Histories of Sexology

Scientific knowledge about sex has been constructed in response to everyday knowledge, professional necessities, and public health problems as well as social, political, and religious issues. 

by Alain Giami and Sharman Levinson

Excerpts from the book, Histories of Sexology: Between Science and Politics, published by Palgrave MacmillanClick here to order your copy 

Growing critical interest in the history of sexology, sex research, and sexual science has given rise to new multidisciplinary scholarship by historians as well as researchers in gender and sexuality studies, science and technology studies, the psychological and social sciences, and the humanities. Far from being a purely academic endeavor, many clinicians and sexual rights advocates have embraced the necessity for cultural and historical contextualization and now figure prominently in the production and the readership of academic books and articles on the history of sexuality, sexology, and sexual science. Currently, numerous international conferences on sex research, sexual health, and sexual medicine feature symposia devoted specifically to history of sexology and sexuality. As the lines among academic research, clinical practice, and activism with regard to sexuality are often blurred, more research is needed on the overlapping histories produced from different sources and differing historiographical perspectives.

The present volume addresses this challenge by bringing together scholars, from varied disciplinary backgrounds and national contexts, to debate and discuss the ways in which theories of sexuality reflect these larger overlapping histories. Authors examine the ways that theories of sexuality—and not only scientific theories—are influenced by or aim to influence actions, legal frameworks, and political decisions, as well ways they have impacted the design of tools and concepts for clinicians and researchers. Additionally, the authors of this book explore the historical roles played by activists fighting for sexual and human rights in shaping and reshaping theories of sexuality, and sometimes as producers of academic research themselves.

Scientific knowledge about sex has been constructed in response to everyday knowledge, professional necessities, and public health problems as well as social, political, and religious issues. Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, this knowledge has contributed, but has also been oriented toward fighting discrimination against sexual minorities. In turn, scientific knowledge of the sexual has contributed to the construction and definition of sex research fields. Furthermore, the uses and consequences of scientific knowledge about sex branch out into artistic, literary, pornographic, philosophical, and legal domains. The convergence of different disciplines’ interest in the history of sexology (sexual science) and theories of sexuality is also consistent with a larger trend of growing interest in history writing by specialists of other disciplines in collaboration with professional historians.

The essays that compose Histories of Sexology were initially based on a two-day international symposium held at the American University of Paris, France, on October 30 and 31, 2017, in the context of a scientific partnership between AUP’s Gender, Sexuality and Society Program and the Center for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research. During this symposium originally titled “Sexologies and Theories of Sexuality: Translation, Appropriation, Problematization, and Medicalization,” presenters from Europe as well as North and South America had the occasion to share their scholarship on a variety of factors influencing the content, circulation, and reception of theories of sexuality in different political, institutional, and disciplinary contexts. The symposium’s dialogue among historians, researchers in science studies, and researchers in medicine, psychology, and gender and sexuality studies was particularly fruitful. We, the Editors, sought to build on these exchanges and make them available to a larger audience. Thus, the project for this book began to take shape. After lengthy discussions between the editors and with the members of the seminar's scientific committee, we decided to retain the majority of the papers presented at the seminar. In order to give a better coherence to the project, we asked a few authors, who could not participate in the seminar but had expressed their interest in our approach, to submit their contribution.

Histories of Sexology: Between Science and Politics takes an interdisciplinary and reflexive approach to the historiography of sexology. Drawing on an intellectual history perspective informed by recent developments in science and technology studies and political history of science, the book examines specific social, cultural, intellectual, and political contexts (including disciplinary politics and institutional policies) that have given shape to particular theories, but also to practices in medicine, psychology, education, and sexology. Furthermore, it explores various ways that theories of sexuality have both informed and been produced by sexologies—as a scientific and clinical discourse about sex—in Western countries since the nineteenth century. Finally, the struggle for empowerment by sexology’s “subjects” has in turn been able to influence new knowledge production including but not limited to “critical sexology.”

The Architecture of the Book

Introducing the volume, Alain Giami presents the book’s principal objective: considering the relationship between sexology and theories of sexuality from a range of historiographical perspectives. The book aims to identify theories of sexuality (both implicit and explicit) that shaped the different sexologies that appeared in Europe and America from the end of the nineteenth century. Just as importantly, Histories of Sexology specifies ways that sexologists and other scientists, physicians, researchers, and activists influenced the content of these theories. An important premise of this book is that sexology/sexual science can be conceived broadly as a field organized by “epistemic communities” in which theories of sexuality are formulated and go on to become a foundational reference point in building disciplines, sub-disciplines as well as “objects” of investigation. Throughout history, theories from different epistemic fields have successively represented sexology or been represented by it. A second section of the Introduction explores possible theoretical contributions to the understanding of sexology and sexual sciences from the paradigms proposed by Michel de Certeau, Michel Foucault, Georges Lantéri Laura, and Steven Marcus. Then, Giami evaluates the potential and limits of medicalization and medical appropriation as candidate models for understanding the circulation and hybridization of sexological theories from the end of the nineteenth century. Circulation of knowledge from different disciplines but also from different fields including popular culture, common sense, obscenity, as well as the artistic imaginary, forms the basis of a hybridization of knowledge that comes to be organized in different sexologies that have emerged since the end of the nineteenth century.

Part I: Political and Ideological Translations and Appropriations

Part I of the book looks at how certain Western and former “Eastern bloc” countries have translated, transformed or adapted supposedly international perspectives in sexology, creating their own distinct or sometimes competing sexologies connected with particular political, cultural, or religious agendas and professional strategies. It also considers the complex relationship between ideology and the production and reception of sexological theories. A particularly striking example can be found in this section’s first chapter where Kateřina Lišková provides a comparative analysis of major issues in sexology’s history under state socialism in Cold-War Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland. This first chapter shows sexology to have been a surprisingly powerful force underlying relationships within and between communist and capitalist politics of desire. A second chapter, by Christian Kaiser, provides an analysis of the links between the medical writings and practices and the radical political engagement of the couple formed by Zurich gynecologist Fritz Brupbacher (1874–1945) and his wife Paulette Brupbacher (1880–1967). This couple’s contextualized biography allows Kaiser to explore the notion of “humanitarian hedonism.” The next two chapters examine relationships among sex, politics, and activism in the United States. Stephanie Pache analyzes from the 1970s the influence of American feminist alliances with clinicians and researchers in the psy disciplines on the transformation of “sexual violence” into a “public health epidemic.” This chapter then evaluates some of the political and ideological consequences of these alliances and their sometimes-unwitting contributions to the formation of a discourse on “healthy relationships” that may neglect aspects of pleasure and emancipation that parts of the American Feminist movement had sought to fight for in their earlier years. The next chapter by Alexandre Paturel, Véronique Mottier, and Cynthia Kraus turns to the historical evaluation of the role played by debates about sex research in the rise of the New Christian Right in the United States from the 1980s onward. The authors shed light on reasons why the work of Alfred Kinsey became, decades after his death, a prime focus for the discussion of potential dangers of sex researchers’ subjective biases and allowed the Christian right to formulate new arguments, beyond the religious and moral ones that critics from the left usually attribute to them. The authors show how these scientific arguments were meant to appeal to increasing sensitivities with regards to the ethics of research with human subjects. Paturel, Krauss, and Mottier also examine the mixing of scientific and anti-homosexual messages in the Christian Right’s critique of the sex research establishment. The next chapter, by Taline Garibian, also explores the topic of same-sex sexual activity, this time in Switzerland between 1940 and 1960. Garibian’s chapter reveals ways that psychiatry and the legal system functioned like communicating vessels when it came to what could at first appear to be a pioneering decriminalization of homosexuality in Switzerland in 1942. In particular, obligatory psychiatric “treatments” ended up taking the place of legal sanctions. Thus, in spite of a supposedly humane discourse suggesting treatment rather than punishment, a new form of repression of sexual “deviations” including the cruel practices of castration and sterilization introduced different sources of coercion. The final chapter by Jane Russo and Sérgio Carrara examines the role of publishing houses in the cultural dissemination of works on sex from psychoanalysis and sexology in Brazil in the early years of the twentieth century. The authors examine the ways that editorial strategies took religious and political institutions into account and contributed to having a major influence on the reception of a variety of sources of sexological theories in Brazil.

Part II: Circulation, Hybridization and Bodies of Knowledge

Part II of the book allows us to observe how the elaboration and development of sexologies are based on the appropriation of problems through disciplinary politics that involve circulation, boundary-setting, negotiations, hybridization, and sometimes the building of interactional expertise between different disciplines.

Donna Drucker contributes the first chapter in this section. She examines the contribution of obstetrician-gynecologist Robert Latou Dickinson (1861–1950) to the development of sexual science as an academic discipline in the United States. The chapter focusses particularly on Dickinson’s arguments about the human-technological relationship in its relationship to bodies and sexual science. Dickinson’s observations concerned in particular what he considered to be harmful effects of the corset, the sewing machine, and the bicycle on women’s sexual and reproductive health. The second chapter by Marie Walin takes us to nineteenth-century Spain where her archival research allowed her to explore cases of impotence-related petitions for marriage annulment. Her examination of the petitions’ vocabulary and of the causes attributed to “absolute sexual impotence” is seen as the result of close collaboration between physicians and clergy. At the same time, a close reading of the cases underscores a surprising reversal of the traditional nineteenth-century power relationships between religion and science. Bridging a history of the body and that of gender representations, Pauline Mortas shows, in a third chapter, how the hymen was featured in various guises in popular medical books in nineteenth-century France. The author observes in these advice books, new forms of discourse on defloration, where the hymen became a “site” where the medical, the religious, and the moral could converge. Interestingly, discourse on “defloration” to which women’s bodies were subjected at first intercourse influenced representations of femininity, but also masculinity. In a fourth chapter of the part, Gonzague Delaroque contributes a genealogical and semantic exploration of the origins and uses of the term sexologie, introduced in France in the early years of the twentieth century. The chapter highlights the necessity of placing the history of sexology in a longer history where earlier meanings of sexualité referred not to the erotic life but to the selection of the sex of unborn children. Delaroque’s chapter argues in favor of nineteenth-century sexology’s sources in biology and eugenics, often overlooked or considered as parallel developments by contemporary social historians. A fifth chapter is devoted to Marie Bonaparte. Here, Sylvie Chaperon argues in favor of a more historically nuanced treatment of this often-dismissed female figure from the early years of psychoanalysis. The chapter takes a close look at Marie Bonaparte’s work on “frigidity” by first examining her initial academic text written in 1924 under the pseudonym of Narjani. Frigidity is attributed to the concept of téléclitoridie for which Bonaparte suggested possible surgical interventions. These suggestions, while shocking for commentators in the final two decades of the twentieth century, had been well received at the time and were able to garner support within the psychoanalytic community as well as by physiologists and surgeons. A sixth chapter focuses on another controversially remembered figure, this time in Brazilian sexology. Alessandro Ezabella explores the paradoxical biography of Hernani de Iraja, clinical sexologist, journalist, and painter, with a prominent profile in the 1930s Rio de Janeiro. The author aims to understand how Irajá came to be seen as an obscure or even obscene figure, and in doing so, he examines Irajá’s place in the development of Brazilian sexology. In this section’s final chapter, Jeffrey Escoffier revisits the work of the American psychoanalyst Robert J. Stoller and in particular his lesser-known work on pornography. Escoffier shows how pornographic discourse constitutes a “body of knowledge” and a form of “epistemological investigation” capable of producing coherent knowledge that touches on the subjectivity of consumers and ultimately reflects the sexual culture of a country in all its complexity.

Part III: Inventions of Deviant “Others”

Part III of the book explores how in different countries in late modern history the political economy of knowledge production often included imputations to the sexuality of “others.” Considered “primitive,” “sick,” or “deviant,” the sexual or sexualized other was a key construct used to draw a protective boundary around sexuality of the self and shield it from critical inquiry. Some chapters in this part examine individual and collective subjectivities and actions taken by those categorized to reshape these terms. Others show how these terms also contributed to uniting communities. The chapters in this section of the book show how the terms of sexual othering, their authors, their criteria, and meanings changed over the course of history as reflected in professional, literary, and activist contributions.

The first chapter, by Delphine Peiretti-Courtis, shows how French colonial medicine provided a “scientific justification” for the myth of an “African hypersexuality.” Even more significantly, the author shows how emphasis on the protection of colonists from “temptation” formed a framework for European sexuality by attempting to preserve its supposed difference from what could be “discovered” in the colonies. The next two chapters explore sexual desires and identities considered as deviations and examine how those concerned navigated within and between, and even created on the bases of initially pathologizing categories (see Hacking, 2001). Ash Kayte Stokoe’s chapter provides a close examination of the ways in which sexological discourses of “inversion” were mobilized in two important works of literature published almost 50 years apart. Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus (1884) and Radclyffe Hall’s (1928) The Well of Loneliness faithfully reflect the sexological discourses of their times, but also rework these categories of pathology by uniquely addressing their protagonist’s subjective singularities. Gert Hekma in this section’s third chapter takes his readers on a voyage across centuries of terms designating a large variety of homosexual practices and examines critically the current shift in focus to identities. Examining the rise to prominence and the elongation of the LGBTQ+ “Alphabet soup,” Hekma’s chapter interrogates this shift from practice to identities and points out new forms of stigma associated with non-coital practices, even in the case where these are simply objects of fantasy. André Bejin’s chapter closes this final section by exploring French psychologist Alfred Binet’s borrowing and transformation of the term fétichisme, originally coined by Charles de Brosse (1709–1777) to denote the religious worship of a material object to which the fétichiste attributed mysterious power. Binet, in his discussion of an article published in 1882 by the aliénistes Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893) and Valentin Magnan (1835–1916), points out that in cases of fetishism in love, “religious worship is replaced by a sexual appetite.”


Histories of Sexology: Between Science and Politics concludes with a final chapter by Sharman Levinson that highlights some of the book’s main findings, discusses some of its limitations, and opens perspectives for future inquiry in the study of political histories of sex and sexuality. Her chapter emphasizes the need for continued scholarship questioning some of sexology’s origin stories and the ways they may continue to be shaped not only by present trends in historical research, but also by the stakes of current sex research, sexuality studies, and activist communities. More specifically, she raises the problem of understanding what “sexology” as a boundary-object can tell us about political contexts, broadly speaking (including disciplinary agendas and conflicts), in history of science and the human sciences.

Examining early sexologists repeated emphasis on the “scientific” and/or “medical” characteristics of their work on sex and sexuality, Levinson’s conclusion suggests ways that boundary work (Gieryn, 1983) was, already for late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century sexologists, also a form of memory work. She questions sexologists’ heavy insistence on “science” in order to legitimize their “novel” investigations of sex, and proposes the hypothesis that these authors were selectively drawing on reconstructed “success stories” involving the progressive exclusion of the scientist’s “subjectivity” from the “field of observation.” This situation regarding the Subject “source” of knowledge of the sexual also makes sexology a useful observatory for the history of the medicine/science relationship.

The chapter suggests that by the 1970s both clinical medicine and empirical science were increasingly called into question, as was their relationship. In the later years of the twentieth century, the reference to “science” was no longer the unequivocal source of legitimacy for the study of sex, as sexology and sex research had a new interlocutor in the form of gender and sexuality studies. For some, this could appear to be a return of science’s repressed Subject.

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