Contesting the "Laws of Life": Sexual Science and Sexual Politics in the Early Twentieth Century

Contesting the "Laws of Life": Sexual Science and Sexual Politics in the Early Twentieth Century

Kirsten Leng

At the turn of the twentieth century, sex, its regulation, and its role in underwriting social order, were politicized as never before. Across Europe, existing ideological and legal frameworks were repeatedly undermined as a result of demographic shifts, geopolitical realignments, and sustained public scrutiny. In the eyes of some commentators, the hegemonic sex/gender system’s undoing signified deep socio-cultural—perhaps even "racial"—crisis, auguring nothing less than the coming of “sexual anarchy.” For others, particularly feminists, this “sexual crisis” represented an enticing opportunity to fundamentally reform sexual life in ways that would instantiate the progressive, emancipatory promises of modernity.
If Max Weber was right and the essence of modernity lay in rationalization, intellectualization, and disenchantment, it is perhaps not surprising that sexology played a crucial role within sex reform thought and activism. Indeed, sexological "pioneers" such as Magnus Hirschfeld, Iwan Bloch, Max Marcuse, and Havelock Ellis all participated within early movements for sexual reform. Within the slender historiography of sexology, however, the relationship between sexology and politics is rarely addressed. This book project brought together the realms of sexual science and sexual politics and argues that they were in fact mutually constitutive. It made its case by investigating a network of European feminists and scientists who maintained personal and political ties during the early decades of the twentieth century. While markedly transnational, this network is rooted primarily in the German-speaking world, which constituted the acknowledged centre of both sexology and radical sexual politics in the early twentieth century.
The book and its chapters are divided into three sections.

  1. Section one situates the interdependent emergence of sexology and sex reform politics within the intellectual ferment surrounding new sexual subjectivities and utopian visions for sexual “regeneration” at the fin-de-siècle
  2. Section two reconstructs efforts to realize these ideas through the creation of transnational sex reform movements in the years preceding the First World War, and addresses the tensions created by burgeoning efforts to professionalize sexology
  3. Section three examines how the First World War shaped the fate of these movements and their ideas

 

The epilogue examines the legacy of these developments for interwar sex reform movements. Ultimately, the book argues that understanding the histories of sexology and sex reform as mutually-constitutive can offer insight into how modern sexual politics became characterized by a "factual consciousness" concerned with empirically verifiable realities, and wedded to the espousal—and contestation—of purportedly innate, embodied truths.