Theories of sexual difference

  • Sellers Susan


In Freud’s later work, as in the work of Jacques Lacan, the Oedipal crisis serves as an explanation for the way an individual’s desire, created and maintained through the (lost) object/(m)other, and acting as a strong motivating force on the individual, is organised according to a pre-established social and symbolic system. The phallus, as object of the castration law, is emblem (first signifier) of this division. In his ‘Three Essays on Sexuality’,1 Freud argued that there is no natural difference between the sexes, and he stressed that boys and girls must learn to perceive themselves as different and to desire others. Drawing on Freud’s theory, Lacan makes two further points which are important here. Developing Freud’s insistence that normality is at best an idealised fiction, Lacan suggested that a child’s adoption of a sex and gender role is neither intrinsically linked to biological sex, nor, once a role has been accepted, is it necessarily secure. Secondly, since the boy, unlike the girl, possesses a physical equivalent of the phallus, the girl’s relationship to the symbolic order is complicated in a way that the boy’s is not. The fact that the girl has no means of representing within herself even her lack — she has no penis to embody the phallus that stands both for the lost object/(m)other and for the act of signifying this — places her in a problematic relation to the symbolic code since, Lacan suggested, she cannot herself figure within its order and thus only exists according to man’s definition of her there.


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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Sigmund Freud, ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’ (1905), in On Sexuality, The Pelican Freud Library vol. 7, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977) pp. 45–169.Google Scholar
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    See, Claire Duchen, Feminism in France: From May ‘68 to Mitterrand, (London: Routledge, 1986) p. 41Google Scholar
  3. 1.
    Christine Delphy’s essay ‘Protofeminism and Antifeminism’, translated in Toril Moi’s reader French Feminist Thought (Oxford: Black-well, 1987) pp. 80–109, similarly attacks Annie Leclerc as representative of a position valuing biologically-derived differences at the expense of material, social and political actionGoogle Scholar
  4. 3.
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    Julia Kristeva, ‘Women’s Time’ (1979), in The Kristeva Reader, pp. 187–213, translated by Alice Jardine and Harry Blake.Google Scholar
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© Susan Sellers 1991

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  • Sellers Susan

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