Global Developments: Tracing the Entangled Histories of Sexual Science and Anthropology   

In October 2018 our PIs Kate Fisher and Jana Funke gave the paper “Global Developments: Tracing the Entangled Histories of Sexual Science and Anthropology” at our project conference Sexology and Development: Exploring the Global History of the Sexual Sciences.


Scholars interested in locating the origins of sexual science tend to focus either on psychiatric and forensic medicine or on homophile movements, largely in Western Europe. In both accounts, sexual science tends to be presented as a largely Western European field of debate that increasingly opens out towards the global in the early twentieth century, when German dermatologist Iwan Bloch called, in 1906, for sexologists to ‘leave the hospital’ and go on a ‘journey around the world’. Bloch urged scientists to take the manifestations of human sexuality around the globe into account to produce a knowledge of sexuality shaped by a full understanding of the entire nature of mankind and human development. This call for a more global sexual science is important in that it reveals how early twentieth-century Western European sexual scientists thought about themselves and the development of their field. Yet, the account provided by Bloch and his contemporaries of the development of sexual science as a predominately medical field involving mainly Western European actors that then opens out towards the global in the early twentieth century obscures the ways in which attempts to understand human sexuality were intimately connected to broader narratives of human development and concerns with race and empire from the very start. Indeed, accepting the idea that modern constructions of sexuality only sought to locate human sexuality within broader global understandings of human development later on in the development of sexual science is to miss the importance of nineteenth-century discourses, like anthropology, that sought to make sense of sex by mapping sexual customs and behaviours around the world, conceptualising the nature of social structures and their function, debating the nature of civilization and social development, insisting on racial and cultural differences, or linking patterns of human progress with manifestations in the natural world. It is to assume that these ways of thinking about sex and civilization were entirely divorced from the sexual scientific construction of modern sexuality and did not play a part in the deliberations of psychiatric sexologists or homophile activists.  

This paper works towards an alternative history of the development of sexual science by exploring the links between non-psychiatric discourses around sex, especially anthropological and ethnographic debates, and medically oriented debates in the English- and German-speaking world. It asks what the history of the emergence of modern sexuality looks like once we bring into focus additional nineteenth-century writing about sex, especially within anthropology and related fields such as ethnography and racial science. This approach reveals global encounters and forms of dialogue that fundamentally shaped scientific debates about sex. It allows us to supplement debates about homosexuality with a focus on other key areas of sexual life, such as courtship, marriage or reproduction that played a central role in anthropological and ethnographic debates. Finally, it demonstrates that the sexological focus on the individual case or type developed alongside an interest in social and cultural structures within which gender and sexuality are lived and experienced. In so doing, the paper argues that the origins of sexual science are more diverse than scholars have suggested so far and that a global interest in racial, cultural and individual development as well as a preoccupation with race and empire shaped the development of sexual scientific thinking from the very start.