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 boys abdomen and then penetrated him through the incision.
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 womens magazine.
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-Ebings 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-Ebings
world was quite different. For example, many of Krafft-Ebings 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 didnt 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-Ebings 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-Ebings patients report being forced to go to brothels with their
friends, and thus having their sexual inadequacies made public.
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-Ebings
patients comes across very strongly. They may have sex with goats, delight in
being whipped, or steal womens 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-Ebings 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 patients 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 patients belief that women are
sensitive and sweaty, have different sensations.
case studies also raise some interesting questions regarding paedophilia.
Currently it is thought that paedophiles are almost exclusively men. According
to Krafft-Ebings 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?
Krafft-Ebings 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
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
© 2003 Rachel Cooper
Ph.D., Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Bradford, UK.