Freud presented "The Taboo of Virginity" to the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society on December 12, 1917. He published it in 1918 as the third of three essays entitled "Contributions to the Psychology of Love" (Beiträge zur Psychologie des Liebeslebens), the first two of which were revisions of his earlier papers, "A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men" (1910h) and "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love" (1912d).
By regrouping these papers under a common title, Freud wanted to express the continuity of his thought concerning love, including sexual attitudes and conduct. The 1910 article, appearing about the same time as his first explicit formulation of the Oedipus complex, is concerned principally with male conquest and rivalry with other men; two years later, the second essay addresses the problem of male impotence, with specific reference to the psychological dissociation of tender from sexual feelings. "The Taboo of Virginity" in certain respects complements the first two.
Freud begins by asking why a young women's virginity is so highly valued in so many societies. He turns to anthropology to show that, in some groups, defloration is carried out just before the wedding ceremony by a third party officially charged with that duty. Such practices form part of the constraints that continue to regulate sexual life of all civilizations. In fact, "it cannot be disputed that a generalized dread of women is expressed in all these rules of avoidance. . . . The man is afraid of being weakened by the woman, infected with her femininity and of then showing himself incapable" (pp. 198-199). This fear is due to castration anxiety, from which arises the idea that women are "a source of such dangers, and the first act of sexual intercourse with a woman stands out as a danger of particular intensity" (p. 200). Women contribute to such dread by the persistence of their own oedipal and castration complexes, from which arise the burdens of sexual prohibition, penis envy, and "hostile embitterment" towards men, together with the fact that their desire remains fixated on the father, for which "[t]he husband is almost always so to speak only a substitute, never the right man" (p. 203). Defloration by a third party serves such conflicts in women as much as it wards off men's fears. When such conflicts are particularly severe, they can help explain frigidity in women.
"The Taboo of Virginity" is thus an integral part of Freud's work on the Oedipus complex and castration. As a text particularly concerned with the psychoanalytic view of female sexuality, it has occasioned much critical discussion (for example, Laplanche).
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