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  • Introduction:The Construction of Sexual Deviance in Late Imperial Eastern Europe
  • Keely Stauter-Halsted (bio) and Nancy M. Wingfield (bio)

The scientific study of the psychopathology of sexual life necessarily deals with the miseries of man and the dark sides of his existence, the shadow of which contorts the sublime image of the deity into horrid caricatures, and leads astray aestheticism and morality.

—Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis, 1886

When Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1903) penned the first edition of Psychopathia Sexualis from his University of Vienna medical offices, he established himself as one of the foremost authorities in the new field of sexology. The study of sexual "deviance"—sexual behavior not explicitly intended for procreation—had been dominated by French psychiatrists in the previous decade, but by the 1890s German and Austrian experts began making transformative contributions to the young science. Krafft-Ebing thus joined a growing community of medical professionals and intellectuals in the imperial capital preoccupied with themes of sexuality.1 The same year that Psychopathia Sexualis appeared, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) completed his [End Page 215] medical degree and opened a small practice in Vienna.2 Criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909) and physician and homosexuality advocate Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935) drew on Vienna's lively atmosphere to refine their theories of human sexuality.3 Viennese philosopher Otto Weininger (1880–1903) and satirist Karl Kraus (1874–1936) also published soon thereafter their treatises on the related topics of sex, morality, criminal justice, and the Jews.4 Residents elsewhere in eastern Europe had access to a veritable explosion of scholarship on sex as the writings of British sexologist Havelock Ellis (1859–1939), Berlin dermatologist Iwan Bloch (1872–1922), and Russian syphilologists Benjamin and Pauline Tarnowsky (1838–1906, 1848–1910) made their way to booksellers throughout the region.5 This new generation of experts on sexual practices, sexual anomalies, and sexual diseases helped to introduce educated society to new ways of understanding the most intimate of human behaviors. In all of these respects, central and eastern Europe had become a center of the legal and medical study of sexuality.

Yet despite the lively professional interest that fostered these debates, historians still have an incomplete understanding of the social milieu that shaped the thinking of these seminal figures. Psychiatrists, criminologists, sexologists, and venereal specialists like Freud, Krafft-Ebing, Bloch, Hirschfeld, and the Tarnowskys did not work in isolation. They read local newspapers, followed criminal court cases, and cultivated relationships with patients from all over the region. Hundreds of self-described "perverts" maintained correspondence with Krafft-Ebing, for example, who in turn helped reify their status as pathological sexual deviants. The popular press provided detailed coverage of a steady succession of criminal cases focused on defendants' sexual proclivities and followed local scandals that put sexual abnormalities on the public radar as never before.6 Journalists milked [End Page 216] trials of abusive madams and accusations of Lustmord (sexual murder). They interviewed victims of sex trafficking, highlighted crimes of passion, and promoted charges of ritual murder in their desperation to sell papers and expand readership.7 Cosmopolitan centers like Budapest, Vienna, and Warsaw, with their coffeehouses, red-light districts, and gay cafés, drew on populations interested in the opportunity for enhanced sexual experiences.8 Beyond these burgeoning capitals, sexual topics were the currency of provincial police stations, law courts, and social reform groups. Everywhere the eastern part of Europe, like the western, was preoccupied with sexuality and with cataloging the varieties of human sexual experience.

Our understanding of how this interest in sexuality evolved is relatively deep for the countries of western Europe.9 By contrast, research capturing the fascination with sexual abnormality in the territories of the former Habsburg Monarchy outside of Vienna remains underdeveloped. Apart from an increasingly sophisticated scholarship for imperial Russia and the early Soviet period, the study of sexuality in the provinces and in the regional capitals of eastern Europe is still in its nascent stages.10

The articles in this volume address this research lacuna. They are situated in the declining decades of the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Romanov imperia, when sexually vibrant metropolises thrived alongside celibate monasteries and Victorian morality, and virulent nationalism...


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pp. 215-224
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