Psychoanalysis and gender roles

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As a clinical psychologist, it is not uncommon to hear from women that the real men are gone these days. Likewise, men are prompt to enlist women’s shortcomings and vent their frustration. Along with the abundance of dating apps that make it incredibly easy for virtually anyone to find a partner, relationships are also becoming shorter and more superficial in comparison to a few decades ago¹.

The ideas about love life are changing fast. It used to be a family tradition, not so long ago, for parents and relatives to sit down with their children and teach them how to be, and to find, a good man or a good woman. Today, the very existence of genders is being disputed by some.

Some people claim it was James Dean’s ‘Rebel without a cause’ (1955) that inaugurated this new stage between childhood and maturity, called adolescence, that has been challenging the established adult role models. Since then, counterculture and political movements have contributed to redesign the traditional conceptions of family and gender relations.

In general terms, as a component of culture, gender roles should help people reach and live their sexual maturity as smoothly as possible. For example, by underlining the difference between women and girls, a culture should protect the latter from being taken as sexual objects. The same goes with clothes and attitudes that are considered sexual or not.
Consequently, every culture represents a limitation in terms of sexual behaviour. As described by Freud² in ‘Civilization and its discontents’, culture is, at the same time, a source of frustration and the only possibility for human coexistence and happiness.

From the psychoanalytical perspective, cultural regulations related to sexual behaviour should help individuals cope with their sexual drive and desire. For example, when certain body parts are seen as sexual, they provide material for the constitution of fantasy and objects, without which a mature sexual life cannot exist. Similarly, clothes and accessories such as jewellery, shoes, hair style and makeup are normally associated with enhancing one’s body as an object of desire, etc.

Therefore, understanding genders and their representations as a simple matter of personal informed choice means disregarding important aspects of the relation between individual and culture. If it is often painfully frustrating to be a man or a woman, there is also no guarantee of happiness outside these alternatives. Regardless of gender and any other sexual characteristics, there will always be some aspects of the drive that go against cultural injunctions, which makes the conflict inevitable.

Unfortunately, this evident source of ordinary dissatisfaction has been misused by some politicians and other cultural players who try to gain attention and supporters by targeting certain sexual features, playing upon what Freud³ called ‘narcissism of small differences’. Most aspects of people’s sexual life are intimate and private, and their political and cultural exploitation has been spreading hate and prejudice.

To sum up, psychoanalysis does not offer a recipe for understanding, love, tolerance or any of the most noble human qualities. Religions do this instead. In fact, the pursuit of happiness in sexual and emotional life through psychoanalysis involves strong and genuine commitment to self-knowledge, facing one’s own fears, impotence and confusion, and the realization that complete satisfaction is impossible. And there is no exception to this rule.

Estevam Holpert, June 2021.

¹Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser (2020) – “Marriages and Divorces”. Published online at Retrieved from: ‘’ [Online Resource].
²Freud, S. (1930/2002) Civilization and its discontents. London: Penguin.
³Freud, S (1921/1955) Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. Standard Edition 18. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, pp.65-144.