Karen Horney’s paper starts with a meditation on poetry to foreground the ideas of woman as other and as primal element (water) that swallows up the man who is seduced. Horney suggests that man strives to free himself from the dread of woman by seeking objective grounds for it and she warns against the cultural consequences of this state of affairs. Thus Horney really asks two questions here: Why this dread of woman, which is kept secret as a strategy in support of male self-respect? And why this abhorrence, or fear, of the vagina that is so blatant in male homosexuality, fetishism and in the dreams of all male analysands, and yet so often concealed behind the dread of the father?

Her reply is that the masculine dread of woman as mother or of the female genital is more deep-seated and more strongly repressed than the dread of the father. Moreover, the father is more tangible and fearing him leaves male self-esteem intact.

Further questions follow from here: What is the origin of this anxiety? And what are its characteristics?

Horney disputes Freud’s idea that the vagina remains ‘undiscovered’ for the child and notes, along with Carl Müller-Braunschweig, that the phallic impulse as such is a desire to penetrate. She infers that the little boy imagines a complementary female organ. The ‘undiscovered’ vagina is therefore a denied vagina. The little boy’s anxiety is linked to the prohibition of instinctual activities enforced by the mother, to his experience of sadistic impulses towards the mother’s body and to the specific fate of the genital impulses. The masculine dread of woman is thus a narcissistic anxiety.

Finally, note too that Horney also disputes the equations male=sadistic and female=masochistic.