Freud, and the Analysts who proceed in his path, see all things sexual, (and sometimes all things), through the lens of the penis. A penis which they feel inspires just one emotion-envy.
I can only assume that the lens is rose tinted, for why else would a penis be envied in this way?
Of course, we are all indebted to Dr Freud, not least for him bringing the unconscious into our awareness. Penis envy can be understood at this level too, as an underlying envy or anger experienced by women who feel, or are made to feel less good about themselves in relation to men. However, a more literal interpretation seems equally valid when considered alongside other aspects of Freud’s sexual perspective.
I would like to assert that Freud’s concept of Penis envy, together with his theory of sex as a “drive” and his degrading of clitoral orgasm as less “mature” than vaginal, form a misguided and anxiety inducing sexual viewpoint which is unhelpful, and even detrimental.
Why is Freud’s viewpoint misguided and anxiety inducing?
Let me first challenge the notion of sex as a drive, implying it being needed for survival, like hunger. This undoubtedly alters the motivation for getting into a sexual situation and causes unnecessary anxiety. In the common case of partners experiencing different levels of desire, the drive myth encourages the partner with higher desire to feel entitled to sex and the one with lower desire to wonder what is wrong with them. Neither of these are valid positions.
There also seems to be an implicit understanding of drive relating to men more than women which gives undue credibility to the libido/penis partnership being a thing of (female) envy. Penis envy implies the prominence of the penis, but by implication also the vagina, as the penis’ natural receptacle. As a logical consequence, the coming together (so to speak) of the two ie. intercourse, must become the definition of sex. Freud is not alone in equating sex with intercourse but I find the narrowness of the definition often responsible for inhibiting sexual potential and creating sexual anxiety.
It is only by this definition, however, that Penis envy makes any sense. The requirement to assert this position can also be the only explanation for Freud, as a Physiologist and medical Doctor, overlooking his knowledge of men and women having originated from the same (female) template and therefore having analogous sexual organs. But importantly, that the penis’ counterpart is the clitoris, not the vagina and that the clitoris is responsible for all female orgasm. This means that all orgasm is created equal, in an altogether more reciprocal arrangement than the one Freud would have us believe.
A point of difference between the clitoris and penis is the latter having more “responsibilities”, having to master each of sensation, penetration, ejaculation and urination.
The clitoris’ only purpose is sensation to which end it has approximately twice as many nerve endings as the penis, despite being only 1/8 of the size. Whether or not this also causes “clitoral envy”, it does plausibly cause anxiety. This is because the clitoris’ plethora of nerve endings are arranged differently in all women which can make female orgasm seem complex and elusive, sometimes even for women themselves.
When we further acknowledge the vagina’s main functions, Freud’s assertions seem even more puzzling. The vagina is, after all, a means of sperm travelling to the uterus and fallopian tubes for potential impregnation. It is the birthing canal and the vehicle for menstrual blood exiting the body. Sexual sensitivity would seem incompatible with any of these situations!
Women can and do receive pleasure from the penis thrusting inside the vagina in certain circumstances, but it is unlikely to lead to orgasm, because it does not adequately stimulate the clitoris. Most women masturbate with little or no vaginal penetration, even when using vibrators and less than a third orgasm from penetration alone.
I can only assume that Freud’s reorganisation of the sexual order was, knowingly or otherwise caused by him feeling compelled to enhance the role of the penis, which further indicates a fearful position, perhaps based on uncertain potency, which he defensively projected onto women as “Penis envy”.
Does Freud’s viewpoint betray sexual performance anxieties?
If my assertions are true, there are many (men and women) who identify with such feelings, known as sexual performance anxieties. Men have a particular performance pressure, due to intercourse being unable to happen if the penis is not hard enough to enter the vagina. A woman also gets hard (as a man gets wet), but the sexual event does not depend on it.
Similarly, if the sexual encounter is extended, the man requires a refractory period before having another erection whereas a woman’s ability to orgasm again can be more forthcoming.
Male potency issues are additionally highlighted by their visibility, which, for better or worse, leaves a man feeling exposed to (their own and their partner’s) judgement. Female genitalia are literally more discreet, which means that a woman’s state of arousal can be more ambiguously interpreted.
Additionally, women can have sex “anytime, anyplace, anywhere” due to the vagina lubricating in response to things which are sexually relevant, rather than necessarily sexually desirable. Although women do not always welcome their body acting independently from their brain in this way, it does place them, when not under unacceptable duress, in a position of greater choice regarding sex. A man choosing to have sex is a more physically and visibly conditional event.
Given the anxiety inducing nature of these circumstances, the need for men to assert the supremacy of their penis and regain control in the face of the (literal!) ups and downs of a pressurized life, sexual or otherwise, is understandable. But elevating the penis as something to be envied, surely only adds to the pressure.
What would be more helpful, and less detrimental?
Before I put forward some “helpful and less detrimental” suggestions, let me endorse Freud’s PIV (penis in vagina) model as a common and satisfying way for a man to achieve orgasm. It also offers the potential for a woman to feel needed, satisfied and fulfilled. The penis and vagina fit together in a way which is so aesthetically, as well as physically and emotionally pleasing, that it merits a purpose far beyond the need for procreation. Intercourse amounts to a very special kind of intimacy, but not the only kind.
I would like to move away from thinking of sex as intercourse towards a broader concept of sexual activity involving a whole gamut of interactive, physical and mental stimuli, with the goal of mutual pleasure, whatever that might involve. Although the penis and clitoris are leading players on this sexual stage, a truly satisfying and creative performance equally rely on a variety of key supporting roles and a spirit of curiosity. No prima donnas, of the penis or any other kind can be tolerated.
This approach (re)focuses on acknowledging and further understanding both male and female performance pressures and for the sexual arena to become a place of respite, rather than responsibility.
Finally, I would like to advocate these concepts being infused with the quality of gratitude, instead of envy, as suggested by Melanie Klein, herself a disciple of Freud: Gratitude for a more reciprocal and explorative kind of sex which allows those who enter into it, to be at their most vulnerable, their most loved and their most desirable, all at the same time.
Who would not be envious of that?
Footnote: I would like to note my awareness of the heterosexual nature of this short essay, which derives from it being a response to Freud’s theory, rather than from my own inability to think about sexual relationships within other norms.