Freud on love and debasement

Freud on love, sex and normality, 1905-1915

Summary. This paper gives a close reading of Freud’s remarks concerning the overvaluation and debasement of the female object by the male subject, in three texts on love and sexuality (1905, 1910, 1912) from his middle period. Freud tries to parcel out the contradictory phenomena he describes into two coherent clusters: the normal and the neurotic. However, as his meditations unfold, he starts to waver and contradict himself—apparently without noticing it.

Two examples: 1) Psychic impotence is initially presented as being limited to a circumscribed group of neurotic men, and ends up being a feature of men in general. 2) At first we hear that it is normal that the sexual object is overvalued; however, by the end of Freud’s reflections it has become natural that an association with sexuality should defile the object.

In describing these phenomena in “either/or” terms, Freud seems to have forgotten his own discovery that in the unconscious alternatives that apparently exclude each other should be read inclusively, as “both/and”. Should we conclude that men are essentially ambivalent about whether they want their women whorish?


This paper addresses Freud’s theory of sexuality in the period from 1905 to 1912, to focus on only one of its dimensions: his views regarding the relationships between sex, love, respect and debasement. These relate directly to his views regarding the relation between the “sensual current” (physical desire) and the “affectionate current” (love and respect) in the erotic, and concomitantly, regarding the nature of sexual normality in the male. The loci classici for these themes are his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (Freud, 1905), “A special type of choice of object made by men” (Freud, 1910) and “On the universal tendency to debasement in the sphere of love” (Freud, 1912). The latter two texts can be read as addenda to the former.1 In fact, much of what Freud says in the Three Essays concerning our theme consists of later additions, based on the two two later articles. In these texts the themes of love and debasement are discussed almost entirely relative to the relation between a male subject and a female object.

Given certain misunderstandings to which previous versions of this paper have given rise, let me, perhaps redundantly, right away introduce some caveats and disclaimers, especially by emphasising the limited scope of this paper. This paper is part of work in progress on a book about Freud’s theory of sexuality in the Three Essays and the decade following its first publication. Invoking my conclusions about the Three Essays in this paper would be of little value, as they are sure to provoke controversy, and there is no space to rehearse my arguments for them here. As my reading of Freud’s later writings is likely to be equally far from common wisdom, I do not want to link what I say in this paper to my current off the cuff views on these later writings, either. I will thus not attempt to place the views of Freud discussed here in the context of his further intellectual development, nor to determine to what extent his later views successfully resolve the inadequacies I signal in these earlier ones.

In this paper I thus mainly limit myself to a close reading and immanent critique of the three texts mentioned. I argue that Freud flounders and contradicts himself on many of the central issues concerned, and that there is an enormous asymmetry between the judgements attached to female as opposed to male sexual infidelity.

Much of my past and ongoing work on Freud is devoted to defending him against those who would dismiss him on methodological, philosophical or moral grounds. This usually involves conceding that there is a lot in Freud that will have to be rethought, but simultaneously arguing that it is essential not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and end up in a pre-Freudian position.

As far as I am concerned, the bits of his oeuvre discussed in this paper do not represent Freud’s finest hour. I shall therefore not pull my punches. I do not wish to beat about the bush concerning the fact that Freud is not being very logical, nor very scientific here, nor showing very admirable sentiments/values here. Nevertheless, I of course realise that alternative, perhaps more charitable readings of these texts are possible. Readers of earlier versions of this paper have suspected that I was trying to base a larger case againt Freud on this limited and perhaps secondary bit of his oeuvre. This is not so. Nevertheless, I shall not try to soften the fact that I find the texts in question extremely unconvincing and the view of women embodied in them, totally unacceptable. These texts reveal Freud as a child of his time, about as far from the the ideal of Freud as a disinterested scientist as can be imagined. (This is not intended as a condemnation of Freud; given the nature of his topic, it is inevitable that ideology will seep into his reflections to a considerable degree.

Why devote an article to these texts, especially if they do not seem that important or successful? These papers are not singled out because they are taken to represent either the unchanging basis of Freud’s thinking regarding the relations between the sexes, nor because they represent a pivotal point in his thinking. (Although they do form a not insignificant building block of the Three Essays, which was a pivotal point in his thinking). Two crucial issues are addressed in them: love (more exactly: Freud’s conceptualisation of that aspect of sexuality which would otherwise be seen as “love”), and sexual normality (again: as Freud conceptualises it): the goal of the whole process of sexual development that is so central to the Three Essays. Freud’s remarks on these topics in the Three Essays are mostly later additions dating from the 1915 edition, based on the two other articles (1910 & 1912) discussed. If his remarks on love and normality are not particularly successful, this has repercussions for the general theory of sexuality found in the Three Essays.

In the Three Essays, Freud opposes his own approach to sexuality to one that focuses exclusively on (an ideal of) “healthy” adult heterosexual genital coitus (p. 135). In contrast with this “popular view”, Freud investigates everything that falls outside such a focus, and tries to account systematically for it: sexual perversion, especially in its relation to psychopathology; infantile sexuality; homosexuality (especially as a component of bisexuality); the role of everything non-genital and non-coital in sexuality.

From Freud’s changed perspective, what was before seen as normal, now typically becomes “normal” in scare quotes: the line between normal and abnormal is hard to draw; “abnormal” behavior is far more common than people suppose; far from “normality” being the secure achievement of the majority of humanity, everybody is abnormal to a greater or lesser extent; moreover any normality that may have been attained is at best a precarious achievement. Throughout, but with many a lapse, Freud shows an awareness of the cultural relativity of any notion of sexual health or normality.

Crucially for our current purposes, Freud’s enlarged concept of sexuality is supposed to comprise all the phenomena usually categorized under the rubric of love. Our investigation of Freud’s treatment of the relation between love and debasement indicate that when he speaks of ‘love’ in these texts, he is basically interested in the phenomenon of bonding or attachment. To the extent that Freud does indeed manage to limit himself to this phenomenon, the reader should bracket most of his or her extra-psychoanalytic assumptions and values concerning love when reading these texts.

Essential to Freud’s view of sexuality is the notion that objects can be substituted for each other. Inasmuch as this is true, the specificity of the object becomes irrelevant. As Freud at this stage attaches a central importance to the erotogenic zones, the sexual object functions essentially as a means to the end of sensual satisfaction in such a zone; a similar emphasis on the component instincts also suggests that the object plays a purely instrumental role for the subject. Instead of the value being the other person, and a means then sought to relate to this value, the value lies in the aim, and the object is but a means to attain it. Given this view, it is not surprising that sexual fidelity becomes a crucial issue in need of an explanation: if the object is a means to the end of sexual gratification, and substitutability accordingly is the default option, as it were, what sort of deus ex machina is going to secure exclusivity and fidelity in erotic matters? Because Freud foregrounds the issues of sexual fidelity and exclusivity, a (or perhaps the) central issue that is at stake in these texts, tends to remain implicit, and can thus easily escape the reader’s notice (as it did mine, initially). I refer to the phenomenon of bonding mentioned previously. If everything seems to indicate that sexual objects are essentially replaceable, why would the subject bond with an object? Freud’s first answer is: the subject (male) will bond with a sexual object (female) only if he overvalues her. And when Freud unpacks this sexual overvaluation, it turns out to hinge completely on the sexual fidelity and exclusivity that the subject thinks can be expected from the object.

In “sexual overvaluation”, which is a typical concomitant of being in love, Freud therefore does recognize a phenomenon in which the (typically: male) subject attaches an extremely high value on the (typically: female) sexual object, making it something other than a replaceable means to the end of sexual gratification.

All of this bears directly on the issue of sexual normality. When Freud distinguishes the normative stages in the development of sexuality—the oral, the anal, the phallic and the genital—he leaves normality, the Valhalla of sexual development, surprisingly undefined. We know that it is supposed to be linked to the genital stage, about which Freud is, however, equally sketchy.

Regarding sexual normality, the central issue Freud discusses in these texts (more comprehensively in “Object-Choice” (1910) and “Universal Tendency” (1912) than in the Three Essays) is that of the confluence, in the male, of “the affectionate” and “the sensual” currents. Normality can only be obtained when the objects of these two currents coincide. Where this fails, “psychic impotence” occurs, which means that the subject is sexually potent, but only with a debased object—an object that is not simultaneously loved.

Characteristically, Freud lays more stress on the non-attainment of the goal of sexual normality, thus conceived, than on its attainment. By the end of his reflections, psychic impotence has become well-nigh universal, in any case: in “civilized” men. However, before we discuss the debasement of the object, let us first investigate Freud’s discussion of what appears to be its diametrical opposite: the overvaluation of the object.

Being in love and overvaluation

According to Freud it is characteristic of being in love that the object is overvalued [überschätzt—overrated, overestimated], as opposed to undervalued or devalued (viewed with contempt, debased, denigrated, etc.). Freud initially describes this overvaluation from the point of view of the cynical onlooker, not the person in love:

Only in the rarest instances [does] the psychical valuation that is set on the sexual object … stop[…] short at the genitals. The appreciation extends to the whole body of the sexual object and … spreads over into the psychological sphere: the subject becomes, as it were, intellectually infatuated (that is, his powers of judgement are weakened) by the mental achievements and perfections of the sexual object and he submits to the latter’s judgements with credulity (Freud, 1905, p. 151).

This overvaluation is responsible for the fact that the sexual aim does not remain limited to the union of the genitals. (Freud presupposes that the subject in question has attained a genital sexual focus). Freud’s description almost implies that an undeluded sexuality would only treasure the object’s genitals, and not let itself be diverted to foreplay! (Thus decisively avoiding the danger of perversion.) The deluded lover is somebody who, unable to content himself with “a nice piece of cunt”, has to make it part and parcel of a wonderful person.2 It is then not strange that Freud makes the degree of sexual overvaluation depend on the female’s resistance:

The intensification of the brake upon sexuality brought about by pubertal repression in women serves as a stimulus to the libido in men and causes an increase of its activity. Along with this heightening of libido there is also an increase of sexual overvaluation which only emerges in full force in relation to a woman who holds herself back and denies her sexuality (p. 221; cf. also 1912, pp. 187-188).

Othering is usually conceived of in terms of “negative” exemplars.3 In the phenomenon of being in love [Verliebtheit], we would then find something that at first sight seems utterly alien to the order of othering. However, sexual overvaluation could in its own way be said to deny the otherness or specificity of the other as much as debasement does. Women for instance not only protest against being denigrated as whores; they often protest as vehemently against being idealized as Madonnas, with the slightest unpremeditated movement leading to a disastrous fall from the lofty pedestals they have been placed on. Indeed, it is a commonplace of feminism that the valuation of women as Madonnas or as whores belongs to one and the same dialectical movement./// my conclusion would repeat a commonplace of feminism. Common sense/PC of the day too easily assumed?

Does Freud treat love as an ethical force?

We have claimed that Freud foregrounds the phenomenon of bonding in his discussion of love and being in love. In his disenchanted description, love and being in love have hardly anything to do with the ethical attitude of benevolence, caring and compassion4 with which the term “love” is often associated. The terms in which Freud describes the phenomenon of being in love/overvaluation, are such as to deprive it of any suggestion linking it to the morally important phenomenon of recognizing and valuing the other for herself. (As is already suggested by his decision to refer to it with a term containing the morpheme “over-”.)

His description of being in love rather resonates with that strand in philosophy that is suspicious of love—a strand found especially among the early Greeks, but also in later philosophers, up to and including modern times.

The notion that Eros might reinforce the human element in man does not appear in the pre-Platonic writers. (Boas, 1967, p. 90)

In early Greek thought love is generally seen as a danger; a powerful impulse needing strict control. (Hesiod, for instance, still sees love as the enemy of reason—a position echoed in Freud’s words “powers of judgement are weakened” and “submits to … with credulity” quoted above.) When Empedocles links Aphrodite to peace and harmony, it is a major innovation, according to Boas. A later cynic about love is of course Schopenhauer (a not insignificant influence on Freud), who condemns all forms of love, and sees them all as rooted in sexuality.

Does Freud’s notion of sexuality in the texts we are investigating then include—or trench upon—the notion of love in some other, ethically positive sense? In the Three Essays there is hardly any attention to love (the need for love and the tendency to love) in any sense other than that of bodily gratification, the only exception being Freud’s remarks on psychical overvaluation and affection. If Freud presents any theory of love in the Three Essays, “Object-choice” (1910) or “Universal tendency” (1912), this is where we shall have to look for it.

Love is central to two conceptions of ethics that have fundamentally influenced Western culture—that found in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and that found in Plato.

To begin with the latter: In the 1920 “Preface” to the Three Essays, Freud seems to pride himself on “how closely the enlarged sexuality of psycho-analysis coincides with the Eros of the divine Plato” (p. 134).5 As applied to the Three Essays, this comparison is thoroughly misleading.

In Plato’s (1977) Symposium Socrates/Diotima presents love as the moral force par excellence. Love is love of beauty;

there is a scale of beauty, progressing from that of bodies, through that of forms, thoughts, minds, institutions and laws, the sciences, to absolute or ideal beauty. … Sexual love itself, although lowest on the scale of love, is nevertheless the seed of ideal love, since what attracts a man to his beloved is beauty (Boas, 1967, p. 90).

By the time of the 1920 Preface, Freud had developed his dualism of Eros and Thanatos, which was a far cry from the position found in the Three Essays. Whatever the degree of comparability between Freud’s Eros (in 1920) and Plato’s ethically colored Eros may be, there is very little in the Three Essays (of 1905, or even of 1924) that agrees with the latter. The sexual as described here can hardly be said to contain within itself the seed of ethical or spiritual love. Even a cursory investigation of Plato’s views on love thus shows that he does not supply a connection through which love in Freud’s 1905 account would become an ethical force of any importance.

If we turn next to the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition, it must be said that very little of what Freud says about love is even vaguely congruent with the role this tradition ascribes to it, either: God’s love as the model for an ethical attitude to others, or the injunction “love thy neighbor as thyself” as the essence of ethics. On the contrary, in the Three Essays Freud tends to be Freud the debunker, the master of suspicion, who like Nietzsche acknowledges very little in sexual love that is conducive to an ethics of love. As such the Three Essays form a necessary and valuable corrective to any view which assumes that an attitude of ethical, spiritual love for the other is the default option, so to speak, one that is freely available to anybody who wishes it. We are led to conclude that Freud’s conception of love in the Three Essays—love as bonding—is fundamentally amoral. One advantage of this is that it allows for the separation of the descriptive and the normative approaches to love. Our usual notion of love, embedded as it is in a rich and complex web of values and connotations, is hardly suited as a term in the sort of science Freud envisaged (at this time, at the very least). If the picture Freud paints of love seems bleak, this is part of the reason for taking this master of suspicion’s picture seriously, it being notoriously difficult to look at love clearly and unsentimentally, so as not to make the wish be the father to the thought. But we must also ask how convincing this bleak account is. Does Freud in his attempt at toughmindedness not end up giving a reductionist account of human sexual relationships here?

We next investigate the little that Freud does say about “love”, “affection”, “the affectionate current” and “debasement” more closely.

Love, affection and debasement

A child sucking at his mother’s breast has become the prototype of every relation of love. The finding of an object is in fact a refinding of it (p. 222).

The consequences of this sentence for the recognition of the (later) love object’s specificity and irreplaceability are not very encouraging. Those who supply the infant’s needs (or later: remind the subject of those who supplied his infantile needs), become love objects.

Children learn to feel for other people who help them in their helplessness and satisfy their needs a love which is on the model of, and a continuation of, their relations as sucklings to their nursing mother (pp. 222-223).

The cynical, and probably correct, interpretation of this statement is that we love those who (help us) satisfy our needs. Love would then be a purely instrumental (egoistic, selfish) matter. This does not leave much scope for the awareness of, and appreciation for, the uniqueness or specificity of the love object. (An interpretation with somewhat less bleak moral implications would be that we feel gratitude towards those who satisfy our needs, and that love is related to this. However, nothing in Freud’s text seems to support such a reading, according to which we could love even those who can no longer satisfy our desires.)

Freud proceeds to identify this love—the “child’s affection and esteem for those who look after him[—]with sexual love.” (p. 223) He argues that the child’s love for the mother is sexual mainly because her love for it is sexual:

This is especially so since the person in charge of him, who, after all, is as a rule his mother, herself regards him with feelings that are derived from her own sexual life: she strokes him, kisses him, rocks him and quite clearly treats him as a substitute for a complete sexual object (p. 223).

Freud adds that the mother should not reproach herself when her love for the child is sexual in this sense, because she thereby helps “him” (the paradigmatic infant is male) to develop in the way he should—that is, as long as her affection is not excessive. Sexuality in this case is thus conducive to an ethics of caring (as an integral aspect of ‘love’).

Freud’s scant references to “affection” [Zärtlichkeit] and “the affectionate current” [die zärtliche Strömung], which mostly only date from the 1915 edition, are probably the closest he comes, in the Three Essays, to thematizing love in the ordinary sense.

In the Three Essays, however, Freud is not at all clear about the nature of affection (i.e., Zärtlichkeit) and its manifestations. In the preceding pages, we have already quoted or paraphrased all the passages in which he refers to it in the original 1905 edition. In what follows, we therefore rather discuss Freud’s more extensive treatment of this topic in “Object-Choice” (1910) and “Universal Tendency” (1912). These form the basis of two 1915 additions to the Three Essays in which “the affectionate current” is mentioned (p. 200 & p. 207).
In “Universal Tendency” (1912) Freud seems to change tack as to the nature of overvaluation: “affection” is now related to “psychical valuation” or “overvaluation” in such a way that “overvaluation” seem more like a virtue, and less of an (occasion for) error, illusion or delusion than it did in the passages discussed above (that date from the original edition of the Three Essays.) “Overvaluation” will henceforth sound like a positive phenomenon to be applauded, rather than a delusion to be deplored.


Freud conceives of normality in terms of the convergence of the “affectionate” and “sensual” currents:

A normal sexual life is only assured by an exact convergence of the affectionate current and the sensual currents both being directed towards the sexual object and the sexual aim (1905, p. 207).

In the course of the three texts under discussion, the relation between these two currents becomes extremely problematic. Sexuality is so deeply involved with the affectionate current (and vice versa) that it becomes hard to distinguish them from each other. Freud also modifies his views on how the one develops relative to the other, without his later view being any more compelling than his earlier one.

The Zärtlichkeit that Freud dualistically opposes to the component instincts, erotogenic zones, etc., itself has strong sensual connotations; the German is more conducive to the collapse of the zärtliche/sinnliche, affectionate/sensual dualism than is the English.6 It is also more suited to Freud’s conviction that an affectionate [zärtliche] attachment to the parents should stand in the way of a sexual attachment to a partner (pp. 227-228), and that parents’ “excessive affection” [Zärtlichkeit] can have the effect of sexualizing the child precociously (p. 223).

In the 1905 edition we are told that of the two currents, the affectionate one is the older. It develops on the basis of the self-preservative instincts and is directed at family and other caretakers—the child’s primary object-choices.7 From the beginning there is some sensual admixture in the affectionate current, especially because of the said sexual component in how others approach the infant (1912, pp. 180-181). This is in marked contrast with the passage, dating back to the original edition of the Three Essays, where the child’s affection is identified with sexual love. //Chronology?

By being combined with the affectionate current, the sensual current itself is “diverted from its sexual aims” (p. 181). However, being so powerful, the sensual current that joins in during puberty “no longer mistakes its aims”. Because of the barrier against incest that has meanwhile been erected, an ersatz object must be found to replace the original ones.

These new objects will be chosen on the model … of the infantile ones, but in the course of time they will attract to themselves the affection that was tied to the earlier ones. A man shall leave his father and mother … and shall cleave unto his wife; affection and sensuality are then united. The greatest intensity of sensual passion will bring with it the highest psychical valuation of the object—this being the normal overvaluation of the sexual object on the part of a man (p. 181).

Here sexual overvaluation seems to be part and parcel of the relation with the sexual object as such, rather than being limited to (a passing phase of?)8 being in love.

Freud’s remarks on the affectionate current often seem to make most sense if this current is taken as the source of the emotional bonding (attachment, commitment) that does or does not occur in a sexual relationship. “A man shall leave his father and mother … and shall cleave unto his wife; affection and sensuality are then united.” This passage is one of the clearest indications that in these texts terms like “love”, and “affection” have more to do with bonding (“cleaving”) than with the quality of the relation (tenderness, loving care) to the object. An amoral conception that seems to be quite far removed from a normative use of the term “love”.

If actual sexual relations with the ersatz object turn out to be impossible, and the original objects continue to exercise a powerful attraction, the required confluence of sensuality and affection will be threatened. The result can be impotence or psychic impotence—a state in which the subject is capable of sexual relations, but only with a sexual object that is not simultaneously an object of affection.

The sensual current that has remained active seeks only objects which do not recall the incestuous figures forbidden to it; if someone makes an impression that might lead to a high psychical evaluation of her, this impression does not find an issue in any sensual excitation but in affection which has no erotic effect. … Where [such people] love they do not desire and where they desire they cannot love (182-183).

(Freud here seems to use “love” and “affection” as two different terms for love seraphic—what people outside the psychoanalytic fold would normally take to be non-sexual love.)

The main protective measure against such a disturbance which men have recourse to in this split in their love consists in a psychical debasement of the sexual object, the overvaluation that normally attaches to the sexual object being reserved for the incestuous object and its representatives (p. 183).

(There is a systematic ambiguity in Freud’s use of “debasement” and similar terms: debasement/Erniedrigung/being debased/erniedrigt sein as a precondition for love may or may not refer to an act of debasing/erniedrigen on the part of the male subject himself.)

We cannot escape the conclusion that the behaviour in love of men in the civilized world to-day bears the stamp altogether of psychical impotence. There are only a very few educated people in whom the two currents of affection and sensuality have become properly fused; the man almost always feels his respect for the woman acting as a restriction on his sexual activity, and only develops full potency when he is with a debased sexual object; and this in its turn is partly caused by the entrance of perverse components into his sexual aims, which he does not venture to satisfy with a woman he respects (p. 185).

What Freud calls “affection” or “love” thus involves not only attachment or bonding, but also “respect”. (Presumably as expressing the conviction that the woman in question is not promiscuous, and thus a suitable object to commit oneself to). However:

Anyone who is to be really free and happy in love must have surmounted his respect for women and have come to terms with the idea of incest with his mother or sister. Anyone who subjects himself to a serious self-examination on the subject of this requirement will be sure to find that he regards the sexual act basically as something degrading, which defiles and pollutes not only the body (p. 186—my italics).9

The italicized words clash directly with the passage quoted previously, according to which

[t]he greatest intensity of sensual passion will bring with it the highest psychical valuation of the object—this being the normal overvaluation of the sexual object on the part of a man (p. 181).

We now have two conflicting accounts: the greatest sensual pleasure is obtained with a debased sexual object—an association with sexuality debases the object; the greatest sensual pleasure is obtained with a respected sexual object—sexual passion leads to an overvaluation of the object.

The exemplar for affection and respect is the mother or sister—both of whom are taboo sexual objects. The exemplar for a sexual object is, apparently, a whore (cf. 183)—the archetypal opposite of a woman deserving respect and love. Normality demands that the male achieve the almost impossible: to either find a whore who will fully satisfy his sexual needs, and simultaneously respect her like he would his (sexually taboo) mother or sister, or find somebody he loves and respects like a mother or sister, and simultaneously desire her like he would a whore.

Freud’s account of the optimal conditions for maximal sexual satisfaction in the male is thus full of contradictions, apparent or real. Where will “the greatest intensity of sensual passion” occur? With a woman who is given “the highest psychical evaluation”? (p. 181) Or when the male is “really free and happy in love”, i.e. has “surmounted his respect for women”? (p. 186) Is Freud simply careless, or is the contradictory nature of male sexuality (generally, or in his time and place—or person) inducing him to resort to contradictory formulations? Whatever the answer may be, the picture of male sexuality that emerges here is one that is essentially unstable between overvaluation and undervaluation.10 (Freud’s notion of the Fehlleistung is actually incompatible with the “simply careless” option: what emerges from carelessness reveals a truth).

Freud is also undecided as to the extension of the group for which the debasement of the female object is a condition for full sexual satisfaction. Is it an isolated group of male neurotics suffering from psychic impotence, as his initial account (and 1910) would suggest? Or is a much larger group affected by it—almost all “men in the civilized world”, with the exception of “only a very few … people in whom the two currents of affection and sensuality have become properly fused”? (p. 185) Or is this even a universal of male sexuality: “anyone” who wants to be happy in love must overcome his respect for women; “anyone” who examines himself honestly must admit that he finds sex vile.11 If the sexual act is so defiling, why should the overvaluation of the object be “normal” in the male? (With this term Freud seems to be referring not to an ideal, but to what is usually the case.) Freud is gradually making normality, as he himself has defined it, seem unattainable!

The prostitute and the “average uncultivated woman”

I should perhaps not have divulged immediately what the reader of Freud’s text realizes only gradually: that the exemplar of the debased woman is the whore [Dirne], and that this is how the debasement constantly referred to in this text should be understood. The Dirne is a woman who has few restrictions as to the sexual aims and objects she will find acceptable.12

Before continuing with Freud’s text on debasement (1912), let us revisit the Three Essays to investigate the strange things he says there about prostitutes.

In a curiously undecided passage (1905, p. 191), children, the average uncultivated female, prostitutes and “the immense number of women … who must be supposed to have an aptitude for prostitution without becoming engaged in it” (p. 191) are all singled out as having a polymorphously perverse disposition, which seems to be (part of) the essence of prostitution. (The way in which the category of those bearing this disposition keeps on expanding, reminds one of the way the category of males with a tendency to debase their sexual object keeps on expanding.) Freud says that seduction can bring out this disposition; seduction then becomes more like a Socratic midwifery than a violation of something to which perversion is foreign; what happens is simply that an intrinsically wanton disposition is activated. Freud therefore others a multiplicity of traditionally othered groups with one stroke of the pen, so to speak. Women tend to prostitution; uneducated women even more so; whores realize not only their own fundamental nature, but also this fundamental female possibility.13 However, determined to have two thinks, Freud concludes from all this that the “disposition to perversions of every kind is a general and fundamental human characteristic” (p. 191). It is hard to lay one’s finger on what it actually is that makes Freud’s procedure here so dubious. Without naming the structure of his argument, let me therefore construct an analogue to it:

Danes are inclined to perversions of every kind.

Jews are inclined to perversions of every kind.

The appropriate kind of seduction can lead Danes and Jews to act on this inclination, to acquire a taste for such acts and to make a habit of them.

People of mixed descent are inclined to perversions of every kind.

An “immense number” of people will under appropriate circumstances turn out to be of mixed descent.

Therefore the “disposition to perversions of every kind is a general and fundamental human characteristic”.

The “disposition to perversions of every kind” has become especially suspect by being linked to groups that are already the object of othering (Jews and “people of mixed descent”), while Danes, Jews and “people of mixed descent” have all been (further) tainted by being singled out as having this disposition. When in the conclusion (which, as in Freud, does not follow from the premises) the disposition is suddenly universalized, this does not purify it of the taint that it acquired in previous steps of the argument. (Nor does the ambiguous role of the seducer succeed in making of the seducee an originally untainted victim.) In the case of Freud, it could be argued that the abjection of uneducated women, prostitutes and women in general has been reinforced: they appear to be fair game for anybody wanting to use them sexually, if need be for “perversions of every kind”, as such use will only activate their intrinsic essence. (His way of lumping these categories together elides the boundaries between them, and makes them share one and the same essence. The seducer initiating a woman into perversion can see himself as just the nth enjoyer of something that was already perverse.) The woman as sinful temptress has become the woman as licentious pervert.14

The strange rhetorical structure of this passage in Freud also allows for or perhaps even demands a second reading to supplement the first: by generalizing from what could otherwise appear to be a limited group, everybody is othered, while the previously othered groups are de-othered. There is little doubt that there is some truth to this reading as well. (But at most: some truth: the nett effect of Freud’s passage on the reader is not simply the affirmation of its conclusion (that the “disposition to perversions of every kind is a general and fundamental human characteristic”), but mainly (or at least also) to underline the pejorative claims about women and prostitutes that have been made along the way).

Debasement, the mother and the whore

For more on the nature of the debasement of the sexual object that a certain type of male neurotic finds a necessary condition for sexual desire, we turn to “A special type of choice of object made by men” (1910). Freud here discusses various strange, but typical conditions that this type of male neurotic imposes on the choice of a love object.

One of these, which is linked to suspect or despicable moral behavior on the part of the object, essentially in matters sexual, Freud terms

rather crudely ‘love for a prostitute’ [Dirnenliebe]. This … precondition is to the effect that a woman who is chaste and whose reputation is irreproachable never exercises an attraction which might raise her to the status of a love-object, but only a woman whose fidelity and reliability are open to some doubt (p. 166; German: p. 68).

In other words: only a debased woman.

As soon as the condition of debasement [Erniedrigung] is fulfilled, sensuality can be freely expressed, substantial sexual functioning becomes possible, and intense pleasure develops (German: Gesammelte Werke 8, p. 83; partly my translation—cf. SE 11, p. 183).

This type of neurotic needs a woman about whom he can be jealous. Girard (1987) would probably say that this is but a special case of our general inability to desire anything or anybody, except if already desired by somebody else. From Girard’s perspective, it would not be surprising that Freud finds himself compelled to expand, step by step, a category that was initially supposed to apply to a limited group of male neurotics, till it finally comprises all men. According to Girard none of us is exempt from the fact that if we are to desire, the other’s desire must first of all come to the rescue.

But to return to Freud’s discussion of the neurotic for whom the debasement of the object is a precondition for sexual desire:

In normal love the woman’s value is measured by her sexual integrity, and is reduced by any approach to the characteristic of being like a prostitute. Hence the fact that women with this characteristic are considered by men of our type to be love-objects of the highest value seems to be a striking departure from the normal (p. 167).

Freud traces these (and other) preconditions back to an “infantile fixation of tender feelings [Zärtlichkeit] on the mother” (pp. 168-169; German: p. 70). This seems to deny the obvious:

The adult’s conscious thought likes to regard his mother as a person of unimpeachable moral purity; and there are few ideas which he finds so offensive when they come from others, or feels as so tormenting when they spring from his own mind, as one which calls this aspect of his mother into question. This very relation of the sharpest contrast between ‘mother’ and ‘prostitute’ will however encourage us to enquire into the history of the development of these two complexes and the unconscious relation between them, since we long ago discovered that what, in the conscious, is found split into a pair of opposites often occurs in the unconscious as a unity (p. 170).

The discovery that the mother has a—per definition disgusting—sexual relationship with the father places her on a par with the prostitute, whose existence is discovered at more or less the same time, and who is at first viewed not with contempt but “with a mixture of longing and horror”, as somebody who could potentially initiate the subject into sex (p. 171).

He tells himself with cynical logic that the difference between his mother and a whore is not after all so very great, since basically they do the same thing (p. 171).

The sharp contrast between the paradigm of purity, the mother, and her paradigmatic opposite, the whore, crumbles. “Under the dominance of the Oedipus complex” the boy comes to desire his mother, a desire that can only be acted out in phantasy. If the mother is a whore prepared to do any sexual act with anybody, then she is also available for incest with her son.

He does not forgive his mother for having granted the favour of sexual intercourse not to himself but to his father, and he regards it as an act of unfaithfulness (p. 171).

(Note Freud’s wavering, which it is plausible to take as a faithful reflection of the boy’s wavering: is the mother unfaithful when she sleeps with the father, or when she sleeps with the son?)

When the boy phantasizes that his mother is unfaithful to his father, the mother’s lover—the beneficiary of this infidelity—is but a guise for himself.

The mother is thus ambiguously suspended between being experienced as a Madonna and as a whore. True to the unity of opposites in the unconscious, these two alternatives are not mutually exclusive.

Freud thus deconstructs the Madonna/whore opposition. If this deconstruction is fed back into his own remarks on overvaluation and debasement, an interesting reading and perhaps resolution of the waverings and contradictions noted thus far, emerges. In his categorical, but contradictory, pronouncements in the 1912 paper, Freud has perhaps not managed to pull off the difficult trick of finding a form that captures the contradictory undecidability of these high/low, Madonna/whore oppositions; in other words a form that succeeds in being true to the unconscious by remaining suspended between both terms of each pair. Freud therefore alternates between coming down on one or the other side of the divide, instead of avoiding such categorical statements altogether. He reverts to treating the mother/whore opposition which he has deconstructed—“the difference … is not after all so very great” (p. 171)—as if it were still an intact opposition, a “relation of the sharpest contrast” (p. 170). More generally, this relates to a fundamental feature of the unconscious: “what, in the conscious, is found split into a pair of opposites often occurs in the unconscious as a unity” (p. 170). So we should perhaps, true to one of Freud’s primary injunctions (and his own application of it in the deconstruction of the “mother/whore” dichotomy), replace his “either/or” in these texts with “both/and”. (The kettle logic of his remarks in these texts forms a strong indication that the unconscious is at work in them). Via this small shift in reading strategy, I think an enormous amount can be salvaged from an account that might otherwise be taken to be disastrously riven with contradictions.

In reading Freud’s remarks on ‘debasement’ I was initially puzzled by the question how this term should be glossed. What exactly does he have in mind here? The short answer is: a debased sexual object is one which lacks “sexual integrity”—somebody whose sexual favors will not be limited to the subject desiring her. However, when one attempts to make a schematic overview of the terms that Freud uses to designate ‘overvaluation’ with its cognates, on the one hand, and ‘debasement’ with its cognates, on the other, and then unravels their meanings, a branching occurs. (See Appendix 1 for an overview.) Although the opposition mother/whore remains central, a wide range of terms typical of othering, with its polarization of reality into what is ‘high’ and what is ‘low’, ‘pure’ and ‘impure’, and so on, is compressed in it.

It transpires that what is at stake is a general polarity between the woman embodying everything admirable—every possible positive value—and the woman embodying everything despicable—negative values as such. This way of conceptualising things was of course not invented by Freud, but he seems to repeat it unreflectively.

Freud’s theoretical concerns here are probably overdetermined by personal ones. We know that he displayed an unusual degree of jealousy during his engagement to Martha Bernays:

His intermittent bouts of jealousy at times bordered on the pathological in their intensity, their sheer irrational anger (Gay, 1988, p. 40).

Freud expected her to address her cousin by his surname, and not show such fondness for two of her admirers. “Above all, she must forsake all others.” The extreme emphasis on fidelity and exclusivity in his own choice of a love object is mirrored in his theory of male object choice.

If “love” and “affection” are terms Freud basically links to bonding, attachment, or commitment, this suggests one way to understand the exclusive focus on respect, which Freud presents as wholly dependent on the woman’s perceived chastity and disposition to faithfulness. If the finding of an object is always the refinding of an object, then will the fear of losing an object not always be the fear of relosing an object? This would give a rationale for the equation of the mother and the whore. One factor accounting for the dangerous attractivenss of “whores” (cf. the “mixture of longing and horror” in the above quote), is that they bring with them the danger that the loss of the mother will repeat itself—the painful discovery that she has to be ceded to, or shared with, others who have a greater or equal claim on her.15

I am surprised by the force and the range of terms of condemnation that, in Freud’s account, are heaped on any woman who is not exclusive in her sexual relations. How strange that the terms in which such behavior is judged are presented as central, unquestionable moral values! If the prostitute really is a prostitute, why be outraged that you are not the only one who can buy her favors? The rage (and the attraction) seem to be linked to the potential movement between the pole of “mother/wife” and that of “prostitute”.

With our hindsight of almost a century, Freud seems surprisingly unsurprised at the asymmetries in evidence here. Outside fundamentalist circles, a man who is polygamous, or who is unfaithful in matters sexual, is not seen as ‘fallen’, ‘impure’, tainted in his very being, not deserving respect, cheapened, abject or shameful in any comparable


debased, fallen low
(whore—object lacking “sexual integrity”;

Overvalued, elevated, on high
(Madonna—object with “sexual integrity”;

way. Neither is all of this encapsulated by comparing him to a male prostitute. In other words: in contrast to what is the case with women, the whole register of othering terms does not become applicable to him just because of this.

Freud is actually unclear about whether debasement precludes overvaluation—cf. his words: “surmounted respect for women” (1912, p. 186)—is compatible with it, or, for at least some subjects, is even conducive to it:

In normal love the woman’s value is reduced by any approach to the characteristic of being like a prostitute. Hence the fact that women with this characteristic are considered by men of our type to be love-objects of the highest value seems to be a striking departure from the normal (1910, p. 167).

When Freud later (1912) apparently expands “men of our type” to include, firstly, almost all civilized men, and, subsequently, “anyone”, this suggests that overvaluation and undervaluation of whores are not stable, exclusive options, but aspects of a single syndrome characterized by contradictory combinations and protean changes of aspect: men love whores, and despise them; men want their love objects to be whores, but also want their love objects to be the opposite of whores. Or, to tread somewhat more slowly and gingerly: Freud’s account does not make explicit its implicit tenor: that men are (or: the male unconscious is) essentially ambivalent when it comes to the question whether they want their (or: it wants its) women whorish or not. Perhaps these formulations are somewhat overhasty, but I am at least prepared to stand by the claim that Freud is unconvincing when he attempts to parcel out the contradictory phenomena he discusses into two coherent clusters, the normal and the neurotic.

Freud can again serve as an example of this ambivalence. If he at times exemplified the jealous male, he was not free from the other pole we have been discussing, either. He recounts dreams and screen memories in which the sharing of a female between himself and other males strikes us as a central feature. Examples are the dream of Irma’s injection (1900, p. 107ff), and Freud’s memory (recounted as someone else’s) of himself, with another boy, ‘de-flowering’ a little girl (1899, p. 311ff). It is telling that Freud refuses to see any phantasy content (i.e.: wish-fulfillment) in the fact that he was not alone when de-flowering the girl (pp. 318-319); because of this he is convinced that this is indeed not an example of a simple phantasy, but of a screen memory containing elements (such as this one) dating back from a real event. We thus see that Freud exemplifies both conditions on object-choice—respect/exclusivity and debasement/sharing—that he discusses in the texts under consideration in this article.
One could attach various interpretations to the figure of a female sexual object being shared with other males: it could for instance be seen as a way of avoiding the rivalry with other males that is otherwise likely to attach to the ‘possession’ of a female, or as a form of communion with other men via communion with a shared object. (An unnamed French female analyst once claimed that what men seek in whores is their predecessors’ penis.)16 It could also be interpreted à la Girard (1987) as a way of recruiting other men’s desire to shore up one’s own desire, which would lack strength without such a support. A Girardian could link the fact that Freud found Martha Bernays “supremely desirable” to the fact that she was “popular with young men” (Gay, 1988, p. 38).

As for women, Freud’s description of the double bind in which they find themselves insufficiently brings out their unenviable position:

It is naturally just as unfavourable for a woman if a man approaches her without his full potency as it is if his initial overvaluation of her when he is in love gives place to undervaluation after he has possessed her [nach der Besitzergreifung—after seizing possession] (1912, p. 186; German: p. 86).

We are given no account of the individual, social and cultural practices in which this “psychical” overvaluation and debasement are embodied. It would be one thing if men had utterly private phantasies, or if the odd one occasionaly turned his phantasies into public acts and representations. But there are, firstly, practices turning women into Madonnas (or construing them as such, or demanding that they be Madonnas), as well as other practices turning them into whores (or construing them as such), and, secondly, practices in which they are simultaneously or alternatively reproached for not being Madonnas, or whores, that is: not freely available to the particular male subject viewing the particular woman from the perspective of his desires, for any act he happens to favor. (To demand that somebody be something, is simultaneously to push her in that direction, and to reproach her if she resists, or tries, but fails.)

Freud shows no surprise at the massive moral condemnation (see Appendix 1) precipitated by 1) sexual behavior 2) of a certain sort. Why should sexual behavior be so defining for one’s worth or worthlessness as a person? Why does this sexual behavior elicit so much condemnation?

If we take it as read that the male subject tends to find such behavior painful, we can see that ascribing the behavior to the woman, and blaming it on her Dirnenhaftigkeit (whorishness), is a way of avoiding other ways of construing the situation. For instance: that there is nothing particularly unusual or vile about a person, male or female, whose love is ephemeral, or who tends to polygamy or polyandry; that in not gaining the exclusive allegiance of the woman, the male subject has failed (say, by not being able to offer her what she wants [in sexual, emotional, intellectual or material terms]); or that it is a fact of life that men are often rivals for the favors and allegiance of one and the same woman. The raison d’être for denigrating women as whores can be precisely to avoid seeing oneself as deficient (absolutely, or compared to the successful rivals) and to avoid acknowledging the fact of male rivalry. One of the big advantages to men of the norm of sexual exclusivity that is applied to women is the fact that, once the male has legitimately taken or seized possession of the woman [Besitzergreifung], he need not constantly prove or demonstrate his worth to her, in an open competition with all comers. She is his possession, not a free subject, and all other men must respect his property rights over her. One of the main anchors keeping such a system in place is (or was) the threat that the woman will count as a whore with no moral worth and commanding no respect—a person to whom a whole range of othering epithets will automatically and indelibly attach—if she does not take the full responsibility of personally maintaining it in her own case, regardless of any deprivation or temptation she may face.

Freud pays no, or very little, attention to the mechanisms underlying these surprising equations. Are they universal, or are they culture-specific? Admittedly, these are vast questions. I would be highly surprised if these were simply arbitrary cultural constructs. The approach known as “sociobiology” or “evolutionary psychology” has going for it the sheer inertial mass of these ‘irrational’ patterns. At the same time, there must be a crucial cultural element at work here, vide the differences on this score between, say, Saudi Arabia, and modern Norway. (Believers in progress could claim that the sexual revolution has made all Freud’s pronouncements regarding respect and debasement, obsolete. Respect today is enhanced by the woman’s unabashed sexual desire, pleasure in sex and sexual refinement, all of which presuppose sexual experience. These features enhancing respect will today often be feigned if they are in fact absent.) Though cultural prototypes may not be needed for the existence of a desire, in the jealous male, to denigrate the woman who refuses to be his exclusive sexual property, the form that this desire and the resulting denigration take will always be mediated by culture. It can be no coincidence that these texts of Freud’s were written in a time and place where love for a whore/prostitute/courtesan was a stock theme in opera, (melo)drama and fiction, developed in terms of a limited range of typical scenarios.

Even if we have a justified suspicion that Freud is complicitous with the thing he investigates, he deserves credit for opening up such highly charged and contradictory phenomena to investigation. And, as I have argued, much of the observations he presents in contradictory formulations can probably be salvaged if we abandon his project of neatly parcelling them out between normality and neurosis. (I am by no means inclined to resolve Freud’s contradictions by making some of his conflicting statements true, and others false. There seems to be something to most of them).

Freud’s text should probably be read as one in which he follows what he calls the ‘genetic’ strategy, rather than the ‘dogmatic’ one (Mahoney, 1989, p. 13)—thus not as the retrospective didactic exposition of a stable, consistent system, but as an (often blow-by-blow) account of an ongoing process of reflection, in which phenomena and concepts are unstable, so that they shift and change aspect—often radically—as Freud proceeds. As in an individual psychoanalysis, new material is constantly emerging which qualifies or contradicts what was said before. Things said earlier on in the investigation are undermined by what comes later, or vice versa.

Neither can my own account pretend to be the statement of a finished system in which the Freudian texts under discussion are submitted to a final reckoning. It too is the product of an ongoing reflection on these texts, written with a dawning conviction that a stable, consistent and definitive account of these issues is probably unattainable.

Appendix 1: overview of the debasement/overvaluation polarity in these texts

All references are to “A special type of object-choice” and “The universal tendency to debasement” (1910 & 1912) in Volume 11 of the Standard Edition, unless otherwise indicated.

debased, fallen low
(whore—object lacking “sexual integrity”;

Overvalued, elevated on high
(Madonna—object with “sexual integrity”;

satisfy” a ignifier that is: supply it with its full and definitive meaning.


Freud’s terminology


debasement” [Erniedrigung; erniedrigen—demean, degrade, debase, humiliate]
“undervaluation after he has possessed her” (p. 186)

regards the sexual act … as something degrading, which defiles and pollutes not only the body.” (p. 186)


highest [psychic] valuation” [höchste [psychische] Wertschätzung]; “[psychic] overvaluation of the [sexual] object” [Überschätzung; Sexualüberschätzung]; “sexual overvaluation which only emerges in full force in relation to a woman who holds herself back and denies her sexuality.” (1905, p. 221)

“debasement” [Erniedrigung; erniedrigen—demean, degrade, debase, humiliate]
“undervaluation after he has possessed her” (186)

“highest [psychic] valuation” [höchste [psychische] Wertschätzung]; “[psychic] overvaluation of the [sexual] object” [Überschätzung; Sexualüberschätzung]; “sexual overvaluation which only emerges in full force in relation to a woman who …denies her sexuality.” (1905—SE VII: 221)

absence of respect

surmount respect” (p. 186);
for this a “woman who is ethically inferior, to whom he need attribute no aesthetic scruples” is needed;
“woman of a lower class” (p. 185)—possibly attractive because she meets these conditions.


respect”—verb (p. 185)
“mental achievements and perfections” (1905, p. 151)

well-brought-up wife” (p. 185)


Dirne: prostitute/whore/harlot/wanton/slut; woman of ill repute, woman of easy virtue
“lose all moral control and rapidly sink to a lamentable level” (p. 168)
Dirnenhaftigkeit: “being like a prostitute” (p. 168; German: 8, p. 70)
“women who practise sexual intercourse as a means of livelihood, and who are for this reason held in general contempt.” (p. 171)


unimpeachable moral purity” of mother (p. 170); “mother or sister” (p. 186); “sexual integrity” of woman (p. 167)


woman whose fidelity and reliability are open to some doubt” (p. 166)
“her sexual unreliability” (p. 168)
“unfaithfulness” of mother in giving sexual favo

ursrs to father, rather than son (p. 171)


woman who is chaste and whose reputation is irreproachable” (p. 166)

“woman whose fidelity and reliability are open to some doubt” (166)
“her sexual unreliability” (168)
“unfaithfulness” of mother in giving sexual favours to father, rather than son (171)

“woman who is chaste and whose reputation is irreproachable” (166)
“woman who holds herself back and denies her sexuality” (1905—SE V

II: 221)

glosses on this terminology: othering becomes aspecific, as does its opposite

debase17: degrade, cheapen, contaminate, devalue, taint, spoil
debased’: degraded, polluted, lowered, fallen, low, sordid, vile, depraved

Antonyms of ‘debase’: elevate, exalt, uplift, purify (all these can be read as glosses on “overvalue”)
Antonyms of ‘debased’ (

≈ glosses on “over­valuation”): chaste, decent, ethical, good, honorable, incorruptible, innocent, moral, pure, upright, virtuous

degrade’: dishonor, pervert, reduce to inferior rank
‘degraded’: base, despicable, disgraced, disreputable, dissolute, mean, vicious, amoral, dirty, abject, shameful

Antonyms of ‘degrade’ (≈ glosses on “overvalue”): dignify, elevate, ennoble, enhance, honor, raise, exalt



Boas, G. (1967). Love. In Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. P. Edwards. New York: Macmillan, pp. 89-94.

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Freud, S. (1899). Screen memories. S.E. 3.

—— (1900). The Interpretation of Dreams. S.E. IV-V.

—— (1905). Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. S.E. 7: 130-243. German: G.W. 5.

—— (1910). A special type of choice of object made by men (Contributions to the psychology of love: I). S.E. 11: 163-177. German: G.W. 8.

—— (1912). On the universal tendency to debasement in the sphere of love (Contributions to the psychology of love: II). S.E. 11: 177-190. German: G.W. 8.

—— (1918). The taboo of virginity (Contributions to the psychology of love: III). S.E. 11: 191-208.

—— (1930). Civilization and its Discontents. S.E. 21

Gay, P. (1988). Freud: a Life for Our Time. London: Macmillan.

Gilman, S. (1985). Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.

Girard, R. (1987). Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. London: Athlone Press.

Gouws, A. (1998). Psychoanalysis and the Other: An Essay on Freud’s Metapsychology, Hermeneutics and Theory of Sexuality. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University for Humanist Studies.

Langenscheidt. (1963). Langenscheidt Encyclopaedic Dictionary of the English and German Languages. London: Hodder & Stouton.

Mahoney, P. (1989). On Defining Freud’s Discourse. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Monk, R. (1991). Wittgenstein: the Duty of Genius. London: Vintage.

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Plato. (1977). The Symposium. Walter Hamilton (Trans). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Wahrig, G. (1989). Deutsches Wörterbuch. (1986 ed.) München: Mosaik.

1 These two articles were first published separately. Only in 1918 was “The Taboo of Virginity” (Freud, 1918) added to them, and the resulting trio of works published under the collective title Contributions to the Psychology of Love.

2 Would calling a woman “a nice piece of cunt” then be a way of showing explicitly that overvaluation is absent? In a similar rejection of overvaluation, but now from the female perspective, “husband” is defined as “vibrator with a checkbook”.

3 The term “othering” perhaps calls for a terminological clarification. “To other” is to wrongfully ascribe an essentially unchangeable, determinate and known nature—usually negative—to a human individual or group, a nature radically distinguishing them from the Self (“me” or “us”) or the norm. In othering, things that are in fact interwoven, are presented as radically separate: the similarities, overlaps, proximity, continuity, interdependence and interaction between Self and Other thus tend to be minimised. “Othering” is an alternative way of conceptualizing phenomena that are usually placed under generic rubrics such as “stereotyping”, “stigmatisation”, and “prejudice”, or more specific ones, such as “sexism”, “racism”, “chauvinism”, “ethnocentrism”, “homophobia”. The term othering conveys the idea that in such phenomena the attribution of an identity to the other is simultaneously a way of attributing an identity (a contrasted identity) to the Self.

4 Although Freud does mention Mitleid [pity, sympathy, compassion] as a force opposing sadism, he does not present it as an aspect of love or ‘the affectionate current’, nor does he otherwise expand on it.

5 Gay (1988, p. 149) remarks wryly:

When it suited him, Freud, the positivist and principled anti-metaphysician, did not mind claiming a philosopher for an ancestor.

6Zärtlichkeit” has a very close link with the erotic, far more than the term “affection” in the English translation would suggest. Common translations for “Zärtlichkeit” are “tenderness”, “fondness”, “affection” or “caress”. (In fact, the multi-volume Langenscheidt dictionary (1963) does not even mention “affection” as a possible translation, while only one of the three dictionaries consulted (Oxford Duden, 1990) mentions “loving care” as a possible translation). “Affection” itself would in most contexts not be translated with Zärtlichkeit, but with Zuneigung or Liebe (Collins, 1991; Langenscheidt, 1963). Some of the connotations of the German “Zärtlichkeit” are captured by the English word “fond” (with its associations of “fondle”, which captures the “caress” side), others by the word “tenderness” (with its link to “tender”, just as “zärtlich” and “Zärtlichkeit” are linked to “zart”, “soft”, “tender”, or “vulnerable”—to be tender is to be gentle; the standard French translation for Freud’s “Zärtlichkeit” is tendresse). One of the meanings of Zärtlichkeit is “sexual embrace” (Langenscheidt, 1963), while “zärtlich werden” can mean “start petting” (Oxford Duden, 1990). Moreover, Zärtlichkeit as “caress” unambiguously belongs to the ambit of the component instincts, viz. the wish to “touch and be touched”. Interestingly enough, most of this is fairly irrelevant to the aspect that seems central to Freud’s concerns in these texts: that whereby the subject bonds with, or becomes attached to, a female object.

7 In a 1915 addition to the Three Essays, Freud gives a different account: the affectionate current is what remains at puberty of the now repressed, but originally sexual feelings for the original (sexual) object.

Their sexual aims have become mitigated and they now represent what may be described as the ‘affectionate current’ of sexual life. … [B]ehind this affection, admiration and respect there lie concealed the old sexual longings of the infantile sexual component instincts which have now become unserviceable (p. 200).

8 In discussing ‘being in love’ [Verliebtheit], Freud perhaps does not intend ‘a passing phase of infatuation’. In any case, this is apparently not the reference of the following passage on (adult) children who feel excessive affection for their parents:

Psycho-analysis has no difficulty in showing persons of this kind that they are in love [verliebt], in the everyday sense of the word, with these blood-relations of theirs (p. 228; German: p. 129).

9 This “low opinion” goes back to the person’s youth, partly to a period in which his sensual current, although already strong, was prohibited satisfaction, for any object, incestuous or otherwise, and partly to the period in which he first learnt about sexual activities and his parents’ involvement in them from other children, in the form of “[b]rutal pieces of information, which are undisguisedly intended to arouse contempt” (1910, p. 170).

10 The considerations discussed in the foregoing are highly relevant to Freud’s claim, at the end of “Universal tendency”, that full sexual satisfaction is impossible. Here his refusal to acknowledge the implications of his own apparently contradictory remarks takes its toll. Having again noted the dangers both of too little sexual freedom (inability to experience sexual pleasure, except, perhaps, where the object is debased or forbidden) and too much of it (“the psychical value of erotic needs is reduced as soon as their satisfaction becomes easy” (1912, p. 187)), Freud partly locates the problem in the nature of sexuality itself—rather than the cultural demands imposed on it by civilization. As the same point is later formulated more concisely in Civilization and its discontents:

Sometimes one seems to perceive that it is not only the pressure of civilization but something in the nature of the [sexual] function itself which denies us full satisfaction and urges us along other paths (1930, p. 105).

Freud does not recognize a further obstacle intrinsic to the nature of sexuality itself that he has demonstrated—in spite of himself—earlier in the 1912 essay: the contradictory demands (chastity and wantonness) posed by male sexuality on the female object. Sexual relations will never be able to satisfy both types of demands fully.

11 Even the German and the English titles of the second Contribution differ as to the extent of the phenomenon under discussion. What in the English title is “the universal tendency to debasement” in the German title is “the most common [die allgemeinste] tendency to debasement”. (The German could actually be read as referring to the most common form of the tendency to debasement in love-life; the tendency to take a whore as your sexual object—or to take your sexual object for a whore—would then be but one of the forms that the tendency to debasement can take.)

12 Strachey (Freud, 1910, p. 167n) points out that Freud’s German term Dirne is hard to translate satisfactorily (I alternatively use “prostitute” and “whore”); and that the prostitute in the strict sense of somebody who sells sex for money hardly seems to enter into it.

13 Freud’s views on prostitution doubtlessly owe much to Otto Weininger, who, in the words of Wittgenstein’s biographer Ray Monk (1991, p. 22)

analyses women in terms of two … Platonic types: the mother and the prostitute. Each individual woman is a combination of the two, but is predominantly one or the other. [T]he prostitute[…] desire[s] to make love to every man she sees. (Weininger will have nothing to do with any explanation of prostitution based on social and economic conditions. Women are prostitutes, he says, because of the ‘disposition for and inclination to prostitution’ which is ‘deep in the nature of women’.)

The link between Freud’s views and Weininger’s is pointed out by Gilman (1985, p. 55). My reading of Freud’s remarks on women, and especially lower class women, as being intrinsically inclined to prostitution owes much to Gilman in other respects as well (1985, pp. 39-58).

14 Moreover, Freud’s disturbing remarks about how the pertinacity of the libido is related to social and cultural hierarchies could be appealed to by the seducer of a child from a ‘lower’ class or with a ‘lower’ level of culture (think of the ubiquitous Victorian maidservant) to reassure himself or herself that he or she is not likely to do much harm:

the course taken by the sexual life of a child is just as unimportant for later life where the cultural or social level is relatively low as it is important where that level is relatively high (1905­, p. 242).

I find it hard to say where this passage leaves children in general (as opposed to lower class children.) The social prejudice in favor of their purity—as well as Freud’s paradoxical partiality for them—probably exempts them from the imputation that they are fair game for seducers.

15 I owe the idea expressed in the last three sentences to a personal communication (24 September 1999) by the South African novelist Ingrid Winterbach.

16 Personal communication by Harry Stroeken, 30 Oct. 1997.

17 Freud’s German term is ‘erniedrigen’, which branches in a way very similar to ‘degrade’—erniedrigen: herabsetzen, herunterziehen, niedriger machen, geringschätzig, kränkend behandeln (Wahrig, 1989).