Freud’s Seduction Theory
During 1895-1896 Sigmund Freud practiced psychoanalysis by listening to his women patients weave cryptic trails down memory lane, as well as trying to decipher them. What he uncovered was that something awful and violent lay in their past. The majority of psychiatrists in this era would have deemed their patient as a hysterical liar, dismissing their memories as fantasy. Freud strayed from the norm in the sense that he believed that these women were telling the truth. Illness did not befall these women due to their “tainted families” , but because of the atrocities they faced as children.
During April of 1896 Freud scraped all the theories, case histories and experience from the depths of his consciousness and manipulated it into written form. The presentation of his ideas met with silence from his colleagues. Despite the predictions of a tarnished reputation, Freud published his newfound theories in The Aetiology of Hysteria. Its title refers to Freud’s theory that the basis of all neurosis stemmed from what Freud called “infantile sex scenes”. This namely became to be known as the “seduction theory”, the belief that these early childhood experiences were real, not fantasy created out of hysteria, and they had long lasting effects on the adult lives of those who suffered through them.
The repercussions of his ideas, both innovative and perverse, earned Freud a seat in seclusion. But as the story goes, Freud eventually came to his senses about the seduction theory and gave up his aberration by publicly retracting his study. The accepted notion is that he literally had to banish the theory from his consciousness in order to move on to his more accepted work. Joined by other physicians, over a three year span, Psychoanalysis earned respect as a therapy and science.
How does an innovative idea , supported by spirit and experience , come to be a belief , and then a regret ?
And in the answer, lie my intentions and hopes for this paper. I seek to prove that Freud was intrigued by cases involving child abuse, incest as well as other sexually related cases. Upon turning the last page of this paper, the reader will understand that Freud did not develop the seduction theory overnight. Moreover, a gradual impact of his studies and surroundings eventually seeped through his skull and saturated the innermost cortexes of his brain, leaving his thoughts forever changed.
Freud in Paris: The beginning of an obsession?
Twenty-nine year old Freud ventured on a studious trip to Paris to wrap up his medical education while working under France’s leading neurologist, Jean Martin Charcot (1825-1893) at the renowned Salpetriere hospital. Freud’s stay in Paris lasted from October 3, 1885 to February 28, 1896. During which, according to Jeffrey Masson, “Freud was exposed to literature attesting to the reality and indeed the frequency of sexual abuse in early childhood (often occurring within the family); furthermore, in all probability witnessed autopsies at the Paris morgue performed on the young victims of such abuse” (15). Freud has also made insinuations towards his studies in Paris have had a tremendous impact on his later works.
Freud’s mentor, Jean Charcot, in collaboration with Valentin Magnan, a well known French psychiatrist-produced an article in 1882 entitled “The Inversion of the Genital Sense and other Sexual Perversions”. The article stresses that madness being taken into account as a factor in sexual accounts. Charcot is also said to have worked with Paul Brouardel on the study of rape in small children by adults. Their work, Les attentets aux moeurs, the last in his series, Cours de medicine legale de la Faculte de Paris, focused on the rapist, instead of the victim. (Masson, 34). The book contains several case histories, all full of horror.
Brouardel also conducted autopsies at the Paris morgue. Freud has written several letters expressing his enthusiasm for Brouardel’s work. Through examination of the following excerpt one is assured of Freud’s participation in the autopsies. Freud writes:
I abandoned my occasional attempts at attending other lectures after I
have become convinced that all they had to offer were for the most part well
constructed rhetorical performances. The only exceptions were Professor
Brouardel’s forensic autopsies and lectures at the morgue, which I rarely
There were several other men writing in regards to sexual/child abuse, which Freud was familiar with , according to Masson (38). Freud was surrounded by the theoretical debate between Ambrose Tardieu and Alfred Fornier. Tardieu argued that these sexual traumas were all but too real, while Fournier argued that they were fantasies. Both shared the perspective that either way – fantasy or fake, neither had lasting psychological effects. When Freud joined the debate, he joined on Tardieu’s side. But over the years adapted to Fournier’s side, with the difference that he believed that fantasies themselves had pathogenic psychological consequences.(Masson, 58)
It is obvious that Freud’s time spent in Paris had a great effect on his thoughts, as well as his later work. Freud writes to Martha Bernays in regards to Paris, “Whether the seed will one day bring forth fruit, I do not know.” Also, Freud named his first born son, Jean Martin, in Charcot’s honor.(Gay, Reading, p57) .
Freud found himself submerged in a world fascinated by child abuse, both physical and sexual. The French pioneered in the realization that these horrid occurrences were real. Unfortunately, they did little other than uncover these truths. The toll that this environment took on Freud unleashed his unbridled curiosity in regards not only to the physical and sexual acts themselves, but also the deep rooted, psychological strings attached to these “scenes”. Seems as if Freud was swimming in a murky sea of insect, molestation and rape. It was inevitable that he would swallow some of it.
The Aeitiology of Hysteria: Frued’s ticket to isolation
Freshly returned from Paris , Freud began organizing his theories with his colleague, Josif Breur. He focused on the sexual abuse , over the physical abuse cases he’d become so familiar with overseas . Freud began his writings by using a variety of words to describe these acts of violence: rape, abuse, seduction, attack, assault, aggression and traumas. Though, in later writings, Freud limited his adjectives mainly to “seduction” . Masson feels that the word “seduction” was a poor choice, seeing it implied some form of participation by the child. He assures us that there is no ambiguity in regards to what Freud meant by a seduction: a real sexual act forced on a young child who in no way desires or encourages it (5). This is where the euphemism, The Seduction Theory, stemmed from.
The Society for Psychiatry and Neurology in Vienna hosted a lecture, The Aetiology of Hysteria (Studies of Hysteria), by Freud on the evening of April 21, 1896. Freud felt that by announcing his newfound theories that he would become “one of those who had disturbed the sleep of the world.” (S.E., 3,p.199). The main focus of this paper pinpoints the origins of hysteria/neurosis in sexual traumas dealt with during childhood. Through a thorough dissection of The Aetiology of Hysteria the reader realizes that the article can be dichotomized into two parts. The first dealing with techniques for recovering repressed memories ,symbolism in the unconscious, as well as the significance of these memories. The second part focused on Freud’s connection between hysteria and sexual abuse directed towards a child, The Seduction Theory.
Freud felt that repressed memories worked in a chain link , each one connected. If through probing, he uncovered a memory of vague significance, he would probe further and usually find a correlation betwixt the two memories .
Hysteria, Freud affirmed, is the result of a “presexual sexual shock,” while “obsessional neurosis is the consequence of presexual sexual pleasure.” (Anzieu,1975/1986, p.161) Freud has eighteen cases supporting his theories . Six men, twelve women ,all with hysterical symptoms and ,or obsession symptoms , led Freud on a journey through their unconsciously stored chains of repressed memories back to shocking sexual scenes in childhood.
Freud was the first to believe these stories and label them as the cause of hysteria, rather that dismissing their stories as fantasy, a symptom of hysteria. Doug Davis observed that “He [Freud] seems to have become concerned with the problems of child abuse in part because he saw reconstruction of the abusive history was evidence for a critical-period view of neurotic development: any genital stimulation of a very young child was almost certain to be traumatic because of the child’s primitive emotional and cognitive resources and would give rise to psychological defenses (repression, reaction-formation, undoing) that would dispose the affected person to neurosis under even moderate adult stress.” (P.3)
Freud’s self proclaimed wisdom, fell upon deaf ears. His paper met with utter silence from the psychiatric community. The local paper in Vienna usually listed all lectures given, with a brief commentary. Masson uncovered that the paper listed that Frued’s lecture had occurred along with the date, yet no commentary was listed (6-7) . The following excerpt written to Fleiss (also excised from the edited version) tells of the reaction from the head of the Psychiatry Department at the University of Vienna , Baron Richard von Kraft-Ebing :
A lecture on the aetiology of hysteria at the Psychiatric Society met with
an icy reception from the asses, and from Kraft-Ebing the strange comment: It
sounds like a scientific fairy tale. And this after one has demonstrated them to a
solution to a more than a thousand year-old-problem, a “source of the Nile”!
Freud writes to Fleiss May 4,less than two weeks after his lecture.
I am as isolated as you could wish me to be: the word has been given out to
abandon me, and a void is forming around me.
On May 30th , Freud wrote to Fleiss:
In defiance of my colleagues I have written down in full my lecture on the
aetiology of hysteria.” (Masson, 11)
David Stafford Clark recounts the diminishing involvement of the coconspirator of The Aetiology of Hysteria, Josif Breur. Freud hoped that Breur would eventually come around in despite of his strong opposition to the seduction theories .The criticism of their community only compiled the embarrassment upon Breuer. According to Clark, Breuer “ felt compelled to deny even the knowledge itself. Freud had to go on alone.” (28) Outside of Clark’s comments, we have a letter written from Freud to Fliess of March 1, 1896,in which he writes of Bruer that
“our personal relationship, externally reconciled, casts a deer shadow over my existence here. I can do nothing right for him and have given up trying. According to him, I would daily have to ask myself whether I am suffering from moral insanity or paranoia scientifica.”
Freud was ostracized from the psychoanalytical community as long as his seduction theory prevailed in his case studies. Freud’s naming of the father as a seducer appalled his colleagues. Both German and French medical communities took offense in Freud. As long as he allowed the seduction theories to linger in his thoughts, Freud stood alone.
Retraction and Resolution: Abandonment of the Seduction
…I was no longer obliged to recognize that these scenes of seduction, had never taken place, and that they were only fantasies which my patients had made up.
-Freud, 1912 (Minutes, v4,1912-1918)
Freud’s preoccupation with the seduction theory seemingly came to a screeching halt on September 21, 1897, upon the ritual of writing to Fleiss. An excerpt from Ernest Jones’s account of this letter gives an accurate portrayal:
…It was the awful truth that most –not all- of the seductions in childhood which patients had revealed, and about which he had built his whole theory of hysteria, had never occurred. The letter of September 21,1897, in which he made this announcement to Fleiss is perhaps the most valuable of that valuable series which was so fortunately preserved…
It is in that letter in which Freud concedes to no longer believing in his “neurotica”. He cites several reasons for his abandonment:
“The continual disappointment in my efforts to bring any analysis to a real conclusion; the running away of people who had been most gripped[ by analysis]; the absence of the complete successes on which I had counted; the possibility of explaining to myself the partial success in other ways, in the usual fashion-this was the first group. Then the surprise that in all cases, the father, not excluding my own, had to be accused of being perverse- the realization of the unexpected frequency of hysteria, which precisely the same conditions prevailing in each, whereas surely such widespread perversions against children not very probable.”
… Then third, the certain insights that there are no indications of reality in the unconscious, so that one cannot distinguish between truth and fiction…
Since written, this letter has been reviewed and rehashed countless times by the psychoanalytic community. To them, this letter symbolizes the beginning of an internal reconciliation with his colleagues and the whole nineteenth century psychiatry (Mason 110). What was concluded was that Freud made a decisive and permanent decision about seductions, that they were, by and large , unreal, the fantasies of hysterical women. What was surmised was then transformed into a standard in psychoanalytical thought.
Freud had redirected his thoughts from the aggression that parents direct towards their children , to the aggression that children aim towards their parents. Freud wrote in Origins, p 207 : “ hostile impulses against parents ( a wish that they should die)are also an integral part of neuroses.”
One of the first public commentaries regarding Freud’s attempt to recover from the Seduction Theories was a quote included in Leopold Lowenfeld’s book, Psychic Obsessions . Lowenfeld was one of the few psychiatrists that took Freud’s views on the seduction theory seriously, granting recognition to Freud’s contradictory new ideas .
At the present time Freud summarizes the essence of his theory in the following two sentences:
a)Psychic obsessions always originate in repression.
b)Repressed impulses and ideas from which the resulting obsession arises stem quite generally from the sexual life.
This statement summarizes Freud’s views circa 1902. By comparison to his 1896 papers , his shift of thought is apparent. Earlier he had stated that the experience of puberty itself was harmful, because it stirred up unconscious memories of early traumatic events . The adolescent experiences were unconsciously repressed ( or even consciously repressed) because they were reminiscent of earlier, more painful memories. Freud is now saying that the early childhood traumas tend to be fantasies , created as a defense against fully experiencing adolescence . No longer is repression an issue, sexual constitution is the only explanation. The “neurotic” adolescent does not want to acknowledge her own sexual desires, in order to cover them up , she invents sexual tales from her childhood.
In 1905 Freud wrote a short piece entitled, “My Views on the Part Played by Sexuality in the Aetiology of Neuroses” (S.E., 7,pp.270-279), in which he writes:
At that time my material was still scanty, and it happened by chance to include a disproportionately large number of cases in which sexual seduction by an
adult or older children played the chief part in the history of the patient’s
childhood. I thus overestimated the frequency of such events ( though in
other respects they were not open to doubt) . Moreover, I was at that period
unable to distinguish with certainty between falsifications made by hysterics
in their memories of childhood and traces of real events (p. 274)
There are several other articles that when chronologically arranged depict the road Freud traveled from isolation to redemption. Never letting go of the underlying sexual theme to his theories , Freud rerouted his ideas to accommodate his colleagues. His later deals is laced with sexuality, yet no favorable mention of sexual childhood traumas. All his thought , hard work and effort had proved to be of no avail. Whether or not he still possessed a spark of hope for his seduction theories, is unsure . It is certain that if he had any lingering thoughts , they were sure to uncover repressed memories of his isolation , which would in turn keep him from publicize them.
The impact of Freud’s seduction theory is apparent. His ideas caused uproar amongst the medical society. It was only when he eventually concurred that he was viewed as the pioneer that he portrays today. Common knowledge states that Freud’s abolishment of the seduction theory opened numerous doors inside his mind, unleashed his true brilliance, or at least what is accepted as brilliant.
In a letter to Jeffrey Masson, Anna Freud wrote (September 10 , 1981) :
Keeping up the seduction theory would mean to abandon the Oedipus complex,
and with it the whole importance of phantasy life, conscious, or unconscious
phantasy. In fact, I think there would be no psychoanalysis afterwards.
Through writing this paper I cleared up some of the ambiguities regarding Freud’s theory intertwining childhood sexual abuse and adult neurosis. I now have a visual image of the long and winding road that this theory traveled, stirring up commotion across countries, evoking enough criticism to deplete its stamina. In all obviousness, one can witness the snowball effect applied to this situation. What started with an interest , grew into an idea . Integrating this theory into his practice, fueled the fire beneath this idea . The heat caused combustion, transforming this idea into a belief, one that Freud apparently felt important enough to risk his reputation . Eventually the negativity directed towards Freud’s belief was enough to diminish his confidence, the spine of every man’s conviction. Whether or not his retraction was caused by the isolation he persevered, or because of a sincere change of heart, only Freud himself could say.
Sigmund Freud was a pioneer of psychoanalysis, the first and last of his kind. Taking a wrong turn was inevitable, turning around was more important. Like trying to find a light switch in the dark, he had to feel his way around.
·Masson, Jeffrey M. The Assault on Truth – Frued’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory . NY: HarperPerennial, 1992.
·Gay, Peter, Reading Freud .
·Anzieu , D. Frued’s Self-analysis . New York: International UP, 1986
·Davis, Doug. Web site( A Theory for the 90s) . October 1997 http://www.havenford.edu/psych/ddavis/freud90s.num.
· Schur, Max. Freud : Living and Dying. New York : International UP , 1972
·Stafford-Clark, David. What Freud Really Said. New York: Schocken Books: 1965,1997
·Minutes of Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Edited by H. Nunberg and E. Federn; New York : International UP ,1962-1975
·Lowenfeld, Leopold. Die psychischen Zwangerserscheinugen (Psychic Obsessions ). Wiesbaden, Germany: J.F. Bergman, 1904
·Freud, Sigmund. My Views on the Part Played by Sexuality in the Aetiology of the Neuroses. S.E 7, p. 270- 279
·Freud, Sigmund, (Report on My Studies in Paris and Berlin Carried Out with the Assistance of a Travelling Bursary Granted from the University Jubilee Fund, October,1885- End of March ,1886 ), S.E. 1,pp. 3-8
·Origins, Sigmund Freud, The Origins of Psychoanalysis: Letters to Wilhem Fleiss, Drafts and Notes: 1887- 1902, edited by Marie Bonaparte, Anna Freud, Ernest Kris, and James Strachey . New York: Basic Books, 1954
·S.E. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated by James Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud ( 24 vols.) London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953-1974