Herm at Getty MuseumIn classical antiquity,
the phallus is the figurative representation of the male organ. It is the figure of hierarchy rather than reciprocity. For the classical Athenians, sex was not a private quest for mutual pleasure. It was rather a declaration of one's public status. Defined as the penetration of one body by the body (specifically by the phallos) of another, sex was conceived as an action performed by one person upon another. The elite corps of adult male citizens held to an aggressively phallic norm of sexual conduct, which lead to an ethic of sexual domination in their relations with males and females alike. (David M. Halperin, in Before Sexuality.) According to Michel Foucault, "The Greeks did not see love for one's own sex and love for the other sex as opposites, as two exclusive choices, two radically different types of behavior...Rather, they saw two ways of enjoying one's pleasure...They believed that the same desire attached to anything that was desirable -- boy or girl." (The Use of Pleasure, pp. 187 ff.) It is the persistence of this phallic model in psychoanalysis that feminists have come to resist (see below). It was the contribution of Christianity's radical ascetics to "strip the body of its ancient, civic associations...by means of an increased emphasis on its intrinsic sexuality...joined together in a somber democracy of sexual shame", and to "see the female body as the condensed essence of all human bondage and all human vulnerability. " (Peter Brown, "Bodies and Minds ," in Before Sexuality.)
In psycho-analysis, the phallus as a symbolic function is differentiated from the penis as a real anatomical organ.
Freud identified different "organizations of the libido", the oral, anal, and genital, each referring to the erotogenic zone which enjoys primacy within it. Eight years later, in "The Infantile Genital Organization," he added the phallic, to indicate that, at this stage, although the genitals are paramount, only one type of genitals is recognized, the penis in boys, and, derivatively, the clitoris in girls. (see sexuality ) At the phallic stage, according to Laplanche and Pontalis, the choice offered the subject is simply that between having the phallus and being castrated. In Freud's view, the primacy of the phallus for both sexes is a corollary of the fact that the little girl is ignorant of the existence of the vagina. Not all women have agreed with this "fact," starting with Karen Horney, who believed it more accurate to speak of the relation of the girl-child to her vagina as denial, or "denegation" based on fear, and Melanie Klein, who considered the priveleged eroticisation of the clitoris as already a process of defense against the more dangerous eroticization of the vagina.
For Freud the "phallic" mother is powerful in the pre-oedipal era, and the "castrated" mother is repudiated by the boy in the oedipal era. Freud argued that for woman desire is constituted by the effort to get the missing phallus, an effort that leads her irrevocably into the passive position of being the object for the father, the male subject.
In the Lacanian tradition, the phallus is the central organizer of gender. It is the signifier of desire and signifier of a lack, on the part of both mother and child. For Lacan, the symbolic issue is not so much "to have " a phallus as "to be the phallus " that is, the signifier of the desire of the Other. As Luce Iragaray points out, the importance of "penis envy" in the woman is not called into question by Lacan, but is further elaborated in its structural dimension. (This Sex Which is Not One, p.62) "We might suspect the phallus of being the contemporary figure of a god jealous of his prerogatives; we might suspect it of claiming, on this basis to be...the standard of truth and propriety, in particular as regards sex,...in addition to continuing, as emblem and agent of the patriarchal system, to shore up the name of the father (Father)." (p.67)