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  • Feminine Sexual Pathologies
  • Peter Cryle (bio) and Lisa Downing (bio)

The aim of this special issue is to produce a set of detailed studies of so-called feminine sexual pathologies over the course of the long nineteenth century and its immediate prehistory and to explore a range of genres and media, including literary, medical, and philosophical texts. Just what conditions or practices came to be counted as pathology is, of course, the object of critical attention throughout. The collection highlights the complex and often intermittent history of “pathologies” such as hysteria, frigidity, nymphomania, lesbianism, and erotomania as well as treating the heavily gendered discourses surrounding “perversions” such as sadism and masochism and delinquent behaviors such as murderousness.

The shift in perception of “abnormalities” from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century is an underlying concern of this volume. First, the eighteenth century entertained wide discrepancies in discourse according to generic locality: medical writing often presented graphic descriptions of such distempers as nymphomania accompanied by dire warnings, while libertine fiction typically sought to present unusual sexual behaviors as diverting or amusingly eccentric matters of “taste,” able to be momentarily transformed in the course of erotic contests. The nineteenth century, by contrast, tended to produce a more narrowly convergent understanding: such behaviors were fixed into the categories of sexual perversions, as Michel Foucault famously argued in 1976.1 Second, eighteenth-century accounts of pathology were often bound up with material understandings of human physiology as constitutionally natural (that is, based on humoral differences between bodies), whereas the nineteenth century witnessed the adoption of medical and philosophical theories of instinct and then of desire to account for these sexual behaviors. (Caroline Warman’s article lays the groundwork for a discussion [End Page 1] of materialism in relation to eighteenth-and nineteenth-century perceptions of body and subjectivity.) Third, by contrast with the eighteenth century, discourses at the end of the nineteenth century frequently constructed sexual deviation in terms of normative ideas of gender, so that pathologies of both genders were often seen as a sign of misplaced traits attributed to the other gender, resulting in “feminized” men and “masculinized” women (see especially the articles by Heike Bauer, Chiara Beccalossi, Lisa Downing, and Alison Moore). The emergence of the concept of “perversion” served as an explanation for all forms of sexual eccentricity or nonconformity, and the construction of a narrow definition of heterosexual, coital normativity through the pathologization of other sexualities frequently overlapped with fears of degeneration or with concerns about racial, national, and class identity particular to the European fin de siècle.

While nineteenth-century medical discourse sought to examine deviations from the so-called norm, the studies in this special issue reflect in different ways on how “the norm” was seldom actually represented as exemplary or even made present in the range of nineteenth-century texts explored. It was often shown to be extremely difficult to attain and perhaps even rare in a clinical or epidemiological sense. It may be argued that, since the authors included in this collection focus on representations of pathology and perversion (hysteria, lesbianism, frigidity, masochism, fabric fetishism, and murder), it is unsurprising that what might be called easy or straightforward normalcy is missing. However, even in the texts studied in Peter Cryle’s article (medical pamphlets and novels concerning wedding nights), in the marital advice manuals discussed by Rachel Mesch, and in the discourses of artificial insemination that form the subject of Michael Finn’s contribution, where one might expect to find a wealth of advice and information about such socially sanctioned concerns as heterosexual happiness and reproductive efficiency, normalcy is in fact strikingly absent, and anomalies, perversions, and problems abound.

It is equally striking that the process of biological development as understood in the nineteenth century did not simply give rise to forms of life that stood tall at the end of a happy evolution, contemplating the rest of nature from above. Indeed, as Warman’s article shows, the very process of evolution was seen to be fraught with danger, since the most evolved forms of life were in principle the least stable. When human nature appeared as the tip of a “complex irritable creation,” every...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 1-7
Launched on MUSE
2008-12-20
Open Access
No
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