Albert Moll’s Ambivalence about Homosexuality and His Marginalization as a Sexual Pioneer

Harry Oosterhuis*

*Corresponding author for this work

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The names of pioneers such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Sigmund
Freud, Havelock Ellis, and Magnus Hirschfeld, who carved out sexology as
a new scientific field, are well-known. However, others whose thought was
crucial to the field have largely been neglected. The German neurologist
Albert Moll (1862–1939) is certainly one of them. His name, to be sure,
appears frequently in historical works about sexuality, but his life and work
warrant more attention than they have received so far. If in the early twentieth
century Moll was one of the best-known experts in sexology in Central
Europe, his fame had waned by the time he died on 23 September 1939, on
the very same day as Freud. His reputation was eclipsed by the widespread
adoption of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and by Hirschfeld’s prominence
as an epoch-making protagonist of sexual reform and the homosexual rights
movement. Unlike Freud and Hirschfeld, with whom Moll was engaged in
bitter conflicts, he did not establish a school or activist movement. Nor did he
ever hold a university position, meaning that he lacked the opportunity to have
students and followers who might have taken up and popularized his work.
By the 1890s, before Freud, Ellis, and Hirschfeld became influential, Moll
had already elaborated the most comprehensive and sophisticated sexual
theory to date. But his innovative and ingenious reflections on sexuality,
including biological as well as psychological and sociocultural factors, have
received far less attention from historians of sexuality and in lesbian and
gay studies than those of his contemporaries. When his contributions to
sexology are mentioned at all, it is often only in passing and in a one-sided
and judgmental way. His antagonism toward the putatively enlightened and
progressive views of Freud and Hirschfeld have led many commentators to
highlight his political conservatism and regressive views of homosexuality
and to therefore overlook his more innovative thinking about sexuality. Moll’s life and works are full of contradictions, and they reflect some of
the ambiguities in the development of the modern science and politics of
In this article I highlight how Moll’s understanding and changing judgment
of homosexuality vacillated between three explanatory frameworks:
gender inversion, sexual object choice, and age disparity. Whereas the first
one had been typical of new biomedical theories since the late nineteenth
century, the second instead pointed to the future, and the third drew on
older patterns of thinking about homosexual behavior. Moll’s changing
and partly contradictory views of homosexuality were not only intertwined
with his ingenious explanations of sexuality in general but also related to
the variety of same-sex practices that he witnessed, his professional interests
as a private psychotherapist, his antagonistic position vis-à-vis Hirschfeld
and Freud, and his mixed feelings about homosexual emancipation and
the impact of sexology on society. I will demonstrate how all of these
factors throw light on the ambiguities of sexual modernity and may also
explain Moll’s eventual marginalization in sexology and sexual history, even
though his work now actually seems less outdated than that of some of his
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-43
Number of pages43
JournalJournal of the History of Sexuality
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2019




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