Birth of Sexology

In some “prefatory” remarks to his case study on Dora, even before the title character has made her first appearance on the page, Sigmund Freud openly frets that his work will be mistaken for a roman à clef aimed not at treatment but at titillation:

Now in this case history . . . sexual questions will be discussed with all possible frankness, the organs and functions of sexual life will be called by their proper names, and the pure-minded reader can convince himself from my description that I have not hesitated to converse upon such subjects in such language even with a young woman. Am I, then, to defend myself upon this score as well? I will simply claim for myself the rights of the gynaecologist – or rather much more modest ones – and add that it would be the mark of a singular and perverse prurience to suppose that conversations of this kind are a good means of exciting or of gratifying sexual desires.

It is hardly astonishing that mere mention of sex might have agitated straitlaced Victorians, but the radical nature of the “talking cure” appears in a more bizarre light when one realizes that medical doctors had long practiced a far more effective means of “exciting” and “gratifying sexual desires” i.e. treating hysteria, a female disorder named as early as the 4th century BCE by Hippocrates.

Beginning in ancient times and continuing up until the 1920s, doctors routinely performed what they called “vulvular massage” ultimately producing “nervous paroxysm” which (temporarily) relieved their patients of symptoms that strongly resembled prolonged sexual frustration, according to Christopher Ryan’s and Cacilda Jetha’s Sex at Dawn. If this wildly popular treatment (undertaken at least once by as many as 75 percent of American women according to an 1873 publication) fell out of favor by the roaring 20s, it may be because vibrators, first introduced for home-use in 1902, had become more common than toasters in American homes by 1917.

That vibrators became so popular despite widespread condemnation of auto-eroticism testifies to the pervasive (and persisting) hypocrisy of social attitudes toward sex, attitudes that dermatologist Iwan Bloch, the acknowledged father of sexology, strived to change with his 766-page tome The Sexual Life of Our Times in Its Relations to Modern Civilization.

Published in German in late 1906 and in English in 1909, Bloch’s polemical, anthropological tract made an impassioned case for free love as compatible with moral life. John Kerr included an excerpt from Bloch’s work in his 1998 biography of Jung’s and Freud’s friendship, A Most Dangerous Method:

. . . modern European society . . . simultaneously makes fun of the “old maid” and condemns the unmarried mother to infamy. This double-faced, putrescent “morality” is profoundly immoral, it is radically evil. it is moral and good to contest it with all our energy, to enter the lists on behalf of the right to free love, to “unmarried” motherhood . . . Two million women [in Germany] in a condition of compulsory celibacy and – coercive marriage morality. it is merely necessary to place these two facts side by side, in order to display the complete ethical bankruptcy of our time in the province of sexual morality.

Another later volume, The Birth of Sexology – appearing in summary on The Kinsey Institute’s website – offers a clue as to what would be one of the more transformative if glacially slow-developing aspect of Bloch’s approach:

Bloch, a man of enormous erudition, who spoke several languages and possessed a personal library of 40,000 volumes, knew from his readings that many supposedly pathological and degenerate sexual behaviors had always existed in many parts of the globe and among both “primitive” and civilized peoples. Therefore, he gradually came to the conclusion that the medical view of sexual behavior was shortsighted and needed to be corrected by historical and anthropological research. He began to see the “sexual psychopathies” as timeless and universal manifestations of the human condition and finally, in the first years of our century, attacked the notion of sexual degeneration in a seminal study.

To be continued…


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