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Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902)

by Gert Hekma in History & Politics , 13 maart 2001

Jonkheer Richard von Krafft-Ebing is considered to be the founding father of sexual science. His Psychopathia sexualis, mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der conträren Sexualempfindung (Stuttgart 1886) (Psychopathia sexualis, with special emphasis on the contrary experience of sexuality) was the first reference book of sexology that was reprinted time and again and was published in several languages. As its subtitle indicates, this handbook mainly deals with homosexuality, which in the work of Krafft-Ebing is the exemplary perversion. Krafft-Ebing was one of the many psychiatrists who in the second half of the nineteenth century got interested in sexual variations.

As a professor in Strassburg and Graz and as the author of several standard books he had won his spurs in psychiatry. He had already written several articles on sexuality. But the Psychopathia sexualis was the book that brought him world fame. In the English speaking world where most new editions of his book were published, the last one in 1999, he was in bad odour because of his writing too openly and too friendly about what he himself called the stepchildren of nature", the perverts. Also because of his division of sexual variations, Krafft-Ebing laid the foundations for sexology. On the one hand he distinguished deviations according to the period in which people had sex (in their youth, in their old age), deviations according to the strength of the sex drive (too much, too little) and thirdly according to the aim, which wasn`t coïtus.

The norm of his days was heterosexual relations between grown-ups. In his book he mainly dealt with the third kind of variation which he subdivided further. The contrary sexual experience" mainly embraced men going for men and also women going for women, men who felt like women and women feeling like men. He thought up the words sadism and masochism and devoted lots of attention to fetishism. In his studio he had exhibitionists, voyeurs, sex murderers, pedophiles, gerontophiles, coprophiles and statuophiles parading around, and further nearly all other variations which he deals with in his encyclopedia of perversions". After Sade, Krafft-Ebing was the second collector of special sexual preferences.


While Sade was mostly interested in pleasure, Krafft-Ebing was a doctor who wanted to explain and cure. The second subtitle of his book was Eine klinische und forensische Studie (a clinical and forensic study). He was a psychiatrist who saw perverts as psychopaths. But in the course of his life he changed his views. First he mainly got to know madmen and sex offenders, later he more and more met men of his own class, who weren`t in prison or in an institution, but who came to his private practice or wrote letters to him after reading his works.

Also the upper middle class obviously had preferences deviating from the norm, which they defended fervently. From all parts of the world letters kept coming in. Sometimes these were entire tracts in which the stepchildren of nature" explained and analysed their sexual lives. Already in the first edition of his book Krafft-Ebing thanked Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895), founder of the gay movement and advocate of the theory that Uranism" (his word for homosexuality) is something natural.In later editions of the Psychopathia sexualis perverts are allowed to speak, explaining they are no idiots or criminals.

With a wider understanding of sexual deviations, Krafft-Ebing`s attitude towards sex changed. While for a long time procreation had been the sexual norm and while darwinism reinforced that view, he recognized the role lust was playing. With this shift in attention, from getting children to having fun, a stronger emphasis was given to sexuality as a male urge. Harry Oosterhuis, the Amsterdam author of the latest book on Krafft-Ebing, stresses especially the development of a sexual identity.
In gay history a debate is going on on the question, when the homosexual" as a person with a special identity was figured out. Many authors claim it was the late nineteenth century with doctors like Krafft-Ebing and Uranians like Ulrichs. Other researchers claim that already in the eighteenth century worlds of sodomites were in existence, showing specific, often female behaviour. Oosterhuis is very clear about this discussion. The enormous success of psychiatrists, especially with the perverts themselves, is the indication of a fundamental change. Oosterhuis speaks of self-reflexivity", the realization of and thinking about sexual life, both of which begin to form a core of personal identity in this period.

Autobiographical awareness and self analysis come with the modern age and find in matters sexual a temporary culmination in the Psychopathia sexualis. If instances of perversion were rare still in 1886, by the time Krafft-Ebing died these had turned into a veritable flood. In these cases it wasn`t any longer about (sexual) behaviour, but about identities shaping personal life, sometimes without sexual expression. The difference between homo and hetero became almost as important as the difference between male and female. According to Oosterhuis the homosexual, next to other perverts, indeed was figured out in the late nineteenth century. In this the perverts themselves played first fiddle. They whispered Krafft-Ebing in the ear what he later told the world out loud. This figuring out was more a case of homosexuals than of doctors.

More understanding

Krafft-Ebing developed a better understanding of homosexuals, but also of masochists and fetishists. He sometimes copied their stories and theories literally. His book doesn`t contain a rounded off view or the last word on perversions, but is more like an encyclopedia of a new science in a turbulent initial phase. Freud would much more try pinning down in a theory of developmental stages and resulting neuroses. Oosterhuis presents Krafft-Ebing as the psychiatrist with an understanding of sexual variations, more than the evil genie responsible for the pathology of sexual aberrations. That his book was used as such, is not his fault. About the man Krafft-Ebing Oosterhuis has little to say. He wasn`t a striking personality, but a bourgeois and respectable scientist, who mainly had to thank his patients and correspondents for his originality.
He was a collector, collecting a bundle of remarkable sexual stories. His book would bring him the world fame none of his patients ever got. Oosterhuis has given them the attention and credit they deserve. Maybe it`s a sign of the times: in 1900 the psychiatrist was speaking on behalf of the perverts, now they speak for themselves. An encouraging sign at the beginning of the 21st century. Harry Oosterhuis, Stepchildren of Nature. Krafft-Ebing, Psychiatry, and the Making of Sexual Identity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000, 321 pp, 18 ill., $30.



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