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Popular opinion would have it that sexuality is absent

in childhood, that it sets in at puberty, that it means

attraction to the opposite sex, and that ultimate aim is
sexual intercourse. Explain how Freud challenges this
popular view of sexuality.

Lecturer: Dr. Barry O’Donnell

Course: PSH382 - Theories of Human Sexuality
Student: Alan Cummins
Student No: 1165236

Popular opinion would have it that sexuality is absent in childhood, that it sets in at

puberty, that it means attraction to the opposite sex, and that the ultimate aim is sexual

intercourse. Freud felt that this was not the case or rather that popular opinion was aware of but

refused to debate these issues. Freud stated that “these views give a very false picture of the true

situation.” [135] Freud said nothing that was unknown to parents, educators and writers but that

they were opinions which they were simply unwilling to take onboard. He noted that compared

to Krafft-Ebing, Havelock and Ellis his writings were far less obscene in notion. Freud said that

sexuality was treated as a “poetic fable and woman and how these are always striving to

unite again in love” [136], that only the traditional view of sexuality and sexual relationships

was considered. He proposed that infantile sexuality had a far more important role to play but

that it was not a fixed and easily classifiable development “infantile sexuality represents an

educational ideal from which individual development usually diverges at some point and often to

a considerable degree” [179]. He argued that “educators pay any attention at all to infantile

sexuality, and as though they knew that sexual activity makes a child ineducable; for they

stigmatise every sexual manifestation by children as a vice” [179]. Essentially that popular

opinion was that infantile sexuality should be seen as degeneracy and irregular. Freud proposed

that this was far from the case, that it was a normal part of development of the mental life of

children. The headline statement will be broken into two main constituent parts, namely, that

sexuality is absent in childhood and that the ultimate aim is sexual intercourse. In discussing

these, the statements, that sexuality sets in at puberty and that it means attraction to the opposite

sex, will be brought to bear. The development of infantile sexuality, the component drives and

instincts, object-choice, perversions, the libido and defence mechanisms such as sublimation,
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displacement and repression will be discussed to show how Freud challenges the view of


Sexuality Is Absent in Childhood, Sexuality Sets In At Puberty

Freud, throughout the Three Essays on Sexuality, kept coming back to how adult life was

based on the childhood development of sexual instincts and aims. He saw infantile sexuality as

of crucial importance, that adolescent and adult sexuality was based on it and that through

repression adults have kept well away from conscious awareness the beginnings of their sexual

life. As an example he argued against homosexuality or any fetish as being of a degenerative

nature or due to an innate character of a person. He proposed that “...Choice of fetish is an after-

effect of some sexual impression received as a rule in early childhood” or “a symbolic

connection of thought of which the person concerned is usually not conscious ...not always

unrelated to sexual experiences in childhood” [154] Neuroticism or perversion was not

something that only a small number of special cases fell into, rather that we are “justified in

expecting that the early years of children who are later to become neurotic are not likely in this

respect to differ essentially from those children who are to grow up into normal adults but only

in the intensity and clarity of the phenomena involved.” [176] Freud argued that sexuality was

rampant within childhood with “the existence, then, of these pleasurable sensations caused by

forms of mechanical agitation of the body, is confirmed by the fact that children are so fond of

games of passive movement” [201] and an “infantile connection between romping and sexual

excitation is among the determinants of the direction subsequently taken by their sexual instinct”

[202] For Freud earliest childhood showed “the narcissistic libidinal cathexis of the ego is the

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original state of things” [218] and that the combination of impulses and components in

childhood came into a unity to form the adult sexual instincts.

Freud describes the organisation of infantile sexuality with puberty coming at the end of a

period of sexual formation. Early childhood is the beginning and founding basis of sexuality and

puberty and adulthood is the final outcome of such. These stages of oral, the anal-sadistic, the

phallic and genital are the lynchpins of the libido and each corresponds to the primacy of a given

erotogenic zone and each of these was of a masturbatory nature but not under the sway of the

adult concept of sex and reproduction. The Oral stage is described as one where sexual pleasure

is bound predominantly to excitation of oral cavity and lips which accompany feeding via

sucking and biting. Nutrition is the source through which object-relationship is expressed and

organised. The Anal-Sadistic stage has as its primary erotogenic zone the anus with the function

of defecation (expulsion/retention) and with the symbolic value of faeces. The Phallic stage is

one of unification of the component instincts under primacy of genital organs but that at this

stage children know only one genital organ, that of the male. There then follows a period of

latency where there is a decrease in sexual activity, desexualisation of object-relationships and of

emotions and the emergence of shame/disgust along with morals and aesthetic aspirations. This

spans from the dissolution of the Oedipus complex and represents an intensification of repression

which brings about amnesia affecting earliest years, and the development of sublimation. Finally

the Genital stage arrives with the organisation of the component instincts under the primacy of

the genital zones. These stages make use of auto-erotisim. The child does not have sexual

tendencies in the same manner as an adult but uses a form of sexual behaviour in which the

subject obtains satisfaction solely through recourse to his own body, needing no outside object.

Freud gives example of “thumb sucking as a sexual manifestation.. activity that the instinct is
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not directed towards other people but obtains satisfaction from the subject’s own body. It is

auto-erotic” [181] This erotogencity is the capacity of all bodily regions to be the source of a

sexual excitation. Freud states that the “anal zone is well suited by its position to act as a

medium through which sexuality may attach itself to other somatic functions” [185] Children

express their sexual instincts via “holding back their stool tills it accumulation brings about

violent muscular contractions” [186] and that faeces is “treated as part of the infants own body

and represents his first gift by producing them he can express his active compliance with his

environment and by withholding them his disobedience” [186] He points out that the erotogenic

zones are seen as areas of pleasure for children and that “this erotogenic zone which forms part

of the sexual organs proper are the beginning of what is later to become ‘normal’ sexual

life…the washing and rubbing to which it is subjected in the course of a child’s toilet, as well as

accidental stimulation make it inevitable that the pleasurable feeling which this part of the body

is capable of producing should be noticed by children even during their earliest infancy”

[187/188] He says that there are “three essential characteristics of an infantile sexual

manifestation. At its origin it attaches itself to one of the vital somatic functions; it has as yet no

sexual object, and is thus auto-erotic; and its sexual aim is dominated by an erotogenic zone.”

[182] Due to the polymorphously perverse disposition of children, in Freud’s view, various

regions of the infant’s body have strong sensitivity to eroticization. This “polymorphous

perverse …disposition to perversions of every kind is a general and fundamental human

characteristic” [191]. It is only later that the erotogenic zones are subjected to genital

organisation which aims to unify sexuality. He terms anaclisis as this early relationship of the

sexual instincts to the self-preservation ones, i.e. physical need is of primary importance in the

child but soon becomes linked to please and separate to carrying out a function. He states that

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“to begin with sexual activity attaches itself to functions serving the purpose of self-preservation

and does not become independent of them until later. No one who has seen a baby sinking back

satiated from the breast and falling asleep with flushed cheeks and a blissful smile can escape

the reflection that this picture persists as a prototype of the expression of sexual satisfaction in

later life” [182] This is surely quite a challenging statement that a child is in orgasm. Also rather

than as held in popular opinion, that such pleasure is naughty stating that one “comes across

remarks upon precocious sexual activity in small children – upon erections, masturbation, and

even activities resembling coitus. But these are always quoted only as exceptional events, as

oddities or as horrifying instances of precocious depravity.” [173] or peculiar, that the

“foundations for the future primacy over sexual activity exercised by this erotogenic zone are

established by early infantile masturbation, which scarcely a single individual escapes.” [188]

Clearly, sexual development does not, for Freud, start at puberty but long before. He states that

the “organisation of the sexual instinctual components can be detected in the sexual life of

children from its very beginning …It is not until a third phase has been reached that the genital

zones proper contribute their share in determining sexual life and in children this last phase is

developed only so far as a primacy of the phallus.” [233]

In discussing Freud’s concept of infantile sexuality we must relate the concept of the

component instincts. These are the fundamental elements of sexuality and in childhood act

independently but over the course of development to adulthood fuse together to form the libido

proper. Essentially, a component instinct is the source and the aim of the eroticising pleasure or

unpleasures. In childhood “the germs of all the perversions will only be demonstrable in

children, even though in them it is only with modest degrees of intensity that any of the instincts

can emerge.” [172]

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He also notes the intense curiosity that children express in questions of a sexual nature.

This challenges the concept that sexuality is absent from childhood and only begins in puberty.

Conscious fantasies of children reflect their unconscious sexual organisation. It is not something

that requires seduction, a child’s sexual life is aroused via internal causes, allowing that external

causes can have an affect. This flies in the face of the “conviction of grown-up people that small

children cannot understand anything sexual – they inevitably regard the sexual act as a sort of

ill-treatment or act of subjugation; they view it, that is, in a sadistic sense ...predisposition to a

subsequent sadistic displacement of the sexual aim” [196] Freud notes that the “instinct for

knowledge or research ...the sublimated manner of obtaining mastery …knowledge in children is

attracted unexpectedly early and intensively to sexual problems and is in fact possibly first

aroused by them” [194] Such search for knowledge brings forth questions such as “the riddle of

where babies come from” [195], “the assumption that all human beings have the same (male)

form of genitals ...envy for the penis” [195] and so on. Children do not however have access to

all understanding of sexuality and Freud notes that “two elements that remain undiscovered

…the fertilising role of semen and the existence of the female sexual orifice” [197] Therefore

Freud and children themselves go against popular opinion in that they “they are reflections of

their own sexual constitution more understanding of sexual processes than one would

have given their creators credit for.” [196] Freud goes on to state that “It may well be that

nothing of considerable importance can occur in the organism without contributing some

component to the excitation of the sexual instinct” [205] and that “sexual excitation in children

springs from a multiplicity of forces. …Probably indeed, any organ – can function as an

erotogenic zone” [232/233]

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In challenging the concept of sexuality being present in childhood, Freud must give an

explanation of why adults have dismissed such infantile sources. He describes education,

upbringing, culture and other external obstacles along side internal obstacles such as disgust,

shame and morality, in the form of repression, as reasons as to why the sexual life of children is

forgotten. Freud states that “impulses would seem in themselves to be perverse – that is, to arise

from erotogenic zones and to derive their activity from instincts which ...can only arouse

unpleasurable feelings ...evoke opposing mental forces ...which in order to suppress this

unpleasure effectively builds up mental dams ...disgust, shame and morality.” [178] Such

forgetting is not due to a functional inability of children but rather as necessary reaction

formation. Sublimation is also given as a tool of the latent period in focusing children towards

activities that have no apparent connection with sexuality but which are motivated, as Freud

posits, by the force of sexual instinct. This comes in the form of artistic and intellectual

endeavour. The psyche makes use of condensation, displacement, transformation, incorporation

and repression to curtail and divert childhood sexuality. Freud speaks of the “connection

between infantile and hysterical amnesia ...which occurs at the bidding of repression …infantile

amnesia conceals from him the beginnings of his own sexual life, is responsible for the fact that

in general no importance is attached to childhood in the development of sexual life” [175]. He

posits that “germs of sexual impulses are already present in the new-born child and that these

continue to develop for a time, but are then overtaken by a progressive process of suppression”

[176] Freud notes that rather than “during (latency) the production of sexual excitation is not by

any means stopped but continues and produces a store of energy which is employed to a great

extent for purposes other than sexual” [232] these forces of restriction are purposeful in terms of

shaping the development of the child “shame and disgust ...these forces play a part in

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restraining that instinct within the limits that are regarded as normal” [162], in enhancing the

pleasure of such “the sexual instinct in its strength enjoys overriding this disgust.” [152], in

forwarding cultural and social history “historians of civilisation appear to be at one in assuming

that powerful components are acquired for every kind of cultural achievement by this diversion

of sexual instinctual forces” [178] and in driving forward sexuality in men and women

“intensification of the brake upon sexuality brought about by pubertal repression in women

serves as a stimulus to the libido in men and causes an increase of its activity.” [221] Freud

shows that the such amnesia and defence is one of utmost importance, that infantile sexuality

“leave behind the deepest impressions in the subject’s memory, determine the development of his

character, if he is to remain healthy, and the symptomalogy of his neurosis.. this sexual period

has been forgotten and that the conscious memories that bear witness to it have been displaced”


Finally in order to show how Freud challenges the popular view of sexuality we must link

object-choice from pre to post-puberty. We have discussed how component instincts in infantile

sexuality are separate and merge as puberty comes about. This coming together of component

instincts leads towards object-choice. This ties into the Oedipal conflict and the barrier of incest

in determining the love object for a child “as regards object-choice, we found that it is given its

direction by the childhood hints (revived at puberty) of the child’s sexual inclination towards his

parents and others in charge of him but it then diverted away..owing to the barrier against

incest” [235]. Freud states that “the choice of object ...has already frequently or habitually been

effected during the years of childhood ...the whole of the sexual currents have become directed

towards a single person in relation to whom they seek to achieve their aims. This then is the

closest approximation possible in childhood to the final form taken by sexual life after puberty”
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[199] This for Freud means that choice of love-object, the thing of which and through which

sexual instinct seeks to attain its aim is directed by infantile object choice. This “choice of an

object is diphasic ...the first begins between the ages of two and five and is brought to a halt or

to a retreat by the latency period ...the second wave sets in with puberty and determines the final

outcome of sexual life.” [200]. Once more this has raised a major issue with popular opinion that

“the resultants of infantile object-choice are carried over into the later period.” [200] Puberty,

as Freud suggests is not the starting point for sexuality and object choice; it instead uses the

infantile sexual researches as a starting point. So even though the component instincts are

separate and the strength of instinct much less in childhood they are the seed of adult and

pubertal sexuality. “Early efflorescence of infantile sexual life already gives rise to a choice of

object spite of the lack of synthesis between the different instinctual components and the

uncertainty of the sexual aim, the phase of development corresponding to that period must be

regarded as an important precursor of the subsequent final sexual organisation.” [234]

Sexuality Means Attraction to the Opposite Sex, The Ultimate Aim Is Sexual Intercourse.

Taking the second part of the statement that sexuality means attraction to the opposite sex

and that the ultimate aim is sexual intercourse Freud gives credence to the importance of the

variability of partner, deviations in respect of the sexual object, deviations in respect of the aim

and the means by which sexual tension is alleviated.

Popular opinion at the time was that homosexuality or any deviation from heterosexuality

was seen as a result of degeneracy or due to some rare innate character trait. Freud, backed up by

Fleiss’ biologically based concept of bisexuality, touted bisexuality as a universal tendency, that

all babies are born with masculine and feminine dispositions in the mental sphere and that final
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choice depends on the predominance of one of those tendencies over the other. This challenged

the popularly held opinion that male children and female children should have the opposite sex

as their love-object and that there was no choice in that matter. Freud held that “people vary

greatly in their behaviour ...they may be absolute inverts ...amphigenic inverts or ...contingent

inverts” [136] and that the “the trait of inversion may either date back to the very beginning ...or

it may not have become noticeable till some particular time before or after puberty.” [137].

Freud argued against the commonly held belief that “regarded inversion as an innate indication

of nervous degeneracy ...involves two suppositions …that it is innate and that it is degenerate.”

[138]. He noted that inversion as considered as degenerate would only make sense “where (1)

several serious deviations from the normal are found together and (2) the capacity for efficient

functioning and survival seem to be severely impaired.” [139]. Moreover he argued that

“inversions can only be described as a frequent variation of the sexual instinct which can be

determined by a number of external circumstances in the subjects life ...However ...many people

are subjected to the same sexual influences without becoming inverted” [140] i.e. external

influence could not explain why some become inverted and some do not. Therefore bisexuality

must have some innate tendency within a child meaning sexuality is not purely an attraction to

the opposite sex.

With regard to perversions Freud argued that they are under the domination of instincts of

infantile origin. Infantile sexuality has component instincts as its basis and have as their source

of sexual arousal the erotogenic zones. He described “perversions are sexual activities which

either (a) extend in an anatomical sense, beyond the regions of the body that are designed for

sexual union, or (b) linger over the intermediate relations to the sexual object which should

normally be traversed rapidly on the path towards the final sexual aim” [150]. Perversion is
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caused due to a fixation with respect to preliminary sexual aims whereas in normal sexuality they

come together and work towards genital maturity. The important point here, for Freud, was not

that perversions were an exception but that they fully belongs to the so-called normal

constitution. Therefore the idea that sexuality can be defined in a constrictive manner to only

allow attraction to the opposite sex and have sexual intercourse as its ultimate aim is to disallow

the normal development of sexuality. For Freud there is a bridge between abnormal and normal

so-called normal forms of sexuality. This bridge is “an unbroken chain that ridges the gap

between the neuroses in all their manifestations and normality ...the disposition to perversions is

itself of no great rarity but must form a part of what passes as the normal constitution” [171].

In regards to sexual intercourse being the ultimate aim Freud states that “it is only the

rarest instances that the psychical valuation that is set on the sexual object as being the goal of

the sexual instinct stops short at the genitals ...overvaluation cannot be easily reconciled with a

restriction of the sexual aim to union of the actual genitals and it helps to turn activities

connected with other parts of the body into sexual aims.” [150]. Sexuality is formed of an

ambivalence, the simultaneous existence of contradictory tendencies, attitudes or feelings in the

relationship to a single object especially the coexistence of love and hate. Instinct is of

importance for Freud, it is instinct which directs the organism towards an aim and it is through

an object that its aim can be achieved. The libido is described by Freud as the energy underlying

the transformation of the sexual instinct with respect to its object, with respect to its aim, and

with respect to the source of sexual excitation. The libido has adhesiveness, susceptibility and

pertinacity which can cause a fixation in adult life that is characteristic of early sexual life. The

physical act of intercourse is not the ultimate aim, that is purely a means by which it achieves its

ultimate aim, that of regulating jouissance. “wholly a pleasure of satisfaction and with it the
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tension of the libido is for the time being extinguished” [210]. Again Freud indicates that adult

sexual pleasure has its basis in the infantile saying “excitation of erotogenic zones ...fore-

pleasure is thus the same pleasure that has already been produced, although in a smaller scale,

by the infantile sexual instinct” [210]. He notes that the ultimate aim for a person may be altered,

that “the attainment of the normal sexual aim can clearly be endangered by the mechanism in

which fore-pleasure is involved ...the preparatory act in question takes the place of the normal

sexual aim ...the erotogenic zone concerned of the corresponding component instinct shall

already during childhood have contributed an unusual amount of pleasure ...a fixation, a

compulsion ...a lingering over the preparatory acts of the sexual process” [211]. Freud had

challenged the popular opinion by discussing the sexual object and expanding sexuality beyond

the narrow limits within which that notion was conventionally defined. Instinctual drives and

objects are the things of normal sexuality and that surpasses the basic biological act of

intercourse. The aim of the instinct is to exert pressure to resolve internal tension. Sexual union

can serve this purpose but it in itself is not the ultimate aim. Freud states that “the normal sexual

aim is regarded as being the union of the genitals in the act known as copulation, which leads to

a release of the sexual tension and a temporary extinction of the sexual instinct ...there are

certain intermediate relations to the sexual object, such as touching and looking at it, which lie

on the road towards copulation and are recognised as being preliminary sexual aims” [149]

Displacement of the object can occur linking sources other than the genital region to sexual

intercourse. This relies on the plasticity of the libido, which can change its object and mode of

satisfaction. The ultimate aim can also be expressed as the wishful impulse to return to the early

childhood experience of satisfaction. As an example Freud gives “a child’s intercourse with

anyone responsible for his care affords him an unending source of sexual excitation and

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satisfaction from his erotogenic zones ...she strokes him, kisses him, rocks him and quite clearly

treats him as a substitute for a complete sexual object ...she regards what she does as asexual

‘pure’ love ...however the sexual instinct is not aroused only by direct excitation of the genital

zone.” [223]. Normal sexual life requires convergence of the affectionate current and the sensual

current, directed towards a sexual object and its aim, this is not purely the genitalia, “under a

great number of conditions and in surprisingly numerous individuals, the nature and importance

of the sexual object recedes into the background. What is essential and constant in the sexual

instinct is something else” [149], “Certain regions of the body, such as the mucous membrane

of the mouth and anus which are constantly appearing in these practices, seem, as it were, to be

claiming that they should themselves be regarded and treated as genitals.” [152/153]. The

ultimate aim of sexuality can be usurped with “every external or internal factor that hinders or

postpones the attainment of the normal sexual aim will evidently lend support to the tendency to

linger over the preparatory activities and to turn then into new sexual aims that can take the

place of the normal one.” [155]. It should be noted that for Freud “sexual excitation is derived

not from the so-called sexual parts alone, but from all the bodily organs ...mental representation

...ego-libido ...object-libido ...concentrating upon objects, becoming fixed upon them or

abandoning them, moving from one object to another and, from these situations, directing the

subject’s sexual activity, which leads to the satisfaction, that is to the partial and temporary

extinction of the libido” [217]. This moves past intercourse or the production of sexual

substances as the ultimate aim. Freud brings in the idea of aggressiveness, “a desire to

subjugate; …sadism would correspond to an aggressive component of the sexual instinct which

has become independent and exaggerated and by displacement has usurped the leading

position.” [156]. He posits an intimate connection between cruelty and the sexual instinct, this

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being borne of “obtaining mastery, which is concerned with the satisfaction of the other” [159].

Freud does hold that sexual intercourse is an important aim, “the new sexual aim in men consists

in the discharge of the sexual products..the sexual instinct is now subordinated to the

reproductive function” [207] but that the aim is not the act but the release or cathexes of the

libidinal tension or energy.


Freud clearly challenged the popular opinion of sexuality and its presence in childhood. He

states that the “existence of the sexual instinct in childhood has been denied and that the sexual

manifestations not infrequently to be observed in children have been described as irregularities

...on the contrary that children bring germs of sexual activity with them into the world” [232]

Moreover he relates that infantile sexuality is character building “what we describe as a person’s

character is built up to a considerable extent from the material of sexual excitations and is

composed of instincts that have been fixed since childhood …The multifariously perverse sexual

disposition of childhood can accordingly be regarded as the source of a number of our virtues,

in so far as through reaction-formation it stimulates their development.” [238] Freud clearly

places heavy emphasis on infantile sexuality and that is far from absent in childhood, it is a vital

part of development. However it should be noted that Freud protested against pan-sexualism, that

his challenge of popular opinion leads to sexuality permeating everything, he said “I have never

claimed that every dream expressed the fulfilment of a sexual wish, and I have often asserted the

contrary. But this produces no effect, and people continue to repeat the same thing” (Letter from

Freud to Claparéde, 25 December 1920 [1921e: 214-215]) and that “There is no justification for

the fear that trends which set in with the greatest violence in childhood will permanently

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dominate the adult character; it is just as likely that they will disappear and make way for an

opposite tendency.” [241] He challenged opinion but was aware that psychical development does

not follow a straight or simple path. He, however, saw that through his clinical work that “a

good proportion of the deviations from normal sexual life which are later observed, both in

neurotics and in perverts are thus established from the very first by the impressions of childhood

– a period which is regarded as being devoid of sexuality.” [242] and that “Not only the

deviations from normal sexual life but its normal form as well are determined by the infantile

manifestations of sexuality” [212]. He clearly challenged popular opinion.

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Freud S. (1901-1905). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund

Freud. Volume VII (1901-1905) A Case if Hysteria, Three Essays on Sexuality and Other

Works.Vintage. Hogarth Press.

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