Castration Anxiety in Jonathan Swift 3: The Psychological Context


Epicurus proposed that the universe was made up of two states of being; forms and voids. These two states make up everything and are opposites but equal. The form is solid and the void is the gaps which solids move into. The void is not the absence of form and it is not nothing, it is a real yet intangible state. It is a substance like form, it is not ‘non-being’ (Solmsen, 1977, p. 264). Void is a place not a space. This is an important distinction to make as in Epicurean thought, a space is an area of nothingness, of non-substance, but a place is the substance which can be occupied. Even when it is not occupied it is still defined as place because it has the capacity to be inhabited. It can exist independently of form and is not defined by it. The sexual gendering of form and void is crude but clear. The male form and the female void are independent states but equal, the female should not be defined by how she differs from a male. English society distorted this inherent equality of form and void in its social system by establishing male dominance of the void.This gave men the ability to claim power over women.The subsequent attempt made by women to reclaim ownership of the void was an attempt to restore equality and balance leading to an anxiety on the part of men.

Epicurus considered the void to be an area of creation, an interesting concept when one considers how men in the eighteenth century thought of their private chambers as areas of creativity and the womb also being an area of genesis. As voids are the places around which forms are enabled to move, it is this movement that sparks creation. The movement of atoms creates more advanced bodies. This is inherently gendered and sexual.

Epicurus considered the void unable to be filled, it could only be occupied. This independence of the void and its unconquerable nature leaves the male dominance over the physical void, women, and the cultural void, private space, not an absolute state.


Sigmund Freud’s theory of castration anxiety puts forward the idea that young boys harbour sexual desires towards their mother and are afraid of punishment from their father (Freud, 1953, p. 238). This punishment manifests itself as a ‘threatened castration’, (Freud, 1953, p. 341). The implications of accepting such a reading of psychological development are that an underlying fear of women could be manifested as the mother is responsible for the first confrontation in a boy’s life. The sexual act itself is further responsible for the castration and creates in the infant mind a concept of the dangerous vagina. This fear over loss of the penis and the inherent danger of the vagina is apparently compounded when female genitals are viewed for the first time. Freud believed that a boy would see a vagina and be ‘convinced of the absence of a penis’ (Freud, 1953, p. 318).

Penis envy operates on the notion that girls believe their lack of a penis is because they used to have one but it was castrated. Freud put forward the fanciful notion that young girls ‘feel at a disadvantage and humiliated’ by their lack of a penis, they may even ‘try to urinate standing upright… in order to prove the equality which they lay claim to’ (Freud, 1953, p. 278). Sex is then used as a way to reclaim their lost penis, sometimes taking the form of desiring pregnancy, the product of sex, instead of a penis (Freud, 1953, p. 278). Fanciful or not, this can be compared to the quest for female independence from men looked at in the previous chapter and how it can be read as women attempting to claim for themselves what was seen as a male privilege. It can be seen that while Freud exposed his own neurosis in his explanations for behaviour, that behaviour did indeed exist.

Freudian concepts of dangerous female sexuality have appeared throughout myth and folklore and tend to centre on the Epicurean female void and castration anxiety. Both Brewer’sDictionary of Phrase and Fable and Funk and WagnallsStandard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend evidence its presence in various societies over time (Leach, 1950, p. 1152). The myth is described as ‘an image of dangerously predatory female sexuality’ (Ayto, 2005, p. 1,438), and manifests as a fear of teeth in the vagina, waiting to castrate any penis which enters. The myth typifies the strength of women in their personal interiors and its danger to men by reducing the concept down to its most basic elements of male and female identity and their gender specific body parts. The danger that the female interior void presents to men and its manifestation in castration anxiety is demonstrated through the folklore surrounding the myth of vagina dentata.

As modern Western society has become more secular, many people rely on experts in specific knowledge to explain the world to us. Expert opinions are often taken as read because most people do not have the expertise required to challenge received wisdom.The matter of mythology has transformed into a scientific discourse, evidenced by the ways in which the old myth of vagina dentata has emerged in medical discourse.

The Western world has been steadily standardising reality since the 1920s with the creation of the International Organisation for Standardisation. This led to the transformation in the language of myth from cautionary tales to medical discourse. The increasing number of experts in ever more specific areas of knowledge within our society,where experts shape and define the limits of the reality we experience, has left people entirely dependent on these experts to shape their actions.

The phenomenon of penis captivus has been created to fill the void left by the demythologising of society. Penis captivus is a condition in which the penis is locked into the vagina during intercourse because the muscles in the vaginal walls contract and become paralysed in that state causing the penis to swell (Taylor, 1979, p. 977). This demonstrates aspects of changes in the male body being blamed solely on women, thus demonising them. It is however extremely rare, with Taylor unaware of any instances in the twentieth century, and believing it to ‘have vanished perhaps completely’ (Taylor, 1979, p. 977). From what little is known of it, mostly coming from hearsay and rumour, the penis is either held entirely captive or can be removed at considerable pain to both partners (Taylor, 1979, p. 977). Second hand accounts often emphasise the embarrassing and illicit nature of the situation: a young couple having premarital sex or an unfaithful spouse (Brunvand, 2012, p. 621). The message is clear: don’t have sex you shouldn’t be having, not only because you might get caught, but with the further implication that illicit sex might even be considered a cause of the affliction (Taylor, 1979, p. 977).

The fact that penis captivus has its own name and definition, when it is just an action centred form of vaginismus (Taylor, 1979, p.978), shows the social prevalence of castration anxiety as men have to define a condition afflicting women by how it can affect men.By moving focus away from the female and onto the male, the female becomes a danger instead of someone suffering from a medical condition. Medical evidence is used to demonstrate the dangerous female and how her interior void is a danger to men, and this is unquestioned because of the experts involved in propagating the myth. Male castration anxiety is so strong that it can redefine a victim as an offender. The ill woman is painted by medical experts as some kind of succubus, using sex to trap the penis. The scientific zeitgeist of twentieth-century Europe has found a medical explanation for the danger women apparently pose to men. When discourse was religious, priests warned against the danger to the soul, when discourse was mythological young people were warned against vagina dentata and now the discourse is medical, we are presented with penis captivus. In all cases women have a private and hidden void which is entirely theirs by virtue of birth, and in all cases this void presents a danger, spiritual or physical, to men.

There are medical accounts of vagina dentata as ‘The female reproductive anatomy can, and occasionally does, grow teeth,’ (Angel, 2013). The teeth in question are not actual teeth, but calcium build ups which can resemble teeth, called calcium terratoma. These terratomacan form anywhere in the body and if the accumulations occur in the vagina, sex can become uncomfortable and painful for both partners (Gupta et al, 2000) leading to the cautionary aspects of warning against sex in the mythic retelling. It may be stretching credulity too far to suggest that a combination of the rare condition vaginismus and the even scarcer calcinosis could occur co-morbidly in individuals across the world and create the myth of vagina dentate as Gemma Angel acknowledges. The reality of the two conditions, independent of each other, could touch on the innate human fear of the unknown and cause castration anxiety. This anxiety over hidden dangers is an evolutionary measure, introduced to a species and responsible for keeping it from harm. When such an intrinsic human instinct is confronted with abnormal calcium clusters and inescapable vaginas, castration anxiety becomes subconsciously prominent. When added to this instinct there is also a social system in which men are in control and anxious to remain so, the unknowable other becomes a threat and the ‘potentially dangerous sexuality of women’ must be rendered ‘nonthreatening to patriarchal power’ (Angel, 2013).

Freudian anxieties over dangerous female sexuality and its manifestations in myth and folklore have continued to the present day and appeared as themes in popular culture outlets. A low budget American exploitation film from 2006,Teeth gave its own version of the vagina dentata myth. The intended audience of Teeth were teenagers and its function is as a cautionary tale warning against pre-marital or promiscuous sex. The film Teeth demonstrates the trope of the dangerous female interior and vagina dentata very well. The subject of the controversial nature of teen sex and pre-marital sex is introduced with the main character Dawn, who is a Christian and a spokesperson for abstinence, who develops vagina dentata as an instinctive response to sexual aggression. With this plot devicethe message then becomes a warning against sexual violence,with the first castration occurring as a defensive measure for Dawn who is being raped. After this the warning focuses on the danger of women to men as the vagina dentata changes from a defensive measure to an offensive weapon. The move from victim to aggressor has similarities with the re-definition of afflicted to afflicter in medical presentations of penis captivus. It is presenting a female problem and focusing on the effect on men and not on the woman suffering. Later in the film, Dawn’s mother dies after collapsing because her stepson does not stop having sex to help her, here again the motif of sex as danger is present. Dawn then deliberately seduces her stepbrotherin order to castrate him, moving from victim to offender. It is her choice. She again chooses this at the end of the film with the coda effectively amounting to a demonstration of the danger female sexuality poses to men (Teeth, 2006).

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