Women, Gender, and Sexology: The case of early twentieth century Germany
Drawing on the example of German women’s sexological writings from the early twentieth century, this paper makes the case for gendering the history of sexology, and outlines what is particularly at stake in recognizing women’s contributions. It argues that reconstructing the history of sexology through a focus on women and their ideas facilitates a more complex understanding of sexology as a form of knowledge and power. Specifically, it allows us to view sexology as a field of knowledge production built and animated by a diverse range of actors with disparate investments in the creation of this knowledge. Moreover, gendering sexology allows scholars to fully grapple with its imagined political possibilities for marginalized actors, in this particular case feminist women. As I show in this paper, at a time when sexual knowledge was unstable, contested, and quickly changing, some women saw feminist political promise in the scientization of sex. They intervened in the discursive melee to articulate new understandings of female sexuality and same-sex desire, criticize hegemonic expressions of masculinity and male heterosexuality, investigate the effects of war on sexuality, and insist on the fluidity of gender. Their writing on sexed bodies, subjectivities, and desires underwrote empowering representations of female sexual desire and new sexual subject positions beyond the masculine/feminine binary, as well as new forms of heterosexual relations beyond marriage and prostitution.
And yet, women’s sexological legacy bequeaths a complex and ambivalent legacy. Like their male colleagues, women’s efforts to understand and theorize sex through science were laced with cognitive biases and sociological prejudices that ultimately circumscribed the transformative potential of their ideas. The possibilities inherent in sexology in fact cut both ways for women: emancipating for some, inhibiting for others. On the one hand sexology was a site of productive disruption for female sexual theorists; on the other hand, it encouraged an exclusive and arguably elitist approach to sexual politics, specifically around the question of who was a desirable and valuable sexual subject. Indeed, one of the most difficult long-term legacies of women’s sexological work is its insistence on health and “naturalness” as the fundamental criteria for evaluating sexual actors and behaviors, a rhetorical move that has had incredibly ableist implications for both radical sexual politics and state policy creation.