It was said by the renowned sex researcher, Alfred Kinsey, that “A nymphomaniac is someone who has more sex than you do.” It would seem that modern psychology has caught up with Kinsey’s insight. The dictionary of psychological disorders, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), removed nymphomania from its list in 1980. But does that mean Nymphomania no longer exists?
In popular culture “sex addiction” has been used as a catch-all for a number of “disorders” that have been named and described: hypersexuality, compulsive sexual behavior, erotomania, hyperfilia, etc. But the DSM puts almost all of these under one listing: Sexual Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. This heading is as ambiguous, amorphous, and as slippery as the subject itself.
However, let’s keep in in mind that no matter how something is categorized or listed, it’s not a “disorder” unless it is distressing to the person exhibiting it or has detrimental effects in one’s life. If the result of the behavior is a net negative, then it could be labeled a disorder. That net negative could be manifested psychologically, as in feelings of guilt and remorse, or could result in actual physical harm to oneself. Other net negatives could include weakening of relationships, loss of a job, or other harms external to oneself.
In modern European and American culture, nymphomania has as checkered a past as the women diagnosed with it. Even though there is a male correlate to it — satyriasis — the two labels have been employed in radically different ways. Historically, the ascription of “nymphomaniac” has been applied to women who, had their gender been ascribed to men and the behaviors described as those of men, rarely would they be described as afflicted with satyriasis. In other words, historically, women exhibiting the same healthy and robust sexuality of men would be diagnosed with a disorder while their male counterparts gained the praise and admiration of others as Don Juans.
But, in the last decade or so, with the rise of internet porn, the term “sex addict” has been increasingly utilized in less stereotypical and gender specific, patriarchal ways. Famous actors such as Rob Lowe, David Duchovny, and Charlie Sheen all have come out as being sex addicts, making it easier for others to do so.
Despite the DSM debunking the myth of nymphomania and our modern society’s willingness to embrace a more gender-neutral term applicable to men and women, the term “nymphomania” and its connotations continues to live on in the culture’s consciousness and the collective unconscious.
Nymphomania is a concept that has a history to it almost as old as civilization itself. In Jewish lore there was Lilith, the contemporary or predecessor of Eve, who refused to be subservient to Adam and, supposedly, insisted on taking the “top” position during sex. Her name is derived from the Hebrew for “night” and she is associated with other female night demons who seduce men. As such, she is a succubus. This tale probably has its origin in explaining men’s nocturnal emissions.
Throughout history, assertive women and sexually promiscuous women have been associated with the demonic. Accusing a woman of being a witch was one way of marginalizing or eradicating powerful and lustful women. In more recent times, diagnosing them as hysterical was another. Perhaps if we rewrote history as “hystery” (from the Greek, hyster, meaning “womb”) we would have different stories to tell. But, from the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the goddess of love, Ishtar, unsuccessfully tries to seduce the hero, and the temple prostitute, Shamhat, successfully seduces and thereby defiles the natural man of the wild, Enkidu, to Helen of Troy, whose face and unfaithful figure launched a thousand ships, to the Sirens and Calypso, all the way through to Gatsby’s fair Daisy Fay Buchanan, wanton women have been revered and rebuked by the West’s confused attitude toward female sexuality.
In the West, only Virgins, like Mary, and doting, devoted wives, like Penelope and Henry James’ Isabel Archer, get univocal approval.
(The East, by contrast, is not as uncomfortable with strong, sexual, and wise women. From Cali to Guan Yin, not only are they revered and worshiped, but even the gender ambiguity of Vishnu is given prominence.)
Even in the contemporary medium of myth-telling — movies — the nymphomaniac is never depicted as anything but pathological and her fate is always a morality tale told from the point of view of the negative exemplar. Lolita, the touchstone of our modern-day horny heroine, has been made into a movie twice: once in 1962 by Kubrick and once in 1997 by Adrian Lyne. Based upon the classic book by Nabokov, the films and the book stand in a league of their own. The ultimate fate of Nabokov’s Lolita (spoiler alert) is morally ambiguous. Clearly a letdown to the pedophile protagonist, Humbert Humbert, when he finds his life-long love at the end of the book, we are never given any insight into mature Lolita’s feelings of fulfillment in family or lack thereof. However, it is, perhaps, too hasty to say that there have only been two Lolita films made. One of the most popular tropes in porn is Lolita. In this way the myth of the nymph lives on and on.
Other films, such as Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and Craig Brewer’s Black Snake Moan, put nymphomania front and center. However, in both, the female protagonist is depicted as pitifully damaged and pathologically in need of redemption. In the latter film, that redemption takes the form of Christina Ricci, dressed only in her panties and a cutoff t-shirt, being chained to a cast iron heating radiator by a strong black man (Samuel L. Jackson). As psychologically dubious as this “treatment” might be, it could be said that the film gets to some deep, underlying archetypical images and fantasies buried in the American collective unconscious by playing on race, gender, and slave tropes.
The former film, Nymphomania, as drab and sexually non-stimulating as it is, does get to some diagnostic characteristics. As Robert Weiss, founder of the Sexual Recovery Institute, has discussed in his “Thoughts on Nymphomaniac: Volume I,” in the Huffington Post, March 20, 2014:
Nymphomaniac: Volume I is “sex addiction accurate.”
• Joe’s sexual exploits start out (rather early in life) as innocent and fun-seeking, but before long she’s using them less for enjoyment and more for escape. This is typical. Simply put, addicts of all types engage in their addictions not to feel better, but to feel less.
• Joe views men as objects — a means to sexual gratification — rather than seeing them as equals and potential partners in emotional intimacy. When her lies actually ruin one man’s life, she feels nothing for either him or his wife and kids. Nor does she change her behavior.
• Joe spends nearly all of her free time pursuing sex. She has no other interests or hobbies.
• Joe’s sexual activity escalates in both amount and intensity. She has more and more partners as her addiction progresses, and she engages in ever-more risky behaviors.
• Joe’s response to any sort of emotional crisis is sex. When her father is terminally ill in the hospital, she has sex with an attendant. Later, she experiences sexual arousal at his deathbed.
• Joe seeks a sense of control and power through sex. For instance, she ‘allows’ or ‘forbids’ certain activities. At one point she speaks to Seligman about ‘privileges’ granted to one of her regular sex partners. Using sex to feel ‘in control’ is common with sex addicts, especially with female sex addicts.
• Joe appears to have not bonded appropriately with her ‘cold hearted bitch’ of a mother, relying on her father for kindness and nurture. Her childhood flashbacks show that she learned ways to ‘please’ her father, and that doing so was incredibly important. Even though their relationship does not appear to have been sexual or otherwise abusive, it is clear that she learned early on that the way to get love from men is to please them. This type of dysfunctional childhood bonding is common in sex addicts of both genders.
• By the end of the film, Joe’s entire life (not just her sex life) has become ‘monotonous and pointless.’ She compares her daily movements to those of a caged animal. Everything she does is rote and repetitious, and nothing has any meaning — especially not the sex. At one point she says to a partner, during sex, ‘I can’t feel anything,’ and it is clear that she is talking about both physical numbness and emotional numbness.
Though Weiss points out in the article that female sex addicts are often ascribed “highly shaming labels” such as nympho, slut, tramp, and whore, “that society routinely attaches to women who have a lot of sex, regardless of whether they do so because they enjoy it” or not, he does not in any way discuss the possibility of a positive nymphomaniacal experience in which those labels are coopted into accolades.
The linguist Geoff Nunberg has pointed out that many one-time derogatory and profane words have been coopted and reappropriated by the subjugated, marginalized, and oppressed populations against whom the slurs were originally leveled. As he says about the term “slut,” “after a Toronto police constable told a crime prevention meeting that women should avoid dressing like sluts if they don’t want to be victimized,” “slut walks” served as a way “to protest the whole culture of slut-shaming.” He points out that, “it is hard to imagine ‘slut’ being reclaimed the way ‘queer’ was, as a respectable label for academic programs and cultural centers.” (“Slut: The Other Four Letter S-Word,” on Fresh Air, WHYY, NPR, March 13, 2012)
This sort of reevaluation of values is exactly what Lo is literally embodying, pushing psychology today to free itself from the prejudices of patriarchy. She wears the labels “slut,” “tramp,” “whore,” and yes, “nymphomaniac” proudly (and she often wears little else). Between us, we use the words “nymphomania” and “slut” as honorifics rather than stigmatizing terms. Every slur can be reclaimed and used subversively by the oppressed.