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Book Review - Psychopathia Sexualis
Psychopathia Sexualis
by Richard von Krafft-Ebing
Arcade, 1998
Review by Rachel Cooper, Ph.D.
Feb 14th 2003

Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis was first published in German in 1886, and continued to be regarded as one of the primary texts on sexual aberrations well into the twentieth century. The book went through twelve different editions, with this Arcade edition being a translation of the twelfth. The bulk of the text consists of 237 case studies of sexual deviancy. These range from the mundane, such as cases of lack of sexual desire; to the bizarre, such as a shoe fetichist who has to stare fixedly at a shoe nailed above his bed in order to be potent with his wife; through to the truly horrible, such as the case of a man who cut a young boy’s abdomen and then penetrated him through the incision.

Originally, Krafft-Ebing published some of the case material in Latin, in an attempt to protect ordinary people from its contents. Still, contemporaries noted, with disgust, the book sold far too well for all its buyers to be physicians. Clearly, many people were reading the text in the hope of finding pornographic material. This Arcade edition too will no doubt mostly be read by over-sexed and overly-intellectual adolescents in search of the disgusting and depraved. After all, those with an academic interest in such texts do not constitute a sufficient market for it to be published in paperback. This being said, readers in search of porn can be advised to look elsewhere. Psychopathia Sexualis does indeed list and describe every form of sexual deviancy one can think of, and then some, but for the most part the case studies are very short, and the prose is dry and often obscure.

In a forward to this edition, Joseph LoPiccolo, a sex therapist, suggests that Krafft-Ebing might be read today by those troubled by their sexual feelings or practices, and by the health professionals who seek to treat them. I find it very unlikely that such readers would find Krafft-Ebing helpful, and somewhat scary that an “esteemed sex therapist” might recommend him. Psychopathia Sexualis was written over a hundred years ago, and its age shows. Krafft-Ebing, and his contemporaries, believed that masturbation was the root of almost all sexual problems, that women are naturally inclined to masochism, and that cunnilingus is amongst the most depraved of all sexual practices. More up-to-date advice regarding sexual problems can be found in any women’s magazine.

Still, Psychopathia Sexualis is a book worth reading. Krafft-Ebing forces one to think about normal and deviant sexual practices in new ways. His case studies shed light on a world in which people seem to have thought about sex in ways quite different from us. Reading his case studies gives the reader some idea of what it would be like to think and do things quite differently, and through this forces them to question the “naturalness” of 21st century beliefs and practices.

In many ways, Krafft-Ebing’s assumptions about what a normal sexual life might be like are more foreign than his descriptions of deviance. At the current time, I guess, most people think it normal to masturbate, normal to have sex with their spouse prior to marriage, but somewhat deviant to visit prostitutes. Krafft-Ebing’s world was quite different. For example, many of Krafft-Ebing’s patients were deeply concerned with the potentially maleficent effects of masturbation. Masturbation, it was thought, caused all kinds of psychic and physical ills – ranging from impotence, to mental weakness. As a consequence, many of his patients simply didn’t masturbate. Others, who succumbed to this “vice”, spent a considerable amount of time worrying about its potential effects, and much energy trying to resist their urges. As another example of difference, few of Krafft-Ebing’s patients had pre-marital sex with their wives, but most visited brothels regularly (every week or so), certainly prior to marriage, and quite often afterwards as well. Indeed, refusing to visit prostitutes seems to have been as socially awkward as being teetotal can be today - several of Krafft-Ebing’s patients report being forced to go to brothels with their friends, and thus having their sexual inadequacies made public.

Krafft-Ebing is also, of course, interesting for what he shows about sexual abnormalities. When sexual deviants are portrayed in the media they tend to be depicted as being utterly unlike us (consider stories concerning paedophiles, for example).  In contrast, the humanity of Krafft-Ebing’s patients comes across very strongly. They may have sex with goats, delight in being whipped, or steal women’s handkerchiefs, but aside from that they often hold down respectable jobs and have families who love them. Many of the case studies include statements in the patients’ own words. Again, this helps to make clear that Krafft-Ebing’s patients were real people, who although often tortured by their sexual desires, were in other respects like anyone else.

One of the most interesting case studies, case study 129, concerns a man who would nowadays be considered transsexual. The patient’s statements clearly suggest that feelings of “being trapped in the wrong body” can be culturally shaped. For example, the patient knows he is really a woman because  “I have the sensations of a woman. I cannot go with bare hands, as both heat and cold trouble me.” (p.207). He has problems wearing trousers as his female abdomen cannot stand the pressure. Worst of all, while the patient previously perspired little, “now there are all the odious peculiarities of the female perspiration, particularly about the lower part of the body.” (p.206). One can only suppose that modern day transsexuals, who lack the patient’s belief that women are sensitive and sweaty, have different sensations.

Krafft-Ebing’s case studies also raise some interesting questions regarding paedophilia. Currently it is thought that paedophiles are almost exclusively men. According to Krafft-Ebing’s case studies, however, women are at least as likely to abuse children. Assuming that his cases are reliable, this raises interesting questions. Is the gender incidence of paedophilia affected by culture? Or, are there still women paedophiles today, but they escape recognition?

While Krafft-Ebing’s book is certainly of intellectual interest, this edition is not well suited for scholarly use. The introductory editorial material is scanty and uninformative; even the original date of publication is omitted. Many of the technical terms used by Krafft-Ebing are obscure. When talking of masturbation, for example, Krafft-Ebing speaks of “onanism”, “masturbation”, “auto-masturbation”, and “manustupration”. Whether there are subtle differences between these acts is unclear. As another example, Krafft-Ebing draws distinctions between lesbians who practice cunnilingus, and those who practice “tribady”, whatever that may be, and between “viragos” and “gynandrics”. Explanations of the meanings of such terms would be useful, but are not provided.

To sum up, Psychopathia Sexualis should be read by those interested in the history of ideas of sexual normality and deviance. While of great interest, however, the text is frequently obscure, and this edition lacks sufficient editorial commentary. 


© 2003 Rachel Cooper


Rachel Cooper, Ph.D., Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Bradford, UK.