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Sarlin, C.N. (1963). Feminine Identity. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 11:790-816.

(1963). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 11:790-816

Feminine Identity

Charles N. Sarlin, M.D.


It was the purpose of this paper to establish the concept of a feminine identity and in the process to resolve the two tasks proposed by Freud: to link the renunciation of clitoridal sexuality, a problem of the libidinal-drive organization, with the associated problem in object relations; the necessity of the preoedipal girl to relinquish her maternal attachment and develop a heterosexual object relation in the oedipal conflict.

The concept of identity is based upon the integrity of ego structure, which in turn is rooted in the physiological and biological structure of man. Feminine identity as the expression of the personality of the female of the mammalian species is largely influenced by the characteristics which differentiate that species, the maternal lactating function and the intra-uterine gestation of the fetus.

The integrity of an identity and the maturity of the ego upon which it is based are in great part determined by the degree to which the representations of self and object are realistically established and maintained. The feminine representation of self must become established upon a female basis, and the representation of her sexual object must be of the opposite sex, if her biologically fixed goals are to be achieved. The boundaries of these representations of self and object must remain sharp and clearly defined (not ego boundaries—a misnomer).

The representations of self, of object, and of the drives in the ego are established by a maturational evolutionary process. The relationship between infant and mother, for male and female alike, originates at the most primitive but primary level of orality in the sucking mouth relationship to the maternal, erotically erectile, secreting nipple of the breast. For the female alone the maturational cycle is completed when she has achieved the capacity to reverse the roles of infantile orality and become the "feeder" instead of the "fed." As a result, orality has a far more pervading significance for the female than it can possibly have for the male. In

conformity with the biological principle of the recapitulation theory, in both sexes, the early primitive representations of self and object are never completely eradicated, but are repressed to the deeper levels of the unconscious where they may be reactivated by regressive processes when circumstances dictate (13).

At the oral level both penis and clitoris have the erotic significance of the erected, erotized maternal nipple which, only with the achievement of the phallic level, superimposes the genital function upon its underlying oral meaning.

Penis envy, like castration anxiety, is rooted in the earlier danger of loss of nipple which, only as the concept of "mother" is evolved from its part-object identification, "nipple-breast," then becomes "separation anxiety."

Problems of feminine sexual frigidity are related to the difficulty in establishing genital primacy. This is so because of the necessity to renounce the pleasure-giving zone of clitoral erotism, which attains orgastic potency relatively easily, and to replace it with the biologically more gratifying, but less easily attained, vaginal orgastic potency. This becomes possible only after puberty and adolescence, through the development of the breasts and the establishment of nipple erotism. This physiological growth permits the shift from the primary erotism of the clitoris to the erotism of the nipple and breast, thereby making it possible for the vagina to establish its biological goal of genital orgastic primacy. This complicated line of development is in marked contrast to the little boy who is able to establish his genital primacy during the phallic period of pregenitality and, in addition, need never change the sex of his original love object.

For the little boy, the latency period is brought about by castration anxiety. The problem is far more complicated for the little girl. Genital primacy cannot be established during the phallic period, since the clitoris is the executive organ at that level of sexuality; and vaginal primacy is not possible until clitoral erotism can be displaced to the erectile erotism of the nipple with the development of the breasts in puberty and adolescence. Furthermore, the necessity to renounce the original preoedipal attachment to the mother and to replace it by the masculine image of the father adds to her difficulties. Problems of identification associated

with both of these factors increase the predisposition toward regressive pathological narcissism and bisexuality.

In conclusion, the feminine identity is characterized by a multiplicity of sexual drives, objects, and identifications which the masculine identity is, by comparison, spared. The increased needs for renunciation which this necessitates predisposes to greater difficulties in dealing with pregenital aggression. However, libidinal drives associated with the maternal function have a tendency to modify this pregenital aggression and contribute to the characteristic of feminine masochism. To the extent that a feminine identification is the basis for the libidinized object representation in the male ego, feminine attributes, including the capacity to love, ultimately become part of the male personality.

In The Problem of Anxiety(7), Freud ascribed one of the three causes of neurosis to "the imperfection of the psychic apparatus." The capacity of the human ego to survive under extreme states of deprivation is a remarkable tribute to its adaptive function. Adolescence and later life afford repeated opportunities to establish new and more stable representations of self and object, thereby permitting the identity to grow. The analytic experience is the outstanding example of this mitigating influence against the unsuitable identifications of a pathogenic infantile environment. The amazing fact is not that there are imperfections in the identity of man, male and female alike; but rather that he is able to surmount these difficulties which, by their very multiplicity, make for the infinite variation and many-sided richness of the human personality.

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