Richard Von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis as Sexual Sourcebook for Radclyffe Hall's the Well of Loneliness

By Bauer, Heike | Critical Survey, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Richard Von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis as Sexual Sourcebook for Radclyffe Hall's the Well of Loneliness


Bauer, Heike, Critical Survey


Psychopathia Sexualis (first published in German in 1886, in English in 1892) by the German sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1903) was amongst the first works in the new discipline to argue that homosexuality was part of nature and could thus not be condemned. Here the voices of real-life homosexuals were for the first time recorded, and these case studies led Krafft-Ebing to the belief that homosexuality was not an acquired vice. The idea of the 'naturalness' of homosexuality was at its time radical. Accordingly, the sexual knowledge was disseminated in a somewhat conspiratorial manner, as it was ostensibly directed solely at medical and legal practitioners 'to exclude the lay reader'. (1) The work nevertheless gained publicity far beyond the specialist realm. I argue that this was partly due to the fact that Krafft-Ebing's medical book provided an exciting erotic stimulus. The real interest of many of its lay readers derived from its sexually explicit content, in other words Psychopathia Sexualis was a source for sexual kicks. This notion can be traced in Radclyffe Hall's classic lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), where it shines a new light on the construction of the novel's 'sexually inverted' protagonist.

Many important studies of human sexuality have so far largely neglected the notion that Krafft-Ebing's work might have provided a source of sexual pleasure. (2) Indeed criticism tended to ignore or dismiss Kraffi-Ebing's key role in the promotion of homosexuality per se. Lillian Faderman, for example, recognized the fact that Krafft-Ebing had increasingly moved towards a more tolerant view of homosexuality, but she relegates this information to a footnote, claiming that the influence of his positive assessment of sexual inversion 'on popular notions of homosexuality was minimal'. (3) Sheila Jeffreys even declared that due to what she identified as his own homophobia, Krafft-Ebing had invented the stereotype of the masculine lesbian and a 'phenomenon of female ejaculation' in order to discredit the newly emerged feminists. (4) Only the most recent studies of Krafft-Ebing have begun to take account of his positive and empowering influence for many 'sexual deviants'.(5)

During his lifetime, Krafft-Ebing revised Psychopathia Sexualis twelve times: the first edition was a mere 110 pages long and contained 45 case studies, the last edition held an impressive 238 case studies on 437 pages. (6) The main thesis Krafft-Ebing put forward in this work was that there exist numerous sexual behaviours and sexual practices. He considered them to be 'natural variations' of the same phenomenon, in the same way that for example different eye colours are 'natural'. He was eager to identify various sexual practices; for example he made popular the terms 'sadism' and 'masochism'. While he thought that some individuals engaged in acts of vice which he called 'Pervesitat' (translated as 'perversity'), Krafft-Ebing believed that the majority of people fell into the different category of 'Perversion' (translated as 'perversion'). Under the heading of 'perversion' he assembled a vast range of sexual desires that differed from the heterosexual norm. Krafft-Ebing emphasized that 'perversion' was not criminal behaviour and he took part in Magnus Hirschfeld's petition to abolish paragraph 175 of German law, which criminalized homosexuality. (7) In Psychopathia Sexualis, he offered a forum for the 'perverts' themselves, in which their experiences were recorded, not least for their own use.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Krafft-Ebing's ideas had become relatively well known in Britain, not least through the work of the English sexologists like Havelock Ellis (1859-1939). The sexological and literary circles of the time overlapped. Radclyffe Hall was well informed about the sexuality debates of her time. She incorporated many of these new ideas into her now (in)famous The Well of Loneliness (1928), in which she fictionally recounts the story of a 'female sexual invert', Stephen Gordon.

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