For many males, entry into adolescence occasions conflicts over varied behaviors and relationships experienced during masturbation as well as over the possibility of failed or embarrassing sexual encounters. Both tend to encourage an objectification of the penis. The projection of hostility towards one’s own penis must be a common response. The most common of these must center upon fears that one’s penis will betray the individual by undesired tumescence or a failure to sustain tumescence. The penis also serves as the objectification of desires that, even when they must be rejected, cannot be fully renounced.
Few words carry as much metaphoric richness as does “castration”. Its associations are as complex as its range of applications. The connection between sexuality and human reproduction accounts for much of this metaphoric power and, as a result, it is not unusual that an erotic residue attaches to instances of the application of the term castration, even instances that may initially appear remote to the explicitly sexual. Varied forms of emotional and political castration come to mind, this is typified in description of the Jim Crow racial code as serving to socially castrate African-American men or in the description of women who are seen as aggressively competitive. Whatever the referent, there is an immediacy of connection with an assertive denial of power, potency, and generativity, on the one hand, and an association with concepts such as permanent immaturity and flagrant passivity on the other. Sexual castration becomes an attractive metaphor with many uses, both admonitory and optative. This was exemplified in
Ovesey’s (1969) concept of “pseudo-homosexuality”, where homoerotic imagery becomes a metaphor for conflicted relations with authority figures.5
The articulation of castration anxieties, then, can often be understood as being powerfully focused but insincere statements expressive of a desire to end ambivalence, conflict, and the abandonments that accompany almost all individual development. Among other things, such anxieties can also serve as a defense against one’s hostility towards one’s own penis, as a metaphor for a complex array of anxieties regarding shifting expectations and uncertain futures, and also as a desire to retain the comforts of one’s penis while shedding the expectations and responsibilities imposed by identification with the Phallus.
Conflicting desires more than the simple repression of desires often can be found behind imagery of castration anxieties. One can only wonder how many grow up to be wholly what they are at the level of what is experienced as primary identity. The cross-pressured, history-burdened interests of ego ideal and ideal ego feed a reflexively enhanced internal critic. The dark side of individual achievement is often abandonment; current mythologies of success ritualize the near inevitability of having to purchase success with the betrayal of others and the greater inevitability of self-betrayal. It is not surprising that masochism is often a “vice” preferred by men of apparent success. Perhaps those habituated to failure usually put masochism to more practical uses.
Castration anxiety is understandably linked to assumptions regarding sexual rivalries experienced during childhood, when the image or concept of castration serves as an immunization against impulses to resist paternalistic imperatives and as an advertisement for resistance. In adolescents’ staging of their dream of desire, the threatening oedipal father of ten plays his historic role of intimidation and chastisement, even though he may be called on stage for reasons of a more contemporary origin, such as when fathers, or those occupying the father’s role, are experienced as offering tests of the ideals of masculinity that the adolescent experiences as problematic.