What makes a woman a nymphomaniac?

Nymphomania is in the eye of the beholder. Flickr/Orofacial

A woman masturbates, has erotic feelings towards numerous men and women, and an “excessive” desire for sex. Is she a nymphomaniac?

Filmmaker Lars von Trier is reigniting debate on the subject with his controversial new film, Nymphomaniac.

The story of a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac who recounts her erotic experiences, the film consists of four hours of explicit sex. Publicity posters depict the naked A-list cast in orgasmic release, ensuring controversy prior to its Christmas Day release in Copenhagen.

This controversy is bad for women.

Labelling a woman with active sexual desires a nymphomaniac continues an age-old tradition of pathologising women’s sexuality – a tradition that needs to be discarded.

Leeches, borax and bed rest

Descriptions of nymphomania first appeared in the 1700s. But it wasn’t until the late 1800s that the label was made into a psychiatric diagnosis and widely applied to overly sexual women.

“Symptoms” included sexual insatiability, lewd advances to men (or women), and most abhorrent of all, the practice of self-pleasure through masturbation.

The male version of the diagnosis, satyriasis, was rarely applied; it was hard to imagine men wanting too much sex.

But the powerful sexuality of the nymphomaniac posed a threat to civilisation. As the German sexologist, Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebbing, declared in 1886:

Woe unto the man who falls into the meshes of such an insatiable Messalina, whose sexual appetite is never appeased.

The treatments for nymphomania were severe. Removal of the clitoris and ovaries, leeching of the vagina, cold baths, and enforced bed rest were commonly prescribed.

In 1886, Dr Theophilus Parvin recommended regular exercise and a vegetarian diet, combined with vaginal application of cocaine.

One 24-year-old woman, Mrs B, was threatened with the asylum in 1856 for “greatly” enjoying sex with her husband three or four times a night. She also experienced “excessive excitement” and had “lascivious dreams”.

Mrs B avoided incarceration by giving up sex, brandy, novel reading, and meat. Her treatment also included nightly enemas and vaginal swabbing with borax – a substance we now use to clear drains.

Mrs B’s physician, Horatio Storer, was very pleased with the outcome of her treatment. She no longer made excessive sexual demands on her husband and had assumed a “chaste” demeanour.

The trouble with nymphomania

Nymphomania, along with oral sex, masturbation and homosexuality, was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980.

The sexual revolution had normalised behaviours once considered deviant, and women were no longer expected to be chaste.

Lars Von Trier’s Nymph()maniac has stirred up controversy ahead of its release. Zentropa

Today, women who don’t desire or enjoy sex are the ones at risk of receiving a psychiatric diagnosis.

The DSM describes “female sexual arousal disorder” and “inhibited female orgasm” as diagnoses for sexually unresponsive women. Such women would have been perfect wives in the eyes of 19th century physicians.

For those with excessive or uncontrolled desires and behaviour, the diagnosis of hypersexuality – sexual compulsion or addiction – is now applied.

More common in men than women, this is a hotly contested category open to subjective interpretation. Who decides how much sex is too much? And how do we determine when a person is out of control?

As with nymphomania, is sex addiction simply a label for sexual behaviour society finds unacceptable? Or one for men who get caught out?

The use of this diagnosis by doctors defending Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinksy investigation is a case in point.

Modern nymphomania

Why would a woman label herself a nymphomaniac in the 21st century?

One North American woman did so to defend herself against an accusation of prostitution. She told the court that she had sex with scores of men because she had worn her husband out. She had to satisfy her insatiable sexual appetite elsewhere.

Lawyers have also employed nymphomania as a defence against charges of rape or incest. Complainants are accused of imagining sexual assaults, or inciting the sexual act with their lewd desires. Sexual violence is exonerated as a result.

Ultimately, nymphomania, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. A woman will only be described as wanting sex too much if her partner cannot satisfy her.

Lars von Trier’s film will undoubtedly do well. Men like to imagine the existence of nymphomaniacs – as long as they don’t have to have sex with one.