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  • Nymphomania: A History
  • Kevin White
Nymphomania: A History. By Carol Groneman (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. xxiii plus 238pp. $24.95).

In her clever and elegant little book, Nymphomania: A History, Carol Groneman explores the changing meaning of the word “nymphomania” over the last two hundred years, and in doing so, manages to explain a great deal more about our altering understanding of female sexuality. How much sex is it permissible for a woman to have? And who decides?

Groneman’s thesis is built around a familiar framework, within which she nevertheless contributes an original perspective. To the Victorians, “nymphomania” [End Page 1006] was a clear-cut concept: the “nymphomaniac” was a diseased woman as her excessive interest in sex so blatantly defied the cultural conventions of “passionlessness” and the “Cult of True Womanhood.” Groneman’s focus on medical and legal records causes her to unnecessarily exaggerate her case; of course “nymphomania” was proscribed but Groneman seems to choose the most lurid examples!! Thus, she has found evidence of gynaecological surgery designed to cure nymphomania, most alarmingly a clitorodectomy performed on a child in the 1890s. She delineates the fierce debate among the gynaecologists at the turn of the century and also cases of strong objection to surgical procedures designed to cure nymphomania. And, compellingly, she finds an “autobiography of a nymphomaniac” in which a long series of procedures undertaken is described. Yet one still wonders how typical such cases were. One is convinced of the prescription of nymphomania by doctors; not of the commonness of draconian cures. Equally, in a culture where reticence reigned, nymphomania cannot have had huge importance, as few people knew about it.

This tendency to generalise from limited sources continues in Groneman’s discussion of the meaning of “nymphomania” in the early twentieth century. At this time, “nymphomania” came to be seen as having a psychological cause. The concept took on “dramatic new guises; explanations now included an inadequate sense of self, repressed homosexuality and incomplete psychological development.” Nymphomania hence rested not only in the body, but in the psyche. Yet psychiatrists cured “nymphomania” from a quite different vantage point to doctors. They saw sexual fulfilment in women in positive terms. Therefore, they grafted the concept of the “frigid woman” onto the literature of nymphomania by arguing that nymphomaniacs had failed to make the mature move towards experiencing sexual pleasure, not in the clitoris, but in the vagina! More predictable was the psychiatrists’ view of working-class immigrant girls as “hypersexual”.

By the mid twentieth century, sexual scientists such as Kinsey and Masters and Johnson sought the “truth” about sexuality in orgasm counting. They showed that the orgasm was a perfectly natural function and, in doing so, removed all moral content from the study of sexuality. Kinsey, in particular, by reducing the study of sex to “outlets”, notoriously defined the nymphomaniac as “Someone who has more sex than you do.” (p90) It is to Groneman’s credit that she sees that Kinsey simply was measuring behavior, not how people interpreted that behavior. She astutely notes that “a new corrective—would need to be developed.” (p.92) As was to happen...

Groneman is at her best in her discussion of nymphomania in its post-Kinsey context. She shows that in the second half of the twentieth century, the perspectives of both Freud and Kinsey’s followers vied with each other in legal and cultural discussions of nymphomania. She indicates how the work of legal writer John Henry Wigmore drew on Freud to establish that suspicion of nymphomania might render a rape charge false: “no judge should ever let a sex offence charge go to the jury unless the female complainant’s social history and mental make-up have been examined and justified by a qualified physician.” (p.98) Groneman shows how despite contemporary efforts to render a woman’s life history as irrelevant in a rape case, “the truthfulness of a rape victim’s testimony could still be [End Page 1007] challenged—by evidence of the complainant’s sexual behaviour under the guise of a diagnosis of nymphomania.” (p.119) Hence psychiatric discourse continued to lead in a direct line...

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