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Freud’s unfashionable but potent view.

By Domhnall Casey.

Most people now see homosexuality as ‘normal’, a big improvement on the recent past when to be gay was a criminal offence. The Government’s proposal to hold a Constitutional referendum aimed at changing the law on equal marriage for the homosexual community has, apparently, been greeted so far with almost universal approval.

This has been a long struggle. More than one hundred years ago, in his book ‘Leonardo da Vinci’, Freud wrote:

“Homosexual men who have started in our times an energetic action against the legal restrictions of their sexual activity are fond of representing themselves through theoretical spokesmen as evincing a sexual variation, which may be distinguished from the very beginning, as an intermediate stage of sex or as a ‘third sex’. As much as one would wish to subscribe to [the demands of homosexuals to be considered as representing a third sexuality] out of humane [sic] considerations, one must nevertheless exercise reserve regarding their theories which were formulated without regard for the psychogenesis of homosexuality. Deeper psychological discussions justify the assertion that the person who becomes homosexual in this manner remains fixed in his unconscious on the memory picture of his mother. By repressing the love for his mother he conserves the same in his unconscious and henceforth remains faithful to her. When as a lover he seems to pursue boys, he really thus runs away from women who could cause him to become disloyal to his mother”.

According to classical theory, the human infant is polymorphously perverse, which means that any conceivable object can serve sexual gratification. “Normal” sexuality which grows out of the same tree as perversions and other sexual choices is really the end point of a long, often disrupted pilgrimage and is a goal that many never reach. It is a conceit of heterosexuals that their lived sexual orientation alone is enough to classify them as “normal”. In fact the mature sexual drive is an achievement seldom attained, according to Freud.

Sexuality begins at the earliest time in the life of a human being. A more or less hypothetical form of energy called the libido by Freud, which occupies, one by one, the erotogenic zones of the body beginning with the mouth area (the oral phase), progressing to the anal and genital  phases and indeed the musculature and the whole body is the precursor of later mature expression of sexuality. The earliest of these phases are subject to infant amnesia.

It may well be that ‘sexuality’ in the sense of gender identification, begins long before the birth of individual human beings and is in fact phylo-genetic in origin. Phylogeny refers to the development of the race and ontogeny to the development of the individual. These terms belong more correctly to biology but Freud borrowed the idea for his foray into anthropology in ‘Totem and Taboo’.

Freud was a Lamarckian (whose theory was that characteristics acquired by an individual can be inherited by his descendants) even though this theory does not fit with the Darwinian view of evolution.

If there is a phylogenetic component to sexual orientation this might help explain why many homosexuals have “always known” their sexual preference and why most heterosexuals move apparently seamlessly into the ‘straight’ world without a second thought. Sexual orientation is seen as innate, genetic and not a choice and only sometimes caused by external events. So, genetic determinism and the domination of nature over nurture, unacceptable in most other spheres, is more and more popularly accepted in the area of sexual orientation.

But this may not always be the case. Indeed if it is the case it is not helpful to gays since there is growing evidence that hormonal influences from the mother have a profound effect on the genetic system of the foetus, thus affecting which genetic traits will be expressed in the child’s lifetime.

The stem-cell biologist and pioneering epigeneticist Bruce Lipton claims: “Parents can …act as genetic engineers for their children” and Norman Doidge, in his book ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’ writes that “thinking, learning, and acting can turn our genes on or off, thus shaping our brain anatomy and our behaviour…..”.

Nevertheless, it seems churlish and even dangerous to go against the flow of popular opinion that homosexuality is anything other than one of the variants of ‘normal’ sexuality – especially given that the concept of “normality” is a cultural fantasy – and to inquire into the nature of homosexuality and indeed of sexuality in general. The weight of opinion seems to be overwhelmingly that there is no question legitimately to be asked and that we have gone beyond the necessity for such considerations. However, I believe that Freud and his later interpreters provide a commentary that remains of interest.

Sigmund Freud’s view of homosexuality was open and liberal, as would be expected – though it is important to note it is not seen as the mainstream view now. He pointed out that in the male homosexual there was an intensive erotic attachment to a “feminine person” (mother) which was “later entirely forgotten” by the individual……Too much love from the mother produced or favoured this attachment” and this state of affairs was “furthered by the retirement or absence of the father during the childhood period”.

He went on: “Following this primary stage, a transformation takes place whose mechanisms we know but whose motive forces we have not yet grasped. The love of the mother…..merges into repression. The boy represses the love for the mother by putting himself in her place, by identifying himself with her and by taking his own person as a model through the similarity of which he is guided in the selection of his love object. He thus becomes homosexual; as a matter of fact, he returns to the stage of autoerotism, for the boys whom the growing adult now loves are only substitutive persons or revivals of his own childish person, whom he loves in the same way as his mother loved him. We say that he finds his love object on the road to narcissism, for the Greek legend called a boy Narcissus to whom nothing was more pleasing than his own mirrored image, and who became transformed into a beautiful flower of this name”.

Freud was well aware that human beings cannot be categorised definitively as hetero- or homo-sexual, a distinction that seems to date back to 1892 and Richard von Krafft –Ebing. His dependent relationship with his mentor Wilhelm Fliess had a homosexual/erotic component (though not in the physical sexual sense) and he was aware of the unanalysed homosexual element in his relationship later with his protégé Carl Jung, mostly coming from Jung whose “devotion” to Freud, he admitted, had a “religious-enthusiastic” quality with an “undeniable erotic undertone”.

The psycho-analytical consensus seems to agree that all humans are psychosexually bisexual, an idea that was originally based on biology and anatomy which noted that males and females possess vestigial traces of the others’ organs (which makes gender re-classification possible, surgically). Nowadays this idea relies less on anatomy and biology, though still recognising the similarities, and more on our knowledge of the process of bonding and identification with both parents (though not usually in equal measure or at the same time).

Freud wrote a famous letter to the mother of a homosexual, who had written to him for help:

“I gather from your letter that your son is a homosexual. I am most impressed by the fact that you do not mention this term yourself in your information about him. May I question you, why you avoid it? Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of , no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function produced by a certain arrest of sexual development (my emphasis). Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime, and cruelty too. If you do not believe me, read the books of Havelock Ellis.

By asking me if I can help, you mean, I suppose, if I can abolish homosexuality and make normal heterosexuality take its place. The answer is, in a general way, we cannot promise to achieve it. In a certain number of cases we succeed in developing the blighted germs of heterosexual tendencies which are present in every homosexual, in the majority of cases it is no more possible. It is a question of the quality and the age of the individual. The result of treatment cannot be predicted.

What analysis can do for your son runs in a different line. If he is unhappy, neurotic, torn by conflicts, inhibited in his social life, analysis may bring him harmony, peace of mind, full efficiency whether he remains a homosexual or gets changed”.

The complex process of attachment to parents or rather the failure in this area, put forward by Freud, is echoed and amplified by Elizabeth Moberly in her book ‘Psychogenesis’.

The loss of a mother or mother-figure when a child is between six months and three or four years is an event of high pathogenic potential. There are three phases of grief in reaction to this loss (according to John Bowlby) and these are: protest, despair and detachment, the latter being an important concept as we shall see later. All of this may be resolved after a period of mourning but the mourning may not be worked through and if this is so, the result is either repressed yearning or repressed reproaches against the love-object. A tendency towards pathological mourning in the adult may be the result.

If both repressed yearning for the love-object and repressed reproaches against it survive into adulthood together and become reactivated, what is the result? An intense need for love and an intense anger against the same love-object. In other words paranoia. She hypothesises that paranoia is the reactivation, in adult life, of unresolved infant trauma resulting in ambivalence towards the same-sex parent.

The trauma referred to may be caused by separation but it may be other than that and it affects the child’s libidinal capacity, that is, his capacity to love and to receive love. The paranoia that follows “not only involves, but is itself the repressed reproaches to the young child against the source of love that betrayed it”.

Freud’s analysis of love and hate in the paranoid is, says Moberly, “an entirely intrapsychic construct”. His well-known formula leaves no room for an early interpersonal pathogenic situation. In his formula, the emotion of love, expressed as “I, (a man) love him (a man)” is denied and instead the love is replaced by hate and it becomes “no, I do not love him, I hate him”. The paranoid’s hate is then projected onto the other and becomes “he hates me” and as a final refinement, a justification is added: “I hate him because  he hates me”.

Moberly rewrites this thus: “I (a small boy), need to love and receive love from my father. However, he (my father), is behaving persecutorily to me. Therefore, I hate him, on account of his hateful behaviour. Likewise, my need to love and receive love from him is blocked because, the love source, is behaving so hatefully”.

There is a paranoid element there and it is a good description of the phenomenon of paranoia, utilising the mechanisms of denial and projection. But more important is the “disidentification” of the ‘small boy’ (or girl) from the parent of the same sex. This disidentification from a same-sex love source, so the argument goes, can lead to homosexuality later and the more radical the rift the more radical the type of homosexuality that follows. In cases of very radical disidentification, there is a sense of gender dislocation and a man or woman may insist on being de-classified from his or her own anatomic sex and radical surgery is sought.

The first love object for a boy and girl is the mother. Later, the girl must abandon her attachment and cross over to the father while the boy has the apparently easier task of maintaining the original love-object and later marrying a ‘version’ of it in the form of a wife.

But this isn’t how Moberly sees it. For the girl the abandonment of her first love-object (mother) is pathological. Likewise if a boy does not change, to the father, then this is pathological. Same-sex attachment is essential for the attainment of same-sex identity. Disidentification implies regression (from the father) to the first love object (mother) in the boy and in the girl it implies a loss of the first love object (mother). The loss of the mother may be compounded, if we follow classical theory, by the female’s sense of having already lost a penis which may be blamed on the mother.

So, the normal course for the girl is to retain the first love object and for the boy to change to the same-sex parent.

In other words, the path towards individuality and selfhood is more complex for the boy. Further, to behave heterosexually in adulthood one “must have become heteros – truly other than the love-object one relates to. To become other psychologically as well as physically from the love-object one has to identify in the early, crucial years, with the same-sex parent. True heterosexuality is based on the fulfilment of ‘homos-sexual’ needs. The homos-sexual phase is precisely the one that homosexuals missed for one reason or another.

For males, the father and son bond that might be expected did not exist in the experience of homosexual men. Their fathers tended to be absent either psychologically or physically at important times in the child’s development.

As a consequence, the son-mother relationship may assume more importance than it would otherwise have or ought to have. Effeminate characteristics and other traits may follow naturally from this. But these males have not forsaken their maleness, because they had never fully arrived at that point in the first place.

The male homosexual attempts to repair the wounds of attachment to his father through homosexual relationships but for various reasons these relationships are prone to failure. First, both partners are looking for the same thing and they have similar needs and are trying to have them met through another who also lacks the means to supply them. But, more important, the negative side of the ambivalence towards the earlier love-object may emerge in the relationship, and indeed since the point of the relationship is to facilitate a renewed (but crucially unconscious) attempt at attachment, the re-emergence of the hostile aspect of the repressed ambivalence is almost assured.

In Moberly’s view, the genuine heterosexual is an ex-homosexual in the sense that the need to identify with the parent of the same sex has been met. It follows that homosexual behaviour in adults can be seen in this light, that is, in the sense that it is reparative at least in intention, although probably unconscious. The call to introduce longed-for marriage may also indicate a desire to regularise homosexual unions and the desire among some sections of the gay community to attempt to move away from the perception of sexual promiscuity (perhaps inaccurately) associated with male homosexual behaviour.casey_may_2

With marriage usually come children and many homosexual couples wish to adopt. Indeed, many high-profile gays already have. Debate has focused on the children of such unions and whether being brought up by parents of the same sex has any adverse effect on the children. The answer, at this stage, has to be that it is too soon to tell, though there has been much ill-informed debate.

It should be noted that the American Psychological Association and other such organisations are careful to point out that not only has their research shown that prejudice and discrimination against homosexuals have “negative psychological effects” but that “gay marriages” and any children arising out of these marriages “largely resemble those of heterosexual partnerships”. The outcome for any such children must surely depend not only on the sexual orientation of the parents but on the kind of people the parents are. However, something of an answer to this question is alluded to in the final paragraph of Moberly’s book.

Her plea – which will understandably be perceived as patronising by homosexuals – is that homosexuality should not be condemned or punished, no more than one would think of “punishing an orphan”. This analogy, she goes on: “…proves to be particularly close, since the homosexual has suffered from some deficit in the parent-child relationship (whether or not this was wilful on the part of the parent). The homosexual may thus be understood as a kind of psychological orphan. In the case of radical dis-identification, this state of orphanhood is particularly severe. The question to be asked here (and to a lesser degree in lesser states of dis-identification) is this: should a boy of two or three be permanently deprived of his father? Should a girl of two or three be permanently deprived of her mother? (my italics). If your answer to this is no, you may not condemn the homosexual response, since this is itself the solution to precisely this kind of problem”.

Of course many will wonder why Moberly refers to “his” father and “her” mother (instead of “a” father and “a” mother) when gay marriage and adoption, one of the issues of our times, evokes not the removal of children from their natural parents but rather their adoption when one or both of those parents cannot or will not act as parent.

In common with the rest of humanity only perhaps more so, at least in the area of sexuality and choice of same-sex partner, homosexual men and women are often in thrall to unconscious coping mechanisms. It takes men and women of understanding and awareness to make such same-sex unions work though it would seem, very anecdotally, that female homosexuals are more successful than males.

Nevertheless, even if some psychologists use the language of deficiency they are of course not taking a moralistic stance. Looked at another way homosexuality may be a bonus for society. Writing in the Guardian, Julie Bindel asks: “Why do the majority of the gay rights lobby get so nervous when some of us speak of being gay as a positive alternative to heterosexuality? Is our sexuality really something genetically imposed on us that we have no control over? Why is so much effort put into locating a gay gene and not a paedophile gene? Are we seen as even more dangerous than child abusers, or is it that it some of us have so little pride in who we are that we behave as though we are born with a kink in our nature? If we have been led to believe that we are powerless to determine our sexual orientation does that protect us from the bigots? How does it explain bisexuality? What about the “late bloomers”, the Hasbians and Yestergays?”.

Matthew Parris, writing in the Spectator, is even more radical. He rejects the view that homosexuals are “inherently hedonistic, seeking sex only the sake of sex” and  that they would become “degenerates in more that the physical sense, and live only for today and for pleasure” (he is quoting a colleague of his, Paul Johnson). On the contrary, he writes: “Gays would be drawn from the values of constancy and love, and duty to elders and successors”.

Parris, himself a homosexual, looks to Plato’s view that heterosexual reproduction was more likely to distract men from wider social obligations. “Same sex couples” says Parris, interpreting and expanding on Plato’s notion, “would make ideas and values their ‘children’: the public good would be ‘family’ to them’ and they would not be distracted from public duty by the desire to spawn, endow and promote copies of themselves for the next generation. Gay men would prove more selfless politicians”.

While intriguing, most would agree this view is an unrealistic misrepresentation of present reality and a wildly over-optimistic expectation for any sector.

We are undoubtedly still very far from liberation and while sentiments and ideas have thankfully changed very much since Moberly’s book was first published in 1983 and even more since Freud’s time, her insights and questions, built on and arising from the insights of Freud and others may demand patience but give historical perspective should not fall victim to the offensive of blind and unquestioning political correctness.

In some cases there may be reasons in nurture rather than nature for homosexuality. Provided it does not lead to prejudice or moralism it may be useful to recognise that. •