If you were to ask a random person on the street what they know of Freud, they’re likely to say that he’s the guy who’s obsessed with sex and thinks that dreams always contain signs that someone wants to have sex with their parents.
While, this isn’t necessarily true, Freud did dedicate a significant amount of his work within psychoanalysis to sexuality and the way it develops and is suppressed throughout a person’s life.
One of Freud’s ideas about sexuality is that sexuality is something that exists from birth albeit, not in the traditional, reproductive sense, but rather as a way of describing the pleasure infants receive from activities such as being held or breastfeeding. He then goes on to say that as children grow, their sexuality is regulated by society and what is deemed acceptable at the time. This regulation continues into adulthood, where sexuality (during Freud’s time, at least), served primarily as a means of reproduction, with non-reproductive sexuality being considered perverse.
An interesting thing to consider here is the relationship between individual and collective as it pertains to Freud’s thoughts about sexuality and the way that the individual is influenced by the collective. This influence occurs primarily through the mediation of sexual behavior and identity. As an individual’s sexuality begins to develop beyond the infant sexuality that Freud defines, they are subject to cultural taboos and expectations that exert themselves on the individual, leading to suppression of certain sexual desires and (as Freud believes), physical symptoms as a result of that suppression. Freud posits that as an individual attempts to conform their desires to those deemed acceptable by the collective (the collective being society or something similar), they may develop neuroses or other ailments, whether other people who own up to their “perverse” desires do not exhibit these symptoms. This being said, because people are now and have always been susceptible to societal pressures, it is understandable that it may be difficult or undesirable to admit to behaviors and preferences that are not accepted. All this is to say that the collective plays an enormous role on the expression and well-being of the individual.
An interesting way this has played out in a context more immediate to present-day is in the development of the LGBTQ+ identity and community. In Freud’s time, homosexual behaviors were considered a perversion, a symptom of something gone wrong in sexual development. Homosexual relations have occurred for much longer than the term homosexual as a identity has been in use. During the Industrial Revolution, the nuclear family unit stopped being the most efficient way of life and individuals were no longer forced into the paradigm of needing a large family to maintain a farming household. In some ways, this led to the establishment of homosexual as an identity, as individuals who resided in cities could experiment with different preferences and build communities around them. People who, prior to the development of the city and the dissolution of the family unit as a necessity, perhaps had homosexual preferences but had no avenue within which to express them and no identity attached to these preferences as a result, came into contact with other people with similar preferences and the LGBTQ+ identity began to establish itself, not only for the individual, but also as a larger collective.
It’s important to note that this diverges from the way Freud states that sexuality is regulated in that in this instance, the existence of the LGBTQ+ community as a society does not downregulate non-heterosexual behavior, but rather, gives LGBTQ+ people a space within which to express this identity, (which was grown to be an identity based on much more than sexual preferences). This suggests that while sexuality will likely always be regulated by society and some collective, it is not necessarily a negative regulation that primarily emphasizes reproductive sexuality and labels everything else as perverse.
By Hannia Frias