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Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 57.1 (2002) 79-85

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Science and Sexual Identity:
An Essay Review

Vernon A. Rosario

HARRY OOSTERHUIS. Stepchildren of Nature: Krafft-Ebing, Psychiatry, and the Making of Sexual Identity. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2000. x, 321 pp., illus. $30.
CHANDAK SENGOOPTA. Otto Weininger: Sex, Science, and Self in Imperial Vienna. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2000. x, 239 pp. $29.
THE 1990s, proclaimed President George Bush, was the “decade of the brain.” Our fin-de-siècle might well be dubbed the “era of the genome” given the regular announcements of genetic linkages for diseases, temperamental and behavioral traits, and sexualities. It is easy to imagine that the phenomenal rhetorical power of biomedical science in the popular imagination is a result of concrete advancements in medical therapeutics and scientific knowledge. However significant the accumulation of scientific information in the late twentieth century, it is nevertheless sobering to recall that there is, as yet, no consensus on the pathophysiology of any major psychiatric illnesses nor any approved gene therapies. The allure of biological explanations of the human condition, therefore, must lie elsewhere, beyond the technological feat of the Human Genome Project. The previous fin-de-siècle had its own trust in science and the power of biological explanations of the self and society. Two recent books, Harry Oosterhuis’s Stepchildren of Nature: Krafft-Ebing and the Making of Sexual Identity and Chandak Sengoopta’s Otto Weininger: Sex, Science, and Self in Imperial Vienna, help us examine the allure of biological explanations of sexual subjectivity and social difference. How can we understand the appeal of biological explanations�be it of gay genes, gay brain structures, or sexual dimorphism in the brain�particularly when this seems to imply the “pathologization” of human differences? In the areas of gender and sexuality, an [End Page 79] abundance of historical studies have criticized the medicalization of marginalized groups such as women, gays and lesbians, people of color.

Michel Foucault most notably advanced the thesis that the nineteenth-century medicalization of bodies was central to a new regime of power and of social management. 1 It was the neuropsychiatric “etymologization” of perversity that not just managed deviant sexualities, but generated the new sexual subjectivities themselves. No Victorian doctor is more responsible for this etymologization than Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840:1902). Krafft-Ebing was born in Mannheim, Germany into an aristocratic family. His father was a high-level administrator, and his maternal grandfather was a distinguished criminal lawyer. Krafft-Ebing did his medical training in Heidelberg, and his first clinical appointment was in the Illenau asylum. He went on to become medical superintendent of the Feldhof Asylum near Graz and professor of psychiatry at the University of Graz in 1873. While there he established himself as a leader in forensic psychiatry, arguing that the expertise of psychiatrists should afford them a privileged role in the legal determination of mental competence. After publishing a groundbreaking textbook of forensic psychiatry in 1875, Krafft-Ebing moved in 1889 to the University of Vienna. Dedicated to clinical education and the use of patients to learn and teach psychiatric principles, he was equally committed to developing the professional standing of psychiatry, partly through strengthening its ties with neurology.

Krafft-Ebing was an inveterate nosographer, classifying psychiatric disorders into different subtypes largely based on phenomenological criteria. This is apparent in his earliest article on “anomalies of the sex drive” and in the first edition of Psychopathia Sexualis, which distinguished four categories of sexual pathology: decreased, increased, precocious or senile, and perverted sexual drive. 2 This last one included contrary sexual feeling (conträre Sexualempfindung), which was the term for “psychosexual inversion” or what became generally known as homosexuality. All of these conditions were presented as [End Page 80] manifestations of degenerate hereditary and moral insanity. Krafft-Ebing also published monographs and textbooks on hypnotherapy, neurasthenia, menstrual psychosis, and general psychiatry. However, he remains best know for Psychopathia Sexualis, his encyclopedia of sexual perversities. This volume is regularly...


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