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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 553-555

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A History

Nymphomania: A History. By Carol Groneman. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. Pp. xxiii + 238. $24.95 (cloth).

Carol Groneman, a professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, has written an excellent summary of the medical, predominantly male, view of female sexuality over the past two hundred years. Although the evidence for medical concern about women's sexuality has a much longer history, the modern view of women as the bedrock of moral purity was created in the early nineteenth century. This led to the creation of the passionless woman as the ideal and the development of a fear of female sexual desire. Medical "facts" were collected and displayed to support this belief, bolstered by religious interpretations of the role of women. Of course, the term "women" really meant white, middle-class women. The surge of immigration and the deep racial and class divisions of the time led to the understanding that other (i.e., lower) classes of women were unable to meet these standards. The creation of a morally pure society was therefore the responsibility of good, nonsexual women, as this was the way to a higher civilization.

The author employs several case studies from nineteenth-century professional journals to describe the way female desire was pathologized, even by women themselves. One recently widowed patient's statement indicates the societal pressures on women not to be sexual: "I am sure my lascivious feelings cannot be natural--they must be the effect of disease." She was treated by a variety of remedies, including leeches on the uterus, and was pronounced cured after several weeks. In another case, the patient's vagina was overly moist, and her clitoris was "tumid," proof of nymphomania. After applying caustic materials to her genitals along with other traditional remedies to cool her ardor, she also was found, upon vaginal examination, to have "every appearance of modesty." [End Page 553]

As Freud's theories became more widely known, nymphomania took on another dimension, the psychological. While biological theories were not discarded, Freud's new ideas led to new diagnoses of women as "hypersexual," delinquent, and sexually deviant--like the "New Woman" who wanted to vote and have an education. As the twentieth century developed, so did contemporary sex experts, such as Havelock Ellis. One patient, a young working girl called Rose, was diagnosed at the Boston Psychopathic Hospital as an "emotional and unstable girl with a strong sex desire." She was considered "feeble-minded" by one physician, but IQ testing revealed high intelligence. While corresponding with her case worker for over a year, she was remarkably confessional, writing, "I'm trying so hard to be good." But after reading some of Ellis's Studies in the Psychology of Sex and a popular book called The Truth about Women, she declared that these books "quite knocked all my good resolutions to smash." She was aware of the double bind in which women were trapped: "Now with you saying to be good and this book to give free rein to any and all impulses and passion, what is one to do?"

Groneman's nine years of research included areas other than medicine. In the chapter "Nymphomania in the Courts" she recounts the 1966 decision in Giles v. Maryland where the court, split 5-4, agreed that evidence of nymphomania was generally admissible in rape cases. While women who reported rapes by family members were assumed to be fantasizing (because loving family members would not do such a thing), rapes by strangers were often defended with the argument that a nymphomaniac must have given consent, because she could not be expected to do otherwise. Georgia law still names nymphomania as one of the factors to consider in determining the credibility of a witness. Other state courts used Georgia as a justification to allow expert witnesses to testify about the subject.

Groneman also discusses the famed "Cable-Car-Named-Desire" nymphomaniac case in San Francisco, in...


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