Libido: Reviews: Nymphomania
REVIEWS
Nymphomania: A History

By Jack Hafferkamp

Know any nymphos?

Seen any women wearing perfume? Or maybe flirting at some work-related holiday party? A hundred years ago those behaviors were likely indicators that you were someone who needed to be watched very closely. You might be a nymphomaniac. And that wasn’t good. In the last quarter of the 19th century, writes author Carol Groneman, "some gynecologists concluded that the solution to this disease was to surgically remove the female reproductive organs."

What caused this terrible disease? There were several suspects: "Eating rich food, consuming too much chocolate, dwelling on impure thoughts, reading novels, or performing ‘secret pollutions’ (masturbating)…" All these things overstimulated women’s delicate nerve fibers, leading to nymphomania.

In Nymphomania Groneman looks back at two hundred years in the life of a concept. She makes a compelling -- also entertaining, enlightening and infuriating -- case that the idea of nymphomania is a bulls-eye- accurate metaphor for the "fantasies, fears, the anxieties and dangers connected to female sexuality through the ages."

If you want to know what it felt like to be a woman in those times, understanding the meaning of "nymphomaniac" is a good shorthand way to get a grasp. Groneman writes that one hundred years ago nymphomania was still considered an organic disease "…then it became a psychological disorder, and now it seems to have taken on a somewhat humorous tone, although a darker side still lingers."

That darker side, of course, is now thought of, at least out in general public, as "sexual addiction," a disease that for women is essentially what the Victorians and then the Progressives (and then WWII-era parents) thought of as nymphomania. Today we -- especially out there in Oprah-land -- have simply put the same concept into contemporary lingo.

Today’s nympho is a woman who demonstrates compulsive promiscuity by hopping from bed to bed in an emotionally unsatisfying attempt to avoid dealing with a sexually related emotional trauma, often related to rape or incest.

Adding to the confusion over whether such a condition as "sex addiction" or "nymphomania" actually exists is that like many terms tossed around from group to group nympho has more than one meaning. To boys of the generation coming of age now it’s largely positive shorthand for a girl who enjoys sex -- especially with the boy or boys in question. In at least one sense, this viewpoint is something of a throwback to the Victorian notion of nymphomania. (She likes sex ergo she is a nympho.)

Still, as much as anything the idea of "nymphomania" -- no matter the generation -- is about the double standard, which is also alive and well today. Says Groneman: "Women still find themselves in a double bind: expected to be sexual, but not too aggressive; tolerated as lesbian, as long as not too butch; assumed to be sexually experienced, but not more experienced than their male partner."

A hundred years ago today’s sex-addict concept did have a male equivalent, satyriasis. The simple fact that this term never had the same widespread cultural currency is one indicator of the difference in the gravity of a woman’s interest in sex as contrasted with a man’s. Groneman notes that in some extreme cases of satyriasis in the 19th century castration was the solution. However, the diagnosis of satyriasis was much less likely for a man than was nymphomania for a woman. Young, white, protestant, middle-class women did not have sexual impulses. Her sex was for reproduction only; pleasure was not part of the equation. Any expression of sexual interest was a likely indicator of nymphomania.

That was not the case for men. Men were expected, then as now, to have a proper level of sexual appetite and experience. That was how they became worldly; conquest and all that.

The balance of things changed somewhat during the early mid years of the 20th Century when the idea of marriage changed to the now-familiar concept of marriage as a partnership of romantically attracted pairs who are allowed -- and expected -- to enjoy sex as a healthy aspect of family life.

About the same time the concept of nymphomania also changed, under the looming influence of Freud and his successors, to a mental disorder associated with frigidity -- an inability to have vaginal orgasms. In this redefinition the nymphomaniac is insatiable because of her failure to reach vaginal orgasm. The classic 1960s sex film, The Devil in Miss Jones is about a woman whose eternal damnation is to be perpetually aroused and unsatisfied. This idea, too, still resonates out there among the public at large.

For men, the dark side of this non-orgasmic situation is the potential damage caused by the dangerously over-sexed woman who, driven by rage, saps a man’s strength as if she were sucking a ripe plum. Ridiculous as it sounds now, this attitude, this approach to what defines women as sexual beings, still exists in American’s court system, where despite all the changes in rape and incest prosecutions, a woman’s sexual history and "character" is used by defenses to show that the victim invited her attack.

As much as today’s anti-sexual enlightenment activists -- such as the Concerned Women of America -- may fear and despise Alfred Kinsey, they (that is, all those fundie jezebels who wear perfume and lipstick) owe him grudging respect for opening the door to sanity on the subject of nymphomania.

Just about fifty years ago, surveying his mountain of data of female sexuality, and with tongue planted firmly in cheek, Kinsey concluded that a nymphomaniac is "Someone who has more sex than you do."

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Nymphomania: A History By Carol Groneman (Norton, 2000. ISBN: 0-393-04838-1. 238 pages, hardcover, $24.95)

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