Lecture notes: Sexology, Uranianism, Theories of Inversion

By Dr. Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Stanford University

Sexology, Uranianism, Theories of Inversion

Introduction and context 

20th-century historian Michel Foucault challenged the so-called “repressive hypothesis” in The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (vol. 1, 1976).  Foucault argued that while sex was officially treated as a private (and often shameful) matter by Victorian and fin-de-siècle French and German culture and Victorian culture has consequently been seen as “repressed” in hindsight, this very culture actually found many outlets to talk and think obsessively about sex.  One of the most important developments, in Foucault’s view, was the scientific discourse we now refer to as “sexology,” the science or study of sexual behavior in humans.  Before Freud formulated his theories of sexuality as a function of biological and mental instincts and drives, the sexologists laid crucial groundwork for thinking about so-called “pathological” or “perverse” forms of sexuality.  One of the primary focus points for sexologists was male same-sex desire and behavior, which was still widely legally criminalized at the time.  The term “homosexual” [homosexuell] first appeared in 1869, in an anonymous German pamphlet by Karl-Maria Kertbeny.

Legal background regarding male homosexuality in Britain:

  • Buggery act: legal term for sodomy since the 16th century.  Under Henry VIII being convicted of buggery, “the abominable crime,” carried the death penalty.  During Queen Victoria’s reign, however—until 1861, when the law was changed—no one was executed for the crime.
  • New law of 1885 with notorious section XI, the “Labouchère Amendment,” assigned prison terms to homosexual acts between males, no matter whether performed in public or in private.

Lesbianism was mostly invisible in the eyes of the culture and the law—to many, such “perversion” in women (who also had a long tradition of intimate female friendship, which helped mask same-sex desires by interpreting them in this “harmless” and approved light).  Fortunately, lesbians actually flew mostly “under the radar” as far as 19th-century laws were concerned, but garnered serious legal attention in the 1920s, with the Radclyffe Hall obscenity trial. The trial involved her work dealing with a transgendered FTM protagonist in love with a woman, The Well of Loneliness, which she wrote specifically to provoke social empathy for “inverts,” and which popularized the cultural stereotype of the “mannish lesbian.” Havelock Ellis specifically endorsed The Well of Loneliness and wrote a preface.

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs  (1825–95) first coined the term “Urning” or “Uranian” to describe homosexuality and same-sex desire (in Forschungen über das Räthsel der mannmännlichen Liebe, literally, “Scientific Observations about the Riddle of Man-Manly Love,” 1864-65). Ulrich’s concept of Uranianism alludes to one (of several different) myths of Aphrodite, who was born from the Greek God Uranus (“Heaven”), who had been castrated by his son Chronos (“Time”) and thrown into the sea.  According to the myth, Aphrodite was born of the bubbling foam emanating from Uranus as he was thrown in, without the physical participation of a female.  (The myth is alluded to in Plato’s Symposium, in a discussion on Eros.)  This Uranian Aphrodite is also associated with loving male youths.

Ulrichs understood male urnings as essentially feminine, possessing a female soul in a male body.  He also developed complex codes for classifying sexual behavior along masculine-feminine lines, seeing receptive or “passive” sexual behavior as more feminine than giving or “active” sexual behavior, which his system considered more masculine.  In fin-de-siècle London, the terms and concepts of Uranianism as a scientific theory were widely known and understood to refer to male homosexuals.

Richard Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902), Austro-German psychologist and sexologist, wrote the famous work Psychopathia Sexualis (1886).

The Oscar Wilde trials in the spring of 1895 embodied a cultural and legal watershed that led to more censorship and legal prosecutions in Britain; many homosexual men fled Britain for the continent (especially France) during this time.  France and Germany were the most liberal countries regarding gay culture at this time; the modern homosexual human rights movement largely started in Germany and based its claims for more cultural, social, and legal tolerance largely on the work of the mentioned sexologists, many of whom were German.

Henry Havelock Ellis (English, 1859-1939):  In Studies in the Psychology of Sex, 1901, first published as Sexual Inversion with John A. Symonds in 1892, critiqued and modified Ulrichs’ statements, arguing for the concept of “inversion” instead: “Sexual inversion, as here understood, means sexual instinct turned by inborn constitutional abnormality towards persons of the same sex.”  Symonds (the “case study” included in today’s readings) had been Ellis’s patient.

Edward Carpenter (1844-1929): not a scientist but a writer and early gay activist, wrote famous pamphlet The Intermediate Sex (1908), modified Ulrichs’s ideas about “Uranian” love by arguing that biological sex and internal gender traits were separate and the mixture of femininity/masculinity in a person attracted them to someone who would balance out their own gender traits.  Homogenic Love is from 1894, one year before the infamous Oscar Wilde trial for “acts of gross indecency” changed the cultural landscape, but could not be published until 1902.

Discussion questions:
  1. What are some of Ellis’s major ideas and conclusions about homosexuality in the excerpts we’re reading?  How does this compare to debates in our own culture today—do some of these ideas still seem familiar?  Which ones/why?
  2. How do Carpenter’s points compare to Ellis’s (and what are they)?
  3. How can you tell that there is also a specific agenda (social, cultural, political…) in the ways these seemingly objective scientific texts read and represent homosexuality?

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Filed under Lecture notes, Week 3: Sexology, Inversion, Uranianism

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