The Seduction Theory in the Twenty-First Century: Trauma, Fantasy and Reality (Book Review)

Author:  Good, Michael
Publisher: International Universities Press
Reviewed By: Karin Ahbel-Rappe, Volume XXIX, No. 4, pp.41-44

The Seduction Theory in the Twenty-First Century: Trauma, Fantasy and Reality presents the proceedings (papers and discussions) of a 1998 symposium of nearly the identical name, along with a substantial introduction and postscript by editor Michael Good. The intent of the symposium was not only to address Freud’s early theory (very roughly, that infantile sexual seduction is the precondition for neurosis) but also to bring psychoanalysts of different orientations together in conversation. The resultant discussions feature respectful, but also direct and forceful, debate among the participants. It is in that spirit that I offer both my appreciations of and disagreements with ideas presented in the volume under review.

Part I of the book (each part corresponds to a panel at the symposium) is entitled "What is the seduction hypothesis? Why are we talking about it today?" and features papers by George Makari and Jay Greenberg. Good’s introductory essay is also usefully considered with this group. While I disagree with some of the particulars of the arguments of Makari and Good, I heartily endorse the level of specificity at which they engage. Makari’s paper on "The Seductions of History" is a sine qua non for scholarly study of the seduction theory, and Good’s chapter also makes a significant contribution. Too often, in my view, when people talk about the seduction theory today they neglect to start by addressing the actual theory itself: the questions of its place in intellectual and scientific history, of what exactly the theory claims and on what bases these claims are made, of the changes in Freud’s own theory during the brief period in which he was developing it, of Freud’s labyrinthine commentary, implicit and explicit, on the theory after he rejected it, and of what place any version of the theory had in Freud’s later thought. Contrary to what "everyone knows" about the seduction theory, these papers make clear that none of these questions have transparent answers. They are matters for painstaking scholarly reconstruction and intellectual imagination. Examples of my disagreement with particulars of the claims of Makari and Good will hopefully illustrate the level of detail and the order of complexity involved in this scholarship, and spur people to turn thoughtfully to the full papers.

Makari reads Freud as having made a "crucial and unprecedented shift" (p. 51) in his own theorizing on seduction in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess of December 6, 1896. Makari claims that in that letter Freud abruptly re-wrote his hypothesis; that he changed from the view that the perpetrators of neurotogenic infantile seductions are primarily "nursemaids, strangers, and children" to the view that it is the father and the father alone that is the perpetrator. (The only known references by Freud to this "paternal etiology" are in the Fliess correspondence. Freud never published on this view, and we can only speculate whether he even discussed the idea publicly). Contra Makari, I do not read Freud as ever having excluded fathers from the category of perpetrators. In The Aetiology of Hysteria (Freud, 1962/1896) published in June 1896, Freud named "nursemaids, strangers, children, and close relatives" (p. 208). Presumably, fathers are implicitly part of the category "close relatives." My reading is that, from this starting point, by the end of 1896 Freud make explicit and then focused in on the father, on this particular member of the category of perpetrators. This was clearly an intense and preoccupying, and personal, focus for Freud. We could say it was all he was interested in at the time. As an point of theory, I do not think Freud ever held the view that only the father is the relevant perpetrator.

Such a detail matters to the logic of Makari’s argument, as it figures into his attention to the question to whom Freud was addressing himself, of who Freud’s imaginative as well as literal interlocutors were. We may tend to think of Freud as having formulated the seduction theory as a sort of lone voice in the wilderness. In fact, as Makari explains, the field of sexology, which was contemporaneous with Freud (and of which Kraft-Ebbing was the most prominent representative), was quite alert to questions of the frequency, causes, and effects of childhood sexual abuse. (Also see Good’s paper on this topic). The "sexological consensus," as Makari puts it, was that the perpetrators of abuse were precisely nursemaids, strangers, and children. Makari sees Freud as starting out in agreement with the sexologists and then dramatically going his own way, and frames this as an early event in Freud’s change from primarily addressing himself to his medical contemporaries to eventually constituting for himself a distinctly psychoanalytic audience. But, if I am right that Freud’s first ideas were already departures from the prevailing sexological view, then Makari’s argument would need to be refined.

Many influences, including clinical findings, led Freud to the seduction theory. But once he had the theory in mind, Freud also struggled to elucidate its logic. In his paper, Good tries (alongside his main focus on outlining the long intellectual pre-history of the theory) to spell out this logic and I applaud him for taking up this relatively neglected topic. Good seems to suggest that the idea that "sexual factors were considered essential" to neurotogenesis is a premise of Freud’s argument. I see that idea as the conclusion of Freud’s argument. The main premises in Freud’s logical argument for the seduction theory, to my mind, are that only events the memory of which could cause greater unpleasure than the occurrence of the events themselves are repressible, and that only infantile sexual events meet this condition (when they are remembered under the influence of the heightened sexuality of intervening puberty). And therefore, Freud concludes, only sexual events and specifically infantile sexual events are repressible.

Good points out that the distinction between actuality and fantasy with which Freud became subsequently concerned "significantly complicates" the validity of the argument. (His point would hold for both his and my rendering of that logic). I would put it that, in the light of the power of unconscious fantasy to affect what Freud might have called the "quota of unpleasure" that events yield, Freud’s argument on seduction is rendered importantly incomplete. But I would add that, even with all due regard to the role of unconscious fantasy and conflict (as well as any other further theoretical touchstones), there is a deep psychoanalytic insight in this early Freud about the dynamics and etiological impact of infantile sexual abuse that Freud himself was not able to carry forward after he abandoned the seduction theory. Namely, the insight that there is something in the nature of human sexuality itself, as a sexuality that is inherently developmental, that makes early sexual trauma liable to post-traumatic repetition later in life, and that makes both the early and later events liable to repression. (We too easily forget that the seduction theory is essentially both a developmental theory of sexuality and a theory of repression).

Oddly, several of the participants in the symposium make use of Freud’s idea of deferred effect not only without acknowledging its origin in the seduction theory but as if to challenge the value of that theory. Jacob Arlow, in a paper later in the book, for example, heavily accents that idea that "Trauma is not inherent in the nature of any experience alone" (p. 126). His rhetoric and tone clearly imply that he thinks that with this emphasis he is providing a critique of the seduction theory. He elaborates that early events or states of mind may be minimally consequential "until an event later in life supervenes, an event which by its nature resembles or confirms unconscious concepts and fantasies related to the original trauma. These secondary events in themselves constitute, as it were, a replication of the original trauma" (p. 126). But that is not a critique of the seduction theory, it is a version of the seduction theory itself.

Jay Greenberg is, in my opinion, among the best minds in psychoanalysis when it comes to putting issues in helpful contexts that deepen their meaning. But I am not persuaded by his attempt here to argue that seduction was one of a number of "broad organizing concepts," of which Freud used different versions throughout his career to frame his vision of human experience. Greenberg notes that in a letter to Fliess of December 12, 1897, two and a half months after the famous "I no longer believe in my neurotica" letter, Freud declares his confidence in the paternal etiology. To Greenberg, this "seems to imply that, despite what appears to be a total renunciation of his former views, Freud continued to believe that seductions of some sort were central to creating the disposition to hysteria. Could we say that Freud never gave up his belief in the idea of seduction itself, but that instead he pursued subtleties and ambiguities of a concept that he had once taken too literally?" (p. 72). While it is true that Freud never gave up his belief in the idea of seduction, the way he retained that idea, for the vast most part, was to either reduce purported events of seduction to fantasies of either maternal or paternal seduction (Freud 1959/1925, 1961/1931, 1964/1933) or to make events of seduction etiologically redundant and therefore nonconsequential as events, as in the Dora and Wolfman cases (Freud 1953/1905, 1955/1918). (See Ahbel-Rappe, 2006, 2009). Greenberg basically gives a more imaginative version of the currently popular idea that Freud never doubted the occurrence of infantile seduction, and never discounted its etiological value. Alas, close study of Freud’s texts does not bear this out.

Both Good and Greenburg conclude their essays with approving nods to Jean LaPlanche’s revision of Freud’s seduction theory into what LaPlanche calls a general theory of seduction. LaPlanche’s idea is that human sexuality is constituted through what we might call an intersubjective unconscious, through the child’s failed translation of enigmatic sexual messages that are sent from parent to child and that are unconscious to the parents themselves. This is not seen as a pathological process per se but rather as the very way sexuality is constituted. This is a compelling view, to my mind. But in elaborating this theory, LaPlanche not only turns away from consideration of the problem of actual sexual abuse, he finds it necessary to disparage and even mock psychoanalytic attention to the specific miscarriage of this constitutive "seduction" that sexual abuse is.

This disavowal repeats the way Freud abandoned his start on a specifically psychoanalytic theory of infantile sexual abuse when he turned to a general theory of human sexuality, rather than allowing the two to illuminate each other. We have not altogether overcome a certain litmus test according to which real psychoanalysts, or at least real psychoanalytic theories, do not have to do with sexual abuse. (To get a few caricatures out of the way, presumably no psychoanalyst thinks that is all we have to do with; no psychoanalyst thinks, per the seduction theory in its original form, that an event of infantile sexual abuse is a necessary condition for psychopathology; no psychoanalyst thinks that referencing sexual abuse is a sufficient account even in cases in which it has occurred).

The papers and discussions in the rest of the book (which I shall consider as a whole) tend to use the seduction theory as a launching point for more general concerns. Parts II and III are constituted by a number of papers addressing "Analysts at work with patients whose lives are characterized by the traumas of everyday life" and "Analysts at work with severely traumatized patients". (They are followed by two concluding papers and Good’s postscript). Arnold Cooper leads off by declaring that "the actual topic of this conference is trauma—seduction being one version of it that Freud stumbled on early in his career" (p. 111). One of the valuable insights we can derive from Freud’s original seduction theory, and one which is still undervalued today in my opinion, is that patients whose lives seem to be characterized and even determined by a variety of kinds of "traumas of everyday life" may have experienced earlier and more consequential sexual trauma of which they are unconscious . As Greenberg helpfully outlines in his essay, it was Freud’s puzzlement as to why so many relatively minor experiences, and so many different kinds of them, could seem to be so etiologically potent that led Freud from the general trauma theory in Studies of Hysteria to the more specific seduction theory in the first place. Thus, I think the rush to redefine the seduction theory as part of a general theory of trauma misses the opportunity to think about what may be distinctively pathogenic about early infantile sexual trauma. Let me be clear with my view here: sexual abuse is trauma, no doubt. But it is not just one trauma among others.

As one might expect, the problem of reconstructing the past figures prominently in the papers and discussions on trauma. A number of the participants (including Anna Ornstein, Marylou Lionells, Scott Dowling, Steven Mitchell) argue for what we might call reconstruction with an emphasis on context. These authors stress that any event, including a traumatic event as reconstructed, has to be understood in a context or multiple contexts, and that what is reconstructed may itself be not only events of the past but the contexts, both intra- and inter-personal, that are theorized and discovered to be significant in having shaped and still shaping the meaning and impact of those events. I presume (I hope) that all psychoanalysts agree with that.

Several other papers reject the reconstructive task, for reasons of a basic sort of epistemological skepticism. Jacob Arlow and Robert Michel say that we cannot know what really happened to analysands in the past, with the clear implication that it is useless to try. Peter Fonagy specifically suggests that it is not valuable to know what has happened in patients’ pasts, even if we could. What we need to come to know, according to Fonagy, is people’s implicit, "procedural" models of relating. These are knowable in the transference, and any "mere remembering of events" is itself the "consequence of the lived experience in the transference and incidental to any therapeutic effect" (p. 208, my emphasis). As a discussant, Glen Gabbard agrees with Fonagy that the patient’s past unfolds in the transference–countertransference and "no excavation is required to study it" (p. 228). While Good does not openly reject reconstruction, his preoccupation is with the question whether reconstructions are verifiable and, more broadly, whether a seduction theory is a testable theory. His stance, in effect, is skeptical.

In response to these anti-reconstructive positions, Mitchell and Steven Ellman make different versions of the point that once we cast the net of skepticism, it has a far reach indeed. Do we "know" what our patients unconscious conflicts are? Do we "know" just what is happening in the transference? To my mind the fact of the limits on our knowing mark the beginning, not the end, of the project of reconstruction. The conclusions of reconstructive work, to the extent to which such work is relevant in any particular analyses) are not epistemological certainties and are typically not verifiable. We do not tell analysands what happened to them (another caricature purveyed by Arlow and Michels). Rather we engage with them in a process of open enquiry and exploration, and work together toward the most truth about the past that we can imagine. That is the stance I believe Freud was trying to take on the matter in 1896. We need careful distinctions between continuous conscious memory, the arrival of remembering after not remembering, reconstruction without an attendant experience of remembering, etc. The reconstructive project, properly conceived, involves all of these kinds of "recall" or "recovery" of the past in the relationship constituted by an analyst and an analysand. I heartily agree with Fonagy that much of what comes to be known of the past in psychoanalysis is something I might call relational forms of experience (his procedural models) that are recognized in the transference–countertransference relationship. But I emphatically disagree with Fonagy in this way: In a complete analysis, "knowledge" of these forms of experience is not an endpoint. Rather the discovery of these forms via the relational couple facilitates the recovery of autobiographical memory, and the recovery of autobiographical memory then facilitates further procedural knowledge, and so the circle of recovery goes.

Leonard Shengold, to highlight the obvious, has been a crucial figure in calling psychoanalysts to the theoretical and clinical aid of victims of severe early childhood trauma, including sexual trauma. His must-read chapter gives due and disciplined respect to the uncertainty patients and analysts always face when they take on the task of reconstruction. Such uncertainty, I would add, is a fact of psychoanalytic life, of human epistemic life. But in this paper Shengold emphasizes the critical point that the questions "did something bad happen in my past?" or sometimes more specifically, "Was I sexually abused?" become urgent in some analyses because they are or become urgent questions for the analysand. For them, to be sure, it is not the "mere remembering" of events that has therapeutic effect but the analyst’s willingness to share in the epistemological and existential burdens involved in trying to know and hoping to be. The outcome of such a parternship for the analysand, when it goes well-enough, is not epistemological "certainty" but what I would  rather call phenomenological confidence in herself/himself as the teller of the truth of her/his personal history.

Ellman, like Fonagy and Gabbard, seems to suggest that a focus on the past distracts from the lived world of transference and countertransference. Any method, of course, can be misused defensively. But, as I suggested above, when things go well, psychoanalytic reconstructive work occurs in the context of a productive interrelation of transference-countertransference and reconstruction: the analytic relationship is a vital source of information for the reconstructive effort and what is reconstructed comes alive in and folds back into the analytic relationship. Analyst and analysand live through this circle, or spiral, together again and again and again. Indeed, there is no such thing in psychoanalysis as "mere remembering" but always and only vital processes of remembering and reconstructing that are deeply located in the analytic situation.

The Seduction Theory in the Twenty-First Century offers one opportunity to explore what is at stake with the seduction theory and the question of its contemporary relevance from a variety of perspectives. It is one go at making that landscape more clear. A deep engagement with the volume can help a reader understand better whether and how she or he wants to take a stand within it.

Karen Ahbel-Rappe


Ahbel-Rappe, K. (2006). "I no longer believe:" Did Freud abandon the seduction theory?. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 54: 171-199.

Ahbel-Rappe, K. (2009). "After a long pause:" How to read Dora as history. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 57: 595-620.

Freud, S. (1896). The aetiology of hysteria. In J. Strachey (ed. and trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, 3:191-221. London: Hogarth Press, 1962 (Original work published in 1896)

Freud, S. (1905). Fragment of an analysis of a case of hysteria. In J. Strachey (ed. and trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, 7:7-122. London: Hogarth Press, 1953 (Original work published in 1905)

Freud, S. (1918). From the history of an infantile neurosis. In J. Strachey (ed. and trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, 17: 3-24. London:Hogarth Press, 1955 (Original work published in 1918)

Freud, S. (1925). An autobiographical study. In J. Strachey (ed. and trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, 20:7-74. London: Hogarth Press, 1959 (Original work published in 1925)

Freud, S. (1931). Female sexuality. In J. Strachey (ed. and trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, 21:225-243. London: Hogarth Press, 1961 (Original work published in 1931)

Freud, S. (1933). Femininity. In J. Strachey (ed. and trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, 22;112-135. London: Hogarth Press, 1964 (Original work published in 1933)


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