One of the most enduring myths of psychoanalytic history is that Freud proposed his seduction theory as a result
of hearing frequent reports from his female patients that they had been sexually abused in childhood. A second myth is that
in the early days of psychoanalysis, Freud's medical colleagues took such exception to his theories of infantile sexuality
that they subjected him to professional ostracism. Jeffrey Masson combined these two myths to produce a compelling and influential
account of the seduction theory episode. However, an examination of the contemporary documents indicates that Freud's clinical
findings reported in the seduction theory papers were spurious, that he was right to abandon the seduction theory, and that
Masson's version of events is erroneous.
In 1896 Freud published three papers in which he claimed that obsessional neurosis and hysteria (a condition in
which patients exhibit somatic symptoms having no apparent organic origin) were caused exclusively by repressed memories of
sexual molestations in early childhood. According to the traditional story, he abandoned this theory when he realized that
many of the 'seductions' reported by his female patients were fantasies, and this discovery opened the way to his revolutionary
psychoanalytic theories of infantile sexuality. In the late 1970s, some feminists concerned about the sexual abuse of female
children re-examined the received account and concluded that Freud was wrong to abandon the theory, and that he did so in
response to the concerted opposition of his medical colleagues. Masson's best-selling The Assault on Truth (1984) made
this view known to a wider public, while at the same time purportedly providing it with a more scholarly
The Pressure Technique
To appreciate what actually happened with Freud's patients in the mid-1890s it is essential to have knowledge
of his clinical technique at that time. Freud believed that somatic symptoms he regarded as hysterical were caused by repressed
memories of traumatic experiences, and that the therapeutic task was to induce the patient to bring these memories to conscious
awareness. At times when relevant thoughts were not forthcoming he placed his hand on the patient's forehead and encouraged
him or her to report any images or ideas that came to mind. In the event that nothing occurred to the patient, Freud took
this as a sign of resistance and repeated the pressure on the forehead while insisting that a picture or an idea would emerge.
In this manner he endeavoured to set in motion a chain of associations which he believed would lead eventually to the pathogenic
idea (S.E.: II, 270-2). The ideas and images obtained from the patient by this procedure generally emerged in a piecemeal
fashion, with the essential elements missing (281-2). The task of the physician was 'to put these [fragments] together once more into the organization which he presumes to have existed'; ie, to piece together the fragments to produce a coherent event or narrative, rather like the
process of solving a picture puzzle (291).
The Infantile Seduction Theory
Freud first announced his thesis that the symptoms of hysteria and obsessional neurosis resulted exclusively from
repressed memories of sexual experiences in early childhood in two letters he wrote to his friend and confidant Wilhelm Fliess
in October 1895. He conjectured - on theoretical grounds - that hysteria was the consequence of presexual sexual shock, and
obsessional neurosis the consequence of presexual sexual pleasure (Masson, 1985: 141, 144). In early February he completed
'Heredity and the Aetiology of the Neuroses' (published in a French journal) and 'Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of
Defence', in each of which he claimed that for all his thirteen cases diagnosed as hysteria he had uncovered repressed memories of sexual traumas in early childhood. The assailants were nursemaids, governesses, domestic servants, teachers, and brothers slightly older than the victim (S.E: III, 152, 164). In his six cases of obsessional neurosis (three of whom were among the thirteen 'hysterics'), the patients had engaged in an
active pleasurable sexual experience around the age of eight or ten, and all of them had also been subjected to sexual
molestation in infancy (155, 168-69).
The third seduction theory paper ('The Aetiology of Hysteria'), delivered to the Vienna Society for Psychiatry
and Neurology on 21 April 1896, contained a more detailed presentation of Freud's thesis. The number of cases of hysteria
had increased to eighteen (six men and twelve women), and the culprits now included adult strangers and close relatives in addition to the categories listed in the previous papers (S.E.: III,
Freud's words in these papers indicate that the patients did not come to him with reports of sexual abuse in early
childhood: 'Before they come for analysis the patients know nothing about these [sexual] scenes. They are indignant as a rule
if we warn them that such scenes are going to emerge. Only the strongest compulsion of the treatment can induce them to embark
on a reproduction of them.' Not only have they 'no feeling of remembering the scenes' they are induced to reproduce, he continued,
they 'assure me...emphatically of their unbelief (204). Similarly, he reported: '[T]hese
patients never repeat these stories spontaneously, nor do they ever in the
course of a treatment suddenly present the physician with the complete recollection of a scene of this kind. One only succeeds
in awakening the psychical trace of a precocious sexual event under the most energetic pressure of the analytic procedure,
and against an enormous resistance. Moreover, the memory must be extracted from them piece
by piece...' (153).
In the 'Aetiology' paper Freud wrote that certain somatic symptoms 'correspond to the sensory content of the infantile
scenes, reproduced in a hallucinatory fashion' (214), but elsewhere there are passages which imply that the 'memories' generally consisted of fragmentary ideas or images from which Freud reconstructed
the fully-fledged sexual scenes. In the words of Schimek: ‘[T]he knowledge
of [the] original trauma, whether an unconscious memory or fantasy, was based on
Freud's interpretation and reconstruction; it was not directly revealed by the patient’ (1987: 960), a conclusion also
reached by Cioffi (1974) in the early 1970s. Borch-Jacobsen
(1996) views Freud's pressure technique as essentially a form of hypnosis,
and he cites evidence which indicates that, in some cases at least, patients were induced to conjure up hypnagogic images
of requisite infantile 'scenes'.
Freud's Retrospective Reports
To appreciate how most commentators, including Masson, have been misled by Freud's later
reports of the seduction theory episode, the several accounts he published over the years must be examined. Originally, in
the seduction theory papers, Freud reported a variety of assailants (S.E.: III, 164, 208). However, his story later changed
to accord with his current theory. The seduction theory did not require specific culprits - hence the wide range of culprits
in his 1895-6 reconstructions. By 1897 his cogitations had led to the conjecture that the culprits
in the case of hysterics' were generally fathers, and this is reflected in an 1897 abstract of the 'Aetiology' paper:
the several categories specified in that paper were condensed to the claim that 'as a rule' the abusers were 'to be looked
for among the patient's nearest relatives' (ibid.: 254). Following his abandonment of the seduction theory, in his accounts
published in 1906 and 1914 he paid scant attention to the identities of the supposed culprits; his primary concern was to
report that he had discovered that most of the 'infantile sexual traumas'
which 'analysis had led back to' had been unconscious phantasies created during
the years of puberty to 'cover up1 memories of infantile masturbation
(S.E.: VII, 274: XIV, 17-18).1 (This relates to notions to be found in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality
[1905, S.E.: VII, 189]). It was not until 1925 that he first stated publicly that in the case of the female patients 'the
part of seducer was almost always assigned to their father'. (At the time he had just begun applying his Oedipal theory to
female development [S.E.: XIX, 177-9]). In 1933 he reiterated that during the seduction theory period 'almost all my women
patients told me that they had been seduced by their father', and it is this final
version of the story which acquired the status of historical fact for most of this
century (S.E.: XXII, 120).
Jeffrey Masson has produced an erroneous account of the seduction theory episode which results from his failure
to grasp the nature of the clinical procedure Freud was using, his uncritical presumption that the latter^ clinical claims
were valid, and his acceptance of Freud's historical accounts in spite of the scholarly research which has shown them to be
unreliable. The traditional story that most of Freud's female patients in the seduction theory period reported that they had
been sexually abused by their fathers in early childhood, the cornerstone of Masson's account of the episode, is false. This
will bring little comfort to his psychoanalytic critics, since it is evident that the theory
of infantile seduction phantasies which superseded the seduction theory was
based on the same unsound clinical claims.’
1 The word Phantasie was almost invariably used by Freud to denote an
inferred unconscious idea or image which he had analytically reconstructed. Its frequent translation
as 'fantasy' (rather than 'phantasy' as in the Standard Edition) has exacerbated the tendency to misconstrue the ideas
or images in question as conscious experiences of Freud's patients (Esterson, 1993: 166-8).
2 Freud's later accounts of the episode served to conceal that his clinical
findings reported in 1896 were an artefact of his coercive application of the analytic technique of reconstruction. In the
words of Cioffi (1974: 173-4): 'Freud could not bring himself to recognize the reasoning by which he had persuaded himself
of the authenticity of the seductions, because it was the same sort of reasoning which, for the rest of his career, he was to employ in his reconstruction of infantile fantasy life and of the content of the unconscious in general.'
Borch-Jacobsen, M. (1996) "Neurotica:
Freud and the Seduction Theory", October 76 October Magazine Ltd. and MIT, Spring 1996: 15-43.
Cioffi, F. (1974). 'Was Freud
a Liar?1, The Listener, 91: 172-4; reprinted (1975) Journal ofOrthomolecular Psychiatry, 5: 275-80.
Esterson, A. (1993) Seductive
Mirage: An Exploration of the Work ofSigmund Freud. Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court.
Freud, S. (1953-74) The Standard
Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of
Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. by J. Strachey
et al. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.
Israels, H. and Schatzman, M.
(1993) 'The Seduction Theory', History of Psychiatry, iv: 23- 59.
Masson, J. M. (1984) The
Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; new edn (1985) Harmondsworth, mx:
——. (editor) (1985)
The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887-1904, ed. and trans. J. M. Masson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
Schimek, J. G. (1987) 'Fact
and Fantasy in the Seduction Theory: a Historical Review', Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, xxxv: