The Psychodynamic Explanation of Gender Development According to Freud, children go through five psychosexual stages of development: oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. The third of these stages, the phallic stage, which occurs between the ages of 3 and 6, is when the focus of attention of the libido (sexual energy) moves to the genitals. It is also the stage in which gender identity is established. Freud believed that children have no concept of gender identity before this time. According to the theory, gender development occurs through slightly different processes for boys and girls. Boys experience the Oedipus complex, and girls the Electra complex The Oedipus Complex During the phallic stage boys become sexually attracted to their mothers and experience jealousy towards their fathers, as they view him as a bigger and better rival for their mother’s affection. This leads to the boy wishing that his father was dead so that he may possess his mother. However, the boy also fears that his father will castrate him for his feelings towards his mother (castration anxiety). In order to deal with this conflict, the boy represses his love for his mother and identifies with his father (becomes like him). This is a defence mechanism known as ‘identification with the aggressor’. This leads to the boy internalising his father’s behaviour and values. According to Freud, male gender role development is a result of this process.
The Electra Complex According to Freud, the first object of love for both sexes is the mother. However, during the phallic stage, girls experience penis envy: they notice that they do not have a penis, and that their mother also does not have one. This leads the girl to blame her mother for her lack of penis, and therefore her sexual attraction passes to her father. This leads to the girl becoming her mother’s rival for her father’s affection. Fearing that she will lose her mother’s love, the girl represses her love for her father and identifies with her mother, leading to the internalisation of her mother’s behaviour and values. This results in female gender development. According to Freud, girls never recover from penis envy, but they regard the ability to bear children as a substitute.