The Historical, Theoretical and Practical Reasons for the Shift in The Model of Sexology



The Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality is devoted to a new concept in the education of sexologists. Historically, in both Europe and the United States, sexology has been tied to the medical and forensic models. The differences between these traditional models, on the one hand, and the goals of our Institute on the other are detailed below, as are the historical, theoretical and practical reasons for this shift.

            The traditional model of sexology emerged during the sexually repressive Victorian era, and was originally wedded to the field of medicine and forensic science, at a time when science was acquiring more authority and power, and the church was losing its hold. The Institute’s version of sexology is indeed very different from its predecessor, and is such because of many historic, theoretical and practical reasons. From the works of Kinsey, Maters and Johnson, and others, to the feminist and gay rights movements, the sexual freedom movement, as well as the humanistic psychological movement, the field of sexology has undergone an incredible transformation, evolving right along side with the people who have taken it upon themselves to devote their lives to the study of human sexuality. How the field has changed has everything to do with how society’s attitudes toward sexuality have changed.

The field of sexology grew out of the 19th Century historical, sociological, anthropological, and especially medical research of such researchers as Kaan, Westphal, Mante-gazza, Krafft-Ebing, Schrenck-Notzing, and Havelock Ellis. However, it was 20th Century German physician Iwan Bloch, who named, developed, and established the new science. Bloch’s contemporaries, some of whom were Freud, Forel, Rohleder, Eulenburg, Mioll, Steinach, and Max Marcuse, helped to further advance the sexological research. Magnus Hirschfeld, inspired by Bloch, advanced the field even further by setting up the first institute of sexology in Berlin, which came to be destroyed by the Nazi’s, who also burned most of the accumulated sexological literature. Although theses early sexologists recognized the need for sexology to be a multidisciplinary field that should include the socio-cultural aspects of sexual behavior, as well as the biological ones, they were primarily physicians or psychiatrists, and therefore, coming very much from a medical model that was one of pathology.

The medical books of these times include pages and pages of case histories of individuals whose sexualities were considered deviant to society. Many of them were forensic cases, dealing with sex offenders. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, a neuropsychiatrist from the Victorian era, author of Psychopathia Sexualis, a study based on years of forensic experience, worked compassionately with mentally disturbed “sexual deviates,” or sexual psychopaths, who generally received harsh treatment in the courts. Pathologizing these individuals turned them into sick people who needed to be cured, not harshly punished. Where they were once thought of as evil sinners, or possessed by the devil, they were now being thought of as pathological and in need of treatment.

 Because the disturbed individuals that Krafft-Ebing and others worked with either openly displayed or admitted to sexual behaviors such as masturbation, excessive sexual desire, homosexuality, fetishism, and sadomasochism, and little was known about what other people did sexually, these behaviors became associated with mental illness, and all were considered to be psycho-sexual abnormalities or diseases that required some kind of treatment or intervention. However, not all of the cases these early pioneers worked with were forensic, or extreme in their degree of pathology, even by today’s standards. Some were relatively benign in essence, the distress of the client very likely the result of their self-judgment in regards to, or societal views about, their sexual behavior, which had become at the time highly stigmatized as abnormal and pathological.

The humanistic psychological movement, which was blossoming in the United States in the 1950’s, was a tremendous influence to the field of sexology. Gordon Allport, Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, and Carl Rogers, are some of the individuals responsible for this new trend in psychotherapy, with which are associated such adjectives as phenomenological, existential, person-centered, and such concepts as self-actualization, becoming, and growth. This movement was responsible for changing the role of the therapist from one of pathologizing and treating mental illness to one of providing empathy, which served in and of itself as a form of treatment.

In the United States, there had been scattered sex research in the early 1900’s, but it was not until the studies of Alfred Kinsey and his associates in the middle of the century, that the field of sexology experienced its rebirth. In 1948, Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, a book that earned the respect of our nation as an authoritative body of information concerning human sexual behavior, and that many believe to mark the true beginning of the sexual revolution. Aside from legitimizing the scientific study of human sexuality, what this study did was give us empirical proof that human sexual behavior is indeed varied, just as Henry Havelock Ellis reported in the Victorian era, and perhaps without entirely meaning to, “normalized” such behaviors as masturbation, petting and homosexuality, and even to a certain degree, pederasty and bestiality. In its approach to merely report on human sexual behavior without attaching any moral judgment to the behaviors, it boldly modeled another way to look at our behaviors and sexual differences, as just that…merely behaviors and differences, a huge leap from the pathologizing of such behaviors that served as the primary theoretical framework of sexology in the Victorian era. This book showed America how we could be curious about our varied sexual behaviors, instead of judgmental.

            The feminist movement, gay rights movement, and the sexual freedom movement all played significant roles in the changing attitudes about sexuality, and the transformation of the field of sexology. A variety of books, events, and incidents both earmarked and added fuel to the fire of these movements Through Kinsey’s 1952 book Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, the concept of the woman as an orgasm-seeking creature came into public awareness. The introduction of the birth control pill to American women in 1960 gave women a greater sense of sexual freedom than any other previous contraceptive device. In 1962, Helen Gurley Brown’s controversial book, Sex and the Single Girl, hit the bookstores and was a huge sensation. In her book, she gleefully admits to having lost her virginity before marriage and encourages other women to do the same, making a bold attempt at relieving women from the age-old double standard. Maters and Johnson’s 1966 Human Sexual Response served as a direct attack on the double standard and discredited the psychoanalytic Freudian theory of the inferiority or immaturity of the clitoral orgasm as compared to the “vaginal orgasm,” freeing women from feelings of inadequacy and abnormality. Phillip Roth’s 1967 novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, brought the great taboo of masturbation out of the closet. Also in 1967, “Boys in the Band,” a play about gays, became wildly popular with straight, as well as gay audiences, and then in June of 1969, the raid of a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn in New York City, turned into a riot, displaying that intolerance of gays would no longer be tolerated.

 In 1968, led by Reverend Ted McIlevenna, the National Sex Forum whose aim was to educate health care professionals about sexuality, officially began as part of the Glide Urban Center in San Francisco.  The Forum developed the SAR Process, a much needed revolutionary tool for educating people about what people do sexually and how they feel about what they do. By 1974, it became obvious to the NSF staff and the sexological study team they had been working with, that an interdisciplinary institute for the training of sexologists was needed, and the Forum, of course, evolved into the Institute.

All of these influences have been woven into the fabric of the field of sexology as it is studied today. The Institute’s goals may be encapsulated into providing a multidisciplinary approach to human sexuality education, incorporating the fields of history, law, anthropology, sociology, education, psychology, art, and erotology, with the intent of alleviating societal sexual ignorance and intolerance, and furthering the sexual health and humanistic rights for all people. The basic sexual rights are the freedom of any sexual thought, fantasy, or desire, the right to sexual entertainment, the right not to be exposed to sexual material or behavior, the right to sexual self-determination, the right of any person to engage in any sexual activity provided it is consensual, the right to be free of persecution, condemnation, discrimination, or societal intervention in private sexual behavior, the right to nonjudgmental sexual health care, and the right to control conception.

            Some terms that were once used to describe sexual problems are now no longer considered useful because of the stigma that became attached to them, often making the problem worse. The two big terms are frigidity and impotence. Frigidity in women referred to a lack of libido or sex drive, and included a lack of sexual desire, arousal, orgasm, or simply sexual satisfaction. A woman who was frigid became stigmatized as cold, unfeeling, and even unwomanly. Impotence in men referred to an inability to attain and sustain an erection. He became stigmatized as unmanly. The underlying assumption, that perhaps did the most damage, was that the man or woman was their problem. They were frigid or impotent. Today, in the treatment of such sexual concerns, we put the emphasis on the sexual difficulty, not the pathology of the person. These terms, however, are in some of the literature I explored on the uses of hypnosis in sex therapy, and so I will be referring to them




Allyn, David. Make Love, Not War. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. 2000. pp. 365


IASHS. History of the Institute. Retrieved April 5, 2000. World Wide Web.


Rogers, Carl. On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1961. pp. 420.


The National Sex Forum. SAR Guide:For A Better Sex Life. 1974


Von Schrenck-Notzing. The Use of Hypnosis in Psychopathia Sexualis. New York: The Julian Press, Inc. 1895. pp. 320.


Von Krafft-Ebing, Richard. Psychopathia Sexualis. New York: Bell Publishing Company, Inc. 1965   pp 433.