Literature Study GuidesThe Second SexVolume 1 Part 1 Chapter 2 Summary

The Second Sex | Study Guide

Simone de Beauvoir

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The Second Sex | Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 2 : Facts and Myths (Destiny) | Summary



Beauvoir opens her criticism of this chapter, titled "The Psychoanalytical Point of View," noting that "Freud was not very concerned with woman's destiny." Taking up Freud's notion that the libido, the sex drive, is masculine whether it occurs in a man or woman, Beauvoir returns to her theme of radical difference between the sexes, and closes with radical similarity of opportunity between them. She recalls the Freudian distinctions: for the boy, sexual development is genitally organized and he needs to move only from auto-eroticism to a heteroerotic attitude. Girls, however, do not complete their development until they move in a more complicated process from clitoral to vaginal orgasm. In this sense, for Freud, the woman "runs a greater risk of not completing her sexual development." Alfred Adler goes beyond Freud, substituting motives and goals for sex drives, not to discount the role of sexuality, but to assimilate sex drives and life's practical desires. Adler, however, emphasizes a woman's shame of her femininity, noting that her inferiority complex, and her sense of male privilege and superiority, limits her. Proof is recorded in the woman's coital position underneath the man, an additional "humiliation." The girl's drama thus operates somewhere between her "viriloid," and her "feminine" tendencies. Viriloid is drawn from viril, or masculine sexual potency.


Systematically disabling the psychoanalytic reliance on sexuality as the basis of personality and the accompanying insistence on anatomy as destiny, Beauvoir comments on the psychoanalytic recognition of difference with respect to masculine and feminine behaviors, of which, she insists, both sexes are capable. Finally, making a myth of psychoanalytic narratives, and preferring choice over psychoanalytic determinism, she notes that a girl climbing a tree is not emulating her father, nor is she exhibiting virile behavior when she paints, writes, or engages in politics. These activities are not only "good sublimations," but "ends desired in themselves." Sublimation here provides an unusual comment on sexual energy and the creation of art. For the psychoanalyst, sublimation is the substitution of an acceptable and creative act such as making art for an impulsive and likely sexually inappropriate one, an unconscious conversion of sexual energy. One might say that a dollop of talent and a burst of sexual energy constitute genius.

Moreover, the young girl, torn between "viriloid" and "feminine" tendencies, and required by psychoanalysis to identify with her father or her mother, is conceived by the author as hesitating "between the role of object ... that is proposed to her and her claim for freedom." For us, Beauvoir says, "woman is defined as a human being in search of values."

Freud's major French commentator, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan—whose lectures Beauvoir attended—refurbished Freud's reputation when he brought the notion of the girl's unresolved sexuality into the late 1950s. Lacan's positive assessment of the developmental hesitations Freud labeled "infantile" and "incomplete" in girls is a significant revision. He certified that those who combine the traits of "incomplete" development, more typical of girls but distributed across individuals, are capable of living in search of values. It is not clear whether Lacan's reiteration of Freud demonstrates a change in value across time or a situation in which the preferred trait arises from something "incomplete," or unresolved. Analogously, the notion of transcendence borrowed from historical materialism, in Beauvoir's analysis, has to do with the unfinished nature of striving: the ethical life developing from concerted moves beyond succeeding freedoms.

Most riveting in this analysis is Beauvoir's assertion that the woman's sexual initiation begins in trauma. That is, Freud talks about the difficulty for the woman in shifting from the clitoral orgasm to the vaginal orgasm. But it is Beauvoir who makes the point that deflowering is a rape. Developmentally, two things are important in this insight. First, sexual initiation is traumatic for women in the way it is not for men, and second, the women's sexual initiation necessarily begins with a masculine intervention. There is a good deal of discussion of sexual frigidity in the text, as Beauvoir's insights wash the romance from sexual initiation and take up the conventionally unspoken aspects of experience that are foundational to identity and perspective.

In the meantime, Beauvoir has rhetorically put her arm around the shoulders of her readers, saying we and us, making community for readers of all sexes. This is community of the sort that she studied in "The Introduction," one made of subordinates, ethnic Others, who find their individuality in resistance. Thus the feminist finds her model in the lives of racially identified Others, in retrieving—hopefully celebrating—individuality and the specifics of difference in their community.

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