Fear and envy: Sexual difference and the economies of feminist critique in psychoanalytic discourse

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This essay examines Freud's construction of a mythical moment during early childhood, in which differences between male and female sexual identities are said to originate. It focuses on the way in which Freud divides fear and envy between the sexes, allocating the emotion of (castration) fear to men, and that of (penis) envy to women. On the one hand, the problems of this construction are pointed out, but on the other hand, it is shown that even a much-maligned myth may still provide food for thought. Then, four critiques of Freud which have been articulated by prominent feminist psychoanalysts - Karen Horney, Nancy Chodorow, Luce Irigaray, and Jessica Benjamin - are presented, as well as the alternative visions of sexual identities which these thinkers have developed. The basic metaphors or economies guiding these visions of sexual difference are appraised in terms of their breadth and depth, with particular reference to their ability to acknowledge and integrate the presence of fear and envy as passions which are evoked but also repressed in the face of sexual difference. From this angle, the contributions of Nancy Chodorow and Luce Irigaray are found to be more limited than those of Karen Horney and Jessica Benjamin, since the former two theorists allocate fear primarily or exclusively to men, as Freud has done, while they remain completely silent on envy. Differences in the scope or reach of the four feminist approaches are explained as a result of the theorists' differing perceptions of the social, political, and cultural position of women in patriarchal society.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)129-170
Number of pages42
JournalScience in Context
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1997


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