Improper dinner conversation

Carol Groneman, author of "Nymphomania: A History," finds that the loaded term says more about society than women.

Topics: Sex, Love and Sex,

Improper dinner conversation

Carol Groneman is probably the first historian since “history” existed to consider nymphomania in any kind of depth. Her work, “Nymphomania: A History,” is a breezy but troubling read. The book is neither humorous nor humorless. It is the unsexy documentation of the American medical establishment’s use of clitoridectomy (in the 19th century) and pharmaceuticals (in the 20th century) to treat “nymphomania,” a disorder that mirrors American society’s two centuries of confusion about female sexuality.

Saying that, I was in fact more interested in the historian than in her history. Picture everything that you’ve done in your professional life for the past 10 years. Maybe you switched jobs, got a degree, played Major League Baseball, produced a television sitcom. Groneman, a John Jay College professor, spent the past 10 years researching the sociological, medical and legal history of nymphomania. What kind of woman would let this subject flower in her brain for 10 long years? I couldn’t get a sense of Groneman from her author photo. She had an artificial “say cheese for the camera” kind of smile planted on her face. I talked with her on the phone to arrange a meeting, and her voice was professional and curt.

When we finally got together in the late afternoon at a nearly empty Italian-ish restaurant that bordered Washington Square Park in New York, Groneman appeared to be a thoroughly sober woman. It was like sitting down with Jane Hathaway (the dour banker’s secretary on “The Beverly Hillbillies”). After we ordered tea (her) and coffee (me), Groneman described her research, which entailed paging through 19th century medical records and court records from the 1940s. As she paused to sip her tea, I blurted out, “Are you yourself some kind of a repressed nymphomaniac?”

No, no, no. I said nothing of the sort. What I did say was: “Do you have a sense of humor?”

Groneman eyed me, and then tilted back her head to shoot out a short burst of laughter. “I had to, believe me!”

This broke the ice. She told me of cheerfully putting up with 10 years of snickers from colleagues. With grants officers who said, “Well, hmm. Nymphomaniacs. Think you could introduce me to some?” With the people at parties who all knew someone who was afflicted with this disorder.



Groneman recalled the story of a woman whose great-great aunt in Italy at the turn of the century was always locked up in the attic whenever any men came over because she was, you know, a nymphomaniac. These stories kept her going because some of them were funny.

How did you start your research?

I was standing in front of a 20th century American history class at John Jay College, where I teach, and we were discussing the social changes since the sexual revolution in 1960. One of my students asked as a joke, “Where have all the nymphomaniacs gone?” I didn’t have an answer. So I began to think about the term ‘nymphomania.’ What did it mean? Where did it come from? How long has it been around? I mean, I’m a historian. Those are the questions that I’m interested in. I did some basic research and there were no full-scale books on the subject. Only a pop-psych book written in 1961. What fascinated me was, here was this term in everybody’s mind, but no one had ever researched it in any real way. It was a topic that was incredibly multifaceted. Very sexy. It grabbed people. People were really interested when I talked about this research in the idea of excessive female sexuality. I realized I could use this subject to get a large audience who would be willing to read about the several hundred years of history that I wanted to tell, which would illuminate the question “Why do we have these attitudes about female sexuality?”

In a nutshell, what is a nymphomaniac?

It is an anachronism. It’s not defining anything real. The term is still around mainly as a joke — but with this edge that we think we still know what it means. I was just reading a Ruth Rendell mystery, and there was some discussion of this young woman who is called by her stepmother a “nymphomaniac.” Is it useful as a term that defines anything real? Of course not. It never was. Over the last several hundred years we have had this slippery definition that purports to be scientific when it isn’t.

What did nymphomaniacs do before the 19th century?

There’s always been a notion of excessive female sexuality. In fact, the Greek term was “uterine fury.” Women were generally thought to be as lusty as men up until the middle of the 18th century. Then comes the notion that women’s sexuality is less than men’s, a belief solidified by the middle class. Then nymphomania takes on much greater power.

Scientifically, what’s the truth about female sexual desire compared with men’s?

Natalie Angier in her recent book, “Woman: An Intimate Geography,” says, “How would women know what their real natural unfettered sexuality is when they’ve never had the opportunity to explore it?” Our modern cultural assumption has always been that women’s sexuality is less aggressive, less assertive, less passionate, less carnal than that of men. Certainly I think a lot of the control of female sexuality that we see in various modern societies — whether it’s clitoridectomy in Sudan or the veil in Islamic countries — is about the fear that women’s sexuality, if allowed to be let loose, would run rampant.

It has always seemed to me that male heterosexual sexuality was regulated by women.

We’ve definitely been put in that role. Men are terrified of women being blatantly sexual. I mean, why do men so readily call women “tramps” and “sluts” who are engaging in behavior that isn’t very different from what the guy is doing? There’s a bumper sticker someone called me about that says, “I’d love to meet a nymphomaniac whose father owns a liquor store.” It’s a fantasy that’s funny, but the flip side is this kind of fear that if you did meet a nymphomaniac, you wouldn’t measure up.

Has anyone made a distinction between a woman wanting sex constantly vs. a woman wanting sex constantly with a lot of different men?

Both of those have been labeled nymphomania.

But there’s a difference.

Sure they’re different. Alfred Kinsey became famous for his flippant comment, “What’s a nymphomaniac? A woman who wants sex more than you do.” That’s the kind of nymphomania that is the “in the eye of the beholder” approach. I think there is no question that since the sexual revolution, women feel that they have the right to experience sexual satisfaction, and have sex with whomever they want to. I think they realize they don’t dare let on to their new boyfriend that they’ve had more sexual partners than he has had.

How much has society changed in the 10 years since you started your research?

Oprah Winfrey thinks that 20 million people in the country are sex addicts.

I know you don’t believe in that concept of “sex addicts.”

Trust me, there are folks who really do believe it. There is a Web site for the National Sex Addicts Compulsive — I forget what it is — that lists hundreds of therapy groups and treatment centers. The DSM — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association — used the term “sex addict” briefly, then dropped it. Mainstream psychologists and psychiatrists no longer believe in sex addiction, but it plays really well out there to the public.

On the other hand, we can thank “sex addict” President Clinton for giving us a term for the male equivalent of nymphomania.

There already was a 19th century medical term, “satyriasis.” In the medical books from the 19th through the middle of the 20th century you’ll see those two terms, satyriasis and nymphomania. One’s the male disease. One’s the female. Surprisingly we’ve never heard of satyriasis. As one of my colleagues said to me, “Oh, satyriasis, normal male behavior.”

I agree with him. [Pause] Or her …

There’s a double standard that’s culturally what’s acceptable here. I’m not buying that there is a big difference between how men and women work.

To put it in your own experience, what have you found?

About?

Women vs. men.

It’s not that I’m ducking the question, but I don’t think that’s a way to get at an answer. Because all that talks about is a way in which I or any individual has been raised in a particular time or particular place.

For much of American history nymphomania seems like the flip side of “penis envy” — women out of their minds lusting after a penis. I came of age during the particular time when “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was a big deal. The prevalent philosophy in those days seemed to be: “The penis is not particularly efficient.”

[Groneman laughs]

There are things …

… that work just as well!

Those days seemed like the end of penis envy. But now that even the president of United States has personified his penis with a Christian name, we’re a phallus nation again. I’m sure you’ve felt your penis envy kicking in.

Absolutely! And that’s what has made me so miserable today — because I’ve always wanted one. [She is being sarcastic.] If only Freud could have been as brilliant about women in some of his theories, it would have been a lot better. Many Freudians, as opposed to Freud himself, propagated many notions that were really damaging to women. “Frigid nymphomaniacs” was one of my favorite discoveries. I had never had any notion of such a thing. This comes straight out of Freudian theory.

So what’s it like being bunkered in nymphomania for 10 years?

It’s a hoot. It’s a subject about which my 80-year-old aunt in Cincinnati says, “I don’t know if this is proper dinner conversation.” There’s something fun about writing on a topic that’s a little racy. It’s not the War of 1812. It’s not the usual dull topic that historians, me included, choose.

When you were in your 20s — I’ve never asked a woman this because I’ve never needed to — did one of your girlfriends ever come to you and say, “I think I’m a nymphomaniac”?

[Thoughtful pause] “Nympho” was the term that was more likely to be used. It was somewhat in the vocabulary: “I went a little nympho last weekend.”

When I was growing up, “nympho” was a sociological term, like a working-class girl.

Like a slut.

“Sluts” didn’t exist in the 1970s because of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” By Mom and Dad’s standards, any girl who had sex before marriage was a slut.

Oh, I see. Right, right, right. What gives the word “nymphomaniac” its power is that it was thought to be a medical disease and then a disorder, and it had some sort of scientific reality to it.

What is the feminist view toward your book?

Well, I’m a feminist so I would assume that other feminists would think that what I’m doing is trying to unravel how culture has shaped sexuality and created certain kind of stereotypes about women, and [asking], Whose power does that serve? What ways can we struggle against it?

I think both men and women have trouble really getting their mind around the idea that sex is not just sex — that there isn’t just some innate biological function inside of us. “Men are from Mars and women are from Venus” has been so pounded into our brains in the last years. I think this is silly. On a radio interview, one call-in man gave an elaborate statement: “Women like to be wooed. Men like to be the aggressor, the chaser. That’s the way it’s always been. And now the sex act is the last place where men can dominate women.” I could tell he wasn’t happy about all these changes in the world. I said, “To make that kind of dichotomy seems too simplistic. It denies the notion that we’re human beings, that there are times when women want to dominate and be powerful and times when they want to surrender. There are all those varieties of possibilities, I think. Much of it is shaped by the culture around us — what we read, what we are told by the experts.”

Now the new kind of idea is that one should be a Cosmo girl for life. Helen Gurley Brown is in her 70s or something, and says, “Sex is just as good as it’s ever been.” So now there is a new norm, a new demand. You have to be sexual, enjoy it, orgasmic, always love it, etc. — and if you’re not, something’s wrong. These are lines that are drawn and ideas that are put out, which we then think we have to live up to in some kind of a way. The happy nympho is a problematic idea as well. It’s not as simple as that.

One of the things that was interesting in doing the book was that I would read ridiculous cases where a woman who wanted to have sex in a different kind of position — to be on top, for example — or wanted to masturbate or wanted to have oral sex, was labeled a nymphomaniac. Doctors really believed this. I would chuckle. But then I recognized that these were real people and real cases and individuals who were being labeled in a certain kind of way. They felt there was something wrong with them because they were having these desires. These assumptions were so rampant in the culture. Women went to doctors saying, “I think there is something wrong with me.” And then doctors would say, “Yes, there is something wrong with you. You have a disease.” That was upsetting.

Has anyone written a history of male doctors’ tendency to hate women? I’ve heard half a dozen conversations recently about breast cancer. The doctors, always men, unnecessarily mutilate women’s breasts with what sounds like real glee. I would think that a male culture that’s obsessed with Pamela Anderson would do everything possible to preserve a woman’s chest.

If you look at cases in the 19th century when they were removing ovaries and performing clitoridectomies to stop nymphomania, it seemed as if they didn’t know what else to do. Sure it was a misogynist society, where men saw themselves developing greater and greater authority in a nation moving away from religion as an authority to medicine and science, but I think they sincerely believed what they were doing would help. I don’t think it’s that different with doctors today. I think they don’t listen to women. They believe that they know everything because, after all, they’re men. I don’t know what will happen when we move into a world where — 50 percent of the people in medical schools today are women. How is that going to change things?

Are there examples of women becoming misogynistic doctors?

Oh sure. It’s very hard to step back and reject the values of the culture. I do not believe the assumption that there is some innate biological notion or characteristic sexuality that is true of men and women throughout all cultures — because we’re so culturally conditioned, because the attitude about what’s appropriate sexuality for a man or a woman is determined by the time we live in. If we stripped it all away, we would find sexuality is not just biological. It’s all those other things. It’s age. It’s religion. Time of day. Time of decade. All of that. What I did get out of this book very much was to recognize how sex has many meanings. As my students would say, “Sex is just sex.” Oh? Sex has many meanings, and it changes over time and over cultures.

But when all is said and done, you uncovered numerous case studies where women were off their rockers and acting like “nymphomaniacs.”

What I would say, and what I think most mainstream psychologists would say, is there is excessive behavior of all kinds that might be of concern. Sometimes that behavior is sexual. If someone came to a psychologist and said “I’m a nymphomaniac,” the psychologist would understand this as a symptom of some underlying set of problems and address it that way. Society is still ruled by the mistaken idea that excessive female sexual behavior is different from all other forms of excessive behavior, such as too much card playing, too much gardening, too much being on the Internet. [Pause] All excessive behavior can be — I stress can be — cause for concern.

Did you read the New York Times today?

No. Today? What? What?

Not anything about you, but –

I know, I know. Some interesting sex story, I hope.

No. There is a story of some guy, some nut, in the outer boroughs who is obsessed with impersonating subway conductors. He’s even done jail time for his charade. What’s the difference between him and a nymphomaniac in terms of acting out obsessions?

They don’t have a label for him as a “train-o-maniac.” Excessive behavior of all kinds can be cause for concern.

So have you sold film rights for your book yet?

There isn’t a film here, is there? What’s the film?

I’m sort of being facetious.

I think so. There’s no visuals.

Remember Woody Allen did “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.”

Right. The film could be about uncovering the material.

Jodie Foster could play you.

Yes! [Pause] I don’t know if mucking around the dusty old archives would be interesting.

The historical stories she digs up will appear as film scenes.

[She thinks about this] So we’d have Dr. Storer and Mrs. B in the “lusty dream” scene. Ha! Some of the bad girls from the turn of the century — the working-class nymphomaniacs. One of my very favorites, of course, is the lady at the end of the book who goes to the fancy party and sees the woman dressed in the diaphanous gown. That turns her into a nymphomaniac. She has what is described as “sexual pyrotechnics” with her husband for a year and a half, but then she wants no sex at all for several years. Oh! This could be wonderful!

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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