Penis Envy

Young, curious girl looks at boyPenis envy is a theory in Freudian psychoanalytic theory that proposes that very young girls feel deprived and envious that they do not have a penis. These feelings later lead to a desire for access to a penis and normal heterosexual development.

Penis Envy and Freudian Psychosexual Development

Sigmund Freud developed penis envy as part of his theory of psychosexual development. Within this theory, a child progresses through several stages of development, each of which contains a sexual conflict that the child must resolve to become a healthy adult.

According to Freud, Penis envy is a stage of development experienced only by female children and occurs when a girl first notices the differences in male and female anatomy and longs to have a penis of her own. He suggested that this moment is critical for sexual awareness and gender role differentiation in women. After a girl realizes she lacks a penis, she may be envious of boys. She may then begin to sexually desire her father and blame her mother for her apparent castration, longing for the death or disappearance of her mother. To cope with this conflict, a girl begins to mimic her mother, but later realizes she cannot have her father. To cope with this fact, her sexual desire is displaced onto men generally, marking the beginning of heterosexuality.

Criticisms of the Theory

There is little empirical evidence that penis envy actually occurs, and the theory has been heavily criticized, particularly by feminist scholars. They argue that to assume a girl envies and desires a penis is to assume that women are substandard, a misogynistic stance. Some feminist followers of Freud have reframed the theory that penis envy is not about actual envy of a penis, but about envy and resentment for the social power accorded to the male gender role.


  1. American Psychological Association. (2009). APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  2. Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Last Updated: 08-17-2015

  • Leave a Comment
  • Chris T

    Chris T

    March 17th, 2017 at 8:54 AM

    One of my problems is having both small hands, as well as a small penis. Fortunately there’s lack of contrast while holding it.

  • Rene T

    Rene T

    July 29th, 2018 at 4:58 PM

    Freud’s concept of “Penis Envy” can be seen as an analogue to George Carlin’s famous routine about the seven “bad” words you can’t say on television. Freud was stinging (pricking?) Victorian prudishness with the concept. This issue is power, males in a Patriarchy have nearly all of it, females don’t. The fact that men happen to have penises is irrelevant. In Matriarchal societies, do men have “Vagina Envy?” The argument falls apart with a simple explanation. When women attain equal power with men, “Penis Envy” will naturally disappear. Right? So much for a deep psychological neurotic obsession.

  • Ann


    May 29th, 2020 at 7:35 PM

    Wait a minute. Men are roughly half of the human race, right? And each of them has one, right? So, what’s the big deal?

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