nymphomania

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Nymphomania

Nymphomania has been defined as excessive or out-of-control female sexual desire or behavior. In nineteenth century Western Europe and the United States, it was diagnosed as an organic disease and in the twentieth century as a mental disorder. Similar to other diseases located in the body, early treatments included bleeding, bed rest, restricted diets, but also confinement in a mental institution, and in rare cases, clitoridectomy or hysterectomy to remove the cause of sexual excitement. Twentieth century medical authorities also recommended psychoanalysis, hormone treatment, and tranquilizers. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the term could no longer be found in medical texts or in reference books, such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, but was still broadly used in the popular culture.

Based on their belief that women were more carnal than men, the ancient Greeks described a similar condition, uterine fury, which they believed occurred particularly among young widows whose lack of sexual fulfillment could drive them mad. However, it was seventeenth- and eighteenth-century changes in the conception of female sexuality that set the stage for more widespread diagnoses of nymphomania. An extraordinary transformation occurred over several centuries in Western attitudes toward sexuality: women's bodies were no longer understood to be similar, although inferior, to men's bodies, as they had been during the Renaissance. Science and medicine—as well as philosophy and theology—declared women to be inherently different and innately less carnal than men. By the nineteenth century, women's formerly lustful character had been recreated as modest and submissive. According to this new construction, women were thought to be less passionate than men, and also less rational. They were particularly vulnerable to being overwhelmed by their sexual desires, especially during puberty, menstruation, childbirth, and menopause—that is, for most of their adult lives. Thus, those women who stepped outside strict societal norms might be diagnosed and treated as nymphomaniacs. Reflecting a double standard about male and female sexuality, medical as well as popular beliefs considered lustfulness—although needing to be controlled—a natural state for men as it presumably no longer was for women. Consequently, the male equivalent of nymphomania, satyriasis, was diagnosed far less frequently.

Similar attitudes about female sexuality extended into the courtroom: nymphomania was used as a defense in rape cases. Before the advent of DNA evidence, accused rapists could call expert witnesses to claim that the "prosecutrix," as she was uniquely called in rape cases, was a nymphomaniac, that is, her disturbed condition drove her to say yes and then to lie about it. In cases of incest, where consent by an underaged girl would not exonerate the accused, defendants effectively presented the argument that the accuser was a nymphomaniac, which meant that she had fantasized the sexual act. At the time, nymphomania was understood to be a real, diagnosable disease or disorder that had consequences in the law.

Contemporary scholars consider nymphomania a metaphor for the sexual fears and fantasies of the time: Its ill-defined symptoms reflect changing societal norms. What was diagnosed as nymphomania in 1900 would not be out of the ordinary sexual behavior in 2000. Nymphomania provides clear evidence that sexuality is not universal, innate, and biologically determined, but shaped by many forces—including what is thought to be "natural" or "normal" at the time. Capturing the relative nature of the term, the well-known twentieth-century American sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, when asked "who is a nymphomaniac?" replied "someone who has more sex than you do."

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Groneman, Carol. 2000. Nymphomania: A History. New York: W.W. Norton.

Pomeroy, Wardell Baxter. 1982. Dr. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

                                                Carol Groneman

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nym·pho·ma·ni·a / ˌnimfəˈmānēə/ • n. uncontrollable or excessive sexual desire in a woman. Compare with satyriasis. DERIVATIVES: nym·pho·ma·ni·ac / -ˈmānēˌak/ n. & adj. nym·pho·ma·ni·a·cal / -məˈnīəkəl/ adj.