39 pages 1 hour read

Sigmund Freud

Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1905

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Sigmund Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality was first published in 1905. Freud expanded it several times in later editions, and it reached its final form in 1924. The book occupies a major place in Freud’s body of work, but it was controversial when it first appeared. Freud pointedly blurs the line between perversions and normal sexual behaviors, and he develops a radically new and surprising theory of human sexuality—in particular, of childhood sexuality. The essays present some of Freud’s most famous ideas, including the stages of psychosexual development, polymorphous perversity, drive theory, and the Oedipus complex. Finally, the book makes contributions to Freud’s thinking about aggression, ambivalence, sublimation, and more.

In 1953, the multivolume Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Freud appeared in English with a translation of the Three Essays by James Strachey. This version remains definitive, although though there is a long history of disputing some of Strachey’s translations of key terms. Strachey’s annotations and footnotes explain the position of the Three Essays in the overall development of Freud’s thought. Strachey’s notes also explain the development of the book over time, describing its expansions and revisions between 1905 and 1924.

Most English editions reproduce Strachey’s translation including his notes. (Some e-book editions rely on an outdated, although sometimes elegant, English translation from 1915 by A. A. Brill.) This guide relies on the Basic Books edition of Strachey’s translation published in 2000. Still in print, it is also available for free at the Internet Archive. Citations refer to the page numbers in that edition.


The first essay, “The Sexual Aberrations,” analyzes various perversions to challenge commonplace ideas about human sexuality. These commonplaces are, first, that infants and children do not have sex lives because the sexual impulse only arrives with puberty and, second, that sexual instincts are naturally directed to the opposite sex and procreation.

Freud discusses “inversion,” or homosexuality, to demonstrate that the sexual instinct does not contain an innate sexual object (such as the opposite sex). Freud looks at various theories about inversion that were prevalent in his day and finds fatal problems with each of them. Next, under the category of the sexual aim, he discusses the perversions proper, like fetishes for feet or other body parts, and so on. Freud concludes that the sexual instinct is itself various and nonunitary, but that its primitive and partial components come together or amalgamate to produce various macro-level sexualities. In some cases, the result is an amalgamation that we call normal. In other cases, the result is a perversion.

Freud then turns to the topic of neurotics and their sexual lives. He writes that the sexual instinct is key to the formation and maintenance of a neurotic’s symptoms because sexual libido is what charges or gives energy to the neurotic’s symptoms. As a result, the neurotic’s sex life, he writes, is in some way really nothing more than the (unhappy) experience of their symptoms.

In the second essay, “Infantile Sexuality,” Freud turns to early childhood, which he argues plays a pivotal role not just in the development of adult sexual preferences but in human psychological development as a whole. Infantile sexuality is fundamentally autoerotic in nature and “polymorphously perverse” (115). Freud argues that the whole variety of neurotic and normal psychological structures emerge from the process of psychosexual development that begins with oral satisfaction and thumb-sucking and proceeds through the other so-called erotogenic zones, including the anal, arriving finally at genital sexuality. He discusses key ideas like the incest barrier and penis envy in this section.

In the final essay, “The Transformation of Puberty,” Freud discusses the changes ushered in by puberty following the latent stage—itself begun at around age five. In a normal case, the adolescent will discover an attraction to the opposite sex and begin to break away from the emotionally incestuous confines of the family unit. While some adolescents make the transition to adult sexuality in the normal way, others do so differently, leading to what we call perversions and to various neurotic formations that may not at first seem like they are related to sexual life.

Throughout the book, Freud emphasizes that perversion, neurosis, and normality are continuous and often overlapping categories. Drawing on an enormous wealth of observations about both neurotic and normal psychological experience, he connects his theory of psychosexual development, elaborated for the first time in this book, to the framework for psychoanalysis that he had already developed, in which repressed childhood experiences are found to be the causes of present-day psychological formations. To summarize most briefly, this is the book that made sex fundamental to Freudian theory.