A term coined in the previous century by somewhat controversial psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, “penis envy” has come to mean a great many things.
So, it’s no wonder there’s confusion over the actual definition and whether the concept is applicable to modern society, let alone real.
The original — and Freudian — definition of penis envy is the feeling of longing that young people assigned female at birth (AFAB) experience when they realize they don’t have a penis — only an “atrophied” version in the form of a clitoris.
In other words, they’re envious of the genitalia folks assigned male at birth (AMAB) have. They seek to possess a penis and are eventually satisfied when able to access a penis through other means, such as heterosexual activity.
Freud first publicized the concept of penis envy in 1908, mentioning it several times throughout his career.
It formed a significant part of his theory of psychosexual development.
In this theory, he argued that penis envy was necessary for developing a female gender identity and sexuality.
He said that all children go through a “phallic stage” in which they become fixated on their penis or lack of it.
According to Freud, AFAB folks have an innate attachment to their mothers but grow to resent them after blaming their mothers for their “castration.”
They then become obsessed with possessing their father, unconsciously developing sexual feelings toward them.
After that, AFAB folks form yet another attachment to their mother as they don’t want to lose their love.
They imitate their mother’s traditional female actions, eventually realizing their sexuality by swapping their desire for their father to a desire for other men.
This entire process became known as the Electra complex, thanks to fellow psychoanalyst Carl Jung.
He thought it was the female version of Freud’s Oedipus complex, which describes a young male’s attraction to their mother and jealousy of their father.
However, Freud disagreed with this label as he believed there were many differences between male and female psychosexual development.
If Freud’s theory is to be believed, penis envy will typically start with feelings of envy and wanting to experience the advantages of having a penis.
Feeling hostile toward one’s mother and fixated with, or potentially sexually attracted to, one’s father is also said to be a common characteristic.
So is heterosexuality and the desire to have a child.
(Freud even thought that females longed for a male child so they could finally acquire a penis.)
According to Jung, some people may fail to pass through this stage or return to it at a later age, feeling a long lasting sexual attraction toward a parent.
And some, said Freud, may not overcome penis envy, repressing their sexual desires altogether.
In Freud’s mind, penis envy could only be experienced by female children — usually between the ages of 3 and 6.
But with more modern thinking, it’s possible that anyone without a penis may be envious of the privileges afforded to those who do have one.
Is there an “opposite” version of this?
One of Freud’s biggest critics, fellow psychoanalyst Karen Horney, came up with the concept of “womb envy.”
She said that males felt envious of females’ biological abilities, such as being able to have children and breastfeed.
Freud’s idea is rarely used in modern psychology, so you probably don’t need to think about penis envy too much. (More on that below.)
But if you’re feeling fixated with a particular body part or distressed about your sexuality (or lack of it), counseling or therapy can help you work through your feelings.
According to Freud, people who experienced penis envy would generally adopt a female gender identity and turn to heterosexuality, having sexual relationships with people of the opposite sex.
But some, who are unable to move past the phase, may steer clear of sexual activity so they’re not reminded of the issue, he said.
It’s also possible that an obsession with a body part can lead to a mental health issue such as body dysmorphic disorder.
Many experts have criticized Freud’s concept, arguing that there’s little evidence that penis envy even exists.
By stating that all females naturally desire a penis, Freud worked off the assumption that a feminine identity can only be attained through the eyes of masculinity.
That’s a sexist, misogynistic assumption, assert those who disagree with his ideas.
Other critics have pointed out that Freud failed to consider several other developmental factors, like a sense of self, only focusing on sexuality and anatomy.
The traditional definition of penis envy doesn’t hold much, if any, weight in modern society.
Critics have called the theory “outdated” for its reliance on “century-old gender roles” and heteronormative for assuming that a child needs a male and female parent to develop “normally.”
Research has also found that gender identity can be set by the age of 3. Therefore, experts believe that Freud’s penis envy has no central place in the emergence of femininity.
However, more contemporary interpretations of penis envy — that females may envy male features because of males’ cultural and societal power — are used today.
Freud’s rigid focus on the human body and sexuality encouraged others like Horney and Clara Thompson to form feminist psychology.
They argued that penis envy may exist, but that it represents women’s envy of men’s social status rather than envy of the sexual organ itself.
It’s possible that younger females may wish for a penis at some point in their childhood.
But again, this is likely to be envy of the advantages that come with having one.
Transgender men may experience penis envy, too, as they’re envious of the way cisgender men can breeze through certain environments like restrooms.
Freud’s penis envy idea has been heavily disputed ever since it was published. But that’s not to say that parts of it don’t exist.
Many modern-day experts prefer to use it as a metaphor for the way cisgender women or transgender men may feel toward cisgender men and their perceived power and status in society.
Lauren Sharkey is a U.K.-based journalist and author specializing in women’s issues. When she isn’t trying to discover a way to banish migraines, she can be found uncovering the answers to your lurking health questions. She has also written a book profiling young female activists across the globe and is currently building a community of such resisters. Catch her on Twitter.