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.

References:

  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

  • 9 comments
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  • 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

    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?

  • Jo

    July 28th, 2021 at 3:23 PM

    I actually believe this is true in some ways. I’m a girl and I have what could be called penis envy.

    When I was young (like, 3-8) I believed I had some kind of “stunted, poorly developed, possibly mutilated (by the doctors at my birth) penis” and stuck to that notion embarrassingly long, for no rational reason. I even secretly stuck socks and whatnot down my underwear to help with the discomfort I got from this (not very often though) I never questioned myself then but looking back that seems pretty weird. When I grew older and realised that in fact my genitals were normal (for a girl) I felt kind of shocked and disappointed instead of relieved (what I should have been). I grew up always envying boys for their bodies (and penises), especially when I started puberty and differences became more obvious. I didn’t want to be a girl. I’ve never (consciously) sexually desired my father but all my sexual fantasies involve me having a male anatomy and thinking about physical reality in a sexual situation is an instant turn off and may even make me cry (also in other situations I think about it). I generally liked my own body until it started becoming more obviously female, since then I have gone through phases of trying to accept it alternating with being absolutely disgusted and depressed about it.

    I don’t think this is about power or gender roles since it has started before I knew much about gender roles and has ever since carried on mostly focused on the physical aspects. Also, although the family I grew up in had mostly traditional gender roles, I never really conformed to any gender roles throughout my childhood, as far as I can recall. I never felt like I really fit in with the girls (I wasn’t like them) nor with the boys (I wasn’t a boy). Maybe I leaned a tad more masculine in my interests but most of my interests and behaviours were influenced by my friends and family. Because I was usually daydreaming, I didn’t care much.

    I don’t necessarily need to be in the societal position of a man, I just want the body of a man. I would even be fine with being a woman (or taking a woman’s role in society) as long as my body was male.

    I’m just writing my story as “empirical evidence” for this penis envy thing. It does seem to exist and something has gone wrong in my mental development so that for me, it’s very conscious and very distressing. Does any other girl feel that way? Does anyone know how to convert this into normal heterosexuality.

    For context, I am mostly heterosexual but occasionally attracted to women, too (I don’t know if this is important). Only, saying “I’m straight” as in, a woman attracted to men, doesn’t quite describe my feelings because I’m not attracted to anyone when I think of myself as a woman (it makes me deeply uncomfortable and I don’t think about attraction, then. So, I guess I’m heterosexual but in a gay way if that makes sense. Everything would be so much easier if I could just be a man instead :(

    Also for context, I’m 16, and this year I’ve started researching on how to get rid of my ‘Problem’ because so far I’ve only been waiting for it to go away on its own and sort of repressing any thoughts but it’s getting harder to ignore and starting to properly ruin my life by now so I need a solution. If anyone knows how to deal with this, I’d be grateful because I haven’t read about cases like mine in resources I could find about Freud so far, but I don’t think anyone will reply to this anyway. But help would be appreciated!

    Anyway, there’s your empirical evidence. It’s different from the classic subconscious presentation but I think it shows some proof for penis envy.

    (Sorry if I worded something incoherently, I typed this at night)

  • Billie

    August 2nd, 2021 at 7:59 PM

    I am wondering the same. You are not alone.

  • Christine

    August 10th, 2021 at 5:25 PM

    I can’t believe I’ve stumbled on this site from YouTube where I wrote that I have a double First Class Honours degree in Biology and Psychology and that Imonce had a tutorial on Freud and is ridiculous ideas about ‘ penis envy ‘.!!!
    Get a life !!

    I can’t believe I have stumbled onto this rubbish from comments I’d made on YouTube about my having a Double First Class Honours degree in Biology and Psychology.

  • Stella

    September 9th, 2021 at 8:41 PM

    Jo, you could look into seeing if you may have gender dysphoria because that is what it sounds like to me.

  • Anonymous commenter, K.

    September 14th, 2021 at 1:23 PM

    Jo, while I was reading your comment I genuinely thought I was the one who wrote it. I was in the exact same boat when I was younger. It actually went away for me when I was around 15/16 years old and I realized that the sex/gender I was born in, is just a fact. It’s just a state of being. I also slowly started getting rid of my internalized misogyny and eventually I just gradually shifted into a state of mind that I was fine with being a woman. I would advise you to stop thinking about wanting a penis and your sex/gender in general. Stop wanting a penis, because at the end of the day, you’re just you. It doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, you’re you. And please… do not think about transitioning. I fell into that rabbit hole and it was a big mistake. Try to find some female role models who you can look up to. You might have some internalized mysogny that you don’t even realize. I remember my mother talking to me about how it would be so annoying to have a penis between your legs. At the time I completely disagreed with her, but now I understand why she said that and that it’s completely fine to just be female and that having a penis won’t solve all your problems and isn’t that special. As for your gay comment, I am the same way, maybe it’s connected? haha. Anyways, I hope I helped you a bit. TLDR: Try to stop thinking about it and just accept yourself as YOU, outside of sex/gender. There’s so much more to life than what’s between your legs. You’re still very young and I’m sure things will make sense to you one day. Just focus on your future and studies :)

  • The auspicious one

    October 4th, 2021 at 4:31 PM

    It’s a chemical imbalance testosterone and estrogen are the main chemicals that are responsible for your interests and that’s the real truth you need to check your chemical balance if you’re a female and you act like a male you have higher testosterone than estrogen if you’re a male who desires another man then you definitely have way too much estrogen versus testosterone in the levels of your brain chemistry this is the fact this is what it is look into it don’t believe what other people lie to you about don’t worry about some stupid psychological psychoanalytic phobia crap they gave you that’s all psychobabble psychobabble don’t fall for that s*** it’s a chemical imbalance it’s all biological

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