Freud and Horney on Feminine Masochism and Penis Envy

Feminine masochism is a term coined by psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud. His psychological theories are built upon the importance of the unconscious and its role in an individual’s behavior and personality development. The unconscious is composed of impulses or instincts (id, ego, and super ego), whose behavior are greatly influenced by a person’s gender. His anatomical theory of personality concludes that women are passive, submissive beings, and thus they often direct their feelings of anger, pain, and sadness inwards.  Therefore, according to Freud, masochism (pleasure acquired from self-destructive, self-harming behaviors) is a purely a feminine trait (Mahowald, 1994, p. 277). Karen Horney is a psychoanalyst who trained alongside one of Freud’s associates. She wrote her papers and lectures within the framework of psychodynamic theory, but critiqued Freud’s anatomically-determined concept of masochism; rather, she proposed that there are social/societal and environmental factors which contribute to the development of masochism (Brannon, 2011, p. 107). Both of these psychodynamic ideologies provide societal and gender-related implications throughout the process of personality development.

Freud’s psychosexual stages are another key-component for his theory of personality and gender. This psychosexual dynamic is broken down into the oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital stages; the phallic and genital stages are where gender-related differences are most prevalent. The phallic stage occurs between the age of three and four, and is when boys’ and girls’ sexual pleasure shifts to their genitalia.  This transition is what causes the Oedipus complex, in which children develop a sexual desire for the opposite-sex parent.

The Oedipus complex contains gender-related differences through ways in which it is experienced: the castration complex (boys) and penis envy (girls). Boys experience a “castration complex” where they fear that they will be castrated as a form of punishment by their fathers for desiring their mothers, and believe that girls are mutilated beings who received this punishment. In order to resolve this stage, boys must identify with their fathers and “receive some vicarious sexual gratification from the identification with their fathers, who have a sexual relationship with the mothers” (Brannon, 2011, p. 105). This resolution not only diminishes the Oedipus complex, but also provides boys with their masculine and heterosexual identity. Girls on the other hand experience penis envy; this arises when girls feel that their genitalia is inferior to boys genitalia, as in “their clitorises are so much smaller than penises, and they perceive their vaginas as wounds that result from their castration” (Brannon, 2001, p. 105). Therefore, resolution ensues when girls suppress their sexual desires for their fathers, identify with their mothers, and use their ability to bare children to overcome their feelings of inferiority towards their genitalia.

Sigmund Freud provided multiple reasons for why women are biologically and innately passive, masochistic people. For example, he uses sex cells to explain the passivity of women and the activeness of men; “the male sex-cell is actively mobile and searches out the female one, and the latter, the ovum, is immobile and waits passively” (Mahowald, 1994, p. 226). Freud also hypothesizes that a penis’ penetrating motion and a vagina’s unmoving receptiveness during sex is proof of biological differences in personality. He concludes then, that “active” is a term associated with masculine, and “passive” is a term associated with feminine. Freud explains that these anatomically passive characteristics carry over into other aspects of a woman’s life, such as her personality and behavior. According to Kopper’s & Epperson’s (1996) study, “masculinity showed a relationship to the expression of anger and aggression, and femininity was related to the suppression of anger” (Brannon, 2011, p. 187). The suppression of anger is painful in itself and is a form of masochism. Freud points out that a woman’s tendency to bottle up aggression is what causes her masochistic impulses.

Karen Horney spent over a decade dedicating her time to using Freud’s theory to help her patients. During this period she criticized Freud’s use of biological and anatomical explanations for gender-related personality differences (i.e. penis envy, feminine masochism), as well as his neglect for societal and environmental influences. In the case of penis envy, she found Freud’s theory to serve better as a metaphor or symbolism, rather than a means of factual evidence for women’s feelings of inferiority; “Horney argued that penis envy was a symbolic longing for the social prestige and position that men experience” (Brannon, 2011, p. 107). That is to say, that women do not feel inferior due to their literal lack of penises, rather they begin to feel inferior when not being male prevents them from certain freedoms, jobs, money, and social status (ect.). Additionally, she proposed the concept of “womb envy”; she uses men’s envy of women’s ability to give birth, as a metaphorical interpretation of “males striving for achievement as overcompensation” (Brannon, 2011, p. 107).

Horney’s main defense against Freud’s theory of feminine masochism is that it consists of little to no data or empirical evidence. She asks questions “about the frequency, conditioning, and weight of the observed reactions of the little girl to the discovery of the penis” (Horney, 2013, p. 177). She finds no answers to these questions, and sees feminine masochism as a term which generates only from hypothesised theory, without any supporting evidence.  She then continues to insist that the individual’s environment plays a more influential role; since women are often restricted in terms of socioeconomic status, power in the family, and power in the workplace, women may then be more inclined to masochistic impulses. Horeny brings up the example of if a man were to be placed in a restricting, immobilizing environment:

Consider, for example, the case of a man who has led a hitherto satisfactory sex life, and is then jailed and placed under such close supervision that all sexual outlets are barred Will such a man become masochistic? That is, will he become sexually incited by witnessing beatings, by imagining beatings, or receiving actual beatings and maltreatment? Will he indulge in phantasies of persecution and inflicted suffering? No doubt such masochistic reactions may occur. (p. 181)

This is Horney’s way of debunking the Freudian concept that masochism is purely feminine. It is possible for a macho, masculine man to end up in prison with no outlet for his aggression, and then turn his aggression and frustration inward in the form of masochistic behaviors. According to Horeny, passive attitudes, submissive behavior and masochistic impulses appear more often in women because of the societal structure and norms–not because of anatomical differences.

Both Freud’s and Horney’s theories of gender-related differences in personality development provide implications for our society. Freud’s theory of penis envy implies that there is an innate nature to women that is different than mens’. Helene Deutsch, who elaborated on Freud’s theory of masochism, contended that “women are more or less doomed to be frigid unless in intercourse they are or feel raped, injured or humiliated” (Mahowald, 1994, p. 252). In other words, women naturally want to endure rough, painful sex because it alleviates their suppressed anger and aggression. This concept is incredibly problematic; if society were to see this as true, it would offer justification to rapists or at the very least, make men believe that it is acceptable to beat and humiliate women during sex, because it is innately what they really want. Freud’s theory also insinuates that women are not, and never will be, equal to men. I do not agree with or understand how the lack of a penis automatically places women on a lower level than men in our culture’s hierarchy.

Horney’s theory of “ovum envy” is an insightful one; it points out Freud’s male bias, and addresses the ways in which men may feel inferior. Seeing as biological women are the people who carry and birth children, and often are the primary caregivers after birth, one might think that they are the superior, necessary sex.  According to Horney, men realize the power of a woman’s ovum, and compensate for this by exaggerating the importance of their penises. She views this in a more symbolic way, which has great implications for society. Culturally, we have norms that go with each gender: characteristics that are masculine belong to men and characteristics that feminine belong to women. It could be said that the same way a woman may envy a man’s salary, job and/or power in the home, a man might envy a woman’s nurturing, house-making role–it is the social constructs that, even to this day, keep some men and women from straying from the characteristics, jobs, and behaviors that “belong” to them.  Men who are sexually inactive, non-athletic and cannot financially support their families typically feel emasculated. Women who are very sexually active, muscular, and who go into male-dominated job fields, may feel defeminized or like less of women. In my opinion, these are not what makes a man a man, and a woman a woman; I find Freud’s (and other psychologists’ and philosophers’) theories that perpetuate gender stereotypes and innate, natural differences between the sexes, to be stifling to both men and women.

Freud and Horney agree on the existence of the unconscious, importance of early childhood experiences, and gender differences in personality; where the two psychoanalysts differ, is in the source of these gender differences. Freud theorized that anatomical differences were the leading force for men’s activity and superiority, and women’s passivity and inferiority. Horney contended that social influences were the source of these differences. In terms of masochism, Freud saw this as inevitable for females, and odd for men; meanwhile, Horney thougt masochism was abnormal for both men and women. It is important to assess these psychodynamic theories, and further research for more concrete data pertaining to penis envy and feminine masochism. If people continue to take Freud’s natural differences between men and women as fact, we as humans will not progress.


1. Brannon, L. (1996). Theories of Gender Development. In Gender: Psychological perspectives(Sixth ed., pp. 104-108). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
2. Horney, K. (2013). The Problem of Feminine Masochism. The Psychoanalytic Review, 675-694.
3. Mahowald, M. (1994). Recent Influences. In Philosophy of woman (3rd ed., pp. 224-256). Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett.


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