Kirkus Reviews QR Code


Krafft-Ebing, Psychiatry, and the Making of Sexual Identity

by Harry Oosterhuis

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-226-63059-5
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago

Long regarded as a prim and repressive Victorian, psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902) emerges in this analysis as an innovator in the scientific study of sexuality.

Oosterhuis (Gay Men and the Sexual History of the Political Left, not reviewed, etc.) culled through the archives of Krafft-Ebing’s patient files, lost in an attic for 90 years, to research the psychiatrist’s relationship to his patients and to understand his views on abnormal sexualities. The bulk of this account focuses, first, on medical and psychiatric ideas about sexuality in the 19th century; second, on Krafft-Ebing’s professional strategies to advance the field of psychiatry in the changing social atmosphere of the late 1800s; third, on his collection of case histories; and, fourth, on the wider cultural context in which the doctor and his patients attempted to give valid social meaning to sexual experiences denigrated by contemporary values. A short chapter, “Krafft-Ebing’s Legacy,” concludes the study. The author’s reach is vast, but it does not exceed his grasp: Victorian science and the then-budding field of sexuality studies come alive through his probing analyses and nuanced interpretations. The case studies, moreover, provide an engrossing read and deep insights into the conditioning of Victorian morality: “Von R” desired to be “the servant of my servant”; “Dr. Phil G” perplexed the authorities of the time by defending his homoerotic desires; “Sara A” suffered a “hysteric neurosis” coupled with an “erotic madness” in her passionate love for a family friend. Krafft-Ebing’s responses to these and many other patients illuminated both the burgeoning science of psychiatry and the nascent resistance to sexual policing.

Krafft-Ebing’s archives are fascinating in their own right; the author’s meticulous scholarship and inviting prose complement them: a superlative achievement in the study of sexuality. (4 tables; b&w photos)