Oral Fixation: Freud on thumbsucking as the road to darker pleasures


We will take thumbsucking (pleasure sucking) as a model of the infantile sexual manifestations.

Thumbsucking, which manifests itself in the nursing baby and which may be continued till maturity or throughout life, consists in a rhythmic repetition of sucking contact with the mouth (the lips), wherein the purpose of taking nourishment is excluded. A part of the lip itself, the tongue, which is another preferable skin region within reach—and even the big toe—may be taken as objects for sucking. Simultaneously, there is also a desire to grasp things, which manifests itself in a rhythmical pulling of the earlobe and which may cause the child to grasp a part of another person (generally the ear) for the same purpose. The pleasure sucking is connected with an entire exhaustion of attention and leads to sleep or even to a motor reaction in the form of an orgasm. Pleasure sucking is often combined with a rubbing contact with certain sensitive parts of the body, such as the breast and external genitals. It is by this road that many children go from thumbsucking to masturbation.

In the nursery, thumbsucking is often treated in the same way as any other sexual “naughtiness” of the child. A very strong objection was raised against this view by many pediatricians and neurologists that in part is certainly due to the confusion of the terms sexual and genital. This contradiction raises the difficult question, which cannot be rejected, namely, in what general traits do we wish to recognize the sexual manifestations of the child. I believe that the association of the manifestations into which we gained an insight through psychoanalytic investigation justify us in claiming thumbsucking as a sexual activity and in studying through it the essential features of the infantile sexual activity.

It is our duty here to arrange this state of affairs differently. Let us insist that the most striking character of this sexual activity is that the impulse is not directed against other persons but that it gratifies itself on its own body. We will say that it is autoerotic.

The Prodigal Son, by Émile Salomé, 1863. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille, France. Giraudon, The Bridgeman Art Library.

It is moreover clear that the action of the thumbsucking child is determined by the fact that it seeks a pleasure that has already been experienced and is now remembered. Through the rhythmic sucking on a portion of the skin or mucus membrane it finds the gratification in the simplest way. It is also easy to conjecture on what occasions the child first experienced this pleasure which it now strives to renew. The first and most important activity in the child’s life, the sucking from the mother’s breast (or its substitute), must have acquainted it with this pleasure. We would say that the child’s lips behaved like an erogenous zone, and that the excitement through the warm stream of milk was really the cause of the pleasurable sensation. To be sure, the gratification of the erogenous zone was at first united with the gratification of taking nourishment. Anyone who sees a satiated child sink back from the mother’s breast and fall asleep with reddened cheeks and blissful smile will have to admit that this picture remains as typical of the expression of sexual gratification in later life. But the desire for repetition of the sexual gratification is separated from the desire for taking nourishment—a separation that becomes unavoidable with the appearance of the teeth when the nourishment is no longer sucked in but chewed. The child does not make use of a strange object for sucking but prefers its own skin because it is more convenient, because it thus makes itself independent of the outer world that it cannot yet control, and because in this way it creates for itself, as it were, a second, even if an inferior, erogenous zone. The inferiority of this second region urges it later to seek the same parts, the lips of another person. (“It is a pity that I cannot kiss myself,” might be attributed to it.)

Not all children suck their thumbs. It may be assumed that it is found only in children in whom the erogenous significance of the lip zone is constitutionally reinforced. Children in whom this is retained are habitual kissers as adults and show a tendency to perverse kissing, or as men they have a marked desire for drinking and smoking. But if repression comes into play, they experience disgust for eating and evince hysterical vomiting. By virtue of the community of the lip zone, the repression encroaches upon the impulse of nourishment. Many of my female patients showing disturbances in eating, such as globus hystericus, choking sensations, and vomiting, have been energetic thumbsuckers during infancy.

From the example of thumbsucking we may gather a great many points useful for the distinguishing of an erogenous zone. It is a portion of skin or mucus membrane in which the stimuluses produce a feeling of pleasure of definite quality. There is no doubt that the pleasure-producing stimuluses are governed by special determinants that we do not know. The rhythmic characters must play some part in them, and this strongly suggests an analogy to tickling. It does not, however, appear so certain whether the character of the pleasurable feeling evoked by the stimulus can be designated as “peculiar” and in what part of this peculiarity the sexual factor exists. Psychology is still groping in the dark when it concerns matters of pleasure and pain, and the most cautious assumption is therefore the most advisable. We may perhaps later come upon reasons that seem to support the peculiar quality of the sensation of pleasure.

― Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality

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