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Ye Olde Masters of Sex: Sexology Before Masters and Johnson

Showtime series shines on Masters and Johnson, leaves other history in the dark

The acclaimed Showtime television Masters of Sex, starring Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan respectively as Dr. William Masters (1915-2001) and Virginia Johnson (1925-2013), shines a spotlight on their important, innovative work studying the human sexual response and the myriad challenges involved but, within the limits of an episodic television drama, may sometimes give the impression that they worked in a vacuum. A century before Masters and Johnson began their work in 1957, other pioneers of sex research dared to apply empirical methods to identifying, understanding, and sometimes improving human sexual life.

Alexander Jean Baptiste Parent-Duchatelet published his two-volume De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris ("Prostitution in the City of Paris"), his 1837 study of 3,558 registered Paris prostitutes and possibly the first empirical sex research, but sexology did not emerge as a distinct area of scientific discipline until German psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902) published the successful Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886, which he kept updating in subsequent editions through his death in 1902. Krafft-Ebing both reinforced conservative values by judging much sex behavior harshly and yet challenged them as well by studying sex at all. Based on case studies, Krafft-Ebing named and classified unusual sexual behaviors, coining terms like fetishism and masochism, homosexuality and heterosexuality for the first time. Subjective and judgmental in nature, Psychopathia Sexualis reflected many views of the time and Krafft-Ebing's values in particular. Sexual behaviors counterproductive to procreation, including homosexuality, asexuality, masturbation, and sexuality among the elderly, he demonized as perversions, illnesses in need of cures. "The bogeyman of modern sexologists...he identified masturbation as an underlying factor in sex deviation, even rape-murders, and felt it led to insanity." Even though he opposed criminalizing homosexuality, some German lawmakers cited his work when doing exactly that.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) began providing therapeutic services in 1886, the year Krafft-Ebing published Psychopathia Sexualis, and spent the next decade developing his basic theory of how the unconscious mind shapes conscious life. Also relying on subjective interpretation of case studies, he soon developed psychoanalysis, which he named in 1896, and was getting the psychodynamic approach off the ground by the time Krafft-Ebing died in 1902. Psychodynamic theory held that a powerful life instinct called eros drove the activities involved in keeping the individual and the species alive. He believed that sexual motivation would mature in focus from reaction to procreation, from pleasure to reproduction, but despite sharing Krafft-Ebing's emphasis on breeding, Freud did not divide all sexual behavior into abnormal and normal based on that criterion. He considered homosexuality a consequence of narcissistic or neurotic fixation in early childhood, and yet he did not pathologize it or consider attempts to cure it to be useful endeavors.

Psychoanalytic theory included the assertion that eros-driven development would cause personality growth to proceed through a series of psychosexual stages: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. Freud developed a reputation for perceiving sex in everything ("Staircases, ladders, and flights of stairs, or climbing on these, either upwards or downwards, are symbolic representations of the sexual act" - The Interpretation of Dreams, chapter 5), and his emphasis on sex was one of the key reasons that one colleague or follower after another would break away from him. Erikson de-sexed the psychosexual stages, transmuting them into his theory of psychosocial stages of development. Jung accused Freud of construing too many things as sexual. Adler called Freud a pervert. Despite its sexual nature and impact on popular culture, though, Freud's theory exerts little to no influence on most empirical sex research. Believing that "scientific method and psychoanalysis are inherently incompatible" (quoted by Chiesa, 2010, p. 99), he scoffed at experimental research, even the bits of it backed him up. When an American psychologist sent him reprints of experimental work he had conducted to validate psychoanalytic concepts, Freud tossed the reprints away and wrote back that he did not put "much value on such confirmation" (Rosenzweig, 1985, p. 173).

Wilhelm Stekel (1868-1940), Freud's "most distinguished pupil" according to Wettels (1924, p. 71), wrote a line of books analyzing a range of sexual topics including impotence, masturbation, homosexuality, bisexuality, sadism, masochism, and sexual aspects of dreams. Stekel proposed the term paraphilia to replace perversion, noting that not all usual sexual interests appeared to be detrimental and distinguishing "normal fetishes" from pathological interests (Stekel, 1930).

Havelock Ellis, age 30.

The fact that British physician Havelock Ellis (1959-1939) became one of the foremost authorities on sex struck his friends as ironic, given his generally sexless nature (Ellis, 1939). A virgin at age 32 when he married a lesbian, he lived separately from her after their honeymoon and was himself impotent until age 60 when he discovered that the sight of woman urinating sexually excited him (which he term undinism - Brink, 1980). Yet another researcher developing his ideas based on clinical observations, Ellis impressed colleagues and continues to fascinate modern scientists because of his conscientious observations and objectivity. This "meticulous, safe, objective, thoughtful, altruistic sexologist," had started his recordkeeping in his youth when worried that his nocturnal emissions were signs of illness, a misconception perpetuated by many Victorian Era physicians. Eventually concluding that those doctors were wrong, he came to consider nocturnal emissions, masturbation, homosexuality, female sexuality, and other taboo sexual matters to be normal and healthy. In opposition to Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, Ellis's groundbreaking works Sexual Inversion (1897) and seven-volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897-1928) described sex in a detached, objective manner without pathologizing it.

Medical doctor Magnus Hirschfeld (1968-1935) improved empirical methodology by becoming the first to introduce surveys to study sexual behavior. After a homosexual patient's 1895 suicide, he became interested in understanding homosexuality, began to study sexuality in general, and went on to become a champion for gay rights and acceptance. A supporter of early feminists, he also worked to better women's sexual and reproductive lives. Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft ("Institute for Sexology"), founded in 1919 in Berlin, housed a large library, a lecture hall, and departments such as gynecology, psychotherapy, marriage counseling, and more. There, physicians and psychiatrists conducted research and provided therapeutic services. Patients with sex-related difficulties could benefit from extended stays in a safe, supportive environment. Hirschfeld became widely known as "the Einstein of Sex."

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they destroyed Hirschfeld's institute while he was away on a lecture tour, from which he wisely never returned. In the course of the Nazis staging book burnings to dispose of literature they deemed immoral, decadent, or Jewish, they burned the institute's entire library, thousands of books, and then turned the institute building into a center for antisemitic propaganda. Regarding burnings of his own works, Sigmund Freud (quoted by Jones, 1957, p. 182) remarked, "What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burnt me; nowadays they are content with burning my books."

An exile in France, Hirschfeld died a broken man in 1935 (Robinson, 2000). After the Nazis occupied Austria in 1938, Freud initially refused to leave Vienna even as Nazi gangs kept invading his home. After his daughter's arrest, he relented and relocated to London. Four of his sisters would die in Nazi concentration camps (Schultz & Schultz, 2013). Ellis and Freud both died in 1939 as Europe and, with it, the world headed into war.

Over in America, women's prison superintendent Katherine Bement Davis arranged for psychological testing of inmates in 1909, and grew progressively more interested in ferreting out the origins of prostitution. The following year, the Prison Association of New York praised her work in developing her reformatory into a premier scientific institution (McCarthy, 1997). After her success in prison reforms, Davis in 1918 became head of the Bureau of Social Hygiene, an agency that had been created to study and improve social conditions related to vice, narcotics, disease, and corruption, with "special reference to prostitution and the evils associated therewith." To understand abnormality, Davis also looked at what was "normal" for comparison, leading a study on the sex lives of 2,200 women (contraception, masturbation, lesbian experiences, frequency of desire, pre-marital and extramarital sex) in the largest and most comprehensive survey and analysis of its time (Ellison, 2006; Ericksen, 1999). Although her view that lesbianism was not pathological went largely ignored, her evidence that women might have sexual appetites similar to men's worried some male researchers (Carroll, 2013; Ellison, 2006).

Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978), possibly the first woman notable as a sex researcher in the United States even though sex per se was not her central focus and she conducted her best known studies outside the U.S., revealed how sexual attitudes differed in several South Pacific and South Asian cultures. Her writings said more about sex differences (gender differences than sexual behavior in the cultures she studied (while still revealing plenty about said sexual behavior). To learn about indigenous peoples in areas as yet unaltered by missionaries and other Western influence, she visited Samoa (Coming of Age in Samoa, 1928) and then Papua New Guinea (Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies, 1935) in the course of her best known work. Though interviews, she learned about these cultures and compared their views on gender roles, sex, marriage, family, and religion to those of Westerners. Mead shocked Prohibition era Americans with her reports of, among other things, Samoan women enjoying casual sex while deferring marriage despite institutionalized virginity standards. Although controversial among those who objected for ideological, academic, or religious reasons, her work became influential within the feminist movement and to the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s.

After Mead's death, author Derek Freeman (1983) attacked her methodology and concluded that Samoans had hoaxed the curious white woman when she visited and prodded them with all her questions. Did the locals really "punk" Margaret Mead? While Freeman was not alone in his criticism of her methods, numerous others responded by judging Freeman's own methods even more harshly. The American Anthropological Association denounced his work as ''poorly written, unscientific, irresponsible and misleading.''

American sexology as a science takes off with Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956), America's most prominent figure in sex research prior to Masters and Johnson. A zoologist studying gall wasps, he got asked to teach a marriage class and started conducting his own sex research after finding no good resource materials with empirical data on the variety of human sexual behavior. Through surveys and thousands of interviews, he began collecting people's sexual details as zealously as he'd collected his samples of gall wasps. While he explored the unusual, his findings revealed "normal" to be far more diverse and wide-ranging in nature than commonly thought. The frequency of premarital, extramarital, auto-erotic, and same-sex activities exceeded expectations.

Dry, direct narrative notwithstanding, the books that he and his research assistants co-authored topped the best-seller lists and made a celebrity out of Kinsey. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (Kinsey, Pomeroy, Martin, & Gebhart, 1953), thick tomes full of statistics, tables, and graph, became popularly known as the Kinsey Reports. His methods were flawed. Sampling bias ran rampant through his research, for example by including a disproportionately high number of gay men (Bullough, 2006) and too few non-Caucasians (Reumann, 2005). Worse, allegations followed that he misrepresented some of the work. These and other concerns are serious and do tarnish Dr. Kinsey's achievements, and yet they do not topple him from his place as America's most prominent pioneer in sex research during his lifetime.

Alfred Kinsey with assistants Wardell Pomeroy and Clyde Martin.

Psychologist Evelyn Hooker (1907-1996) spent several years collecting data from homosexual friends, data she knew lacked scientific value because her methods lacked scientific rigor while she developed her ideas, until she conducted an eye-opening experiment that helped change how many professionals viewed homosexuality. Noting that previous studies which indicated something psychologically abnormal about homosexuals had lacked heterosexual comparison groups, Hooker (1957) had two groups of men, one group gay and the other straight, complete three psychological tests. Top experts on these tests proved to be unable to distinguish which group was which.

Another investigator whose findings helped lead to homosexuality's eventual removal from the DSM was Kurt Freund (1914-1996). In the 1950s, Freund invented the penile plethysmograph to measure bloodflow as the first objective measure of male sexual arousal. The Czech government originally commissioned Freund's work in order to develop a method of detecting heterosexual draft dodgers who were pretending to be gay in order to evade military duty. Subsequently, his empirical findings on conversion therapy led him to view efforts to "cure" homosexuality as pointless and even harmful. Based primarily on Freund's findings, though, Czechoslovakia came to decriminalize homosexuality in 1961.

Many consider his work "towards the decriminalization and cessation of persecution of homosexuality in Czechoslovakia prior to 1960 to have been pivotal in leading to the American Psychiatric Association's decision to remove it from the DSM." Three decades after Magnus Hirschfeld and Sigmund Freud had escaped the Nazi regime, Kurt Freund departed from his own homeland during its political upheaval in 1968 and he fled to Canada. There, he continued the phallometric research which he had expanded to focus more on sex offenders, particularly pedophiles.

Others made attempts along the way but without making much of a splash at the time. Gynecologist Robert Latou Dickinson (1861-1950), for instance, studied more than 5,000 women starting in the 1890s. Hampered by the Comstock laws (Gardella, 1985), though, he did not publish his research until after he retired four decades later (Dickinson & Beam, 1931; 1934). Starting when she was a a University of Wisconsin student in 1892 (Carroll, 2013), Celia Mosher (1963-1940) spent 28 years investigating women's sexual habits half a century before Kinsey, but her findings went unpublished until nearly half a century after she died (Mosher, 1980).

The history of sex research is, like the history of science itself, often a tale of sloppy research methods refined and hopefully improved over the course of generations. It neither begins nor ends with Masters and Johnson. Earlier sexologists laid foundations, faced challenges, and even fought battles as they paved the way for those who would follow. Their work may hold up poorly against modern scientific standards, but "modern" keeps changing and so do those standards. Sex research of the later 20th century and today may fare just as poorly under the hot lights of the scientific standards followed in a future "today" yet to come.

Barton (Beau Bridges) widens his eyes at a vibrating, internal camera device in Showtime's "Masters of Sex."

References (other than linked sources)

Brink, A. (1980). Havelock Ellis: Eros and explanation (review of Phyllis Grosskurth, Havelock Ellis: Bullough, Vern L. (1 March 2006). "The Kinsey biographies". Sexuality & Culture(Vol 10, No 1).A biography. Russell: The Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies, 100(1), article 11.

Bullough, V. L. (2006). The Kinsey biographies. Sexuality and Culture, 10, 15-22.

Carroll, J. L. (2013). Sexuality now: Embracing diversity (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Chiesa, M. (2010). Research and psychoanalysis: Still time to bridge the great divide? Psychoanalytic Psychology, 27(2), 99-114.

Dickinson, R. L. & Beam, L. (1931). A thousand marriages: A medical study of sex adjustment. Baltimore, MA: Williams & Wilkins.

Dickinson, R. L. & Beam, L. (1934). The single woman: A medical study in sex education. Baltimore, MA: Williams & Wilkins.

Ellis, H. (1939). My life. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Ellison, C. R. (2006). Women's sexualities: Generations of women share intimate secrets of sexual self-acceptance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Ericksen, J. A. (1999). Kiss and tell: Surveying sex in the twentieth century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Freeman, D. (1983). Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Freud, S. (1899/1965). The interpretation of dreams. New York, NY: Discus.

Gardella, P. (1985). Innocent ecstasy: How Christianity gave America an ethic of sexual pleasure. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Hooker, E. (1957). The adjustment of the male overt homosexual. Journal of Projective Techniques, 21, 18-31.

Jones, E. (1957). The life and work of Sigmund Freud (vol. 3). New York, NY: Basic Books.

Kinsey, A., Pomeroy, W., & Martin, C. (1948). Sexual behavior in the human male. Philadelphia, PA: W. B. Saunders.

Kinsey, A., Pomeroy, W., Martin, C., & Gebhard, P. (1953). Sexual behavior in the human female. Philadelphia, PA: W. B. Saunders.

Krafft-Ebing, R. von (1886/1999). Psychopathia sexualis. Burbank, CA: Bloat.

McCarthy, T. C. (1997). New York City's suffragist commissioner: Correction's Katherine Bement Davis. New York, NY: New York City Department of Correction.

Mosher, C. D. (1980). The Mosher survey: Sexual attitudes of 45 Victorian women. USA: Arno

Mead, M. (1928). Coming of age in Samoa. New York: Morrow Quill.

Reumann, M. (2005). American sexual character: Sex, gender, and national identity in the Kinsey Reports. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 294.

Robinson, P. (2000). Gay lives. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Rosenzweig, S. (1985). Freud and experimental psychology: The emergence of idiodynamics. In S. Koch & D. Leury (Eds.), A century of psychology as science (pp. 135-207). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2013). Theories of personality (10th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Stekel, W. (1930). Sexual aberrations: The phenomenon of fetishism in relation to sex. New York: Liveright.

Wilson, R. J., & Mathon, H. F. (2006, fall). Remembering Kurt Freund (1914–1996). ATSA Forum, 18(4)..

Wittels, F. (1924). Sigmund Freud: His personality, his teaching, and his school. London: Allen & Unwin.

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