Penis envy is a theory from early psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. He believed that when female children realize they lack a penis, they feel “castrated” in comparison to males. Freud believed this was a pivotal moment in female sexual development and a source of mental illness.

Since coining the term “penis envy” in 1908, psychologists have questioned and criticized it. Freud based the idea on his own beliefs about sex and gender rather than on data. To date, no research has ever proven that penis envy exists.

Many also argue that the theory is sexist, as it assumes that being male is inherently more desirable than being female. Despite this criticism, penis envy was a popular concept in Freudian psychoanalysis during the 20th century.

Some analysts have attempted to reimagine penis envy as the result of gender inequity in societies where men have more power than women.

Read on to learn more about penis envy.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Penis envy is a theory about female psychology. Sigmund Freud coined the term in 1908, and over time, it became part of a comprehensive theory about child psychosexual development.

“Psychosexual development” refers to how children develop sexuality and gender identity. Sexuality encompasses sexual desires, while gender identity is how a person feels.

Freud believed that all children are born bisexual and feel like boys, but that the stages of psychosexual development change this. The stages are:

  1. Oral and mouth fixation, which occurs between 0–1 years.
  2. Anal, bladder, and bowel fixation, which occurs between 1–3 years.
  3. Genital fixation, which occurs between 3–6 years.
  4. Sexual dormancy period, which occurs between 6–12 years.
  5. Sexual maturity, which occurs between 13–18 years.

Freud believed penis envy began in females during the third stage, between the ages of 3–6 years. He thought that when female children notice their lack of a penis, they see it as a deficit. First, they blame their mother for this deficit and then seek to identify with their father.

In Freud’s theory, any stage of development could lead to mental illness in adulthood. If there were no disruptions at this stage, he thought girls would eventually learn to accept their lack of a penis and embrace their assigned gender role.

However, he also believed that penis envy persists throughout life and plays a role in mental health issues. For instance, Freud thought that females tend to experience more jealousy than males and that this is a displacement of their penis envy.

Freud’s corollary to penis envy in male children was castration anxiety. Freud believed that males develop sexual feelings toward their mother and fantasies of replacing their father. They worry that castration is the punishment for these fantasies.

There is no scientific data to support the notion that Freud’s theory of penis envy is real. Researchers have not conducted recent or high quality studies on this topic. The same applies to castration anxiety.

Similarly, the reinterpretations of penis envy theory that other psychoanalysts have made also have no scientific evidence.

Below are some of the key criticisms of the concept of penis envy.

Gender bias

Karen Horney, a German psychoanalyst, argued that living in a male-dominated society had skewed Freud’s view of what she called feminine psychology.

She did not deny that penis envy exists but argued that penis envy is actually envy of men’s greater freedom and rights. The psychiatrist Clara Thomspon also endorsed this view.

Unlike Freud’s theory, there is research that suggests this could be true. For example, an older 1981 cross-cultural study found more penis envy-related imagery in the dreams of women who lived in more male-dominated cultures.

There is also significant evidence that gender inequity directly harms the mental health of women and girls globally.

Learn more about the psychological effects of gender inequity.

Limiting gender roles

Another criticism of Freud’s theory is that it limits people to traditional gender roles. Freud believed that a person with female biology must eventually accept their role as a woman, which, to him, meant behaving in a traditionally feminine way and becoming a wife or mother.

To Freud, a person assigned female at birth acting “like a man” was a sign that they had not accepted their true role in society, which could lead to mental illness.

This suggests that all people must adhere to traditional ideas of what it means to be a man or woman. It also suggests that being gender nonconforming or transgender is a sign of dysfunction.

However, modern research has shown that being able to live as the gender a person identifies with is mentally beneficial. A 2020 study found that affirming the gender of trans people, in addition to other forms of support, improves:

  • self-esteem
  • body image
  • the ability to cope with stress
  • optimism about the future

Learn more about mental health among transgender people.

Heteronormativity

Freud’s theories assume that attraction to the opposite sex, or heterosexuality, is the norm. In his mind, deviation from this is the result of disruption in psychosexual development.

Although Freud himself did not say that homosexuality is a mental illness, other analysts used his work to argue that it is. This pathologized being lesbian, gay, or bisexual and contributed to the development of harsh treatments that aimed to “cure” same-sex attraction.

Excludes intersex people

Biological sex is a spectrum. Some people have only male or female biology, whereas others have elements from both. This is known as intersex.

Freud’s theories do not take the existence of intersex people into account. It assumes that all people fall into the distinct and opposing categories of “male” or “female.”

Learn more about what it means to be intersex.

Womb and period envy are other psychoanalytical theories that expand on Freud’s work.

In the early 20th century, Karen Horney argued that the masculine equivalent to penis envy is womb envy. She theorized that men envy women’s ability to get pregnant and nurse children and the role this plays in the creation of life.

Womb envy — which she argued can also lead to the envy of menstruation and other functions people associate with being female — compels men to seek dominance in other domains.

As with penis envy, though, there is little research to prove womb envy, as Horney describes it, is real.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting it, penis envy continues to be a topic of discussion both among people who endorse and reject the idea.

Many theorists, especially feminist psychoanalysts, have attempted to reframe the idea of penis envy or offer counter theories.

Anecdotally, the notion of penis envy also continues to be popular in misogynist online spaces. Some who consider themselves involuntarily celibate, or “incels,” believe that feminism is a type of penis envy and that women must accept their inferiority and subordinate status to be happy.

However, as with Freud’s original concept of penis envy, there is no support for these claims. In fact, they contradict the abundant evidence proving that gender inequity is harmful to mental and physical health.

Moreover, these claims play a role in a violent and sexist ideology with the explicit goal of oppressing and discriminating against women and girls.

Today, psychologists do not generally use the concept of penis envy in their work, although some Freudian psychoanalysts may still use it.

Learn more about the impact of gender discrimination on mental health.

Penis envy is a pseudoscientific theory that claims female children experience profound distress upon realizing they do not have a penis. Sigmund Freud, who coined the term, believed penis envy could contribute to mental illness.

The concept of penis envy has no scientific evidence to support it, and it has received significant criticism from other psychologists.

Despite this, penis envy was a very influential theory for much of the 20th century, both among people who agreed and disagreed with it. Today, mental health professionals generally do not apply the theory in their work.