Ellis Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Sexual Inversion was the first social scientific work to describe homosexuality in neutral terms, avoiding moralistic, legal, and pathological representations. The text was regarded as radical by contemporary sexologists because it considered homosexuality to be hereditary and normal.

Summary of Event

Western civilization in the nineteenth century witnessed the development, growth, and evolution of the social sciences, that is, the application of scientific methods to the study of human attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, emotions, and knowledge. One of these new sciences was sexology, or the study of human sexuality. The abstraction of human sexuality as a particular field of study presented sexologists with unique problems of categorization, and the study of sexuality led to the question, How are various forms of human sexual expression and identity to be conceived? [kw]Ellis Publishes Sexual Inversion (1897) [kw]Publishes Sexual Inversion, Ellis (1897) [kw]Sexual Inversion, Ellis Publishes (1897) Sexual Inversion (Ellis) Sexology Homosexuality;early studies of Psychiatry;and homosexuality[homosexuality] [c]Science;1897: Ellis Publishes Sexual Inversion[0130] [c]Publications;1897: Ellis Publishes Sexual Inversion[0130] Ellis, Havelock Symonds, John Addington Freud, Sigmund Hirschfeld, Magnus Krafft-Ebing, Richard von Kertbeny, Karl Maria Moll, Albert Ulrichs, Karl Heinrich

A variety of practitioners beginning in 1875 published their research and studies on human sexual difference and variation. Together these books formed the early fundamental literature on sexology. The core sexological texts included Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’s Forschungen über das Räthsel der mannmännlichen Liebe (1864-1879; The Riddle of “Man-Manly” Love, 1994), a series of pamphlets), Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia sexualis (1886), and Albert Moll’s Untersuchungen über die Libido sexualis (1897). The definitive sexology textbook, the five-volume Geschlechtskunde auf Grund dreissigjähriger Forschung und Erfahrung (sexual knowledge) was written by Magnus Hirschfeld between 1926 and 1930.

The late nineteenth century interest in sexology, however, was overshadowed by the early twentieth century fascination with psychology. Sigmund Freud’s voluminous groundbreaking works in the field of psychiatry, including Die Traumdeutung (1900; The Interpretation of Dreams, 1913) and his Vorlesungen Einführung in die Psychoanalyse (1916-1917; A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, 1920), attracted more attention than did sexology and diminished the overall prestige of the fledgling discipline.

In 1896, Havelock Ellis published his work on “sexual inversion,” or “contrary sexual feeling,” "Contrary sexual feeling"[contrary sexual feeling] first in German translation, as Das konträre Geschlechtsgefühl (Sexual Inversion, 1897). Ellis chose to publish the book in Germany rather than his native England because of the fear of censorship generated by the sensationalism surrounding the 1895 trials of Oscar Wilde in London for sodomy and gross indecency. British publishers were frightened to print any works dealing with homosexuality in the aftermath of Wilde’s well-publicized prosecution and conviction, regardless of the seriousness of the scholarship. Ellis’s decision to publish first in Germany instead of England would hold unintended consequences for the future of sexological research.

John Addington Symonds, who died in 1893, before Sexual Inversion was published, coauthored part of the work. Symonds’s death forced Ellis to complete the book on his own. Only the first German edition, however, acknowledges Symonds as a coauthor. The first English edition of Sexual Inversion appeared the following year, and it was published in London. It was privately censored and distribution was largely curtailed. A second English edition was published in the United States (Philadelphia) in 1901.


Previous works in sexology had dealt with homosexuality as a form of degeneracy and as a disease of the mind, or a psychological disorder. Freud thought that homosexuality was a stage of human sexual development and saw its manifestation in adult males as cases of arrested development. Others, such as Krafft-Ebing and Moll, believed also that homosexuality was a psychological and medical pathology.

The term “homosexuality” was coined only in the latter half of the nineteenth century and did not come into widespread usage until the 1870’s. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs did not have the benefit of access or reference to the term when writing his pamphlets. Instead, Ulrichs referred to homosexuality as “uranism” and to homosexuals as “uranians.” The actual word “homosexual” Homosexual, as a term appears to have been coined by Karl Maria Kertbeny in his 1869 open letter to the Prussian government, condemning reform of the criminal code, which proposed defining male homosexuality as illegal and punishable. Despite such opposition, efforts to criminalize homosexuality succeeded when the Reichstag adopted Paragraph 143 of the Prussian criminal code, which included also a provision against bestiality. Paragraph 143 (changed to Paragraph 175) was widely used by the Nazis to arrest and punish homosexuals during the Third Reich.

Ellis’s work is notable for discussing homosexuality in philosophical terms. His sensitivity toward homosexuality may have been conditioned by his wife, Edith Lees, who was a lesbian. Whereas Krafft-Ebing and Freud spoke of homosexuals in terms of psychopathology and abnormal sexual development, Ellis’s Sexual Inversion was revolutionary in its humane and nonjudgmental scientific approach toward human sexuality research. Deviating from contemporary attitudes toward homosexuality as abnormal, criminal, degenerate, immoral, or pathological, the work presented homosexuality as hereditary and as a normal variation in a spectrum of sexual orientations. Ellis was instrumental in developing a taxonomy of human sexual behavior and classification. He also described differences in homosexual behavior (situational homosexuality versus innate, or latent, homosexuality), and distinguished between male and female homosexuality and bisexuality. Sexual Inversion remains a foundational text of modern sex research. Sexual Inversion (Ellis) Sexology Homosexuality;early studies of Psychiatry;and homosexuality[homosexuality]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellis, Havelock. Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Sexual Inversion. Seattle, Wash.: University Press of the Pacific, 2001.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hirschfeld, Magnus. The Homosexuality of Men and Women. 1920. Reprint. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krafft-Ebing, Richard von. Psychopathia Sexualis. 1886. Reprint. Burbank, Calif.: Bloat, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moll, Albert. Libido Sexualis: Studies in the Psychosexual Laws of Love Verified by Clinical Sexual Case Histories. New York: American Ethnological Press, 1933.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ulrichs, Karl Heinrich. The Riddle of “Man-Manly” Love: The Pioneering Work on Male Homosexuality. Translated by Michael A. Lombardi-Nash. 2 vols. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1994.

May 6, 1868: Kertbeny Coins the Terms “Homosexual” and “Heterosexual”

1869: Westphal Advocates Medical Treatment for Sexual Inversion

January, 1892-July, 1892: Alice Mitchell Found Guilty of Murdering Her Lover

May 14, 1897: Hirschfeld Founds the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee

1905: Freud Rejects Third-Sex Theory

1929: Davis’s Research Identifies Lesbian Sexuality as Common and Normal

1948: Kinsey Publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Male

1952: APA Classifies Homosexuality as a Mental Disorder

1953: Kinsey Publishes Sexual Behavior in the Human Female

1953-1957: Evelyn Hooker Debunks Beliefs That Homosexuality is a “Sickness”

March 7, 1967: CBS Airs CBS Reports: The Homosexuals

October 31, 1969: TIME Magazine Issues “The Homosexual in America”

December 15, 1973: Homosexuality Is Delisted by the APA

April 20, 2001: Chinese Psychiatric Association Removes Homosexuality from List of Mental Disorders

Categories: History