A Matrix of Interests: Freud, the Sexologists, and the Legacy of Greece

By Kool, S. | Akroterion, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

A Matrix of Interests: Freud, the Sexologists, and the Legacy of Greece


Kool, S., Akroterion


Sexology emerged in the 1860s as a new science that took sexuality as its main focus of investigation. Although it constituted a marginal field that operated outside the mainstream disciplines of psychiatry, neurology and biology, it grew rapidly in the years between 1860 and 1933, with writers from Germany and Austria being primarily responsible for the enormous proliferation of literature on sexuality. The matrix of interests that formed around this early science affords a clearer understanding of the concerns that led Freud, along with a number of his contemporaries, to reject the concepts about sexuality that were typical of the medical and psychiatric establishment at that time. Today, psychoanalysis has effectively displaced the work of the early German sexologists and the role that they played in the development of psychoanalysis remains, for the most part, unacknowledged. As a result, the use of classical Greece as a counter discourse to medical science in the nineteenth and early twentieth century has received little attention.

Sexology had already been constituted as a separate form of enquiry some time before the appearance of Freud's most important contribution, The three essays on the theory of sexuality (1905) and many of the terms that we tend to identify with Freud, such as libido, component instincts, erotogenic zones, catharsis, autoerotism and narcissism were already in circulation. Thus, far from being conceived in isolation, Freud's theory of sexuality was formulated in a dialogue with sexology. It has been argued that Freud did not sufficiently acknowledge the contribution of sexology to psychoanalysis, but this position has been somewhat overstated. As early as 1888, Freud mentions the importance of Breuer, Kaan, Forel, Moll and Krafft-Ebing to his work on hysteria. He also acknowledges the role played by Lydston, Kiernan, Chevalier, Ellis, Krafft-Ebing, Fliess, and Ulrichs in his formulation of bisexuality. (1)

Freud was both influenced by, and influential in, the early debates in sexology. His library contains most of the foundational texts in this field and many of these books, including Albert Moll's Untersuchungen uber die Libido sexualis (1898), Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia sexualis (1901) and Bloch's anthropological study of sexuality, Das Sexualleben unserer Zeit in seinen Beziehungen zur modernen Kultur (1907) were essential to the early development of psychoanalysis. Homosexuality was a primary focus of interest in both sexology and psychoanalysis and Freud's library includes texts by Ulrichs, Hirshfeld, Block, Eulenburg, Krauss, Rohleder, Carpenter and Ellis, all early pioneers in the study of homosexuality. The association between psychoanalysis and sexology is emphasised by Mosse (1982) who attributes the change in the way Block, Ellis and Hirschfeld theorised homosexuality to Freud. He writes:

Hirschfeld changed the manner in which homosexuality was discussed. Sigmund Freud was part of this group of sexologists whose work he knew well and who influenced his own psychoanalytic theories. Contemporaries were particularly struck by the simple, detailed and precise way in which Freud described sexual experiences, refusing to use Latin like his colleagues (Mosse 1982:239-240).

In turn, Freud acknowledged the importance of Hirschfeld's Jahrbuch fur sexuelle Zwischenstufen unter besonderer berucksichtigung der homosexualitat (Yearbook for sexual intermediate types with special consideration of homosexuality) in the development of his own theory of psychosexual development. (2)

These early German sexologists are seldom referenced except in fairly restricted domains such as the history of homosexuality. When they are mentioned they are often combined under the rubric of early sexologists, a convenient simplification, but one that distracts from the diversity of their contribution. The negative aspect of sexology has become a popular trope. Foucault, for example, characterised sexology as:

associated with an insistent and indiscreet medical practice, glibly proclaiming its aversions, quick to run to the rescue of law and public opinion, more servile with respect to the powers of order than amenable to the requirements of truth. …

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