Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Self-Centred Sex Differences (from Erica)

I've always been somewhat bemused by Freud's androcentric approach to human psychology and sex differences. The entirety of Freud's psychoanalytic theory are too complex and long-winded to include here. Basically, he assumed that a child's first awareness of sexual differences was in the recognition that some people ("fathers") have penises and some people ("mothers") do not. As a result, a male child (presumed to have a penis) becomes afraid that his mother will castrate him, since she's clearly missing something, and a female child (presumed not to have a penis) undergoes extra trauma when she realizes that she will never have this precious organ.

Part of the nonsense of this theory for me is that, even in Freud's day, middle- and upper-class families (the primary focus of his thinking) tended to hide their genitalia. Knowing who has and doesn't have a penis would be pretty challenging in the days of breeches and voluminous skirts. But think of it another way- as Juliet Mitchell did in her text "Psychoanalysis and Feminism"- what are other "obvious" sex differences? There are so many other traits associated with male-ness and female-ness that are more readily generalized to one sex or another than, say, facial hair, and that are easier to identify. What Freud failed to acknowledge was that penises aren't the be-all and end-all of human identification with their sex, and I don't just mean that in terms of inner sexual identity. That's right. I'm talking about breasts.

The first time I remember actively noticing and thinking about sex characteristics, I was pretty young- maybe three or four- and I'd seen both my parents naked when they were on their way to and from the shower at night, after my sister and I were supposed to be in bed. What struck me wasn't the fact that Dad had something Mom didn't; it was the other way around. Juliet Mitchell had it right, at least for me: what I noticed was that my mother had breasts, and my father did not. And when I asked the inevitable question that comes from children in this gender-binary society, about the physical characteristics that seemed to separate the people I knew into one category or the other, it was phrased as, "Mama, why doesn't Daddy have breasts?"

That phrasing has been rather telling for me, as I've never conceptualized my body as the one that lacks anything. Instead of developing Freud's so-called Electra complex, in which I'm supposed to fall in love with my father in the hopes that I can gain some of the social and sexual power that's associated with having a penis, I developed a superiority complex. Sure, men thought they ruled the world, but I was part of the sex and gender group that knew better. I would have breasts. I would have the capacity to MAKE LIFE and then give birth to it. To my knowledge, no amount of penis could empower any male to do THAT.

Even as my understandings of gender and sex have changed to accommodate the variety of ways in which peoples' bodies express gender and sex identities- including the women who identify as cis females but whose bodies don't allow them to make life in the traditional sense- that formulation of the question, that demanding to know why my father was lacking and not why I was, has stuck with me and influenced the way I perceived gender-based social powers.

So here are some questions to consider today:
  • What do you remember about the first time you noticed sex and/or gender differences?
  • How has that shaped your understanding of who has or lacks what?
  • How do you think your early conceptualizations of sex differences has influenced your own sex identity and, maybe, your gender identity?


  1. My aunt tells this story, but I don't remember it. Apparently I walked in on my cousin while he was peeing. We were each three or four years old, and when I saw him peeing, I asked what "that" was. He was shocked by the possibility that I didn't have one, but attempted to reassure me. "Don't worry," he said. "You'll grow one when you're bigger."

    Even though I don't remember that story, here's what strikes me: my cousin thought I lacked something because I was too small. So, he saw having a penis as something associated with size/age/maturity. But as far as I can tell, I never expressed any dismay over not having one. Actually, it sounds more like I saw it as an unwanted growth - like a wart, for example.

    I'm not sure how to answer the other questions. Hmmmm.... I'll have to think about this.

  2. This thread reminds me of Karen Horney. She disliked Freud's "penis envy" and theorized that instead, men had "womb envy;" that men felt the need to create and dominate because they lacked the power of creation that women have. This makes a lot more sense to me than penis envy ever did.

    I think my first memory of sex differences (at least that I can think of, or that I framed as being about sex) was an argument with a boy in elementary school. He maintained that boys were better because they could pee standing up. It didn't even occur to me to counter that girls were better because they could have babies.