Castration Anxiety, According to Psychoanalysis

· August 8, 2018

Castration anxiety is one of the central concepts of psychoanalysis. It has a very strong link to the more well-known Oedipus complex. The first person to mention this concept was the father of psychoanalysis himself, Sigmund Freud. Other psychoanalysts have made interesting developments in this area too, like Jacques Lacan, but we’re going to focus on the perspective of the original theory.

Of course, castration anxiety has nothing to do with literally mutilating someone’s genitals. It’s actually a really intense mental experience that you would experience for the first time between the ages of 3 and 5. This unconscious experience then happens again and again at different points in your life. It mostly happens at times when your defense mechanisms activate.

A man should not strive to eliminate his complexes but to get into accord with them: they are legitimately what directs his conduct in the world.

-Sigmund Freud-


Castration anxiety is just as frequent in boys as it is in girls, although the two genders experience it differently. It’s through this mental experience that a child learns to differentiate between the sexes and has their first encounter with the concept of impossible desires.

Castration anxiety in men

In 1908, Freud made his first mention of castration anxiety in boys. He described it in his case study of “Little Hans”. He talks about how this mental process takes place at four different times or stages until it reaches a resolution. 

Sigmund Freud and the castration complex.

Here are the four different stages Freud talked about:

  • The initial idea. The boy realizes that he has a penis and develops the idea that “everyone has a penis”.
  • The threat, the second stage. Due to the Oedipus complex, the boy wants to take his father’s place when it comes to his mother. He does things that openly display it and also shows signs of autoeroticism. He receives threats and is scolded for it. This brings him to the unconscious conclusion that castration will be his eventual punishment if he doesn’t change his behavior.
  • The third stage, the discovery of absence. The boy finds out that female anatomy is different: women don’t have a penis. He doesn’t assume that they have a vagina, though, just that they’ve had their penis taken away. He links this idea to his imagined threats: he thinks the absence of a penis is the same as castration.
  • The fourth stageanxiety. The boy realizes that his mother is a woman, which means she doesn’t have a penis. This leads him to feel anxiety about being castrated, which he only experiences unconsciously.

Once the boy has gone through those four stages, there’s only one left: resolution. This is true for both his castration anxiety and his Oedipus complex. It happens when the boy refuses to take his father’s place with his mother. In other words, he rejects his mother and falls in line with the paternal side of things. He does this specifically to resolve his castration anxiety. He unconsciously assumes that he’d lose his penis if he kept it up.

The castration complex in girls

Castration anxiety in girls has a few things in common with what boys experience. The first is that girls also start with the idea that everyone has a penis. And, of course, their mother is extremely important to them, she’s the center of their love. From here, though, the process takes a different path.

Headless mannequin beside women with bag tied over head.

Here are the differences, on a stage-by-stage basis:

  • The initial idea. They continue thinking that everyone has a penis. The girl, in this case, thinks her clitoris is a penis.
  • The discovery of the difference. The girl notices that her clitoris is too small to be a penis. This leads her to assume she’s been castrated, and she wishes it hadn’t happened.
  • The third stage. The girl realizes that her mother doesn’t have a penis either. She blames her mother for the fact that she doesn’t have one, as if her mother had passed her own lack of a penis down to her.

The resolution of castration anxiety in girls can go a few different ways. The first of those is acceptance. She accepts that she doesn’t have a penis and takes a step back from sexuality. The second is that she continues to wish she had a penis. Freud saw this as a denial of castration and thought it lead to homosexuality.

The third option is the most all-encompassing resolution to castration anxiety. The girl accepts that she doesn’t have a penis. Her mother is no longer the center of her affection and she directs her love towards her father instead. This also leads to a redirection of libido: the desire for a penis becomes a desire to have sex with someone with a penis. Lastly, the desire to have sex with someone with a penis turns into a desire to have a child.