Nymphomania: A History.

Author:Bullough, Vern L.
Position:Book review
 
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Nymphomania: A History New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000. by Carol Groneman pp. xxiii, 238. ISBN 0-393 04838-1

This is a delightful and informative read. Groneman traces the history, primarily in the United States, of nymphomania, a concept that first appeared in the medical literature of the nineteenth century, and following her title of the mania about nymphos. Although there is a long history of medical concern about female sexuality going back as far as Galen's belief in the necessity of women having periodic orgasms, even self induced ones, or otherwise hysteria would result, the fear of "excessive" female sexuality seemed to have peaked in the nineteenth century. In a period in which a large segments of the medical community believed that masturbation and sexual excess caused insanity and disease, it probably seemed logical to many of them to label women with "excessive sexual desires," as nymphomaniacs, although it was never clear what excessive meant. Men with similar excessive desires were said to be have satyriasis, but it was women who came in for the most pointed comments in the medical literature, dominated by the writings of male physicians.

Nymphomaniacs did not have to have a partner to be labeled as such, and much of the nineteenth century history of nymphomania is concerned with masturbation. In fact, not all the cases reported in this book were labeled as cases of nymphomania at the time, but simply used as examples of the dangers of excessive female sexuality. This means that the book is at heart a study of medical ideas about female sexuality and their effect on the general population and professionals in other fields. The most extreme forms, fitting in with the theory of masturbatory insanity, were reported in asylums where women used lewd and obscene language, engaged in violent tearing of their clothes, and incessant, public masturbation. Many in the medical communty fervently believed that unless they could intervene effectively in curtailing female sexuality, their patients would end up in mental institutions. The medical community, however, was divided over whether nymphomania was a problem of the genitals or of the brain. Autopsies gave them no guidance, but the fear of dangers of nymphomania and masturbation inculcated into the public mind was so great that many women desperately sought help with their sexual problems in order to avoid going insane.

Even though many of the ideas about masturbation were challenged...

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