Monday, October 02, 2006

Nymphomania And Satyriasis

(CNN) -- Reading Carol Groneman's new book "Nymphomania" in a public place elicits reactions from people ranging from bewildered stares to lewd grins. These responses confirm everything she has written on the pages behind the simple and erotic line drawing on the cover. That is, we still don't know what to make of nymphomania. Anyone who has ever wondered how much sex is too much sex -- and who decides -- will be fascinated by this thoroughly researched and well-executed book.

Groneman guides the reader through the history of nymphomania as a medical illness, mental disorder, legal construct, cultural perception and off-color joke. In chronicling the transformation of the term, the author begins with the medical model of the 1800s, when strong sexual desire in a woman was considered a disease stemming from lack of morals and willpower. Groneman's analysis continues to the present day as she describes how new attitudes are colliding with persistent stereotypes surrounding female sexuality.

"Nymphomania is a metaphor which embodies the fantasies and fears, anxieties and dangers connected to female sexuality," she writes. "By tracing its many meanings over two hundred years, we see how clearly it is reflected in the eye of the beholder."

As the author points out, it is telling that a libidinous women has been a cause of anxiety as well as locker-room snickering, while few of us have even heard of "satyriasis," the male equivalent of nymphomania. In fact, notes Ms. Groneman, generations have passed where the standard measurement of sexual normalcy was in relation to the husband - a woman with less desire than her husband was frigid, while greater desire suggested the sickness of nymphomania.

Revealing attitudes

A history professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/City University of New York, Groneman became intrigued by the idea of what nymphomania could reveal about attitudes toward female sexuality. It was far from a passing interest. The author spent 10 years researching and writing "Nymphomania."

Her book is engaging because of the stories it tells. Colorful examples and anecdotes serve Groneman's research so well that the factual data merely supports the stories. What emerges from the author's integration of all this information is a textured tapestry of women's history that lingers with the reader long after the book is finished.

For instance, Groneman recounts the first full study on nymphomania by an obscure French doctor in 1775. According to this Dr. Bienville, causes of nymphomania included "eating rich food, consuming too much chocolate, dwelling on impure thoughts, reading novels, or performing 'secret pollutions' (masturbation)," because these items or actions overstimulated a "woman's delicate nerve fibers." Any pleasure derived from engaging in the suspected causes was harshly negated by the awful medical treatment that followed. "Cures" for an active female libido (as diagnosed by a woman's lascivious glances, lewd language, or an enlarged uterus) included bleeding, cold-water douches and caustic applications to the genitals.

Yet "Nymphomania" does not sit in smug judgment of the past. The author debunks notions about modern-day cultural enlightenment with recent examples that seem as unbelievable as old-fashioned nymphomania cures.

One memorable example is the "Cable Car Nymphomaniac." In 1970, a San Francisco woman was awarded $50,000 by a jury after she claimed, in a personal injury lawsuit, that a cable car crash had left her with a "demonic sex urge." In a much more sobering example, the author details a disturbing gang rape trial in 1991 in which nymphomania was allowed as defense evidence. The defense in this case argued that the 20-year-old victim -- who was forced into a car on her way home from a family gathering and raped by as many as 15 men -- actually wanted sex.

Underpinned by curiosity

Although the book is relentless in chronicling gender inequality -- and, often, misogynist sentiments and actions -- "Nymphomania" is far from a feminist manifesto. Whether the author is writing about the "hypersexual girls" of the '20s or "professional nymphomaniac" Kathy Willet of the '90s, the book is underpinned by her own curiosity. Groneman's own analysis is even-handed and thought-provoking, making it a pleasurable journey through social history for a wide audience.

Still, Groneman, an authority on women's issues and co-editor of "To Toil the Livelong Day: America's Women at Work, 1780-1980" (1987, Cornell University Press), reminds us that the feminist mantra of "the personal is political" has some truth: The way women are perceived in the privacy of the bedroom tends to mirror their perception in public spheres.

Groneman describes a 1956 article titled "My Bride Was a Nymphomaniac" as an example. In it, a distraught husband tells how his lusty bride had "something wrong with the mind," and how she "took up sculpting and brought an all-male artist crowd, 'spouting left-wing philosophy,' to their suburban home at all hours of the day and night." The husband concludes that his bride's insatiable sexual desire "masked a desire to wear him and other lovers out, to castrate him symbolically."

The author really hits her stride in "Happy Nymphos and Sexual Addicts," a chapter about today's attitudes and mores. Citing current pop-psychology catchphrases such as "love addict" and "sex addict," Groneman illustrates how terms used to describe female sexuality reflect the tone of the times. Today's addiction model, asserts the author, still perpetuates the belief that strong sexual desire is a sickness.

So, in the end, those two tricky questions remain: How much sex is too much? Who decides?

Fortunately, Groneman doesn't give her readers a simple answer like Alfred Kinsey, who once quipped, "A nymphomaniac is someone who has more sex than you do." Instead, "Nymphomania" explores why, even today, those questions aren't adequately answered.

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