Known as the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who would have turned 160 on May 6, founded a branch of psychological therapy that focuses on the conscious mind and the unconscious mind and how the two interact. Among his many attention-grabbing theories and ideas is the concept of penis envy.
In a 1933 lecture simply titled "Femininity," Freud said that women become envious of penises at a young age, when they realize boys derive more sexual pleasure from their penises than girls do from their own sexual organs. Freud said this penis envy grows over time and manifests in a daughter's love for her father and the desire to give birth to a son, because those are as close as a woman can get to having a penis of her own.
The strict interpretation of Freud's penis envy theory has been debunked. "It's in some ways really dated," said Sarah Wells, a clinical social worker in private practice in the Denver area, in an interview with Live Science. "It's not currently used in any kind of lexicon that I'm familiar with in mental health." She went as far as to say that if someone called her practice and said they needed help with their penis envy, she would be tempted to hang up with the assumption that the call was a prank. [Hot Stuff? 10 Unusual Sexual Fixations]
Less classical definitions of penis envy hold more water, however. "There's a symbolic aspect to it, and I think it's absolutely very real," said Vanessa H. Lopez, a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York. In the years since Freud introduced his idea of penis envy, many people have discussed nonliteral interpretations of the concept. The gist of these is that women may envy the features that make a man a man because they associate these with power and status.
It would still be unlikely that a woman struggling with these power dynamics would distill it down to penis envy, however, Wells said. Rather than these feelings manifesting as a woman deciding that she wants a penis, Wells said that penis envy only really makes sense as a metaphor.
Some girls do go through a stage of wishing they had a penis, said Wells. But this is, again, probably not as literal as it seems. Wells compared this to the way a child might envy another child's height, an aesthetic desire that has roots in a psychological one. For example, a girl might perceive that her brother has more advantages in life and, since his penis is one of the things that makes him different from her, she possibly expresses some type of penis envy, said Lopez.
While penises are a common indicator of being a man, penis envy is not necessarily an expression of nonconforming gender identity, said Lopez. However, penis envy is such a general phrase that she is cautious to define what it's likely to mean until she knows the individual situation in which the term is being used, she said. "I think that if a patient came to me and that was their presenting problem, I would just want to know more about it to try to understand it," said Lopez. [8 Wild Facts About the Penis]
Wells said she has a bigger-picture issue with the concept of penis envy: that it's yet another material solution to a complex, likely mental, problem. She warned that this kind of fixation by individuals on body parts and image can lead to significant mental health issues.
"Science has shown us that there is nothing inherently better about a tall person or a short person … or [that] there's no real difference between women who have large breasts or small breasts, or men who have bigger organs or smaller," said Wells. "But, unfortunately, people do get stuck on those ideas, and they can become mentally ill."
Whether it's obsessing over photos of fit celebrities or scouring the internet for penile-enhancement solutions, people are too quick to modify their bodies or spend large sums of money in order to address emotional distress, Wells said. Those emotional problems include feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy, she said.
Sign up for the Live Science daily newsletter now
Get the world’s most fascinating discoveries delivered straight to your inbox.