Freud and Seduction Theory

Sigmund Freud (JPG) The preeminent psychiatrist Sigmund Freud wrote that all incest memories were false. In other words, that incest never happens — but it does.1

Incest has been cited as the most common form of child abuse. Studies conclude that 43 percent (43%) of the children who are abused are abused by family members, 33 percent (33%) are abused by someone they know, and the remaining 24 percent (24%) are sexually abused by strangers (Hayes, Robert. (1990, Summer). "Child Sexual Abuse." Crime Prevention Journal). Other research indicates that over 10 million Americans have been victims of incest.2

The Sexual Assault Resource Center reports that one in three girls and one in five boys will be sexually assaulted by the time they are 16 years old [John N. Briere, Child Abuse Trauma (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992); Diana E. Russell, The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1986)],3iii Fewer than 10 percent of child sexual abuse cases are reported to authorities.4 A typical reaction of someone who has been sexually assaulted is denial that the abuse occurred and a great desire to forget about the incident [Darke, J. L. (1990). Sexual Aggression: Achieving Power through Humiliation, in Handbook of Sexual Assault: Issues, Theories, and Treatment of the Offender, W.L. Marshall, D.R. Laws, and H.E. Barbaree (eds.). Plenum Press, New York, NY, 60].5 Studies report that the average age of remembering childhood incest is between 29 and 49.6

A controversy has arisen in recent years over Freud’s abandonment of his seduction theory of the origin of psychological disorder.… Freud eventually “realized” that the accounts he was hearing from patients weren’t literally true. The women weren’t seduced as children. Rather, they had unconsciously distorted their own sexual desires for their parents into a symbolic form and projected itoutward [sic].

That’s the way Freud put it — that he’d realized the truth. In 1984, however, an analyst named Jeffrey Masson strongly challenged this statement. Masson had reread a long series of letters between Freud and his friend and colleague Wilhelm Fliess (Masson was editing the letters for publication). Partly on the basis of previously upublished [sic] parts of these letters, Masson argued that the seductions were in fact real, that Freud had known it, and that Freud had chosen — eventually — to ignore their reality.

Masson holds that Freud lacked the courage to bring to light a shameful truth: that violent child sexual abuse actually was widespread.iii Freud apparently was in a position to know that this was so. He owned books from the literature of legal medicine on the subject of childhood rape (Masson, J. M. (1984). The assault on truth. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux). He had attended autopsies where he’d seen something “of which medical science preferred to take no notice.” And Masson found that some of those autopsies may have been conducted on children who’d been raped and then murdered.

Why would Freud lack the courage to stand up for his theory if he believed it? Two possible reasons stand out. One concerns Freud’s professional reputation. His first presentation of the seduction theory, in a speech to a professional society, was met with utter silence. He was later urged not to publish it. By pointing to upsetting realities, Freud risked becoming an outcast in his profession. He needed a way out, to salvage his fast vanishing career prospects.iv

The second issue concerned Freud’s friendship with Fliess. Masson claims there’s evidence that Fliess molested his own son. Thus, even as Freud was forming the view that psychological disturbance stems from sexual abuse, the person to whom he confided these ideas was guilty of precisely such abuse. Masson believes that Freud eventually came to realize this. Given these two pressures, says Masson, Freud was forced to banish the evidence of childhood seduction from his own consciousness.

Masson also argues that seduction is an extremely unfortunate label for this theory and that the word is not at all typical of Freud’s first statement of the theory, in which he also used the terms rape, abuse, attack, assault, aggression, and trauma. It’s ironic that even as the theory was being set aside, a preferential use of the term seduction has made the theory’s implications seem more benign. Perhaps this terminology represents yet one last defense against a truly unacceptable truth.

What really was the truth? We obviously can’t return to Freud’s era and investigate the rate of child abuse at the time. On the other hand, it has become clear that child sexual abuse today is far more common than once believed (Finkelhor, D., & Dziuba Leatherman, J. (1994). Victimization of children. American Psychologist, 49, 173 183; Trickett, P. K., & Putnam, F. W. (1993). Impact of child sexual abuse on females: Toward a developmental, psychobiological integration. Psychological Science, 4, 81 87).7

i Peak age of vulnerability is 7 to 13.
— Janet Kornblum, “Calls to sex abuse hotlines increase after scandal,” USA Today, 19 June 2002.

ii As many as 70 percent of the victims of sexual assault do not experience visible injury. This does not mean, however, that the trauma associated with the assault is insignificant. Victims who have no obvious physical injuries may experience extensive trauma related to the guilt associated with not having the physical injuries to prove that they resisted and are not “at fault” for the assault perpetrated on them. Indeed, some of the most devastating effects on victims include guilt, shame, embarrassment, powerlessness, fear, anger, and a sense of betrayal [Kilpatrick, D., Edmonds, C., & Seymour, A. (1992). Rape in America: A Report to the Nation. Charleston: National Victim Center and Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center, Medical University of South Carolina, 4].
— “Section 1: Supervisions Of Sex Offenders In The Community: An Overview,” Center for Sex Offender Management’s (CSOM), at

iii It is not surprising that the existence of widespread child abuse throughout history has been viewed with disbelief [See Lloyd deMause, “On Writing Childhood History,” The Journal of Psychohistory 16(1988): 135-171].… No child in antiquity and the middle ages can be found who escaped severe physical abuse-at home, at school, in apprenticeship, all suffered from “battered child syndrome,” from infancy until adolescence. The Old Testament not only demands beating children, it says children who curse their mother or father “shall surely be put to death” and of stubborn sons, “All the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones” [Deut. 21:21].…

Meladze describes his experiences in a Communist-run foster home in Moscow recently as follows:

Children were regularly stripped naked and their genitals ridiculed…The foster parents deriving sexual gratification and feelings of power from these weekly rituals.…Psychological torture and brainwashing were interspersed with sexual abuse. The aunt, the primary torturer, slept in a double bed with her mother. I slept in between the two. In the evening, before bed, the great aunt would undress in front of me and ask me if I wanted to suck her breasts…The aunt stripped off my pajamas and laughed at my genitals shouting she would castrate me: “We will cut your balls off and make you into a girl” [Victor Meladze, Beneath the Hammer. The Journal of Psychohistory 27(1999): 45, 50].…

In America, “more than fifty percent of eight- to ten-year-old daughters touched their mother’s…genitals [and] more than forty percent of eight- to ten-year-old sons touched their mother’s genitals…" [A. A. Rosenfeld, et al., “Determining Contact Between Parent and Child: Frequency of Children Touching Parents’ Genitals in a Non-Clinical Population.” Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry 25(1986): 229].

The best studies of incidence of sexual molestation of children are those of American adults conducted by Wyatt and Russell [Gail Elizabeth Wyatt, “The Sexual Abuse of Afro-American and White Women in Childhood.” Child Abuse and Neglect 9(1985): 507-19; Diana E. H. Russell, The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women. New York: Gasic Books, 1986], both based upon face-to-face interviews lasting from one to eight hours, so that time is allowed for the trust necessary for accurate recall. Russell found 38 percent and Wyatt 45 percent of women interviewed reported memories of sexual abuse during their childhood. In my article “The Universality of Incest,” I corrected these figures to reflect the major biases in their studies-their population does not include groups who have far higher than average sexual molestation experiences, such as criminals, prostitutes, the mentally ill, etc.; they neither count those who refused to be interviewed; and they did not count either those who might have suppressed conscious memories nor did they allow for the possibility of unconscious memories, which most early molestation produces. Adjusting for these factors, I posited a 60 percent rate of sexual abuse for girls. Using Landis’ figures on men, I posited a 45 percent rate of sexual abuse for boys [Judson T. Landis, “Experiences of 500 Children with Adult’s Sexual Deviance.” Psychiatric Quarterly Supplement 30(1956): 91-109]. The average age of the child molested was only 7 years old [Kathleen A. Kendall-Tackett and Arthur F. Simon, “Molestation and the Onset of Puberty: Data From 365 Adults Molested As Children.” Child Abuse and Neglect 12(1988): 73], the average duration of abuse was 5 years [Henry B. Bill and Richard S. Solomon, Child Maltreatment and Paternal Deprivation. Lexington: Lexington Books, 1986, p. 59], and boys were more often molested by females while girls were more often molested by males [M. Fromuth, “Childhood Sexual Victimization Among College Men.” Violence and Victim 2(1987): 241-253; G. Fritz et al., “A Comparison of Males and Females Who Were Sexually Molested as Children.” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy 7(1981): 54-59]. The only comparable studies from interviews were a Canadian Gallup study, a York University study and two British surveys, all four of which conclude with incidence rates the same or higher than the U.S. studies [R. F. Badgley, Sexual Offenses Against Children. 2 Vols. Ottawa: Canadian Government Publishing Centre, 1984; D. J. West, Ed., Sexual Victimisation: Two Recent Researches Into Sex Problems and Their Social Effects. Aldershot: Hants, 1985; Judy Steed, Our Little Secret: Confronting Child Sexual Abuse in Canada. Toronto: Random House of Canada, 1994, p. xii]. Non-statistical studies of sexual molestation in other countries indicate the likelihood of rates being even higher [Lloyd deMause, “The Universality of Incest,” pp. 140-164].
— Lloyd deMause, The Emotional Life of Nations, Chapter 8 — “The Evolution of Childrearing,” at

iv After much uproar by his contemporaries (many of whom were implicated as perpetrators), Freud denounced the seduction theory and replaced it with the oedipal theory. The oedipal theory viewed incestuous accounts by victims as mere sexual fantasies. (Diana E. Russell, The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women (New York: Basic Books, Inc. Publishers, 1986), p. 4-6)
— Patricia D. McClendon, “Incest / Sexual Abuse of Children,” Pat McClendon’s Clinical Social Work, 23 Nov 1991, at


1 Jennifer James, “Confusion continues over repressed memories,” The Seattle Times, 22 Oct 1995, p. L2.

2 “Incest,” National Center for Victims of Crime, 1997, at,

3 Sarah Skidmore, “Back to school: Parents urged to discuss sex, safety,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 19 Aug 1999.

4 Vanessa Ho, “Child molesters often know victims,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 22 Oct 1997, 134(253), p. B4.

5 “Section 1: Supervisions Of Sex Offenders In The Community: An Overview,” Center for Sex Offender Management’s (CSOM), at

6 FMS Foundation Newsletter, Vol 2 No. 1, January 8, 1993, at

7 Charles S. Carver & Michael F. Scheier, Perspectives on Personality, 3rd ed. (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1996), p. 250.

See also

See Jeffrey Masson and Freud’s seduction theory: a new fable based on old myths for a rebuttal of Masson’s work
Child Sexual Abuse
Memories of Abuse
Traumagenic Dynamics
Child Sexual Abuse Conspiracy
Sigmund Freud (JPG)