THE SEX RESEARCHERS
Brecher, Edward M. The Sex Researchers. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1969.
This book is an historical account of the lives and works of sex researchers from the Victorian era on up until the sixties. Brecher summarizes the research methods and findings of many known sex researchers, and some lesser known ones. The author also gives some insight into the personal lives of the researchers whenever possible, and interweaves his own perspectives and attitudes about the researchers and their work.
In chapter one, Brecher looks into the life and works of Victorian Englishman Henry Havelock Ellis (1859-1939,) namely his books Studies in the Psychology of Sex and The Evolution of Modesty. Brecher reports that Ellis’ main contribution to the field of sexology, , was that “he challenged the egocentric perspective of human sexuality that most people in the Victorian era had adopted,” offering the wisdom that “everyone is not like you, your loved ones, and your friends and neighbors,” and “your loved ones, friends, and neighbors are not as much like you as you commonly suppose,” a concept otherwise known as cultural and individual relativism.
The author describes Ellis as a naturalist, one who observed variant expressions of human sexuality, but did not judge them, achieving a rarely seen true scientific objectivity. He describes how in his personal life, however, Ellis suffered from the sexual blight he calls mid-Victorianism, “an inability to enjoy sexual fulfillment with the partners who loved him most deeply and whom he most passionately cherished,” which was the result of the sexual repression of that era. More specifically, Brecher postulates that it was due to the Victorian masturbation taboo that Ellis had a problem with premature ejaculation, of which one of his lovers spoke.
In chapter two, Brecher very briefly observes the life and works of Richard von Krafft Ebing (1840-1902.) In his book Psychopathia Sexualis, which Brecher describes as a “powerful and terrifying masterpiece,” von Krafft Ebing portrays “sex in almost all of its manifestations as a collection of loathsome diseases.” He is mainly concerned with fetishism, homosexuality, sadism and masochism, and postulates that masturbation is the cause for all of these “diseases,” making him one of the key people, in the Victorian era, responsible for spreading the myth of masturbation as harmful to one’s health. Brecher offers many case histories from von Krafft Ebing’s book, for the sake that they are not to be taken seriously, but that they make “fascinating” reading. He also notes that little is known about the personal life of von Krafft Ebing.
In chapter three, Brecher delves into the life and works of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939,) the founder of psychoanalysis. Brecher points out his love-hate relationship with Freud. He describes Freud’s theory on fetishes, that they are the result of a young boy’s frightening discovery that his mother does not have a penis, linked with his unconscious fear that his father will castrate him as punishment for masturbating or some other offense. The fetish becomes the object last seen by the boy before the sight of his “castrated” mother. Brecher also discusses Freud’s beliefs that masturbation, nocturnal emissions, and coitus interruptus could lead to neuroses, and that hysteria in women was caused by a scene of seduction or sexual assault made upon them in early childhood.
Brecher goes on to announce that although, in the beginning, like his entire generation, Freud did not perceive children to be sexual, he did eventually learn that they are indeed, largely through his own self analysis. Freud consequently devoted the latter part of his life to the study of prepubescent sexuality and its impact on adult life. (Brecher also points out that even though Freud considered his own discovery of childhood sexuality as one of the “principle findings” of psychoanalysis, in actuality Ellis had already published a series of articles illustrating prepubescent sexuality prior to this.) Freud concluded that all young children were “polymorphously perverse,” and that “perversions” in adulthood were merely a sign of immaturity, rather than a sin, a crime, or a disease.
In chapter four, Brecher considers the life and works of Theodoor Hendrik van de Velde (1873-1937.) He discusses how this prim and proper Dutchman and physician was able to present, in an acceptable manner, to his post-Victorian victims of Victorian repression, that there are more than two ways of performing sexual intercourse and that oral sex was not only enjoyable but a permissible preliminary to coitus. Van de Velde’s Ideal Marriage was aimed at legally married couples embarking on a “presumably permanent sexual relationship” and offered a much needed remedy to the delusion that “where affection reigned, sex would just take care of itself.” His book offered specific bodily techniques, including kisses, caresses, and thrusts, through which couples could “translate their emotional commitments into physiological responses and mutual, simultaneous orgasms,” a good prescription for some, but daunting and unattainable for others.
In discussing Van de Velde’s personal life, Brecher points out that he left his first wife by eloping with one of his patients and “living in sin” with her until his death. Their marriage, although unorthodox, appeared ideal. Although some of his research was done in gynechological exams, much of his research is suspected to have derived from his sexual relationship with his second wife. Van de Velde subdivided sex into four overlapping phases: prelude, love-play, sexual union or communion, and afterplay. He stressed that the man should slow down and tend to his wife’s arousal, making certain that she is engorged before moving onto communion, prescribing oral sex to achieve this, but avoiding bringing her to orgasm this way, naming that pathological. Brecher praises Van de Velde for “making at least some of the joys of human sexuality aesthetically and ethically acceptable to a severely inhibited generation in many parts of the world.”
In chapter five, Brecher explores the life and works of Alfred Charles Kinsey (1894-1956.) He credits Kinsey for introducing quantitative methods to the study of human sexuality, particularly those of counting and physical, noting that “some of the most serious errors resulted directly from this failure to use even the crudest statistical measures.” Had Krafft-Ebing, for example, used even a primitive statistical approach, he would have discovered that even sane people masturbate, and consequently would not have induced so much fear of masturbation in people. Brecher also discusses Kinsey’s systematical sexual surveys.
In looking at Kinsey’s personal life, Brecher unfolds that Kinsey was the child of devoutly religious, middle-class, and Victorian parents and that he began his studies in entomology at Harvard. When courses in sex education were beginning to be offered in colleges, Kinsey was asked to teach a human sexuality course at Indiana University, because of his respected stance as a biologist and his conservative nature. He set out to learn more about the field in his scientific manner, and turned up the most comprehensive study of human sexual behavior of his day.
Brecher also goes into depth about Kinsey’s interview process, and then discusses Kinsey’s conclusion that “it is probable that all females are physiological capable of responding (to sexual stimulation) and of responding to the point of orgasm,” and Kinsey’s discovery that female sexual behavior varies widely in almost all respects. He also discusses Kinsey’s perspective that while “premature ejaculation” may be a problem for the female, it is not a problem for the male, and in actuality may be a sign of superiority. Brecher reports Kinsey’s findings on homosexuality as well, and ends the chapter by discussing Kinseys findings on sexual behavior from birth to adolescence.
In chapter six, Brecher explores the lives and works of five female sex researchers. He justifies condensing them into one chapter by stressing that he considers their work to “present the most significant theme in the history of the scientific study of sex,” and that it would be watering down that significance to scatter their contributions through his book. He first takes a look at Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910,) the first woman in England or America to qualify fully as a regular physician. She never married, and spent her life practicing medicine, campaigning against prostitution and the hygienic regulation of prostitution, and writing about sex in Victorian England. She was not a researcher, but wrote primarily on religious and philosophical principles. While she believed that sex was not entirely evil itself, she did believe that a large part of sex education should consist of enlarging and intensifying one’s innate sense of shame concerning sexual feelings and acts, and that chastity strengthened one’s physical nature, creating a force of will, and enabling one to concentrate one’s intellectual powers on “nobler ends of human life.”
Next, Brecher looks at the life of Leah Cahan Schaefer, a jazz and folk singer turned psychiatrist, who wrote an unpublished thesis entitled “Sexual Experiences and Reactions of a Group of Thirty Women as Told to a Female Psychiatrist.” In it she showed how the sexual tragedies of the 1890’s were still occurring in the 1950’s and 1960’s, due to Victorianism, that in fact women born in the thirties and forties had been taught that sex, including masturbation, was a taboo except within the bounds of marriage and that sex was shameful, just as Dr. Blackwell had urged.
Brecher then looks at the life and works of Niles Newton, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology, Northwestern University Medical School. She is credited for exploring in a scientific context, the intimate relationships among the varied aspects of female sexuality. Newton reported that feelings of aversion to the breast-feeding act appear to be related to dislike of nudity and sexuality, and that there is a parallel between breast-feeding responses and female coital responses. Brecher reports on the oxytocin experiment that the Newtons did on Niles when she was nursing her second child, proving the let-down reflex in the human female. Her findings also suggest that in addition to coital frigidity and breast-feeding frigidity, there may also be childbirth frigidity.
Next, Brecher explores the work of Helena Wright, an English gynecologist, whom he claims had “an almost hypnotic ability to transmit this feeling of certainty to others.” Her first book, entitled The Sex Factor in Marriage, published in 1930, instructed women on how to masturbate and how to secure orgasm in coitus. She encouraged women to “sweep away the accumulated cobwebs of guilt and shame,” and to “decide with all her strength that she wants her body to feel all the sensations of sex with the greatest possible vividness.” Brecher points out that Wright’s contribution of giving women instructions for genital stimulation are unique in the field sex research.
Finally, Brecher discusses the work of Mary Jane Sherfey, who studied with Kinsey at Indiana University and became a psychiatrist and sex researcher. Her views on female sexuality are that human females are not at all sexually inferior, but that their sexual responsiveness and orgasmic capacity are in fact far greater than that of a man’s and it is a result of cultural restrictions that the human female does not copulate “all day long, day after day, with one male after another, until physical exhaustion puts an end to it,” as do their primate counterparts. Sherfey also is noted to have adopted Bachofen’s theory that women were forced to suppress their sex drives in order to withstand the requirements of a settled family life, a “prerequisite to the dawn of every modern civilization and almost every living culture,” a theory that Brecher admittedly does not buy into.
In chapter seven, Brecher reviews the broad range of scientific findings concerning gender and gender orientation, looking some at research done on animals, and heavily relying on the work of John Money from the John Hopkins School of Medicine. Brecher briefly discusses research findings concerning the six physical sexual developmental levels which make a girl a girl or a boy a boy: chromosomes, gonads, fetal hormones, internal sex organs, external sex organs, and hormones at puberty. He then goes onto discuss John Money’s major contribution to sex research, which was to dilineate three separate levels of psychological development that follow the six physical developmental levels: sex of assignment and rearing, gender role and identity, and choice of sexual partner. Money concluded that the psychological deviations of tomboyism, sissyism, transvestism, transsexuality, and homosexuality, and bisexuality are influenced primarily by the sex of assignment and rearing, but also on a more subtle level, by the chromosomes and hormones, and that more research needs to be done before we truly understand their role.
In chapter eight, Brecher considers the falling-in-love experience, once again considering research done on animals to enlighten us to our own animal human nature. He first looks at Konrad Lorenz’ discovery of the phenomenon known as imprinting. From there he looks at Freud’s finding that once a man adopts a fetish, he does not adopt another, and Money’s belief that quite possibly all sexual deviations are the result of imprinting. Next Brecher discusses Paul Gebhard’s belief that human beings go through a critical period with respect to sexual imprinting right around puberty and then he discusses Money’s consideration of the fortuitous conditions at the time of falling in love that could influence the imprinting of a love object. Brecher notes his belief that the falling-in-love experience is determined more by timing than by personal characteristics of the love object. Finally, Brecher looks at the work that Harry Harlow did with monkeys, “proving” the importance of mothering and childhood play in normal prepubertal development.
In chapter nine, Brecher takes a look at the sexual freedom movement and the “swinging scene,” considering how human beings behave when freed of inhibitions. Brecher lays out conclusions from several unpublished studies. One broad conclusion is that swinging customs and practices vary widely from place to place. A study of swingers in Los Angeles, done in 1967, by Carolyn Symonds won academic recognition. She noted that the swingers came from two disparate philosophical traditions: the “Utopian Swingers” and the “Recreational Swingers.” Dr. Bartell’s study showed how the non-sexual patterns of behavior are carried over into the Chicago swinging scene. James and Lynn Smith’s study of swinging in the San Francisco Bay Area was noted to be the most ambitious of studies on swinging which included a survey of 503 swingers. Many swingers claimed to have turned to swinging to help them release their sexual inhibitions that were a result of their repressive upbringing. Also noted was the ability that swinging has to repair damaged self-images and self-esteem, and concerning jealousy, the importance of “the feeling of being in control rather than actually being in control” in warding off jealous reactions.
In chapter ten, Brecher delves into the works of Masters and Johnson. He looks at their 1966 report Human Sexual Response, which detailed the findings of the human body’s response to erotic stimulation during both masturbation and coitus from direct laboratory observation of more than 10,000 male and female orgasms. Included in this chapter is an outline of Maters and Johnson’s sexual response cycle from excitement to plateau to orgasm and to resolution. He also considers their 1970 report Human Sexual Inadequacy, which outlines their treatment plan for couples with sexual problems. Brecher mentions various papers written by Dr. Masters dealing with obstetrical and gynechological topics. He also mentions the works of many of Masters’ predecessors in directly studying the sex act, emphasizing that Masters was not the first to attempt such a study, contrary to popular belief.
In the epilogue, Brecher spells out his belief, that as a society, we are in the process of recovering from the “sexually debilitating disease” of Victorianism, which at its essence views sex as “wicked, loathsome, and likely to lead to disaster, ” and results in a blockage of sexual response to “normal” erotic stimuli, and possibly leads to an imprinting to “perverse” erotic stimuli. Brecher talks about the disparity between those families still heavily influenced by Victorianism and those families influenced by the sexual freedom movement. He offers his distress at coming up with a solution for a sex education program in a public school system that is acceptable to an entire community. He goes on to talk about certain unorthodox therapy experiments, partly inspired by the life and work of Wilhelm Reich, such as touch therapy or nude therapy, and puts forth his wish for more such experiments and for objective study and evaluation of such experiments. He then mentions animal research being done in the realm of sexuality, particularly concerning the relation of sex hormones to neurological processes. Finally, Brecher considers several possibilities of what the outcome would be if children were raised free of sexual taboos and inhibitions, and sums up the book with his belief that there might be less bigotry, hostility, and strife, and essentially warmer and richer interpersonal relationships, and a healthier society all the way around.
This book is very unique. I have found only one other book that devotes itself entirely to considering the history of sex research, and that is Vern Bullough’s 1994 Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex Research. Bullough’s book, while more broad in its scope and more current, does not go into the same amount of depth in summarizing the works of sex researchers and steers clear of their personal lives, altogether. While both of these books are enlightening their readers to the history of sex research, they seem to have slightly different reasons for doing so. Brecher, much like Haeberle in The Sex Atlas, is strongly calling for change in our attitudes concerning sexuality, and he uses sex research as his vehicle. His book, written in the sixties, is infused with the eager spirit of the sexual revolution. Bullough, on the other hand, is seeking to educate people about the field of sex research and its many contributions. While he expresses his concern for the continued growth of the field of sexology, that it might become a more known and accepted science in our culture, he does not strongly weave his personal philosophy and biases throughout the book, as does Brecher in his book.
Brecher makes no pretense at hiding his biases. He chooses to illustrate research in a way that will help him get his point across, which is essentially that our society is still recovering from Victorianism and that the world will be a better place once we have cast off the last symptoms of this debilitating psychological disease. As he describes the work of Victorian Doctor Elizabeth Blackwell, he writes that she was “not a researcher in the contemporary sense,” pointing out that her “writings were based primarily on religious and philosophical principles—spiced here and there with anecdotes from her medical experiences with patients.” Contrasting this, Brecher describes Masters and Johnson’s study as “authoritative,” that “it was not based on speculation or random data but on direct laboratory observation of more than 10,000 male and female orgasms.” Brecher goes on to discuss how Masters and Johnson’s review of the psychological aspects of sexuality contains “the same scientific objectivity that they brought to the physiological aspects.” Clearly, Brecher is attempting to discredit Blackwell’s work, essentially naming it “non-scientific,” while crediting Masters and Johnson’s work, naming it “scientific,” which he knows is an argument that stands up in today’s society.
The most positive aspect of this book is its depth of information pertaining to sex research. The reader gets a really good idea of the work of many key individuals in this field. One negative aspect, I feel is Brecher’s attempt at giving the reader insight into the personal lives of the researchers, which he completely fails to do for some. And while the information is interesting, it seemed too ambitious of an endeavor and it diverted the attention from the actual work of the researchers. And it is still unclear to me what purpose it was to serve. I am in favor of biographies, but it seems unrealistic to squeeze in so many complex lives into one book. Another negative aspect was that Brecher did not stay objective in delivering the information. He responds at free will throughout the book to the information, letting readers know his thoughts about the matter at hand, making it “a very personal account,” as Masters and Johnson report in the foreword, “of what has interested him along the way.”
This book would be of interest to any sex researcher, or anyone interested in the field of sex research. It is educational and entertaining. It is a valuable contribution to the field of sexology. While it does either overlook or breeze past some important names in the history of sex research, such as Iwan Bloch, Magnus Hirshfeld, and Wilhelm Reich, and misses out on many contemporary researchers, it still offers so much depth and understanding of the field to our society. Brecher most certainly fulfilled his goal of both bringing sex research into the light of the sixties, and relaying his message that “Victorianism” is still afflicting our society, and that it is largely, if not solely, responsible for the psychological aspects of human sexual dysfunction.