Sunday 1 January 2023

‘Intellectuals’ and Sexual Abuse. 20th-century advocates of adults’ ‘right’ to sexual relations with ‘consenting’ children. A further contribution to existential seduction theory. Anthony Stadlen conducts by Zoom Inner Circle Seminar 283 (18 June 2023)


Intellectuals and Sexual Abuse

Twentieth-century advocates of adults ‘right’ to sexual relations with consenting children

A further contribution to existential seduction theory

Anthony Stadlen

conducts by Zoom

Inner Circle Seminar No. 283

Sunday 18 June 2023

10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

[Also see: 

Louis Althusser
Louis Aragon

Roland Barthes

Simone de Beauvoir

Patrice Chéreau

David Cooper

Gilles Deleuze

Jacques Derrida

Françoise Dolto

Michel Foucault

Félix Guattari 

Michel Leiris

Jean-François Lyotard

Francis Ponge

Alain Robbe-Grillet

Jean-Paul Sartre


The term sexual abuse (German: Mißbrauch)’ as we shall use it here denotes a non-consensual sexual relationship, one obtained by force or fraud.

In any society there may be certain individuals, in particular children below a certain age, who are held not to be capable of giving consent to sexual relationship; and this may be enshrined in law. Sexual relationships with children below this age, the age of consent, are, by the societys definition, sexual abuse, even if the child enthusiastically enters into the relationship.

There may be dispute in any society about whether there should be an age of consent; and if so, what it should be. But, if there is one, then, relative to the given definition of the age of consent, there may be argument about whether sexual relationships between adults above the age of consent are consensual or non-consensual, i.e. abusive; but sexual relationships between adults and children below the age of consent are necessarily, by definition, at least legally, non-consensual and sexually abusive.

The term ‘seduction’ and its German equivalent Verführung, both meaning etymologically leading aside or astray, are not used in a legal sense in what follows.


In 1977, leading French philosophers and writers, including Louis AlthusserLouis AragonRoland BarthesSimone de Beauvoir, Gilles DeleuzeJacques DerridaMichel FoucaultFélix GuattariMichel LeirisJean-Franҫois LyotardFrancis PongeAlain Robbe-GrilletJean-Paul Sartre, the opera and film director Patrice Chéreauand a number of eminent doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists, including the child psychoanalyst Françoise Doltopetitioned the French Parliament to assert the (legal) ‘right’ of adults to engage in sexual relations with ‘consenting’ children and the (legal) ‘right’ of children to ‘consent’.

In a dialogue with Guy Hocquenghem and Jean Danet broadcast by France Culture on 4 April 1978, later translated and published in Michel Foucault: politics, philosophy, culture: interviews and other writings (ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman, 1988), Michel Foucault said:

‘ assume that a child is incapable of explaining what happened and was incapable of giving his consent are two abuses that are intolerable, quite unacceptable.

This phenomenon was not restricted to France. In the UK, Foucaults friend Dr David Cooperexistential psychiatrist and founder of anti-psychiatry’, had written in his book The Grammar of Living (1974, p. 50):

‘Initiation of young children into orgasmic experiences, in spontaneous body-exploration and play within their peer-group, will become, I believe, part of a full education towards the end of this century.

And (p. 149):

Small children, as has been clearly demonstrated, can have orgasm too and the sooner initiation is achieved the better [...]

On 26 August 1975, The Guardian carried a headline, Child-Lovers win Fight for Role in Gay Lib. The people The Guardian described as child-lovers were the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE).
PIE was granted affiliate status by the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL, today renamed as Liberty). In 1976 NCCL made a submission to parliaments criminal law revision committee:
Childhood sexual experiences, willingly engaged in with an adult, result in no identifiable damage.

Hence, argued NCCL, it was logical that the age of consent be abolished; but, as this was not politically possible’, it should be lowered to fourteen – or to ten

provided it is demonstrated that consent was clearly given by the child. 

On 30 August 1977 – the year the French intellectuals signed the age of consent petition – The Times (p. 3) reported:
The Campaign for Homosexual Equality at a conference in Nottingham yesterday passed by an overwhelming majority a resolution condemning the harrassment [sic] of the Paedophile Information Exchange by the press”. [...] The conference gave a standing ovation to Dr Edward Brongersma, a member of the Upper House of the Dutch Parliament, who led the discussion on paedophilia.
Brongersma was a Doctor of Law, knighted by Queen Juliana in 1975. He wrote the book Loving Boys (1986, 1990).
Polly Toynbee reported a fortnight later in The Guardian (Guardian Women, 12 September 1977, p. 12) her interview with the former Chairman of PIE, Keith Hose, who argued for reducing the age of consent to four. He assured her:

‘...almost all children are far more capable of anal and vaginal intercourse than they are given credit for.

Toynbee then consulted the psychiatrist and Jungian analyst Dr Anthony Storr, who said to her ‘without hesitation’ that sexual relations with adults are ‘very often extremely damaging for children’. She ‘felt relieved to hear all my own feelings absolutely confirmed’. But, despite her ‘disgust, aversion and even anger [...] at the thought of the age of consent being lowered to four’, she
‘had a sinking feeling that in another five years or so, their [PIE’s] aims would eventually be incorporated into the general liberal credo, and we would all find them acceptable.’
And she ended as she had begun:
‘I still have this sinking sensation that after a lot more airing of the paedophiles’ views, our most violent prejudices will eventually be broken down.’
That Ms Toynbee might cultivate a moral sensibility of her own, independent of ‘the general liberal credo’, appears not to have occurred to her.


Some months earlier, in the same year, 1977, Anthony Stadlen started his decades-long research on the foundations of the existential psychoanalysis he had been practising for some years. This meant, as a first step, taking Sigmund Freud seriously when he asked to be judged not by his theories but by his paradigmatic case studies and detailed analyses of specific dreams and slips. (Albert Einstein, similarly, enjoined people to look not at what physicists say but at what they do.)
This historical and philosophical investigation of psychoanalytic practice and theory seemed pertinent, in ways not yet completely clear, and yet to be identified, to making sense of the attitudes, from the 1890s to the 1970s, of leading intellectuals’ – including philosophers, psychoanalysts, writers – to so-called ‘paedophilia’, childhood sexuality, and sexual abuse of children; in particular, to making sense of the attitudes in the 1970s sketched above. 
It became increasingly clear that what was required, at least in relation to the psychoanalytic component of this inquiry, was a complete rethinking of, and historical research into, more than eighty years of psychoanalytic mystification, starting with Freud’s ‘seduction theory’ of 1896 and his subsequent retraction of it.
Freud himself never, in his Collected Works, used the term ‘seduction theory’, but the term is accurate in that he did use the word ‘seduction’ (Verführung) to characterise what he called his ‘assertion’ (Behauptung) of 1896. The term ‘seduction’ has been criticised, especially by feminists, because even by his own account, accurate or inaccurate, he was in at least some cases reporting or imputing, not merely seductive sexual abuse (Mißbrauch’, as he called it) of children, which was rape in the legal sense, but unequivocal, phenomenologically violent rape.
However, the term ‘seduction’ is more accurate than appears to be generally realised or acknowledged, because Freuds so-called seduction theory applied only to those who, in his view, had repressed the memory of childhood rape. That is to say, Freuds hypothesis was that the child, in what Sartre calls mauvaise foi (bad faith, self deception), had seduced itself into pretending to itself to have forgotten, and to have forgotten having forgotten, and to have forgetten that there was anything to forget, whether or not the abuser – the rapist or seducer – had implicitly or explicitly seduced the child into this seduction of itself by itself.   
Freud first announced the seduction theory in a paper ‘Heredity and the Aetiology of the Neuroses’ published in French in March 1896. He wrote that his new method of both research and therapy, psychoanalysis, here publicly named for the first time, had revealed that
[...] a precocious experience of sexual relations with actual excitement of the genitals, resulting from sexual abuse [Mißbrauch] committed by another person in the years up to the age of eight to ten, before the child has reached sexual maturity [...] is the specific aetiology of hysteria.
On 21 April 1896 he repeated in a paper, The Aetiology of Hysteria’, at the Society for Psychiatry and Neurology in Vienna, with the leading sexologist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing in the chair, that the ‘specific aetiology’ of ‘hysteria’ was sexual abuse (‘Mißbrauch) in childhood before the age of second dentition’.
In the published paper (not merely as a throwaway comment in his spoken presentation) he called this
‘a momentous finding, the discovery of a caput Nili [source of the Nile] in neuropathology’.
This was named much later, though not by him, his ‘seduction theory’.
By specific aetiology Freud had explained, in his 1895 paper A Reply to Criticisms of my Paper on the Anxiety Neurosis’, that he meant a single feature necessarily present in every case of the illness’, which when sufficiently intensified would lead to the illness’ being necessarily present, like the Bacillus Kochii’, whose discovery by Robert Koch a decade earlier had made Koch world-famous for solving the riddle of tuberculosis.
It is crucial to understand that Freud took hysteria to be a physical illness and himself to be a bona fide doctor (physician) and medical researcher. In his 1905 ‘Dora’ case study he claimed that hysteria was a real physical illness which mimicked other real physical illnesses. He was claiming to have discovered a caput Nili in neuropathology, not merely in psychopathology. This is one of the reasons Thomas Szasz was justified, sixty-five years later, in taking hysteria as his paradigmatic mental illness in The Myth of Mental Illness (1961).
It is true that Freud had already, in his and Josef Breuer’s Studies on Hysteria (1895), justified using the means of the Dichter (creative writer) to make his case studies read like novellas’, but this was in the service of medical science. His argument that psychoanalysis was not a medical discipline came thirty years later, in The Question of Lay Analysis (1926).  
Freud privately acknowledged, in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fließ, that he had hopes of becoming famous before he was forty. He made his implicit claim to be the Koch of hysteria to the Vienna Society and Krafft-Ebing two weeks before his fortieth birthday. However, he subsequently retracted the claim, but gave, over the years, somewhat contradictory and misleading reasons for this retraction which were further mystified by later writers.
On 20 October 1973, the philosopher Frank Cioffi gave a talk on BBC Radio 3, published in The Listener on 7 February 1974, ‘Was Freud a Liar?’. Cioffi concluded, at this stage of his thinking, that Freud was not a liar, but was self-deceived, from pride. This, however, raises Sartre’s question in Being and Nothingness (1943), whether there can be, as Freud’s ‘metapsychology’ implied, genuine self-deception: a lie without a liar.
Cioffi pointed out that in the ‘seduction theory’ Freud had stated: (1) that only under the ‘strongest compulsion’ of his avant-garde method, which he here  for the first time named as psychoanalysis, could his patients be persuaded to ‘reproduce’ the ‘scenes’ of sexual abuse in childhood that he admitted he was, at least sometimes, suggesting to them; and (2) that the patients objected that these scenes, even if ‘reproduced’ with emotion, did not feel like memories. This, Freud bizarrely insisted, was the most decisive proof that they were memories.
But Cioffi also pointed out the crucial, undeniable, but hitherto apparently unnoticed fact that, in Freuds purported retraction of his theory, a retraction which took various forms over the years, he managed to convey, without contradiction from readers, that his original seduction theory had been quite different from what it actually had been. He now indicated that his patients had volunteered stories of childhood sexual abuse, which he had at first believed, but then, in definitely ascertainable circumstances’, discovered to his chagrin to be fantasies. He represented this as a triumph rather than a defeat, as he claimed his error had led him to discover childhood sexuality and the Oedipus complex.
It is a common mystification of everyday life to apologise for a lesser error than the error one has made. Freud showed that he, too, was capable of doing so.
Freud did not just revise his seduction theory. He silently revised what the seduction theory he revised had been.  
Freud loved to give detailed evidence, when he had it, or thought he had it. As mentioned above, his detailed case studies read, as he said, like novellasHe justified using the methods of the Dichter (creative writer) to show the relationship between the Leidensgeschichte [deep, perhaps unacknowledged or denied (unconscious”) existential suffering-history] and the Leiden [presenting complaint].
However, he insisted that his case studies were not fiction. He wrote that he regarded it as an abuse’ (Mißbrauch’) to change any aspect of a case history apart from the minimum required to preserve anonymity.
But neither for the seduction theory nor for its retraction did he give evidence.
Although both FreudKatharina’ case of 1895 and his ‘Dora case of 1905 are brilliantly written, neither qualifies as evidence either for the seduction theory or for the retraction. He treated both these supposedly hysterical young women when they were eighteen. Both had been incestuously or quasi-incestuously abused in early adolescence, Katharina by her father and Dora by her fathers best friend with her fathers implicit collusion. But in neither case is there mention of abuse before the age of second dentition as required by the seduction theory. The two cases do, however, suggest a radical change in Freuds thinking between 1895 and 1905. He regards Katharinas vomiting, after she discovered her father having intercourse with her cousin, as an hysterical symptom of what he implies was her justified but unconscious disgust at her own earlier sexual abuse by her father; but he regards Dora’s conscious disgust at her sexual abuse by her fathers friend at the same age as Katharinas abuse by her father as itself a pathognomonic symptom’ of her alleged hysteria (i.e., a phenomenon sufficient in itself to justify the diagnosis hysteria’). 
He did not publish a single case study, or even vignette, to illustrate or substantiate his claim that he had discovered that some patients who had reported sexual abuse in childhood were merely fantasising. Yet he claimed to have done so in definitely ascertainable circumstances.
(Of course, that he did not give evidence does not mean that nobody ever does so fantasise.)
In a number of his published and unpublished case studies, both before and after the seduction theory episode, Freud reports detailed accounts by the patient of having been sexually abused in early or late childhood. In every case Freud believes the patient without question. And in none of these specific cases does Freud claim, far less give evidence, that the person had been merely fantasising. 
Stadlen emphasised that the seduction theory was an all-or-nothing theory. The specific aetiology claim meant that a single counter-example (though how one could be certain one had found one is unclear: how could one prove someone had never ever been sexually abused and repressed the memory of it?) would not just modify the theory a little. It would completely disprove itFreud knew this, as he had specifically defined specific aetiology’ thus. But he in effect blamed his patients for his mistake which he tried to turn into a triumph. 
His seduction theory’ and his retraction of it had in common his claim that he was right and the patient was wrong.
But both the seduction theory and the retraction were false.
According to Freud, in his 1914 essay On the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement (GW10, p. 56; SE14, p. 18),
‘[KarlAbraham pronounced the last word on the question of the traumatic aetiology when he pointed out how precisely the peculiarity of the sexual constitution of the child knows how to provoke sexual events of a particular kind, thus traumas.’

It should be emphasised, however, that – despite Freuds questionably uncritical attitude to the adolescent Doras sexual molestation by her fathers friend Herr K. (he actually calls her a child of fourteen, and Stadlens research shows that she was almost certainly only thirteen, below the Austrian age of consent which was fourteen at the time and in fact to this day) – he was quite clear that sexual relationships of adults with prepubertal children were indeed sexual abuse and should be treated as criminal.

Moreover, Freud never claimed that all the patients he had taken to be sexually abused in childhood had merely been fantasising. But innumerable twentieth-century writers, for example Freuds authorised biographer Ernest Jones (1953), asserted that this was precisely what Freuds great discovery’ had been. Jones eulogised and romanticised the year 1897, when Freud, in a private letter on 21 September 1897 to his friend Wilhelm Fließ, retracted the seduction theory and discovered childhood oedipal phantasy on which adults supposedly fantasied memories of supposed childhood sexual seduction were supposedly based. ‘1897, wrote Joneswas the acme of Freud’s life.

It became difficult for those who had been sexually abused as children not to be disbelieved, not only by psychoanalysts but also by lay people who had heard or read something about psychoanalysis and its history.

A further crucial mystification throughout this history has been the presumption of illnessmental illness’. We have discussed this in many seminars, and will not repeat the argument here. 

However, not only was hysteria taken by Freud to be an actual disease or illness which imitated other actual diseases or illnesses (as he explains in the Dora case study), but throughout most of the twentieth century a report of childhood sexual abuse was liable to be taken, by psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, and lay people influenced by what they had picked up from superficial reading of or hearing about Freud, as itself evidence of a supposed mental illness’ of the person reporting having been abused.


It is important to realise that, two-thirds through the twentieth century, it was still commonplace, both in specialised psychoanalytic writings and in more general or popular accounts, to repeat, without any apparent sense of unreality, unlikelihood, or lack of common sense, that all Freuds patients at the time he was developing the seduction theory told him they had been sexually abused, but turned out to be fantasising; and that this enabled him to discover that there was, in fact, for a child no difference between a real or a fantasied seduction or assault. 

For example, The Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis (1968), an authoritative work, edited by the psychoanalyst Ludwig Edinger with the assistance of other eminent psychoanalysts including Harold Blum, Edward Glover, Bertram Lewin, William Niederland, and Leonard Shengold, contains the following statements:

  1. (p. 156) In his autobiographical study, Freud (1925) was to recall that he was at first convinced that the seduction of children actually took place and was responsible for their neuroses. Later, he discovered that these patients reported seductions which hadn’t taken place. Consequently his theory of seduction had to be abandoned. Finally, he realised that from the child’s point of view there was no difference between a real seduction and the wish to be seduced. He therefore introduced the concept of psychic reality which accounts for this apparent contradiction.
  2. (p. 340) At first Freud (1895) believed that what his patients reported as seductions in early childhood had actually occurred. Only later (in 1906) did he discover that they had never taken place and represented the child’s wishes. This discovery at first confused him, until he realised that for a child a wish may be equal to an actual experience. Freud called this kind of infantile experience psychic reality.’      

There are a couple of more nuanced brief allusions to the seduction theory episode in the Encyclopedia, but it is telling that the above two statements were approved.

Typical of countless other examples is the account, chosen at random, in Sigmund Freud: A Short Biography by Giovanni Costigan (1965, p. 43):

Gradually, he was led to doubt the actuality of these stories of seduction in early childhood, upon which his entire theory of hysteria had been founded, and in course of time he came to abandon his belief in them altogether.

It might be objected that Costigans is a popular account. But the same misleading story continued to be told by supposedly scholarly specialists, even after Cioffis demystification of 1973-4. For example, Alan Krohn in Hysteria: The Elusive Neurosis (1978, p. 21) wrote:

Once again demonstrating his courage and scientific integrity, Freud came to see that the seduction theory” was wrong, and that what patients had reported as memories of seductions were in fact fantasies that had been formed to cover up auto-erotic activity (and associated fantasies) in childhood. With Freud’s realization that these “memories” were remnants of infantile wishes came his recognition of the role of infantile sexuality.

Three further examples may hint at the extent to which interpersonal reality became discounted by psychoanalysts following Freuds retraction of his seduction theory and replacement of it by psychic reality:

  1. The Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis (1968, p. 109) explains:‘The feeling of disgust [Dora] felt when Herr K.’s erect penis pressed against her body (at fourteen) probably meant that she resented the size of her own member. That is, it represented a defense against her consciousness of penis envy. This feeling of disgust persisted, and perhaps was responsible for her refusal to play a feminine role. In this, her father and Herr K. were her competitors. They had what she had not, a penis.’
  2. Melanie Klein’s concept of ‘projective identification’ is today often thought to describe an interpersonal situation. It is taken to mean that person P in phantasy ‘projects’ an unacceptable aspect of P, e.g. faeces F, into another person O, and O in phantasy identifies with F. This would be an important concept in its own right. But this is not how Klein originally defined it, in ‘Notes on some schizoid mechanisms’ (1946). Her concept was purely intrapsychic, and she never changed it. As she describes it, person P projects unacceptable psychic material, e.g. phantasied faeces (F), into the ‘inner object’ representing person O in person P’s own ‘psyche’ or ‘inner world’. And it is person P, not O, who identifies with F, but now as part of ‘inner object’ O, still within P. This was still how ‘projective identification’ was correctly defined, directly quoting Klein’s original, wholly intrapsychic account, in The Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis (1968, pp. 332-3).   
  3. John Bowlby reported that, as a young psychoanalyst, he had wanted to study what happened between mothers and babies. But, he said, he was told that this was not an activity worthy of an analyst, because since Freud had given up the seduction theory it was known that all that mattered was unconscious phantasy.

Intellectuals’, and by no means only those who called for the liberation’ of children’s sexuality and of adults right to enjoy and exploit it, were often, like the psychoanalysts themselves, seduced by Freuds and Joness seductive misrepresentation of the rise and fall of Freuds seduction theory. Cioffis 1973 demystification of the episode went unnoticed.

Again and again, it was falsely repeated, even a century later, by otherwise educated and intelligent people, not apparently in other respects out of touch with ordinary social reality, that all Freuds hysterical patients in the seduction theory period told him they had been sexually abused; that he had at first believed them all; but that he had then discovered that they were all merely fantasising.

For example, Dr John Casey, Life Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, wrote (Daily Telegraph, 7 December 1995), a few months before the centenary of Freud's announcement of his seduction theory: 

[...] patients came to [Freud] describing all sorts of sexual assaults and seductions by their parents and other relatives [which he at first believed but] then decided that these stories were all fantasies’.



Sartre may serve as a paradigm case.

In Being and Nothingness (1943) Sartre lucidly and rigorously defined and analysed mauvaise foi (bad faith, self-deception). He ruthlessly revealed the contradictions in Freud’s ‘metapsychology’ of ‘repression’, the ‘unconscious’, and the ‘censor’. 
But Sartre did not manifest the same clarity and sense of reality when addressing Freuds seduction theory and retraction. He did not have the benefit of Cioffis analysis of 1974, but the data were as available to him as to Cioffi, when, in 1958, he wrote a gigantic screenplay, commissioned and drastically shortened by John Huston for his film Freud: The Secret Passion (1962), and eventually published posthumously in full as SartreThe Freud Scenario (1984). This scenario is remarkable in many respects, but Sartre perhaps became a paradigm case of his own concept of bad faith in that he allowed himself to be naively seduced by both Freud’s and Joness false accounts of the seduction theory and its retraction. Freud, as we emphasised above, had failed to give a single actual example, let alone case study, of a patient whose report of being sexually abused as a child he had at first believed but then shown (in definitely ascertainable circumstances, as he claimed) to be a fantasy; yet Jones (though not Freud) had claimed this was true of all Freud’s eighteen seduction theory patients.
Sartre was undeterred. He simply invented a paradigm patient, Cäcilie (in the film, Cecily), to exemplify both the seduction theory and its false retraction. Sartre showed Freud helping the fictitious Cäcilie first ‘remember’ that her father had raped her when she was a little child (the seduction theory) and then ‘realise’ that she had imagined this (in conscious ‘fantasy’) because of her oedipal desire (in unconscious ‘phantasy’) for her father (the retraction).
Sartre wanted his paradigmatic Cäcilie to be played by Marilyn Monroe; but his wish was not fulfilled.
Sartre was one of the intellectuals who signed the 1977 petition to the French Parliament on consenting’ sexual relationships between adults and children. Did Freuds false account of his retraction of the seduction theory and discovery of infantile sexuality, as reimagined by Sartre in The Freud Scenario, play a part in Sartres thinking on the age of consent?


Since Freud announced his seduction theory in 1896 there have been the wildest swings in the attitude of intellectuals’, including psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, philosophers and others, to the sexual abuse of children. They saw it where it wasn’t and failed to see it where it was. And they disagreed about whether, when it did happen, it was sexual abuse or the fulfilment of childhood sexuality.

Some feminist writers were curiously uncritical of Freud. For example, Juliet Mitchell wrote in Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974, p. 9):

Freud found that the incest and seduction that was being claimed [in the seduction theory] never in fact took place.

Her use of the passive being claimed obscures the question of who was claiming it. But she does acknowledge that it was, increasingly, incestuous abuse with which Freud was, at that time, if only privately, concerned.

In the 1980s, subsequent feminist writers strongly rejected Freuds rejection of the seduction theory, without necessarily knowing exactly either his original theory or his later account of what his theory had been and of why he had rejected it. Their primary concern was that womens accounts of childhood abuse and rape, and in particular of father-daughter incestuous abuse and rape, had been, and were still being, disbelieved; and that Freuds accounts of his seduction theory and of his retraction were being used to justify this.

The following books contributed to this feminist revaluation: The Best-Kept Secret: Sexual Abuse of Children by Florence Rush (1980); Father-Daughter Incest by Judith Herman (1981); Father-Daughter Rape by Elizabeth Ward (1984); and The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women by Diana E. H. Russell (1986).

These feminists did not, apparently, notice Cioffis objections to Freuds and Joness accounts. But they made a contribution to the history of the seduction theory, its reception, its retraction, and the reception of its retraction: they focussed on how Freud privately thought he was discovering evidence of father-daughter and father-son incestuous abuse and rape but for a long time censored this from his public account.

In 1984 Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, who at that time did not know the work of the feminists, published The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory. This muddied the waters by asserting that Freud’s seduction theory was simply right and his subsequent retraction simply wrong.
Because Masson was the authorised translator of Freud’s complete letters to Fließfeminist writers sometimes mistakenly assumed Masson’s mistaken account of the rise and fall of the seduction theory was authoritative and incorporated it into their own accounts.
In 1987 Drs Marietta Higgs and Geoffrey Wyatt, paediatricians at Middlesborough Hospital, claimed that their method of investigating reflex anal dilation revealed child sexual abuse in a large number of children. 121 children in Cleveland were removed from their parents; 94 were subsequently returned. In 1988 the Butler-Sloss inquiry concluded that most of the diagnoses were incorrect. 

In the same year, 1988, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis published The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, with its advice:

‘If you are unable to remember any specific instances but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did.

This dogmatic ‘recovered memories’ movement was combatted by its equally dogmatic adversary the ‘false memories’ movement whose starting-point was the serious research of Professor Elizabeth Loftus questioning the concept of ‘repressed memories’.

When positions are adopted dogmatically in either direction, the authorities (for example, in the UK) on the one hand persecute innocent people falsely accused by a criminal child-abusing fantasist; while on the other hand they fail to prosecute a television celebrity because of his fame, or city grooming gangs because of their race. These extreme abdications of rationality and responsibility are rewarded routinely with elevation to the peerage.


There has clearly been a dialectic between the psychoanalytic and the societal views on sexual relations between adults and children. It would be reductive to try to derive either view from the other, but it seems clear that the psychoanalytic view has played an important part in the development of the societal view, and even that the psychoanalytic confusion has contributed to the societal confusion.

The Inner Circle Seminars started with a seminar on Sunday 21 April 1996, the exact centenary of Freuds announcement on 21 April 1896, to the Vienna Society of Psychiatry and Neurology, of both the seduction theory’ and psychoanalysis’. Seventeen months later on Sunday 21 September 1997 we marked with a seminar the exact centenary of his private retraction of the theory on 21 September 1897 in a letter to Fließ. We explored in subsequent seminars his subsequent development of the oedipal’ theory of infantile sexuality and sexual phantasy.


We examined in detail over a number of years how the obfuscation of this episode – by Freud, Jones, and others, including many who claim to be critical of psychoanalysis – has contributed to a mystification of the discourse on the sexual abuse of children, embracing both contending dogmas, of ‘recovered’ and ‘false’ memories, which were already part of the definition of psychoanalysis at its first (‘recovered’ memories, 1896) and second (‘false’ memories, 1897-1906) birth. We continue this exploration today.

The factual investigation of sexual abuse must be differentiated from the moral discourse. But it is impossible to discuss the ethics of sexual relations between adults and children intelligently if the supposed facts’ are so confused and unreliable.

Moreover, the facts do demand an ethical understanding. There is, of course, the obvious fact of an abusers moral guilt. But, in addition, when a child represses aspects of his or her abuse, it is often precisely the memory of being implicitly or explicitly seduced, and seducing oneself, into denial of the ethical aspect, even at a very young age, that is repressed: that one seduces oneself into denying, and denying that one has denied, both the ethical aspect and that there was any ethical aspect to deny. This was not discussed by Freud, nor is it by psychotherapists generally, though it is perhaps somewhere implicit in Freudmoving account in his paper The Aetiology of Hysteria (1896) of the later relationship of siblings one of whom has seduced the other in childhood, which Peter Rudnytsky, in Inner Circle Seminar No. 175 on 1 April 2012, convincingly argued was autobiographical.

There is probably nothing that outrages and infuriates most psychotherapists more than the suggestion that there may be a child-appropriate guilt that a seduced, assaulted, molested, or raped child may feel, and repress, as a child; and may then rediscover, and even acknowledge, perhaps when an adult in the course of psychotherapy, as justified. Very few psychotherapists understand this. Most appear to think their therapeutic task is to reassure the client that he or she was a victim, an innocent child. And, of course, any such child is a victim. But, in so far as the child denied the ethical aspect, if he or she did, the child knows that he or she was guilty: guilty in a child-appropriate way, not as the adult abuser was guilty, and not of the same fault. It follows that a therapist who tries to talk the now adult child out of his or her guilt, rather than acknowledging it (which is not the same as approving it or disapproving it), is only further existentially seducing, mystifying, invalidating, and abusing the client.

This issue arose, for example, in the third of our twelve seminars for the fiftieth anniversary of Laing and Esterson’s Sanity, Madness and the Family: Families of Schizophrenics (1964): Inner Circle Seminar No. 220, on 6 December 2015, on Claire Church and the Churches. Stadlen pointed out that Laing and Esterson saw all members of each family, including Claire and the other ten diagnosed ‘schizophrenic’ women, as free agents, whose actions were what Sartre termed praxis; rather than process, mere unintelligible happening. This implied that the supposedly ‘schizophrenic’ women were responsible for their actions, including the action, if they took it, of giving up, in despair, as if they were not free agents: in fact, in Sartres terms, in bad faith pretending to themselves that they were not free agents. Some participants felt this was a step too far, and that the argument for the possible adolescent-appropriate guilt of the mystified ‘schizophrenic’ teenager, or child-appropriate guilt of the seduced and abused child, was unacceptable, because unacceptably harsh. The late Dame Hilary Mantel, however, who sensitively and profoundly introduced this and all but one other of the series of twelve Laing and Esterson seminars, eloquently supported and defended the case against invalidating child- or adolescent-appropriate guilt for having abdicated responsibility: for having colluded with seduction, mystification, invalidation; for having pretended in bad faith to oneself that there was no ethical issue, and that the other or others were acting from love.

In this seminar we shall continue to develop existential seduction theory, as we have done from the first Inner Circle Seminar twenty-seven years ago.

This means giving due recognition to ethics. It also requires the dialectical-phenomenological study of the specific ways in which human beings use language to seduce one another: mystification, invalidation, double bind, etc., as researched by investigators such as Gregory BatesonDon JacksonR. D. Laing, Aaron Esterson, Paul Watzlawick in the mid-twentieth century, but gravely neglected by existential therapists and Daseinsanalysts since then. 

We will thus resume our exploration (in Inner Circle Seminar No. 278 on Sunday 22 January 2023) of Martti Siiralas critique of what he called the violent elements in the absolutist claims for “Daseinsanalysis” to a direct access to the phenomena in an adequate, undistorted way’.

We shall continue to ask how far these violent elements are due to Martin Heideggers distaste for dialectics; and whether they may be remedied, and existential seduction theory advanced, by developing concretely Heideggers early (1919), but never again mentioned, notion of Diahermeneutics.

We shall also ask whether among the most violent of all elements in the discourse on sexual abuse might be the substitution of so-called narrative truth for historical truthas in Donald Spences Narrative Truth and Historical Truth: Meaning and Interpretation in Psychoanalysis (1982), and the supposedly post-modern denial that there ever was or could have been any such real event as the abuse the person abused as a child is reporting. Yet the perhaps now adult person may be desperate not to be invalidated by being disbelieved, or doubted, or being told that this is their truth’.

But the official psychoanalytic doctrine, starting from Freuds turn-of-the-century retraction of the seduction theory, and his assertion that it is immaterial whether the child was in fact or in fantasy abused, as what matters is psychic realityhad long prepared the ground for the twentieth-century contribution to the general dethronement of truth specifically in and by psychoanalysis, as noted by the phenomenological philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand in his 1954 revision of his 1942 essay The Dethronement of Truth (discussed in Inner Circle Seminars No. 108 on Sunday 28 January 2007 and No. 147 on Sunday 6 December 2009).

Fundamental is the question of childhood innocence. Freud and psychoanalysis, in revealing infantile and childhood sexuality, are said to have exposed childhood innocence as a myth. Many or most of the French intellectuals who in 1977 petitioned their Parliament to lowering or abolish the age of consent may have doubted or denied the innocence of children. Many who deny child-appropriate guilt also deny childhood innocence.

But the innocence’ denied is schizoid innocenceflattened, reduced, mechanistic. Childhood innocence is primordial, profound: not contradicted but affirmed by childhood sexuality, and by child-appropriate guilt at laying waste of innocence.

Some twentieth-century writers who did not object to the age of consent objected to psychoanalysis:

James Joyce told Djuna Barnes that psychoanalysis was

neither more nor less than blackmail’.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian theologian, in his Letters and Papers from Prison, also wrote:

‘[...] the psychotherapists practise religious blackmail’.

D. H. Lawrence wrote in Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious:

Psychoanalysis is out, under a therapeutic disguise, to do away entirely with the moral faculty in man.’

T. S. Eliot wrote of Freud’s The Future of an Illusion:

It is shrewd and yet stupid; the stupidity lies not so much in historical ignorance or lack of sympathy with the religious attitude, as in verbal vagueness and inability to reason.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote:

The symbolism racket in schools attracts computerized minds but destroys plain intelligence as well as poetical sense.’ 

Nabokov, himself unremittingly hostile to Freud and psychoanalysis, wrote Lolita (1955), as an imagined autobiographical account by an intellectual of how he systematically sexually abused an early-adolescent girl, starting when she was twelve and he was thirty-six. (Freuds Dora and Herr K. were thirteen and thirty-six respectively; we compared Dora’ and Lolita in a twelve-hour Inner Circle Seminar, No. 92, on 16 October 2005, a hundred years after Dora’ and fifty years after Lolita was published.) Lolita became a bestseller, because it was widely assumed, in particular by many of the literary intellectuals who praised it, and by its first publisher Maurice Girodias, to be a kind of superior pornography legitimating the sexual abuse depicted therein as a story of ‘forbidden love. It is clear from the book, and from Nabokovs many comments on it, that, on the contrary, he wrote his novel to do what he said a novel should do: create a test, an ordeal, for the reader, whose task is, in a struggle with the author, to become a good reader, able to resist the paedophile narrators monstrous attempts to seduce the reader into collusive sympathy with him and approval of his evil. Lolita, therefore, is a subtle phenomenological study of the evil of seduction and the seduction of evil.

On 26 November 1958 there was a crucial television discussion
between Nabokov and the psychoanalytically oriented literary critic Lionel Trilling. Trilling was the author of the influential essay Freud and Literature’ (Horizon, Vol. 16, No. 92, September 1947, pp. 182-200; reprinted in The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society, 1950).
In that essay Trilling had written:
[...] the Freudian man is, I venture to think, a creature of far more dignity and far more interest than the man which any other modern system has been able to conceive.
This was radically at odds with Nabokov’s view of Freudian man’. But Nabokov would hardly have found dignity or interest in the man conceived by any system’.
Trilling and his wife Diana were often described, apparently with their acceptance and perhaps even approval, as belonging to the ‘New York Intellectuals’.
In the filmed television programme, Trilling proposed to Nabokov that Lolita was in the great literary tradition of stories of what he called ‘forbidden’ or ‘scandalous’ ‘passion love’. But Nabokov was decidedly unhappy with this characterisation, and immediately pointed out that there had always also been within the great literary tradition ‘as in life’ the theme of ‘passionate love, amorous love, within the terms of normal marriage’, exemplified by Kitty and Lyovin in Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna KareninTrilling objected that the novel was called not ‘Kitty’ or ‘Lyovin’ but ‘Anna Karenin’. But Nabokov insisted that Kitty and Lyovin were ‘just as alive as Anna’.
Trilling also stated his own interpretation in his essay ‘The Last Lover: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita’ (Encounter, October 1958, Vol. 11, No. 4, pp. 9-19), contrasting the ‘rapture’ of Humbert’s description of Lolita with accounts of modern so-called ‘healthy’ and implicitly boring marriage. Trilling did not mention his television discussion with Nabokov or that the latter had explicitly invoked the story of Kitty and Lyovin’s passionately happy love and marriage as central to the great literary tradition and to life. Perhaps he had submitted the essay before the television programme was shown or filmed.
Why was this distinction so important to Nabokov? Clearly, he was not claiming that the perverted ‘love’ of Humbert Humbert for Lolita was in that tradition of passionate marital love. He explained that in writing Lolita he had been helped by reading many case histories. His insistence can only mean that it is with reference to, in the light of, and contrasted with, the authentic standard of the great literary tradition of happy, passionate marital love exemplified by Kitty and Lyovin that the depraved and perverted pseudo-love of Humbert Humbert for Lolita is to be seen for what it is. This is the test Nabokov sets the ‘good reader’: not to be seduced by the seductive ploys of a pervert. Trilling, the ‘New York Intellectual’ and literary admirer of and expert on Freud, fails the test. So do almost all writers on Lolita, with the exception of Nabokov’s biographer Brian Boyd, and of Nabokov’s wife Vera who wrote:
I wish someone would notice the tender description of the child’s helplessness, her pathetic dependence upon the monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage all along.’

[Note, 11 April 2024: Amy Bramley, writing in Existential Analysis  (35.1:  ), January 2024, is another honourable exception.]

Nabokov himself wrote (Strong Opinions, 1973, p. 193):
I believe that one day a reappraiser will come and declare that, far from being a frivolous firebird, I was a rigid moralist kicking sin, cuffing stupidity, ridiculing the vulgar and cruel – and assigning sovereign power to tenderness, talent, and pride.
Nabokov’s ‘good reader’ is supposed to discover anew, by a kind of via negativa, something of the distinctive being of children and of adults.


Authentic existential seduction theory must recognise the distinctive being of children and of adults, and acknowledge how adults can seduce children to betray or deny or forget their authentic innocence:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood
William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth


L'enfant abdique son extase...

[The child abdicates her ecstasy...]

Prose pour des Esseintes

[Prose for des Esseintes]

Stéphane Mallarmé

Stéphane Mallarmé

How may the adult who as a child abdicated his or her ecstasy, who now can see no more every common sight apparelled in celestial light, recover his innocence, not in a child-appropriate but in an adult-appropriate way?

[To be continued]

In todays seminar we will, then, be bringing together themes from a number of early and recent Inner Circle Seminars; and it is certain that these themes will not be exhausted, either in this seminar or in the future seminars the discussion will call for.      

Your contribution to this dis

Authentic existential seduction theory must recognise the distinctive being of children and of adults, and acknowledge how adults can seduce children to betray or deny or forget their authentic innocence:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood
William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth


L'enfant abdique son extase...

[The child abdicates her ecstasy...]

Prose pour des Esseintes

[Prose for des Esseintes]

Stéphane Mallarmé

Stéphane Mallarmé

How may the adult who as a child abdicated his or her ecstasy, 

In todays seminar we will, then, be bringing together themes from a number of early and recent Inner Circle Seminars; and it is certain that these themes will not be exhausted, either in this seminar or in the future seminars the discussion will call for.      

Your contribution to this discussion will be warmly welcomed.

This will be an online seminar, using Zoom.

Cost: Psychotherapy trainees £140, others £175, some bursaries; payable in advance; no refunds or transfers unless seminar cancelled
Apply to: Anthony Stadlen, ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra AvenueLondon N22 7XE
Tel: +44 (0) 7809 433250

For further information on seminars, visit:

The Inner Circle Seminars were founded by Anthony Stadlen in 1996 as an ethical, existential, phenomenological search for truth in psychotherapy. They have been kindly described by Thomas Szasz as ‘Institute for Advanced Studies in the Moral Foundations of Human Decency and Helpfulness’. But they are independent of all institutes, schools and universities.

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