This post is part of the Gender and Domination Course in OOPS.

Beating phantasies, a most common perversion in Freudian psychoanalyses, turn out to be very complicated affairs. “It is only with hesitation that this phantasy is confessed to,” [1] Freud admits, and he will argue that guilt is entangled with beating phantasies and constitutive of their sprouting. What is most striking, however, is that these perversions are not flubs along one’s psychosexual development but are in fact the result of passage through the Oedipal framework: they are consequences of the incestuous love that cannot help but succumb to grief and repression. At a very early age, when the child’s genital organization has begun, thereby initiating his or her sexual life, beating phantasies begin to appear. Freud elaborates various phases of beating phantasies, articulating details of whether and when such phantasies are conscious or unconscious, sadistic or masochistic — but there is a curious absence. The role of the mother in a subject’s beating phantasy is not sufficiently elaborated, and this neglectful exemption seriously undermines Freud’s theory of perversions.

Phantasies, in psychoanalytic theories, are produced out of a subject’s wishes that address some fear or anxiety and are meant to console his or her unconscious. In “‘A Child is Being Beaten’ A Contribution to the Study of the Origin of Sexual Perversions,” Freud’s analyses and interpretations of his patients’ experiences of beating phantasies inform a schema of phases that evolve throughout childhood. In girls, the first phase is not a phantasy per se, but merely a memory from childhood or a leftover desire stemming from that time. Freud claims that the identity of the disciplinarian is unclear at first, but as analysis proceeds he emerges unambiguously as the father of the patient. This child being beaten is not the subject herself, but often a rival, a sibling, and this proto-phantasy satisfies the jealousy for the father’s affection. Freud argues that this set of affairs is only prima facie sadistic, because the subject isn’t herself doing the beating. [2] The phantasy isn’t masochistic, either, for she isn’t being beaten but is only imaging a scenario that gratifies her desire for the exclusivity of her father’s love.

This situation undergoes a decisive shift in the second phase — which is entirely unconscious and only materializes in analysis — in which the subject herself is being beaten by her father. This phase is categorically tied to masturbatory satisfaction, a recognition of the father’s attention (‘I am being beaten by my father’ because he loves me) with a powerful cathexis of pleasure tied to this recognition. The impossible, forbidden incestuous libidinal drive for the father’s love in phase one (where the subject envisages a rival being beaten) collapses under repression that transforms the phantasy into this masochistic structure. The weight of the taboo and prohibition against incestuous love contributes to the severity of the repression for genital relation between the subject and her father. Thus the phantasy remains unconscious until analysis. [3] The final phase, the true phantasy which rises from the preceding states, depicts not one but a series of indiscriminant children (who are substitutes for the patient herself) being beaten by a father-like representative — a teacher, for instance. The phantasy, where the subject is viewing the scenario like a phantom, is sadomasochistic since the subject both conjures and endures the beating vicariously through her substitutes.

Freud seldom mentions the role of the mother in his theory of beating phantasies and this oversight carries with it serious implications. For example, if, as Freud argues, perversions are consequences of navigating through the Oedipal network, how is the mother not more integral to this process? The Oedipal conflict, by definition, involves her. It is, after all, a triangle. The phallocentric picture Freud conveys, with the father at the conceptual center of these phantasies — desire for him, for his love and recognition, for his punishment against rivals — is unsettlingly limited.

Freud interprets his male patient’s consciously recollected beating phantasy (peculiarly conscious and not repressed under the weight of guilt of incestuous genital relation) where the subject himself is being beaten by his mother, as repressed homosexual desire for the father. Freud is condemned to this interpretation, where the desire for the father is ultimately what, once repressed, descends into the unconscious and conditions beating phantasies, because he bankrupts the mother’s presence. In step with the rest of the Freudian corpus, the role of the mother is trivialized. But isn’t the mother almost exhaustively responsible for activating the child’s genital organization? What motivates Freud, besides unabashed patriarchal reasoning, to place the father at the center and conceptual heart of the Oedipal system? Is the Oedipal system even intelligible without the addition of the mother and her desire?

The mother, in Freud, is the first object cathexis for a subject because she is the main caregiver for the child. The renunciation against the forbidden incestuous desire to be the phallic thing for the mother (i.e., what would satisfy her desire) issued by the father’s prohibition is supposed to trigger castration anxiety and along with it the guilt that collapses unto itself and produces the masochistic, phase two phantasy. Where is the mother in, “A Child is Being Beaten?” The boy repudiates his sex in the masochistic phantasy, in which he is being beaten by his mother, such that he feels like the passive, “feminine” counterpart and thus envisages himself being beaten by his mother. Freud argues that masochistic tendencies imply a feminine attitude, [4] but his resounds with ad hoc reasoning — a strain of thought that could be avoided if his theory of perversions didn’t coincide with such phallocentrism.

What this should illuminate, then, is perhaps perversions are not merely the psychological materializations of passage through the Oedipal network but instead something different — if we are committed to the Freudian corpus. If this is not the case, then a more fully developed picture of the mother’s role in perversions and the Oedipal triangle must be undertaken.

Another thought: perversions and the Oedipal framework at its root likely only reflect the family dynamics bound to those of Northern European descent (like Freud’s patients), so how would it need to be adjusted to give an account of other cultures and their prohibitions/disciplinary practices? For example, in all three phases of the girl’s beating phantasy the disciplining body is either explicitly her father or a representative thereof — and this, conferred with the phallocentric Oedipal framework, is a consequence of fathers’ customary role as disciplinarian. But Caribbean/Latin American families, like the one in which I was raised, usually saw the mother as the figure of authority that issued corporeal punishment and disciplinary prohibitions. Should this not also reflect a change to the authority figures in beating phantasies?

[1] Sigmund Freud, “’A Child is Being Beaten’ A Contribution to the Study of the Origin of Sexual Perversions,” 179.

[2] Ibid, 185.

[3] Ibid, 188-89.

[4] Ibid, 197.

One thought on “‘A Child Is Being Beaten,’ But Where is the Mother?

  1. The Father should not be limited to males. The Father (superego) is at least an archetype. With that being said there is at least a subtle inversion at hand in matriarchal families where the mother is the primary disciplinarian. I believe Freud’s notion is still valuable.

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