During the last decades of the twentieth century researchers showed that much
of the received history of psychoanalysis consisted of stories that were largely
mythological. Perhaps the most enduring of all these myths is that Freud postulated
his seduction theory as a result of hearing frequent reports from his female
patients that they had been sexually abused in childhood. In this article I
want to focus on this story, one that for most of the twentieth century was
taken as historical fact, and is still widely believed to be so.
According to the traditional account, in the 1890s most of Freud’s female patients
told him that they had been sexually abused in early childhood, usually by their
father. How the story continues depends on whether it is based on received history
or on the revised version embraced by many feminists and popularised by Jeffrey
Masson. In the orthodox version we are told that within a short time Freud came
to realise that many of the reports he was hearing were not authentic, that
the women were fantasizing, and that this led to his epoch-making discovery
of infantile incestuous fantasies. But according to the feminist account, it
was the staunch opposition of colleagues outraged by his claims of widespread
childhood sexual abuse that led Freud to abandon the theory. Previously a sympathetic
listener, Freud now betrayed the women who had had the courage to reveal their
terrible experiences of abuse.
Whichever version you choose to believe, both make dramatic stories, and each
has its strong adherents. The basic elements are the same, but the interpretation
of them is very different. I suspect that most people rely on their gut feeling
and opt for Masson and the suppression of the truth about the widespread sexual
abuse of girls at that time. But it’s time for a reality check.
The articles that Freud published in the 1890s, and his correspondence with
his confidant Wilhelm Fliess, tell a very different story. Putting it briefly,
Freud’s patients in the mid-1890s did not tell him that they had been
sexually abused in early childhood. In contrast to what he was to assert in
his later accounts, at the time he wrote that they assured him “emphatically
of their unbelief” in the preconceived infantile sexual traumas that he
insisted they had experienced.
The essential features of the episode can be outlined as follows. During the
early 1890s Freud had become convinced that repressed memories of sexual ideas
or experiences, not necessarily from childhood, lay at the root of the symptoms
of patients he had diagnosed as hysterics. Then in October 1895, on the basis
of a speculative notion, he alighted on a theory that he was convinced had solved
once and for all the problem of the causes of the psychoneuroses. Hysterical
symptoms were invariably caused by unconscious memories of sexual molestations
Using his newly developed analytic technique for uncovering unconscious ideas
in the minds of his patients, he immediately set about showing that he was right.
Although he had not previously reported any instances of his having uncovered
sexual abuse in infancy, within four months of announcing the new theory to
Fliess he completed two papers in which he claimed that with every one of thirteen
“hysterical” patients, plus some obsessionals, he had been able “trace
back” to infantile experiences of sexual abuse. A few months later he delivered
a lecture, “The Aetiology of Hysteria”, in which he gave a more detailed
exposition of his theory, claiming confirmation for eighteen patients diagnosed
How did he manage to access deeply repressed experiences of this nature with
all his patients in such a short time? Although he claimed that he had induced
patients to “reproduce” the infantile experiences (what he meant by
“reproductions” is open to a wide range of interpretations), it is
evident that he typically arrived at his clinical findings by the decoding of
symptoms, and the analytic interpretation of patients’ ideas produced under
the influence of the “pressure” procedure he was using at that time.
He explained that patients’ symptoms correspond to the “sensory content
of the infantile scenes” of sexual abuse that he had inferred to lie at
their root. His analytic procedure, he wrote, was analogous to that of forensic
physician who can arrive at the cause of an injury “even if he has to do
without any information from the injured person”.
This is exemplified by the case of a patient who had a facial tic and eczema
around the mouth. On the basis of these symptoms Freud analytically inferred
that she had in infancy been forced to engage in fellatio. “I thrust the
explanation at her”, he told Fliess. And when she expressed her disbelief
he “threatened to send her away” if she persisted in her scepticism.
Of course for Freud a rejection of his inference was evidence of the patient’s
“resistance”, providing further confirmation that his analytic reconstruction
For reasons impossible to deal with in a short space, within two years of announcing
publicly his solution to the aetiology of the neuroses Freud lost faith in it.
But instead of this leading him to question the reliability of his newly developed
technique for reconstructing unconscious memories, he sought to explain his
claimed findings as patients’ unconscious fantasies. This necessitated some
retrospective emendation of the original claims to make the new theory minimally
plausible. In fact the story went through a number of stages before finally
arriving at the familiar version in New Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis
(1933): “In the period in which the main interest was directed to discovering
infantile sexual traumas, almost all my women patients told me that they had
been seduced by their father.” (Incidentally, no one seemed to think it
odd that it was only in this short period that “almost all” his female
patients should have reported early childhood sexual abuse.)
It is important to appreciate that the traditional accounts give no idea that
the putative “fantasies” were unconscious ideas or memories
in the patients’ minds that Freud believed he had uncovered (i.e., reconstructed)
by his analytic technique of interpretation. (Freud’s use of the word Phantasie
is translated as ‘phantasy’ by James Strachey in the Hogarth Standard Edition,
but usually as ‘fantasy’ elsewhere in the literature, giving readers the misleading
impression that Freud was generally referring to conscious ideas that
patients reported to him.)
There are a considerable number of anomalies in Freud’s retrospective accounts
of the episode, too many to be dealt with here. One of these is that originally
he had claimed that the “infantile traumas” he had uncovered could
be described “without exception” as “grave sexual injuries”.
How putative ‘memories’ of experiences that he had described as “brutal”
and “absolutely appalling” could plausibly turn out to be unconscious
fantasies of “seduction” that had the purpose (according to his first
explanation) of “fending off” patients’ disturbing memories of infantile
masturbation, Freud made no attempt to explain. The same objection applies to
his later story that the putative “seduction fantasies” were projections
of patients’ Oedipal desires. In any case, he was in no position to know whether
his analytic reconstructions represented repressed memories of actual events,
or patients’ unconscious fantasies — or indeed, as was actually the case, imaginative
scenarios originating in his own mind.
A little known fact is that, in accord with his theoretical requirements, Freud
claimed in 1896 that for each of his six obsessional patients he had uncovered
repressed memories not only of passive infantile sexual abuse scenes, but also
of active sexual experiences at a slightly older age. Nothing was heard again
of these remarkable clinical ‘findings’, and Freud made no attempt to explain
how his later unconscious fantasy theory could possibly account for them.
The above arguments, of course, refute Jeffrey Masson’s version of events as
well as the received psychoanalytic story, though his case lacks cogency for
other reasons. He suggested in The Assault on Truth that Freud’s motive
for abandoning the seduction theory was in part an attempt to ingratiate himself
with his colleagues, who supposedly were outraged by his clinical claims. This
thesis is undermined by the fact that Masson’s account of the ostracizing of
Freud by his colleagues is entirely erroneous. But it is also invalidated by
the fact that Freud did not reveal his abandonment of the seduction theory to
his colleagues for some seven years after he had privately renounced it. (Masson
erroneously stated that “the critical period for Freud’s change of heart
about the seduction hypothesis” was “during the years 1900-1903”.
This vague dating effectively closes most of the gap between the abandonment
of the theory and Freud’s public announcement of his change of view, and tallies
with Masson’s thesis, but Freud’s letters to Fliess show clearly that he had
completely given up the theory by the end of 1898.)
That the traditional story of the seduction theory episode is false in all
its essentials is especially important in recent times, when it has been drawn
into the debate about the repression of memories of childhood abuse that are
supposedly ‘recovered’ some decades later. People need to get the historical
facts straight before Freud’s supposed early clinical experiences are erroneously
cited to support the arguments of one side or the other. More generally, as
Cioffi has emphasized, an accurate account of the transition from the seduction
theory to its successor fantasy theory calls into question the reasoning which
Freud was to employ for the rest of his career to reconstruct infantile fantasy
life and the contents of the unconscious.
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the Question of Pseudoscience. Chicago and La Salle: Open Court, pp. 199-204.
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Freud, Chicago: Open Court.
Esterson, A. (1998). “Jeffrey Masson and Freud’s Seduction Theory: a New
Fable Based on Old Myths.” History of the Human Sciences, 11
(1), pp. 1-21.
Esterson, A. (2001). “The Mythologizing of Psychoanalytic History: Deception
and Self-deception in Freud’s Accounts of the Seduction Theory Episode.”
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Esterson, A. (2002). “The Myth of Freud’s Ostracism by the Medical Community
in 1896-1905.” History of Psychology, 5 (2), pp. 115-134.
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Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. by J. Strachey et al. London: Hogarth
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