Adolescence is a period of mandated reassessment of the body, with a particular emphasis upon those parts of the body and body contacts that the larger society defines as having erotic significance. The cultural certification of sexual significance is especially true for the genitalia and other parts of the body that are described as having sexual uses. Regardless of whether the individual, at the time, experiences such aspects of the body as associated with sexual excitement, they command increasing attention. Such cultural certification dictates not only the rules of exclusion and inclusion—how, where, and by whom can contact be viewed as sexual—but also establishes a linkage with a special vocabulary and correlated expected emotional responses. We must learn what the one touching and the one touched are expected to feel (Gagnon 1973). In this context, the genitals take on additional metaphoric significance, where the genitals become a problematic of erotic status, concepts like penis envy and castration anxiety also take on additional meanings.

It is hard to conceive of any aspect of Freud’s thinking that is more burdened by the markings of time and place than is the attribution of “penis envy” to females. At its very core, the concept, perpetuated by Kohlberg’s more recent (1969) application of a Piagetian model, assumes that the perception of gender differences is the legacy of childhood’s naive eye. The misperception of the vagina as a wound that transforms a body part into an accusatory metaphor requires continued acceptance of the idea of the imperial child as the core of all subsequent erotic response.

The behavior of adolescent females that can be termed “penis envy” must also be explored in terms of its potential origins in the current moment. Penis envy may, in fact, represent conflict and rage at what is currently experienced as powerfully mandated demands for the surrender of ambitions that are inconsistent with conventional gender role expectations at the broadest levels. Ambitions that were literally unthinkable in many sociohistorical settings become what growing numbers of young girls are encouraged to incorporate within their projected futures. The pervasive ambiguities of social responses to the gender typing of social roles must become a potential for troubling ambivalences for most females regardless of the direction—traditional or innovative—of their ambitions.

In Freud’s era, most adolescent females had to cope not only with a near total absence of legitimacy for expressing their discontents, but also with the most minimal language and relatively few models. Knowledge about the constructions of gender identity can be misleading in understanding the adolescent unless there is a continuing understanding of the history of subsequent encounters with changing or growing meanings of gender identity (Harry 1982; Herdt and Boxer 1995). This is not only a process where new meanings and emotions are added or merged in complex ways, but also a process where commitments to the expression of that identity are tested and become imperatives of the self.

During adolescence there is commonly an increased elaboration and testing of the appropriateness and coherence of specific desires and commitments with these identities. Many of these desires and commitments must be modified and still others abandoned. For many this is an occasion for continuing conflict, resentment, and often sheer rage. Moreover, given the possibility that much of the conflict and rage is centered upon the denial of desires that for the most part are fairly remote to the erotic, we might more accurately term this phenomenon “phallus envy”, acknowledging that many sexual representations often serve as sublimations of angers far more dangerous in their subversive implications. Most available metaphors for such abandoned desires are typically exiled to “the badlands of desire”, a psychic zone where the sexual comes to occupy an increasingly central place.


Often neglected is the significance of the penis and of “penis envy” among male adolescents. This is an expression of envy, not only of the greater or seemingly greater competence and ease in signature male accomplishments of other male reference figures, but also one of more literal significance, an envy of the penises of other males. The presumed hypnotizing powers of the penis, seen in male – produced and male-consumed erotica, speak to this quality of male penis envy. Concern about inadequate penis size was one of the most common inquiries sent to the Playboy Adviser.

Sexual excitement generated by the ambiguities and tensions of status differences has long fed all levels of cultural production. The issue of penis envy for females, as an expression of sexual politics or, more accurately, politicized sexuality, focuses on the alternative valances associated with penetration, with being the penetrated and with being the penetrator. The politics of sexual penetration, raising, as they do, the gestures of dominance and submission, the postures of control and permission, make of sexual engagement an optimally accessible staging area for both licit and illicit, both probable and improbable enactments of the politics of interpersonal relationships. The realm of the Phallus is the realm of social power.