Sexology is the study of human sexuality. Initially, sexology was not so much a study of diversity as it was a study of sexual deviance. Nevertheless, sexology was meant to be free from bias against homosexuals and gender-variant people. Famous sexologists include Sigmund Freud, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing, Magnus Hirschfeld (founder of the Institute for Sexology), and Alfred Kinsey.
Sexology as a Perversion of Science
Even during the height of its popularity in the decades before Stonewall, sexology was a Gay intellectual endeavor that was not considered a legitimate scholarly discipline by society at large because the subject matter, human sexuality, was fraught with moral, ethical, and legal blind spots upon which the gaze of serious inquiry was considered inappropriate. By taking a consciously nonjudgmental stance concerning same-sex orientation, the discipline was regarded with suspicion and even distain. The Institute for Sexology in Berlin (founded in 1919), sexology’s first academy, was destroyed in 1933 by the Nazis because its founders advocated for the rights of homosexual people.
Sexology and Male homosexuals
From the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, scholars of sexology dealt with various sexual behaviors of both men and women. Nevertheless, the leading sexologists for much of the history of the field were men, and the focus tended to be homosexual men rather than women. Homosexual men were thought to have feminine attributes that drove them into the arms of other men, and debate arose as to the extent in which such suppositions were true. Analysis of same-sex attraction between women, however, included a preoccupation with violence as a marker of masculine females.
The term invert (“upside down,” “inside out”) was applied to a person who, in an understanding of genders as polar opposites, manifested the tendencies of the opposite sex. This definition left out the option of a man being attracted to other men without having to be effeminate, soft, passive, or any other stereotypes associated with femininity. Sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs coined the term uranian (taken from the ancient Greek Uranian or Heavenly Aphrodite) as a more positive label than invert. The uranian understanding of male homosexuality was also associated with brotherhood, democracy, anti-sexism, and social egalitarianism. As such, it presaged the current Gay ethos of tolerance and inclusion.
Sexologists sought to establish language to describe the varieties of sexual relationships the invert/uranian could experience. Although the notions of sexology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century appear sexist and oversimplified today, they started a conversation in which Gay people could speak of their desires as something other than sinful and criminal.
Sexology and Oppression of Female Homosexuals
Sexologists had blind spots of their own concerning how their research might adversely affect those they studied. Although society in general seemed oblivious to the possibility of homosexual women, homoerotic encounters between women increasingly fascinated late-nineteenth century sexologists. The spotlight that sexologists placed on female homosexuality contributed to the stigmatization of romantic friendships and Boston marriages in the early twentieth century. This was not because sexologists necessarily sought to demonize female homosexuality, but because they brought attention to a behavior that the majority of society already opposed. To place such things in the context female same-sex romance was to make same-sex romance visible, which was exactly what moral enforcers did not want.
Portions of American society appeared tolerant of platonic-romantic relationships among nineteenth-century women, and smashing (courtship rituals between young women) occurred in many women’s colleges. The prevalence of Boston marriages also reached its zenith in the last decades of the nineteenth century.
Despite evidence to the contrary, most sexologists believed that intimate relationships between women were not sexually intimate, the lack of which was a key factor in societal acceptance of women’s cohabitation arrangements. Tolerant of platonic love among nineteenth century women, Victorian Americans generally viewed women’s sexuality, specifically middle-class White women’s sexuality, as merely reactive to male sexuality, which meant that these women supposedly possessed no autonomous sexual drive outside of attraction to men.
As early as 1869, German psychiatrist Karl Westphal became the first to study female homosexuality. He found his subjects among working and lower class women in his country, as well as in prisons and asylums. Westphal’s studies linked female homosexuality and gendered ideas of masculinity, and he concluded that women who fit the profile of “female sexual invert” truly wanted to be men and desired sex with other women. Neurotic tendencies, which quickly became an expected characteristic of the female sexual invert, prevailed among Westphal’s subjects. However, he did not take into account that there are numerous examples worldwide where a woman’s desire to pass as a man was completely disconnected with sexual desire, but rather occurred because these women recognized that a man’s life offered more opportunity.
In 1886, German sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing presented additional material on female homosexuality in Psychopathia Sexualis. Krafft-Ebing was a respected professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Vienna. Unlike Westphal, Krafft-Ebing acknowledged lesbianism (understanding women’s homoerotic attraction as if it were contagious) among women of his own middle-class. For example, Krafft-Ebing explained that women’s colleges could be a setting for the spread of homosexuality because homosexual women might easily encourage inactive but predisposed female inverts to become homosexual. He also reinforced Westphal’s connection between masculine women, those who sported short hair and men’s fashion, and uranism (the state of being uranian).
Lesbianism and Violence
According to Krafft-Ebing, the female homosexual preferred traditionally male activities as a child and manly sports as an adult, favored science instead of art, and sought to be courageous and intelligent. In the polarization of the sexes, inverted men would be less violent, and inverted women would be more violent. Additionally, Westphal, Krafft-Ebing, and other sexologists spoke of a connection between women’s education, feminist ideals, and sexual deviation. As mentioned earlier, sexologists based many of their assumptions on observations of female homosexuality in prison. In 1892, the murder of Freda Ward by her lover Alice Mitchell occurred in Memphis, Tennessee, an incident that Westphal and Krafft-Ebing used to support their arguments. The murder also contributed to the association of lesbianism with violence in American popular culture.
Sexology in England: Havelock and Edith Ellis
The debate on homosexuality and gender quickly spread to England. Havelock Ellis was a British sexual psychologist who wrote extensively on the subject of homosexuality. In his autobiography, he explained that he was initially uninterested in the subject. However, after he became aware of homosexuality in his closest friends, including his wife, he began to research the topic. Edith Ellis had an intimate relationship with another woman, and she openly acknowledged feelings of homoerotic attraction. Havelock Ellis adored his wife and did not view her homosexuality as a threat to their marriage. In fact, he claimed to be an activist for homosexual rights, and recognized numerous admirable characteristics of homosexuals rather than focusing on the psychotic behavior of a few.
Sexology and Lesbianism in America
By the 1910s, sexology began to influence American popular culture. The term “lesbian” was used with increasing frequency to describe female homosexuality. Portrayals of lesbians, though derogatory in nature, were viewed as a novelty by early-twentieth century Americans. For example, the lesbian-themed Broadway play The Captive became a short-lived hit in the 1920s before authorities banned it, and Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 lesbian-themed novel The Well of Loneliness was a controversial best seller in the United States. Popular representations of lesbianism increased, and were likely viewed in the context of decadence and loose morals.
As society scrutinized women’s relationships and the momentum of the feminist movement waned, political events led to a backlash against women, especially Lesbians (capitalized in reference to women who openly accept their homoerotic desires and form a community with like-minded women). Increased sexual discrimination marked the 1930s (this would change somewhat with World War II), and homosexual people were subject to commitment to insane asylums, loss of jobs, family, and friends, and excruciating internal anxieties.
Sexology and Sexuality Studies
The groundbreaking research of Alfred Kinsey and his associates on the spectrum of homo- and heterosexuality became a platform for arguing that homosexuality is not deviant or defective. Nevertheless, sexology since Stonewall has been criticized as being out of touch with LGBTQ experiences and concerns. In addition, sexology has become a facet of many disciplines rather than a single discipline in its own right. The fairly recent discipline of Sexuality Studies may be said to have taken sexology’s place as an all-encompassing survey and forum for scholarship on orientation, gender, the sexed body, and identity.
Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Columbia University, 1991.
Havelock Ellis, My Life: Autobiography of Havelock Ellis. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1939.
Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis: With Special Reference to the Antipathic Sexual Instinct. New York: Stein and Day, 1965.
Andrea Weiss and Greta Schiller, Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community. New York: Naiad, 1988.