Richard von Krafft Ebing was a German Professor of psychiatry born in 1840 who spent much of his professional career studying, publishing, and lecturing on what he considered to be sexual aberrations. While many remember him for coining terms which first appeared in his book Psycopathia Sexualis with Especial Reference to Antipathic Sexual Instinct like fetishism, sexual psychopath, masochism, sadism, necrophilia, and heterosexuality, what he has ultimately been most remembered for was his role in the criminalization of homosexuality. While many of the theories he advanced on everything of a sexual nature have been overwhelmingly debunked today by the scientific and medical communities, so strong was his influence that many laymen still accept his theories passed down over the years as truth.
Krafft Ebing had two main concerns in the world of human sexuality; masturbation and homosexuality, both of which he saw as deviant. He tended to disagree with most of his contemporaries of the time which is in large part why he garnered so much attention and his theories became widely discussed. He believed the root of most sexual aberrations could be traced to degenerate heredity which placed him in party with Benedict Augustin Morel, although on a slightly different train of thought which made little sense. Most of his colleagues were leaning more towards more of a theory based in nurturing as the cause of homosexuality.
Krafft Ebbing, contrary to popular opinion, never actually intended for his studies on sexuality, especially homosexuality to be used in the manner they were. He was among the first recognizable medical professionals to advance theories concerning genetics as possible causes for such variations in nature. He was a noted legal liberal who actually supported the stance that same sex eroticism not be penalized by society or the government, he was an open opponent of Germany’s Paragraph 175 which criminalized homosexuality. His studies and books were often used to do exactly the opposite, and called upon as an expert reference which were cited out of context by people who had little or no real understanding of what the work really meant.
As such, his use of the word degenerate in connection with homosexuality, even if taken out of context, was enough for most to interpret in a negative light. It didn’t take long before lawmakers and law enforcement pursued homosexuals, now under the guise that they were mentally ill and posed a threat to society. Most officials felt this was enough to definitively prove homosexuals were in fact criminals. This was contrary to everything Krafft Ebing believed as his earlier works showed in which he railed against the manner in which insane asylums of the day wet about their business of treating those labeled mentally ill as criminals rather than patients.
The reason all this was possible is because in all reality, Krafft Ebing did a poor job of researching and publishing his findings. Some theorize he became lazy or was too concerned with rushing Psychopathia Sexualis into print as his earlier textbook, which this was a continuation of, had garnered such wide acclaim that he feared losing the spotlight. By examining some key points in Psychopathia Sexualis we can see how he made it so incredibly easy for people to manipulate his work to criminalize homosexuality.
For starters, it lacked a cohesiveness in that he first provided taxonomies of sexual disorders without advancing any cohesive theorization as to why they be classified as such. For anything he didn’t have a theory for, he borrowed someone else’s which meant that the entire text contradicts itself, and his own personal beliefs at times almost start to finish. A few shining examples of passages used to criminalize homosexuality are as follows:
He cited psychosexual hemaproditism as men being what we today call bisexual. He believed this could be cured by electric stimulation, masturbation avoidance, and/or hypnosis. If Krafft Ebing believed homosexuality was truly an inborn characteristic, he then should have been of the belief that it was not something which could be cured, but rather a part of natures diversity. It must be remembered that in his day the science of medicine was nowhere near what it is in current times.
In regards to Sexual Inversion, he cobbled together a mess of a hypothesis which combined a theory based on Morel’s and Karl Heinrecih Ulrichs Urning Theory. As such what he came up with was something which stated male congenital inverts are the product of their childhood and degenerate heredity, not one or the other. In these cases he theorized this is what caused what we would today consider the openly flaming homosexual male who was overly effeminate. For these people he said treatment to try to cure them would be ineffective which was contrary to man with the same characteristics, but was bisexual.
His final classification was Acquired Antipathic Sexual Instinct which was derived from either being the product of degenerate heredity and not realizing it until puberty, or most likely, masturbation. This was a direct rip off of the theory proposed by Tissot in which he said masturbation caused pederasty, but without any empirically sound proof. He simply asked people he felt would fit this category if they ever masturbated. If they replied in the affirmative he took that as validation. Today we know this is hardly true as if everyone that masturbated became gay the entire world save a few lonely souls would be gay by the time they went through puberty.
While many of his contemporaries in the medical and scientific fields immediately disregarded this manual and referred to it as rubbish that was disorganized, confusing, and provided no unified underlying theory or substantiation to prove its validity, Krafft Ebing published it anyway and found that the only people who found it of value were those who wanted to use it to persecute homosexuals, not understand or help them. While he tried to improve it in successive releases he soon found that to make the changes needed to be of value would completely invalidate it. Instead he just made each more and more confused and substituted the use of Latin phrases more liberally to fly over the head of most laymen and sound more intellectual.
The truly sad part is Krafft Ebing is the one who aggravated the issue by writing to lawyers insisting they needed a psychiatrist at criminal proceedings to fairly sentence those on trial. Basically he handed them something they likely never would have possessed had he not done this. They decided he was correct in part and cut out the psychiatrist and substituted Psychopathia Sexualis in its place. What made a further issue is Psychopathia Sexualis became so popular with legal professionals for being the final word on the issue of sexual deviances, that it was translated and found it’s way around the world before the century ended.
While his intentions were noble in trying to advance the belief that homosexuals should not be criminalized, his approach was all wrong. He rushed his work, did sloppy research, published against the advice of his peers, and in a sense put a loaded gun in the hands of an unarmed murder in the waiting by providing it to legal professionals when he himself knew it was flawed. Sometimes well meaning people do more harm than goo, such is the legacy of Richard von Krafft Ebing and how he helped criminalize homosexuality.