Freud's Seduction Theory - Allen Esterson

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Masson's 'Postscript' to the 1998 edition of The Assault on Truth fails to rebut the key points in the non-psychoanalytic critiques of his thesis. These are: (a) Freud's patients in the mid-1890s did not report that they had been sexually abused in early childhood. On the contrary, he employed a coercive quasi-hypnotic clinical procedure to try to induce his patients to provide evidence to corroborate his preconceived theory that hysteria and obsessional neurosis were caused by unconscious memories of sexual excitation in infancy (Esterson: 1998: 3-7).1 (b) Freud's later story that in the case of almost all his female patients at that time the father was implicated as the "seducer" is contradicted by the documentary evidence (Esterson 1998: 9-10). (c) The story propagated by Freud (SE 14: 21-2; SE 20: 48), and repeated by Masson (1984: 12), that in the late 1890s he was ostracized by his colleagues has been shown by Ellenberger (1970: 448) and Sulloway (1979: 462-4) to be without foundation (Esterson 1998: 11-12).2

The following is a point by point rebuttal of Masson's arguments in his 1998 'Postscript':

(i) p. 321: Masson writes that Richard Webster (author of Why Freud Was Wrong), like a number of other scholars, claims that "Freud foisted these memories onto his patients; that in fact they are false memories". Webster and a number of investigators (Cioffi 1974, Schimek 1987, IsraŽls and Schatzman 1993, Esterson 1993, 1998) do not contend that the "sexual scenes" reported in the seduction theory period were, for the most part, "false memories". They contend that Freud's accounts of his procedure, and passages in the seduction theory papers, indicate that most of the patients had no 'memories' at all, and that what Freud tried to foist on these patients were his analytic reconstructions (Esterson 1998: 5-7), as, eg, in the G. de B. case (Masson 1985: 220; Esterson 1998: 6).3 In so far as they had 'memories' these seem to have been images or re-enactments, conjured up under the influence of the quasi-hypnotic pressure technique, which Freud interpreted as the requisite "sexual scenes" (Borch-Jacobsen 1996: 31-3).

(ii) p.321: Masson asserts that we do not possess enough documentary evidence of precisely how Freud conducted his therapy at that time. While it is true we can't know exactly what happened between Freud and his patients in the seduction theory period (1895-8), descriptions of the "pressure technique" are given in considerable detail in Studies on Hysteria (1895) (Esterson 1998: 3-4). Freud also gave details of the technique, emphasizing his having to overcome "great resistance" from the patients, in a lecture delivered on 28 October 1895 (Schusdek 1966: 161).

(iii) p. 321: Masson claims that the Fliess correspondence indicates that from 1895-1900 Freud had patients of both kinds: those who remembered childhood sexual abuse during therapy, and those who had always remembered the abuse. (a) In relation to the seduction theory patients (1895-1898), it is extremely doubtful that they "remembered" early childhood sexual molestation during therapy in any legitimate sense of the word (Esterson 1998: 4-7). (b) In the letters to Fliess there is only one unequivocal example of a patient reporting childhood sexual abuse which was always remembered (28 April 1897, Masson 1985: 238). But in any case, in 'The Aetiology of Hysteria' (1896) Freud himself contradicts Masson's assertion: "With our patients, those memories [of infantile molestation] are never conscious....The scenes must be present as unconscious memories; only so long as, and in so far as, they are unconscious are they able to create and maintain hysterical symptoms" (SE 3: 211).

(iv) p. 321-2: Masson asserts that Webster is wrong to say there is no evidence that any of the patients who came to Freud without memories of sexual had ever suffered such abuse, and points out that Freud wrote he had been able to obtain objective confirmation in regard to two of the seduction theory cases. Examination of Freud's claims of objective corroboration shows that they do not withstand close scrutiny (Esterson 1998: 7-8).4

(v) p. 322: Masson takes Webster to task for treating the contention that "there is no evidence of abuse" as if it implied that abuse did not occur, and says Webster cannot know whether these women were abused or not. But of course one cannot prove a negative in this context; the onus is on those who contend there was abuse to demonstrate that the evidence is there.

(vi) p. 322, n1: Masson provides a quotation from Studies on Hysteria given in Webster's book concerning the pressure technique and points out that in this passage Freud is writing about conscious memories which have been ignored, not repressed memories of sexual abuse. It is true that the specific quotation from Studies is in the context of conscious ideas (not necessarily memories) which the patient is holding back. But Masson's argument here is disingenuous, because elsewhere in Studies Freud makes clear that the pressure technique was employed at all stages of the analysis, including to induce the recovery of traces of supposedly repressed memories or ideas (SE 2: 268, 270, 272, 276, 282). For example: "In every fairly complicated analysis the work is carried out by the repeated, indeed continuous, use of this procedure of the pressure on the forehead...sometimes, finally, as the climax of its achievement in the way of reproductive thinking, it causes thoughts to emerge which the patient will never recognize as his own, which he never remembers, although he admits that the context calls for them inexorably, and while he becomes convinced of precisely these ideas that are leading to the conclusion of the analysis and the removal of his symptoms" (ibid: 272). Masson also doesn’t take into account that when nothing comes into a patient's mind Freud often insists that something is there and the patient is resisting it; ie, what he means by resistance is often something beyond conscious resistance (ibid: 269-70; 271).

(vii) p. 322, n1: Masson writes of the case of the two sisters briefly alluded to in Studies on Hysteria (SE 2: 275-6) that "here is an example, which Webster claims does not exist in Freud, of a memory of sexual abuse that was not reconstructed or forgotten, and that was corroborated by a second witness". (a) Masson's assertion that the scene of sexual assault described in Freud's account was corroborated by a second witness is false. Freud makes no such statement. (Masson seems to be basing his assertion on his belief that the incident described by Freud had always been remembered by the patient, and that it also involved her sister. If so, he has an idiosyncratic notion of 'corroboration'.) (b) Masson asserts that the "memory of sexual abuse...was not reconstructed or forgotten". A careful reading of the passage in question indicates this is not the case. Freud describes how the sexual assault scene was arrived at after repeated and laborious application of the pressure technique, following the reporting of a non-sexual incident involving her sister which was clearly remembered. Since Freud states that the sexual assault was the cause of the patient's later pathology, the implication is that it had been forgotten, because the Breuer-Freud theory required that only forgotten events could cause psychopathology (SE 2: 269, 275).5 (N.B. This case, about which Freud wrote in Studies "I remember a lady...", was evidently well before the seduction theory period.) (c) Webster does not claim that there were no examples in Freud of a memory of sexual abuse which was always remembered. At one point he writes in the context of the seduction theory that "we must discount the possibility that the initial inspiration for this view [the postulate that hysteria results from repressed memories of sexual molestation in infancy] actually came from the memories of one or more of his patients" (Webster, 1995: 202). He is not denying that on occasion patients may have reported childhood sexual abuse; he is only saying that reports of remembered sexual abuse could not have provided Freud with evidence for the seduction theory, since that theory entails that only repressed memories of early childhood sexual excitation can be pathogenic, ie, 'memories' which could not have been reported spontaneously.6

(viii) p. 322-3: Masson writes that when Freud's critics claim he was naive and didn't know what he was doing to his patients, they ignore his explicit acknowledgment of the issue of suggestion and of physicians forcing memories on patients. It is true that critics have not, on the whole, taken up this point. (The issue is briefly touched upon by Cioffi[1974: 173] and Israels and Schatzman [1993: 44].) It is not true, however, that critics take the view that Freud was naive; rather that his treatment of the question of suggestibility was inadequate and tendentious, and his failure to genuinely address contemporary criticisms scientifically reprehensible. (For contemporary criticism of Freud's failure to allow for the effects of suggestion in his clinical practice, see Kiell 1988 [68, 74, 82] and LŲwenfeld 1899 [cited in IsraŽls and Schatzman 1993: 44].) Masson, characteristically, takes Freud's reassurances at their face value and treats his words as if they constituted hard evidence that he was guarding against the well-known dangers of suggestion. (This is in spite of the fact that Freud wrote that only under "the strongest compulsion of the treatment" did the patients "reproduce" the "sexual scenes" which his preconceived theory required [SE 3:204].) For instance, Freud wrote: "I have never yet succeeded in forcing on a patient a scene I was expecting to find, in such a way that he seemed to be living through it with all the appropriate feelings" (SE 3: 204-5). Putting aside that we have to take on trust Freud's interpretation of the patients' behaviour (that they were living through the scenes he was "expecting to find" [sic]), his answer begs the question at issue. How did he know that he had not forced scenes on his patients in this way?

Freud was aware that critics had warned that the procedure described in Studies could well lead to clinical 'findings' of dubious worth, and knew he had to address the issue in 'The Aetiology of Hysteria'. The passages Masson cites are, for the most part, examples of Freud's persuasive rhetoric rather than of his genuinely addressing the issue. It is a characteristic feature of Freud's writings that he raises challenges to his contentions and purports to rebut them, though careful scrutiny of his answers generally shows they are reliant more on his mastery of persuasive rhetoric than on valid argument (Esterson 1993: 163, 179-80, 188-90, 207-8).

Summary: Masson is unable to provide an adequate response to non-psychoanalytic challenges to his thesis in The Assault on Truth, and his attempt at a rebuttal in his 1998 'Postscript' will seem plausible only to those who have not had the opportunity of seeing the detailed critiques themselves.


1. In 1896 Freud wrote that "One only succeeds in awakening the psychical trace of a precocious sexual event under the most energetic pressure of the analytic procedure, and against an enormous resistance" (SE 2: 153). He also reported that "before they come for analysis the patients know nothing about these [sexual] scenes. They are indignant as a rule if we warn them such scenes are going to emerge" (204). Moreover, the patients "have no feeling of remembering the scenes" and "assure me emphatically of their unbelief" (204). In other words, it was Freud himself who, on the basis of preconceived theory, was convinced that his patients (including six men) had experienced sexual molestation, and his patients who were unbelieving. Note that the frequently recycled story that Freud was surprised by his patients' supposed accounts of sexual abuse is incompatible with his statement that "we warn" the patients that "sexual scenes" will emerge.

2. This essential element of Masson's thesis is contradicted by a footnote he himself provides in The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, where he writes that in 1897 a prestigious committee strongly recommended Freud for the position of professor extraordinarius and that a meeting of the medical Professorenkollegium in June of that year endorsed the recommendation by a majority of more than two to one, hardly the actions of outraged colleagues (Masson 1985: 231-2 n3). Another fact that tells against Masson's depiction of Freud's colleagues as being affronted by the idea that sexual abuse by fathers was widespread in their community is that fathers were not mentioned among the categories of supposed culprits in the 1896 seduction theory papers, nor did Freud ever make a public statement to that effect at that time. Again, Freud's change of mind about his theory in 1897-8 could not have been, as Masson suggests, motivated by a desire to ingratiate himself with his colleagues (Masson 1984 [1985]: xxviii), since he did not publicly announce his volte-face until 1906.

In The Assault on Truth Masson treats as hard evidence Freud’s somewhat paranoid words to Fliess that "word was given out to abandon me" (it is perhaps significant that Freud had been taking cocaine occasionally for some time), while failing to record that Freud had earlier reported he was following Fliess's advice that he isolate himself from his professional colleagues (Masson 1985: 185, 181). (This was before the 'Aetiology of Hysteria' lecture was delivered in April 1896.) It should be noted that Jones reports that throughout the 1890s Freud retained "an astonishingly wide circle of acquaintances, almost all being Jewish doctors" (Jones 1953: 365).

3. In the words of one of the few psychoanalysts prepared to acknowledge the implications of Freud's words in the original documents: "Freud's evidence had not come from spontaneous expressions by patients of their childhood sexual abuse but from his pressing his theory on them" (Tabin 1993: 291).

4. In one of the cases Freud acknowledged he did not have corroboration of any infantile sexual incidents, as the seduction theory required. He claimed confirmation by an older brother of sexual experiences with the patient in later childhood, but does not state that he received the information directly from the brother. In the other case Freud claimed in regard to two women he was treating the occurrence of "a particular evidence of what they had experienced in common" with the same man (SE 3: 206). From this it appears that the evidence was based on the symbolic interpretation of somatic symptoms, a highly controversial procedure. Moreover, Freud claimed corroboration of only two cases, and the latter report implies mutual corroboration by two women in addition to the first case. That he claimed confirmation in two, rather than three, cases raises a further question mark about the second supposed corroboration.

5. It is not absolutely clear that the scene of assault involving the patient and her sister was obtained from the patient herself in the form of a report. After she had told Freud about a non-sexual incident when her sister, at the age of twelve, "went raving mad" and was taken to the local asylum, Freud employed the pressure technique repeatedly and reported that "our oracle produced another series of words, which, though we were not able to interpret all of them, made it possible to continue this story and lead on from it to another one. Soon, moreover, the meaning of this reminiscence became clear" (SE 2: 276). He then recounts a childhood incident involving sexual assaults on the patient and her sister by "a certain man", and continues: "The mention of this sexual trauma in the patient's childhood revealed not only the origin of her first obsessions but also the trauma which subsequently produced the pathogenic effect." It is not entirely clear how this scene of sexual assault arose. It seems decidedly odd that Freud should refer to "the mention" ["Erwšhnung"] of the assault scene, rather than to "the reporting" or "the recollection" of it. As we have seen, in regard to the pressure technique he wrote that " causes thoughts to emerge which the patient will never recognize as his own, which he never remembers..." (ibid: 272, Freud’s emphasis).

6. Nor can it be argued that Freud was led to his theory by the uncovering of infantile sexual molestations in the course of analytic treatment, since he announced his theory to Fliess (in October 1895 [Masson 1985: 141, 144]) before he had reported a single specific case in which he claimed that sexual excitation in infancy played an aetiological role.


Borch-Jacobsen, M. (1996). 'Neurotica: Freud and the seduction theory.' October 76, October Magazine Ltd. and MIT, Spring 1996, pp. 15-43.

Cioffi, F. (1974). 'Was Freud a liar?', The Listener, 91, pp. 172-174. Reprinted in Freud and the Question of Pseudoscience, Chicago and La Salle: Open Court, 1998, pp. 199-204.

Ellenberger, H. F. (1970). The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychology. New York: Basic Books.

Esterson, A. (1993). Seductive Mirage: An Exploration of Sigmund Freud. Chicago and La Salle: Open Court.

Esterson, A. (1998). 'Jeffrey Masson and Freud's seduction theory: a new fable based on old myths', History of the Human Sciences, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 1-21.

Freud, S. and Breuer, J. (1895). Studies on Hysteria. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (1953-74), volume 2. Translated and edited by Strachey, J. et al. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Freud. S. (1896a). 'Heredity and the Aetiology of the Neuroses.' In Standard Edition, vol. 3.

Freud, S. (1896b). 'Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence.' In Standard Edition, vol. 3.

Freud, S. (1896c). 'The Aetiology of Hysteria.' In Standard Edition, vol. 3.

IsraŽls, H. and Schatzman, M. (1993). 'The Seduction Theory'. History of Psychiatry, iv, pp. 23- 59

Jones, E. (1953). Sigmund Freud: Life and Work, vol. 1; (1955) vol. 2. London: Hogarth Press.

Kiell, N. (1988). Freud Without Hindsight: Reviews of his Work. Madison, Connecticut: International Universities Press.

Masson, J. M. (1984). The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1985 Penguin edition, Harmondsworth, Mx.: Penguin Books. 1992 edition, New York: HarperCollins. 1998 edition, New York: Pocket Books.

Masson, J.M. (editor) (1985). The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess: 1887- 1904. Translated by Masson, J. M. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Schimek, J. G. (1987) 'Fact and fantasy in the seduction theory: a historical review'. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, xxxv, pp. 937-965.

Schusdek, A. (1966). 'Freud's "seduction theory": a reconstruction.' Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 2, pp. 159-66.

Sulloway, F. J. (1979). Freud: Biologist of the Mind. New York: Basic Books. 1992 second edition, Harvard University Press.

Tabin, J. K. (1993). 'Freud's shift from the seduction theory: some overlooked reality factors.' Psychoanalytic Psychology, 10 (2), pp. 291-97.

Webster, R. (1996). Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. London: HarperCollins.  

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