The ABCs of Polymorphous Perversity

by Max Cavitch, Ph.D.

In 1905, Sigmund Freud declared war on childhood.

More accurately, Freud set out—in the first edition of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality—to dismantle widespread and tenacious 19th-century cultural fantasies about the “innocence” of children. As Dr. Susan Adelman and I explained to our students last week, in our team-taught course, “Psychoanalysis: History, Theory, Practice,” infants and prepubertal children, in particular, were, during the era of Freud’s own childhood, commonly idealized as “pure” beings, not yet tainted by erotic impulses. Earlier Calvinistic images of little devils steeped in “original sin” had largely been displaced by figures of tiny angels bathed in the refracted sunbeams of Romantic sentiment. “Heaven,” wrote William Wordsworth, “lies about us in our infancy” (525).

Nonsense, said Freud. Though they have no adult understanding of sexuality, infants are, from the get-go, squirmy bundles of erotogenic zones and undifferentiated libido. And this “polymorphously perverse disposition” (191), as Freud—non-judgmentally—put it, is every adult’s inheritance from the child they once were. That even the youngest children have sexual feelings is, as Freud pointed out to one of his colleagues, something “every nursemaid knows” (Jones, 350). Susan and I wanted our students to understand, first and foremost, that Freud had been very brave, not only to point out the obvious, but also to pursue his study of the obvious to its most surprising conclusions—brave enough to share his radical, non-judgmental story of human sexuality in all its variegated muckiness and splendor and to withstand the shocked and ignominious reactions of his contemporaries. After millennia of consternation and suppression, Freud, in 1905, finally, fully, and forever joined children’s history to the history of sexuality.

Susan and I were quick to acknowledge that a lot has changed since then—including ample correction and expansion of Freud’s earliest theories and many dramatic transformations in sexual (and gender-related) norms, practices, and identities. But we knew that Three Essays could still be unsettling reading, even for some of today’s youth. Asking students who are, most of them, not yet out of their teens—and thus still figuring out what sorts of sexual beings they might be—to discuss Three Essays meant leading them, as gently as we could, to the brink of some risky forms of self-discovery and self-exposure. The questions they raised tended to skirt the explicitly autobiographical but were clearly “about” themselves and their peers: “Why does Freud think that sexual object-choices can change, even later in life?” “Why does Freud think girls want to be boys?” “How can his use of the word ‘perversion’ really be non-judgmental?” “Is it true that everyone is bisexual?” “Do you believe what Freud says about sex and cruelty?”

Asking us what we, their teachers, believe was one way of letting us know they needed a certain amount of reassurance regarding their own sense of implication in what Freud says—for example, what he says about the link between sexuality and “cruelty,” or aggression, and the dimensions of “mastery” that are related to both. After all, our students include young men who don’t yet know quite how to manage their suddenly much larger, stronger bodies, or who might go to the gym to build up muscular armature as a defense against their own or others’ suspicions that they might be insufficiently manly or something other than heterosexual. They also include young women—socially conditioned, still, not to be aggressive, but who, just like their male counterparts, feel powerful, sometimes frightening, impulses, and who also know, sadly, how much more vulnerable they are than their male peers to common forms of sexual assault, including date-rape, on their own campus.

In Three Essays, Freud has some advice for teachers of children, including the late-adolescents in our introductory course on psychoanalysis: “The behavior of children at school, which confronts a teacher with plenty of puzzles, deserves in general to be brought into relation with their budding sexuality” (203). The challenge we face is always how best to help our students see this relation for themselves—how to reflect, in ways that are both informed and compassionate, on the erotic dimensions of their own physical, emotional, and intellectual experience of learning (including the “instinct for knowledge” Freud calls “epistemophilia” [194]). So we asked our students to meditate on this passage and to share with us their views on what it might mean to bring their classroom comportment “into relation with their budding sexuality.” In their responses, they talked a lot about “sublimation,” venturing that, at a fiercely competitive school like the University of Pennsylvania, students are having sex less frequently, or not at all, in order to “divert” their libido into their academic and professional pursuits. Others pointed out how the vagaries of law dramatize the contingency of childhood as a social construct: In Pennsylvania, they’re old enough to consent to sex but too young to order a beer at the local tavern. In one student’s home-state, 14-year-olds can be legally married but, if a 19-year-old male has sex with a 16-year-old female, he’ll be tried for statutory rape. And several spoke about finally being free, as students living away from home, to experiment with long-suppressed sexual urges and gender identities.

There were also plenty of students who spoke of their lingering skepticism regarding the truth of Freud’s universalizing pronouncements about infant and early childhood sexuality. Some of them remained not just unconvinced but defensive, which might be an indication that the idealization of early childhood and of the purity of child-parent relationships remains a powerful cultural force. We were careful not to push too hard against such skepticism. Instead, at the end of class, we asked them to listen again to Freud’s own frank, solicitous, and de-idealized erotic iconography of mother-and-child:

A child’s intercourse with anyone responsible for his care affords him an unending source of sexual excitation and satisfaction from his erotogenic zones. 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. A mother would probably be horrified if she were made aware that all her marks of affection were rousing her child’s sexual instinct and preparing for its later intensity. She regards what she does as asexual, ‘pure’ love, since, after all, she carefully avoids applying more excitations to the child’s genitals than are unavoidable in nursery care. As we know, however, the sexual instinct is not aroused only by direct excitation of the genital zone. What we call affection will unfailingly show its effects one day on the genital zones as well. Moreover, if the mother understood more of the high importance of the part played by instincts in mental life as a whole—in all its ethical and psychical achievements—she would spare herself any self-reproaches even after her enlightenment. She is only fulfilling her task in teaching the child to love. (222)

As the semester progresses, we told them, they will discover how Freud’s early theories—and his male-centric biases—have continued to be modified and corrected. But, we added, passages like this one also distinguish Freud’s still-vital contribution to our appreciation of the very real, very rich, and very human “perversity” of our entire erotic lives.


Works cited

Freud, Sigmund. 1953. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume VII. Tr. James Strachey. London: Hogarth.

Jones, Ernest. 1953. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, Volume 1: The Formative Years and the Great Discoveries, 1856-1900. London: Hogarth.

Wordsworth, William. 1981. The Poems, Volume One. Ed. John O. Hayden. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Psychoanalysis in the Undergraduate Classroom: An Inaugural Post and Invitation to Join the Conversation

by Max Cavitch, Ph.D.

He was born in Greece, the land of Oedipus. A bright and eager neurochemistry major who was taking our course to fulfill a general humanities requirement, Ari (as I’ll call him) was handsome, athletic, good-natured, and presumptively straight. He listened intently as my co-instructor, Dr. Susan Adelman, explained Freud’s early notions of phallic striving and psychosexual development, in which the penis is the object of both boyish anxiety and girlish envy. In Freud’s preliminary view, Susan continued, a girl’s “penis envy” was transformed by a compensatory mechanism of displacement into desire for a baby. Ari raised his hand: “But who wouldn’t rather have a baby than a penis?”

In addition to being a good joke, Ari’s half-serious question is an excellent example of the sustained mood of intelligent playfulness that buoys and enriches our course on “Psychoanalysis: History, Theory, Practice” at the University of Pennsylvania—not least because of the opportunities to reflect on the inevitable transferences and projections that occur in the classroom itself, as Ari himself clearly recognized. Because it satisfies a college-wide undergraduate humanities requirement and because it’s the “core” course in Penn’s undergraduate, six-course Minor in Psychoanalytic Studies, our students come from all sorts of different majors and programs: biology, fine arts, history, literature, neuroscience, nursing, political science, psychology, and more. This intellectual heterogeneity turns out to be a powerful advantage, not least by helping us to make the point that psychoanalysis is already in conversation with all of these disciplines and that, therefore, each student has something special—their own expertise—to contribute to our discussions of what is, to almost all of them, a brand-new field. Susan and I help them get acquainted with psychoanalysis, and they, in turn, teach us a thing or two. For example, Ari (the neurochemistry major) helped us understand the amygdala’s role in the experience of anxiety. Another student explained how Japanese pronouns reflected a cultural understanding of subjectivity and social relationships that cuts against the grain of many western psychoanalytic assumptions. A literature major shared a quote from Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel, The Awakening, that seemed to anticipate Winnicott’s “false self” concept. And one of our history majors provided some vital context for Freud’s escape from Vienna after the Anschluss.

Indeed, Freud’s Jewishness has been an important point of connection for several students in the course, leading to discussions of other students’ religious backgrounds. And, not only is there a mix of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist students, but there is also a great diversity of classes, ethnicities, second (and third, and fourth!) languages, nationalities, races, and sexualities. When Susan and I wrote the initial syllabus, we included materials on gender-transition, comparative religion, African American analysts, teen suicide, lesbian autobiography, and the practice of psychotherapy from urban U.S. Latinx communities to the western provinces of China. But, before we met our new course’s enrollees, on the first day of classes, we had no way of predicting just how relevant the politics of identity would be to our remarkably heterogeneous group of students—or how gratified they would be to learn that (most) contemporary psychoanalysts take their real-world, post-adolescent struggles and questions very seriously.

Unfortunately, students at U.S. universities like ours have few opportunities to study psychoanalysis. There are occasional nods to Freud and Lacan (mostly in their literature courses), but psychology departments are evermore rigidly empiricist, and they tend to exclude psychoanalysis from their curricula chiefly because its theories and its efficacy as a treatment for psychological disorders can’t (so they persist in maintaining) be scientifically verified. Yet, unlike most of their psychology professors, many of the undergraduate students in our course already know about dopaminergic seeking systems, infantile recognition memories, oxytocin-driven attachments, the frontal lobe’s role in secondary process thinking, and the limbic system’s role in dreaming. In other words, their study of the brain—in our astonishing contemporary moment of neuroscientific breakthroughs (advances that Freud, a neurologist by training, predicted and keenly longed for)—has already equipped them with a sophisticated understanding of the physiological dimensions of the psychic processes for which psychoanalysis offers the richest and most accurate descriptions. The readings we assign by neuropsychoanalysts like Antonio Damasio and Mark Solms tend to make perfect sense to them, and many of them ask us: “Why don’t we ever hear about this stuff in our psychology courses?”

They should, obviously. But, whether or not psychology departments undergo the necessary paradigm shift, students should have more frequent opportunities to learn about a set of theories and treatment modalities that, every day, adds to our understanding of the human condition and contributes to the psychological well-being of millions—that, indeed, has helped as much as any field of critical inquiry to create the world we share. The desire to expand undergraduates’ knowledge of psychoanalysis motivates my work as one of the founding faculty members of Penn’s Psychoanalytic Studies program (now in its fifth year). We try always to team-teach our courses, pairing non-clinician scholars like myself with clinicians like Dr. Adelman, in order to model for our students the ongoing dialogue between the worlds of academia and clinical practice, as well as to highlight the transferential dynamics always at play in classroom and consulting room alike.

On a more-or-less monthly basis, subsequent “Psyche on Campus” blog-posts—authored by teachers and students from Penn and elsewhere—will have more to say about the topics, questions, challenges, and intersubjective encounters that engage teachers and students on all levels: personal, pedagogical, intellectual, cultural, and sociopolitical. And all readers of this blog—analysts, patients, students, teachers, scholars, and newcomers to psychoanalysis from all walks of life and all parts of the world—are encouraged to respond with comments, anecdotes, insights, and questions.

Finally, if you have an idea for a “Psyche on Campus” blog-post (800-1200 words) of your own, please contact the editor at: