Arrested Development

Sexuality and Its Discontents: Meanings, Myths and Modern Sexualities Einer der wenigen schwulen Intellektuellen, die in den 80er Jahren noch glaubten, aus der Psychoanalyse etwas „herausholen“ zu können, war Jeffrey Weeks, der sie in eklektischer Weise mit Foucault und dem Marxismus zu verbinden suchte. Gleichwohl liest sich seine Zusammenfassung Freuds und des ‚Freudianismus‘ kaum weniger kritisch als die von Jonathan Katz, der bereits damals als einer der prononciertesten schwulen Gegner der Psychoanalyse galt. Dass sich Katz und Weeks, was ihre ablehnende Darstellung von Freuds Heteronormativität angeht, in Wahrheit nicht sonderlich unterschieden, wird an folgendem Ausschnitt aus Weeks‘ Theorieband Sexuality and Its Discontents (1985) deutlich, den man, obwohl es eine Apologie sein soll, genauso gut als versuchte Erledigung auffassen könnte:

The reaction to Freud has been shaped by the impact of ‚Freudianism‘. Given an ambiguous inheritance, contemporary gay politics has, unlike the modern feminist movement, displayed little positive interest in psychoanalysis. Whereas a number of modern feminists have attempted to use concepts derived from a reading of the Freudian tradition to theorise patriarchy, the psychological characteristics of masculinity and femininity, individual psychic differences, or the reproduction of motherhood, with few (usually European) exceptions most theorists of gay politics have either rejected the Freudian tradition totally or have resorted to ad hoc appropriations which have often served to conceal rather than clarify contemporary problems.

This is hardly surprising. A form of psychoanalysis has from the 1920s been vital to attempts to deal with homosexuality as a ’social problem‘. Since the 1940s, especially with the wholesale medicalisation and psychologisation of the official approach to homosexuality both in Europe and North America, this tendency has been accentuated, underlined by the development of ego psychology, with its insistence on the healthiness of acceptance of normal sexuality and gender identities. There are undoubted sources for this in Freud’s own writings. He speaks constantly of homosexuality as a ‚perversion‘, an ‚abnormality‘, a ‚disorder‘, as ‚pathological‘, as a ‚flight from women‘, and so on. This ambivalence, very closely related to similar ambiguities in his attitude to female sexuality, need not invalidate his major insights, but it has unfortunately lent credence to the work of his more conservative epigones, especially in America.

Perhaps the most striking feature of recent psychoanalytically inclined studies of homosexuality has been their explicit abandonment of key elements of Freud’s own theory to sustain their case. Thus Bieber and Socarides, both of whom have published substantial studies of homosexuality in men, have rejected the central notion of bisexuality, with Socarides, for example, arguing that the concept of bisexuality has ‚outlived its scientific usefulness‘. So instead of seeing an original bisexuality of which both heterosexuality and homosexuality are, in complex ways, derivatives, this approach sees heterosexuality as the given natural state, from which homosexuality emerges as a result of the blockage of the heterosexual impulses.

The inevitable consequence of this perspective is an emphasis on the importance of the norm.

    One of the major resistances continues to be the patient’s misconception that his disorder may be in some strange way of hereditary or biological origin or, in modern parlance, a matter of sexual ‚preference‘ or ‚orientation‘, that is, a normal form of sexuality. These views must be dealt with from the very beginning.

It follows that the main test of psychoanalysis is therapeutic success, and Socarides duly parades his catalogue of such ’successes‘, having no doubt dealt with the problem in the process.

Freud himself had no such illusions. He put the term ‚cure‘ carefully into quotation marks in the Three Essays and was even more emphatic elsewhere (as for example in his study of a female homosexual). Though he did believe an adjustment was possible, depending on the degree of resistance encountered, it is clear that Freud was sceptical:

    In general, to undertake to convert a fully developed homosexual into a heterosexual does not offer much more prospect of success than the reverse, except that for good practical reasons the latter is never attempted.

Therapeutical zeal within psychoanalysis has obviously increased since Freud wrote. What for Freud was an abnormality of object choice, that in the first place needed explanation, has since taken on the characteristics of an illness which demands curing. Guy Hocquenghem has noted that Freud’s speculation in the Schreber analysis that repressed homosexuality was a cause of paranoia has been simply reversed into the notion that paranoia is a cause of homosexuality. The way was prepared early on, however, when others working either within or from a position only recently severed from psychoanalysis were more conservative. For Stekel and Adler the perversions were a sign of neuroses, not their negative. Adler, in a monograph in 1930, saw homosexuality basically as a failure of social learning reinforcing a fear and hostility towards the opposite sex. Even the generally orthodox Ernest Jones criticised Freud for his tolerant attitude to his lesbian patient and commented that ‚Much is gained if the path to heterosexual gratification is opened.‘

Several important consequences have flowed from the shift of emphasis within psychoanalysis. Firstly, it is clear that the psychoanalytic institution, especially in America and parts of Europe, has played a vital part in that repressive categorisation of homosexuality as an illness or condition, which is increasingly seen as the core of the oppression of homosexuality. Secondly, this form of Freudian theorising has had conservative social implications, and has been mobilised against potentially more radical approaches, from the work of Kinsey onwards. Thirdly, its impact has not exhausted itself, even amongst sexual radicals themselves, where little use has been made of the potentially disruptive insights of Freud on sexuality, at the cost of a viable theory of desire.

The extension of the theory of sexuality that Freud sought inevitably forced him to confront the issue of homosexuality. His position was, in outline at least, straightforward.

    From the psychoanalytic standpoint, even the most eccentric and repellent perversions are explicable as manifestations of component instincts of sexuality which have freed themselves from the primacy of the genitals. … The most important of these perversions, homosexuality, scarcely deserves the name. It can be traced back to the constitutional bisexuality of all human beings …


Freud was a liberal of his time in his attitude towards homosexuality. He favoured law reform, and his attitude to homosexual individuals was humane. Even his response towards his young lesbian patient was cautiously sympathetic. He affirmed that ‚the girl was not in any way ill‘, and he accepted her passionate statement that ’she could not conceive of any other way of being in love.‘ But inevitably, there are certain normalising assumptions in his attitudes. These can be summed up with a quotation from his famous letter to the mother of a young homosexual:

    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 the sexual development.

Here we have simultaneously the demythologising effect of Freud’s theory of psycho-sexual development, and a certain normative stance, for the ‚arrest‘ presupposes a proper and ‚normal‘ ‚development‘. There is already, contained in the language here, a series of major cultural assumptions. The normal pattern is towards a heterosexual object choice and a genital organisation of sexual aim; and the two are locked together. As Laplanche and Pontalis have put it, when all reservations are made:

    The fact remains that Freud and all psychoanalysts do talk of ‚normal‘ sexuality. Even if we admit that the polymorphously perverse disposition typifies all infantile sexuality, that the majority of perversions are to be found in the psychosocial development of every individual, and that the outcome of this development — the genital organisation — ‚is not a self-evident fact‘ and has to be set up and governed not by nature but by the process of personal evolution — even if we admit all this, it is still true that the notion of development itself implies a norm.

So the question inevitably occurs: does this simply mean that Freud’s theories return us, by an elaborately different route, to the same categories of perversion as in orthodox sexology?

The difficulty with Freud (especially for someone who wants to use his critical insights) was that in the end he did believe that a heterosexual genital organisation of sexuality was a cultural necessity, so that although he could readily concede that all of us have ’seeds‘ of perversion, a healthy development demanded their subordination to the norm.

Freud certainly knew that norms could be changed. But he also believed that civilisation in all its tragic glory demanded repression of desires: the free play of polymorphous perversity could never be compatible with cultural order. Attitudes towards homosexuality could, indeed would, change, but it would always have to be judged by the norm set by heterosexual genitality. That was the organisation of sexuality that culture demanded and there seemed to be not alternative to that.

Here was the point where the theory of the unconscious clashed with the politics of desire, and were the conservative cast of psychoanalysis obscured its radical impulse.