Sigmund Freud is a controversial figure in the history of psychology, and perhaps none of his ideas is more contentious than his theory of the Oedipus complex.
Freud believed that humans are sexual beings from birth, in the sense that highly pleasurable sensual experiences, such as caressing, cuddling, and kissing are essential for normal development in infancy.
Freud also believed that preschool children were naturally curious about sexuality, including the question of where babies come from. During this time, he claimed, children develop sexual fantasies involving the opposite sex parent.
But they also fear the jealous wrath of the same-sex parent, and so they learn to repress their incestuous desires. This, then, is the beginning of the child’s superego—Freud’s version of a conscience or sense of morality.
During the time that children are working through the Oedipus complex, according to the theory, a particularly traumatizing experience is witnessing the “primal scene”—Freud’s term for seeing your parents having sex.
It’s not the observation of a sexual act per se that’s damaging to the child. Rather, it’s that these children experience the primal scene as an act of sexual infidelity. Although memories of the Oepidus complex are repressed, their effects supposedly still influence adult attitudes toward sexuality.
It’s this aspect of Freud’s theory that psychologist Lawrence Josephs and his colleagues tried to test in the laboratory.
The researchers hypothesized that getting people to think about the primal scene would trigger emotions similar to those of a spousal infidelity.
In the experiment, the participants were first separated according to gender, and then within each gender they were divided into three conditions. Participants in each group read a short story about a character of their sex—Jack for men and Jill for women.
- In the oedipal loser condition, Jack/Jill is a 6-year-old child who walks in on his/her parents making love.
- In the spousal betrayal condition, Jack/Jill is an adult who walks in on his/her spouse having sex with another person.
- In the control condition, Jack/Jill is a college student who walks in on his/her roommates making breakfast.
All the participants were then given questionnaires assessing their attitudes toward pornography. In the control condition, the males expressed far more positive views than the females, just as other research has shown.
However, in the oedipal loser and spousal betrayal conditions, male attitudes toward these topics dropped down to the same levels as the women.
It’s perhaps not surprising that men would feel less favorably toward pornography after thinking about a spousal betrayal, since many people consider porn use within a relationship as a form of infidelity. It’s less clear why thinking about the primal scene would have the same effect.
It could be that picturing mom and dad making love is simply a sexual turnoff—the “yuck” factor, if you will. Nevertheless, the data so are still consistent with oedipal theory, which treats the primal scene as an instance of infidelity.
In a follow-up experiment of the same design, participants were asked to do a word completion task. That is, they were given the first few letters of a word with the rest of the letters replaced with blanks. Since there are multiple ways of completing the words, responses are interpreted as suggesting something about what the person is currently thinking.
For example, given the word stem SWE--, people who just read a story about baking cookies will likely respond SWEET, whereas those given a story about working out in the gym will likely to complete the word as SWEAT.
When participants—both male and female—read the story about spousal infidelity, many of them completed word stems such as SL--, PRI-- and WHO-- with derogatory sexual terms, unlike the control group, who mainly provided words without sexual connotations.
Again, this finding isn’t surprising. More noteworthy still was that the primal scene story elicited even more sexually derogatory terms than did the spousal betrayal condition.
The “yuck” factor may account for the shift to conservative sexual attitudes but not for the increase in derogatory sexual thoughts after reading about the primal scene. In fact, this finding is exactly what Freud would have predicted. Not only do children interpret the primal scene as an act of infidelity, but it’s also especially traumatizing because the opposite-sex parent is their first love, and so the infidelity is particularly painful.
To further explore the idea that the primal scene is interpreted as a sexual infidelity, the researchers conducted one more experiment parallel in design to the first two. The control condition was the same (walking in on your roommates making breakfast), but the other two conditions were as follows:
- In the oedipal winner condition, 6-year-old Jack/Jill walks into the parents’ bedroom while they’re sleeping, climbs into bed between them and snuggles up to the opposite-sex parent while pushing the same-sex parent aside.
- In the mate poaching condition, adult Jack/Jill walks into their private office to find an attractive but married coworker who initiates sex with them.
After reading the story, the participants responded to a questionnaire assessing their attitudes toward infidelity. There was no difference in attitudes for the males between the control and mate poaching conditions, but then, their attitudes were already quite liberal.
In contrast, the women expressed much more positive attitudes when prompted to think about engaging in a clandestine office affair. (People are self-serving. While they condemn infidelity in others and are hurt by spousal betrayal, they justify their own extramarital escapades.)
Most remarkable of all were the data from the oedipal winner condition. Both men and women expressed considerably more liberal sexual attitudes after being prompted to think of scoring an oedipal victory.
Again, this finding is completely consistent with oedipal theory and cannot be accounted for by the “yuck” factor.
Although the reported experiments lend support for oedipal theory, the researchers are still cautious. Freud believed that the Oedipus complex was a universal experience of early childhood. However, the researchers also point out that sexual secrecy is not a universal aspect of human behavior.
In the West, parents hide sex from their children for fear that observing sexual acts or even acquiring any sort of sexual knowledge before puberty is likely to be psychologically damaging. But in many cultures around the world, communal sleeping is the norm, so children have plenty of opportunities to observe their parents or other adults having sex.
Furthermore, children growing up on farms—which was the vast majority until quite recently—had plenty of opportunities to observe animals having sex and giving birth. In other words, these children understand the mechanics of sex long before becoming sexually active.
Freud believed that the primal scene was traumatizing for young children. However, cross-cultural data give the lie to that notion. What’s really important is how parents respond when their child catches them in the act. This is when children learn either that sex is a natural act between loving partners, or that it’s naughty, dirty, and something to be ashamed of.
Freud’s Oedipus complex may not be universal, as he proposed. But the idea does seem to encapsulate the conflicting attitudes about sex that we still harbor in Western society.
Josephs, L., Katzander, N., & Goncharova, A. (2018). Imagining parental sexuality: The experimental study of Freud’s primal scene. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 35, 106-114.