Applied Psychology

Famous Sexologists in Modern History

Feb 20, 2024 | By Jenna van Schoor

Philosophers and scholars have studied what we now call sexology for millennia. After all, sex and sexual behaviour are a core part of the human experience, so thinking and talking about sex is nothing new! 

However, over the last hundred years, sexology has become a formal academic field. For example, the academic field of queer studies that focuses on gender and sexuality with a particular emphasis on LGBTQIA+, stems from pioneering sex research, social change, and the resulting shifts in preconceived notions about sexual behaviour.

In this post, we’ll talk about some of the most prominent sexologists in modern history. Although there have been many contributions to the field, we’ll focus on famous researchers from the 20th century.

Iwan Bloch

Like many others, Bloch worked to depathologise sexual behaviour, as did his predecessor, Richard Freiherr (Baron) von Krafft-Ebing, the founder of modern sexology

Bloch’s main contribution was establishing a science that incorporated medical, psychological, and cultural approaches to studying human sexuality, which he called Sexualwissenschaft (sexology).

Magnus Hirschfield

Hirschfield was the first to publish a sexology journal, Zeitschrift für Sexualwissenschaft (“Journal of Sexology”). In 1928, he set the stage for social change by establishing the World League for Sexual Reform. This organisation advocated for legal and social equality for the sexes and access to sex education and contraception.

A true pioneer, Hirschfield started the first institute for sex research in Berlin in 1919. However, the Nazis burnt it down in 1933. Apart from his organisational efforts, he also wrote a doctrine of “sexual intermediaries”. This doctrine emphasised that human sexuality isn’t one-dimensional but allows for naturally occurring variations.

Sigmund Freud

As we’ve discussed in another blog post, Freud was a prominent figure in psychological research in the twentieth century and a founder of psychoanalysis.

One of his most well-known contributions to sex research is his theory of development, which focuses on sex drive and how it develops through different stages, i.e. oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital stages.

Alfred C. Kinsey

Kinsey was a zoologist based in the United States who began to study sexual behaviour after World War Two. Alfred founded the Institute for Sex Research and collaborated with other researchers, Wardell B. Pomeroy and Clyde E. Martin. 

One of Kinsey’s key research findings was that many subjects he interviewed didn’t fit neatly into hetero or homosexual categories. To share this breakthrough, Kinsey developed a scale to measure sexual orientation, i.e. one being exclusively heterosexual and six being exclusively homosexual.

Harry Benjamin

Although gender terminology has changed, Harry Benjamin was instrumental in sex research for coining the term transsexual in 1953. The distinction between “transsexual” and “transvestite” was groundbreaking then. He also published a book called The Transsexual Phenomenon in 1966.

Thomas Masters and Virginia Johnson

In 1966, Masters and Johnson published their research findings in Human Sexual Response. This research laid out a four-stage model of sexual arousal based on observing and monitoring hundreds of study participants. 

This groundbreaking research helped pave the way for a more grounded and practical approach to sex therapy. Masters and Johnson’s research has been popularised in mainstream media, in the hit Netflix series Masters of Sex, based on a biography by Thomas Maier.

John Gagnon and William Simon

The sexual revolution of the 1960s led to many changes in how people expressed themselves sexually, thanks to many political, legal and social changes. Some of these changes include the increased availability of the contraceptive pill and a counterculture movement highlighting sexual repression’s detrimental effects on society. 

As a result, in 1973, John Gagnon and William Simon published a book called Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality. The book argues that sexual behaviour isn’t biologically determined or universal. Instead, sexual behaviour results from a complex interplay of social and cultural influences.

Fred Klein

Fred Klein published The Bisexual Option in 1978, which shared his Klein Sexual Orientation Grid concept. This grid created a multidimensional system for describing complex sexual interactions by measuring sexual orientation and identity. Instead of being fixed, this system is dynamic, which means it can change over time.

Learn more about sexology in the 21st century

As we can see from the list of pioneering researchers above, how we approach studying human sexuality has continuously evolved since the beginning of the 20th century.

We’ve focused on mainly European and North American contributions to sex research. However, many more contributions from various cultures and countries form part of contemporary sexology. 

If you’re interested in learning more about these contemporary approaches and how sex and sexuality are being studied today, see our recently launched courses:

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