Essay: Essay on Social Significance of Sex | Sociology

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Compare the social significance of sex in the theories Sigmund Freud and Erich Fromm

A person in the wild cannot be subjected to psychoanalysis. His being in a society is imperative for the emotions and connected problems to materialise. A Robinson Crusoe like existence cannot be a candidate for psychoanalysis either. Human contact and a life in the middle of a society are prerequisites for analysing the complicated problems of a human being. Society is a must for a man, even though sometimes, because of the society, or due to the upheavals and strict discipline of the society, individuals might lose their mental equilibrium.

Psychoanalytic sex theories influence the socio-economic relationships and vice versa. Theories on sex always have important social significance. They explain the instinctual and intellectual development of any given society. They also explain the sadistic, maniac and ruthless sexual undercurrents lying dangerously close to the surface of social amiability. Family becomes the main and the most important atom of the entire human society, and apart from love, sex is the other main factor that creates and binds a family, in an involved way.

“The family is the medium through which the society or the social class stamps its specific structure on the child, and hence on the adult. The family is the psychological agency of society.” (Fromm, 1971), P.142.

Looking for the social significance of sexual theories of Freud and Fromm the main fields of interest are ‘infantile sexual scenes’ and the early sexual traumas, rapes, fantasies, hallucinations, seductions and other sexually connected problems that might leave a lasting effect on human mind, especially those of children. The question of perpetual debate still remains: how much or how little significance the theories of the two thinkers have made on societies? Judging from the present extraordinary popularity and usefulness of psychoanalysis, it would be churlish to say that their contribution is anything other than stupendous. The theoretical impact, when the theories were reported,  had been overwhelming, although laced with disapproval, and now, it has tapered down to a more relaxed indulgence. Both, especially Freud, prevailed upon the societies to accept or initially suspect, the infantile sexuality, masturbation, unacceptable sexual attractions and the whole range of sex issues, and made sex a science, and connected problems and venereal diseases as a highly researched field with tremendous possibilities of being cured.

Erwin (1996), p.237, says: “In evaluating Freudian therapy, we are venturing into an intellectual wilderness where empirical questions are often intertwined with complex conceptual, epistemological, and evaluative issues: the field of psycholotherapy outcome research.”

“Sigmund Freud’s impact on how we think, and how we think about how we think, has been enormous. The twentieth century has been called the Freudian century, and whatever the twenty-first century chooses to believe about the workings of the human mind, it will be, on some level, indebted to Freud,” says Thurschwell, (2000), p.1

Freud was born in 1856 in Freiberg, Morovia. and his father was 20 years older than her mother. He was educated at Vienna University and was trained to be a physician. He became interested in Neurology and then spent his time studying in a mental hospital under Jean Charlotin in France. Dr. Breur became Freud’s mentor and they co-authored a book on hysteria. After thus establishing himself, Freud went on to work independently and always found sexual deprivation and complication as the root causes of every malfunctioning of the body and brain.

Freud’s scientific training with Brocke, prepared him for philosophic and psychological analysis and speculations, with a rare insight and empirical observation. He based his analytical thinking on his prowess of understanding human behaviour. It is believed that his personal relations with his colleagues and patients, who treated him as an intellectual conjurer, helped him for form the theories of effective sexual analysis.

“The theories of Freud represented a sharp break from his materialist tradition in general medicine and in psychiatry in particular. Freud developed a set of explanations that focused not on physical and chemical factors as causative agents but on the life experience of the individual,”  says Holzman (1970), p.18.

Freud was never fascinated by the obvious. He could never follow the footsteps of other therapists. He always tried to look beyond the territories. Being a very hard working and pain staking professional, Freud was neither afraid of society nor of adverse professional opinions. Reactions and criticisms did not matter much to him. He did his work with missionary zeal that had impressed even his critics. None of his theories were based on half-hearted work. On the contrary, he collected immense amount of material before arriving at any of his theories.

“Freud is drawn to the paradoxical unexpected fact. He recognizes that the choice of indifferent, insignificant memory images has tended to lead to discounting or overlooking the connection between the dream and the experiences of waking life, and so to abandoning promising lines of research, Edelson (1988), p.27.

With the advantage of hindsight, today many people contradict and ridicule the theories of Fromm and Freud. It must be remembered that the science of psychoanalysis is a very highly advanced field today and in the days of these two professionals, it was just a budding subject. While analysing their works, we should try to place them against the backdrop of their own societies.

“Placing Freud in the psychological and psychiatric context of his day also brings out more clearly the basis of a number of the unresolved problems of contemporary psycho-analytic theory,” Macmillan (1991), p. 1.

While working with his patients for a long time, in a highly involved way, he developed oneness with the psychoanalytical way of approach for every problem of the brain.

“A marked tendency to try to explain mental events in physiological terms can be discerned in the physiological and psychiatric literature of the second half of the nineteenth century” Macmillan, p.170

Much of the material about his Three Essays enraged many and worried the rest. His argument that the study of sexual activity in early childhood was not given importance, was not even accepted by the society of his days. Women, bound by family traditions and religious values, found them horrifying. They were brought up with the understanding that the females should never enjoy sex or mention the sexual problems and desires.
Frankly speaking, people find it difficult to swallow Freud’s theories  even now.
“From the frequent report of sexual impulses in early childhood, and from the nature of the childhood memories of the neurotic, it seems to Freud that germs of sexual impulses were present at birth. They developed for a time, were then overcome by a process of suppression, but reappeared at puberty,” says Macmillan, explaining the view of Freud. p.292.

He thought sensual sucking had the two essential characteristics of infantile sexual activity and this was controlled by erotogenic zone not necessarily in the brain. But imposing sexual behaviour on the innocent babies was horrifying for people and much of his work was ignored in the initial days

“The sexual drive, thus, does not first appear as mature genitality, but develops in a series of phases, each of which has its period of maximum ascendancy,”Holzman (p. 117). He bases these theories on searching the past of the patients for clues, and usually finding them there.

Erich Fromm was born in 1900 in Frankfurt to a so-called moody father and a mother, who was a patient of depression and had a rather sad childhood. The family were conventional Jews. As a twelve year old, he was astounded to hear about a girl’s suicide immediately after the death of her father and her last wish that her body should be buried next to that of her fathers, who had predeceased her made her to think deeply about human relationships and their complications. He tried to analyse her death in Freudian way. Later, he saw the war hysteria of World War I, chauvinistic nationalism and narrow regionalism and he connected the irrationality of the mass behaviour with Karl Marx’s theories. Eventually, he took a doctorate and moved into United States. Even today, his works are considered to be a curious mixture of Freud and Marx with a more humane face and a tinge of morality, because he eventually became a moralist. He administered his own intellectuality to these works. The main theme on which he builds his entire career was human freedom and freethinking. He does not defy society and he involves society in the development and welfare of its individual members. He is considered to be a great humanist.

Summing up Fromm’s work, Scaar (1961, p.322) says, “Fromm’s work has a resonance in this time of small hopes and little beauty because it is a work undertaken in favour of man. Fromm’s pages are alive with expressions of love and compassion for all mankind.”


Freud presented many theories like Theory of dreams (called them wish fulfilments), defensive theory, The issue of Determinism, unconscious psychological processes, The concept of splitting, compulsive neurosis and Seduction theory. Even though they were not welcomed wholeheartedly, they created curiosity in the society and reluctant followers among intellectuals. He insisted that the sexual drive is one of the most important desires of human or animal life that starts from the infancy and remains with the person till the end. Sex, that had been either apologetically mentioned in the all male company, or was guiltily whispered in the female company was all of a sudden brought to the forefront with blinding boldness that left the societies of 1900 aghast. In the Libido theory, he explains the stages of infancy, growing up, uncertainty of teens and adulthood as stages of sexual graduation. Ernest Jones called him ‘Darwin of the mind.’

Freud, for the first time explained the language of dreams. His theories about the dreams sounded too fantastic; but in later years, professionals could find plenty of truth in it. Dreams were directly connected with sex and memories of the childhood and the unfulfilled desires, mainly of younger days.

Social significance of sex had been the main theme of Freudian theories. Even though Freud today is accused of only presenting his own case histories, instead of having other exposures, there are still many theories that have not yet been understood properly. Both Freud and Fromm have given their theories based on the social significance of sex. Freud is the first person who connected sex with various other theories. People today feel that he had limited his field totally and could not draw such authoritarian picture depending on such cosy studies. Still Freud was too big an influence to be ignored in any way.

He gave understandable meaning and curable solutions to many of the problems like dreams, Oedipus complex, mental disturbances and many more psychological problems, and offered psychoanalysis as a major cure. His theories gave solutions to most of the prevailing problems. He believed in them and he could interpret them sincerely in a way acceptable to educated society members. People were prudish and they did not like some part of his theories. People had grave concerns about theories where a son dislikes the father and treats him like a rival for the attention of the mother or the daughter having sexual desires for the father. They were too revolutionary in those days. At the same time, the world could not completely ignore Freud. One could like his theories, or dislike them. But he could not be ignored completely.

After the advent of Freudian theories, psychologists started treating the social problems, mental disorders, peculiar reactions, by psychoanalysis according to his ideas. Many cases that were earlier treated as madness, resulting in throwing the patient into a loony bin, got reasoned with Freudian logics. They were distinct advantages in such cases. His case studies, sometimes, looked too far-fetched. But they created a kind of fascination and awareness in the intellectual circles and genuine cases of sexual undercurrents came to light and most of them got cured. Societies have started taking the psychoanalysts seriously

With the sexually connected theories, family became a kind of close-knit unit. For men and women there opened up other possibilities and as the mobility of people, especially women increased, sex got more liberated. It had never been easier for men or women of any society to gratify their sexual urges, or even to name them in public. Women had a particular disadvantage of permissive sex resulting in unwanted pregnancies and societies frowned upon such women and their offspring. In most of the conventional societies perceptions have not changed much even today.  Freudian theories could not liberate them much. But he gave a kind of name to these urges and brought them into the open. With their coming into the open, there came a lot of discussions and slowly people accepted that having sexual desires was not a criminal matter and even extra marital desires could be accommodated in a society. Sexual indiscretions came to be tolerated indulgently. Sharp reactions of the old societies have dulled, though religious sexual restrictions continue to be rampant in some societies that are unbelievably strict and unpardoning.  Even in today’s so-called highly liberated Western societies, there are different kinds of dos and don’ts. As far as sex is concerned it will take a very long time for the world to get completely liberated from the taboos.

Fromm’s views, compared to Freud, are less radical and more conventional. To a very large extent, his theories were accepted and appreciated. He had no desire to bring in a sexual revolution. But he thought he could help the society by slightly blurring the sharp edge theoretically. He never argued vociferously like Freud on behalf of his theories. It did not matter to him much if the societies approved it or not. He just forwarded the theories and gave them a place.

To Fromm, care, love and sex are all interconnected. He does not see sex as the main domineering theory like Freud. His approach is more conservative and comparatively less radical. He thinks that sex without emotional involvement may not last, as the partners would go apart, or would hate each other or would be ashamed of one another. He bases his whole sexual theory on male-female polarity, which is also the basis for interpersonal creativity. He feels that this polarity is the basis of all the other polarities. The same polarity principle exists in nature as well as in society. He feels that Freud has ignored this point and that was an error.

"What Freud, paradoxically enough, ignores, is the psycho-biological aspect of sexuality, the masculine-feminine polarity, and the desire to bridge this polarity by union. This curious error was probably facilitated by Freud's extreme patriarchalism, which led him to the assumption that sexuality per se is masculine, and thus made him ignore the specific female sexuality," Fromm (1962), (p.36).

Fromm's theory is that sexual attraction between sexes is a mixture of love and sex and not just sex as theorised by Freud, who was criticised for overvaluation of sex and creating hostility among conventional minded people. His theory had been so revolutionary that it created a kind of revulsion. Socially people could neither accept, nor practise his theories. Another advantage was Fromm wrote 50 years later than Freud and society has immensely changed by then. He also had the opportunity to see the effect of Freud’s work over societies.  Many critics have untiringly pointed out the negative nature of these theories. Perhaps due to this reason, he simply avoided to create another vehement reactionary chain in the society. He feels that Freud never understood sex deeply enough. According to Freud, Mother-child love = state of narcissism. Many people have tried to criticise this theory and the criticisms will go on for centuries to come. Fromm simplifies it by saying that mother is the nature, soil and the ocean, whereas the father represents 'world of thought, of man-made things, of law and order of discipline, of travel and adventurer.'

He gives love a social structure and a universal nature by saying that love is for every one. He focuses on brotherly love and motherly love, and says brotherly love is love among equals, and motherly love is love for the helpless. Sex gets a totally different treatment from him. He also agrees that intimacy, for some people is established mainly through sexual contact:

"Since they experience the separateness of the other person primarily as physical separateness, physical union means overcoming separateness." (p.53). He also argues that sexual desire aims at fusion, 'and is by no means only a physical appetite, the relief of a painful tension." (p. 54). For him, self-love is another form of selfishness, even though it is important in a society and becomes the basis of major achievements. Love of God and religion is another form of love that makes place in the society for an individual, though this cannot apply to many modern societies of today.

One can take a page from Fromm's thoughts while evaluating Freud's work on importance of sex in the society. He says Freud mainly worked with sick people and people who were suffering from different phobias, compulsions and hysteria. He bases most of his findings on his own patients and their case studies. They were not normal people and most of them were hallucinating. They were products of unhappy marriages, plagued with generalized anxiety, loneliness, depression, personal incapability and those who were segregated from the mainstream of absolutely conventional post-Victorian society. He also contradicts the Oedipus complex of Freud. He says "It seems that Freud, influenced by his bias in favour of parental authority and of male superiority, interpreted the clinical material in a one-sided way, and failed to account for a number of data which contradict his interpretation,” p.99.

Glossing over society’s unmentionable problems had never been a great way of tackling them. Sex slowly emerged out of the shadows of bedrooms and came to the drawing rooms, as a hesitating matter of discussion. For this, theorists, especially Freud and Fromm should be thanked. Other professionals were not far behind:

“This tension between the private and the personal self parallels the tension between the explicit and the implicit. We must function at the private and explicit level of awareness under social and psychological opposition,” Johnson (1971), p. 12.

Another advantage that took place in the society was the slow and careful acceptance of homosexual and lesbians. These were crimes punishable by court for a long time. This forced many people to behave like heterosexuals even though they were not,  by getting married to unsuspecting women, and placing an enormous weight on them. Even though Freud is supposed to be in favour of men, his theories made life easier for the women. For the first time, women were considered as capable of powerful feeling, and sexual desires. Men definitely needed female sexuality; but they thought by keeping female sexuality under cover and not exposing females to the arena of sexual desires and enjoyment, other than for the sacred duty of having and bringing up the children:

  “Female sexuality is necessary for men to satisfy their desires and to fulfil their gender role requirements appropriately - to marry, procreate, and pass on money and property to their children. But it is potentially uncontrollable or unobtainable, it reminds men that they are all vulnerable mother’s sons, that all children are potentially illegitimate), Feldstein (1989), p.212.

Freud put forth far-reaching theories on infantile sexual development, infantile amnesia and latency period, and allowed them to slowly grow on the societies, which eventually happened, even though other professionals deferred:

“Where Freud was wrong was in making psychosexual development so central that all other forms of social and emotional development were conceived as being derived from it, Storr (1989), p.28.

On the other hand, his other set of theories on ego, super ego, aggression, depression and paranoia, were welcomed by one and all.

“Although Freud tenaciously maintained that repressed infantile wishes were the main instigators of dreams, most of the clinical examples which he furnishes are concerned with the emotions of adult life: with rivalry, inappropriate sexual desires.” Storr, P. 35.

In spite of a hoard of intellectuals and professionals either criticising or appreciating them, some of the Freud’s ideas are not really understandable, and looked from the same angle, one cannot help being certain, that he genuinely believed in some of them, and it might have surprised him that they were not received as they should have been.

“Any particular idea of Freud’s such as the Oedipus complex cannot be properly understood when taken alone. It has to be understood in the light of his other ideas about human development,” Mullahi (1948), p.1

As far as the social significance of the theories are concerned, definitely Freud made a bigger contribution to the society, however contradictory and unwelcome it could be. Both the thinkers liberated sex from its confines and that was no mean task. Sexuality came to be accepted, especially so, the female sexuality. And with the sexuality, came the acceptance and cures for the sexually transmitted diseases. Continuous research went on for the medicines to cure venereal diseases, an area where much care or attention was not bestowed. Unwanted pregnancies came to be slowly accepted at least in the west and the unwed mothers were not treated like criminals against mankind. Sexual problems were treated indulgently and on the whole, sex became part of human social life. 


New methodologies and challenging ideas have spread today based on these theories. Even though both their names are mainly linked with sex today, there is no doubt that a fundamental difference exists between the writings and thinking of two theorists. The social significance of their theories has been basically beneficial. Where Freud created a doubt and confusion in the minds of societies by making radical comments and claims with reference to sex, Fromm decided to play it down and brought it back to a more acceptable level. But by then, Freud’s theories were controversially popular, though not fully accepted. It would be wrong to say that his theories contributed nothing to mankind. They did an overwhelming job. The negative reception came because of the time in which he lived, when people, who were secure in their sexual beliefs and behaviours, received an unprecedented jolt and it frightened many. Sex had not been an openly discussed subject in any of the societies when Freud brought his revolutionary theories out. It was too early for such radical thinking about sex. People, that too only men, read his theories in the seclusion of their homes and initially, his books never adorned any of the respectable libraries or households. Logically speaking, a jolt of that kind was necessary to arouse people out of their apathy and the unmentionable problems came to the forefront resulting in advantages like therapies, psychoanalysis, treatments and experiments.

“Freud believed that ‘civilised ‘moral’ human being is obviously a repressive formation. People are, in reality, bubbling cauldrons of violent and sexual desires waiting to boil over. Civilisation is imagined as holding back, rather than moving forward,’” Thurschwell (2000) p.104.

Writing 50 years after Freud, Fromm had the advantage of those fifty years and even though he accepted that Freud was the great creator of psychoanalysis, preferred to tone down the sexual confusion created by Freud. By then, many of Freud’s theories were already accepted and the most outrageous of them all received a rather peculiar treatment of semi acceptation and grudging admiration.  People, who were always enthusiastic to oppose Freud, took immediate shelter under Fromm’s theories and Fromm looked like a lesser evil of the two. While reading his works, there are many places where the reader gets a confused feeling that some of Freud’s revolutionary ideas were presented by Fromm more diplomatically.

No mean thinker himself, he in a way showcased Freud’s theories by simply opposing them and creating bigger awe and mystic for those theories. The radical revolutionaries of every society took the side of Freud, while the rest of the society, a vast number of them, believed in Fromm’s theories. Social significance of both the theories had been immense and their theories immediately got incorporated in the medical practices. Both, especially Freud, changed the very face of the psychoanalysis and the latter thinkers drew inspiration from both, more so from Freud. People might dislike him or agree with him; but as stated by another theorist, nobody could do a lasting harm to Dr. Sigmund Freud.

Mental and physical problems with people could be recognised by professionals, keeping the theories in mind. Most of these problems were effectively treated. Earlier, all the sufferers were either confined to the prisons or mental asylums. Hardly any treatment or psychoanalysis was done even though the patients suffered for years. Another field of therapy, psychoanalysis was introduced to the medical field. Today’s psychologists and psychiatrists base their knowledge and treatment mainly on these theories. Their contribution had been immense to the field of medicine and family welfare and on the whole, to the social welfare.

Many professional psychoanalysts followed Freud and Fromm adopting the theories of one of them and today, these theories form the basic principles of any psychoanalysis treatment. There is a sea change in the way psychoanalysis has been done today. But the basic concept remains the same. The core points created by these theories still remain unaltered.

The fundamental difference we find between Fromm and Freud is Fromm spoke about the society and community mostly, whereas Freud laid emphasis on individual. For him, society comes only after the individual and unless individual is healthy with all his needs and desires fulfilled, society remained insignificant. A society full of sick, half mad and hallucinating people did not attract him. His desire was to treat the individual and coax him out of his shackles. On the other hand, Fromm looked at the society as a whole unit first and then thought of the individual as a part of it. Thus Freud’s psychology remains individualistic psychology and Fromm’s psychology is more of a psychology of society. This does not stop Fromm from paying his tributes to the genius of the master in the art. Freud remains the creator of psychoanalysis that had a profound impact on all societies of the world and will continue to rule in all times to come. 

It is a pity that mostly works of such great thinkers are valued as positive or negative, without giving a thought to the long-term service they have rendered to the mankind as a whole. It is easy to pinpoint inadequacies especially with the advantage of a long hindsight. But the yeomen service these great men rendered to the society and to the field of science, medicine, and health and to the women of this world is praiseworthy. Perhaps women benefited more by these theories and the psychoanalysis more than the men. Even the treatment of gynaecological problems took a great leap forward giving further benefit to women. With the importance given to sexual matters, came further researches and the methods of family planning. Facilities of family planning further liberated sex in the society. There might always be a dangerous element of going overboard with too much  permissiveness, resulting in AIDs or other connected ailments. But the mystery and guilt that pervaded sex in the olden days was not healthy either.

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