Considering the phenomenon of “nymphomania,” which has been popularly considered as female sexuality out of control, Groneman reviews the developments in the meaning of nymphomania throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Upon analyzing the understanding of nymphomania as reflective of the dominantculture's complex, the author sees nymphomania as similar to hysteria, neurasthenia, and other diseases of the nineteenth century. While the nineteenth century considered these illnesses to be organic, through the influence of Freud the twentieth century recognized them as largely mental disorders. In the case of nymphomania this meant a hypersexuality understood through various conceptions of female sexuality.
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Freud presented sexuality as lodged in the psyche rather than in the body and traced the problem to the brain rather than to the genitals or to the blood. Thus, the twentieth-century psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel understood nymphomania as a transposition of sexual feeling from the clitoris to the vagina, whereby a previous oral orientation is reanimated and displaced from above downward. According to this theory, the vagina remains essentially a mouth, and infantile oral sadistic activities and wishes explain the perversion.
Groneman considers the inadequacy of Freud's understanding of masculine and feminine sexuality: both sexes were seen to maneuver through the same oral, anal, and phallic phases. According to this view, for a girl, sexual pleasure in childhood comes from the clitoris, which must be given up after a period of sexual anesthesia, evolving into mature sexuality in which orgasm is experienced solely in the vagina. Mature female sexuality is then passive and receptive to heterosexual intercourse, and envy of the penis is replaced by the desire for a baby. Women unable to negotiate this process toward normal feminine sexuality remain entangled in the masculinity complex. Aggressivity is reserved to masculinity, and a woman who is too aggressive sexually is understood as inadequately dealing with homosexual tendencies and having failed to progress out of her masculine or active stage.
Other psychoanalytic explanations of nymphomania included unconscious incestuous desires, pregenital sadistic narcissism, suppressed aggression, and the counteraction of anxiety about the introjected bad penis by a continuous compulsive introjection of a good penis. Groneman feels these psychoanalytic theories reflect the contemporary fear of women's challenge to the traditional feminine role; they warn against the dangers of the masculinization of women who step outside the boundaries of family and home while taking on male roles and resorting to aggressive sexual behavior. In all these theories, male sexuality remains the dominant model in trying to evision a normal female sexuality. Thus, Freudian theory, while making great advances in recognizing that females were sexual beings, at the same time created other restrictions and definitions of appropriate female sexual behavior.