One hundred years of sexology


We can pose the question when sexology really started. Was the discussion on onanism the starting point in the 18th century, or came this science into existence on the moment of publication of Krafft-Ebing's "Psychopathia sexualis" in 1886? I would prefer even a later date, when the psychiatrists who started to discuss sexual perversion, broadened their perspective and included all sexual experiences, not only the so-called perverted, but also the presumably normal ones. Scholars, in the first place Max Dessoir, Albert Moll and Charles Fere felt clearly at the end of the 19th century that knowledge on sexual perversion should be broadened to the whole field of sexuality, and include the privileged forms of heterosexuality. Shortly after, Ivan Bloch coined the term "Sexualwissenschaft" or sexology as the science that should give attention to all sexual forms from all disciplinary positions.(*)

Sexology had of course various backgrounds. In my lecture, I will focus on some characteristics of modern sexology, their backgrounds and their contemporary place. I will conclude with some suggestions for another perspective and make a plea for a postmodern sexual science based on new fundaments and make use of a surprising text of early sexology.


The two main principles of sexual desire in Albert Moll's "Untersuchungen ueber die Libido sexualis" (1897) are Detumeszenz und Kontrektation, unloading and attraction, the drive and the sexual object choice. It meant that the new science of sexology would have its base in biology, the science of drives, and in psychology, the science of relations. Two other principles were well established at the time of Moll, the gender dichotomy and the idea of sexual privacy. The gender duality of male and female was central to Darwin's theory of evolution and was firmly based in biology and psychology since the late 18th century (Laqueur). Ideas of sexual privacy were central to political theories (liberalism, socialism) coming from the Enlightenment that separated state and church, and state as public and citizen as private. In most sexological literature the sexual dichotomy of male and female is assumed unless what we now call transsexual or intersexual issues were addressed and the same is true for the idea of sexual privacy. The perverts that came to the attention of psychiatrists had often made their interests public. They had transgressed from private into public realms. They were exhibitionists, fetishists who had stolen their objects of desire, uranians that committed the crime of public indecency or did not fulfil the social obligation to marry the writer Sacher-Masoch whose novels made his preferences public. The new sexology not only affirmed the gender dichotomy and beliefs of privacy, but also strongly promoted them.

The new points of scholarly research Dessoir, Moll and later Freud brought forward concerned sexual desire and sexual object choice. In the earlier work of psychiatrists such as Moreau, Krafft-Ebing and Binet, topics of research ranged from exhibitionism, fetishism or unrequited love to lust murder and vampirism. This early work shows still very much the thrill of the discovery of all kinds of queer sexual variations. Although these extreme topics remained on the agenda of sexology, their position became more marginal as the dichotomy of heterosexuality and homosexuality, and to a lesser extent of sadism and masochism, received a central place in the sexological literature on deviations.

Homosexuality became the pivotal perversion as the sexual drive was thought to be oppositional, the reciprocal love of male and female. Men and women with same-sexual interests were the most obvious deviants of this structure. Often, it was pointed out that the male-female dichotomy was in fact also central to homosexual desire. Ulrichs made a theory out of it. The male bodies of his uranians embodied female souls that lusted for the male bodies and souls of dionian or heterosexual men (Kennedy 2001). Effeminate men fell for so-called normal men, butch lesbians for femmes or normal women. Only for money or the lust of the occasion (drunkenness, boredom) straight men and women offered their homosexual partners a moment of sexual pleasure.

Heterosexual relations got a new impetus from sexology. Marital relations that had been often arranged by families and mostly based in gender inequality became influenced by ideas of romantic love, companionship and equality. Such ideals confirmed heterosexual identities.

Whereas in earlier times male and female homosexuals most often were married, the necessity of a loving and intimate relationship forced gay men and lesbian to identify as homosexual and to stop marrying while heterosexual identification became a public matter that was more assumed than paraded. The disconnection of reproduction and sexual pleasure that Albert Moll had argued for, meant a boost for heterosexuality. Instead of being fraught with anxieties of pregnancy or expectations of large families, contraception helped also to make heterosexuality more careless. But the sexologists, Moll and Freud in the first place, knew very well that the golden road to heterosexuality was not self-evident.(**)

This scholarly perspective on sexuality has largely remained in place during the 20th century and the sexual revolution did not change much about it. There have been some important changes in practice. The Dutch Theo van der Velde underlined the importance of sexual satisfaction for both husband and wife from a masculinist perspective. From another viewpoint, feminist claims for sexual equality made it possible for women to enjoy sex more and have more varied sexual experiences. They could depart from Victorian standards of female chastity. The standard sexual repertoire of coital sex seems to have broadened and become more varied during the twentieth century. Alfred Kinsey revolutionised sexology by surveying sexual outlets, not relations. He broke the dichotomy of homo- and heterosexuality with his seven-point scale of sexual-object orientation. But his focus on "outlets" brought him back to his biological backgrounds, and failed to break down the barriers between sexual preferences. He moved from biology to sociology and back again.

The main importance of the sexual revolution in this process of sexualization has been, as most sociologists agree, the adaptation of a conservative sexual morality to a more developed practice. It meant that the general population started to accept what it formerly had rejected but practised nonetheless. In The Netherlands, the movement was from rather conservative to more progressive attitudes. While the majority of the Dutch in the early 1960's rejected pre- and extramarital sex, divorce, pornography, prostitution and homosexuality, such practices were accepted by the majority of them in the early 1970's. But they did not act upon their more liberal morals. Youngsters may have started to engage more often into premarital and oral sex, and serial monogamy may have replaced eternal devotion, but physical and mental space for variety, experiments and public sex has remained utterly limited. The sexual ideology has largely remained defined by biological concepts of desire and drive, by a dichotomy of male and female roles, of love as the best qualifier for sex and of privacy as the realm of pleasure.

It is stunning to see that a traditional sexual ideology, notwithstanding the generally accepted idea that the sexual revolution of the 1960's brought epochal changes, has remained so firm in place. Slowly changing sexual cultures breed a sexualization of society that is more often rejected than embraced, and remains in the 21st century deeply embedded in an ideology that largely dates from the 18th century. Notwithstanding a general sexualisation of society, various signs in the political field even point to reverse developments of zero tolerance, higher ages of consent and stricter laws on sexual imagery in the media and on internet.


To create some changes in this stagnating sexual ideology, it is interesting to return to a concept that was developed by the French scholar Alfred Binet (1888), who not only invented the intelligence test, but also came, among other concepts, with fetishism. The idea of the fetish was of ancient ancestry, and mainly used in religious studies. A fetish was an object of ritual celebration. Marx applied the religious meaning to money, and Binet to sexuality. In a superstitious world, primitive people believed in the supernatural powers of their fetishes. The fetish was a prime example of their lack of Enlightenment. In a secular world, money replaced religion for Marx, and sex did the same for Binet. Fetishists had an exaggerated sexual interest not in a complete person, but in a part or an attribute of persons. All humans like in their beloveds their looks, special body parts, style, habitus, personality. But some people, according to Binet, get hooked up with only one part or aspect of the desired person. In fact, they may even give up the love for concrete persons and instead only desire specific body parts, character traits or inanimate objects.

Binet distinguished "small" and "grand" fetishisms, the first being still subordinate to the love for the complete person, while in the second case the fetish has become the only possible object of sexual desire. The love becomes an abstraction from the complete person and focuses on a small part or a related material object. He mentioned two different forms of fetish: body parts and immaterial objects. Of the first, he alludes in particular to hands, eyes, hair and smell while he gives very different examples for the second such as nightcaps, white blankets or shoenails. Binet finally applies his concept of fetishism on cases of sexual inversion and masochism. Rousseau's interest in commanding women could be an example of abstraction or crystallisation (this concept he takes from Stendal) of desire from the complete person to a special feature. While in "normal love", all parts and faculties combine to the symphony of love for its object, fetishism depends on an aggrandization of a particular point. Because of this specialisation, most fetishists will remain chaste as they have difficulty to put their desires into sexual practice.

An important point concerns the background of fetishism. Binet speaks of an association of ideas at a moment of sexual excitement as a possible explanation. An obvious example is a young guy who saw one of his parents put on a nightcap while he was in a state of lust. When he later saw an old servant girl put on a nightcap, he again became horny. Seeing a nightcap at a moment of sexual desire, made him into a fetishist.(***) Binet suggests homosexuality and masochism could be explained in the same way. But such an association of ideas between an object or body part and lust was only possible in degenerate people. Only pathological foundations made grand fetishisms possible.

Many psychiatrists took the idea from Binet such as Krafft-Ebing and Freud. Garnier en Havelock Ellis devoted special volumes to the subject. One could say that fetishism became a particular subform of perversion, as it still is of the paraphilia's. Instead of becoming the central piece of sexology as Binet had suggested, it became one among many aberrations. There may have been discussion on the different forms of and explanations for fetishism, but the topic remained largely on the margins of psychiatric theory and practice. Binet has set his mark in this world more because of the intelligence test, than because of his theory of fetishism. But let us take up fetishism again as a centrepiece for a more general theory of desire.

Contemporary approaches

While psychiatry nowadays remains largely silent on the topic, it has received renewed attention in cultural studies. It has become common place to define an author such as Georg Simmel as an early postmodernist because many of his interests fit well with this approach. Fetishism with its focus on "partial objects" is of course an excellent candidate for postmodern theorising and a new sexology (Dannecker 2001), and has even been hailed as saviour of theorising (McCallum 1999). Dannecker (2001:1¬79) suggests to pay less attention to relational and coital sex and more to partial drives, cybersex, fantasy, pornography and fetishism as new topics of sexology. While Binet and most psychiatrists since have put fetishism on a par with pathology and degeneration,

postmodern sexologists could see fetishism as characteristic of sexual life in general. The comparison Binet made of fetishism with masochism and homosexuality could quite well be extended to heterosexuality in the sense that all sexual preferences contain a fetish, or various fetishes, as their central element. Fetishes are not pathological aberrations, but the normal content of sexual scripts, and are sometimes more, sometimes less absorbing. Persons are not interested in the complete other, but in specific qualities, features or appendages of persons, in various clothes and materials or in particular situations such as cages, dark rooms or pissoirs.

From an epistemological perspective, McCallum has argued that fetishism overcomes the dichotomies of subject and object and of knowing and believing, and breaks up the domination of subjects over objects. Fetish objects are not dead (inert), but instrumental (152-4). They "provide grounds for sympathy and co-operation among subjects" (162). Fetishism goes beyond its supposed unreason that McCallum transforms into a "personal and passionate investment in the object" (154) which is precisely productive of knowledge. The dichotomy of subject and object is undermined by the investment of the subject in the object while the direction of domination goes both ways (151). Subjective identities are tied to the adored objects (168). McCallum is resolute in rejecting Freudian theories of lack (of a penis), and speaks of loss (157). I should prefer to see the fetish not as loss but as a way for subjects to conquer and get to know the world of others, objects and fetishes.

In the sexological field, the concept of fetishism might produce the following changes:

- The historical origin of the concept creates an interesting connection to more positive ideas of ritual and ritualisation and the possibility to depart from negative ideas of obsession and pathology. Sex is a ritual of pleasure, not a crazy act of lunatics. The concept of ritual moves the fetishist beyond himself to a group and to social celebration of beloved objects.

- Fetishes are about partial or inanimate objects and not about complete persons, and go beyond vague generalisations such as homo-, hetero- and bisexuality, sadism and masochism. It breaks down the hegemony of heterosexuality. Sexual desires do not fit into such a general category, and will appear to be very different also among straight people.

- Fetishes imply a specification of sexual desire that is more realistic than is the case with older generalisations. People don't go for "men" or "women", but for slender black women, sissies, handicapped people, romantic situations, boudoirs, for big dicks, rubber uniforms or being tied up.

- This specialisation forces us to think about new ways of relating sexually while older simplifying paradigms such as "boy seeks girl" or "girl seeks girl" will break down. The question of finding sexual partners with particular features and interests needs to be answered. Responses are already found in communication by way of the media and internet and in urban spaces devoted to a small variety of sexual tastes.

- The focus on partial objects creates a clear cut differentiation between love and sex as love is about concrete persons and sex about fetishes. The mixture of sex and love has led to an underevaluation of the specifics of sexual desire and the broadness of love. Love could for example well include to see the beloved have sex with a third party.

- Fetishism brings the cultural aspects of sexual desire to the foreground, both in its developmental aspects as in practices of sexual pleasure. Fetish objects are cultural because they are not determined by genes or hormones, but by words, objects and events in the social field.

- Fetishism is about language because sexual desire is aroused by specific verbal stimulations that go with practices of seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling, or awaken memories of such.

- Biological explications of origin are replaced by spatial answers for sexual pleasures. Space is as well mental as physical, and ranges from classes, books and internet to dark rooms, sauna's and kinky parties. Fetishes underline the public side of sex: they are often picked up and enacted in public life.

- Fetishes are about situations and moments, not relations and eternity. Different from natural ontologies of sexuality, they place the desiring body at the crossroads of time and space. Fetishism helps to move research on sexual desire from biology and psychology to philosophy, history, geography and social sciences. This movement is already going on for some time. There is a close relationship between academic interest for fetishism, all kinds of postmodernism and theorising on sexual scripts" (Gagnon) or "telling sexual stories" (Plummer). Such approaches may be more promising than biological research as Regan and Berscheid acknowledge in their book "Lust".

Fetishism has to do with changing sexual practices in a sexualising world. People do not abide to the evident forms of sex, but develop a variety of sometimes very complicated practices that may even loose their explicit sexual content as in s/m-rituals. This changing situation demands historians to understand the underlying processes. It requests of other scholars involved in contemporary sexual studies to change their focus from drives and relations to situations and rituals, fantasies and fetishes. It for sure means changes in the social and political field that have remained stuck in an outdated sexual ideology. It means we can rethink Binet and his concept of fetishism for this highmodern or postmodern world.

(*) See for overviews of the history of sexology Lanteri-Laura 1979, Hekma 1989, Birken 1988, Rosario 1997 and Oosterhuis 2000.

(**) See for these developments, with a focus on the USA, Katz 1995, Seidman 1991, White 1993 and Sohn 1996 for France.

(***) Interestingly, these events happened at the age of five. Binet (2001:77) completely neglects the remark that the young boy had on the second occasion an erection as if it was something self-evident.


- Binet, Alfred (1888), Le fetichisme dans l'amour. Paris: Doin; Pa¬ris: Payot, 2001 (with introduction by Andre Bejin).

- Birken, Lawrence (1988), Consuming Desire. Sexual Science and the Emergence of a Culture of Abundance, 1871-1914, Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press.

- Dannecker, Martin (2001), Die verspaetete Empirie. In: Zeitschrift fuer Sexualforschung 14:2. Pp. 166-180.

- Ellis, Havelock (1917), Studies in the Psychology of Sex V: Erotic Symbolism. Philadelphia: Davis.

- Fere, Charles (1899), L'instinct sexuel. Evolution et dissolution. Paris: Alcan.

- Gagnon, John H. (1990), The Implicit and Explicit Use of the Scripting Perspective in Sex Research, in: Annual Review of Sex Research 1:1-43.

- Garnier, Paul 1896), Fetichistes. Pervertis et Invertis sexuels. Paris: Bailliere.

- Hekma, Gert (1989), A history of sexology, in: Jan Bremmer (ed), From Sappho to De Sade, London/New York: Routledge. Pp. 173-193.

- Katz, Jonathan Ned (1995), The Invention of Heterosexuality. New York: Dutton.

- Kennedy, Hubert (2001), Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Leben und Werk. Hamburg: MaennerschwarmSkript Verlag (zweite, ueberarbeitete Auflage).

- Lanteri-Laura, Georges (1979), La lecture des perversions. Histoire de leur appropriation medicale. Paris: Masson.

- Laqueur, Thomas (1990), Making Sex. Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge Ma.: Harvard University Press.

- McCallum, E.L. (1999), Object Lessons. How to Do Things with Fetishism. New York: State University of New York Press.

- Moll, Albert (1897), Untersuchungen ueber die Libido sexualis. Berlin: Fischer.

- Oosterhuis, Harry (2000), Stepchildren of Nature. Krafft-Ebing, Psychiatry, and the Making of Sexual Identity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

- Plummer, Kenneth (1995), Telling Sexual Stories. Power, Change and Social Worlds. London: Routledge.

- Regan, Pamela & Ellen Berscheid (1999), Lust. What We Know About Human Sexual Desire, London: Sage.

- Rosario, Vernon A. (1997), The Erotic Imagination. French Histories of Perversity. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.

- Seidman, Steven (1991), Romantic Longings. Love in America, 1830-1980. New York: Routledge.

- Sohn, Anne-Marie (1996), Du premier baiser a l'alcove. a sexualite au quotidien (1870-939). Paris: Aubier.

-White, Kevin (1993), The First Sexual Revolution. The Emergence of Male Heterosexuality in Modern America. New York/London: New York University Press.