“Enigmatical, Obscure, Incomprehensible”: Fluid Sexuality in Turn of the Century Sexology and Its Impact on Current Queer Discourse

Written for a History of Sex paper at the University of Auckland in October 2015. I will also be presenting on this and related material at the trans/forming feminisms conference at the University of Otago in November.

The turn of the twentieth century is widely regarded as an extremely important era for sexology and the formation of the queer identities we know today.[1] It’s acknowledged as the period from which we get the labels, categories, and identities ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’, and sexological literature and discourse from the era has a pervasive impact on queer discourse today. However, sexology’s relationship with homosexuality is more ambiguous and complex than a simple and clear-cut categorisation into the homo/hetero binary.

In public discourse as well as areas of academia today, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s homo/hetero binary dominates. This model, a “presiding master term” as she calls it, is one in which heterosexuality relies on homosexuality for its own existence and definition.[2] It is often interpreted as a strict, mutually exclusive binary, and Sedgwick does not question exactly how binarised this model is.[3] The model is still useful, however, in noting a particular shift at the turn of the century: “every given person, just as he or she was necessarily assignable to a male or a female gender, was now considered necessarily assignable as well to a homo-or hetero-sexuality”.[4] This now significant shift was the result of many smaller changes in ideological thought at the time: from deviance, to inversion, to finally the shift in focus from sexual act to sexual object choice.

Sexology initially discussed same-sex attraction and behaviour in terms of deviance and disease, in order to argue in the 1880s that conditions such as inversion, or contrary sexual feeling, were pathological and thus in the realm of medicine as opposed to law or religion.[5] This lead to the early medico-sexological position that same-sex attraction had two forms: congenital and acquired, as Krafft-Ebing called it, forms of antipathic sexual instinct. Krafft-Ebing also made a distinction between perversity and perversion: acquired antipathic sexual instinct was temporary and contextual; the determining factor was “the demonstration of perverse feeling for the same sex; not the proof of sexual acts with the same sex”.[6] He warned against confusing perversity and perversion, acquired and congential, and stated that there was “an immediate return to normal sexual intercourse as soon as the obstacles to it are removed”.[7] In contrast, congenital antipathic instinct stemmed from a pre-existing taint in particular individuals. In these cases, the ‘homosexual instinct’ overwhelmed the ‘heterosexual instinct’, a concept that prefigures later discourse on the subject.[8] Krafft-Ebing’s model of same-sex attraction included some notions of hereditary taint as well as influences such as masturbation and seduction. His model was one of morality, “the eternal struggle between a bestial sexual nature and the demands of civilized culture”.[9] This particular area of Krafft-Ebing’s thought was verified by Albert Moll, writing eight years later, who agreed that same-sex desires could stem from either hereditary or contextual causes. Moll however did not agree with or make use of Krafft-Ebing’s distinction between congenital and acquired inversion. Significantly, Moll expanded the contextual causes of inversion to include individuals who may experience temporal same-sex desires: someone “‘seized from time to time with homosexual desires’, even when a ‘heterosexual urge’ predominates within him”.[10]

The next major development came three years later in 1896 with Havelock Ellis’ Sexual Inversion. Ellis did not conceive of same-sex desire as pathological, and heavily questioned the notions of pure or exclusive masculinity and femininity, arguing that everyone possessed ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics, and that the proportions of these varied in individuals. Ellis also proposed a new distinction between inversion and homosexuality, in which inversion was innate and homosexuality was the result of sociocultural context (for example, rates of homosexuality would increase in homosocial contexts such as boarding schools or prisons).[11] This new distinction replaced the model of congential vs acquired in his work, as Ellis found it had “ceased to possess significance”.[12] Ellis already was questioning the usefulness of homo/hetero categorisations, calling them “scarcely a scientific classification”, instead breaking down his notion of homosexuality into two forms, one ‘strong’ and one ‘weak’, including men who may have relationships with women.[13][14]

Ellis’ work led naturally to the work of Freud, even though they worked in different fields. Freud built on Ellis’ work and took it further, arguing against the existence of congenital attraction, due to his tripartite model of sexual attraction including ‘occasional inversion’, a preference for same-sex partners under certain contextual conditions.[15] Significantly, Freud believed in a polymorpheus model of attraction, under which individuals can potentially desire any sex: “it is something which is congenital in all persons”.[16] This universality challenged existing thought around inversion: if the potential for perversion was universal, then there could be no easy physical indication of inversion, and as such an individual’s sexual object choice was unlinked from their gender presentation. Freud also introduced a distinction between sexual aim and sexual object choice.[17] Prior to this, sexual aim was inextricably linked to social and gender role – if a man’s sexual aim was passive, he must be effeminate – and was of equal importance to object choice in classifying and categorising sexuality. Chauncey lays it out succinctly: “’men,’ whether biologically or male or female, necessarily chose passive women as their sexual objects.”[18] By the turn of the century object choice became the focus of classification, and due to the universality in Freud’s model, the passive or active sexual aim was no longer indicative of social role. This is an important and large step toward the model of object choice homosexual identity we are familiar with today.

There is a link, as Chauncey points out, between distinction of object choice and sexual aim and the increasing use of the term ‘homosexuality’.[19] During this time the term’s definition also crystallised, referring only to homosexual object choice without automatically implying gender variance or inversion of the normative male sexual role. It is interesting and important to note that this shift occurred significantly slower for women – Freud explicitly stated that social role inversion was a normal feature of female sexual inversion in his Three Essays, the same work in which he unlinked social role from sexual role for men.[20]

Earlier sexology, when studying relationships between a ‘masculine’ woman and a normative woman, tended to focus on the ‘masculine’ woman as the invert, considering the normative woman to be performing her proper social role under the heterosexual paradigm of the Victorian era, as Chauncey called it.[21] Under this paradigm the normative woman, who was passive and “decidedly feminine” according to Hamilton in 1896, was fulfilling her expected social role by acting as wife to someone of masculine character – as if she were married to a man.[22] As such the ‘feminine’ agent did not challenge the heterosexual paradigm and was not a major subject of study until the late nineteenth century. It is interesting to note that this relationship paradigm described the ‘masculine’ partner as the ‘offender’, and referred to the ‘feminine’ partner as “the weak victim”, mirroring and potentially influencing more current discourse and ideas around lesbians and lesbian partnerships: that is, the trope in public discourse of the ‘predatory’ lesbian, and intra-community discussions around butch/femme relationships. By the late nineteenth century these women began to concern the medical profession, and Ellis stated “we are accustomed to a much greater familiarity and intimacy between women than between men, and we are less apt to suspect the existence of any abnormal passion”.[23] This is another area in which sexology’s influence has perhaps remained in more current discourse, or at least in which it can continue to provide an insight. Such ideas are commonly seen in tabloid-like news articles about celebrities, in which any pair of women showing affection are labelled “gal pals” and assumed to be friends. Headlines in such articles can read as ludicrous, such as “Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile”.[24]

Study of these ‘invert/normative’ relationships began to break down the heterosexual paradigm, as both partners were pathologised as lesbians due to object choice instead of sexual aim. The ‘wife’s role was no longer of victim but of active and complicit – however it was not until the late 1920s that it was ‘discovered’ that neither partner in these relationships was ‘playing the role of the man’ when a study performed by Lura Beam and Robert Latou Dickinson revealed that no lesbians in their study thought of themselves as performing the male part.[25] This challenge to the heterosexual paradigm served to highlight the shift toward object choice as the focus in classifying female sexual identity alongside male.

When considering sexology’s ambiguous relationship to homosexuality it is also important to examine possible cultural influences on the literature and vice versa – whether societal or medical shifts in thinking came first. Chauncey offers three developments in American society that he considers were an influence on sexological thinking: the visibility of urban gay male subcultures, the challenges posed to Victorian norms by women, both in the form of suffragettes and in women entering the wage-labor workforce, and the resexualisation of women in mainstream thought that stemmed from these challenges. Chauncey also cites medicine’s rise to ideological superiority over religion and law as influential.[26]

The entrance of women into the workforce led to a higher degree of social and economic independence, at the same time that marriage and birth rates in the middle-class were declining. In the 1880s onward this led to a crisis of masculinity of some sort as women were no longer reliant on men for economic support as well as other unrelated factors such as declining autonomy in men’s workplaces.[27] These challenges and the resulting crisis, Chauncey argues, led to a “sudden growth in the medical literature on sexual inversion” as a way to defend the existing sex/gender system and potentially stigmatise women who were performing a non-normative social role of independence as inverts and deviants. Ellis, in Sexual Inversion, quoted an unnamed “American correspondent” who stated that one of the reasons for the rise in inversion was “the growing independence of the women” and “their lessening need for marriage”.[28] Despite these challenges from medical literature, women in the early twentieth century were gaining more freedoms and experiencing a resexualisation in popular thought – likely due to the increased economic necessity of marriage. If women no longer needed to get married to support themselves, then there should be another draw to it: sexual desire. This shift occurred alongside homosexual object choice being increasingly condemned for women, likely again as a means to protect heterosexual marriage.

An increase in concern about gender non-conforming men is linked to case histories of queer men indicating existing subcultures which were increasing in visibility, especially in New York, and as early as the 1880s.[29] It is important to note that the men in these case histories were identifying themselves as part of these subcultures, a significant step toward identity formation, and that these subcultures pre-dated the medical literature about them – as Chauncey states, “[t]hey were investigating a subculture rather than creating one”.[30]

As such, it is clear that medical and sexological literature was not acting alone or in a vacuum, but was influenced by and even responded to shifting social norms. These areas of sexology in particular are worthy of note and study as they relate heavily to current discourse: heterosexual marriage is still viewed as ‘under warfare’ by the conservative right, for example, and queerness is still overwhelmingly thought of in the ‘born this way’ paradigm exemplified in the pathologisation and medicalization of same-sex desire as well as in the case notes and autobiographies in both Krafft-Ebing and Moll’s work.[31] Additionally, as current discourse around sexuality encounters more and more fluidity beyond the hetero/homo binary and indeed beyond the additions of bisexuality, pansexuality, and so on, such as the existence of “gay for play” men on Craigslist and the “g0y” movement, thorough analysis on the construction of hetero and homosexual identities and the fluid possibilities that preceded their dominance is especially significant.[32]


[1] I use ‘queer’ and ‘queerness’ throughout this essay as shorthand for same-sex attractions and behaviour; however it is important to note that this term is anachronistic and may often pre-date any queer, homosexual, or same-sex attracted identity.

[2] Sedgwick, E. K., Epistemology of the Closet. London: Penguin, 1994, 11.

[3] Brickell, C., ‘Sexology, the Homo/Hetero Binary, and the Complexities of Male Sexual History’, Sexualities, 9, 4, 2006, 427.

[4] Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 2.

[5] Chauncey, G., ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualisation of Female Deviance’, in K. Peiss and C. Simmons, eds, Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, Philadelphia, 1989, pg 129.

[6] Krafft-Ebing, R., Psychopathia Sexualis. New York: Physicians and Surgeons Book Co., 1932 (1902), 188

[7] Ibid.

[8] Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 429.

[9] Ibid, 431.

[10] Moll, A., Perversions of the Sex Instinct (trans. Maurice Popkin). Newark: Julian Press, 1931 (1893), 139. Quoted in Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 432.

[11] Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 433.

[12] Ellis, H., Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume II: Sexual Inversion (3rd edn). Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis, 1918 (1896), 83.

[13] Ibid, 87.

[14] Brickell, ‘Sexology’, 434.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Freud, S. Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, (2nd edn, trans. A.A. Brill.) New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing, 1920 (1905), 6.

[17] Chauncey, G., ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 123.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid, 124.

[20] Freud, Three Contributions, 8.

[21] Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 125.

[22] Hamilton, A. M., ‘The Civil Responsibility of Sexual Perverts’, American Journal of Insanity 52, 1896, 505. Quoted in Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 126.

[23] Ellis, H. ‘Sexual Inversion in Women’, Alienist and Neurologist 16, 1895, 142. Quoted in Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 127.

[24] Mailonline Reporter, “Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile as they celebrate star’s 25th birthday at Coachella”, Daily Mail Online, accessed 13 October, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3046645/Inseparable-Kristen-Stewart-enjoys-Coachella-live-gal-pal-Alicia-Cargile-three-days-25th-birthday.html

[25] Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 128.

[26] Ibid, 139.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ellis, Sexual Inversion, 261. Quoted in Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 140.

[29] Chauncey, ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality’, 142.

[30] Ibid, 143.

[31] Oosterhuis, H., ‘Sexual Modernity in the Works of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Albert Moll’, Medical History, 56, 2 (2012), pp. 133-155.

[32] “Gay for play” refers to men who self-identify as straight but submit Casual Encounter listings on Craigslist looking for men to have sexual interactions with. “g0y” is an identity claimed by men who love men but do not identify as gay, queer, or homosexual, and who abhor anal sex. For more, see http://g0y.org. For more analysis on the significance of non-queer identifying men engaging in same-sex behaviour, see Shields, J., Para: A Working of Contemporary Parasexuality, Auckland: Artspace NZ, 2015, http://artspace.org.nz/doclibrary/public/JenniferKatherineShields_para.pdf.


Bibiolography

Brickell, C., ‘Sexology, the Homo/Hetero Binary, and the Complexities of Male Sexual History’, Sexualities, 9, 4, 2006

Chauncey, G., ‘From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualisation of Female Deviance’, in K. Peiss and C. Simmons, eds, Passion and Power: Sexuality in History, Philadelphia, 1989

Ellis, H. ‘Sexual Inversion in Women’, Alienist and Neurologist 16, 1895

Ellis, H., Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume II: Sexual Inversion (3rd edn). Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis, 1918 (1896)

Freud, S. Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, (2nd edn, trans. A.A. Brill.) New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing, 1920 (1905)

Hamilton, A. M., ‘The Civil Responsibility of Sexual Perverts’, American Journal of Insanity 52, 1896

Krafft-Ebing, R., Psychopathia Sexualis. New York: Physicians and Surgeons Book Co., 1932 (1902)

Mailonline Reporter, “Kristen Stewart gets touchy-feely with her live-in gal pal Alicia Cargile as they celebrate star’s 25th birthday at Coachella”, Daily Mail Online, accessed 13 October, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-3046645/Inseparable-Kristen-Stewart-enjoys-Coachella-live-gal-pal-Alicia-Cargile-three-days-25th-birthday.html

Moll, A., Perversions of the Sex Instinct (trans. Maurice Popkin). Newark: Julian Press, 1931 (1893)

Oosterhuis, H., ‘Sexual Modernity in the Works of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Albert Moll’, Medical History, 56, 2 (2012), pp. 133-155.

Sedgwick, E. K., Epistemology of the Closet. London: Penguin, 1994