Web-only article: Sex in the city

Frank Tallis on Freud, Vienna, and the centenary of a landmark publication.
It has been one hundred years since the publication of Freud’s Three Essays on The Theory of Sexuality. Many would argue – with some justification – that it is the most important work of psychology ever written. Freud’s cultural impact on the 20th century cannot be over-estimated. Sex was at the heart of his new theories and Three Essays was his definitive statement. It certainly deserves to be ranked with classics of psychology such as Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals and William James’ Principles of Psychology.
It has been one hundred years since the publication of Freud’s Three Essays on The Theory of Sexuality. Many would argue – with some justification – that it is the most important work of psychology ever written.
Freud’s cultural impact on the 20th century cannot be over-estimated. Sex was at the heart of his new theories and Three Essays was his definitive statement. It certainly deserves to be ranked with classics of psychology such as Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals and William James’ Principles of Psychology.
The world that Freud inhabited was Victorian, repressive, and utterly preoccupied with sex. In his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, the writer Stefan Zweig describes a society which reeled in horror at the sight of an exposed ankle, yet was content to sink in a mire of depravity: public lavatories were covered in obscene graffiti, the walls of swimming baths were peppered with peepholes, peddlers sold pornography in the coffee houses, prostitution was rife, and every sixth house was occupied by a specialist in venereal diseases (hardly the dreamy Vienna of Sacher torte and Strauss Waltzes).  Three Essays was a wake up call for a society in denial.  
So, what did Freud have to say?
Freud re-examined sexual practices, preferences, and roles, introduced the concept of childhood sexuality, and showed how sexuality could influence the development of personality. Many doctors had tackled sex before Freud (Havelock Ellis and Kraft Ebbing, for example), but none of them approached the subject armed with a powerful, general theory. Unlike his predecessors, Freud provided a framework – psychoanalysis – within which pragmatic questions could be answered: Why might a particular man fall in love with a particular kind of woman? Why should one person be aroused by the opposite sex and another excited by undergarments? Why do some people find pain pleasurable? Before Freud, no one had given such questions serious attention.
Victorian sexology was very much in the ‘chamber of horrors’ tradition. In Kraft Ebbing’s notorious Psychopathia Sexualis, there is much detailed description of cases – Sexual bondage in a Lady, Lust Murder, Violation of Animals – but scant attention to explanatory mechanisms. When Victorian scientists did address mechanism, they did so with in the form of unsophisticated speculations about a putative disease process. Thus, in an 1892 dictionary of psychological medicine, Gustave Bouchereau attributes ‘Nymphomania’ to ‘eruptions of the labia majora and minora’. Such crude accounts pale into insignificance when placed beside the elegant, overarching edifice of psychoanalysis.
Three Essays was, in fact, a lifelong project. Freud constantly returned to the work to revise certain passages. With the exception of The Interpretation of Dreams, no other volume in his oeuvre was subject to so many modifications. Even so, Freud’s most important ideas were included in the1905 edition. In his biography of Freud, Ernest Jones said that publication of Three Essays  ‘brought down more odium on him than any other of his writings’. The work was described as ‘shockingly wicked’ and ‘Freud was a man with an evil and obscene mind’.
This was a harsh judgement – particularly for a man of Freud’s character. Unlike most contemporary scientific writings on sex, which could be prurient and titillating, Freud always explored his subject matter in a coolly detached prose-style. He was also something of a puritan. His only sexual relationship was with his wife, and although an inveterate joke teller, he never told dirty-jokes. It is truly remarkable, that this middle aged, sober, bourgeois doctor was destined to become the high-priest of sex and deviancy. In 1925, the film magnate Samuel Goldwyn invited Freud (‘the greatest love specialist in the world’) to write a script. Freud declined, leading to a wonderfully surreal New York Times headline: ‘Freud rebuffs Goldwyn. Viennese psychoanalyst is not interested in motion picture offer.’  
Three Essays received a hostile reception for many reasons, but the most inflammatory content was Freud’s assertion that children are born with sexual (or at least sensual) urges, which undergo a complex development until they attain the familiar adult form. The idea of prepubescent sexual interest was considered utterly heinous; however, it is worth remembering that Freud had introduced his ideas to a middle-class which made valiant (and bizarre) efforts to preserve the innocence of childhood. Some practitioners recommended that adolescent boys be issued with penile rings with sharp spikes on the inside to ensure that all erections were accompanied by pain!
Although the notion of childhood sexuality still causes some discomfort, there can be few today who would dispute it. How many of us manage to reach puberty without having played at least one game of ‘doctors and nurses’ or one of its many variants?  Indeed, Freud himself once commented to Jones that it was his fate to discover the obvious ‘which every nursemaid knows’.  The literary critic and Freud scholar Steven Marcus said that The Three Essays brought to a close an epoch of cultural innocence; however, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Freud sounded the death knell, not for cultural innocence, but for cultural hypocrisy. After Freud, it became less easy to ignore the disconcerting complexities of human sexual life.  
Hypocrisy is a costly business. Denying the existence of precocious (if not infantile) sexuality has certainly led – in the past – to a profound loss of nerve among educators. Inevitably, this must have had some impact with respect to the incidence of teenage pregnancies (a phenomenon associated with financial disadvantage, lost opportunities, premature birth, low birth weight, and death during childbirth).
Three Essays is also a remarkably prophetic work. Long before the discovery of sex hormones, Freud suggested that sexual feelings might have a biochemical basis. He argued against the idea that homosexuals were ‘degenerate’. He acknowledged that human sexual interest is infinitely pliable – under the attractively alliterative rubric of polymorphous sexual perversity (an afternoon on the internet exploring even the tamest ‘adult’ sites will expose the viewer to such toe-curling irregularities that only a fool would disagree). However, most significantly, Freud recognised that any ‘big’ theory of human behaviour must give sex a pivotal role. This idea was somewhat neglected for over 70 years, and it wasn’t until the relatively recent emergence of evolutionary psychology that the value of Freud’s thinking has been fully appreciated. Now, contemporary evolutionary theorists argue that not only the mind, but most of our cultural institutions, are shaped by the sexual imperative.
Freud was not always right. Indeed, he got a great deal very, very wrong. These days, only the most reactionary Freudians can be counted on to defend concepts such as penis envy or the castration complex. Moreover, the therapeutic eminence of psychoanalysis has been undermined by more practical interventions such as cognitive-behaviour-therapy; however, Freud has always presented critics with an all too easy target, and there is certainly much of value in Three Essays that has been routinely overlooked.
Three Essays is not an easy read. Studies on Hysteria has been likened to detective fiction, and The interpretation of Dreams created an entirely new literary genre  – part autobiography, part medical text book, part Shaman’s dance. Perhaps, because Three Essays is less superficially engaging, it is not commonly read outside the psychotherapeutic community. This is a great shame. It has proved prescient and influential for one hundred years – and who knows – maybe it will continue to have something relevant to say for readers in its second century.   

- Frank Tallis is a clinical psychologist and writer. E-mail: [email protected].

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