Special guest post from Averill’s Sex in Modern History class Honors student

Written and researched by Trey Catalano


In the late 19th century, scientists were beginning to explore a groundbreaking field of science dubbed “Sexology.” This new area of study combined psychology, biology, and other natural sciences as a way to explore human sexuality in a more concrete and discernable manner. Sexologists, or those who studied sexology, clearly understood the importance of this topic as they sought to formalize the complex workings of human thought and physiology.

But not all of sexology was so cut and dry. While the works of some sexologists truly sought to further an understanding of human sexuality, the works of sexologists were liable to disparage same-sex desiring people and other marginalized communities. Patients could be confined to asylums or misrepresented so their stories were warped beyond recognition in order to conform with scientific theories and reports. Their patients were slandered, and while some may have found solace in these writings, they still faced a society that held great disdain and bigotry towards anyone who violated important sexual norms.

In order to better understand the impact of this field, today’s podcast will discuss two of the most prominent sexologists, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis. Their contributions to the field of sexology were monumental as they tackled stigma and voiced countless controversial theories that radically altered perceptions of sexuality. Their works can be better understood and represented through Radclyffe Hall’s novel, The Well of Loneliness, a book that you could honestly call a lengthy dissertation on sexology. While the title (and the work as whole to be quite honest) may sound depressing, I can assure you that this story was monumental in advancing an understanding of same sex desiring individuals of the time.

I’m Trey, and I’ll be your host as we explore the world of sexology during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

*Insert cool music and shovel sounds here*

Starting with the guy whose name I’m still not sure I can pronounce correctly, Richard von Krafft-Ebing was born in 1840 in Manheim, Germany. As a student of medicine who specialized in psychiatry, Krafft-Ebing produced many works, but perhaps none more recognizable than Psychopathia Sexualis. Throughout its twelve editions, this work compiles more than two hundred case studies that demonstrate Krafft-Ebing’s concern with the development of what’s known as the “sexual instinct.” According to Krafft-Ebing, one’s growth from childhood to adulthood followed a general pattern, but certain degenerations could cause development to deviate from this natural course and create what’s known as a “perversion.” This perversion could effectively take the form of any sexual drive that did not conform to exclusively procreative sex: Krafft-Ebing wrote “With opportunity for the natural satisfaction of the sexual instinct, every expression of it that does not correspond with the purpose of nature—i.e., propagation,—must be regarded as perverse.”

Naturally this meant that same sex desiring individuals were targeted by Krafft-Ebing’s theories, and he would devote a considerable amount of his study to same sex desiring individuals. While Krafft-Ebing also dissected notions of sadism, masochism, and fetishism, his work on homosexuality bears the greatest relevance to our current discussions. During his initial writings, Krafft-Ebing was quick to characterize same sex desire as the result of a “hereditary degeneracy,” but he also named masturbation, prepubescent sexuality, and/or debauchery as triggers of the condition as well. Those “afflicted by this perversion” were almost certainly cast in a very negative light: of homosexual men, he claimed, “feminine timidity, frivolity, obstinacy, and weakness of character rule among such individuals,” and of same sex desiring women, he insisted “[same sex desire] may be suspected in females wearing their hair short, or who dress in the fashion of men, or pursue the sports and pastimes of their male acquaintances.”

At the same time, Karl Heinrichs Ulrich proposed his idea of an “urning,” a term that described a soul and body with opposing gender and was derived from Plato’s Symposium. This theory is entirely at odds with Krafft-Ebing’s initial proposals, causing the two of them to butt heads. Krafft-Ebing reported in one iteration of Psychopathia Sexualis: “Ulrichs failed, however, to prove that this certainly congenital and paradoxical sexual feeling was physiological, and not pathological.” So even as Ulrich is saying “maybe I have this an alternative explanation that focuses more on innate desires,” Krafft-Ebing’s initial classifications effectively said “hey, if you’re looking at the same gender and thinking ‘dang that’s hot,’ something’s wrong with you and somewhere in your life you got mega messed up.”

Can’t say I’m a huge fan of Krafft-Ebing’s first works.

But fear not! The forces that may be decided to give him something kind of like a redemption arc.

As Krafft-Ebing published each version of Psychopathia Sexualis, he began to receive letters from those who read his work and corresponded with the sexologist. While his work was initially intended for medical and legal professionals, its titillating content inevitably drew the attention of the lay person and inspired them to share their stories with Krafft-Ebing. By writing on the subject of sexuality, Krafft-Ebing provided a space for same sex desiring individuals to not only feel represented, but also to voice their own feelings and experiences, and be met with validation instead of condemnation. One of his correspondents went so far as to write, “Reading your work has warmed my heart; after all, contempt hurts, especially when one deserves only pity instead.”

 In what now seems like common sense, Krafft-Ebing effectively reported those correspondences as they were written, employing something akin to a taxidermical approach to these new case studies. With each progressive variation, Krafft-Ebing’s understanding of homosexuality fell more into the categorization that Ulrich proposed. By his final edition, Krafft-Ebing seemed to abandon (or at least deemphasize) his pathological approach to homosexuality and championed a considerably radical view that same sex desire “may proceed with the same harmony and satisfying influence as in the normally disposed.”

Yeah that quote doesn’t really sit right with me either, but hey, he was trying to say that homosexual individuals shouldn’t be punished for their intrinsic sexual desires, and I can definitely get on board with that.

So what does Krafft-Ebing do for our insights on sexology? Well firstly, he pretty much pioneered the field. Sure there were some folks who came before him, but Krafft-Ebing was the definitive authority on this subject for years. Organized and written for scientific purposes, sexology without Krafft-Ebing is like physics without Albert Einstein (I think – still not sure how physics works to be totally honest). As mentioned before, Krafft-Ebing also provided an outlet for same sex desiring people to see and be seen, which was an impressive feat for the late nineteenth century and will become especially relevant for our discussion of The Well of Loneliness.

Of course, Krafft-Ebing is not without his faults. This early venture into the world of sexology failed to sufficiently acknowledge the intersectionality of gender, class, and race, and was clearly presented through the eyes of a bourgeois male. This was due in part to the social mores of the time, and Oosterhuis acknowledges the class disparities in his evaluation of Krafft-Ebing’s work, but it cannot separate the fact that Krafft-Ebing was writing from a position as an educated male in a time where masturbation was laid out as a punishable sin and rape was just “male aggression.” Thus, Krafft-Ebing’s work presents a dilemma as it simultaneously paved the way for future sexologists and LGBTQIA+ advocates while also providing the foundation for intolerance as he labeled sexual desires “pathological perversions.”

We interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring you a random fun fact: there’s a movie with the same name of Krafft-Ebing’s seminal work Psychopathia Sexualis. I watched the trailer on YouTube and I gotta say it looks like one of the weirdest horror movies I’ve ever seen. Do what you will with this information.

While it pains me to move away from the guy with a super fun name to pronounce, I’m delighted to introduce Havelock Ellis, our next superstar sexologist. Ellis was a precocious youth, born in England in 1859. He was well known for reading and learning as much as he could possibly get his hands on. Ellis also traveled with his father, a ship captain, across the seas – but when a doctor determined that the climate of India would be too much for sixteen-year-old Ellis, he took up temporary residence in Australia. It was here that he resolved to study human sexuality, a determination that helped mold his intellectual curiosity and compel him to walk the path of a sexologist.

At twenty-one, Ellis enrolled in medical school, although that was far from his only involvement – after seven years, he completed his medical degree while dabbling in writing and politics. Ellis married Edith Lees, but this marriage was distinct from others of the time in the four vows the bride and groom made: firstly, that each would be economically independent; second, that there would be “complete mutual frankness” between them; third, that they would not live permanently under the same roof; and finally, that they would have no children. The reason for these peculiar vows was that Lees was a lesbian, and Ellis possibly impotent – thus, a marriage of necessity, not love, was the foundation for their relationship.

But it was also precisely this marriage that further compelled Ellis to study sexology. Driven by his lack of comprehension on the subject, Ellis began an objective and scientific study of homosexuality and sexual classification in general. Encompassing a broad swathe of topics, Studies in the Psychology of Sex was eventually a seven-volume behemoth that strove to analyze everything from modesty to sexual impulse to masturbation to menstruation – but of course, our focus lies primarily on the content related to the notion of “sexual inversion.” Mirroring Ulrich’s concept of an urning, Ellis’ work on inversion and “sexual inverts” effectively asserts that one’s sexuality was an inborn (or at least primarily inborn) reversal of their outward gender. He writes in volume two of Studies in the Psychology of Sex “Sexual inversion, therefore, remains a congenital anomaly, to be classed with other congenital abnormalities which have psychic concomitants. At the very least such congenital abnormality usually exists as a predisposition to inversion. It is probable that many persons go through the world with a congenital predisposition to inversion which always remains latent and unroused; in others the instinct is so strong that it forces its own way in spite of all obstacles; in others, again, the predisposition is weaker, and a powerful exciting cause plays the predominant part.”

Ellis also made further clarifications on this idea of a predisposition to sexual inversion: “When early masturbation is a factor in producing sexual inversion it usually operates in the manner I have indicated, the repulsion for normal coitus helping to furnish a soil on which the inverted impulse may develop unimpeded.” Ellis also writes specifically on the case of a woman’s sexual inversion, most likely motivated by his wife’s experiences, and he observes that, “In my study of inversion I have found that ignorance and the same absence of tradition are probably factors in the prevalence of homosexual tendencies among women.” So we’re still seeing some lingering notions of external influences on one’s sexuality, but Ellis is making the new assertion that there is such importance of this natural predisposition that external influences are merely relegated as “factors.” Summarizing his findings, Ellis states, “It must always be remembered that profoundly rooted organic impulses cannot be effectually combated by direct methods.”

Wow. Still not quite a modern understanding of sexuality, but definitely one that was challenging societal presumptions at the time. In fact, it challenged them so much that Ellis’ work was banned in Europe and only available to medical professionals in America. And that definitely makes sense – not only was Ellis’ work sexually charged, but he also mentioned that it was likely many people held that congenital predisposition for same sex desire, but it merely went unaroused. Authorities of the time could not have been too pleased with such an assertion.

So again, what does Ellis do for our discussions of sexology? As another pioneer of the field, Ellis took those first steps towards realizing that human sexuality was deeply impacted by genetic and biological influences. By viewing sexual activity as the healthy and natural expression of love, Ellis sought to dissipate the fear and ignorance that characterized many people’s attitudes toward human sexuality. Even with a lack of outward, positive public reception, Ellis made much needed arguments like “same sex desiring people don’t just wake up and choose their sexuality.” Much like Krafft-Ebing’s works, we can derive significant modern criticisms of the proposals and theories found in Ellis’ work, but for his time, Ellis took risks and proposed concepts that would lay the foundation for a more refined future understanding of same sex desire.

Understanding these theories in the field of sexology is imperative to a proper understanding of Radclyffe Hall’s work The Well of Loneliness. A bit of background on the author, Hall was born to a wealthy father in England in 1880. During her life, Hall began to identify as a “congenital invert,” highlighting the prevalence of Krafft-Ebing and Ellis’ work during the late nineteenth century. She would spend most of her twenties pursuing women who she would lose to marriage before falling in love with Mabel Batten. Batten introduced Hall to lesbian society and helped facilitate a number of the experiences that Hall would describe in The Well of Loneliness. After Batten’s death (she was twenty seven years older than Hall), a younger woman named Una Troubridge stole Hall’s heart, and after Troubridge separated from her husband, she moved in with Hall. The two had an… interesting relationship. Hall had an affair with a nurse, much to the dismay of Troubridge, but it was short lived – Hall passed away soon after their affair began in 1943.

Hall’s literary career was extensive, writing on the taboo subject of same sex desiring women in the early twentieth century. The Well of Loneliness is one of her most recognizable works. It follows Stephen Gordon, a woman who follows many of the trends of Hall’s life. Stephen and her experiences reflect many of the theories on sexual inversion put forth by Krafft-Ebing and Ellis.


Ellis, Havelock. Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Watford: The Univ. Press, 1900.

Hall, Radclyffe. The Well of Loneliness, 1928. http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0609021h.html.

Kennedy, Hubert. “Research and Commentaries on Richard Von Krafft-Ebing Nand Karl Heinrich Ulrichs.” Journal of Homosexuality 42, no. 1 (2002): 165–78. https://doi.org/10.1300/j082v42n01_09.

“Psychopathia Sexualis : Richard Von Krafft-Ebing : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming.” Internet Archive, January 1, 1894. https://archive.org/details/PsychopathiaSexualis1000006945/page/n205/mode/2up?q=.

S., H. “Book Review:Studies in the Psychology of Sex. Vol. I., Sexual Inversion. Havelock Ellis; An Unknown People. Edward Carpenter.” Ethics 9, no. 2 (1899): 261. https://doi.org/10.1086/205690.


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