Written by Westland Researcher Adrianna Xue

In the 20th century, some notable sex researchers were Sigmund Freud, Henry Havelock Ellis, and Alfred Kinsey. The three were considered the spearheads regarding human sexuality in this time period. Each of them brought sexuality forward in Western culture, and their research findings made significant contributions to how human sexuality is viewed today.

Sigmund Freud, one of the most notable names in psychology, theorized that sexuality began in infancy. Freud hypothesized that sexuality was naturally linked to the development of personality (Leiblum & Pervin, 1980). Freud’s libido theory viewed sexual impulses as instinctive drives. He believed that these drives built up and demanded expression and relief through the pleasure principle and that the ego kept these pleasure principles in check. Freud also named three principle erogenous zones that were important in the development of personality, which included the mouth, anus, and genital organs. These zones were associated with a vital need for satisfaction in eating, elimination, and reproducing. They provided the first important “irritating excitations” with which the infant had to confront. These impulses yielded the first experiences of pleasure for the infant, because they yielded relief after being tended to (Goodwach, 2005).

While Freud focused largely on the theory behind sexual desires and motivations, Alfred Kinsey and Henry Havelock Ellis were working to revolutionize traditional contexts of human sexuality within the institution. They worked to expand the range of socially acceptable sexual behaviour, while also legitimizing the existence of female sexuality. As a counsellor and healer who studied the sex lives of countless individuals and couples, Ellis wrote a highly controversial six volume series titled Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897-1928). Until 1935, the series was banned on charges of obscenity, and was only legally available to the medical professions. In this series he challenged the myths of masturbation, argued that homosexuality was inborn, and categorized female sexuality as more passive, elusive, and complex than male sexuality (Goodwach, 2005).

Alfred Kinsey’s research (mostly conducted through large scale sexual behaviour surveys in the USA) helped to further legitimize many aspects of Ellis’s work (Kinsey et al., 1948). Kinsey researched what society considered “normal” in contrast to how people actually behaved. However initially, he only looked at male sexual behaviour. In a society where oral sex was considered offensive, and moralists rigidly policed sexual behaviour, Kinsey discovered some shocking findings. His observations concluded that premarital sex, bestiality, and homosexuality were all part of a secret or hidden fabric of American life, and was actually happening regularly behind close doors. (Brown, 2004). Kinsey also reported a significant amount of male sexual dysfunction, and discovered that half of all males surveyed had at least one homosexual experience to orgasm. (Goodwach, 2005).

After publishing Sexual Behaviour of the Human Male, Kinsey eventually presented data on female sexual behaviour. He published Sexual Behaviour of the Human Female, which was received with substantially more controversy. He found that more than 60% of women had masturbated, over 50% had premarital sex, and 25% had engaged in extramarital sex (Kinsey et al., 1953). As Kinsey’s researched trickled into the public domain, female and male sexual behaviours and difficulties began to become more normalized. Kinsey had also confirmed what Freud and Ellis reported; sexuality is visible during infancy and early childhood, and that sexuality is able to take on many forms (heterosexual, homosexual, voyeuristic, oral, anal, etc.) (Brecher, 1969, p. 135).

The findings of Freud, Ellis and Kinsey have pushed contemporary psychologists to pursue questions of the nature of sexuality further, and how it is altered by biology and society.
In Part 3 of Sexuality: A Brief Overview and History, we look at the work of other influential researchers such as Masters and Johnson and Helen Kaplan, and how their efforts pushed our understanding of sexuality to a more modern day, contemporary place.


Works Cited:

Brecher, Edward M. The Sex Researchers Expanded Edition. San Francisco, CA: Specific Press.

Goodwach, R. 2005. Sex Therapy: Historical Evolution, Current Practice. Part I. ANZJFT, 26(3), 155–164.

Kinsey, A., Pomeroy, W., Martin, C. & Gebhard, P., 1953. Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female. Philadelphia, SA: Indiana University Press.

Leiblum, S. & Pervin, L. 1980. Principles and Practice of Sex Therapy. Guilford, NY: The Guilford Press.