What do cows’ uteruses, decreased diary production and attitudes towards women’s openly expressed sexuality have in common? Unless you’re an expert in bovine anatomy the answer may come as a surprise to you: it’s nymphomania.

Nymphomania is a term for short inter-oestrus periods in cattle, but it’s also (mainly?) used to describe women with ‘abnormal’ sexual urges. The way that this abnormality was defined has changed dramatically over time, but is best characterized with a quote from the famous Dr. Kinsey himself — “A nymphomaniac is someone who has more sex than you do.”

The story of nymphomania is a sad tale of a time when women weren’t acknowledged as sexual beings and judged/jailed/held in mental hospitals against their will if they were not willing to conform to the ideal (or rather sick contortion) of women as sexless creatures. It’s a story of women who were all forcefully classified within the virgin/whore dichotomy. The only reputable way to lose one’s virginal status was to become a wife and bear children conceived in a dark bedroom with as little pleasure as possible. Of course, at the same time it was a very different deal for men. They were mostly allowed as much premarital sex as their money could afford – as long as they weren’t defiling reputable women that is.

Well into the 20th century women weren’t supposed to like sex. Sex was thought to be something that men pursued and women unwillingly gave up so that they could fulfil their lives’ goal by bearing the heirs their husbands wanted and the little darlings they needed to lavish with their innate motherly feelings on.

The thing is, although society has largely managed to ignore this fact and a tonne of medical books has been written to the contrary, women do in fact have a sex drive. When girls hit puberty and start producing sex hormones (oestrogens as well as testosterone) they start having (consciously or not) sexual feelings. There is a small percentage (less than 1%) of the population, both female and male, that is asexual and genuinely does not want or need to have sex. The rest of us are destined to a life in which carnal urges will play a role at some point. However, the whole concept of nymphomania is built-up on the completely false assumption of sexual urges being unique and healthy to men and a sign of disease and lack of mental stability in women.

In order to understand the history and societal significance of nymphomania, we have to take a closer look at its supposed opposite: female frigidity. The latter was basically assumed to be the status quo for female sexuality in the US and much of Europe (if you weren’t a ‘working girl’ that is). There was never much evidence to back this up (ahem…I don’t know, maybe because it’s an entirely false claim?). However, this perception was likely to be fueled by anecdotal evidence from men who spent their wedding nights with terrified young wives who had no idea about sex and all of a sudden had their clothes ripped off and a penis inserted into their vagina with no prior warning (other than perhaps fumbling with breasts for a few seconds) and nothing to arouse them beforehand. Usually, the deed was done within a few minutes, the marriage consummated and legal, and the wife left thinking (quite correctly) that she’s survived something awful and dreading it happening again. As much as we may like to, we shouldn’t put all the blame on the husbands. The ‘poor’ chaps were brought up and socialized to think women take absolutely no pleasure in sex and they perceive it a mechanical act which needs to happen in order to make them mothers. Who needs foreplay if all you really want is to change diapers.

However, there were women the world round, who could not be convinced they don’t like sex. Even if everyone around them tried to convince them otherwise they still seemed to enjoy making use of their genitals for things other than procreation. And so nymphomania was born. It was defined as a multitude of behaviors ranging from “lascivious glances” and flirting through masturbation and attempts to convince husbands to have more sex, all the way to actual physical attacks on men to enforce intercourse.

It’s not a recent invention. Nymphomania, or a Dissertation Concerning the Furor Uterinus was written by an obscure French doctor, M. D. T. Bienville, and translated into English in 1775. The good doctor helpfully explained that “Eating rich food, consuming too much chocolate, dwelling on impure thoughts, reading novels, or performing “secret pollutions” (masturbating), overstimulates women’s delicate nerve fibers and leads to nymphomania.” Thank goodness there were people like Dr. Bienville to look after the “delicate nerve fibers” of women who eat too much chocolate or indulged in the obscenity of reading novels…

In the Victorian period the common perception – among the medical profession as well as patients – was that strong female sexual desire was a symptom of disease. Sexual madness was an actual concern among (mostly) “refined and virtuous” women and their physicians. And the women weren’t just worried about possible inconveniences. Openly having a libido could get a woman into serious trouble in Victorian England. And by trouble I mean an awful mental hospital that one could get locked away in for years. Shockingly, women didn’t have to want sex to be diagnosed as a nymphomaniac. The outright opposite was sometimes true and victims of sexual assault were deemed to be diagnosed with this ‘disease’ just as women who bore illegitimate children, “abused themselves” (i.e. masturbated), or were judged as promiscuous. Once at the asylum, women underwent a pelvic exam to determine a number of things including the size of their clitoris and the moistness of their vagina. If any of these were deemed unsatisfactory by the physicians the patients were forced to undergo ‘treatments’. These were nothing like the rather benign ‘vibrator therapy’ of the early 20th century and instead involved induced vomiting, bloodletting (also in the reproductive organs), restricted diet, douches to the head or breasts, and, at times, clitoridectomies (i.e. removal of clitoris).

Attitudes towards women and sexuality relaxed – in parallel with women’s growing role in society and their increased independence – and over the 19th and 20th century women were rarely locked away for wanting sex. A bit of a breakthrough for nymphomania came with Freud. The father of psychoanalysis certainly has quite a few accomplishments to his name, but he was no expert on female sexuality. Freud was a self-proclaimed misogynist and his views on women are perhaps best known thanks to his misguided (to say the least) theories on penis envy. Freud’s views on nymphomania rather missed the spot as well, but they did redirect the discourse around it. Building on his now discredited idea of the superiority of vaginal vs. clitoral orgasms, Freud and his disciples claimed that, far from being a sign of excessive sexuality, nymphomania actually sprang from frigidity. The sexually immature woman, they argued, was unable to orgasm during intercourse and took lovers in order to achieve sexual satisfaction. And so for a time nymphomania became the disease of unsatisfied women. With this we were getting closer to the crux of the matter – nymphomania is in fact a term that describes women who like sex and are willing to actively pursue. Sounds familiar? Ah, right. Isn’t that what we expect of healthy males?

As the sexual revolution rolled around, the medical establishment, as well as regular people, became more accustomed with the fact that women can in fact enjoy sex without being mentally ill and the psychiatric definitions changed in step with societal perception. Distressingly, the term held out in court rooms for an inexcusably long-time – nymphomania was commonly used in rape cases to defend male rapists – “the victim didn’t just ‘ask for it’, your Honour she basically threw herself at my client, this sick nymphomaniac women.”

A brief overview of the history of nymphomania as seen through the American Psychiatric Association’s official guide to madness – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) – is fairly illuminating about more than just development of psychiatry. In DSM-1 nymphomania was listed as a “sexual deviation”. When DSM-III was published in 1980 nymphomania was ‘degraded’ to a “psychosexual disorder”. By 1987 nymphomania and its male counterpart, Don Juanism, had been replaced them with “distress about a pattern of repeated sexual conquests or other forms of nonparaphilic (nondeviant) sexual addiction.” In 1994 (DSM-IV) even sexual addiction was abandoned and straightdope.com has a great explanation for why this happened: “perhaps because the non-gender-specific nature of the term laid bare the speciousness of the whole project: If men as well as women can be sex addicts, and if many male victims (Bill Clinton, Joe Namath) are successful, admired, and largely unrepentant, it seems stupid to characterize as an illness what a lot of people would consider an accomplishment.”

Curiously, according to the WHO women can still suffer from nymphomania. The WHO’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) includes “Excessive Sexual Drive” which is divided into satyriasis for males and nymphomania for females, and “Excessive Masturbation”. What makes this even more curious is that there is no definition of “excessive sexual drive” (Dr. Kinsey had a pretty good suggestion…) and doctors “considering such a diagnosis are advised to formulate their own criteria of excessive sexual drive”. For some reason when it comes to tuberculosis, AIDS or schizophrenia doctors aren’t left the leeway to come up on the spot with what constitutes a disease symptom but when it’s an issue concerning our sex lives we’re (or at least the WHO is) happy to hand it over to them. This is potentially dangerous as we’ve seen how much of what defines healthy sexuality has nothing to do with health but everything to do with societal conventions.

In the 21st century we’re slowly moving past policing women’s sexuality (and men’s – but let’s be honest, we never really cared so much about their ‘sleeping around’ anyway). However, pop-culture and our daily lives – I’m sure – abound with examples of how we judge women’s sexual conduct differently (read: more harshly) then men’s. For example, in a recent episode of “How I Met Your Mother” (a hugely popular sit-com hailed as the new “Friends,” one of the main characters says that if he were to meet a women and have sex with her the same day she would be a “huge slut.” It doesn’t seem to occur to him (or his best friend with whom he’s having the conversation and who nods approvingly all the way through) to judge himself on the decision to have sex within hours of meeting someone. He’d just be doing what all dudes want to do – aim to have a ton of sex, right? She’d, on the other hand, be a “slut.”

It’s important to see slut-shaming for what it is – a new incarnation of “nymphomaniac-shaming.” Women used to be judged as crazy for liking sex, now they’re just ‘immoral’ if they have ‘too much of it’ (according to a recent survey the number of sex partners a women has to have to merit being called a slut is … five).

Nymphomania isn’t quite dead. It pops up every now and again – usually in the close company of the phrase ‘sex-crazed’. It’s not as damning as it used to be. The term doesn’t sentence women to years in mental institutions anymore; it’s more of a joke. “Slut” is the new, dangerous bad word. Again, no mental institutions are involved, but societal ostracism can be as bad as ever. We, as a society, should remember about nymphomania’s fate every time women are slut-shamed. And most of all, we should remember the moral of that story: female sexuality has a (continuous) history of being unreasonably judged and policed and unless we put a definite stop to it, gender equality will continue to be a goal and not reality.

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