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Richard von Krafft-Ebing was a German-born psychiatrist whose 1886 text “Psychopathia Sexualis” broke new ground in the area of sexual deviance. He was the first scientist to conduct a major study of sexual perversity. The book was revolutionary in addressing topics like homosexuality, incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, and female sexual pleasure. Kraftt-Ebing was also one of the first to declare that sexual deviances may also be hereditary.
Richard von Krafft-Ebing died in August in 1902, while he was working on the 12th edition of “Psychopathia Sexualis,” which contained more case studies detailing conditions including impotence, necrophilia, lust-murder, and handkerchief fetishism.
Krafft-Ebing’s early work centered around the diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment of people with mental illness. He became convinced of its importance following his work as medical superintendent of the Feldhof mental asylum, a facility with conditions more like a prison than a hospital.
This work led him to examine sexual deviance, as so many manifestations of this were dismissed as symptoms of mental illness. His passion for this work became a lifelong crusade to educate people about sexual deviance.
Krafft-Ebing’s “Psychopathia Sexualis” features case studies detailing a range of different sexual deviances. It was written in Latin to exclude lay people. Instead, Krafft-Ebing hoped the book would be consumed by other psychiatrists, physicians and judges. The modern understanding of sexual paraphilias can be traced back to Krafft-Ebing’s research. This text also introduced many common words to our vocabulary, including homosexual, heterosexual, masochism, sadism, and fetishism.
Krafft-Ebing believed society should be sympathetic to the individuals he wrote about, as he felt they had no control over their desires. In fact, Krafft-Ebing was instrumental in having men charged of rape acquitted for their crimes, as he argued they were suffering from satyriasis (the male equivalent of nymphomania). His views were at odds with the majority of his society, who typically ignored sexual dysfunction, dismissed it as insanity, or dealt with it in a religious context.
However some modern scholars believe that despite his best intentions, Krafft-Ebing’s Victorian mindset still shines through the work, especially as it focuses on abnormalities rather than sex itself.