Freud and the Polymorphous Perverse

Freud’s conception of a ‘polymorphous perverse’ infantile sexuality in the clinical study of `Little Hans’.

Essay, 2012

13 Pages, Grade: 65


Freud’s conception of a ‘polymorphous perverse’ infantile sexuality in the Three Essays emerges from his radical deconstruction of the traditional view of sexuality as a biological ‘instinct’ to reproduce. What are some of the key characteristics and gains of the Freudian view of sexuality? What does the clinical study of `Little Hans ’ have to add to this picture?

The terms of this essay focus on an engagement with Freud's theories regarding sexuality, specifically those regarding the sexual development of children. Once a clear and distinct understanding of these key concepts has been explained, they will then be subjected to further consideration in light of the famous clinical study 'Little Hans' and submitted to criticism to determine the extent to which Freud's observations of the case demonstrate a relationship with the theories on the development of infantile sexuality. It will therefore first be necessary to explore at length the Freudian view of childhood sexual development outlined in ' Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality' in such a way as to enable an effective judgement regarding whether the assertions therein are supported successfully by the findings of the ' Little Hans' case study.

Let us then first consider an overview of developmental childhood sexuality according to Freud, before subjecting each key aspect to further expansion and possible criticism. Central to the theory is the overarching belief that the nature of the sexuality in a mature adult will always be grounded in the formative infantile stages of life. Although common opinion is that sexuality relates specifically to genitally-oriented intercourse and an innate (fundamentally biological) desire to procreate which develops during the relative sexual maturation of puberty, Freud contests that such a stage in a young adult is merely the inevitable fruition of a long series of developmental phases that begin at birth. Freud refers to this innate sexual instinct possessed by humans as 'Trieb' - although the English form of the word has been under contention in the past, it is perhaps most accurately translated from the German as 'drive'. Freud writes that this drive "is generally understood to be absent in childhood, to set in at the time of puberty in connection with the process of coming to maturity and to be revealed in the manifestations of an irresistible attraction exercised by one sex upon another"[1]. This traditional view is commonly taken as the basis for the belief that the biological maturation of a person coincides with the onset of puberty in order to facilitate the sexual union necessary for the survival of mankind as a species. However, Freud disagrees: "…these views give a very false picture of the true situation" ('Three Essays', 135). He instead asserts that a child passes through several non-genitally oriented phases before reaching what is considered to be sexual maturation; the notion of sexuality as being genitally-focused is therefore abandoned in favour of recognising several other important developmental stages which instead emphasise the experience of sexual pleasure as deriving from perhaps less obvious origins than the reproductive organs.

There are, according to Freud, two such phases which precede the advent of that which is genitally-oriented: the oral phase and the anal phase. Freud suggests a primal origin to these, as the characteristics of each “almost seem as though they were harking back to early animal forms of life” (‘Three Essays’, 198) . The premise of such an observation is rooted in the fact that the sexual drive pertaining to these non-reproductive phases is instead responsible for helping to ensure the survival of the infant. Since these instincts are essential for the child’s wellbeing, experiencing pleasure through the satisfaction of such sexual impulses encourages habits which ensure the continuation of the species by positively reinforcing behaviour such as feeding (in regard to the oral phase). The onset and proliferation of these sexual phases that seemingly have nothing to do with a directly reproductive purpose are the result of ‘polymorphous perversity’, a psychoanalytic phrase recruited by Freud to describe the sexuality of infants until the age of five years old. It refers to a propensity for sexual stimulation via interaction with stimuli with any part of the body. Before becoming conscious of societal expectations regarding sexuality, the infant is unaware of any negatively-regarded instances from which they might derive sexual pleasure. It is for this reason that non-genitally oriented erogenous zones can be stimulated for purposes of infantile wellbeing. The importance of such a quality of the infant psyche cannot be overstated, its significance indicated by its necessary universality among children: “ an aptitude for [sexual irregularities] is innately present in their disposition. There is consequently little resistance towards carrying them out, since the mental darns against sexual excesses-shame, disgust and morality-have either not yet been constructed at all or are only in course of construction, according to the age of the child” (‘Three Essays’, 191). Although some adults retain this polymorphous perversity past puberty, it is accepted that natural progression through the pregenital phases serves to offer a direction for sexual maturation to be achieved. The ‘Trieb’ of the young libido directs the infant into adult heterosexuality[2] once the oral, anal, and phallic phases have been experienced. Now that it has been established that polymorphous perversity is key to experiencing the sexual development stages that occur before puberty, we can move to examine each of these oral, anal, and phallic phases individually so as to better appreciate Freud’s theory of child sexuality as a whole.

The initial period of sexual development is the oral phase (or 'cannibalistic pregenital sexual organisation' (‘Three Essays’, 198)), which the infant is born into and continues employing for the first eighteen months of life. With the intake of nutrients being a primary requirement at this stage of childhood, the sexual pleasure that can be derived from feeding is an invaluable aspect of the innate infant sexuality. The distinction has not yet been drawn by the child between the external world and the boundaries of its own body, and the interaction undertaken with undiscovered surroundings is based almost entirely by touching and placing things in the mouth. Freud writes that "sexual activity has not yet been separated from the ingestion of food, nor are opposite currents within the same activity differentiated" (ibid); it is because of this intuitive connection between feeding from the mother's breast and a satiation of hunger that the infant associates sexual pleasure with the satisfying nourishment which it enjoys as a result of doing so. The mouth is therefore the primary erotogenic zone during this developmental phase, as the baby learns to recognise the importance of being able to subsist on things which are external to it. Freud expresses this assimilation of the external world with the appreciation of one's own physical form thus: "the object of both activities is the same; the sexual aim consists in the incorporation of the object - the prototype of a process which, in the form of identification, is later to play such an important psychological part" (ibid). Typically, the term 'object' to which Freud is referring pertains to the infant from whom the sexual attraction originates - in this instance the child finds it difficult (and in fact unnecessary) to distinguish between themselves and the external world. The 'incorporation of the object' within the awareness of the infant via the medium of oral exploration is also, as Freud states, crucial in the development of sexual desire for various essential things. The development of this understanding is facilitated by the baby even in the absence of the mother's breast, via the sucking of their own thumbs or toes. The association between sucking on their mother for essential (and sexually satisfying) food and sucking on a thumb becomes linked due to the innate belief that sucking on something is a necessary thing to do to ensure comfort and absence of want. Freud takes this as further evidence of a desire to incorporate the external world into ones own body for purposes of sexual pleasure: "in thumb-sucking,… the sexual activity, detached from the nutritive activity, has substituted for the extraneous object one situated in the subject's own body" (198); the pleasure experienced as a result of this action has been suggested by Freud to be similar in nature to an adult orgasm, except that in the case of infants it leads to a sleep-induced reaction[3]. This direct sexual pleasure provided by the infant to itself through the intake of the external world is recognisable in the next developmental stage – the anal phase.


[1] Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality [1905], “The Sexual Aberrations”, Standard Edition, vol. 7, p. 135

[2] Myre, Sim, Guide to Psychiatry, 3rd ed. Churchill Livingstone: Edinburgh and London, 1974, p. 396

[3] (accessed on 3/01/12)

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Freud and the Polymorphous Perverse
Freud’s conception of a ‘polymorphous perverse’ infantile sexuality in the clinical study of `Little Hans’.
University of Warwick
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freud, polymorphous, perverse, freud’s, hans’
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Harry Taylor (Author), 2012, Freud and the Polymorphous Perverse, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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