Good Guys and Bad Guys: A Dutch Comment on an American Interpretation of German Sexual History

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More than four decades ago James Steakley, in his 1975 book about
the early German homosexual emancipation movement, opened up
a new historical research field. His pioneering work was followed by
dozens of historical studies about the late nineteenth and early twentieth-
century German origins of sexual science, identities, and politics.
Apart from German and some Dutch, British, and French historians,
American scholars in gay and lesbian or queer studies in particular
have contributed to the avalanche of publications about the ways
in which »peripheral desires,« to quote Robert Deam Tobin’s book
about The German Discovery of Sex (2015), were framed in biomedical,
politico-legal and cultural discourses and how these affected society
and individual lives. Next to the one by Tobin, many recent studies
enrich our historical knowledge: Robert Beachy’s Gay Berlin: Birthplace
of a Modern Identity (2014); Edward Ross Dickinson’s Sex, Freedom,
and Power in Imperial Germany, 1880–1914 (2014); Laurie Marhoefer’s
Sex and the Weimar Republic: German Homosexual Emancipation and the
Rise of the Nazis (2015); Andrew Wackerfuss’s, Stormtrooper Families:
Homosexuality and Community in the early Nazi Movement (2015); Scott
Spector’s Violent Sensations: Sex, Crime, and Utopia in Vienna and Berlin,
1860–1914 (2016); Clayton J. Whisnant’s, Queer Identities and Politics
in Germany: A History 1880–1945 (2016); Ralph Leck’s Vita Sexualis:
Karl Ulrichs and the Origins of Sexual Science (2016); the collection
Not Straight from Germany: Sexual Publics and Sexual Citizenship since
Magnus Hirschfeld (2017) edited by Michael Thomas Taylor, Annette
F. Timm and Rainer Herrn; Heike Bauer’s The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence,
Death, and Modern Queer Culture (2017); Kirsten Leng’s Sexual
Politics and Feminist Science: Women Sexologists in Germany 1900–1933
(2018); and Katie Sutton’s Sex Between Body and Mind: Psychoanalysis
and Sexology in the German-Speaking World, 1890s–1930s (2019). These works are more sophisticated than those of the 1970s and 1980s, and
they also show that perspectives have changed since that time – historiography
often reflects the concerns of the present.
This article is a discussion of the political agenda aired in one of
the works mentioned above: Vita sexualis: Karl Ulrichs and the Origins
of Sexual Science by Ralph Leck. My criticism of Leck’s book is stirred
by my research into the works and careers of two leading German
(proto-)sexologists, Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902) and
Albert Moll (1862–1939) and how they articulated the modern experience
of sexuality.1 Whereas Krafft-Ebing has become a household
name in sexual history, Moll’s role in sexual science is usually only
mentioned in passing. He is often depicted in a one-sided way as a
conservative and homophobe sexologist, whereas the contents of his
innovative contributions to the modern understanding of sexuality
have largely been overlooked. In the 1890s he elaborated the most
wide-ranging and erudite sexual theory, including biomedical, psychological
and sociocultural insights, before Sigmund Freud published his
Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie (1905) and Havelock Ellis started
his multivolume Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897–1928). Around
1900 Moll was one of the most prominent pioneering experts in sexology
in Central Europe, but his reputation was eclipsed by the widespread
adoption of psychoanalysis and Magnus Hirschfeld’s (reinvigorated)
fame as epoch-making protagonist of sexual reform and gay
rights. Moll in fact ended up in bitter conflicts – involving ruthless character assassinations – with both Freud and Hirschfeld about priority
claims regarding new insights and discoveries in sexology as well
as leadership in sexual science. Moll is an interesting case for revealing
some of the ambivalences and paradoxes in the development of the
modern science and politics of sexuality and the related conflicts and
rivalries. My problem with Leck’s book – without denying that his
scholarship deserves credit – is that such tensions are largely covered
up in a clear-cut black-and-white scheme of conservative repression
versus progressive liberation. His perspective raises some pertinent
questions about the fascination for and perspective on German sexual
history in American Gay Studies and Queer Theory.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTransatlantische Emanzipationen
Subtitle of host publication Freundschaftsgabe für James Steakley
EditorsFlorian Mildenberger
Place of PublicationBerlin
PublisherMännerschwarm Verlag
Number of pages25
ISBN (Print)978-3-86300-320-3
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Publication series

SeriesBibliothek Rosa Winkel : Sonderreihe Wissenschaft

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