Are you a Carl Jung person or a Sigmund Freud person? Do you believe that minds all connect to a collective unconsciousness, or do you believe that picking your nose is a sexual act?
In a letter dated March 8th, 1895, famed father of psychiatry Sigmund Freud wrote to his friend Wilhelm describing a curious medical crisis involving a woman named Emma Eckstein, one of Freud’s more famous patients. In the letter, Freud describes a distressing incident wherein Eckstein was rushed to the hospital with a bloody nose. An obstruction was removed, but the swelling and the bleeding did not abate. After closer examination, the doctor on call reached a clamp into Eckstein’s nose and withdrew a very long piece of bundled-up gauze that had been systematically stuffed deep into her nasal cavity. When it was withdrawn, there was a lot of gushing blood and distress. Eckstein recovered, although her face was disfigured as a result.
What caused this woman to stuff her nose with an entire roll of gauze?
The origin of this peculiar practice actually links up with one of Freud’s more outlandish theories: Eckstein may have been exploring the rarely talked-about plane of eroticism known as “nasal sex.” That is, sex through the nose.
Eckstein, it must be known, was often treated by Freud — frequently for what was once labeled “hysteria” — in sessions that would last for years. Eckstein’s ongoing case became one of the central cornerstones for many of Freud’s sexual theories. “Hysteria,” you see, was the term used in the late 19th century for the high emotions experienced by women who are menstruating. Freud — notoriously baffled by the minds of women — felt that women’s emotions were directly linked to sexual matters, and that “hysteria” was a form of mental illness that could be treated. This was, of course, massively off-base, and to call a woman “hysterical” to this day is to commit a brutal faux pas.
Freud found that Eckstein, in addition to having periods, also masturbated — in his view, to excess. It was a common view at the time (not just by Freud) that masturbation was another symptom of mental illness, and doing it too much can warp the brain. (If this were true, of course, every human on the planet would be mentally ill.) When stumbling upon Eckstein’s sexual fantasies, Freud felt he had unlocked some hitherto unknown plane of female consciousness, and began to foster legitimate theories about deferred action, and the link between dreams, fantasy, and reality. The source was dubious, but some of the resultant psychological theories were proven sound.
However, some of the explorations of Eckstein’s neuroses were truly baffling. While working upon the published practices of an ear-nose-throat specialist named Wilhelm Fliess, Freud found that Eckstein suffered from what he called a “nasal reflex neurosis.” This was a condition that triggered an open nasal reaction during times of distress or sexual arousal. To modern medicine, this nasal reaction may just be the common engorgement of blood vessels that often occurs during sexual arousal (indeed, some dubious medical sources have said that masturbation can clear one’s sinuses), but to Freud, this was a treatable medical condition.
Freud, perhaps eager to link any and all theories to sexual matters, seems to have felt that this nasal reflex was the result of Eckstein’s sexual hysteria. As such, he began to see a phallic/vaginal relationship in the act of sticking one’s finger in one’s nose. In picking your nose, according to this notion, you may be engaging in a facsimile of the sex act — and, since your nasal tissues inflame during sexual arousal, it seemed as if one could actually achieve sexual satisfaction this way.
Freud, of course, saw this masturbatory act as a negative thing, and famously prescribed experimental surgery on Emma Eckstein to stop the inflammation. There was a common surgery at the time, pioneered by Fliess, that involved cauterizing the interior of the nose. After the procedure, it was reported that patients often felt energetic and less depressed. This result, however, may have a lot to do with the fact that the preferred anesthetic for the procedure was cocaine.
There isn’t a lot of published work on the practice of nasal sex… perhaps because, to modern ears, it sounds absurd and proved to be untrue. Some likely apocryphal tales have detailed how Eckstein — and other women — were encouraged to probe deep into their own noses, sometimes with a partner, to explore the nasal-sexual connection.
The thought of laying down in bed with a sexual partner and probing their nostrils, of course, only makes most people giggle or wince. You can pick your nose, and you can pick your sexual partners, but… well, you know. Although, given the way the internet has allowed the human libido to expand, perhaps there are people who are legitimately into it these days; in a world of furries, centaur fetishists, and acrotomophilia (look it up), nasal sex may just be yet another thing folded into Rule 34.
The theories of nasal sex, of course, are a footnote of a footnote today, and no one points to these incidents any longer — except perhaps as an argument against certain psychological practices. Freud tried out a dangerous experiment with Emma Eckstein, as well as a dangerous and risky surgical procedure… and left her with a facial disfigurement as a result.
Eckstein eventually became something of a psychologist herself, and authored a book on how to teach sexual education to young children. Freud read her book, and lauded it in an essay. Eckstein’s work with Freud is actually seen today as useful and vital, and she is often noted historically as an intellectual and a brilliant psychologist in her own right. Her area of expertise? The daydreams of teenage girls.