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Nymphomania Versus Female Sex Addiction

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More and more of late, stories about female sexual addiction-and books by women writing their stories of sexual addiction-are circulating in mass media. You may have encountered such a story on your favorite online news aggregate or heard about a female sex addict from a friend. You may be one of these women yourself.

Sexual addiction is no longer strictly the territory of the Tiger Woodses and Bill Clintons of the world. Women are confessing their difficulty with sexual compulsivity and bravely unveiling the heretofore private dysfunctions such addictive behaviors have wrought upon their lives.

Sexual addiction is often referred to by members of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous as a compulsion of shame. For the addict, it isn’t simply that what I am doing is bad; it is that I am bad. This is true for both men and women who are sexually addicted. It can be reasonably assumed, however, that with societal stigma higher around female "promiscuity," even in this day and age, women face considerably more shame and/or shaming from their families, friends, communities, and even from their internal self-monitors.

This double standard is an ancient one: men are rewarded for sexual promiscuity; women are reviled for it. Despite the sexual and feminist revolutions in the Western world, it is clear that standards for acceptability of sex practices in men and women are not equal. For example, there is no word equivalent to "slut" which refers to men.

Whether one is "sex-positive" (a political philosophy in which one embraces sex and sexuality as a positive, empowering activity/state) or whether one has more conventional views of sex and sexuality, it remains that sex, like anything, can become addictive. Whether it is a substance or a process (e.g., gambling), the chemical high of oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins is produced in the brain and sent through the bloodstream. It is this chemical discharge to which the addict becomes addicted, and as with heroin, methamphetamines, or adrenaline-producing activities like skydiving or drag racing, it takes ever-greater quantities of substances or more outrageous activities to achieve the same high.


A History of "Nymphomania"

The terms "hypersexuality" and "nymphomania" originally came into the public discourse by way of medicine and psychiatry. The term nymphomania has a male equivalent: satyriasis, from the Greek satyr. It refers to a man with uncontrollable sexual desire and an inability to form lasting relationships. Notice how you’ve heard the word nymphomania and its shortened form (nympho), as well as every slang term based upon it (slut, whore, ho, slattern), but-unless you are exceptionally well read-you’ve likely never come across the term satyriasis until reading this article. This is an example of that societal double standard (i.e., goose, yes; gander, nope).

In 1771, the French physician M.D.T. Bienville coined the term nymphomania in his work Nymphomania, or a Dissertation Concerning the Furor Uterinus. Among the many problems he cited relating to the condition were "dwelling on impure thoughts, reading novels, and eating too much chocolate." Also listed was the problem of indulging in "secret pollutions" (i.e., masturbation).

Women in Victorian times could be sent to an asylum should they be experiencing problems such as "an overheated vagina" or "an enlarged clitoris." Some were subjected to clitoridectomy for these crimes. (Clitoridectomy is the removal of the clitoris- usually, although not always, performed by a surgeon or through genital mutilation.)

By the 1930s, the field of psychology, specifically psychoanalysis, led by Sigmund Freud, had counter-intuitively determined that heightened sexuality in women was a result of sexual frigidity. It was deduced that a hypersexual woman was futilely attempting to have her "immature" libidinal needs met with as many partners as possible because she was not sexually mature enough to complete orgasm with only one man.

By 1951, nymphomania was listed under sexual deviation in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. It was, therefore, a criterion for mental illness. The term changed names once, but was finally dropped in 1994 due the association’s debate as to whether and how to include sexual compulsivity as addiction or compulsion in the diagnostic manual. This debate is still ongoing.

A General Guideline for Pathology and Addiction

Despite the fact that sexual norms for men and women are not aligned in our culture, it is likely best practice that women are allowed to establish sexual and relationship boundaries for themselves which feel right to them. Whether a woman has a sex-positive perspective or a more conventional view of sexuality, it should be up to her to decide what is best for her. Does having one or many partners over a lifetime feel healthiest? Does having one or many partners at one time feel best? Whatever is "safe, sane, and consensual" is usually good practice.

Pathology can be considered any pronounced deviation from a healthy state. A deviation from healthy conditions creates dysfunction-dysfunction being whatever inhibits the ability to function normally or healthfully. It is that which impedes your health or your sanity. Addiction is that dysfunction which enslaves you. It is the enslaving action that inhibits your sanity and your health.

Historically, nymphomania-as it appears in the common lexicon as well as in the public imagination-may be an outdated or misogynous term. It is possible, however, that female sexual behaviors, just as male sexual behaviors, can become uncontrollable, impulsive, and dangerous. To the extent that sexual behaviors put us at risk, any inability to control them is unhealthy. If we find ourselves habitually acting out in sexual ways, whether alone, with one partner, or with many, and to a degree that this causes us distress and dysfunction, it is less a matter of "nymphomania," but one of potential sexual addiction.

It is important to recognize, of course, that there is-and there should be-plenty of room for women with high libidos; who take charge of their sexual appetites; who feel no shame about their sexuality, their desires, or the ways they choose to express them-overheated clitorises, novel reading, and chocolate consumption notwithstanding.