The Institute of Sexology exhibition is on until September 2015, a candid exploration of the most publicly discussed of private acts. In this post, Taryn Cain leads us through a potted history of nymphomania: its rise and fall and the reasons for both.

Kinsey once said that a nymphomaniac is “someone who has more sex than you do”, and Kinsey was a man who knew what he was talking about. Having collected data on human sexuality for over a decade, he released a book called the Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female in 1953. Among other things, Kinsey claimed that female masturbation was normal, that vaginal orgasms were not the norm and that women were as capable as sexual desire as a man; all claims which went against accepted medical lore at the time. The book soon became a bestseller but not everyone was a fan. Margaret Mead claimed that Kinsey had so medicalised sex that the book suggests “no way of choosing between a woman and a sheep”, and the ensuing public outrage ended Kinsey’s research.

A large sheep with the head of a man perches on the knees of a young woman, while a horned ram with the head of a man looks on.

A large sheep with the head of a man perches on the knees of a young woman, while a horned ram with the head of a man looks on.

Kinsey may have been making light of nymphomania, but a century earlier it was considered a serious medical disorder. The word nymphomania was first printed in English in 1802 and at the time it was recognised as a fairly common female disorder. Originating from Latin, nymphomania literally means ‘nymph madness’. It was understood by both doctors and patients that strong sexual desire in a woman for her husband, or more worryingly, for a man to whom she was not married, could be indicative of disease. A woman suffering from nymphomania could expect to find herself sliding into madness, organ failure and even death. Causes for nymphomania varied. As women were considered to be at the mercy of their bodies, nymphomania could be due to drinking brandy, reading too many books, feeling desire for another woman, being inspected by a speculum, divorce and even frigidity. Treatment for nymphomania included cold enemas and baths, bland food, bleeding, leeches and even drastic and irreversible surgical options.

Vaginal speculum. Europe, 1600-1800

Vaginal speculum. Europe, 1600-1800

While nymphomania was a gendered disorder, men were not immune. The male equivalent, satyriasis, had been around since Ancient Greece. It was also known as Don Juan syndrome in the 1900s. Through the ages it was accepted that men could suffer from excessive sexual desire and ‘love madness’, but by the Victorian era it had morphed into an entirely different sort of beast. While men were expected to have a strong sex drive, and were allowed outlets for that drive, it was believed that excessive sexual behaviour would diminish a man mentally and morally. Masculinity became synonymous with self-control, and a man who was unable to do so was considered effeminate, weak and lazy. In serious cases satyriasis could lead to rape, murder or the death of the patient. Jack the Ripper was believed to be motivated by satyriasis.

Roman bronze phallic pendant.

Roman bronze phallic pendant.

Prior to the 18th century, nymphomania was a virtually unknown disorder. This may have been as men and women’s bodies were thought of quite differently. For most of human history, men and women were considered to share the one body (with a woman being an inverted version of the man) so it didn’t seem strange to anyone that a woman could be as lusty as a man. In Ancient Greece the prophet Tiresias even claimed that women were able to experience pleasure 9 times greater than a man! By the time of Charles Darwin in 1871 things had changed dramatically. Now it was believed that Natural Selection had made it so the only things a woman lusted after was a respectable marriage and babies.

Newborn baby boy. (Credit: Anthea Sieveking, Wellcome Images)

Newborn baby boy. (Credit: Anthea Sieveking, Wellcome Images)

Another consequence of the changing nature of female sexuality was the rise of rape and ravishment in romantic literature from the 1700s. Rape had always been present in literature, but for a long time it was presented as a crime of passion, with the victims of rape secretly enjoying their violation. As the female libido slowly disappeared from society, so attitudes on rape had to change as well. Instead of being a mutually enjoyable event, rape instead became a short cut to love, the means for a woman to overcome her own natural inhibitions in order to tame an uncivilised man. These ‘forced seduction’ romantic stories remained common until the 1980s, when they eventually fell out of favour. You still see similar themes, of the dominant male and reluctant female, in contemporary works such as Troy and 50 Shades of Grey.

Love. (Credit: Lester Magoogan, Wellcome Images.)

Love. (Credit: Lester Magoogan, Wellcome Images.)

Nymphomania also fell out of favour in the 20th century, with people such as Magnus Hirschfeld, Marie Stopes and Masters & Johnson claiming that female sexual desire was a normal part of human sexuality. As a disorder, it was finally removed from the American Psychiatric Associations Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980. These days we don’t talk about nymphomania or satyriasis, instead we speak of sex addiction or hypersexuality. In the last ten years many politicians, and celebrities such as Russell Brand and David Duchovny, have sought treatment for sex addiction. Yet while Hypersexual Disorder has been considered for inclusion in the DSM, many medical professionals and scientists doubt the disorder really exists. Taryn is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

3 thoughts on “Nymphomania

  1. The first illustration “Mrs. N____ and her pet Lambe” is used completely out of context. As with many satirical social cartoons, it refers to specific personalities of its time. If you don’t bother to mention the context, why use it?

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