Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis as Sexual Sourcebook for Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness

in Critical Survey
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Psychopathia Sexualis (first published in German in 1886, in English in 1892) by the German sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1903) was amongst the first works in the new discipline to argue that homosexuality was part of nature and could thus not be condemned. Here the voices of real-life homosexuals were for the first time recorded, and these case studies led Krafft-Ebing to the belief that homosexuality was not an acquired vice. The idea of the ‘naturalness’ of homosexuality was at its time radical. Accordingly, the sexual knowledge was disseminated in a somewhat conspiratorial manner, as it was ostensibly directed solely at medical and legal practitioners ‘to exclude the lay reader’. The work nevertheless gained publicity far beyond the specialist realm. I argue that this was partly due to the fact that Krafft-Ebing’s medical book provided an exciting erotic stimulus. The real interest of many of its lay readers derived from its sexually explicit content, in other words Psychopathia Sexualis was a source for sexual kicks. This notion can be traced in Radclyffe Hall’s classic lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), where it shines a new light on the construction of the novel’s ‘sexually inverted’ protagonist.

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