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.

2 Replies to “The ABCs of Polymorphous Perversity”

    1. Thanks, that’s a great question, Michael. In Freud’s understanding of the term, “polymorphous perversity” refers to the early-childhood stages of largely undifferentiated modes of pursuing pleasure and gratification. In Freud’s view, later developmental stages are powerfully shaped, and libidinal impulses are rigidly channeled, according to parental and social norms. Freud understood just as well as we do today that environmental norms are not all-determining, however; and he made very clear that he himself never used the terms “perversion” or “perverse” in ways that were meant to be judgmental and disapproving. Freud recognized and accepted the fact that human sexuality is not binary, but rather quite multifarious and dynamic, and that it could remain so across the entire human lifespan–even though many people achieve (for better or worse) a relatively stable relation to object-choice by the time they’ve passed through puberty and into adulthood. Does that answer chime with your understanding? Are there other blog readers who would like to comment on this question?

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