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  • The Origin of Italian Sexological Studies: Female Sexual Inversion, ca. 1870–1900
  • Chiara Beccalossi (bio)

Before the term “sexual inversion ” entered the vocabulary of the Italian medical community with the forensic physician Arrigo Tamassia’s case history of a male sexual invert in 1878, there already existed notions of female same-sex desires.1 These ideas linked female homosexuality to excessive sexual longing, virility, and specific women-only environments. This framework of understanding returned in later studies of female “sexual inversion,” but it assumed a more sophisticated conceptual form. The aim of this article is to map the debates around female same-sex desires that took place as Italian sexology developed by the end of the nineteenth century.

In Della pazzia in genere, e in specie (On Insanity in Genera and in Species), published in 1793, Vincenzo Chiarugi, the father of Italian psychiatry, divided mental illness into three types: mania, melancholia, and amentia. In this classification love and sexual desire were critical. Due to the gap between perceptual and intellectual functions, for example, an individual suffering from mania lacks insight and is at the mercy of his or her instincts, as shown by the tendency to eat inedible things and engage in abnormal sexual practices. The maniac does not know the restraint of reason, and his or her feelings, including sexual feelings, become excessive. Such an individual “impudently and insatiably seeks sexual pleasure, making use of whatever outlet can be found for a stimulating and consuming libido, just as irrational animals would do.”2 Within this context, then, Chiarugi discussed erotomania, nymphomania, and satyriasis. Melancholia, according to Chiarugi, was, in contrast, an error of judgment or the ability to [End Page 103] reason, restricted to one or a few pertinent objects.3 It was, so to speak, a fixation on one idea. Among the many kinds of melancholia to which he drew attention was what he called “Scythian melancholia”:

Scythian melancholia, according to Hippocrates, should be considered another cause of the second species discussed above. As Hippocrates tells us, these nomads, because of their continual riding without stirrups, become eunuchs (that is, incapable of procreating), performing feminine duties, and in everything appearing and speaking like women. Nor is there sadness or serious displeasure in them, for when they go to their wives later on, so Hippocrates continues, and find themselves incapable of coitus, they keep quiet, thinking that nothing is wrong. But when after trying in vain for the second or third time and beyond, they still can make no progress, they come to think that they must have offended God and throw the blame on Him. They take to wearing women’s clothing, and on that account they openly declare themselves emasculated. As they live tranquilly and contentedly in their mistaken opinions, they must be said to suffer from Linnaeus’ vesania [madness] rather than from the melancholia of the ancients.4

Did Chiarugi, in explaining and interpreting Hippocrates’ Scythian melancholia, have in mind anything close to the nineteenth century’s “sexual inversion”?5 There is certainly a similarity between Scythian melancholia and the later notion. One of the main ideas incorporated in the concept of sexual inversion was that of gender inversion: homosexual men were considered effeminate, and homosexual women were virile. Inborn or acquired effeminacy or masculinity explained how a man desired another man and a woman desired another woman. Men affected by Scythian melancholia, according to Chiarugi, became effeminate and lost their sexual desire for women. However, an inborn taint of same-sex desire was critical for the late-nineteenth-century concept of homosexuality, even if sexologists in this period also acknowledged acquired sexual inversion. If nothing else, Chiarugi’s treatise shows that traditional Italian discourse on disease dealt with sexuality and what were later called “abnormal” forms of love.

Ideas About Same-Sex Desires Before Sexual Inversion

Following the specialization of medicine in the nineteenth century, new medical sciences such as gynecology, venereology, forensic medicine, and incipient psychiatry explored the human manifestation of sexual instinct [End Page 104] in its “normal” and “abnormal” forms.6 Among other things, this first generation of psychiatrists focused on anomalous forms of sexuality, as can be seen in the tradition...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 103-120
Launched on MUSE
2008-12-20
Open Access
No
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