The following is the text of my talk On the Development and Consequences of Freud’s Seduction Theory, given at The Irish Psycho-Analytical Association Conference 2019 - The Budapest School of Psychoanalysis: Ferenczi, the Balints and Beyond.
Saturday, 11 May 2019
IPAA President Fergal Brady has asked me to give a short introduction to the seduction theory to give some background context to the relation between Freud and Ferenczi as it developed in later years.
So I have tried to put together a brief history of the events surrounding it, being as objective and as fair as I can.
This is quite a tricky task because the seduction theory has always been a highly contentious issue, and has provoked strong feelings in everyone who has commented on it, from Freud onwards.
There are two reasons for this.
First, the question of childhood sexual abuse is always emotive, as it awakens strong and primitive feelings in all of us. There are few subjects on which human beings find it harder to think clearly and dispassionately.
Second, some of the key facts in the story are missing and can never be known to us.
For instance, we don’t know how many of the patients Freud was treating when he developed the theory actually had experienced abuse.
Gaps in our knowledge like this mean that on some vital questions we are forced to speculate. And the way we speculate inevitably will be coloured by what kind of person we think Freud was, and how we believe he was motivated, in other words, by our own transference feelings towards him.
As a result, everyone tends to arrive at their own version of what happened with the seduction theory. I don’t pretend my version is any different.
However some writers have speculated quite extensively beyond the agreed facts.
I have tried to avoid this, keeping as close as I can to what can be established with a fair degree of objective confidence.
Development of the Seduction Theory
To understand the seduction theory we have to consider the historical context in which Freud developed it in the mid-1890s.
As Ellenberger (1970) and others have shown, Freud found the basic components for his ideas in a huge range of 19th century sources. (cf., Sulloway 1979, McGrath 1986, Schwartz 1999, Makari 2008, et al.)
But the two most important personal influences on Freud’s thinking on psychotherapy during this period were Jean-Martin Charcot, with whom he had studied in Paris in the 1880s, and Josef Breuer, from whom he had learnt about the cathartic cure and with whom he wrote Studies On Hysteria, published in 1895.
From Charcot Freud inherited the supposition that hysteria was determined in part by hereditary predisposition and in part as a result of traumatic experiences.
From Breuer’s cathartic method he inherited the idea that the way to cure hysteria was to get the patient to recall accurately the memories of the traumatic experiences that had originally caused it.
Freud’s seduction theory can be seen as a development out of, and a response to, the influence on him of these two men.
Freud was always more interested in the role of trauma in hysteria than in that of hereditary predisposition. The main reason for this was that only trauma seemed to offer the possibility of psychotherapeutic intervention.
From the early 1890s Freud became increasingly convinced that it was specifically sexual traumas that were at the root of the neuroses in general.
The relationship between sex and mental illness was widely discussed by specialists at the end of the 19th century. But it particularly interested Freud because it seemed to offer the solution to a puzzle raised by the cathartic cure.
Catharsis seemed to work by uncovering repressed memories of traumatic experiences. The puzzle this raised was how the memory of an experience could have greater psychic power than current experience. Sex seemed to offer a solution here because it is something that can be experienced, so to speak, prematurely. Sex is paradoxical in that one can experience it before one is ready to experience it.
Freud’s hypothesis was that at the time of sexual maturity premature sexual experiences became retrospectively active emotionally. “In every case of hysteria,” he writes, “there lies in the past one or several premature sexual experiences.” (1896c) “What happens is, as it were, a posthumous action by a sexual trauma.” (1896a)
If, as Freud believed was usually the case, these premature experiences were subject to psychological defence at the time of maturity then they resulted in the formation of neurotic symptoms. In the case of hysteria the memories were converted to physical symptoms. In the case of obsessional neurosis they were transformed into compulsive thoughts and actions. From 1894 Freud refers to these two illnesses as the neuro-psychoses of defence.
Hysteria and obsessional neurosis he distinguished from the so-called “actual” neuroses of neurasthenia and anxiety neurosis. These he suggested were rooted in current disorders of the sexual life, that is, either excessive masturbation, leading to neurasthenia, or sexual excitation that was not fully discharged, leading to anxiety.
Freud’s thinking on the seduction theory reached its highest point of development in 1896. In this year he published his ideas on it in three important papers in which he uses the term psycho-analysis for the first time. The first is “Heredity and The Aetiology of the Neuroses”, originally in French, in February of this year (1896a). The second is “Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence”, also in February (1896b). And the third is “On the Aetiology of Hysteria” (1896c), which was read by Freud in April of that year at a meeting in Vienna of the Society for Psychiatry and Neurology. This meeting was chaired by the eminent psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who had made his name cataloging the different forms of sexual perversion and deviation.
In these three papers Freud’s emphasis is on the emotional impact of sexual seduction, or what we would now call sexual abuse, on children under the age of about 8 to 10 years. He writes as follows:
“These sexual traumas must have occurred in early childhood (before puberty), and their content must consist of an actual irritation of the genitals.” (1896b)
Freud identifies three types of case: in the first are attacks mostly on female children by adult strangers; in the second, much more extensive, group, children are seduced into sexual relations sometimes lasting years by adults entrusted with their care such as nursemaids, governesses, servants, teachers and so on; in a third group there are sexual relations between children, usually siblings. And, he adds, also “unfortunately all-too-often close relatives”. This last reference is evidently a euphemism for fathers who have seduced their daughters. (1896c)
Freud is aware from the outset of the objections that are likely to be raised to his hypothesis. He writes:
“The most immediate objections to this conclusion will probably be that sexual assaults on small children happen too often for them to have any etiological importance, or that these sorts of experiences are bound to be without effect precisely because they happen to a person who is sexually undeveloped, and further, that one must beware of forcing on patients supposed reminiscences of this kind by questioning them, or of believing in the romances which they themselves invent. In reply to the latter objections we may ask that no one should form too certain judgements in this obscure field until he has made use of the only method which can throw light on it - of psycho-analysis for the purpose of making conscious what has so far been unconscious.” (1896b)
Note that from the remarks at the start of this passage we see that the idea of infantile sexuality which Freud is to develop explicitly in a few years’ time is already implicit in the seduction theory. His point is that children experience sex as sex, not as something else, even though they do so in an immature way.
It is important to note also that right from the beginning Freud privileges the position of psycho-analysis, as developed out of the cathartic cure, as a means of establishing the truth of these suppositions. No other existing method, he is saying, is capable of deciding the truth or otherwise of this theory. This is a fateful assertion, and one which he was never really to relinquish in later years. I suggest that this has been the source of significant but essentially unnecessary problems for psychoanalysis as it has developed over the decades. I shall return to this again in a moment.
Freud nevertheless does not hide how difficult it is even with the psychoanalytic method to establish the facts as he sees them. He remarks:
“Patients know nothing of these scenes before the application of the analysis. They tend to take offence if one warns them of the emergence of these things; only through the strongest compulsion of the treatment can they be moved to concede to the reproduction of them, they suffer under the most violent sensations, of which they are ashamed and which they try to hide while calling these infantile experiences into consciousness, and still, after they have gone through them again in such a convincing way, they try to deny the belief by stressing that they have no sense of memory as in other instances of forgetting.” (1896c)
The conclusion is inescapable, I think, that in some cases at least Freud received no corroboration at all from the patient that he or she had actually been sexually abused as a child.
Considerations such as these seem to have weighed heavily with his audience in April 1896. According to Freud in his letter to Fliess of 26 April he received an “icy reception” and Krafft-Ebing he says remarked that, “it sounds like a scientific fairy tale.”
Freud had been expecting a strong reaction to the seduction theory. In February he had remarked: “I am quite sure this theory will call up a storm of contradictions from contemporary physicians.” (1896a) So there is undoubtedly an element of wish-fulfilment in the response he received and in his reporting of it. Nevertheless it is clear that no one apart from Fliess found the seduction theory plausible.
We see from his letters to Fliess that Freud went on wrestling with the theory in his own mind until the end of 1897, that is about 18 months after the fateful April meeting. But he never publicly advocated the theory again after the three papers of 1896.
Aftermath of the Theory
Over the next ten years Freud went on to develop the key ideas of psychoanalysis. These stress the importance of internal psychic events, and the conflicts between wishes and drives, rather than particular external events. In other words, Freud concluded that the most important factor in the development of neurosis is not the particular experiences that the individual undergoes, as he argued in 1896, but how he or she deals with those experiences.
It is not until 1905 that he returns explicitly to address the seduction theory in the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. At first sight it seems his position has changed little in the intervening years. He stresses the importance of sexual seduction in the etiology of neurosis and insists that in 1896 he had not overestimated either the frequency or the significance of this as a contributing factor. He concedes however that a strict causal link between seduction and neurosis does not hold, though he justifies this with the somewhat surprising claim that some children can experience sexual seduction without developing neurosis. (1905a; SE7 190; Studienausgabe V 96)
However in a paper written in the very same year [though published in 1906], entitled “My Views on The Role of Sexuality in the Aetiology of the Neuroses” Freud takes a completely different position, saying that in the 1890s, chance had brought him a misleadingly large number of cases in which sexual seduction had played the main role. This he says caused him to overestimate the frequency of its occurrence in hysteria generally. (1906a; SE7 274; Studienausgabe V 152)
Freud was evidently dealing with many serious cases of sexual abuse in the 1890s and this is doubtless why the seduction theory came to seem so plausible to him. At the same time, however, it seems very likely that Freud had also refused to believe at least some patients who accurately reported that they had not been abused. My own guess is that it was mainly his continuing unease about this in later years that prevented him from thinking clearly on the matter and led him to make such inconsistent and confusing claims about the whole seduction question.
For instance in 1917, in the 23rd of his Introductory Lectures (“The Paths to Symptom-Formation”), Freud writes as follows: “Phantasies of being seduced are of particular interest, because so often they are not phantasies but real memories. Fortunately, however, they are nevertheless not real as often as seemed at first to be shown by the findings of analysis. Seduction by an older child or by one of the same age is even more frequent than by an adult; and if in the case of girls who produce such an event in the story of their childhood their father figures fairly regularly as the seducer, there can be no doubt … of the imaginary nature of the accusation … You must not suppose, however, that sexual abuse of a child by its nearest male relatives belongs entirely to the realm of phantasy. Most analysts will have treated cases in which such events were real and could be unimpeachably established …” (1916-17; SE16 370; Studienausgabe I 361) [Similar remarks in New Introductory Lectures, lecture 33, “The Feminine”. Here he attributes the phantasies to the female Oedipus complex. (1933a; SE22 120-1; Studienausgabe I 551-2)]
After reading a passage that veers as erratically as does this from one position to another one could be forgiven for asking, well, does Freud believe in the reality of childhood seduction or does he not? It is small wonder that so many psychoanalysts did not know what they were meant to think on the issue.
Later in 1931, only a couple of years before his unhappy final disagreement with Ferenczi, he comments: “Actual seduction is frequent enough, it proceeds either from other children or from carers who wish to calm the child, put it to sleep, or make it dependent. Where seduction takes effect it regularly disturbs the natural course of developmental processes; often it leaves behind far-reaching and lasting consequences.” (“On Female Sexuality”; 1931b; SE21 232; Studienausgabe V 282)
As we see from comments like these it is not the case, as some of his critics have alleged, that Freud denied the prevalence or the etiological significance of seduction after 1896.
Nevertheless, there is no question that his remarks on the issue are contradictory and badly unresolved. On the one hand, he acknowledges the reality of childhood seduction. On the other, he clearly believes that it is common for patients to have conscious recollections of seduction that never actually happened – something that most of us I think would now dispute.
His tendency to go on asserting this I suggest reflects how painful the failure of the seduction theory had been for him and how difficult he found it to accept that in the 1890s he had in fact pressed patients to admit to memories of abuse they had never actually experienced. In my view he needed to believe that he had been misled by the unconscious of his patients, rather than by his own over-hasty judgment.
However the aspect of Freud’s position on the seduction issue that I suggest did the most long-term damage was the assumption he bequeathed to psychoanalysts that they can, and should, give us certainty on this question.
Reaching reliable conclusions about the patient’s past history was an implicit goal of the cathartic cure but it does not occupy the same place in psychoanalysis.
Recall that the aim of catharsis is to recover memories. By implication, it claims that the accuracy of a memory is established by the removal of the symptom with which it is connected. Turn this claim around and it amounts to the assertion that the capacity to remove symptoms demonstrates that the associated memories accurately reproduce past events.
Psychoanalysis in contrast doesn’t work in this way. Its objective is to uncover hidden intentions – or wishes, drives, desires – and especially hidden conflicts between them. Psychoanalysis in other words shifts its attention from testing the accuracy of memories to elucidating the emotional significance of memories. It remains much more agnostic than does the cathartic cure on the always difficult question of how accurately a subjective memory may reflect actual events.
In psychoanalysis, an improvement in the condition of the patient allows us to say that we are accurately, or reasonably accurately, describing his previously unconscious intentions. But it doesn’t allow us to say whether his memories are true or false in some objective sense.
When Freud took the decisive step of moving away from discovering memories to discovering motives he should also have acknowledged what follows from this and have explicitly contented himself with making statements of probability about what had happened to his patients in the past. Unfortunately he didn’t do this. By the implication of what he said on the seduction theory in later years he allowed to continue the idea that uncovering unconscious wishes is still as reliable a guide to reconstructing the patient’s past as is uncovering his memories. But of course it cannot be this.
As a result of Freud’s failure in this regard too many analysts over the years have felt under an obligation to reach a conviction about what happened to their patients in the past for which there was never any need. It is out of this misguided sense of obligation that have arisen too many dogmatic denials of abuse that actually happened, and too many dogmatic assertions of abuse that actually did not happen.
There is nothing shameful in admitting that one knows things about a patient’s past not with certainty but only with some degree of probability. It is not weakness to say, “On balance, I think this happened, but I cannot be completely sure.” On the contrary, such an attitude of skeptical open-mindedness is the mark of the scientific spirit.
Virtually every biography of Freud and every history of psychoanalysis will tell you that psychoanalysis begins when Freud gives up the seduction theory.
It is however more accurate to say that psychoanalysis begins when Freud gives up asking the question to which the seduction theory is meant to be an answer.
The question Freud was trying to answer with the seduction theory is this: what is the essential condition without which the development of hysteria in an adult is impossible?
All of Freud’s work after 1897 is geared to showing why no such condition can exist, beyond the basic condition of being human. What he goes on to demonstrate as he develops the ideas that define psychoanalysis is that we are all in some measure hysterical, anxious, phobic, melancholic, traumatised, neurasthenic, infantile, perverse, paranoid and, in our dreams, we all spend much of our lives in a state of psychosis.
In other words these states are not, as he and the other psychiatrists of the 1890s had thought, like physical illnesses with specific aetiologies, but rather just different aspects of the general condition of being human.
As he writes in the Introductory Lectures of 1917: “‘Being sick’ is in essence a practical concept. From a theoretical point of view however … you may quite well say that we are all sick – that is, neurotic – since the preconditions for the formation of symptoms can be demonstrated in normal people.” (Lecture 23, 1916-17; SE16 358; Studienausgabe I 350)
In my judgment, Freud’s insight here, and his development of its implications, was the most humanising influence of the 20th century.
But it is also another way of saying that the question underlying the seduction theory was radically misconceived. This was the problem with the seduction theory from the outset. It was a question rooted in the assumption that mental illness can be understood on the analogy of physical illness and that psychoanalysis and psychotherapy generally are just sub-departments of medicine, with its easy distinctions between health and sickness. In this larger sense it reflects an error from which we have still some significant way to go to set ourselves free.
Key to Freud’s 1896 papers (all these are to be found in SE3):
(1896a) “Heredity and The Aetiology of the Neuroses” (originally in French), February.
(1896b) “Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence”, February.
(1896c) “On the Aetiology of Hysteria”, delivered in April.
Bibliography, apart from works by Freud cited in the text:
Ronald W. Clark (1980), Freud: The Man and The Cause. London, Jonathan Cape.
Henri F. Ellenberger (1970), The Discovery of The Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. London, Allen Lane.
Peter Gay (1988), Freud: A Life For Our Time. London, J.M. Dent.
Ernest Jones (1953), Sigmund Freud: His Life and Work. Volume One. The Young Freud. London, Hogarth Press.
George Makari (2008), Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis. London, Duckworth, 2008.
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (1984), The Assault on Truth: Freud and Child Sexual Abuse. London, Harper Collins.
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (1985), Translator and Editor. The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904. London, Harvard University Press.
William J. McGrath (1986), Freud’s Discovery of the Unconscious: The Politics of Hysteria. New York, Cornell University Press.
Paul Robinson (1993), Freud and His Critics. Oxford, University of California Press.
Joseph Schwartz (1999), Cassandra’s Daughter: A History of Psychoanalysis. Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Frank J. Sulloway (1979), Freud: Biologist of the Mind. Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend. London, Basic Books.
Richard Webster (1996), Why Freud Was Wrong. London, Harper Collins.