Ever heard the phrases “penis envy,” “Oedipal complex,” or “oral fixation”?
They were all coined by famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud as part of his psychosexual theory of development.
We won’t lie — without a PhD in human psychology, Freud’s theories can sound like a whole lot of psychobabble.
Not to worry! We put together this conversational guide to help you understand what psychosexual development is all about.
“The theory originated from Freud in early 1900s as a way to understand and explain mental illness and emotional disturbance,” explains psychotherapist Dana Dorfman, PhD.
The theory is more multilayered than a wedding cake, but it boils down to this: Sexual pleasure plays a major role in human development.
According to Freud, every “healthy” child evolves through five different stages:
Each stage is associated with a specific part of the body, or more specifically, erogenous zone.
Each zone is a source of pleasure and conflict during its respective stage.
“A child’s ability to resolve that conflict determines whether or not they were able to move onto the next stage,” explains licensed professional counselor Dr. Mark Mayfield, founder and CEO of Mayfield Counseling Centers.
If you resolve the conflict in a given stage, you progress to the next level of development.
But if something goes awry, Freud believed you would stay exactly where you are.
You either remain stuck, never progressing to the next stage, or progress but exhibit remnants or unresolved issues from the previous stage.
Freud believed there were two reasons people got stuck:
- Their developmental needs weren’t adequately met during the stage, which caused frustration.
- Their developmental needs were so well met that they didn’t want to leave the state of indulgence.
Both can lead to what he calls a “fixation” on the erogenous zone associated with the stage.
For instance, an individual “stuck” in the oral stage may overly enjoy having things in their mouth.
- Age range: Birth to 1 year
- Erogenous zone: The mouth
Quick: Think about a baby. Chances are you visualized a little scoundrel sitting on their bum, smiling, and sucking on their fingers.
Well, according to Freud, during this first stage of development, a human’s libido is located in their mouth. Meaning the mouth is the primary source of pleasure.
“This stage is associated with breastfeeding, biting, sucking, and exploring the world by putting things in the mouth,” says Dr. Dorfman.
Freud’s theory says that things like excessive gum chomping, nail biting, and thumb-sucking are rooted in too little or too much oral gratification as a child.
“Overeating, overconsumption of alcohol, and smoking are also said to be rooted in poor development of this first stage,” she says.
- Age range: 1 to 3 years old
- Erogenous zone: anus and bladder
Putting things into the anal canal may be in vogue, but in this stage the pleasure is derived not from inserting into, but pushing out of, the anus.
Yep, that’s code for pooping.
Freud believed that during this stage, potty training and learning to control your bowel movements and bladder are a major source of pleasure and tension.
Toilet training is basically a parent telling a kid when and where they can poop, and it’s a person’s first real encounter with authority.
The theory says that how a parent approaches the toilet training process influences how someone interacts with authority as they get older.
Harsh potty training is thought to cause adults to be anal retentive: perfectionists, obsessed with cleanliness, and controlling.
Liberal training, on the other hand, is said to cause a person to be anal expulsive: messy, disorganized, oversharing, and having poor boundaries.
- Age range: 3 to 6 years old
- Erogenous zone: genitals, specifically the penis
As you might guess from the name, this stage involves fixation on the penis.
Freud proposed that for young boys, this meant obsession with their own penis.
For young girls, this meant fixation on the fact that they don’t have a penis, an experience he called “penis envy.”
The Oedipus complex is one of Freud’s most controversial ideas.
It’s based on the Greek myth where a young man named Oedipus kills his father and then marries his mother. When he discovers what he’s done, he pokes his eyes out.
“Freud believed that every boy is sexually attracted to his mother,” explains Dr. Mayfield.
And that every boy believes that if his father found out, his father would take away the thing the little boy loves most in the world: his penis.
Herein lies castration anxiety.
According to Freud, boys eventually decide to become their fathers — through imitation — rather than fighting them.
Freud called this “identification” and believed it was ultimately how the Oedipus complex got resolved.
Another psychologist, Carl Jung, coined “the Electra Complex” in 1913 to describe a similar sensation in girls.
In short, it says that young girls compete with their mothers for sexual attention from their fathers.
But Freud rejected the label, arguing that the two genders undergo distinct experiences in this phase that shouldn’t be conflated.
So what did Freud believe happened to girls in this stage?
He proposed that girls love their moms until they realize they don’t have a penis, and then become more attached to their fathers.
Later, they begin to identify with their mothers out of fear of losing their love — a phenomenon he coined the “feminine Oedipus attitude.”
He believed this stage was crucial for girls to understand their role as women in the world, as well as their sexuality.
- Age range: 7 to 10 years old, or elementary school through preadolescence
- Erogenous zone: N/A, sexual feelings inactive
During the latency stage, the libido is in “do not disturb mode.”
Freud argued that this is when sexual energy was channeled into industrious, asexual activities like learning, hobbies, and social relationships.
He felt that this stage is when people develop healthy social and communication skills.
He believed failure to move through this stage could result in lifelong immaturity, or the inability to have and maintain happy, healthy, and fulfilling sexual and non-sexual relationships as an adult.
- Age range: 12 and up, or puberty until death
- Erogenous zone: genitals
The last stage in this theory begins at puberty and, like “Grey’s Anatomy,” never ends. It’s when the libido reemerges.
According to Freud, this is when an individual begins to have strong sexual interest in the opposite sex.
And, if the stage is successful, this is when folks have heterosexual intercourse and develop loving, lifelong relationships with someone of the opposite sex.
If you were reading through the different stages and rolling your eyes at how hetero-centric, binaristic, misogynistic, and monogamous-minded some of these concepts are, you aren’t alone!
Dr. Dorfman says Freud is frequently criticized for how male-focused, heteronormative, and cis-centric these stages are.
“While revolutionary for its time, society has evolved significantly since the origins of these theories over 100 years ago,” she says. “A great deal of the theory is antiquated, irrelevant, and biased.”
But don’t get it twisted, though. Freud was still majorly important to the field of psychology.
“He pushed boundaries, asked questions, and developed theory that inspired and challenged several generations to explore different aspects of the human psyche,” says Dr. Mayfield.
“We would not be where we are today within our theoretical frameworks if Freud hadn’t begun the process.”
Hey, credit where credit is due!
Today, few people strongly support Freud’s psychosexual stages of development as it was written.
However, as Dr. Dorfman explains, the crux of this theory stresses that the things we experience as children have a major impact on our behavior and have lasting effects — a premise that many current theories on human behavior are derived from.
“Yes!” says Dr. Mayfield. “There are too many to count!”
Some of the more widely known theories include:
- Erik Erickson’s Stages of Development
- Jean Piaget’s Milestones of Development
- Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development
That said, there isn’t a consensus on one “right” theory.
“The problem with developmental stage theories is that they often put people in a box and do not allow room for variances or outliers,” says Dr. Mayfield.
Each has its own pros and cons to consider, so it’s important to look at each idea in the context of its time and at each individual holistically.
“While stage theories can be helpful for understanding developmental markers along the journey of development, it’s important to remember that there are thousands of different contributors to a person’s development,” Mayfield said.
Now considered outdated, Freud’s psychosexual stages of development are no longer super relevant.
But because they’re the foundation for many modern day theories on development, they’re a must-know for folks who have ever wondered, “How the heck does a person come to be?”
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.