One of the most influential figures in the history of human sexuality, Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing was the first scientist to undertake a major study of sexual perversity in its varied forms.
Born August 4, 1840 in Mannheim, Baden, Germany, he studied medicine at the University of Heidelberg. He chose psychiatry as his area of primary interest, and became a professor of psychiatry at the Universities of Strasbourg (1872). He soon relocated to the University of Graz, where, from 1872 to 1880, he served as medical superintendent of the Feldhof mental asylum, which served more as a prison than a hospital. Krafft-Ebing crusaded for reform of this overcrowded facility (without success), and was convinced of the importance of diagnosis, analysis and treatment of mental illness.
In 1879, he published Text-Book of Insanity, which further encouraged doctors to explore the cause of a patient's mental illness (be it hereditary, sexual, or physical). He promoted therapy, rather than simple imprisonment.
Krafft-Ebing found that, among the many manifestations of psychopathia, sexual deviance was routinely unexplored and merely dismissed as insanity. He launched a lifelong endeavor to demystify this form of mental illness by approaching the topic objectively and without shrinking from its more distasteful forms. The first volume of Psychopathia Sexualis was published in 1886 (first American edition was 1892). Beyond Krafft-Ebing's careful categorization and discussion of various forms of sexual perversity, it contained 45 case histories. In the years following its publication, Krafft-Ebing continued to interview sufferers of the various psychoses and neuroses, collect records of other noteworthy cases, and engage in correspondence with those who were encouraged to speak freely about their sexual practices (many of whom had no other outlet for discussion). The 1888 edition had grown to 75 case histories. The twelfth edition, upon which Krafft-Ebing was working at the time of his death, had 617 pages and featured 238 case studies. It categorizes a wide array of sexual psychopathologies, from impotence to necrophilia, from lust-murder to handkerchief fetishism, all carefully arranged in categories of hyperaesthesia (pathologically exaggerated sexual instinct), anaesthesia (absence of sexual instinct) and the most frequently explored paraesthesia (perversion of the sexual instinct).
Psychopathia Sexualis was intended as "a medico-forensic study." Krafft-Ebing presented the case histories' most sordid details in Latin "in order to exclude the lay reader."
"The object of this treatise is merely to record the various psychopathological manifestations of sexual life in man and to reduce them to their lawful conditions," writes Krafft-Ebing in his introduction to the first edition. His book was aimed at "men engaged in serious study in the domains of natural philosophy and medical jurisprudence."
Upon the publication of Psychopathia Sexualis, Krafft-Ebing became a prominent, if controversial, figure. He promoted psychiatry through a series of public lectures about his research, lectures which were described as "showy," "glamorous" and "highly sensational." He was not interested simply in self-promotion. He entered the public debate by opposing Paragraph 175, a part of the German Kingdoms' legal code (adopted in 1871) that criminalized homosexuality. In spite of this progressive stance, Krafft-Ebing still considered homosexuality an illness that begged for treatment and a cure.
Krafft-Ebing would be a major influence upon the most prominent psychiatrists of the 20th Century.
In 1889, Krafft-Ebing became a chair of psychiatry at the University of Vienna, where he came in close contact with Sigmund Freud. According to biographer Harry Oosterhuis, "Although Krafft-Ebing dismissed Freud's seduction theory at a 1896 meeting of the [Society of Psychiatry and Neurology] as a 'scientific fairy tale' and although he felt that Freud generally did not empirically validate his theories with a sufficient number of cases, the two men must have been on good professional terms. Freud owned Krafft-Ebing's textbooks and regularly received autographed copies of his works on sexual pathology; moreover, Krafft-Ebing actively supported Freud's application for a professorship at the University of Vienna." (Stepchildren of Nature: Krafft-Ebing, Psychiatry and the Making of Sexual Identity, pp. 88-89).
It was while nearing the end of his studies in archaeology (at the University of Basel in 1900) that Carl Jung read Psychopathia Sexualis. Receiving a "flash of illumination" from the book, he decided to change his field of study to psychiatry.
Among Krafft-Ebing's more unusual accomplishments was making psychiatric treatment fashionable. Catering to a middle- and upper-class patients that sought to avoid the horrors of mental asylums, Krafft-Ebing started a private practice, cultivated a well-paying clientele and founded a suburban sanatorium for the "nervous" in 1886.
Psychopathia Sexualis was much more than a guidebook to perversity, it was an important part of the scientific community's efforts to establish authority over matters of sexuality. At the time, sexual dysfunction was either ignored, dismissed as simple insanity, or dealt with as a religious issue. During the same period when science was claiming dominion over childbirth (previously the work of midwives) and death (ending the tradition of funeral wakes at home), it argued that sexual behavior was governed by the brain and the spine, and was a neurological issue, not a spiritual one Psychopathia Sexualis also proposed that heredity was a major factor, further establishing scientific dominion over mental illness.
Psychopathia Sexualis (and essays written at the time by Krafft-Ebing and others) introduced to our vocabulary such words as heterosexual, homosexual, sadism, masochism and fetishism. Psychopathia Sexualis quite literally defined sex.
But by gathering all forms of sexual abnormality under the umbrealla of psychopathology, Krafft-Ebing cast a shadow of insanity upon all forms of sexual behavior that deviated from the heterosexual norm. In spite of his efforts at objectivity and absolute honesty, Krafft-Ebing's Victorian mindset is evidenced in Psychopathia Sexualis after all.
"This was in fact a science made up of evasions," wrote Michel Foucault in his book The History of Sexuality, "given its inability or refusal to speak of sex itself, it concerned itself primarily with aberrations, perversions, exceptional oddities, pathological abatements, and morbid aggravations. Claiming to speak the truth, it stirred up people's fears...Involuntarily naïve in the best of cases, more often intentionally mendacious, in complicity with what it denounced, haughty and coquettish, it established an entire pornography of the morbid, which was characteristic of the fin de siecle society."
Prof. Richard von Krafft-Ebing died on December 22, 1902, near Graz, Austria.
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