Psychopathia Sexualis forms part of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s work. The 19th-century analyst assumed an important position in terms of building the contemporary idea of sexuality. Through his work, he investigated various deviant conducts or out-of-the-norm sexual behaviors that were exhibited by different people. Von Krafft-Ebing categorized them by building upon the commonly non-reproductive sexualities such as desires, immodesty, cruelty, and homosexuality1. While his works on the classification and naming of various sexual perversions and his researches on gender desires cannot be exaggerated, they are often misconstrued. His efforts have received much criticism from other scholars in the field. For instance, critics point out that his work is a representation of the Victorian period that was marked by the construction of sexual anomaly. According to Oosterhuis, the events of this period cannot be applied to the modern-world occurrences2.
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Despite these criticisms, von Krafft-Ebing’s work has received considerable support, especially from writers who believe that it has contributed to the modern conception of sexuality. For instance, Harry Oosterhuis’ work Stepchildren of Nature delves deeper into von Krafft-Ebing’s writing. It prompts people to reconsider the quality and extent of von Krafft-Ebing’s writing and his influence on sexuality, even in the modern times. Oosterhuis revisits the evidence that von Krafft-Ebing used to inform his writing. He concludes that he (von Krafft-Ebing) was not a harsh judge of perversion as critics often indicate3. At the time of his writing, immorality was the main explanation for sexual deviance. Instead of disapproving him, it is important to understand von Krafft-Ebing as a provider of contemporary ideas of sexual distinctiveness, rather than a scoundrel. This paper seeks to discuss Harry Oosterhuis’ defense to von Krafft-Ebing’s naming of sexual perversions. It also discusses the evidence that has been presented to support how such a naming has liberated sufferers from shame and isolation.
Understanding von Krafft-Ebing’s Work on Sexual Perversion
In his work, Harry Oosterhuis takes the reader on a journey that traces the origin of the study of sexual deviance in the society. He claims that the modern notion of sexuality can greatly be attributed to the last two decades, especially with reference to Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s publications among other scholars such as Albert Moll4. At the time, many sexual behaviors were recognized as gender perversions. They were greatly linked to immorality. However, it was also a time when modernization of sexuality was emerging. According to Moore, there was an increasing trend towards recognition of sexual diversity5. This modernization of sexuality was linked to forensic medicine that was crucial to the investigation of gender criminal acts such as public indecency, rape, or sodomy. Other areas of interest towards the study of sexuality related to masturbation, prostitution, and venereal diseases. According to Khan and Khan, the interest of psychiatry was focused on understanding the characteristics of moral offenders, especially upon considering disorderly gender conduct6. Some of the perversion terms that had then emerged were masochism, pedophilia, voyeurism, bestiality, exhibitionism, and fetishism. This sexual conduct categorization was aimed at explaining such behaviors as episodic. The grouping derived more or less singular symptoms of deeper mental disorders that could be addressed through medical approaches7.
However, von Krafft-Ebing’s work was a shift from the focus on moral acts to the study of such behaviors as innate morbid conditions. Basing his arguments on scientific approaches in medicine, theories of hereditary degeneration and other medical processes, von Krafft-Ebing among other scholars explained sexual perversion as an inborn deviance, rather than an immoral act. In other words, he shifted the categorization of various deviant sexual behaviors from the forgoing episodic or singular symptoms of underlying mental disorder definitions. Instead, he established a definition of perversion as a central part of a more broad, independent, and continuous natural sexual instinct that could not be attributed to a mental disorder as Oudshoorn confirms8. He revised his collection several times. In the process, he added new categorizations and definitions of sexual behaviors that he identified by studying more case histories where he had ventured into collecting evidence to that effect. Through his efforts, von Krafft-Ebing named and classified virtually all non-procreative sexuality and hence ushered a new era of psychiatric knowledge about perversion.
Harry Oosterhuis’ Defense to von Krafft-Ebing’s Naming of Sexual Perversions
In his collection, Harry Oosterhuis draws heavily from von Krafft-Ebing’s writings. He seeks to understand the motivation that he had in coming up with his approach to sexual perversion. According to Stephens, Oosterhuis’ ideas are founded on his investigation of thousands of courtroom confessions and private letters that were collected by von Krafft-Ebing relating to different sexual acts that individuals had confessed or narrated9.
Firstly, Oosterhuis points out clearly that through von Krafft-Ebing’s ideologies, a new era was ushered where people who were termed as perverts could be heard. Previous efforts to classify different deviant sexual behaviors were highly biased since they focused on either trying to characterize them in medical terms such as indicate pathology or on legal and moral terms to show crime or sin10. In this disposition, individuals who exhibited these nonstandard sexual behaviors were either criminals or immoral. Hence, they had no identity in the society. Through his writings, von Krafft-Ebing presented himself as impartial and a humanitarian expert by arguing against the then legal and moral insinuations, which approached sexual deviance as a crime or sin. Therefore, he could win the hearts of many people with these sexual deviations who approached him for support, acceptance, and understanding as Deleuze reveals11. He could collect hundreds of thousands of case stories, which he sought to publicize relating to the issues. The publications offered immense support and relief to other people who did not understand themselves or those who did not understand their friends or family members who could have been exhibiting such behaviors12.
Secondly, Oosterhuis claims that von Krafft-Ebing’s collection introduced a new twist towards sexuality by depicting it as an essential inevitable force that can be very powerful and irresistible. Oosterhuis considers sexuality a continuous force that can be both dangerous and wholesome and which everybody has to come to terms with. While this approach towards sexual behavior was already in existence, the differentiation of sexual behaviors as either normal or abnormal for legal or moral connotation purposes was a great hindrance towards understanding sexual deviance13. Von Krafft-Ebing asserted that the introduction of normal or abnormal connotations to sexuality was inspired by a long struggle to try to control sexual drive in the society. In his paper, he claimed that these moral insinuations to curb sexuality marked the start of many moral restrictions that slowly ensured that any non-reproductive gender-based behavior became immoral and hence a perversion.
Through his naming of various sexual perversions, Oosterhuis insists that von Krafft-Ebing was able to bring a new era where people who had such sexual behaviors could have a distinctive identity. They could stand to be counted as human beings without being despised. In other words, he tried to show that although such behaviors were despised, they were normal innate feelings that people who depicted them could not control them just like any other sexual behavior14. For instance, Oosterhuis points that since sexual behaviors and all humanly things are hereditary, people who express such behaviors cannot be blamed since their behaviors are innate (hereditary). Hence, they require such a justification and understanding from other people. Further, von Krafft-Ebing pointed out that sexual behavior that had been allowable for a long time was only the procreative one. However, citing evidence and confessions from homosexuals, he confirmed that there was the need to redefine sex as more of a pleasure-intended behavior, as opposed to a procreative act. Von Krafft-Ebing noted that many of these homosexuals expressed as much need for attachment and partnership towards their partners as evidenced by the normal heterosexual relationships. Consequently, as Blachere and Cour assert, apart from the attraction towards same sex, it was not easy to differentiate the underlying characteristics of such behaviors from the heterosexual relationships15. The only difference was the means through which people expressed their sexuality. Naming of such behaviors was then an important step towards giving people or sufferers an identity that could be accepted in the society to eliminate moral or legal connotations of their behavior.
Evidence that the Naming of Sexual Behavior Frees Sufferers from Shame and Isolation
One of the key claims in Harry Oosterhuis’ work and his support for von Krafft-Ebing’s publication was that naming of sexual behaviors was very fundamental in giving identity to the involved people. Every person deserves an identity in the society. Owing to the immense importance of sexuality to people, Bauer says that ascribing to such an identity is a central part of being human and a member of a given society16. Before the naming of such behaviors, sufferers were viewed as either requiring psychiatric attention or as sinful beings that would not fit and/or interact with normal beings. Such an approach meant that persons who exhibited the unacceptable behavior did not have normal social lives. Rather, they lived a life of shame and isolation17. Discrimination can cause serious emotional and mental pressure on an individual. In many instances, these stereotypes did more harm than good, and hence the dire need to change the situation.
In terms of having an identity, many advantages followed the sufferers and the society. For instance, from the thousands of letters and confessions that von Krafft-Ebing received from people of various sexual orientations, it was evident that for the first time, they felt that someone understood them and that they could live a purposeful life without worries of why they were different18. It was also evident that many letters that were written to von Krafft-Ebing showed that even the sufferers had lived in a state of confusion and denial while trying to fit into the society. They suppressed whom they really were, a situation, which worked against their best interest.
Looking at the present-day situation, sexual identity has played an important role in creating a society where all people are treated equally, understood, and respected, regardless of their sexual orientation19. Such uniqueness has created a room not only for social acceptance, but also for other important aspects such as medical research and legal frameworks among other areas that are essential for each class and its uniqueness. For instance, in medical research, as well as social services, great strides have been meant to create specific effective solutions for issues that may be specific to such individuals. Currently, this category of people is getting the required attention. The situation has opened more doors and opportunities through which this class of individuals can be productive members of the society without worrying about how they are perceived in the society20. Consequently, naming of sexual behaviors has effectively reduced or eliminated any suffering that such people may experience by effectively assigning them an identity in the society just like any other category.
Harry Oosterhuis has offered a detailed defense to von Krafft-Ebing’s work. He has portrayed him as the father of sexual identity, contrary to other writers who have portrayed him (von Krafft-Ebing) as a villain. He offers an important insight into the motivation of von Krafft-Ebing. His work is a revelation of the significant role that von Krafft-Ebing played in the conception of modern sexuality and identity. Indeed, such distinctiveness through the naming of sexual behaviors has been very important in terms of eliminating shame and isolation that sufferers experienced when the society was previously intolerant of their behavior. As such, the work offers an important understanding of some of the great revelations that have contributed to the current understanding of sexual perversion.
Bauer, Heike. Measurements of Civilization: Non-Western Female Sexuality and the Fin-De-Siecle Social Body. Newark, NJ: The University of Delaware Press, 2008.
Blachere, Paul, and Fred Cour. “Deviant sexual behaviors, paraphilias, perversions.” Progres en Urologie 23, no. 9 (2013): 793-803.
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Deleuze, Gilles. Coldness and Cruelty. New York, NY: Zone Books, 1989.
Khan, Shivananda, and Omar Khan. “The trouble with MSM.” American Journal of Public Health 96, no. 5 (2006): 765-6.
Moore, Alison. “Rethinking Gendered Perversion.” Journal of the History of sexuality 18, no. 1 (2009): 138-57.
Oosterhuis, Harry. Classifying and Explaining Perversion: Stepchildren of Nature: Krafft-Ebing, Psychiatry, and the making of Sexual Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Oosterhuis, Harry. The Birth of the Modern Homosexual: Stepchildren of Nature: Krafft-Ebing, Psychiatry, and the making of Sexual Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Oudshoorn, Noah. “Female or Male: the classifications of homosexuality and gender.” Journal of Homosexuality 28, no. 1-2 (1995): 79-86.
Stephens, Elizabeth. Redefining Sexual Excess as a Medical Disorder: Fin-De-Siecle Representations of Hysteria and Spermatorrhea: Pleasure and Pain in Nineteenth-Century French Literature and Culture. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008.
Von Krafft-Ebing, Richard. Fragments of a System of Psychology of Sexual: Psychopathia Sexualis: A Medico-Forensic Study. New York, NY: Pioneer Publications, 1939.
1 Richard von Krafft-Ebbing, Fragments of a System of Psychology of Sexual: Psychopathia Sexualis: A Medico-Forensic Study (New York, NY: Pioneer Publications, 1939), 3.
2 Harry Oosterhuis, Classifying and Explaining Perversion: Stepchildren of Nature: Krafft-Ebbing, Psychiatry, and the making of Sexual Identity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 45
3 Ibid, 48
4 Oosterhuis, 45
5 Alison Moore, “Rethinking Gendered Perversion,” Journal of the History of sexuality 18, no. 1 (2009): 144.
6 Shivananda Khan and Omar Khan, “The trouble with MSM.” American Journal of Public Health 96, no. 5 (2006): 765.
7 Harry Oosterhuis, The Birth of the Modern Homosexual: Stepchildren of Nature: Krafft-Ebbing, Psychiatry, and the making of Sexual Identity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 242.
8 Noah Oudshoorn, “Female or Male: the classifications of homosexuality and gender.” Journal of Homosexuality 28, no. 1-2 (1995): 80.
9 Elizabeth Stephens, Redefining Sexual Excess as a Medical Disorder: Fin-De-Siecle Representations of Hysteria and Spermatorrhea: Pleasure and Pain in Nineteenth-Century French Literature and Culture (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008), 202.
10 Oosterhuis, 46.
11 Gilles Deleuze, Coldness and Cruelty (New York, NY: Zone Books, 1989), 16.
12 Oosterhuis, 51
13 Ibid, 52
14 Oosterhuis, 242
15 Paul Blachere and Fred Cour, “Deviant sexual behaviors, paraphilias, perversions.” Progres en Urologie 23, no. 9 (2013): 793.
16 Heike Bauer, Measurements of Civilization: Non-Western Female Sexuality and the Fin-De-Siecle Social Body (Newark, NJ: The University of Delaware Press, 2008), 94.
17 Blachere and Cour, 795
18 Oosterhuis, 49.
19 Moore, 143.
20 Oudshoorn, 82