Malachi McCoy : Anal Erotism, the Consequences for Character*

The Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality are fundamental to those of us who want to know the conditions of sexual life. In the development of the libido the phase of genital primacy must be preceded by a pregenital organization in which sadism and anal erotism play the leading parts.       

The distinctions between one zone and the other concern the nature of the means needed for the satisfaction of the instinct. From the first, the erotogenic significance of the anal zone is very great. Contrary to what we think there is no question of any real abolition of the impressions of childhood, but rather amnesia similar to that which neurotics exhibit in later life. The sexual excitements give rise to astonishing transmutations. Alterations in its characteristics are transformed where faeces; gift; money; baby and penis are not clearly differentiated. Each of them is treated as if they are equivalent and can replace one another freely.       

The erotogenic significance of the activity of the anal zone is revealed in later neurotic illnesses, where it is expressed in the entire range of intestinal disturbances. Psychoanalysis teaches us about these transmutations undergone by the sexual excitations from this zone and the prevalence with which its stimulus lasts throughout life. Commonplace disturbances of this kind are not unusual in childhood and even at an early age can give cause to the child being apprehensive and nervous.    

From Freud’s paper on Infantile Sexuality we learn that children can make use of their pre-disposition to erotogenic stimulation of the pre-genital zone. For example, where the child’s retention of the faecal mass serves as a masturbatory stimulus of that zone. If the infant chooses to hold back the stool, he, or she, brings

about muscular contractions which produce pleasurable, but painful stimulation of the erotogenic mucous membrane of the anus; which Freud asserts, represents the passive sexual aim. Clear signs of nervousness can be recognized when the child is placed on the pot and obstinately refuses to empty his bowels, holding back that function until he or she chooses to exercise it.       

Faeces are the infant’s first gift, a part of his body; a gift he will only part with to someone he loves. They represent a spontaneous gift and a token of his affection. For the first time in the child’s life, he is presented with a choice - the choice that is, between a narcissistic position or an object-loving attitude. On the one hand he can choose to comply and obediently part with the contents of his bowel in his environment where he can sacrifice his faeces to his love. On the other hand, however, he can choose to retain them for purposes of his auto-erotic satisfaction, and later as a means of asserting his own will. With his obstinate refusal to comply, he is actively putting into operation the instinct for mastery[1].  In Transformations of Instinct as Exemplified in Anal Erotism, Freud asserts that if he makes the latter choice, we are in the presence of defiance, of obstinacy and the subject’s narcissistic clinging to anal erotism.

This clinging to anal erotism has consequences. There are three characteristics which regularly combine in the anal erotic’s character. They are especially orderly, which isn’t in itself a bad thing; parsimonious - which may appear in the exaggerated form of avarice; and obstinacy. Parsimony and obstinacy are constant elements of the complex linked with each other, more so than with orderliness, however, all three belong to each other in some way. As infants they can be classed among those children who refuse to empty their bowels when placed on the pot because of the subsidiary pleasure they derive.

In the course of development and education demanded by civilization, anal erotism is one of the components of the sexual instinct which becomes unserviceable. Civilization and its Discontents speaks of the effects of those demands made upon “young human beings” and the changes those demands bring about. Freud writes that it is through this process that something is used up in these instincts in such a manner that what appears in their place can be described as a character-trait. The three character traits which are familiar to us and which have value in themselves may become intensified in the subject until they become dominant and produce what is called the anal character.[2] The intrinsic necessity for the connection of orderliness, parsimony and obstinacy are transformations brought about by reaction-formation. With the subject’s development his interest in what is unclean and disturbing subsequently forms a reaction against what should not be part of the body. Dirt, as Freud writes, is matter in the wrong place. During the periods of sexual latency opposing counter-forces operate in the mind. It is here that those reacting impulses create feelings of shame, disgust and morality. These three reactions are formed at the expense of the excitations originating from the zone, rising up like disapproving dams built in opposition to the pregenital sexual instinct. Therefore, while the continuous stimulation of the instinct does not stop, its energy is however, transformed in the process away from sexual aims and redirected to new ones.[3]

Continuing in his paper on Character and Anal Erotism Freud outlines that the most extensive of all is what seems to be a dissimilar connection between the complexes of interest in defaecation and money. It might be supposed that the neurosis follows an indication of common usage in speech calling a person who keeps a penny-pinching hold on his money as ‘dirty’ or ‘filthy’ or more locally we say that he’s a right tight… individual!... but that would be too superficial. It is interesting that money and dirt are brought into an intimate relationship where archaic and primitive modes of thought persist in the mind.

The case history of the Rat Man is very helpful in trying to understand this. Freud demonstrates how words play a structuring role in the unconscious and the life of the subject who coins his own rat currency. This youngish man of university education introduced himself to Freud to begin an analysis following a specific recent event in his life. Suffering from a moderately severe case of obsessional neurosis, he was tormented by compulsive impulses, prohibitions and fears.

During an analytic session he recalled how, as a soldier on a march he had lost his glasses. He could easily have found them, but not wanting to delay the start he wired a message through to his opticians to send a new pair in the next post. When the march came to a halt he sat between to officers, one of whom was a captain with a Czech name of whom the Rat Man had a dread because of the captain’s fondness of cruelty. At the resting stop the captain told a story of an especially horrible punishment used in the East. He struggled with resistances during analysis as he indistinctly retold the story of the punishment which held deep reverberations for him. He outlined how the punishment was carried out: a pot was turned upside-down on the buttocks of the person being tortured. Some rats were then placed into the pot which bore their way into his anus.

While recounting the details of the story in his analysis he said an idea came into his mind that the rat punishment was happening to a person who was dear to him, to the lady he admired. At the same time of the appearance of this idea a sanction occurred to him, a defensive measure he adopted to ensure his phantasy was not fulfilled…to “both” he went on to reveal. His word both, now including his father in his torturous phantasy. Curiously however, as we hear in Freud’s text of the case, his patient’s father had died many years earlier.

The Rat Man had been in a state of unconscious identification with his father, an identification which was to enable his flight into illness. Both, father and son were soldiers, and had lived like the best of friends. Despite appearances however, the son’s unconscious was filled with hostile criticisms upon his father’s character. Stories from his father’s years in military service were known to his son. Not wanting to exalt himself as a sacrosanct authority, his father shared knowledge of the little failures and misfortunes of his life. In his role as a non-commissioned officer his father had control over a small amount of money which he had lost on one occasion during a game of cards. One of his father’s comrades saved him from the repercussions of the situation at that time, helping by lending him the money. Years later, having left the army and when he had become well-off, he tried to find that friend so he could pay his debt and return the money to him. But he didn’t manage to trace him. Freud’s patient was uncertain whether the money owed by his father had ever been returned to the soldier.

On account of losing the money in the card game his father had been called a ‘Spielratte’! In everyday German ‘Spielratte’ translates literally as play-rat; the literal translation being gambler.[4] We learn from the story of the Rat Man that his recollection of that event in his father’s youth was painful to him. ‘The captain’s words, “You must pay back the [money] to Lieutenant A” had sounded to his ears like an allusion to this unpaid debt of his father’s’.   

His illness as an adult lead back to an earlier time in his life. More than anything else, the rat punishment stirred up the anal erotism which played a big part in his childhood, kept in activity with a constant irritation due to worms. For this youngish man rats came to have the meaning of money. When Freud had told him his fee for each analytic session the young man said to himself “so many florins, so many rats”. Freud learned of this connection in the life of his patient when the Rat Man reacted to the word ‘ratten’ – rats – and the verbal association ‘raten’ – installments. Translating this into his own rat currency the whole complex of his money interest centred on his father’s legacy to him. A verbal bridge connected all the ideas of his father’s legacy where ‘raten-ratten’ carried over into his obsessive life and brought under the governance of his unconscious.

What happens to those instinctual forces with the development of the genital organization:  have they lost their importance in sexual life? Are they preserved in an original state by repression? The organic sources of anal erotism cannot be buried as a result of the emergence of the genital organization. As we are reminded, with the subject’s development these sexual impulses become restricted as a consequence of the arousal of unpleasurable feelings brought about with the psychical conflict of those opposing mental forces forming the reactions of disgust, shame and morality.               

From the special characteristics of the unconscious, we learn that the processes of the unconscious are timeless; they are not ordered temporally, nor are they altered by the passage of time[5]. The essence of the process of repression lies, not in putting an end to, in annihilating the idea which represents an instinct, but in preventing it from becoming conscious. When this happens, we say of the idea that it is in a state of being unconscious producing effects which, as psycho-analytic work shows us every day, is possible to translate; and necessary to translate because, as Freud reminds us, the conscious has a very large number of gaps.

Outside of psychoanalysis, people never remember researches having been carried out in the early years of childhood on the theories of birth. These early researches of the infant fall a victim to repression; however, all findings are of a uniform nature. The child holds the belief that people get babies by eating some particular thing as they do in fairy tales, and believes too that babies are born through the bowel like a discharge of faeces.     

In his 1917 paper on Transformations of Instinct as Exemplified in Anal Erotism Freud outlines that the products of the unconscious – that is spontaneous ideas, phantasies and symptoms - the concepts of faecesbaby and penis are all ill-distinguished from one another and are easily interchangeable…these elements in the unconscious are often treated as if they were equivalent and could replace one another freely. This is most easily seen in the relation between ‘baby’ and ‘penis’. In the symbolic language of dreams and of course our everyday life, both may be replaced by the same symbol – both baby and penis are called a ‘little one’ [‘das Kleine’].[6] A timely reminder for us today that psychoanalysis has only a single medium which is speech; that this is self-evident is no excuse for our neglecting it!   

Part of the erotism of the pregenital, therefore, becomes available for use in the phase of genital primacy. As the word of Freud’s Little Hans’ reminds us, the baby is regarded as ‘lumf’ the child’s word for faeces. It becomes detached from the body and passes through the bowel revealing the libidinal extension attached to the content of the bowel, to the baby born through it. The contents of the bowel behaving like forerunners of another organ which can be destined to come into action after the phase of childhood.

Freud reminds us how, following the usage of language, neurosis here as elsewhere, takes words in their original significant sense. Where it appears to be using a word figuratively it is usually restoring its old meaning. It is thought-provoking that the psychoanalyst reminds us that we must never forget how much more concretely children treat words than grown-up people do!

In his summary of The Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality Freud writes how regrettable it is that the existence of the sexual instinct in childhood has been denied. To forget this is not merely a simple error but one that has grave consequences for the subject, for it is mainly due to this idea that ignorance of the fundamental conditions of sexual life can be maintained.         

*This paper was presented at the study day organised by the Milltown Lacanian    Association in Dublin on Saturday 16th October 2021. 


Malachi McCoy.

[1] Freud. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. S.E. VII. (1905d) p. 198.

[2] Freud. Civilization and its Discontents. S.E. XXI. p. 96-7.    

[3] Freud. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Op. cit. p. 178.

[4] Freud. Notes upon a case of Obsessional Neurosis (1909d) S. E . X. p. 210. 

[5] Freud. The Unconscious. S.E. XIV. 187.

[6] Freud. On Transformations of Instinct as Exemplified in Anal Erotism. Op. cit. p. 128.