The History of Homosexuality: Sexology

Krafft-Ebing_Richard The History of Homosexuality: Sexology

Richard von Krafft-Ebing

Pretty much everything we know and think we understand today about human sexuality has its origins in the science of sexology, which emerged in Europe in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century. While books about sex have existed through the ages, they generally took manual form — like the Kama Sutra — and were concerned only with the act of sex, and how to have it.

There was some movement towards sexology as early as the 1830s, mostly researching sex in relation to the law (the first study was on prostitution in Paris), and within thirty years the term “homosexual” had been coined and a number of scientists had turned their attention to human sexual interaction and identity, although it wasn’t until 1886 that the first major tract was published — Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, subtitled a “clinical-forensic” study of human sexual behaviour.

Krafft-Ebing’s work introduced the world to concepts which seem so obvious today it’s surprising to realise how recently we identified them, and how arrogant we are to think we understand them: sweeping concepts such as homosexuality, bisexuality, and heterosexuality; specific desires, including sadism and masochism; and sexual neuroses and pathologies such as paedophilia, were named (although he didn’t coin all the terms) and described by Krafft-Ebing.

Psychopathia Sexualis was written to study sex from an objective medical standpoint, with the intention of the observations remaining within the realm of science and the law. The language Krafft-Ebing used was deliberately impenetrable, and he often lapsed into Latin for the more entertaining (titillating?) sections. Science had laid claim to understanding sex, and sexual impulses, and in doing so had firmly taken sex away from the average man in the street.

Havelock_Ellis_cph.3b08675 The History of Homosexuality: Sexology

Havelock Ellis

Once Krafft-Ebing opened the door, there was a veritable stampede of doctors and academics through it. In England, Havelock Ellis made strides towards understanding and un-demonising masturbation and homosexuality, and built from the German Magnus Hirschfeld’s work on transvestism to develop the first theories on transsexuality (which he termed “sexo-aesthetic inversion”).

In 1908, sexology got its first scholarly journal (imaginatively named the Journal of Sexology), and included contributions from Freud, Adler, and Stekel. In 1913, the Society of Sexology became the first academic association of scholars dedicated to the subject of understanding human sexuality.

Today, Freud is perhaps the best known sexologist. His theories of sexuality were founded in the psyche, often attributing a person’s childhood as the root cause of their adult desires. It is from Freud we got the idea that queer men were raised by overbearing mothers and absent fathers. Other sexologists concerned themselves with the emancipation of sexual minorities: Hirschfeld founded the  Scientific Humanitarian Committee, the first group to advocate for homosexual and transgender civil rights.

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Nazi book burning, Berlin, May 1933

In 1919, Hirschfeld founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexology) in Berlin, cementing Germany as the world leader of sexological thinking. It would remain so until Hitler came to power. Less than three months later, the Institut was destroyed, and Hirschfeld’s books burned.

Sexology suffered a hiatus through the Second World War, and when scientists came back to it, it was the Americans who were leading the way. The most famous of these is Alfred Kinsey, who’s scale of sexuality (from exclusively heterosexual, through various degrees of bisexuality to exclusively homosexual) is still used today.

Where the early sexologists had sought to understand human desires, the later turn towards undoing or “curing” sexuality continued post-war. Many of the experiments carried out were deeply unethical (the most famous example is David Reimer, a boy raised as a girl following a botched circumcision which resulted in the amputation of his penis), and their findings were often flawed or manipulated. We have learnt more in hindsight from those failings than was reported at the time, and they often inform the current protocols for medical / psychological treatment of the LGBT community / intersex babies, etc, by providing an example of what not to do.

Sexology took another dramatic turn in the 1980s with the advent of the AIDS crisis, as most researchers turned their attention towards understanding the transmission and dissemination of the virus.


Born on this day: Til Brugman (1888-1958, Dutch), author and poet; Sandi Simcha DuBowski (45, American), documentary filmmaker, best known for Trembling Before G-d; Freda Du Faur (1882-1935, Australian), first female mountaineer to climb Mount Cook; Karen Hultzer (50, South African), Olympic archer; Michael Nava (61, American), former California Supreme Court staffer and six times Lambda Literary Award-winning author; Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856-1931, German), photographer noted for Greek-inspired pastoral nudes of Sicilian boys; and Travis Wall (28, American), dancer and choreographer best known for So You Think You Can Dance?

Died on this day: Richard A. Heyman (1935-1994, American), Mayor of Key West, Florida, 1983-1985, one of the earliest openly-gay public officials; Osvan Inacio dos Santos (1988-2007, Brazilian), attacked and killed after winning a “Miss Gay” competition.

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