Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902)
Considering sexuality to be the “the most important factor in social existence,” Richard von Krafft-Ebing is one of the most well-known early sexologists, especially considering the influence he had on not only the field of sexology, but of psychology as well (Bullough, 1994). His major work, Psychopathia Sexualis, published in 1886, documents a number of clinical case studies of his own patients, and is known for being one of the first works to study female sexual pleasure and homosexuality along with topics such as necrophilia, incest, and pedophilia (Schultheiss & Glina, 2010; Bullough, 1994). He was the first to bring many variant sexual acts into the public sphere, though he intended the book to be only for physicians, psychiatrists, and judges. To “discourage lay readers” he even wrote the descriptions of the sexual acts in Latin. Psychipathia Sexualis consists of twelve editions and through highlighting over 200 case studies, the medical and forensic reference book not only influenced the emerging discipline of sexology, but also influenced many of the prominent psychologists of the 20th century, including Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung (Kino International).
Born into an aristocratic family in Mannheim, Germany, Krafft-Ebing was the oldest of four siblings. His mother was the daughter of a well-known lawyer, whom Krafft-Ebing lived with while studying at the University of Heidelberg. It was there that he, along with his grandfather, developed an interest in the deviant sexual behavior of criminals and mental patients. Because of this interest, he decided to become a psychiatrist and though he taught as a professor of psychiatry at several different universities, he also worked in psychiatric asylums and was an advocate for the reform of the treatment and diagnosing of the mentally ill (Bullough, 1994; Kino International).
Believing sexuality and “sexual feelings” to influence all social aspects of life, particularly the formation of religions, Krafft-Ebing begins Psychopathia Sexualis with a brief history of sex, which is notable for its inclusion of other cultures and religions than his own, though he believes them inferior to Western, Christian societies (Krafft-Ebing, 1903). Women, he writes, were once merely the “chattel” of men, but through the course of human history have, thanks in part to Christianity, become individual beings, with rights and freedoms of their own (though he acknowledges that they are still “socially below man”). Krafft-Ebing (1903) writes:
Christianity raised the union of the sexes to a sublime position by making woman socially the equal of man and by elevating the bond of love to a moral and religious institution. Thence emanates the fact that the love of man, if considered from the standpoint of advanced civilisation, can only be of a monogamic nature and must rest upon a staple basis. (pg. 3-4)
Though he writes that, when it comes to sex, women and men are peers, he believes women to be sexually passive and having little to no desire in sex, as long as they are “physically and mentally normal, and properly educated” (Krafft-Ebing, 1903). Female sexual deviants, then, are any women who “seek men” and desire sex outside of procreation. Though his views reflect the Victorian notions of love and sex of his time, his inclusion of female patients in Psychopathia Sexualis is just as revolutionary as it is restricting. It emphasizes the importance of studying the sexuality of women along with that of men, and that both are equally important in reaching a greater understanding of sex and, in cases where he believes them to be linked, mental illness. However, despite his attempts to be as objective and inclusive as possible when studying sexuality and its variations, he tended to classify any sexual act deviating from the heterosexual norm as insanity, which was not only problematic for his study of sex, particularly when it came to women, but for his study of the mentally ill.
Regardless of his Victorian-era beliefs, his influence is unquestionable. In some ways he defined sex and how it came to be studied, including introducing the terms fetish, sadism, masochism, and homosexuality (which he didn’t believe should be criminalized, despite being a form of sexual perversion). He was among the first to scientifically explore sexuality in its many forms and should not be overlooked when studying the history of psychology, especially considering the influence he had on some of the discipline’s most well-known figures.
Below is the trailer for “Psychopathia Sexualis,” a 2006 movie based on several case studies from Krafft-Ebing’s work of the same name.
By Kylie McFatridge
Bullough, V. L. (1994). Science in the bedroom: A history of sex research. Retrieved from: http://www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/GESUND/ARCHIV/LIBRO.HTM
Kino International. (2006). About Krafft-Ebing. Retrieved from: http://www.kino.com/psychopathia/history.htmlj(
Krafft-Ebing, R. (1903). Psychopathia Sexualis (12 ed.). (F. J. Rebman, Trans.). New York, NY: Rebman Company. (Original work published 1886).
Schultheiss, D., & Glina, S. (2010). Highlights from the history of sexual medicine. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7: 2031-2043.