The Sexologists Who Turned Sex into a Science

A new exhibition looks at the pioneering work to quantify and qualify sexual behaviour.

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Nov 19 2014, 4:30pm

​An artefact in the Sexology Institute exhibition. Image: Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library

​You might not think of sex as a science, but over the past 150 years a few intrepid researchers have lent their academic expertise to the subject others still blush at. They are sexologists.

Around the 19th century—when sex was still a pretty taboo subject—a few brave members of the scientific and medical community started to consider that this act was in fact a rather important human behaviour, and one worthy of study. This approach is the subject of a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London, "The Institute of Sexology."​

"Sexology is the study of and classification of human sexual behaviour," Kate Forde, one of the exhibition's curators, told me. "It really begins in the 19th century when various individuals—scientists, researchers, activists—started to legitimise sex as a topic for scientific study."

But with sex even today regarded as a rather personal and private topic, there's no singular scientific method that can attempt to quantify or qualify what exactly we get up to and why.

Havelock Ellis's graphs on male sexual periodicity. Image: Wellcome Library, London

It's a cross-disciplinary field; interest can be medical, anthropological, or even inspired by a perceived need to either regulate or liberate sex and sexuality. That's not to mention the role of artists, too. The exhibition tracks work from early pioneers like German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, past Sigmund Freud, through to renowned American sexologist Alfred Kinsey and researchers Masters and Johnson, and right up to modern day with the UK's National Survey of Sexu​al Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal).

So how do you come to any conclusions about a topic so vast, at once universal yet highly varied? From collecting ancient artefacts to archiving case studies, sexologists through the generations have attempted to gather data that offers some sort of an empirical insight into our sexual practices.

Nineteenth century British physician Havelock Ellis, for instance, produced graphs of the sex drive, with a book accompanying the show noting he was "keenly aware of the need to legitimise sexology by using a recognisable 'scientific' language."

The RigiScan at the 'Institute of Sexology' exhibition. Image: Victoria Turk/Motherboard

Perhaps the most arresting objects on show are "sex machines" influenced by the work of research team William Masters and Virginia Johnson. They don't look at all sexy; this is serious stuff. A "RigiScan" looks like a thoroughly scientific measuring device: a plastic box with two wires coming out of it. The giveaway is in the name: "It's for measuring the rigidity and size of the penis, basically," Forde explained.

A device for women has a similar function; the "vaginal photoplethysmograph" measures blood flow in the vagina as an indication of sexual arousal. It may not sound too appealing—and the usefulness of these kind of physiological devices has met with debate— but the exploration particularly into women's sexual pleasure is representative of the leaps Masters and Johnson made in the field. They were the ones, after all, to report evidence that women could have multiple orgasms.

Vaginal photoplethysmograph. Image: Courtesy of The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction

It's a physiological observation, but it had a strong social impact. "Why is this important? Well, it informs ideas around women's right to sexual pleasure," said Forde. "This is the 60s, this is the sexual revolution, this is when the pill is first coming mainstream; this is really vital to changing attitudes and perceptions."

In search of quantitative as well as qualitative data, Masters and Johnson observed an awful lot of sexual behaviour—14,000 orgasms, according to one bi​ography. Before them, Alfred Kinsey, an American biologist who started his sexology research with a "marriage course" for sexually ignorant students at Indiana University, was known for filming sessions between his team members and their wives. Throughout his career he collected over 18,000 se​xual histories, and work in this area continues today at the Kinsey Institute.

"The thing is, without data, without this kind of information, people can come up with their own pet ideas—often prejudices—about what's actually happening," Forde said.

Alfred Kinsey's lectures on "marriage" were popular. Image: Courtesy of The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction

And the political side of sex is no more evident than in the response to the research itself. In 1933, the real Institute of Sexology—founded by German physician Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin 14 years earlier—was attacked by Nazis and much of his work destroyed. Jewish, and a pioneering advocate for gay rights, Hirschfeld was in exile at the time.

We might think we're much more liberated today, but the study of sex has met with disapproval from authorities even quite recently. In 1989, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused public​ funding for the Natsal survey (the Wellcome Trust stepped in to fund it, and since then the project has received governm​ent funding).

In her curator's talk, Forde pointed out that there are still many countries where it's illegal to be gay and that, while we seem keen to regulate porn, we're less open about sex education. In the UK, MPs are still discus​sing a bill that would make sex education a mandatory part of the national curriculum; in the US, sex education is met with a fraught political and religious backlash, with increasing levels of g​overnment funding going into abstinence-only programmes.

"I think it's fair to say that the desire to legitimise the study of sex as a valid inquiry still lingers," added co-curator Honor Beddard.