"Sympathy for the Pervert: Richard von Krafft-Ebing and the Benefit of Naming Pathologies" by Jan Szpilka
Jan is a cultural anthropologist currently working on a masters thesis about Polish BDSM communities at the Institute of Polish Culture (University of Warsaw). Jan's research focuses on the history and culture of sadism and masochism/BDSM, and by extension history of perversion in Western culture.
Richard von Krafft-Ebing is one of those paradoxical figures of history who is both heavily influential and largely forgotten. On one hand, the name of this Austrian psychiatrist is bound to sound familiar to anyone with but a passing interest in nineteenth- century views on sexuality. However, even in the works devoted to that subject, he usually functions as merely a name attached to his most famous work, Psychopathia Sexualis, and nothing more past that. His views, his research, his framing of pathologies of sexual life, are all neglected today, despite their far-reaching, if rather short-lived influence. First published in 1886, Psychopathia Sexualis quickly gained fame as a comprehensive, exploratory study into what Krafft-Ebing called “miseries of man and the dark side of his existence” – that is, all manners of sexual deviance and perversion known to the psychiatry of the time. Within just a few of years, it was translated into five major European languages (Russian, Italian, English, Hungarian and French), and went through twelve separate editions, each larger than the previous; Krafft-Ebing working on them up until his deathbed. However, by the time he passed away in 1902, in spite of the popularity and acclaim the tome received, his work was already becoming dated.
The reason is easy to pinpoint: Sigmund Freud, a colleague of Krafft-Ebing from the Viennese psychiatric society (which, interestingly, was chaired by Krafft-Ebing during the first years of Freud’s activity). It is no exaggeration to say that Psychopathia Sexualis fell victim to psychoanalysis. Freud’s theories swept European psychiatric circles, shook the contemporary understanding of psychology (and therefore, by extension, sexuality), and rendered everything that had been said about that before almost obsolete; thus dooming the works of Krafft-Ebing to obscurity in archives, antiquaries and the curiosity of historians.
When Krafft-Ebing’s research is remembered today, it is usually in the context of his invention of various words we use today to speak about non-normative sexual practices. He had been variously attributed with coining terms such as sadism, masochism, bisexuality, pedophilia and so on. Whether or not he actually invented all of them (there is, for example, evidence that the word “sadism” was in use much earlier) the wide spread of his works certainly helped them rise to popularity. Therefore, it is safe to say that we owe much to him, if only in regards to language we now use to speak about sexuality. Most historians are content to leave him at that – a creator of words, a late nineteenth- century indexer of what he viewed as perversions and pathologies.
Krafft-Ebing was, if nothing else, a child of his time and an inheritor of the entire century of psychiatric tradition. He was a compilator of sorts, whose chief aim was to be to create a sort of summa of knowledge in regards to sexual psychopathology. The choice was not incidental: it was motivated by what he perceived to be a burning need in society.
After all, the phenomena that he gave names to were not unknown. Take for example one of the words that we can be certain he created and popularized himself: “masochism”. The enjoyment of pain and humiliation in the bedroom was not unheard of, even to the sexually repressed society of the nineteenth- century. In the early 1800s, one Madame Berkley became famous by operating a popular brothel catering to such needs in London, and erotic flagellation in general was a well-recognized practice, interestingly most associated with British national character. And the namesake of this “perversion”, a Galician author by the name of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, had been publishing for many decades before Krafft-Ebing named masochism after him in 1892 (much to the chagrin of Sacher-Masoch’s family). Aside from the obvious pursuit of knowledge, Krafft-Ebing was motivated to create this term and a new category of men: “masochists”, those afflicted with this deviation?
The answer to this question leads to the very heart of Krafft-Ebing’s work. When thinking of his work, it is vital to keep in mind that he considered himself first and foremost a clinician, not a theoretician. It was not his aim to break new theoretical grounds – he wanted to create a manual that would help in a very specific set of cases, in a very specific environment. The words “Medico-forensic” in the title of Psychopathia Sexualis are not there just for show. Krafft-Ebing started working on the book with an explicit purpose of assisting members of legal and medical professions called to courts to testify in cases where sexual pathology was at the forefront.
That was the nature of the burning need mentioned earlier. In the waning years of the nineteenth- century, sexual pathology and deviance were subjects of much interest from the public. For the long time understood as something unmentionable, it nonetheless started to break through to public awareness. Partially responsible for that is the popular press of that time, which helped to present a new threat to the concerned public: the serial killer. The 1880s saw widespread publicization of the cases of Jack the Ripper in England and the shepherd-rapist Jean Vacher in France. Mired in blood and the evils of sexuality, serial killers became the focuses lenses for societal fear of sexual deviance. To answer them, the governments of Europe employed legal reforms which swept the continent. Breaking away from the vague categories of “crimes against decency”, derived from Napoleon’s Code, the new legislation explicitly targeted and named sexual behaviours which were a threat to society.
To fully understand the anxiety about the dangers posed by deviance, it has to be noted that the nineteenth- century saw a substantial change in the understanding of the nature of perversion. Along with the development of clinical psychiatry, sex was gradually losing its quality of a sin, or a wilful failure of character, which it held for the ages prior. No longer understood as a conscious, and therefore vile choice of an individual, for the contemporaries of Krafft-Ebing (and Krafft-Ebing himself), sexual pathology was not even an acquired trait. Rather, it was inborn and inherited. One was born a masochist, born a sadist, born a fetishist – biology trumped will and turned otherwise good men and women towards the wretchedness of deviance. When speaking about Leopold von Sacher-Maschost (an author who, by most accounts, was of rather dubious talent), Krafft-Ebing mentions that it was his “perversion” that caused him to fall from greatness. Had he not been a masochist, he would be one of the greats of literature. Therefore, the presence of such deviants posed a very concrete danger to the fabric of society – not one of personal misbehavior, but rather of systematic degeneration. This alone necessitated and justified inquiry into the previously ignored nature of pathology, so that the decay of the population could be prevented. Yet, it should not be mistaken for a eugenic drive to excise suboptimal element from the general populace (although it certainly was not at odds with such approaches). For Krafft-Ebing and other psychopathologists of the same disposition, such research was a means of preserving human dignity. For them, the discovery of inborn pathologies was an excuse and a justification for afflicted men and women, not their condemnation.
In a way, both the need to identify, name and research the “miseries of man” and subsequent defense of the miserable came from the same source. The deviants were in fact a product of a hereditary corruption running through society - a corruption that could spring from many sources, from moral decay, through diseases such as syphilis, hysteric temperament, to the unhealthy living conditions of sprawling industrial cities. Thus, it was not their fault and not their blame that they were subjected to urges and passions by which society could not abide, and which they, through the failure of their bodies, could not control. Therefore, there came the need for the forensic psychiatrist to be not an accuser, but an apologist of an afflicted man. Krafft-Ebing spells out this duty explicitly in the introduction to Psychopathia Sexualis: “the medical barrister […] is called upon to express an opinion as to the responsibility of the accused whose life, liberty and honour are at stake”. The “deviant” – the masochist or the sexual invert – could then be exonerated of guilt, if not misconduct – after all, having no control over his body and his actions, he could not be held responsible for what he was, and could not be punished for it. Such a sentence would be inherently against justice.
It is telling that Krafft-Ebing came to be one of the first academic public figures to speak against the paragraph 129 of Austrian criminal code (and paragraph 175 of German criminal code) which criminalized what we today call homosexuality. He opposed it on moral grounds, claiming that an inborn deficiency could not be ethically persecuted (however, he made a distinction, pointing out that those who acquired sexual inversion as a result of their moral deficiency later in their lives should still be persecuted).
This reveals a paradox nested in Krafft-Ebing’s framing of sexuality. By striving to provide an apology for afflicted men and women, suffering for a disease which was not their fault, he indirectly contributed to strengthening the view which removed the odium of sin from them. Although their actions and desires remained deplorable in his eyes, they were worthy of compassion and help rather than persecution and condemnation. Such a view was a novel, but logical, consequence of the shifting perceptions of norm and pathology in the late nineteenth century. Of course, Psychopathia Sexualis did not improve the public perception what it described as perversion. It only pathologized it further. Furthermore, it seems that – contrary to the author’s intent – it did not alter the legal practice of the age. Most of the “deviations” accounted for by Krafft-Ebing were never persecuted, at least not on a mass scale. There are no accounts of people being persecuted for their sexual sadism or masochism, and Krafft-Ebing’s plea for depenalization of homosexuality went unheard in German legal systems until the 1970s. However, his work accomplished two other important feats.
First, it broke the silence; the subject of pathology, previously unmentionable, was now given an exhaustive, scientific description, which could be worked upon, iterated and referenced. And more importantly, it decoupled the pervert from the perversion. By creating independent “perversions” which were diseases in some way no different from pox or cold, it freed the “pervert” from the stigma of a sinful, immoral will, and thus helped to prevent him from being further condemned. And if the “pervert” could be reframed as an innocent man worthy of empathy, perhaps there was hope for “perversion” too? It would have certainly revolted Krafft-Ebing to see that his legacy came to be used as a means to normalize and depathologize what he viewed as a misery of man. And yet, our modern ability to re-frame norm and perversion would not be possible had it not been first defined by him.
 Full English title being: Psychopathia Sexualis with Especial Reference to the Antipathic Sexual Instinct. A Medico-forensic Study.”
 Most works will give 1886 as the date of first use of the term by Krafft-Ebing, but that is erroneous. Sadism and masochism were not included in the first few editions of Psychopathia Sexualis, and were included only later, in fifth edition, which came out in 1892, after being described by Krafft-Ebing in a separate paper.
 As a sidenote, the American publisher of Psychopathia Sexualis urged that the book should only be sold to lawyers and doctors – the contents were too explicit for the lay. However, this did little to discourage the text from circulating as an impromptu pornographic lexicon in later years.
 A good example of such law was the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885’s Britain, which would later serve as the basis for Oscar Wilde’s conviction.