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Sexology, the multidisciplinary scientific study of sex, is a professional field whose goal is to construct a comprehensive classification of human sexual behavior. Sexology presents sexual activity as a natural biological phenomenon and thus has done much to detach sex from moral and religious authority. It has been influential in legitimizing sexual practices as a result of its mapping of normal and abnormal sexualities. Sexologists approach questions of sexuality and gender in a context of scientific objectivity to pursue systematized sexual knowledge. They construct interpretive systems and vocabularies to chart sexual and gender development and variation.

Early sexology was primarily the realm of scientific scholars, but it has developed into a diverse and increasingly commercial field populated by academics, sex therapists, researchers, epidemiologists, and clinicians. Despite, or perhaps because of, its ever-evolving methodologies and overlapping disciplines, the status of sexology as a true science has been questioned frequently, making its quest for legitimacy fraught with controversy.


Despite extensive observations of sexual behavior by the ancient Greeks, significant treatment of sexual issues by Islamic scholars, and philosophical discussions of sexual ethics and morality during the Enlightenment, the onset of the modern age laid the groundwork for the rise of sexology as a separate science. With roots in late-nineteenth-century psychoanalysis, sex reform, and anthropological research, the history of sexology corresponds with the major cultural movements and anxieties of modernity, especially in its relationship to the rise of a sexual liberalism that infiltrated medical, literary, and artistic discourses with its opposition to Victorian morality, assertion of heterosexual female desire, and challenge to traditional gender norms and roles.

Sexology emerged in Europe around the turn of the twentieth century as an indirect response to the criminalization of prostitution and the transmission of venereal diseases in urban areas. The rise of sexology also corresponded with the eugenics movement and its taxonomies of racial and sexual weaknesses. Despite earlier writing on sexual behavior by Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902), Havelock Ellis, and Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), sexology (sexualwissenschaft) as a formal composite science first was conceived in 1907 by the dermatologist Iwan Bloch in The Sexual Life of Our Time in Its Relations to Modern Civilization (1928).

Sexology erupted onto the scene in Germany, where eighty sex-reform organizations had been founded by the 1930s that together had a membership of 350,000 people. In Berlin Bloch founded the first professional sexology association in 1913, and six years later Magnus Hirschfeld founded the first sexological institute, the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, which had a huge archive and library and a full-time staff and was housed in a former royal residence. The institute hosted international visitors and researchers who included Margaret Sanger (1879–1966), Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), and André Gide (1869–1951). A thriving culture emerged around the study of sex and sexuality, and films, congresses, and journals disseminated those new ideas. Expansive projects were proposed, as in Bloch's comprehensive monograph series, which ultimately included coverage of only two major sites of sexological inquiry: his own two-volume Die Prostitution (1912, 1925) and Hirschfeld's Homosexuality of Men and Women (2000 [1914]). The explosive success of early sexology and the related prominence of gay life in Weimar, Berlin, were put to an end with the rise of Nazism. Film footage of Nazi book burnings depicts the contents of Hirschfeld's institute being destroyed.


Bloch, Freud, Albert Moll (1862–1939), and Max Marcuse (1877–1963) were important early sexologists, but the work of Ellis and Hirschfeld is the most important and representative of early sexology. Ellis's seven-volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897–1928), which included Sexual Inversion, addressed a wide range of sexual behaviors and represented a departure from the tradition of sex pathology. Hirschfeld was a talented organizer and archivist of early sexology, and his work, which included films and many multivolume works, was similarly prolific. His best-known texts are Transvesitten (1941 [1910], in which he coined the term transvestism), Sexual Pathology: A Study of Derangements of the Sexual Instincts (1940 [1916–1920]), and the massive Geschlechtskunde [Sexual knowledge] (1926–1930).

The return of sexual science as a popular and potent cultural force was instigated in the late 1940s by Alfred C. Kinsey, who conducted detailed interviews with over 18,000 subjects about their sexual practices and experiences. Kinsey's findings, which he published in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), upset American conceptions about actual sexual practice, including the rate of premarital, extramarital, and homosexual activity. Other well-known sexologists of the second half of the twentieth century include William H. Masters and Virginia Johnson, John Gagnon and William Simon, Helen Singer Kaplan, and Anne Fausto-Sterling.


Among early sexologists Hirschfeld and Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) (a student of Freud's) regarded sexology as an opportunity for promoting social change, whereas others stressed the status of the field as a pure, rational science. That early discrepancy signifies the conflict between natural and cultural scientists that has had a great impact on the larger scientific community but also speaks to the persistently fragmented nature of sexology. Sexological study has suffered greatly from the European and North American silence surrounding sex, and sexologists have lamented the fact that their work often is considered laughable or perverted. Kinsey's loss of funding for his research during the McCarthy era of the 1950s indicates how political shifts and the changing tides of cultural attitudes toward sex can have immediate and sometimes drastic effects on sex research.

In its struggle for legitimacy sexology at times has relied too much on its ties to the medical community and overestimated the importance of scientific objectivity. One critique of sexology involves its inability to account for the social and cultural forces at work in the construction of sex, gender, and sexuality. In the search for a viable market and professional credibility, sexology has generated contradictory messages, producing work that supports sexual liberation and in other venues safeguarding oppressive sexual and gender mores. Feminist and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (GLBTQ) groups and scholars have argued against the biological determinism advocated by some sexologists, instead urging an understanding of sexual and gender variation as social formation rather than as individual defects. The incorporation of race- and class-based analysis in sexological study has resulted in some cross-cultural and global work.


Bland, Lucy, and Laura Doan, eds. 1998. Sexology Uncensored: The Documents of Sexual Science. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Bland, Lucy, and Laura Doan, eds. 1998. Sexology in Culture: Labelling Bodies and Desires. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Bloch, Iwan, 1912–1925. Die Prostitution. Berlin: Louis Marcus.

Bloch, Iwan, 1928. The Sexual Life of Our Time in Its Relations to Modern Civilization. New York: Allied Book Company.

Ellis, Havelock. 1942. Studies in the Psychology of Sex. New York: Random House.

Hirschfeld, Magnus. 1926–1930. Geschlechtskunde: auf Grund dressigjähriger Forschung und Erfahrung [Sexual knowledge]. Stuttgardt: J. Püttmann.

Hirschfeld, Magnus. 1940. Sexual Pathology: A Study of Derangements of the Sexual Instinct. New York: Emerson Books.

Hirschfeld, Magnus. 1991 [1910]. Transvestiten [Transvestites: the erotic drive to cross-dress], trans. Michael A. Lombardi-Nash. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Hirschfeld, Magnus. 2000 [1914]. Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes [The homosexuality of men and women], trans. Michael A. Lombardi-Nash. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Irvine, Janice M. 1990. Disorders of Desire: Sex and Gender in Modern American Sexology. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Kinsey, Alfred C., et al. 1948. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.

Kinsey, Alfred C., et al. 1953. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.

                                          Emma Crandall