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All Sexed Up

NYMPHOMANIA A History By Carol Groneman; W.W. Norton: 238 pp., $24.95

November 05, 2000|PETER GREEN | Peter Green is the former fiction critic of the London Daily Telegraph and a professor of classics at the University of Iowa

Nymphomania: you have only to say the word to get a round of (mostly male, rather nervous) laughter. The impetus for Carol Groneman's well-researched and sobering study came from a friend at a conference of female historians who "jokingly said that a history of nymphomania would be a hoot." That wasn't quite how it turned out. What emerged was the story of a persistent, metastasizing, ugly, risible and unbelievably destructive male chauvinist myth: one of the best justifications for feminism I've ever seen. Groneman charts it well, with a plethora of instructive examples. Yet she never quite comes to grips with its inner driving motive: that odd mixture of social dominance and sexual anxiety (over impotence, premature ejaculation and much else besides) that has always underlain men's attitudes to women. Throughout history, accordingly, patriarchal propaganda has retaliated with a number of self-serving and self-exculpatory myths, ranging from the vagina dentata to (of course) nymphomania, which has figured over the centuries as a moral sin, a physical (if uncertainly located) disease, a psychosexual disorder or, most recently, an addiction.

Medical cures in this country have included cold baths, bromide sedatives, cauterization and, yes, clitoridectomy. Significantly, the masculine equivalent of nymphomania, satyriasis, has always been treated much more lightly: boys will be boys, but the full force of the (male-dominated) law until recently descended on girls who had the presumption to be girls. Well into the last century, the law and the medical profession still labeled as "hyperesexuality" or "pathological sexual delinquency" any kind of erotic activity by women that exceeded, or deviated from, their arbitrary definitions of the norm. But, as Groneman shows, the norm kept changing. History has witnessed bizarre variations in the degree and type of sexual activity required to classify a woman socially as a nymphomaniac. This alone clearly points to the notion's genesis as an authoritarian social myth.

According to Alfred Kinsey's tongue-in-cheek aphorism, "[a] nymphomaniac is someone who has more sex than you." In that formulation the idiocy of the concept--and its essential nature--stand revealed. "Nymphomania: A History" offers a chronological narrative of its evolution, documented with an abundance of (often grisly, always mind-boggling) case-histories. I ended it depressed by the seemingly endless capacity of the human mind for self-deception. Nymphomania may be fantasy, but what this book demonstrates, above all, is that mythomania is alive and well and permeates every facet of our social thinking. From Galen's notion of uterine fury down to Freud's (physically impossible) prescription of vaginal orgasms to denote growing up (a rite of passage in more than the usual sense), such fancies have run riot, and not just among the ignorant: the medical and legal professions have always been the most fertile seed-beds for them. As Groneman demonstrates, the myth began with a well-established view, inherited from antiquity (think of Circe and Messalina), of woman as the essence of carnality, which early Christianity reinforced: Eve was the temptress who introduced Original Sin. But in the newly formed United States (to which Groneman largely restricts her investigation), the promise of egalitarianism made women's role (and slaves', too, but that's another story) look somewhat different:

"If all human beings had certain inalienable rights, as revolutionary and Enlightenment doctrine proclaimed, why then was half the population excluded? Over the next decades, natural law, science and medicine would provide answers that maintained the traditional hierarchy: Women's biology determined them unfit to participate with men in the newly acquired political and social rights."

Along with menstruation, the fear of ungovernable sexuality ranked high in that (male-determined) biological packet. Add in what Groneman rightly calls the "wave of moral fervor" and evangelicalism that swept early 19th century America and the scene is set for a new and diametrically opposite myth, that of feminine purity and passionlessness, the sexless angel in the house, the goddess on her pedestal, aloof from the dirty business of work and politics.

This wrenching reversal of traditional concepts set up dangerous internal stresses. The myth was almost exclusively restricted to white, middle-class women, alone thought capable of living up to the new ideal. Racial stereotypes had free play. The poor, immigrants, blacks, were all regarded as primitive and sexually animal by instinct. But even the angel in the house had to be irrational, vulnerable to "sexual diseases," not least in adolescence and at menopause. Since passivity was now regarded as the norm, almost any sign of normal erotic desires, including an active appetite for intercourse or even masturbation (the target of some particularly ripe myths) tended to be diagnosed as abnormal.

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