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The Psychodynamic Explanation for Gender Differences

Updated on October 7, 2015

"The Subconscious"

It's all about the mysterious and blurry subconscious!
It's all about the mysterious and blurry subconscious! | Source

What does the Psychodynamic Approach say about Gender Differences?

You may be familiar, or at least have heard of, the famous psychodynamic theorist Sigmund Freud. Maybe even the branch of psychology he invented: The Psychodynamic Approach.

Quite shockingly to some, Freud's theories and ideas have been applied to try to explain the mysteries behind gender differences.

The chief questions: 1. Why do they exist? 2. How do they develop?

[Readers should be warned that the Psychodynamic Approach revolves around the idea that children have sexual desires for their parents. This may be disturbing for the easily offended]

The psychodynamic approach however is not the only branch of psychology with its convincing ideas about gender differences, see also:

Key Principles of the Psychodynamic Approach About Gender Differences

  • The unconscious mind results in our gender differences.
  • A healthy person will have already identified his gender by the age of five.
  • Subconscious conflicts of sexual desire for the parent of our opposite sex results in a lot of gender differences.

Freud's Psychoanalytic Theory

Freud's theory states that we all went through, are going through, or should have gone through five important psychosexual developmental stages of our lives - these stages define men and women and even our personalities.

It is possible to get stuck at each stage and stay there into our adulthood and this can explain dysfunctional personalities: see here for more.

Freud's Thoughts

Big Freud himself - pondering about any other sexual desires young children might have.
Big Freud himself - pondering about any other sexual desires young children might have. | Source

Freud's Five Stages of Psychosexual Development and Gender Differences

Stages one (oral) and two (anal)
These are gender ambiguous - children in these stages have not yet begun to identify as any gender, they merely explore different ways of receiving pleasure from their mouths and anuses. These stages last up until three years of age.

Stage Three (Phallic)
Children begin forming ideas of what it means to be masculine and feminine and which of those they should be. They explore their own genitalia and at the same time observe, compare and realise the differences between theirs and others. This stage lasts up until the age of 6.

It is at this point that boys begin to form sexual desires for their mothers and girls for their fathers.

Oedipus - from the Greek mythological tale where the King Oedpius ends up sleeping with his mother (unknowingly) and then gauging his own eyes out.
Oedipus - from the Greek mythological tale where the King Oedpius ends up sleeping with his mother (unknowingly) and then gauging his own eyes out. | Source

The Oedipus Complex and Gender Differences

The Oedipus complex is something that Freud theorised about. It states that young boys in the phallic stage develop a sexual lust for their mothers and subsequently feel very threatened by their fathers.

This causes them to become jealous of their fathers to the point that they wish their fathers died. Consequently, the boys become afraid of their fathers and become worried that their fathers will find out about the lustful desires they have. Freud states that the boys develop something known as "castration anxiety" in which the boys worry that their father will remove their penises as a punishment for their inappropriate desires.

Freud says that the boys fear their father because he has a larger penis, the boys also think that fathers have castrated their mothers because they do not have penises - making the threat of castration real and adding to the anxiety.

The result of all of this is that boys will try and behave like their fathers to reduce the risk of castration. They also want to be more like their fathers because they are the ones who have their mothers in the way that they want them - sexually.

The name 'Electra' comes from Greek mythology. She hates her mother for killing her father and plots revenge against her with her brother.
The name 'Electra' comes from Greek mythology. She hates her mother for killing her father and plots revenge against her with her brother. | Source

The Electra Complex and Gender Differences

The Electra complex is the proposed counterpart to the Oedipus complex: it is the idea that little girls in the phallic stage have sexual desires for their fathers.

In addition the girls, realising that they do not have a penis, believe that they have already been castrated and feel cheated - blaming their mothers and forming a hatred for them.

Girls develop something known to Freud as 'penis envy' in which they long for a penis like they see males have. They soon realise that they will not get a penis and instead fill this desire with the desire for a baby, which they want their fathers to provide. This is where the sexual desire for their father arises from.

Girls, although hating their mothers, fear the loss of their mother's love and are afraid that they will lose it if it comes to light that they desire their fathers. Therefore, girls like boys, identify with their mothers and behave like they do in order to appease their mothers and become more attractive to their fathers.

Freud's Evidence for his Oedipus and Electra Complexes

Freud only really provides one piece of evidence for his theory and it is based on only one child. Further to that, there are many criticisms for this sole experiment! For this reason, I urge readers not to take Freud's views too seriously.

Freud's Famous Case study with Little Hans (1909)

  • Little Hans was a boy aged five and so, according to Freud, in the phallic stage of his psychosexual development.
  • He had a phobia of horses.
  • Freud concluded from details given to him by the boy's father that:
  1. Because the boy was more afraid of: large white horses, horses with black around the mouth and horses with black blinkers on, the boy was afraid of his father.
  2. The black blinkers represented the father's glasses, the black mouth his beard, and the size and white colour his father's white skin and relative size.
  3. The boy was also afraid of horses falling down and this, according to Freud, represented the boys' guilt for wanting his father to drop dead.

What do you think?

How would you describe the psychodynamic explanation for gender differences?

See results


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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      It would also depend upon the circumstances of the gender difference development. Perhaps a father left the family. Thus, it would be difficult for a female to feel attraction to a parent they never met. Thus, I am forced to consider other explanations.

    • Philanthropy2012 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from London

      Indeed! Hormones and gene expression are very important - and the foundation of the biological approach's explanation for gender differences!

    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 

      7 years ago from Southern California

      I think that the key also includes the physiological difference in the hormones of each gender. Without them it would be difficult to feel gender.


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