A Brief History of Sexology, pt. 1


by Randall S. Frederick

This article will be the first in a series concerned with the history and development of sexology as a field of professional study. Please be sure to “like” us on Facebook, subscribe to the site, and follow us on Twitter!


It is difficult to share about the history of sex studies because, ultimately, humans have been talking about sex and observing sexual behavior since before that could actually talk. The fact that we humans are here today reading these words is, of course, indicative that our predecessors figured it out, encouraged one another, and found a way to keep their desires satisfied – death, eating, and sex are each, we might say, constants in the human experience. Their cessation would mean the end of humanity. But sexual ideas, like food and death, were painted on cave walls and the homes of the first humans seeking shelter from elements and animals. Much later, sexuality began to be codified and legitimized by laws with cultural norms of behavior. Even later than that, humans began to apply observational studies, write philosophical “marriage manuals” and, thereafter, apply scientific study. Does sexology begin when we have cameras and wires? When it has been legitimized by doctorates on the wall?

Sexology and the professional study of sex are a relatively new thing and, in some sense, it is here that we can begin to discuss the history of a professional field of study – when the field begins to share and compare resources, when ideas begin to “move forward” intentionally from the Victorian Age to the Modern and Post-Modern. Though we must limit the focus, even here we still have trouble naming a definitive origin, date, and “prophet.” Who do we begin with? The artist, the author, the limerick, the photographer, the psychologist, or the scientist? While the use of psychology and psychotherapy, as they are understood today, in treating sexual issues is a new phenomenon, interest has never waned. Many fields claim authority over sexology, and they are each valid. Academic fields such as biology, medicine, psychology, epidemiology, sociology, kinesiology, and criminology have each added significant contributions to the field which is concerned primarily (though not exclusively) with sexual development, orientation, gender, identity, relationships, sexual activity, paraphilias, and atypical sexual interests as well as the sexualities of special groups, such as children, adolescents, the elderly, and the differently abled. Sexual dysfunctions and disorders, including erectile dysfunction, anorgasmia, and pedophilia are also mainstays, as are therapeutic models to help patients dealing with various physical, relational, and sexual issues – partners and otherwise.

Because so many fields lay claim to research, sexology as a unique and individualized scientific field of study is relatively new. Various manuals, religious and otherwise have existed since antiquity, such as Ovid’s Ara Amatoria, the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, the Ananga Ranga, and The Perfumed Garden of the Soul’s Recreation. While each of these treat sex as the subject, none of them treat sex as the subject of a formal field of scientific or medical research so they are more or less evidence of a pre-contemplative effort to identify sexual behaviors and instruct individuals to prioritize their partner’s satisfaction to maximize their own. Explanations of sexual behaviors are, more or less, located as extensions of personality and not scientifically relevant for their omission of physiology. They are still keenly relevant, however.

Despite prevailing social attitudes of sexual repression in the Victorian Era, the movement towards sexual emancipation began shortly before the end of the 19th Century in England and Germany. De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris (Prostitution in the City of Paris), an early 1830s study on 3,558 registered prostitutes in Paris, was published by Alexander Jean Baptiste Parent-Duchatelet in 1837, a year after he died. This is the text that has been called the first work of modern sex research. In 1886, Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing published Psychopathia Sexualis, whose publication is commonly considered as the foundation of sexology as a scientific discipline. These two key texts, more so Krafft-Ebing’s, are the officially recognize origins of sexology because, unlike the cultural texts Ara Amatoria, the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana, and others similar to them, Parent-Duchatelet and Krafft-Ebing involved other individuals. They observed human behavior and began making assumptions, rather than making assumptions and observing it in human behavior. This difference is the cardinal trait of scientific study and a product of the 19th Century’s rise of (and trust in) scientism – the objective and observed experience. The origins of all scientific study follow this same course. The mythological, the cultural, the observational, the experimental, the clinical, the experiential. Sexology is no different.

In England, the founding father of sexology was the doctor and sexologist Havelock Ellis who challenged the sexual taboos of his era regarding masturbation and homosexuality and revolutionized the conception of sex in his time. Ellis gave legitimacy of the emerging field, mainly because he was a medical doctor. To understand much of sexology, we must understand that the “medical” (not cultural, psychological, or relational) has historically taken priority. This is why many accreditted schools do not have programs in sexual study – because when sex is studied apart from clinical, medical, physiological, empirical evidence it is “too subjective” for serious study. Ellis’s seminal work was the 1897 Sexual Inversion, which describes sexual relations of homosexual males, including men with boys. Ellis wrote the first objective study of “homosexuality,” (the term was coined by Kertbeny) as he did not characterize it as a disease, immoral, or a crime. The work assumes that same-sex love transcended age taboos as well as gender taboos. Seven of his twenty-one case studies are of inter-generational relationships. He also developed other important psychological concepts, such as autoerotism and narcissism, both of which were later developed further by Sigmund Freud. Ellis pioneered transgender phenomena alongside the German Magnus Hirschfeld. He established it as new category that was separate and distinct from homosexuality. Aware of Hirschfeld’s studies of transvestism, but disagreeing with his terminology, in 1913 Ellis proposed the term “sexo-aesthetic inversion” to describe the phenomenon.

In 1908, the first scholarly journal of the field, Journal of Sexology (Zeitschrift für Sexualwissenschaft), began publication and was published monthly for one year. Those issues contained articles by Freud, Alfred Adler, and Wilhelm Stekel. In 1913, the first academic association was founded: the Society for Sexology. The inclusion of Freud and Adler indicate an expansion of sexology from the medical with its emphasis on biology and muscles, physiology, structural integrity and eugenics, to the psychological. Researchers are discovering a connection between the mind and body, and this is really an effort of psychology to understand not just human action, but behavior as well with its motivations and rewards (or punishments). Out of this, Freud developed a theory of sexuality with various stages of development. Freud, we might say, returns briefly to the mythological. Jung, his student, will discuss sexual behavior in terms of archetypes or the cultural. They are moving the field forward by “reclaiming” and salvaging familiar ways of talking about sex and repurposing them for future generations. Freud, it seems, wanted to leave a legacy. What began as a recovery effort became an encampment from which he would never leave. Jung, for his part, might have gotten caught up in trying to explain and recontextualize but, at least moreso than Freud, tried to move psychology and sexology forward. Freud, creating labels of development, wrote extensively about the stages of development including Oral, Anal, Phallic, Latency and Genital. These stages run from infancy to puberty and onwards, based on his studies of his clients between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wilhelm Reich and Otto Gross, also disciples of Freud, rejected his theories because of their emphasis on the role of sexuality in the revolutionary struggle for the emancipation of mankind. Like Jung, they would abandon their mentor for divergent views on psychoanalysis.

Continued in part 2

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