Freud Rejects Third-Sex Theory

Sigmund Freud rejected the idea that persons with same-gender sexual attraction constituted a biological “third sex,” arguing instead that all humans are inherently bisexual.

Summary of Event

“Third sex” is a term that was first used by Plato Plato in his Symposium, Symposium (Plato) a philosophical dialogue on the nature of love. Plato wrote that the earliest human ancestors were made up of three sexes: female-female, male-male, and male-female. Punished by the mythical god Zeus, each human “pairing” had been divided in half. Countless generations later, Plato argued, descendants continue to strive to reunite the pairings, which defines erotic love. If a person’s ancient ancestor was male-female, that person will be attracted to members of the opposite gender. Descendants of male-male or female-female ancestors seek wholeness through attraction to members of the same gender. [kw]Freud Rejects Third-Sex Theory (1905)
[kw]Third-Sex Theory, Freud Rejects (1905)
Third sex;theory of
Bisexuality;Sigmund Freud on[Freud]
Homosexuality;early studies of
[c]Science;1905: Freud Rejects Third-Sex Theory[0180]
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Freud, Sigmund
Ulrichs, Karl Heinrich
Hirschfeld, Magnus

Sigmund Freud.

(Library of Congress)

The term “third sex” resurfaced in Europe in the nineteenth century in novels and poems with homosexual themes. In the 1860’s, lawyer and writer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs explored the reasons for homosexual love. Ulrichs believed that the human embryo begins with both male and female sex organs, but that as the embryo develops it retains the organs of only one gender. In some cases, the selection process is incomplete, and thus a person may have the mind of one gender and the body of another. Ulrichs reasoned that the existence of a biological third sex established homosexuality as normal, and therefore it should be considered morally and legally acceptable.

In Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie (1905; Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (Freud) 1910), Freud rejected the idea of a third sex. He did not believe that the existence of homosexuality required a distinct sex (or gender, to use the more modern term), but that human sexuality occurs along a spectrum, that all people are born with bisexual tendencies (a bisexuality that is not a biological necessity).

In early life, Freud believed, children respond to certain stimuli that shape their eventual mature sexual orientation. A child who develops normally will be a heterosexual adult, because societies impose a structure that prefers a male-female dichotomy, but various traumas that occur during childhood could lead one to homosexuality. For example, a young boy’s fear of castration might lead him in later life to become homosexual. A young man with an Oedipus complex might, in fixating on his mother, become so identified with her that he seeks a man as a sex partner. Conversely, a woman obsessed with her father might seek a woman as a sex partner as a way of substituting herself for her father.

Implied in Freud’s theories is that sexual orientation is neither completely biological (nature) nor completely learned (nurture). Furthermore, since homosexuals are in all other ways able to survive and to function in society, their deviation from the norm should not be classified as degenerate. In other words, homosexuality is not “appropriate” because it does not lead to procreation, but neither is it dangerous nor a choice that can be unmade or corrected. Therefore, homosexuality should not be condemned, nor can it (or should it) be “cured.” To criminalize homosexual behavior is to punish people for acting on impulses that are beyond their control.

Overall, Freud’s ideas about homosexuality were rather vague and contradictory. Freud emphasized that homosexuality was not a perversion of sexuality, but he did consistently refer to it as a variation or a deviation of the norm. Five years after Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie, Freud published again on sexuality, this time focusing on Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci. He observed also that certain homosexual men and women in the scientific community, particularly the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, referred to themselves as members of a third sex, but he again rejected the validity of the claim.


Freud’s theories about homosexuality emphasize that sexual orientation is neither wrong nor sick, and that it is beyond a person’s control. This idea that sexual orientation is at least partially inherent, and not chosen, had become an important part of legal and moral debates of the early twentieth century, debates that continue unabated.

Although Freud did not believe that homosexuals could be “cured” of their homosexuality, many of his followers in psychoanalysis, psychology, and medicine disagreed. They argued that if childhood trauma led to homosexuality, as Freud posited, then it seemed reasonable to believe that the “damage” from the trauma could be undone. Psychoanalytical and even surgical treatments for “improper” sexual orientation became prevalent in the 1930’s and 1940’s, counter to Freud’s advice. In 1952, the American Psychiatric Association’s American Psychiatric Association;and homosexuality as mental disorder[homosexuality]
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association) listed “homosexuality” for the first time as a personality disorder. Freud’s belief that homosexuality was a sexual variation—and not a perversion—still, unwittingly perpetuated intolerant ideologies and attitudes. References to homosexuality as a mental illness, however, were removed from the manual in 1973.

Freud’s theory of human development as directly linear and unwavering limited Western understandings of sexual orientation for decades, because researchers following his principles tended to look at sexuality through a narrow lens. That is, rather than seeing that ideas about sexuality, and sexuality itself, might change within and across cultures and might change through time, researchers interpreted the sexual development and sexual behavior of persons in other societies using Freud’s unwavering, universalizing theory as the standard. This led them to determine what behavior was essentially “normal” and what behavior was essentially “abnormal,” regardless of a person’s cultural or social settings or backgrounds. Third sex;theory of
Bisexuality;Sigmund Freud on[Freud]
Homosexuality;early studies of

Further Reading

  • Freud, Sigmund. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Translated and edited by James Strachey. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
  • Herdt, Gilbert, ed. Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History. New York: Zone Books, 1996.
  • Kennedy, Hubert C. “The ’Third Sex’ Theory of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs.” Journal of Homosexuality 6, nos. 1-2 (1982): 103-111.
  • LeVay, Simon. Queer Science: The Use and Abuse of Research Into Homosexuality. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996.
  • Rubenstein, William B. Cases and Materials on Sexual Orientation and the Law. St. Paul, Minn.: West, 1997.

May 6, 1868: Kertbeny Coins the Terms “Homosexual” and “Heterosexual”

1869: Westphal Advocates Medical Treatment for Sexual Inversion

1897: Ellis Publishes Sexual Inversion

May 14, 1897: Hirschfeld Founds the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee

1929: Davis’s Research Identifies Lesbian Sexuality as Common and Normal

1948: Kinsey Publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Male

1952: APA Classifies Homosexuality as a Mental Disorder

1953: Kinsey Publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Female

1953-1957: Evelyn Hooker Debunks Beliefs That Homosexuality is a “Sickness”

December 15, 1973: Homosexuality Is Delisted by the APA

1991: LeVay Postulates the “Gay Brain”

April 20, 2001: Chinese Psychiatric Association Removes Homosexuality from List of Mental Disorders