Sexuality Research History Essay

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Research on sexuality began as a marginalized and stigmatized endeavor, responding to the topic’s growing social resonance during the nineteenth century. Initially, specific problems were considered in isolation, the focus largely continuing to rest on those who were not normal” privileged males, either by gender, race, or sexual orientation. A number of studies in different countries addressed prostitution as a problem, without engaging with the question of its male clientele. Debate on homosexuality was initiated by men trying to understand their own desires, but later work by psychiatrists such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing tended to develop a disease model on the basis of professional encounters with homosexual criminals or mental patients. Darwin’s work on the importance of sexual selection was highly influential in developing the study of sexuality, and other phenomena which could not be assimilated to an evolutionary model of the role of sexual selection in reproduction were also analyzed.

From the 1890s several writers pulled together various developing strands into broader syntheses. British doctor Havelock Ellis produced the seven-volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex, 1897-1927. The German doctor Magnus Hirschfeld began as a homosexual law reformer, but as researcher, educator, and campaigner ranged more widely. He connected isolated individuals by establishing journals and facilitating international networks. These syntheses of diverse materials laid a foundation for further work. A very different approach, emphasizing the depths of the psyche, was evolved by Sigmund Freud and those he influenced.

Research into sex hormones lagged behind investigation into other endocrine secretions. Besides general taboo, the project was compromised by its association with rejuvenation” treatments. Until the late 1920s, investigations were predicated on assumptions of gender-specific ovarian and testicular hormones. Biochemical investigations moved sex research into the laboratory, possibly increasing its scientific respectability and access to resources, but detaching it from a wider context.

Surveys of individual experiences of individuals were long hindered by societal taboos and legal strictures but gained a degree of legitimacy from arguments that studying sexual lives would facilitate the improvement of marriage. On that presumption Alfred Kinsey was able to undertake numerous interviews with human subjects, published as Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male/Female (1948; 1953).

William Masters and Virginia Johnson broke a further taboo in the 1960s by mapping the processes of arousal and satisfaction in the laboratory.

Research into sexuality moved from the specific to the broadly synthetic, then bifurcated onto separate paths investigating distinct aspects. Lack of coordination between differing approaches has remained a problem.


  1. Bullough, V. (1994) Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex Research. Basic Books, New York.
  2. Robinson, P. (1976/1989) The Modernization of Sex: Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey, William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Harper and Row, New York.

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