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Infant sexuality


Disciplines > Psychoanalysis > Articles > Infant sexuality

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The breast

The breast is a sexual organ as well as a feed point. Whilst the baby is being fed, the mother is being sexually stimulated. Assuming the baby detects this arousal, they may become aroused in response.

This may be useful in creating a bond between the infant and the mother, but it may also create a charged triangle when the father enters the fray. The mother may respond to the father as if he is now a competitor for her affections, and he may also detect the competition. Perhaps also the baby understands the conflict in some way.

The phallus

The phallus, as opposed the penis, is used in psychoanalysis as a symbol of masculine power and female lack. It thus becomes a significant concept in gendering and is related to desire, jouissance and feminine identity.

Body parts

The infant sees parts of the mother, including breast, eyes and lips and may imbue them with particular significance.

Infants sense and may grab their own body parts. It is common for a young boy to tug at his penis, perhaps gaining some pleasure from this. The mother, seeing this may be feel some sense of arousal. The father also may be aroused, perhaps by jealous, perhaps by repressed homosexuality. With girls, also, there can be a dynamic of naked arousal and repressed emotions.


Freud considers the Oedipus Complex as a stage where the child experiences an erotic attachment to one parent and hostility toward the other parent. The ensuing triangular tension is seen as being the root of most mental disorders and Failure to get past this trigger point and into the symbolic order is considered to be a classic cause of lasting neurosis.


Freud insisted that children (both boys and girls) do not know about the internal female sex organs until puberty, and thus, in this 'sexual phallic monism' younger children consider women as 'castrated' (this is a form of denial).

A part of Freud's Oedipus Complex is the boy's realization that his mother has no penis and has been castrated. Fearing being castrated himself, he aligns himself with the father. The girl handles this by realizing that she has already been castrated and hence rejects her also-castrated mother and aligns with the father who possesses that which she lacks.

'Castration' is often used to describe loss, or the fear of loss (much as the 'phallus' symbolizes lack).


Since Freud linked early development with sexuality, what goes on in the infant's mind has been guessed at by many psychoanalysts and philosophers.

Lacan saw the phallus as the symbolic function, the bearer of the 'Law of the father'.

Jacqueline Rose uses Lacan to show that sexual identity is acquired in the Oedipus crisis.

Melanie Klein notes that a baby's sensations of sexuality is based in its simple and innocent baby's experience and sensation. It is not the sexuality as as perceived and experienced by an adult.

According to Laplanche, the mother's breast sends a number messages to the baby and that it might wonder what the breast is saying to it.

Laplanche's theory of primary seduction considers the the attention of the mother and the aggression of the father and the mystery for the baby of adult reactions that are driven by deep sexual instincts.

Jeffrey Masson saw Freud's work as glossing over the terrible truths of incest and abuse that are at least felt and may even be performed in a patriarchal society.

In classic Freudian analysis, the boy responds to the power of his father first by fearing castration and then by identifying with him and moving away from the mother. The girl assumes that she has been castrated and that she must become more feminine, which includes having babies of her own.

A major contribution of such controversial works is in allowing exploration of early sexual feelings, confused as they may be, and the ramifications of this for later life.

See also

Freud, Mirror phase, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Feminism

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