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  • Pathologizing Male Desire:Satyriasis, Masculinity, and Modern Civilization at the Fin de Siècle
  • Timothy Verhoeven (bio)

On 9 november 1888 police in the Whitechapel quarter of London’s East End discovered the body of Mary Kelly. She was the fifth victim of the killer whom the press had already dubbed Jack the Ripper, and her disfigured corpse showed that his brutality was escalating. After murdering Kelly, the Ripper spent two hours mutilating her body. Desperate for clues, police called in Dr. Thomas Bond to perform an autopsy. Bond, however, also offered police a psychological profile of the killer. He was likely a “quiet, inoffensive looking man” who was “neatly and respectably dressed.” His acquaintances might suspect that he was “not quite right in his mind at times,” but otherwise they would have had no inkling of his sadistic nature. Bond also speculated about the origins of the Ripper’s murderous insanity. One possibility was a form of religious mania, another a “revengeful and brooding” cast of mind. The most likely cause, however, was a violent sexual pathology to which some men were susceptible and that, Bond informed police, “may be called satyriasis.”1

Satyriasis had long been familiar to physicians as, in very rough terms, the male equivalent of nymphomania. The name of the condition evoked the satyr, the half-beast and half-human figure of Greek mythology famed for lustfulness and promiscuity. In a book written in the first century AD, Aretaeus of Cappadocia defined satyriasis as a condition of excessive desire in men that, by inducing a state of severe sexual frustration, would lead to sickness and death.2 For Renaissance writers, satyriasis was characterized by excessive and unrequited passion for another. In his Treatise on Lovesickness [End Page 25] (1610), the French physician Jacques Ferrand classed satyriasis as a variant of “love melancholy” or “love madness.”3 A French dissertation from the early nineteenth century described the sufferer as red in the face and extremely animated, and it listed death due to gangrene in the genitals as a likely outcome.4

By the time that Thomas Bond reached for satyriasis as the key to explaining the Ripper’s brutal crimes, this established but vaguely defined condition had become a vehicle for articulating a new and pressing set of concerns about masculinity and the male body. A number of studies have shown the extent to which the male body was subjected to medical scrutiny in the last decades of the nineteenth century. As Elizabeth Stephens argues in her study of nineteenth-century British medical writing, the male body, which was once considered the “silent, invisible cultural center,” was discovered to be “wanting, degraded, even diseased.”5 More and more men were found to be suffering from physical symptoms that, though ranging widely from listlessness to lack of confidence to excessive self-consciousness, had a common sexual origin. One expression of this pathologization of the male body was the panic over spermatorrhea, the involuntary emission of semen, a condition that was considered both morally shameful and physically debilitating.6 Dire warnings about the effect of masturbation similarly crystallized the sentiment that the male body was an unreliable and treacherous vehicle that demanded careful monitoring on the part of many authorities, from parents to schoolmasters to doctors. As Ed Cohen argues in the context of Victorian Britain, “Once they reached puberty (if not even before), middle-class male bodies would be continually subjected to a wide array of institutional gazes that sought to give precise (sexual) meanings to their minute behavioral patterns.”7

Historians who have investigated the problematization of the male body in the late nineteenth century have largely overlooked satyriasis.8 In part, [End Page 26] this is due to the relatively small number of references to the condition in medical literature, particularly in comparison to spermatorrhea and masturbation. Nevertheless, by the end of the century doctors claimed to be seeing an unprecedented number of cases. At midcentury the French physician Bénédict-Augustin Morel admitted that his knowledge of the disease was based on secondhand sources, for he had never personally encountered a sufferer.9 By the 1870s internationally renowned figures in psychiatry and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 25-45
Launched on MUSE
2014-12-17
Open Access
No
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