A Brief History of Sexology, pt. 2


by Randall S. Frederick

Cont. from part 1

Freud has been given a great amount of due in the study of sexual behavior, but his emphasis on sexual expression as a revolutionary act in the emancipation of mankind was symptomatic of the age. So much of the world was engaged in defining national borders, racial identity, and overthrowing old regimes for the freedom of all peoples – perhaps it is better to say the universal desire for the freedom of certain peoples, each individually everywhere – and Freud used the emergence of psychoanalysis as yet another tool promised to finally unshackle the individual in pursuit of the unique and individual expression. Other writers and scientists of this same period were each doing their own part in this struggle, each promising to overthrow the old for a new and glorious future. Above all, nationalism held out the promise of stability and predictability, offering a conservative alternative to the rapid changes taking place.

Magnus Hirschfeld

Pre-Nazi Germany, under the sexually liberal Napoleonic code, organized and resisted the anti-sexual, Victorian cultural influences. The momentum from those groups led them to coordinate sex research across traditional academic disciplines, bringing Germany to the leadership of sexology. Physician Magnus Hirschfeld was an outspoken advocate for sexual minorities, founding the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, the first advocacy for homosexual and transgender rights. Hirschfeld also set up the first Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexology) in Berlin in 1919, whose library housed over 20,000 volumes, 35,000 photographs, and a large collection of art and other objects. Before Alfred Kinsey began collecting items for Indiana University, this was believed to be one of the largest collections of sexual materials. People from around Europe visited the Institute to gain a clearer understanding of their sexuality and to be treated for sexual concerns and dysfunctions. Like Kinsey would later do, Hirschfeld developed a system which identified numerous actual or hypothetical types of sexual intermediary between heterosexual male and female to represent the potential diversity of human sexuality. He is credited with identifying a group of people that today are referred to as transsexual or transgender as separate from the categories of homosexuality, referring to these people as ‘transvestiten’ (transvestites). Still, Germany’s dominance in sexual behavior research abruptly ended with the ascendency of the Nazi regime and other forms of nationalism throughout Europe. The Institute and its library were unseemly and more traditional leaders in Germany refused to allow their nation to be known for what they saw as perversion. The Institute and its collection were destroyed by the Nazis less than three months after they took power on May 8, 1933 after the Institute was shut down and Hirschfeld’s books were burned. Conjecture and anecdotal evidence claims that some very rare texts survived or were smuggled out by Nazi soldiers, but this is debatable. Other sexologists in the early gay rights movement included Ernst Burchard, Hans Blüher, and Benedict Friedlaender. Ernst Grafenberg, after whom the G-spot is named, published the initial research developing the intrauterine device (IUD).

Alfred Kinsey

Kinsey is best known for writing Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), also known as the Kinsey Reports, and for the popular “Kinsey scale” or spectrum perspective of sexual preference. Kinsey’s research on human sexuality, foundational to the field of sexology, provoked controversy in the 1940s and 1950s. His work has influenced social and cultural values in the United States, as well as internationally.

Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, the first of the two Kinsey reports, was released in 1948 and provided a profound watershed in the study of human sexuality. After World War II, sexology experienced a renaissance, both in the United States and Europe. Large scale studies of sexual behavior, sexual function, and sexual dysfunction gave rise to the development of sex therapy which, haltingly, migrated away from routine pep talks and encouragement to “do one’s duty” in the marital chamber to instead address the role of psychological and physical states like nervousness, anxiety, impotence, and venereal disease. Unlike their European counterparts before the war, American sexuality was modeled on rigid social roles and heteronormativity. In a very real sense, the identity of a nation and their potential for future development was spoken of in terms of how a nation embraced or rejected sexual mores. After the Belle Epoque, France was “lazy” because of their libertine attitude toward sex and numerous prostitutes. German efficiency and productivity was reflected in the way they spoke of “producing” a nation with children. Under Hitler, Germany began instituting programs designed to take jobs away from women and return them to the “natural” bearing of children and securing of home. America, especially during World War II, was just beginning to re-examine cultural attitudes. Film stars like Rita Hayworth were beginning to redefine beauty and the allowance of women in production factories set the stage for a sexual revolution and new wave of Feminism just a few years later.

Post-WWII sexology in the U.S. was influenced by the influx of European refugees escaping the Nazi regime and the popularity of the Kinsey studies which revealed Americans had sex more often than they admitted, in more ways than they previously admitted, liked it better than they acknowledged to their partner, and expressed a variety of sexual experiences, preferences and desires. As I tend to say, the Kinsey reports revealed that “grandma had been having kinky sex most of her life – and liked it.” Because of this, there was tremendous pushback on Kinsey’s work after the publication of Sexual Behavior of the Human Female that ultimately led to Kinsey’s death, I have always felt. Popular revivalist Billy Graham, for example, fueled by the McCarthyism of the time – a mixture of national pride and rabid anti-Communist sentiments – declared “It is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the already degenerating morals of America!”

Kinsey undoubtedly changed the way in which Americans and others thought about sexual activity, asserting that there were variations of activity but that humans were inherently sexually-driven creatures, as part of the animal kingdom. He helped make known what had been kept secret, that human sexual behavior was extraordinarily diverse and complex and that the religious-based, officially sponsored version of sex was a debilitating fiction, “Morality disguised as fact.” Uncorrupted by money or fame throughout his career, Kinsey was determined to challenge the conventional notions of right and wrong. “Biologically, I see only two bases for the recognition of abnormality. If a particular type of variation is rare in a given population, it, perhaps, may be called abnormal.” A “physiologic malfunction” was his second criterion for abnormality. “In that sense, cancers and tumors may be called abnormal,” he reasoned, and though he was often called “the American Freud,” Kinsey was critical of those psychologists who reasserted “society’s concept of what is acceptable in individual behavior, with no objective attempt to find out, by actual observation, what the incidence of the phenomenon may be.” He further asserted that in the organic world, nature achieves progress through individual differences. His belief was that “In the differences between men lie the hopes of a changing society.”

Gathorne-Hardy points out that Kinsey was also the first scientist to obtain information on sexuality from the working classes and the black population in America. Past researchers, “assuming the classes to be homogeneous had all relied on college-level samples to represent everyone.” Kinsey collaborator Wardell Pomeroy wrote that Kinsey proved that race was not a factor in human sexual behavior. This was an important assertion at a time when the civil rights movement was beginning to gain momentum.

Until Kinsey, American sexology consisted primarily of groups working to end prostitution and to educate youth about sexually transmitted diseases. Kinsey had founded the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University in Bloomington in 1947 to study the variety of sexual experiences that married couples had experienced together and individually. The division still carries his name and is now called the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. Rightfully so. What Kinsey wrote in his 1948 and 1953 books took the scientific study of sexuality and “husbandry” from vague statements about farm animals that were generalizable of humans to the actual, specific, scientific study of human sexuality.

The US underwent vast changes in the years between Kinsey’s birth and the commencement of his sex research. Anthony Comstock, reactionary zealot and leader of the censoring brigade, still wielded considerable power at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1900, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie was essentially suppressed for its depiction of extra-marital relations and the author’s refusal to make “vice” punished. In 1906, Comstock, in his position as special “postal inspector” raided the Art Students League in New York for its use of nude models. He denounced George Bernard Shaw as an “Irish smut dealer.” Shaw observed that “Comstockery” confirmed “the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate, country-town civilization after all.”

American Puritanism and provincialism received serious blows in the first decades of the twentieth century from economic changes and world events (the First World War, the Russian Revolution), above all, as well as the efforts of cultural innovators such as Dreiser and H. L. Mencken. The devastation of the Depression and the social and intellectual upheavals of the 1930s only further discredited the hypocritical, official morality preached by the ruling elite.

Kinsey’s first major work on sexuality appeared during the first years of the Cold War, on the eve of the McCarthy witch-hunts. A frantic effort was being made to put the genie of social rebellion and criticism back in the bottle. Conformism, stagnation and opportunism were on the order of the day. With its liberating and “leveling” impulses, its statistical evidence (despite whatever sampling errors Kinsey and his team might have made) that all forms of consensual, adult sexual activity were practiced in the US and needed to be treated as “normal,” how could this work not have come under attack from the most reactionary, backward social elements?

But these events are not something of the past that we have moved past, as Kinsey hoped we would. Sexual research funding has remained under attack in the United States to the present. In 2003, a Republican-backed bill to cut $1.5 million of National Institute of Health funding for sex research was defeated by only 212-210. Not satisfied with this win, Republicans “blastlisted” the research of 150 NIH-funded scientists as beyond the scope of the very institution their research would have benefitted. University budgets for sex research have steadily shrunk since the 1970s and, as a result, sexological studies have become increasingly fringe classes, or consolidated into other departments who “legitimize” research by focusing on individual aspects like procreation, family science, or psychology instead of sexology itself. The Republican right, for better or worse, embraced the attitude of their predecessors in pursuit of a pure Christian nation.

Kinsey was misguided in supposing that human beings would be liberated simply through ridding themselves of sexual ignorance. That liberation is first and foremost a political and economic act. However, as the ongoing controversy demonstrates, he was not wrong in believing that uncovering the truth about human behavior helps undermine conventional morality and, one might add, the ideological grip of the powers that be.

In my estimation, it is Krafft-Ebing, Hirshfeld, and Kinsey that begin the sexological field. The work of Masters and Johnson naturally giving credence to their work and legitimizing it for the public as they focused on procreation and sexual encounters that led to mutual climax.

Masters and Johnson

The Masters and Johnson research team, composed of William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, pioneered research into the nature of human sexual response and the diagnosis and treatment of sexual disorders and dysfunctions from 1957 until the 1990s.

The work of Masters and Johnson began in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University in St. Louis and was continued at the independent not-for-profit research institution they founded in St. Louis in 1964, originally called the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation and renamed the Masters and Johnson Institute in 1978. In the initial phase of Masters and Johnson’s studies, from 1957 until 1965, they recorded some of the first laboratory data on the anatomy and physiology of human sexual response based on direct observation of 382 women and 312 men in what they conservatively estimated to be “10,000 complete cycles of sexual response”. Their findings, particularly on the nature of female sexual arousal (for example, describing the mechanisms of vaginal lubrication and debunking the earlier widely held notion that vaginal lubrication originated from the cervix) and orgasm (showing that the physiology of orgasmic response was identical whether stimulation was clitoral or vaginal, and proving that some women were capable of being multiorgasmic), dispelled many long-standing misconceptions. They jointly wrote two classic texts in the field, Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy, published in 1966 and 1970, respectively. Both of these books were best-sellers and were translated into more than thirty languages.

Various sex researchers have developed models that attempt to describe women’s sexual responses. In the 1960s, William Masters and Virginia Johnson observed and measured women and men engaging in sexual activities in a laboratory setting, and reported their research in the book Human Sexual Response. The Masters and Johnson model outlined four stages of physiological arousal: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution.

It can be helpful to understand the Masters and Johnson model, not because it fits all women or is a standard to be followed, but because aspects of it may fit the individual experience and because so many clinicians still use it. Here’s a breakdown of the four stages.

  • Excitement. During the first stage of arousal, the whole pelvic area may feel full, as erectile tissue in the pelvis, vulva, and clitoris swells with blood, and nerves in that area become more sensitive to stimulation and pressure.1 In the vagina, this increased blood circulation produces the fluid (transudate) that makes the vaginal walls and inner lips wet—often an early sign of sexual excitement. Women produce different amounts of lubrication; for some, there may not be much lubrication, or it may come later, after sufficient sexual stimulation. Sexual tension affects the whole body as muscles begin to contract. Women may breathe more quickly or experience little shivers. Nipples may become erect and hard, and a flush or rash may appear on the skin.
  • Plateau. If stimulation continues, one moves into the plateau stage. The responses may continue to intensify as the vagina becomes more sensitive and the glans of the clitoris retracts under the hood.
  • Orgasm. With enough stimulation of or around the clitoris—and, for some women, pressure on the cervix or other sensitive areas such as the G‑spot—a woman may build up to a peak, or orgasm. This is the point at which all the tension suddenly releases in a series of involuntary and pleasurable muscular contractions. Contractions may be felt in the vagina, uterus, and rectum. Some women experience orgasm as a total-body contraction and release.
  • Resolution. Unless stimulation continues, the resolution stage occurs. During the half hour or more after orgasm, the muscles relax, and the clitoris, vagina, and uterus return to their usual positions except in the rare disorder known as persistent genital arousal disorder.

Masters and Johnson’s work was valuable for women in exploring and asserting the role of the clitoris in sexual response, distinct from Freud who proposed that clitoral orgasm was “immature” and should be prevented. By focusing their study on people who were very experienced with orgasm during masturbation and intercourse, they reinforced a belief that orgasm and intercourse are necessary to women’s sexual response and pleasure. And by offering only one model for human sexual response, Masters and Johnson missed the fact that women who do not orgasm with penetration, for example, also experience pleasure.

In the 1970s, the feminist researcher Shere Hite polled more than three thousand women and discovered that most of them did not experience orgasm through intercourse alone, as Masters and Johnson had originally offered. Despite this, many women still insisted that sexual pleasure could be found in other aspects of the sexual experience outside of orgasm. In the 1970s and 1980s, several researchers and clinicians such as Harold Lief, Helen Singer Kaplan, Bernie Zilbergeld, and Carol Rinkleib Ellison expanded the Masters and Johnson model to include emotional aspects like desire and satisfaction. In 1997, Beverly Whipple and Karen Brash-McGreer developed a circular model of women’s sexual responses, suggesting that if a sexual experience resulted in pleasure and satisfaction, then it could lead to another sexual experience. But if the experience was not pleasurable and satisfying, it might not lead to another sexual experience. In 2001, Rosemary Basson published a nonlinear model of female sexual response that incorporated the importance of emotional intimacy, sexual stimuli, and relationship satisfaction. Basson argues that, contrary to what the linear model suggests, women have many reasons for engaging in sexual activity other than desire.

The best part is the afterglow, when we’re both limp and glowing with satisfaction, wrapped around each other. I love the way he knows my body, where to touch, how to touch. The feeling of being so full of him and so full of pleasure that I could explode. The climax of orgasm, whether it’s an intense eruption of physical pleasure or an overwhelming emotional sense of being so completely in love with him, brings tears to my eyes.

Despite the limitations of even the revised Masters and Johnson model, psychiatric and medical clinicians, along with pharmaceutical companies, continue to use it to create definitions of sexual health and sexual problems. For instance, a key resource used by U.S. mental health professionals, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), bases its definitions of sexual dysfunction on the Masters and Johnson sexual response cycle. Ellyn Kaschak and Leonore Tiefer in their book, A New View of Women’s Sexual Problems, come close to challenging the Masters and Johnson model by focusing on relational aspects of women’s sexuality and allowing for a wide range of differences among women’s experiences. Since their original research, Masters and Johnson’s work has been built upon and expanded, but has yet to be set aside or even replaced. Their findings, decades later, remain consistent.

“The Party is Over” 

The popular Showtime show, Masters of Sex, sensationalized much of the work of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, and their relationship with one another. The truth is, their private lives and the development of a professional and personal trust which later led to marriage are unknown during the period of their research. They were consumed with their work, and devoted much of their spare time to the advancement of science… which was conveniently quite stimulating.In 1966 and 1970, Masters and Johnson released their works Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy, respectively. Those volumes sold well, and they were founders of what became known as the Masters & Johnson Institute in 1978, until the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s caused a dramatic shift in sexological research efforts towards understanding and controlling the spread of the disease.

For much of human history, sexually transmitted diseases have been a scourge of humanity. They raged unchecked through society until the discovery of antibiotics. The development of inexpensive condoms and education about sexually transmitted diseases has helped reduce risks. For a period of about thirty years (in the second half of the twentieth century) their threat subsided. However, due to the free movement of people and uncontrolled distribution of antibiotics, organisms resistant to antibiotics quickly spread and at the present time pose a threat to people who have more than one sex partner.

AIDS, in particular, has profoundly changed modern sexuality. It was first noticed (although many historians feel that the first case was in 1959) spreading among gay men and intravenous drug users in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, the majority of victims are heterosexual women, men, and children in developing countries. In most developing countries, fear of epidemic has drastically changed many aspects of twentieth century human sexuality. Fear of contracting AIDS has driven a revolution in sex education, which now centers far more the use of protection and abstinence, and spends much more time discussing sexually transmitted diseases.

Further Researchers

Not exactly picking up where Hirschfeld left off, psychologist and sexologist John Money developed theories on sexual identity and gender identity in the 1950s. His work, notably on the David Reimer case has since been regarded as controversial, even while the case was key to the development of treatment protocols for intersex infants and children.

Kurt Freund developed the penile plethysmograph in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s. The device was designed to provide an objective measurement of sexual arousal in males and is currently used in the assessment of pedophilia and hebephilia. This tool has since been used with sex offenders.

Vern Bullough was a historian of sexology during this era, as well as being a researcher in the field.

Each of these figures were vital to the continuation of sex studies and it cannot be emphasized enough how, in many ways, even their lack of progress or retreading of old studies was not a lack on their part but instead a reinforcement of truths that social pressures were insisting could not be true. For example, when Kinsey released the Sexual Behavior of the Human Female, he offered data that indicated women had lesbian experiences, sometimes had sex with animals, were promiscuous, and desired sex. America was outraged that the chastity of “good” women like grandmothers, mothers, and daughters, was being challenged. Kinsey eventually died from the stress. It seemed so clear to him that data, the science of his research, was met with such criticism. What seemed so obvious, so self-evident, was being denied for moral reasons in the face of overwhelming empirical data. His studies were the largest survey of a population and while there have been concerns in subsequent decades, they have never been “debunked.” That Kinsey was able to stake out research and defend it, quite literally to his death, is a testament to the difficulty and challenges that sex researchers endured. The suspicion sex researchers encounter today is also a testament to the same sentiment. People, for whatever reason, reject information that challenges their assumptions of sex or challenges what they accept as “normal” or “moral.” In the Twentieth Century, technological advances have permitted sexological questions to be addressed with studies using behavioral genetics, neuroimaging, and large-scale Internet-based surveys. While these advancements are important, they will need to be saved for a subsequent volume as this volume seeks to the “recent” advancement of the field of sexological research.

Notable Contributors to Sexology

This is a list of sexologists and notable contributors to the field of sexology, by year of birth:

Part 3: Ancient Cultural Context

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