The Wellcome Collection has announced a forthcoming exhibition and series of events entitled “The Institute of Sexology”. It covers materials “from Alfred Kinsey’s complex questionnaires to the contemporary National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal)” and explores “pathologies of perversion and contested ideas of normality” to show “how sex has been observed, analysed and questioned from the late 19th century to the present day.”
The exhibition coincides with my own current work on Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin. Founded in 1919 as the first of its kind, the Institute was a place for research and social reform. Its activities included next to homosexual rights activism for example demands for women’s equality and birth control. These wide-ranging reform efforts and the practical services provided by the Institute –which covered issues as diverse as councelling for queer and trans people to marital advice – attracted many visitors, both from Berlin’s and from placed around the world.
But the success of these activities, together with the fact that the Institute was home to Jewish and homosexual practitioners such as Hirschfeld himself, was not well received by the conservative establishment and the National Socialists. In May 1933, it became the first target in a series of Nazi offensives that led to the infamous ‘book burnings’. These events, which are well documented in surviving texts, photographs and films from the time, show that in the early twentieth-century the business of sex research could be a dangerous undertaking.
We know today that the attempts of early sexologists to challenge narrow assumptions about how bodies should look like or how sexual desire should be expressed sometimes resulted in the production of damaging new norms. My project further turns attention to the attacks on both individual sex researchers and the emerging discipline of sexology. For these attacks show that real and symbolic violence played a crucial role in the emergence of contemporary sex research.
It will be interesting to see how the Wellcome sexology season engages with this complicated history.