cover image Nymphomania


Carol Groneman. W. W. Norton & Company, $24.95 (238pp) ISBN 978-0-393-04838-4

The dictionary still defines nymphomania as ""excessive sexual desire in a female,"" yet, as Groneman shows, the condition may not even exist. Nymphomania, she argues, is a metaphor reflecting society's ambivalence toward and discomfort with female desire. Victorians considered nymphomania an organic disease. In the early 20th century, psychoanalytic theory associated nymphomania with frigidity, penis envy, lesbianism and prostitution--all thought to stem from a woman's ""immature"" inability to enjoy vaginal orgasms. By the mid-20th century, scientific evidence of female sexual response led to even more confused theories of nymphomania, as ""sexperts"" sought to reconcile evidence of multiple orgasms and easy arousal with notions of morality. Groneman, a professor of history and co-editor of To Toil the Livelong Day: America's Women at Work, 1780-1980, sketches the historical and social contexts in which nymphomania was considered, and enlivens her text with numerous medical and legal case histories. She exposes the historical association of nymphomania with ""lower"" classes and new immigrants, and documents the disturbing tendency to blame rape and incest on the alleged provocation of the victim. Groneman concludes, ""[E]ven though the sexual revolution appears to have changed the double standard about who gets to enjoy sex or how much sex is `normal,' a deep ambivalence still exists... toward female sexuality."" Groneman's anecdotal history stimulates thought and supports her feminist perspective, but remains more a general overview than a complex analysis. Agent, Georges Borchardt. (Aug.)