1925 paper "The Psychic Consequences of the Anatomic Distinction between the Sexes", Freud wrote that "women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own" This quote is not actually in the paper written by Freud. Among his many suggestions, Freud believed that during the phallic stage, young girls distance themselves from their mothers and instead envy their fathers and show this envy by showing love and affection towards their fathers. According to Cohler and Galatzer, Freud believed that all of the concepts related to penis envy were among his greatest accomplishments. However, these are also his most criticized theories as well - most famously by Karen Horney.

Oedipus complex in boys

Freud derived this term from the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex. In this tragedy, the main character, Oedipus, kills his father and marries a woman whom he does not know is his mother. Given this irony, Freud used the term Oedipus complex to indicate this unconscious desire.

According to Freud, the Oedipus complex relates to a universal wish that a boy has, unknowingly, to have his mother all to himself by the removal of his father. This complex occurs during the third stage, known as the phallic stage, of Freud's psychosexual stages of personality development. It is during this stage that the child learns he has a penis and begins to associate the penis with the pleasure of touching it. In addition to this, the child becomes aware of his sexual desire toward the parent of the opposite sex, his mother. According to Freud, this lusting that the child feels toward his mother means that he wants to have sex with her. Due to this lusting, the child sees the father as a competitor for the mother's attention and love. Due to this competition, the boy identifies his father as the only obstacle inhibiting him from having his mother.

The conflict aspect of the Oedipus complex arises from within the child. The child knows to love and respect his father and yet he finds himself competing with his father for his mother's affection. Additionally, the child also knows that removing the father from the home is wrong. And yet, he finds himself wanting his competitor removed so that he can have his mother all to himself.

Furthermore, the child begins to fear his father. The child understands that the father is superior to the boy in both size and strength and the father could easily use those advantages to prevent the boy from possessing his mother. Moreover, boy begins to fear a preemptive strike from the father to take away the cause of the conflict, the boy's penis. This fear of losing one's penis is called castration anxiety. This anxiety drives the child to give up his sexual desire for his mother, and redirect his attention to becoming more like his father, who already had his mother. This redirecting of attention is called identification. It is during this process that the child then identifies the father as a suitable role model. This growth in the child is the start to the resolution of the Oedipal conflict.

Freud believed, however, that the Oedipus complex could never fully be resolved. He concluded that these lusting feelings must be repressed beneath the child's conscious awareness. This repression is the mind's way of freeing the child from the disturbing anxieties that are related to this complex. Freud went further to say that the sexual desires are still within the child and are often expressed in more indirect and appropriate forms of behavior. A rather typical outlet is found within the child's dreams; within the dreams the child is able to safely express his repressed desires in a non-anxiety forming and socially acceptable manner.

The Electra complex in girls

The term Electra comes from Greek mythology as well. Electra was a Greek character who convinced her brother to kill their mother, but only after the mother had already murdered the father. Carl Jung, one of Freud's successors, coined the term the Electra complex for the Oedipus complex in girls, which also occurs during the third stage of psychosexual development. Jung described this complex as the time when the girl begins to develop an awareness of her sex. This awareness includes identifying the other children she may encounter as boys or girls and the identification of her parents' sex.

According to Freud, during this stage the child is initially very attached to her mother. However, when the child discovers that she does not have a penis, she redirects her attachment to her father. The child then blames her mother for "castrating" her. As a result of her new affection for her father, the child will begin to identify with and mimic her mother out of fear of losing her father's love. Similarly to the Oedipus complex, the girl learns her role by identifying with her mother in an attempt to have her father vicariously through her mother.

Freud rejected the idea of the Electra complex and was even monotonously vague about how the phallic stage of psychosexual development is resolved for girls. Freud stated that this complex drags out for girls and may never fully be resolved. Because the successful resolution is the result of the development of the superego, Freud stated that women must be morally inferior to men. This notion led this aspect of Freud's developmental theory to not be a widely accepted theory today.

In the absence of a father

There is an assumption that the Oedipus complex is resolved when the young boy identifies with his father and gives up the notion that he may become intimate with his mother. There are many studies that look at the effects of the absence of the father on the child's development. However, there are no studies that determine this resolution if the father is unavailable to them. Mary Leichty, of Michigan State University, hypothesized then, "that if the father is not available to play his role at this time (during the development of the Oedipus complex), there will be inadequate resolution of the conflict."

This hypothesis suggests that the young, a boy could potentially be left in a vulnerable stage where he still believes that becoming intimate with his mother is an option. Freud would assume that this absence of the father may result in the same development that a young girl would experience. The young boy, in Freud's belief, would suffer from an underdeveloped superego, and would essentially make for a less moral human being.

Empirical testing

Sarnoff et al. surmised that men differ in their degree of castration anxiety through the castration threat they experienced in childhood. Therefore, these men may be expected to respond in different ways to different degrees of castration anxiety that they experience from the same sexually arousing stimulus. The experimenters aimed to demonstrate that in the absence of a particular stimulus, men who were severely threatened with castration, as children, might experience long-lasting anxiety. The researchers claimed that this anxiety is from the repressed desires for sexual contact with women. It was thought that these desires are trying to reach the men's consciousness. The experimenters deduced that unconscious anxiety of being castrated might come from the fear the consciousness has of bodily injury. The researchers concluded that individuals who are in excellent health and who have never experienced any serious accident or illness may be obsessed by gruesome and relentless fears of dying or of being killed.

In another article related to castration anxiety, Hall et al. investigated whether sex differences would be found in the manifestations of castration anxiety in their subject's dreams. The researchers hypothesized that male dreamers would report more dreams that would express their fear of castration anxiety instead of dreams involving castration wish and penis envy. They further hypothesized that women will have a reversed affect, that is, female dreamers will report more dreams containing fear of castration wish and penis envy than dreams including castration anxiety. The results demonstrated that many more women than men dreamt about babies and weddings and that men had more dreams about castration anxiety than women. These results were consistent with Freud's theory of castration anxiety.


Castration anxiety Wikipedia

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