What can we learn from the history of sexology?

What can we learn from the history of sexology?

This morning I was very excited to be included on Radio 4’s Today Programme talking about the new Wellcome Collection exhibition: The Institute of Sexology. You can listen to the piece on their website (it aired around 12 minutes to 9). The post that follows contains material covered in more detail in my book The Psychology of Sex.


The radio piece also meant that I got the chance to have a sneak preview of the exhibition before it opens tomorrow. I would definitely encourage people to go. It is fascinating to view all of the sexological objects and texts that Henry Wellcome collected over the years, and to check out the contemporary artwork which they have displayed next to the various sections. However, for me, the most interesting thing was to get such a strong sense of how sexology has shaped the ways in which we understand sex today.

The exhibition gives us a clear sense that the way we currently view sex came from somewhere: that this history had a huge impact on the ways in which we now experience sex and sexuality.

The first sexologists

The first few display cases in the exhibition include some of the early attempts to categorise and classify sexuality by the likes of Richard von Krafft-EbingMagnus Hirschfeld, and Henry Havelock-Ellis. These texts, which came out towards the end of the 19th century, started a shift from sexuality being seen as something you did, to something you were. For example, it was not just that you were attracted to tall women and enjoyed oral sex best, but rather that your attractions and sexual preferences made you a certain kind of person.

Thus, terms for sexual identities like homosexual, heterosexual, sadist and masochist emerged from the writings of these sexologists. This opened the door to discrimination, criminalisation and pathologisation (seeing people as wrong, bad or sick) on the basis of their sexuality. However it also opened the door to the fight for rights on the basis of being a certain kind of person, and indeed some of these sexologists were involved in the earliest versions of the gay rights movement.

There was also an emphasis in early sexology on dividing sex into normal and abnormal kinds: a project that lingers till this day in the American Psychiatric Association and World Health Organisation diagnostic manuals. Each of these has a list of ‘sexual dysfunctions’ and ‘paraphilic disorders’ which aim to capture dysfunctional and abnormal kinds of sex. So early sexology concretised the idea that there are good and bad kinds of sex, not just a diverse range of possible practices and attractions: this weighs heavy on many people to this day as we will see.

Freud and the psychoanalytic approach to sex

When you reach the end of the corridor of early sexology, in the Wellcome exhibition, you come to a room called the ‘consulting room’ which includes materials from Sigmund Freud and Marie Stopes.

Freud popularised the idea that the main purpose of sex was pleasure rather than procreation. This had a huge impact as Krafft-Ebing had claimed that sex was pathological unless it was procreative. It opened up the possibility that it might be okay to want sex for the pleasure of the act itself.

Freud also introduced the idea of sexuality as something that develops rather than being something present in the brain from birth: a debate which is still going strong to this day. However, Freud’s stage model of sexual development still suggested very strongly that certain sexualities and sexual practices were less mature or healthy than others. It is here that heterosexual penis-in-vagina sex becomes the gold standard against which all other sexualities and sexual practices are measured: something that my recent analysis of sex advice books suggests is still going strong to this day.

Although Freud himself was fairly positive about homosexuality, and actively advocated against attempts to make a person heterosexual on at least one occasion, the psychoanalysts who immediately followed Freud left a terrible legacy of viewing homosexuality as a sickness and trying to ‘cure’ it. We can see the tragic impact of this in the current film, The Imitation Game, where Benedict Cumberbatch plays one of our greatest British minds – Alan Turing – who had a major role in bringing the second world war to an end, and in inventing the computer. Turing took his own life at only 41 because of the hideous ‘treatments’ he was given for being gay. Sadly there are still some therapists today who advocate conversion therapies for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people, although the major psychotherapy organisations forbid it.

Kinsey and Masters & Johnson

The next parts of the exhibition demonstrate a shift that occurred in the 1940s and 1950s to the heart of sexology being located in the US rather than Europe. The work of Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues, and William Masters and Virginia Johnson, had a huge impact on how we understand – and study – sex today. And both have recently being depicted in fictionalised representations, in the film Kinsey, and the TV drama Masters of Sex.

Kinsey and his colleagues interviewed thousands of Americans in detail about their sex lives. They found a huge diversity in sexual attractions and sexual practices. The famous Kinsey scale demonstrated that many people were not exclusively attracted to the ‘same gender’ or the ‘other gender’ but were somewhere in between.

Sadly we haven’t kept hold of Kinsey’s ideas in wider culture anywhere near as much as some of the other sexologists. There are still strong assumptions that people can be divided into binaries of gay and straight, normal and abnormal, functional and dysfunctional, when it comes to sex.

Masters and Johnson conducted thousands of observations of people masturbating and having sexual intercourse in their lab. Their research greatly improved understandings of what happens physiologically during sex, including – vitally – the fact that most women need external clitoral stimulation in order to have an orgasm, and that clitoral and vaginal orgasms were physiologically identical (before that the prevailing view had been Freud’s: that vaginal orgasms were more mature and healthy).

However, unlike Kinsey, Masters and Johnson overwhelmingly studied heterosexual couples having penis-in-vagina intercourse, which shored up the view that that was what sex is: a myth that continues to this day meaning that lots of people think that others kinds of sex are not ‘proper’ sex.

NATSAL and British sexology

The final room of the exhibition brings us to the major UK sexological work: the NATSAL survey. The UK is a really thriving hub of sexology today with many of us studying sex in a much more critical way which reflects on the impact of the history I’ve summarised here on how we experience and understand sex.

The NATSAL British survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyles is conducted every ten years to provide a picture of the changing nature of British sexualities and sexual practices. Perhaps the key finding, for me, from the current NATSAL survey, is the fact that 42% of men and 51% of women report having a sexual problem. Sexual problems are generally defined as some difficulty with Masters and Johnson’s sexual response cycle (i.e. something that gets in the way of penises entering vaginas, or with orgasms).

Given this it seems that we could usefully go back to some of the earlier categorisations of sex – and Kinsey’s work – and emphasise the massive diversity of what can count as sex. Walking through the exhibition it is clear that, over time and across cultures, sex has been viewed in highly varied ways, with different practices being encouraged and prohibited at different times. For example, when we were conducting the Radio 4 interview we stopped at a device designed to stop people masturbating. The curator of the exhibition pointed out that, at the same time that masturbation was considered dangerous in Britain it was regarded as an ultimate pleasure in other cultures around the globe. Of course, such massively diverse views of sexual practices are still present today, and we may one day look back on current fears around porn addiction, compared with those who applaud the pleasures and powers of porn, with similar bafflement.

What we can learn from sexological surveys, and from looking back through time and across cultures in an exhibition like this, is that sex is hugely diverse. Perhaps our project moving forward could be to embrace that diversity rather than continuing the projects of delineating normal and abnormal, functional and dysfunctional kinds of sex. This might enable people to tune into what they actually enjoy, and to focus on how they can engage in sex consensually, instead of concentrating on trying to conform to a one-size-fits-all model of sex.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).


  1. counsellingpsy

    19 November

    Reblogged this on A blog and commented:
    An informative and easy-reading summary of a British history of sexology

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