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All Sexed Up

Peter Green is the former fiction critic of the London Daily Telegraph and a professor of classics at the University of Iowa

Nymphomania: you have only to say the word to get a round of (mostly male, rather nervous) laughter. The impetus for Carol Groneman’s well-researched and sobering study came from a friend at a conference of female historians who “jokingly said that a history of nymphomania would be a hoot.” That wasn’t quite how it turned out. What emerged was the story of a persistent, metastasizing, ugly, risible and unbelievably destructive male chauvinist myth: one of the best justifications for feminism I’ve ever seen. Groneman charts it well, with a plethora of instructive examples. Yet she never quite comes to grips with its inner driving motive: that odd mixture of social dominance and sexual anxiety (over impotence, premature ejaculation and much else besides) that has always underlain men’s attitudes to women. Throughout history, accordingly, patriarchal propaganda has retaliated with a number of self-serving and self-exculpatory myths, ranging from the vagina dentata to (of course) nymphomania, which has figured over the centuries as a moral sin, a physical (if uncertainly located) disease, a psychosexual disorder or, most recently, an addiction.

Medical cures in this country have included cold baths, bromide sedatives, cauterization and, yes, clitoridectomy. Significantly, the masculine equivalent of nymphomania, satyriasis, has always been treated much more lightly: boys will be boys, but the full force of the (male-dominated) law until recently descended on girls who had the presumption to be girls. Well into the last century, the law and the medical profession still labeled as “hyperesexuality” or “pathological sexual delinquency” any kind of erotic activity by women that exceeded, or deviated from, their arbitrary definitions of the norm. But, as Groneman shows, the norm kept changing. History has witnessed bizarre variations in the degree and type of sexual activity required to classify a woman socially as a nymphomaniac. This alone clearly points to the notion’s genesis as an authoritarian social myth.

According to Alfred Kinsey’s tongue-in-cheek aphorism, "[a] nymphomaniac is someone who has more sex than you.” In that formulation the idiocy of the concept--and its essential nature--stand revealed. “Nymphomania: A History” offers a chronological narrative of its evolution, documented with an abundance of (often grisly, always mind-boggling) case-histories. I ended it depressed by the seemingly endless capacity of the human mind for self-deception. Nymphomania may be fantasy, but what this book demonstrates, above all, is that mythomania is alive and well and permeates every facet of our social thinking. From Galen’s notion of uterine fury down to Freud’s (physically impossible) prescription of vaginal orgasms to denote growing up (a rite of passage in more than the usual sense), such fancies have run riot, and not just among the ignorant: the medical and legal professions have always been the most fertile seed-beds for them. As Groneman demonstrates, the myth began with a well-established view, inherited from antiquity (think of Circe and Messalina), of woman as the essence of carnality, which early Christianity reinforced: Eve was the temptress who introduced Original Sin. But in the newly formed United States (to which Groneman largely restricts her investigation), the promise of egalitarianism made women’s role (and slaves’, too, but that’s another story) look somewhat different:

“If all human beings had certain inalienable rights, as revolutionary and Enlightenment doctrine proclaimed, why then was half the population excluded? Over the next decades, natural law, science and medicine would provide answers that maintained the traditional hierarchy: Women’s biology determined them unfit to participate with men in the newly acquired political and social rights.”

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Along with menstruation, the fear of ungovernable sexuality ranked high in that (male-determined) biological packet. Add in what Groneman rightly calls the “wave of moral fervor” and evangelicalism that swept early 19th century America and the scene is set for a new and diametrically opposite myth, that of feminine purity and passionlessness, the sexless angel in the house, the goddess on her pedestal, aloof from the dirty business of work and politics.

This wrenching reversal of traditional concepts set up dangerous internal stresses. The myth was almost exclusively restricted to white, middle-class women, alone thought capable of living up to the new ideal. Racial stereotypes had free play. The poor, immigrants, blacks, were all regarded as primitive and sexually animal by instinct. But even the angel in the house had to be irrational, vulnerable to “sexual diseases,” not least in adolescence and at menopause. Since passivity was now regarded as the norm, almost any sign of normal erotic desires, including an active appetite for intercourse or even masturbation (the target of some particularly ripe myths) tended to be diagnosed as abnormal.

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Nymphomania was the perfect all-purpose category to fit all types and sizes, and came to be used with confidence by every kind of authority-figure: from doctors to biochemists, from lawyers to criminologists. An organic disease, a psychological disorder, a nervous addiction, nymphomania has been confidently proclaimed all of these in turn. It has had a remarkably persistent career, and Groneman’s study--thorough, dispassionate, dryly witty--presents that career in detail. Not a few distinguished pundits, from Supreme Court justices to high-ranking medical specialists, should blush to read some of the cases she presents.

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In the 19th century, if bleeding, blistering, caustics, cold baths, douches, sedatives or ice bags applied to the genitals failed to work, there was always the madhouse handy for institutionalizing unruly female urges--or prostitution if these remained untreated. Doctors and brainwashed patients alike took it as a given that strong sexual urges in women meant symptoms of disease. Over-excited nerve fibers? Cerebral lesions? Theories of causality abounded; the fact remained. In 1856 a Mrs B., married to a much older man, sought advice because, as she thought, her demands outstripped his abilities, and thus she was afraid her unsatisfied desires might drive her to other men. Living in the middle of the Victorian age, she must, indeed, have been acutely worried. However, the real cause for worry, to our way of thinking, was the cure prescribed.

Mrs B. had to give up sex with her husband altogether: indeed, since “she was unable to restrain herself,” Mr B. was instructed to move out of the house. Mrs. B’s sister came to keep an eye on her and ration her intake of “meat, brandy, and all other stimulants that might excite her animal desire.” Her regimen also included a cold sponge bath morning and night, plus a daily cold enema and vaginal swabbing with borax solution. On top of everything else, Mrs. B. had to stop work on the novel she was writing, a practice thought to promote lascivious daydreams. Did all this work? Did Mrs. B.'s desires survive such a pounding? Did she and her husband have a child (she’d attributed her frenzy to childlessness)? Did Mr. B. recover his potency? Did she ever finish her novel? History doesn’t relate.

It’s easy enough to laugh at this kind of thing, but as Groneman makes abundantly clear, our own century’s track record is hardly less extravagant or, in many ways, ridiculous. Legitimizing sex in women, far from extirpating the myths, has merely replaced old fantasies with a whole clutch of new ones, about which male authorities remain as nervous as ever. As greater numbers of women moved into the work force, complaints about their “masculinization” began to appear. The frigid (because unsatisfiable) nympho, generally also diagnosed as a potential lesbian, became a popular scapegoat. The so-called happy nympho had her short career cut short by the fear of disease. Freud’s essentially paternalist ideas produced a remarkable number of unhappy marriages. Husbands, as usual, were not slow to blame these new sexual trends for their own shortcomings.

Have no advances been made? Are we still totally myth-bound? Well, yes, there has been some progress. Feminism has seen to it that rape is dealt with as an abuse of power, and incest is not automatically dismissed as malicious invention by the victim. Masters and Johnson finally killed the fantasy of the vaginal orgasm. Sexually transmittable diseases, AIDS above all, have not only put a damper on indiscriminate quickies but, paradoxically, have given a boost to genuine human emotions as a result. And nymphomania? Well, it has certainly lost much of its mythic power, has become (Groneman thinks) “even something of a tired joke.” Put that on the plus side. But lawyers and psychologists are still known to invoke it, and women still have to walk a tightrope between aggression and inadequacy, taking care not to ace their nervous male partners while still seeming attractively experienced. How much is too much remains a question without any clear answer and probably always will.


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