By Sue Kolod, Ph.D.
Freud put sex on the map. He realized that even babies have erotic feelings and that all parts of the body can be erotic. Freud knew that love, sex, fantasies, and even ambivalence are on our minds consciously and unconsciously.
If we’re being honest, Sigmund Freud got some things wrong. He didn’t understand female sexuality very well and made a big mistake when he asserted that the clitoral orgasm was unimportant except as a precursor of the more important, vaginal orgasm. But he did get several very important things right! Here are seven of his most important discoveries about love and sex:
1. Sexuality Is Everyone's Weakness—and Strength: Sex is a prime motivator and common denominator for all of us. Even or perhaps especially, the most prudent, puritanical-appearing individuals struggle greatly against their sexual appetites and expression. For evidence, one need only look to the many scandals that have rocked the Vatican and fundamentalist churches. Freud observed this struggle in men and women in Victorian Vienna. But our sexuality defines us in healthy and altogether essential ways, too. If you don’t believe your Freudian therapist, just ask Samantha Jones from HBO’s Sex and the City.
2. Every Part of the Body Is Erotic: Freud knew that human beings were sexual beings right from the start. He took his inspiration from the baby nursing at the mother’s breast to illustrate the example of a more mature sexuality, saying, “No one who has seen a baby sinking back satiated from the breast and falling asleep with flushed cheeks and a blissful smile can escape the reflection that this picture persists as a prototype of the expression of sexual satisfaction later in life.” He knew, too, that sexual excitation is not restricted to genitalia, as pleasure is achieved through erotic attachment to any area of the body. Even today many people have great difficulty accepting this idea.
3. Homosexuality Is Not a Mental Illness: He noted that gay people are often distinguished by especially high intellectual development and ethical culture. In 1930, he signed a public statement to repeal a law that criminalized homosexuality. And in his famous letter to a mother wishing to cure her son of homosexuality, Freud wrote that, “Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness". This was in 1935.
4. All Love Relationships Contain Ambivalent Feelings: Among Freud's various discoveries was the ambivalence involved in all close and intimate relationships. While we may consciously feel genuine and realistic loving towards a spouse, partner, parent, or child, things are never exactly what they seem to be. In the world of the unconscious, beneath even the most loving and caring involvement are feelings, fantasies, and ideas that are negative, hateful, and destructive. Freud recognized that this mixture of love and hate in close relationships is part of human nature and not necessarily pathologic.
5. We Learn to Love From Our Early Relationships With Parents and Caregivers: Our early relationships with parents and caregivers help us to form a “love map” that persists throughout our lives. This is sometimes referred to as “transference”. Freud pointed out that when we find a love object we are actually “re-finding” it. Hence the often recognized phenomenon of individuals who select partners that remind them of their mother/father. We’ve all seen it.
6. Our Loved One Becomes a Part of Ourselves: Freud described something amazing: We incorporate aspects of those we love into ourselves. Their characteristics, beliefs, feelings, and attitudes become part of our psyche. He called this process “internalization.” Expressions like "my spouse is my better half" or "I am searching for my soul mate" contain Freud's conception of the depth of connection between people who love each other.
7. Fantasy Is an Important Factor in Sexual Excitement: In our sexual fantasies we often conjure up all kinds of strange and “perverse” scenarios which add to sexual excitement and hopefully lead to climatic pleasure. This is quite normal and it doesn’t mean that we actually want to engage in such scenarios (or maybe we do).
So, on Freud’s birthday, let’s celebrate his important discoveries which still have a profound impact on how we think about love and sex.
Susan Kolod, Ph.D., is Chair of the Committee on Public Information and editor of the blog Psychoanalysis Unplugged at the American Psychoanalytic Association. She is supervising and training analyst, faculty, and co-editor of the blog Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action at the William Alanson White Institute. Kolod has a private practice in Manhattan and Brooklyn.