Sexuation and Feminine Desire


Gender studies and the trans question are very much in the news today. There is an attempt to approach and define the question of sex based on identity. Psychoanalysis is opposed to this perspective insofar as, in the unconscious, there is no woman and man identity. What reigns in the unconscious has a name, which is just as valid for men as it is for women: desire. It is desire that articulates the sexes, which are always two.

In the 1960 text, “Remarks on Daniel Lagache’s Presentation”,[1] Lacan bases the relation to the sexual Other on desire and not on identification. He thus formalizes woman’s desire with the barred Α matheme (φ), and man’s desire with Φ(a). This perspective gives a first form to the table of sexuation that will be written in the Seminar Encore.

The Phallic Dialectic

Writing woman’s desire using the barred A (φ) indicates that the signifier Woman does not exist. The barred A writes that Woman has no inscription in the Other. In Freudian terms, it is another way of saying that there is no female libido. The feminine desire of a woman cannot be supported by a feminine identity. It is, however, directed at the castration of the man. Feminine desire thus is written as A barred (φ), which can be read as the fact that a woman is in search of the phallus as signifier, even while she embodies  phallic being. She takes it from the other in the sexual relation, not as an organ, but as a signifier of the link between jouissance and the signifier. This is why the effect produced is not a completeness. The phallus written as (φ) has the function of a recovered part that makes her Other to herself. It is the plasticity of feminine desire that allows a woman to arouse a man’s desire by presenting herself as the object of his fantasy, this instrument that sustains desire.

The Other of Feminine Desire

The relation of feminine desire with the barred A inscribes not only the truth that is missing in the Other, but also that to which a woman has a relation of jouissance, which proceeds from what can be said of the unconscious that says it as Other. Feminine desire is tied to jouissance that has no name and that comes from the Other. It is not an Other that mortifies jouissance, but on the contrary, one that is an instrument of her jouissance.

The Other that Lacan defines in the Seminar Encore is deduced from the experience of female desire. The attributes of the phallic signifier extend to all signifiers. The connection between jouissance and the signifier is related to the body. “There is no jouissance of the body except through the signifier and there is no jouissance of the signifier except in so far as the being of signifiance is rooted in the body.”[2] It is indeed by drawing on the erotomaniac style of feminine desire that Lacan can state that the function of the unconscious, namely lalangue, “is the fact that being, by speaking, enjoys.”[3]

The Cause of Desire in Feminine Desire

When a woman constitutes herself as the object cause of desire for a man, thus lodging herself in the male fantasy, she then becomes the object of the jouissance of that man. Being the object a that the man gets back from her body, at the cost of the phallus, allows her to locate the phallic jouissance of this man.

But for her, what is it like from the point of view of her fantasy? The Lacanian version is to say that at the moment when she is recognized by the man as cause object, she is in contact with her barred A. Consent to phallic jouissance passes through the relation to the barred A and through the position as object that she occupies. In this sense, we can say that the man is only the instrument or the mediator of the access to this jouissance that surpasses phallic jouissance. We have a link here that revolves around a père-version,[4] implying the one-by-one of the fantasy and not obeying any universal rule. The point at stake in the père-versely oriented is the encounter and conjunction of the barred A with the trait of masculine that desires in the woman a fetish that designates her. In this perspective, for the man, jouissance is localized and limited by the phallic organ; for the woman, it is on the side of the limitless in the sense of being non-localizable. The relation to the limit for a woman is contingent, and comes from the certainty of love. 

Love, by being equipped with the requirement of the discourse of love, must not cease to say itself in order to make up for what the sexual relation uncovers, namely the incapacity of the phallic signifier to significantize all of feminine jouissance.

Feminine Desire and the Real

This first formulation of the logic of feminine desire in its articulation to the real of jouissance, comes into conflict with the ideal identifications of the ego. This logic denounces any will to reduce the position of woman to a standard or a social role. Lacan anticipated the temptation that sex could be reduced to the determination of a social role, renewed by the interrogations on gender. “It is a field in which the subject has, above all, to do a lot personally to pay the steep ransom for his desire. […] It is clear, on the contrary, that to flee this task, analysts are prepared to abandon virtually everything, and even to treat problems the subject has assuming his sex in terms of sex roles”.[5] It is nothing less than the abandonment of the real of castration, letting each one play their role in the comedy of the sexes, degraded to its purely sociological dimension.

Translation by Pamela King


[1] Cf., Lacan J., “Remarks on Daniel Lagache’s Presentation: ‘Psychoanalysis and Personality Structure’”, Ecrits, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York/London, 2006, p. 

[2] Cf., Miller J.-A., “Le partenaire symptôme”, annual course delivered within the framework of the Department of Psychoanalysis, University of Paris 8, lesson of 13 May 1998, unpublished. 

[3] Lacan L., Encore, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX, On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-1973, W. W. Norton & Company, New York/London, 1999, p. 105.

[4] [TN: “Father-version”, a pun on the word “perversion”, meaning other, new versions of the function formerly corresponding to the patriarch.]

[5]  Lacan J., “Remarks on Daniel Lagache’s Presentation,” Écritsop. cit., p. 572.