The Problem of Forbidden Sexual Longings
  • Helen Block Lewis
Part of the Emotions, Personality, and Psychotherapy book series (EPPS, volume 1)


It is sometimes a source of ironic (sexist) gratification to me to think that the very first scientific insight into the emotional basis of mental illness was derived from the sufferings of hysterical women. Members of the “second sex” in middle-class Vienna, living with a set of values that fostered a benign degradation of womanhood, transformed their forbidden rage into forbidden sexual longings and thence into incapacitating neurotic symptoms. Somehow the message of their sexual longings first penetrated the awareness of two physicians, Breuer and Freud, both of whom, especially sensitized by being Jewish, were personal adherents of a humanistic tradition and both of whom were men. The very circumstance of their being men involved them in embarrassing questions of how to respond appropriately to the women’s longings (a problem unfortunately still current in twentieth-century psychiatry). It was a long and difficult route that Freud followed from these first observations into the broader concept that neurosis contains an implied critique of the social order. And it was the women’s hysterical symptoms — neuralgias, anaesthesias, contracted limbs, epileptiform seizures, chronic vomiting, anorexia, disturbances of vision — that were the first alert. These symptoms directly affect the body and clearly betray their origin in strong feelings. Women’s bodies are the species’ “means of reproduction”; women are both valued and devalued for this reason. Women are socialized into a culture in which they are taught to be expressive of tender feelings; and women were both valued and devalued for their expressiveness. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the first glimpse of the critique that our social order needs to be more loving came from the emotional turmoil of women.


Sexual Advance Neurotic Symptom Case Account Unsignaled Shock Hypnotic Suggestion 
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Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1981

Authors and Affiliations

  • Helen Block Lewis
    • 1
  1. 1.Yale UniversityNew HavenUSA

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