Whereas women today worry about feeling sexy enough, their Victorian sisters were warned against 'wanton feelings' and doctors treated the clitoris as 'the source of evil'. Linda Vergnani reports.
Henrietta Unwin cut off her hair, ran away from the family home and began a four-day affair with a man in Dieppe. When she returned, her husband had her committed to an asylum.
There, her attitude was noted as "exceedingly lascivious" and she was found to have an "inappeasable desire for sexual congress". She displayed alternate periods of depression and excitement. To the medical doctors of 1864, the diagnosis of the 28-year-old was clear. She was suffering from nymphomania.
Trawling through the medical records of Ticehurst House Hospital, a private asylum in East Sussex, historian Clair Scrine was delighted when she found the first definite diagnosis of the condition. Initially described as "uterine fury", nymphomania was much discussed by the British medical fraternity in the 19th century. But records of actual case histories have been hard to find.
"To me this was fascinating because despite all this talk of nymphomania, where were these women?" Scrine wonders if the doctors of the time were "fearful" of giving a nymphomania diagnosis because of its social stigma.
Yet if the medical fraternity found labelling an individual with the condition difficult, the therapies they prescribed reveal an altogether more robust attitude, ranging from sedatives "to dull the senses" to the surgical removal of the clitoris.
Scrine, a researcher at the Australian National Archives in Canberra, is the first historian to study British treatment of nymphomania. Her work included six months examining records at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London. She has just submitted her doctoral thesis to Sydney's Macquarie University, where she used to lecture in modern history.
Sitting in her Canberra flat, Scrine notes: "What is considered a problem with sexuality today is the opposite of what used to be treated as abnormal."
While pharmaceutical companies now try to market a Viagra for women with low sex drives, she says that in the 19th century, women who masturbated, wanted more sex than their husbands or simply wore too much jewellery or perfume could be diagnosed as suffering from nymphomania.
Nymphomania was seen as a physical disorder rather than a mental problem.
Doctors believed the female body was inherently dysfunctional and that the condition was caused by abnormalities in a woman's reproductive system. In contrast, Scrine says: "A man's excess was a momentary lapse that was the privilege of any healthy, virile male."
Women's bodies were recognised as being highly sexual and irrational, but the conservative middle-class view was that females needed to avoid stimulation and be "cultured, virtuous moral crusaders". This dichotomy created enormous anxiety between men and women and coloured doctors'
Historians who have examined Victorian pornography find many depictions of women as insatiable. "To me, that is just fascinating - living in a society where you are seen to lack control and yet you must have control," Scrine says. She observes that from the physicians' point of view "womanhood itself was essentially a precarious, unstable and debilitating state, and thus woman was naturally subject to a wide array of disorder, including nymphomania".
The condition was broadly defined as "excessive or insatiable sexual desire that cannot be quenched". It was described by one 19th-century doctor as a "disease of the grosser sexual passion", a physical malady that was beyond a woman's conscious control. Scrine says: "Furor uterinus, or uterine fury, was the name for a long time, and you will find that term often in the 19th century. Eventually that seemed to drop away and they stuck with nymphomania."
The term nymphomaniac was not used until the 20th century. She notes that the American Psychiatric Association's standard manual did not drop the diagnosis of the condition until 1987.
"Psychiatrists tell me that nymphomania is such an archaic term that you would not describe a woman who was ill today with that label," she says.
But the term "sexual addiction" is acceptable, and there are groups that advertise treatment of it based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.
"What we would describe today as healthy sexual behaviour was obviously an affront to society in the 19th century," Scrine says. "We are talking about a society where middle-class women were expected to be highly chaste. For much of the 18th century, there was a dominant culture that accepted women being sexually provocative. But by the end of the 18th century, there were serious shifts to a very conservative model of middle-class behaviour."
Georgian and Victorian doctors did not see women as asexual but as needing to control strong sexual impulses, Scrine notes. These sexual feelings were believed to have their origins in the clitoris, ovaries or uterus.
Masturbation, touching or irritation of the genitals were all seen by doctors as factors that could trigger nymphomania. In a treatise of 1828, the influential psychiatrist George Man Burrows wrote that no matter how naturally virtuous a woman might be, genital irritation would excite wanton feelings that then "proceed to revolting extremes".
Fleetwood Churchill, a professor of midwifery, warned that the excitement caused by pruritis of the vulva could lead to "lascivious thoughts and impure desires" and develop into nymphomania.
In her thesis, Scrine describes how doctors saw women's capacity for sexual abandonment as so great that some were reluctant to administer anaesthetics during childbirth or use a speculum on patients. During clinical and postmortem examinations, they looked for physical proof of nymphomania, such as an enlarged clitoris or ovarian cysts.
Treatments for the condition were described in medical papers and discussions. Edwardian and Victorian doctors recommended "soothing" the genitals by inserting ice or belladonna into the vagina. Injections of ice water into the rectum were sometimes prescribed.
Among the treatments suggested by London obstetric physician David Davis was "the application of leeches to the parts to induce enough bleeding until the patient fainted". Applying astringents or caustics to the woman's genitals was another treatment. Scrine says this was "explicitly designed to prevent a woman's masturbation by both deadening the sensation of the clitoris and producing blistering that made the area too painful to touch".
Most radical and controversial was surgical removal of the clitoris and, later, the ovaries. The clitoridectomies had their roots in the 18th century, when the procedure was used by French and German surgeons to treat nymphomania and masturbation.
In a paper published in 1866, Isaac Baker Brown, president of the Medical Society of London, wrote that the only permanent cure for diseases such as nymphomania was to remove the clitoris - the "source of evil". He said he had never, after his treatment, seen a recurrence of the disease. Scrine says Brown established his own home where he accommodated patients and performed several clitoridectomies. But he got "a bad press" from some of his colleagues, who criticised him for not getting the consent of patients.
Scrine says clitoridectomy was generally regarded as very radical and somewhat suspect because of its "primitive associations" with female circumcision in Africa and elsewhere. The same year that Brown published his paper, the Obstetrical Society of London criticised clitoridectomy and other radical gynaecological surgery. Edward Tilt, the president of the society, gave a talk on the "extreme surgical tendencies of uterine pathologists" and warned about unnecessary deaths after some surgery. In 1867, Brown was expelled from the Obstetrical Society for the "manner" in which he performed clitoridectomies but not for actually carrying out the operation.
An article on nymphomania by US researcher Carol Groneman, a professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, first piqued Scrine's interest in the subject. Groneman subsequently published a well-received book, Nymphomania, a History, from a decidedly American perspective.
Beginning her research two years before this book was published, Scrine decided to approach nymphomania and its treatment from a British slant.
First she looked for case histories and tried to discover how women perceived their bodies in the 19th century. She wanted to know why they would confront male doctors with masturbation and other symptoms that would be interpreted as disorders. Yet she could not find a single account by a woman who suffered from nymphomania. "The evidence did not lend itself to that."
She thought of approaching the subject from a feminist perspective, initially believing that branding women as suffering from nymphomania was a way men had of suppressing female sexuality. But in her research she became aware that the explanation was far more complex, and her focus shifted to the doctors. Male gynaecologists seemed genuinely concerned over what they believed was a physical ailment. "They were completely dominated by the scientific knowledge and were victims of the times they lived in," she says.
Scrine hopes to turn her research into a popular book. "I still think we have issues about sexuality that are equally as dubious as nymphomania," she says. Women are now "concerned about not feeling sexual enough". Scrine is particularly interested in today's emphasis on female sexual dysfunction, a lack of sexual desire that would probably meet the Victorian ideal.
She says drug companies are publicising female sexual dysfunction and trying to promote the use of Viagra for women who do not achieve orgasm during penetrative sex with men. She says: "It's the age-old thing of trying to say what is normal in heterosexual sex, privileging masculine fulfilment and desire, and basing what women do in terms of that. To me, that has a lot of parallels with what I looked at in my research."
As for poor Henrietta Unwin, she was given sedatives and, at one stage, had an attendant watching her every night to ensure that she did not masturbate. After treatment she was discharged and her husband refused to take her back.