Jacqueline Schaeffer re-assesses Freud’s ‘repudiation of femininity’

The Universal Refusal: A Psychoanalytic Exploration of the Feminine Sphere and its Repudiation


Faced with the difficulties and setbacks that he was encountering in his psychoanalytical work, Freud, by then (1937) in his twilight years, felt the need to theorize the “underlying bedrock” of the “repudiation of femininity” in both sexes. This new pitfall, a Scylla following on from the Charybdis of the death drive, was, in my view, one way of reintroducing the sexual dimension and of giving back to the sex drive the diabolical quality that he had taken away from it – thereby attributing to it the same kind of disruptive potentiality as the death drive. It is this enigma that I have chosen to explore in my book. 

'Red Canna' by Georgia O'Keeffe (c. 1923)

‘Red Canna’ by Georgia O’Keeffe

Why the feminine dimension? My answer would be: because the feminine dimension is something of a problem for the difference between the sexes, and because the female sex organ is very difficult to envisage in a context of anal or phallic logic. It is an invisible sex organ, secret, unfamiliar — and therefore the depository for all sorts of dangerous fantasies. For many men and women, it brings to mind the image of a castrated sex organ, an image that has to be processed in the sense of discovering the “otherness” of the opposite sex. For Freud, the origin of the repudiation of femininity lay in biology – he tended to treat anything that puzzled him as being part of the fate of all human beings.

It is interesting to note that this new pairing “refusal of the feminine dimension” / bisexuality, like each of its elements separately, has to do with denying the difference between the sexes:

  • refusal of the feminine dimension in both sexes
  • bisexuality: it has a structuring role on the psychical level of identifications, particularly in the criss-crossing of identifications typical of the Oedipus complex, yet both the fantasy of bisexuality and its enactment are defences against cathecting and processing the difference between the sexes.

It would seem, then, that the difference between the sexes is not a stage that represents a stable and secure platform; it would be possible, consequently, to claim that Freud’s underlying bedrock is that of the difference between the sexes. The many and varied implications of that difference is a topic that I have been studying for several years now.

'Jerusalem: The Emanation of The Giant Albion' by William Blake

‘Jerusalem: The Emanation of The Giant Albion’ by William Blake

Freud did not attempt to theorize what happens to the great quantities of unbound excitation that are allowed into the ego without breaking their way through in a traumatic manner, without causing any mental paralysis – i.e. when they break through in a nourishing way. That is where their introjective polarity stands – together with that of “anxiety about the feminine dimension”, i.e. about penetration. Freud’s theory of anxiety is of little help when it comes to thinking about “the feminine dimension”.

The enigma that I discuss in this book is not so much about the refusal of the feminine sphere as about its erotic and genital aspects, as well as the matter of its creation through ecstatic sexual pleasure. The erotic feminine dimension and ecstatic sexual intercourse are without a doubt the most repressed and “taboo” of representations – even for psychoanalysts, who find things much easier when infantile sexuality, no matter how scandalous, is uppermost rather than its adult counterpart. The conflict involving the feminine dimension could be expressed as follows: the woman’s sex organ wants to be broken into, it demands vast quantities of libido as well as “defeat” and erotic masochism — but her ego hates anything that has to do with that.

In the political, social and economic spheres, equality between the sexes is a legitimate demand, but constructing a male-female relationship is a psychical creation that implies the exalted acknowledgement of otherness and of the difference between the sexes.

Beyond the phallic dimension: the female sex organ 

For both sexes, the phallic stage is a necessary construction. The narcissistic hyper-cathexis of the penis works toward releasing us from the pre-genital imago of and domination by the mother figure. Thanks to his castration anxiety, the young boy will succeed in symbolizing pars pro toto, taking support from his identification with the father. How can the young girl negotiate an internal dimension that is in itself a whole entity; how is she to distinguish hers from that of her mother? Is it possible to symbolize or mentalize the female sex organ?

Broken-Tool-PosterThe masculine/feminine pairing actively opposes phallic logic, which takes its energy from castration anxiety and exists only to deny, dominate, destroy or run away from the feminine dimension. The masculine/feminine pairing is constructed through a shared creation, with the discovery of the female sex organ, which can come about only thanks to the fact that the masculine dimension of the male partner conquers the woman’s anal and phallic defences and tears them away from her. This is the masculine dimension of the lover for ecstatic pleasure, who must first have succeeded in letting go of his own anal and phallic defences and in letting himself be dominated by the constant thrust of his libido, carrying it into the woman’s body. That is when men can overcome their fear of women. From time immemorial, men have had to tear women away from the night of their mothers, the queens of the night.

In contemporary society, there is a loss of desire and an increase in having recourse to regressive or addictive forms of sexuality that include enactments, with heightened anxiety about de-phallicization and an intensification of anal defences. In my own clinical work, I have several patients who suffer from sexual apragmatism or vaginismus and have no sexual intercourse at all. I find it important to help them discover – or perhaps rediscover – a path towards opening up libidinally, towards a neurotic processing of their symptoms. There is too much of a tendency to account for such phenomena in terms of changes in society, with more autonomy and indeed power being given to women, so that men no longer enjoy the same masculine privileges as before.

The encounter between a man and a woman and the preservation of such a relationship — both erotic and emotional — are the outcome of a true psychical creation. This requires that the constant thrust of the libido, as Freud defined it, can work its way through and blossom out in representations and in a love relationship.

In a society that is less and less “oedipal” and which tends to negate the difference between generations and between the sexes, the psychoanalyst may have to feel that his or her role is an essential one — that of being the guarantor of a kind of sexuality that facilitates processing, of the shared creation of a couple, of sexual pleasure or of its pleasure-giving sublimation, when all around us there are more and more instrumentalized or perverse forms of sexuality, pleasure in destructive violence, dehumanization and “faecalization” of people, and an unbridled increase in power and control. Manoeuvres that aim to abolish differences – and in particular that between the sexes – are perhaps, as André Green has pointed out, the ultimate resting-place of the death drive in its work of doing away with any and all differences. The quality of the sexual, emotional and social relationship that is set up between a man and a woman bears witness to a genuine kind of “work of civilization” [Kulturarbeit].

29335In his Postscript to my book René Roussillon says that, in his view, “the interpretation of sexuality, its play, its fantasies and also the way it is actually put into practice, including the “positions” adopted, is the third of the royal roads to understanding the deep-lying activities of the mind”.

Jacqueline Schaeffer 

Jacqueline Schaeffer is a full member and training analyst of the Paris Psychoanalytical Society. In 1986 she was awarded the Maurice Bouvet prize in psychoanalysis. She is a former assistant editor of the ‘Psychoanalytic Debates’ series and editor of the Revue Française de Psychanalyse published by the Presses Universitaires de France (PUF). She has published several papers and has been the keynote speaker in many conference meetings throughout the world. Her book The Universal Refusal A Psychoanalytic Exploration of the Feminine Sphere and its Repudiation is published by Karnac.


Detail from 'The Sick Rose' by William Blake

Detail from ‘The Sick Rose’ by William Blake

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