Get 20M+ Full-Text Papers For Less Than $1.50/day. Start a 14-Day Trial for You or Your Team.

Learn More →

Sexuality: The Erotic Imagination: French Histories of Perversity

Sexuality: The Erotic Imagination: French Histories of Perversity At the close of this century, a time when representations of sexuality are found on every billboard and beer advertisement, it is difficult to imagine a world only 200 years past when public representations of sex were kept carefully hidden—when the mere mention of sex was considered pathogenic. Consider, for example, an early review of Kraft-Ebbing's Psychopathia Sexualis: "This is a book to be read only by the sexually mature and psychically balanced. In its psychopathic effects it might prove dangerous in its influence over the neuropathically unstable. To the prurient curiosity of that morbid sexual element . . . its examples and personal histories would prove psychopathic poison" (Alienist and Neurologist, 1893). With this quotation, Dr Vernon Rosario begins The Erotic Imagination—his aptly titled "history of perversity." Rosario takes our over-sexed, commercialized culture back to its roots, a time when the most titillating fare for our prurient appetites was medical textbooks. Beginning with a pamphlet that achieved wide circulation in the early 1700s by advertising a quack cure for masturbation and its supposed sequelae, the author traces the development of our modern (mis)understanding of human sexual "perversions." He shows how masturbation, fetishism, homosexuality, and promiscuity, originally viewed as physical threats to the body, came increasingly to be viewed as the manifestations of madness, the result of genetic defect, and ultimately a threat to society. Once jailed, sexual degenerates began to be confined in asylums, the subjects of medical textbooks replete with graphic sexual imagery that today is found primarily in hard-core pornography. To someone jaded by modern society's overemphasis on sexuality, it is amusing to read of 19th-century physicians' belief in the physical ailments resulting from masturbation, then considered a "fatal habit." Lest we laugh too loudly, though, Rosario seems simultaneously to caution us that, as usual, the more things change, the more they stay the same. With artful literary analysis and scrupulous documentation, he shows how sexual practices first considered immoral later were cast as pathogenic, the result of genetic defect, and the "destroyer of civilized societies" (Reveille-Parise, 1828, quoted by Rosario). Once armed only with religious texts, moral crusaders gained the blessing of scientists in their crusade against masturbation, homosexuality, fetishism—indeed, against all but procreative sexual intercourse. How closely the moral crusaders of the 1800s resemble the crusaders of today! Rosario elegantly describes how early sexologists warred with other physicians and moralists about "inversion," or homosexuality. Was this genetic difference merely a variant of human sexual behavior, or "a new syndrome of organic degeneration and social disintegration"? How closely this debate resembles the struggles of today, when the discovery of morphological differences between homosexual and heterosexual brains gives rise to debates about homosexuality as either mutation or variation, and when Congress feels a need to pass laws "defending" the institution of marriage against homosexuals who dare to legitimize their relationships. In a modern society still obsessed with sex, it is surprising and a bit shocking to learn how medicine has been in large part responsible for inciting hysteria about the danger to society of unbridled sexuality. In this manner, Dr Rosario teaches us how "objective" science both is driven by and contributes to the moral debates of its time—how physicians create disease in misguided attempts to heal society. The Erotic Imagination is thus recommended to readers with an interest in social history and the social construction of disease. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png JAMA American Medical Association

Sexuality: The Erotic Imagination: French Histories of Perversity

JAMA , Volume 280 (19) – Nov 18, 1998

Loading next page...
 
/lp/american-medical-association/sexuality-the-erotic-imagination-french-histories-of-perversity-7YqgIm2PcJ
Publisher
American Medical Association
Copyright
Copyright © 1998 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved.
ISSN
0098-7484
eISSN
1538-3598
DOI
10.1001/jama.280.19.1717-JBK1118-5-1
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

At the close of this century, a time when representations of sexuality are found on every billboard and beer advertisement, it is difficult to imagine a world only 200 years past when public representations of sex were kept carefully hidden—when the mere mention of sex was considered pathogenic. Consider, for example, an early review of Kraft-Ebbing's Psychopathia Sexualis: "This is a book to be read only by the sexually mature and psychically balanced. In its psychopathic effects it might prove dangerous in its influence over the neuropathically unstable. To the prurient curiosity of that morbid sexual element . . . its examples and personal histories would prove psychopathic poison" (Alienist and Neurologist, 1893). With this quotation, Dr Vernon Rosario begins The Erotic Imagination—his aptly titled "history of perversity." Rosario takes our over-sexed, commercialized culture back to its roots, a time when the most titillating fare for our prurient appetites was medical textbooks. Beginning with a pamphlet that achieved wide circulation in the early 1700s by advertising a quack cure for masturbation and its supposed sequelae, the author traces the development of our modern (mis)understanding of human sexual "perversions." He shows how masturbation, fetishism, homosexuality, and promiscuity, originally viewed as physical threats to the body, came increasingly to be viewed as the manifestations of madness, the result of genetic defect, and ultimately a threat to society. Once jailed, sexual degenerates began to be confined in asylums, the subjects of medical textbooks replete with graphic sexual imagery that today is found primarily in hard-core pornography. To someone jaded by modern society's overemphasis on sexuality, it is amusing to read of 19th-century physicians' belief in the physical ailments resulting from masturbation, then considered a "fatal habit." Lest we laugh too loudly, though, Rosario seems simultaneously to caution us that, as usual, the more things change, the more they stay the same. With artful literary analysis and scrupulous documentation, he shows how sexual practices first considered immoral later were cast as pathogenic, the result of genetic defect, and the "destroyer of civilized societies" (Reveille-Parise, 1828, quoted by Rosario). Once armed only with religious texts, moral crusaders gained the blessing of scientists in their crusade against masturbation, homosexuality, fetishism—indeed, against all but procreative sexual intercourse. How closely the moral crusaders of the 1800s resemble the crusaders of today! Rosario elegantly describes how early sexologists warred with other physicians and moralists about "inversion," or homosexuality. Was this genetic difference merely a variant of human sexual behavior, or "a new syndrome of organic degeneration and social disintegration"? How closely this debate resembles the struggles of today, when the discovery of morphological differences between homosexual and heterosexual brains gives rise to debates about homosexuality as either mutation or variation, and when Congress feels a need to pass laws "defending" the institution of marriage against homosexuals who dare to legitimize their relationships. In a modern society still obsessed with sex, it is surprising and a bit shocking to learn how medicine has been in large part responsible for inciting hysteria about the danger to society of unbridled sexuality. In this manner, Dr Rosario teaches us how "objective" science both is driven by and contributes to the moral debates of its time—how physicians create disease in misguided attempts to heal society. The Erotic Imagination is thus recommended to readers with an interest in social history and the social construction of disease.

Journal

JAMAAmerican Medical Association

Published: Nov 18, 1998

There are no references for this article.