Mid-Century Satyrs: Another Dead End in the Pathologization of Sexual Behavior

Brent Arehart // “The ‘stud’ suffers from a pathological need for excessive sexual intercourse, which can only be satisfied by one or more willing partners.” So wrote Dr. Franklin Klaf in 1966 in the opening pages of Satyriasis: A Study of Male Nymphomania. He then went on to make a case for the severity of this syndrome—or disorder, or deviation (he didn’t go to great pains with terminological consistency). Society has less tolerance for satyrs than nymphomaniacs, he insisted, citing an alleged disparity in news coverage “when a woman seduces a man, with or without consent.” Male seducers get longer prison sentences, even if it is the satyriasis’ fault for compromising their self-control. He also bemoaned the current state of treatment and how ironic it is that many psychiatrists “profess atheism” but “are actually stern moralists.” Only the handful of psychiatrists like Klaf who can endure “the loathsome details of perversion without forming prejudices” will successfully treat satyriasis [1].

Already from this preview of Klaf’s work, you probably had a combination of reactions. You may have chuckled at his decision to call patients “studs” and “satyrs” (yes, he continues to call them both throughout!), or smirked at his failure to see the irony in calling out prejudice while using prejudicial language. You may have been shocked at his problematic recourse to sexist rhetoric, or saw it coming from a mile away. To speak for myself: I am a firm believer in the idea that we can take medical history seriously while also finding aspects of it humorous. Life without laughter would be about as good as life without medicine. And there are also times to feel anger, to feel that the past knew better and did worse in spite. Yet, it is precisely the aspects of Klaf’s book which provoke these emotions from a contemporary audience that make it historically interesting. So in this piece, we will explore how some of those aspects hold valuable lessons.   

Let’s start with the subject of his study, “satyriasis.” The decision to use this term was no given. Like “gonorrhea,” satyriasis was inherited from Greek medicine and continuously re-appropriated for centuries [2,3]. For the sexologists of the late 19th/early 20th Century, it existed alongside several terms for instantiations of male sexual deviancy [4]. It had failed to garner much attention by the time of Klaf’s book. The literature was slim [5], and the DSM passed it over from the start. So why study “satyriasis”? Klaf hoped that this “rare but highly informative disorder” would lead to a better understanding of “the boundaries of normality” [1]. Presumably, he also hoped that its historicity, which could be claimed on the basis of ancient and medieval sources, would lend it authenticity. If he could sell it as the male counterpart of nymphomania—the subject of his previous book [6]—then it would round out a classification that had already garnered some clinical cachet.

But ultimately, satyriasis never would find widespread acceptance. It remains today as a quaint, ill-defined synonym for “hypersexuality,” a term whose own ambiguity continues to provoke controversy [7,8]. There were probably several reasons why satyriasis floundered as a clinical concept. Its rarity in the literature increased the chances of displacement by similar terms. One example thereof was “Don Juanism,” which enjoyed a brief stint in the DSM-III before elimination in III-R along with nymphomania [9]. The second half of the 20th Century also saw a gradual move away from earlier taxonomies of sexual perversion towards more complex nexuses of compulsion, dependency, and dysfunction.

To be sure, Klaf’s remarks on satyriasis were not entirely devoid of sophistication. He conceived of satyriasis as multifaceted; compiled case histories; pondered whether the symptoms could be explained by biology; and even reached the sociologically informed conclusion that “satyrs are not born, they are made” [1]. But none of this was enough to overcome the more fundamental problem facing its utility. Satyrs are obviously not real. They were mythical, equine-human hybrids that embodied sexual excess and drunken revelry. From the outset, then, analogizing patients’ behavior with that of a mythical creature is limited in value. They can only be so much like a satyr before they, too, become mythical.

Reading through Klaf’s case studies of satyriasis gives the impression that their connection lies mostly in shock value. Many of them also reek of unreliable narrators. One patient claims to have had a sexual relationship with both a recent divorcee—whom he “saved” from the starvation created by an impotent ex-husband—and her daughter at the same time for several months. When he left and found the same arrangement elsewhere, they both begged him to come back. Definitely believable, right? Another trope is that the patients were seduced by older women while young and then seduced by under-aged women while middle aged. Hence, Klaf suspected that the actions of “satyrs” came to be rooted in a narcissistic obsession with eternal youth and virility. But when it came to the all-too-convenient details about culpability in their stories, his suspicion waned. Uncritically accepting the narrative of female receptivity to alpha male prowess, his study tells more a saga of sexual exploits than a cautionary tale of pathological excess.      

So what can we learn from this dead end in the pathologization of sexual behavior? For one, terminology matters, especially when it comes to mythonymic disorders. The air of antiquity does not always lend legitimacy, for the ancient can slip very easily into the archaic. It is not surprising then that “Don Juanism” resonated more with modern psychiatrists than “satyriasis,” however briefly. Analogy also cheapens the terminology in both cases rather than solemnifying it. But even more important is the recognition that analogy can be taken too far, attuning us to details of resemblance while blinding us to details of significance. What exactly will we be studying with the next -sis, the next -ism, the next -ity? Or maybe it’s better to ask: who will we be studying?

References:

[1] Klaf, Franklin S. Satyriasis: A Study of Male Nymphomania. Lancer Books, 1966.  

[2] “Satyriasis.” Diccionario Latino de Andrología, Ginecología y Embriología: Desde la Antigüedad hasta el siglo XVI, edited by E. Montero Cartelle and M. González Manjarrés, Brepols Publishers, 2018.

[3] Verhoeven, Timothy. “Pathologizing Male Desire: Satyriasis, Masculinity, and Modern Civilization at the Fin de Siècle.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 24.1 (2015): 25-45.

[4] Reay, Barry, Nina Atwood, and Claire Gooder. Sex Addiction: A Critical History. Polity Press, 2015.

[5] Burnap, D. W. and J. S. Golden. “Sexual Problems in Medical Practice.” Journal of Medical Education 42:7 (1967): 673–80.

[6] Klaf, Franklin S. Nymphomania: A Psychiatrist’s View. Lancer Books, 1964.

[7] “Chapter 5, Section F50-F59, Code F52.8.” International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, 10th ed. https://icd.codes/icd10cm/F528#:~:targetText=F52.8%20is%20a%20billable,to%20specify%20a%20medical%20diagnosis.

[8] Walton, Michael et al. “Hypersexuality: A Critical Review and Introduction to the ‘Sexhavior Cycle.'” Archives of Sexual Behavior 46 (2017): 2231-2251.

[9] Groneman, Carol. Nymphomania: A History. W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

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