Ruth Mack Brunswick (1897-1946)

A Note on the Childish Theory of Coitus a Tergo

« Eine Beobachtung über die kindliche Theorie des Koitus a tergo », Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse, XV, 1929.
« A note on the childish theory of coitus a tergo », International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 1929, vol. 10, n° 1, pp. 93-95
« Note sur la théorie infantile du coït a tergo », Le Mouvement psychanalytique, vol. III, n° 1, 2000, L’Harmattan, Paris.


It has been generally observed that when, in the course of an analysis, the primal scene is recalled, the coitus supposedly seen by the child has been a tergo. Indeed, we find this idea so constantly that Freud has been inclined to believe that the entire observation of parental coitus has frequently inerely been phantasied by the child.1  Certainly the practice of coitus a tergo is less common than the idea of it in our patients' minds.2  Its consistent appearance in the analytic material of childhood serves to falsify the remaining material, in the sense of making it seem phantasy rather than fact.

The following question presents itself : When a patient, remembering or reconstructing the primal scene, describes the parents in a coitus a tergo, are we dealing with phantasy or actual observation, or with a combination of the two, a falsification of actually-observed facts by superimposed phantasy ? Therapeutically the matter is of slight importance ; we know that in their results little difference is to be noted between fact and phantasy. Nevertheless the primal scene and its consequences form a cornerstone of the psychic structure of childhood and should as such be known to us in every detail.

The following excerpt from the dream of a patient may help to solve this curious problem :

« Late in October, on the surface of a pond, turtles and oysters are cohabiting with one another. On the shore turkeys are doing likewise. The cohabitation takes place « from in front » ; nevertheless the dreamer knows that the penis enters the anus, and thinks : « It would be more convenient from behind ».

The patient's own birthday is late in October. The dreams immediately preceding this have all been concerned with the patient’s parents, snakes, mountain-climbing, dangerous crevices in rocks where men have been lost, etc. The topic of parental coitus has been broached by the patient, who is fairly versed in analytic literature. However, he has always added that a haze envelops this subject, in his own mind.

He at once remarks that turtles and oysters are respectively male and female symbols. He also says that his feeling in the dream, that although he sees the coitus taking place from in front, he nevertheless knows that the anus is the receptive organ, and therefore thinks how much more convenient the coitus would be from behind, corresponds exactly to his feeling whenever he thinks about the intercourse of his parents, which he is, accordingly, unable to visualize. He evidently saw a normal intercourse with the parents face to face ; but in his insistence on the role of the anus, tried to shift their position to what he could rightly consider the more convenient one. The further course of the analysis bears out this interpretation.

The dream exposes just that modification of fact by phantasy so typical of childhood. We all know how hard it is, to influence a child's theories of birth. Certain of our statements are accepted, others are rejected and replaced by ideas in harmony with the current phase of the child's development. Children react in various ways to the observation of parental intercourse : some by total denial of the entire proceeding, others by acceptance of the act and modification of the method. Ultimately in some layer of the unconscious coitus must be accepted.

What a given child actually sees during the intercourse of its parents depends on innumerable factors and, above all, on the physical position of the child in relation to that of the parents. That the penis of the father is more likely to be seen than the vulva of the mother is obvious. As a matter of fact, only in the position of coitus a tergo is the vulva, along with the anus, easily visible, and then only if the room is lighted. However, if the child is physically able to see anything at all, its conception of the phallic equipment of all adults will be seriously disturbed, even if it fails to see the actual vulva. Once the belief in the phallic nature of the mother is threatened, other observations on women - the mother or nurse on the toilet, a sister in her bath, etc. - lend their support to the idea of her castration ; and in various ways the vulva itself becomes known to the child. In the present case the patient as a small child slept between his parents. During their coitus he lay so close to them that no physical reason existed for his not seeing the vulva, even in the normal position of intercourse. Such a situation must often exist where the bed of the parents is shared by the child.

The discovery of the vagina is intimately associated, if not coincident, with that other most disagreeable discovery of childhood, castration. Thus the child's insistence on coitus a tergo or anal intercourse is readily understandable. By this means the vagina is eliminated as unnecssary, since the anus serves the same purpose, is common to both sexes, and, moreover, at this time is still considered the birth canal.

The child knows from observation (the turkeys in the dream) that animals do actually cohabit from behind. I have had adult patients who, aware of the existence of the vagina in animals, nevertheless believed that cohabitation took place in the anus. Undoubtedly the child clings tenaciously to its belief in the anal theory of animal cohabitation. Indeed, one reason for the fondness of most children for animals may well be the lack of obvious sexual differentiation combined with the ease of observation of genitals and bodily functions.

No observation on animals would be sufficient to correct that made on the parents themselves were it not that in this case animals can be used to support a theory better liked by the child in its attempt to deny castration. Thus the child's notion of coitus a tergo depends for its constancy and strength on the fact that it at once permits the child to acknowledge what it has seen and at the same time to avoid the admission of the implied castration.


1  Freud, "General introductory Lectures".
2 Undoubtedly in the families of compulsion-neurotics, with their strong anal constitution, coitus a tergo is a common practice. It will be remembered from Freud's « History of an Infantile Neurosis » (Collected Papers, Vol. III, p. 473) that the Wolfman saw a coitus of this nature between his parents. In part this early observation, in part the predominantly anal nature of the patient himself, resulted in making this his usual form of sexual intercourse. Indeed, he practised regularly not only coïtus a tergo, but also anal intercourse. I mention these facts to shew that coïtus a tergo is certainly not exclusively a phantasy on the part of the child.


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