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Psychopathia Sexualis

Related: 1886 - paraphilia - psychopathology - Krafft-Ebing

Inspired: Psychopathia Sexualis in Italian Sinema (1968 - 1972)

Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis is generally held to be the first book on sexual perversions, it was in fact preceded by Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom (1784).

Unidentified English language edition of Psychopathia Sexualis (1886)
image sourced here.

Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) - Richard Von Krafft-Ebing [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]


Part of the fascination of Psychopathia Sexualis is that it was written *before* Freud. It lists 237 classic case histories of lustmurder, necrophilia, pederasty, bestiality, transvestism, rape, mutilation, sado-masochism, exhibitionism and other psychosexual proclivities. Written as a professional textbook detailing sexual perversions and deviancies.

Krafft-Ebing wrote and published several articles on psychiatry, but his book Psychopathia Sexualis ("Psychopathy of Sex"), became his best-known work. He wrote the book in high academic tone and in the introduction noted that he had "delibrately chosen a scientific term for the name of the book to discourage lay readers". He also wrote "sections of the book in Latin for the same purpose".

After interviewing many homosexuals, both as his private patients and as a forensic expert, and reading some works in favour of gay rights (male homosexuality had become a criminal offence in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire by that time; unlike lesbianism, but discrimination against lesbians functioned equally), Krafft-Ebing reached the conclusion that both male and female homosexuals did not suffer from mental illness or perversion (as persistent popular belief held), and became interested in the study of the subject.

Krafft-Ebing elaborated an evolutionist theory considering homosexuality as an anomalous process developed during the gestation of the embryo and fetus, evolving into a sexual inversion of the brain. Some years later, in 1901, he corrected himself in an article published in the Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen, changing the term anomaly to differentiation. He thus revealed himself as, if not as the first, at least one of the first professionals seeing homosexuals as normal people with a different sexuality.

But his final conclusions remained forgotten for years, partly because Sigmund Freud's theories captivated the attention of those that considered homosexuality a psychological problem (the majority at the time), and partly because Krafft-Ebing had incurred some enmity from the Austrian Catholic church by associating the desire for sanctity and martyrdom with hysteria and masochism (besides denying the perversity of homosexuals).

Some years later Krafft-Ebing's theory led other specialists on mental studies to reach the same conclusion and to the study of transgenderism (or transsexuality) as another differentiation correctable by means of surgery (rather than by psychiatry or psychology).

Note that many contemporary psychiatrists no longer consider homosexual practices as pathological (as Krafft-Ebing did in his first studies): partly due to new conceptions, and partly due to Krafft-Ebing's own self-correction. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychopathia_Sexualis [Dec 2004]

Psychopathia Sexualis (Psychopathy of Sex), by Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing, is one of the first texts to write about sexual pathology. First published in 1886 with the subtitle "with Special Reference to the Antipathic Sexual Instinct: A Medico-Forensic Study", the book details a wide range of paraphilias, with a special emphasis on male homosexuality (the "antipathic instinct" of the subtitle). Krafft-Ebing also coined the terms sadism and masochism in the book.

The Psychopathia Sexualis is notable for being one of the earliest works on homosexuality. Krafft-Ebing combined Karl Ulrichs' Urning theory with Bénédict Morel's theory of disease and concluded that most homosexuals have a mental illness caused by degenerate heredity. The book was controversial at the time, arousing the anger of the church in particular.

The book had a considerable influence on continental European forensic psychiatry in the first part of the 20th century. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychopathia_Sexualis_%28book%29 [Apr 2006]

A Vocabulary of Perversion

Though Krafft-Ebing made a lasting contribution by spreading a vocabulary of perversion, the theory of degeneration he espoused fell on hard times at the turn of the 20th Century.  Havelock Ellis rejected it in his Sexual Inversion of 1897, and in 1905 Freud published a withering criticism of the idea that amounted to its death knell.  The year before he died, Krafft-Ebing even recanted himself.  In a 1901 article in the Jahrbuch für Sexualzwischenstufen, a journal published by the Scientific Humanitarian Committee he declared that even though inversion is an inherited variation, it is not morbid or degenerate.  Unfortunately, the last edition of his book predated his conversion, and its frequent reprints contain the old model of degeneration. --Andrew Wikholm, http://www.gayhistory.com/rev2/events/1886.htm [Sept 2004]

The book and others of its ilk had another consequence:  they formalized and popularized the idea that homosexuals are constitutionally different from heterosexuals, that their minds and sometimes even their bodies set them apart from the heterosexual majority.  Ulrichs was the first to articulate this idea in print, but psychiatrists learned about it from Krafft-Ebing.   The idea was popular among psychiatrists and homosexuals, but for different reasons. --Andrew Wikholm, http://www.gayhistory.com/rev2/events/1886.htm [Sept 2004]

Many homosexuals, including many in the case studies Krafft-Ebing used to illustrate his book, welcomed the idea that they possessed a unique personality structure. It seemed better to be considered sick than depraved and subject to prosecution under the law. Psychiatrists liked the idea, too, because it gave them a position of power as experts in the treatment of sexual pathologies. The older sin model didn't pay for anybody, so the new medical model quickly caught on. --Andrew Wikholm, http://www.gayhistory.com/rev2/events/1886.htm [Sept 2004]


The abbreviation s/m points to both sadist/masochist and slave/master while the slash indicates for some that the two roles are in general not exclusive, but reversible. The terms sadism and masochism are coined by coined by Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his Neue Forschungen auf dem Gebiet der Psychopathia sexualis (1886). He defined it as mostly imaginary pleasure in pain. The words have noble ancestry as it derived from the names of Marquis Donatien Alphonse François de Sade (1740-1814) and Knight Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895). Freud is said to have combined the terms into one: sadomasochism.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Krafft-Ebing coined the words sadism and masochism from the names of the authors, the Marquis de Sade and Sacher von Masoch. Krafft-Ebing connected them as two sides of the same coin. Some writers like Gilles Deleuze have denied this obvious link.

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