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  • Between Seduction and Libido: Sigmund Freud’s Masturbation Hypoth eses and the Realignment of His Etiologic Thinking, 1897–1905
  • George J. Makari* (bio)


In the fall of 1897 Sigmund Freud expressed grave doubts about a theory he had put forth, that the sexual abuse of children was the specific cause of psychoneurosis. In recent years, Freud’s repudiation of this so-called seduction hypothesis has been the source of considerable controversy. 1 Much of the debate has focused on the nature of his motives for abandoning this hypothesis. 2 However, one common assumption is that Freud’s repudiation of this theory was in and of itself—for better or for worse—a foundational shift that led him to fatefully alter the future of psychoanalytic theory. [End Page 638]

Such a historiography can be traced to Freud himself. While he gave various accounts for the emergence of libido theory, the most influential explication was written in 1914. In this account, Freud recalled recognizing that his patients’ tales of seduction were only fantasies, and then, after a period of confusion, fastening on the etiologic import of these same wishful fantasies as manifestations of repressed infantile sexuality. 3 Despite the reservations of some like Ernest Jones, who called this account “dramatic,” the notion that Freud wrested core tenets of libido theory from the very failure of his seduction hypothesis has been central to more-traditional histories of his intellectual development. 4 Furthermore, this historiographic assumption is not limited to traditional historians of psychoanalysis. For instance, revisionists such as Frank Sulloway saw the fall of the seduction hypothesis as opening the way for Freud’s rejection of environmental etiologies and his acceptance and transformation of the Fliessian id. 5

Such a historiography of radical change has been accompanied by significant methodologic problems that make a detailed examination of Freud’s thought during this period challenging. First, Freud’s own accounts at times privilege his experience with patients. However, save for a few fragments, no detailed records of his actual clinical observations during this period exist: they are generally only very indirectly discernible through his correspondence and publications. 6 Second, Freud’s self-analysis occurred during this same period. The self-analysis has been seen by some as the crucial event that caused him to radically break from his former assumptions by revealing aspects of libido theory, though that [End Page 639] interpretation has been seriously questioned by others. 7 For any historian working in this period, adjudicating the relationship between what was revealed to Freud by his own interpretations of his own dreams, and what on the other hand he needed to know a priori so as to interpret his own dreams, is a very complicated matter indeed.

Without denying the possible import of sociopolitical, personal, or undocumented clinical experiences as potential influences on Freud’s etiologic thinking after his development of the seduction hypothesis, I shall focus on the common discourse that ultimately organized all of these concerns—the discourse of Freud’s medical community. And I shall argue that a close examination of extant sources reveals a heretofore-neglected intermediary phase in his theorizing that both situates his post-seduction hypothesis thinking in fin de siècle Viennese medicine, and can be seen as a “missing link” between the differing sets of assumptions: those that guided the seduction hypothesis, and those that organized libido theory. For while Freud may indeed have been confused in this time period, he did not stop generating hypotheses about the etiology of neurosis, and those hypotheses often did not center on childhood seduction or libido. Instead, during this intermediary phase of theorizing, he was chiefly concerned with the causes and ramifications of childhood masturbation. 8

In fact, in a 1906 account of his disenchantment with the seduction hypothesis, Freud referred to the import of masturbation: he recalled recognizing that fantasies of seduction were “attempts at fending off memories of the subject’s own sexual activity (infantile masturbation). When this point had been clarified, the ‘traumatic’ element in the sexual experiences of childhood lost its importance. . . .” 9 As we shall see, this recollection compresses a long and complicated process, for Freud first became interested in masturbation precisely...

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