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social sciences

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Admittedly, his contemporaries, including Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Magnus Hirschfeld, and Havelock Ellis, do little more than he in this regard. Not until Sigmund Freud does the sexological enterprise attempt to justify its taxonomy through speculation on the origins of the apparently "natural" sexual categories which it has devised. Freud's etiological theories have been discounted as largely spurious, however, and such speculations are discounted by contemporary sexology, which continues to be dominated by a descriptive as opposed to an explanatory mode.

This is not, however, to deny the importance of the descriptions in and of themselves, which tell us a tremendous amount about perceptions of sexual behavior and identity, as well as public sexual culture, in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe.

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Sexology Today

Sexology remains a para-professional field that continues to have significant interactions with and influences upon popular perceptions of human sexuality. Its bilateral mission has been one of evangelization and amelioration. Nineteenth-century authors such as Krafft-Ebing and Hirschfeld pled for tolerance and understanding of behaviors such as homosexuality, which they believed were not socially harmful and which were in any case constitutional. They and others worked tirelessly to reform the German penal code to exonerate homosexuals from incurring a punishment for following an instinctual behavior pattern.

While contemporary sexology is to some extent still focused on social reform (such as improving sex education), its primary object, following Freud, has been changing individual lives: enlightening its audience to the positive qualities and myriad possibilities inherent in sex, and providing people with advice or therapy, with the implicit guiding belief that an improved sex life means an improved existence generally.

According to Paul Robinson, such a program, with its "democratic" emphasis on individual sexual satisfaction (especially extolling the benefits of masturbation, the social scourge of earlier generations), is indicative of the bourgeoisification and even Americanization of sexual practices. William Masters's and Virginia Johnson's widely embraced findings on women's particular need for autoeroticism, as well as the sexual satisfactions believed to inhere in married life, Robinson argues, indicate a privatization of the sexual sphere, a solo retreat into the home, vibrator in hand.

Pharmacological, surgical, and technological developments such as synthetic hormone therapy, medications such as Viagra that induce sexual excitement, vasectomies, tubal ligations, and prophylactics to prevent unwanted pregnancy, even the popularization of pornography and the increasing availability of sex toys, are arguably transforming sexual expression into an individual-oriented, consumption-driven enterprise, mediated by authorities such as physicians, pharmacists, and psychotherapists.

Yet contemporary media discourses would appear to dispute the notion that sex is becoming more and more an individual matter. Suburban housewives may or may not find sexual solace in their bedrooms, but in any case it is very likely the increasing number of public forums dispensing sex advice that put Hitachi Magic Wands into their nightstand drawers in the first place.

Sex advice columns, increasingly found in magazines, free weekly newspapers, and on the internet, as well as sex manuals, are a popular (and hence often discounted) mode of sexological inquiry, continually expanding both professional and lay knowledge of sexual arcana and introducing the uninitiated to new practices and communities of practitioners. As columnists are quick to point out to their readership, there are non-professional resources and organizations catering to all manner of "perversions," from sadomasochism to "swinging" (partner-swapping) to devotees of large men and women and amputees, among countless others.

Moreover, as in Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia sexualis, sex advice columns are populated by an assortment of anonymous "perverts" who are able to publicly name their fantasies, detail their problems, and air their grievances. Answers to their inquiries, as likely (if not likelier) to be penned by a layperson as a professional sexologist, are ultimately less significant socially than the simple act of public correspondence. Both writers and readers are often assured that they are not alone in their proclivities, and are urged to act in their own behalf to address their problems, notably through seeking out others with common complaints or interests.

Sex advisers also pose an interesting challenge to a political orthodoxy in the United States that decries open discussion and expression of sexuality as obscene, even unpatriotic. In the face of mounting restrictions on access to pornography and sex education in this country, sex manuals and advice columns remain an open channel of information as well as entertainment, at least partly legitimized by their pedagogical role.

Some columnists, such as Dan Savage, have stumped for political issues such as same-sex marriage and the repeal of sodomy laws. Savage has even used his column to poke fun at his readers' most formidable political foes, for example transforming the surname of conservative U.S. Senator Rick Santorum into a new item in an expanding sexual lexicon. In small ways, then, contemporary sex advisers urge social reform just as did their nineteenth-century antecedents.

Matthew D. Johnson

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social sciences >> Overview:  Sex Work and Prostitution: Female

Sex work has long been the last resort of desperate women and girls, but more recently some women--including some lesbians--have been drawn to the profession by a renegade ideology of sexual liberation.

social sciences >> Brand, Adolf

Editor, photographer, and activist, Adolf Brand was the leader of a faction of the early German homosexual emancipation movement whose cultural views were expressed in Der Eigene (The Self-Owner), the first homosexual literary and artistic journal.

social sciences >> Ellis, Havelock

Henry Havelock Ellis--British psychologist and writer--was one of the first modern thinkers to challenge Victorian taboos against the frank and objective discussion of sex.

social sciences >> Freud, Sigmund

The founder of psychoanalysis and the discoverer of the unconscious, Sigmund Freud initiated a fundamental transformation in the self-understanding of Western men and women, including especially the role of sexuality.

social sciences >> Hirschfeld, Magnus

German-born Magnus Hirschfeld deserves recognition as a significant theorist of sexuality and the most prominent advocate of homosexual emancipation of his time.

social sciences >> Krafft-Ebing, Richard von

The carefully detailed case studies of nineteenth-century psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing shed light on the sexual habits of a wide spectrum of men and women.

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Whether or not the Marquis de Sade was himself bisexual, homosexual activity is an important item in his program of revolutionary sexual libertinism.

social sciences >> Savage, Dan

Best known for his syndicated sex-advice column, Dan Savage is also the author of books chronicling his and his partner's experiences in adopting a child and dealing with the issue of same-sex marriage

social sciences >> Ulrichs, Karl Heinrich

Nineteenth-Century German activist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was both the first modern theorist of homosexuality and the first homosexual to "come out" publicly.


Bland, Lucy, and Laura Doan, eds. Sexology in Culture: Labelling Bodies and Desires. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

_____. Sexology Uncensored: The Documents of Sexual Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Bright, Susie. Susie Sexpert's Lesbian Sex World. Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1990.

Califia, Pat. The Advocate Adviser: America's Most Popular Gay Columnist Tackles the Questions That the Others Ignore. Boston: Alyson, 1991.

Ellis, Havelock, and John Addington Symonds. Sexual Inversion. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Freud, Sigmund. The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud. A.A. Brill, ed. New York: Modern Library, 1995.

Hekma, Gert. "'A female soul in a male body': Sexual Inversion as Gender Inversion in Nineteenth-century Sexology." Third Sex, Third gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History. Gilbert Herdt, ed. New York: Zone Books, 1993. 213-40.

Hirschfeld, Magnus. The Homosexuality of Men and Women. Michael A. Lombardi-Nash, trans. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 2000.

Krafft-Ebing, Richard von. Psychopathia sexualis. Franklin S. Klaf, trans. New York: Arcade, 1998.

Levay, Simon. Queer Science: The Use and Abuse of Research into Homosexuality. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996.

Masters, William H., and Virginia E. Johnson. Homosexuality in Perspective. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.

Oosterhuis, Harry. Stepchildren of Nature: Krafft-Ebing, Psychiatry, and the Making of Sexual Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Robinson, Paul. The Modernization of Sex: Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey, William Masters, and Virginia Johnson. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Rosario, Vernon A., ed. Science and Homosexualities. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Savage, Dan. Savage Love: Straight Answers from America's Most Popular Sex Columnist. New York: Plume, 1998.

_____. Skipping towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America. New York: Plume, 2003.

Steakley, James D. The Homosexual Emancipation Movement in Germany. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Taormino, Tristan. The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1998.

Terry, Jennifer. An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and the Place of Homosexuality in Modern Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Ulrichs, Karl Heinrich. The Riddle of "Man-manly" Love: The Pioneering Work on Male Homosexuality. Michael A. Lombardi-Nash, trans. 2 vols. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1994.


    Citation Information
    Author: Johnson, Matthew D.  
    Entry Title: Sexology  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated October 23, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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