Ellis Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With the publication of Sexual Inversion, the first volume of his seven-volume Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Havelock Ellis initiated his challenge against the repressive sexual attitudes of the Victorian era.

Summary of Event

Havelock Ellis was born in Croydon, Surrey, England, in 1859 in the twenty-second year of Queen Victoria’s long reign, which was marked by a sexual orthodoxy that eschewed open references to sex and sexuality. It was commonly assumed that women were not supposed to enjoy sex, that sexual activity was to occur within marriage, and that sex involved dutiful heterosexual intercourse aimed at procreation rather than pleasure. Sexual Inversion (Ellis) Ellis, Havelock Studies in the Psychology of Sex (Ellis) Psychology;and sex[Sex] [kw]Ellis Publishes Sexual Inversion (1897) [kw]Publishes Sexual Inversion, Ellis (1897) [kw]Sexual Inversion, Ellis Publishes (1897) Sexual Inversion (Ellis) Ellis, Havelock Studies in the Psychology of Sex (Ellis) Psychology;and sex[Sex] [g]Great Britain;1897: Ellis Publishes Sexual Inversion[6200] [c]Health and medicine;1897: Ellis Publishes Sexual Inversion[6200] [c]Psychology and psychiatry;1897: Ellis Publishes Sexual Inversion[6200] [c]Social issues and reform;1897: Ellis Publishes Sexual Inversion[6200] Symonds, John Addington Freud, Sigmund

Victorian attitudes toward sex did little to dispel sexual desire. Beneath the smooth surface of proper Victorianism were significant ripples that took the form of premarital sex, extramarital sex, homosexuality, masturbation, and countless behaviors considered deviant. Occasionally some of these cross-currents surfaced, as when Irish playwright Oscar Wilde was brought to trial in 1895, convicted of engaging in homosexual conduct, and imprisoned for two years.

Ellis was raised in a permissive atmosphere. He was schooled at home by his mother, Susannah, and in private schools until he was sixteen years old. At sixteen, Ellis, unsure what he wanted to do with his life, sailed to Australia on one of the ships owned by his father. In Australia, Ellis obtained a teaching job that he held for four years before deciding that he wanted to become a physician. He returned to England in 1879 and, in 1881, began medical studies at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London. He passed his medical examinations with modest grades by the mid-1880’s.

In 1880, Ellis began serving as editor of the Westminster Review Westminster Review . This position gave him access to many of the more interesting and iconoclastic social circles flourishing in and around London at that time. He established friendships with such luminaries as George Bernard Shaw Shaw, George Bernard and Bertrand Russell Russell, Bertrand , both of whom became active supporters of Ellis when his writings on sex were attacked. By the time he completed his medical training, Ellis knew that his greatest interest was in the psychology of sex, which he now set about exploring as objectively as he could, employing scientific research methodologies.

During this period, Sigmund Freud’s Freud, Sigmund psychoanalytical writings about human sexuality were topics of considerable discussion in many of the circles in which Ellis traveled. A growing sexual freedom became evident on the Continent, although England still clung to its Victorian traditions. Merely to study sexual topics and present one’s findings was considered quite revolutionary and, by some Victorians, dangerously subversive.

Among those persons with whom Ellis came into contact at that time was John Addington Symonds Symonds, John Addington , regarded as a pioneer in the field of homosexual rights and gay memoir. Symonds, also gay, already had gained a considerable reputation as a scholar with the publication of his monumental and authoritative seven-volume work The Renaissance in Italy (1875-1886). It was Symonds who, based on primary sources, first claimed that Michelangelo had been gay. Symonds had been open about his own sexual orientation.

In 1890, Ellis published The New Spirit, in which he decried the sexual repression evident in Victorian society and in which he championed the rights of women. He followed this book in 1894 with Man and Woman: A Study of Secondary and Tertiary Sexual Characteristics(rev. 1929), in which he emphasized the naturalness of human sexual desire, a concept the Victorians had yet to accept.

Early in the 1890’s, Ellis began a collaboration with Symonds that continued until Symond’s death in 1893. The book that grew out of this collaboration was the first volume of what became a seven-volume work, Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897-1910, 1928). The first volume, Sexual Inversion (1897), was considered quite sensational. It was the first book to study homosexuality as something other than a pathological condition and to study it through the calculated use of scientific research methodologies. Later volumes of Studies in the Psychology of Sex also investigated another taboo that was seldom discussed in Victorian society: masturbation. The work exploded popular myths warning that masturbation leads to blindness, and it argued that the practice is universal, natural, and harmless.

In Sexual Inversion, Ellis differentiates between homosexuality and “inversion,” considering the former an expression of sexual desire. He considered “inversion” a congenital condition. Many readers believed that the many case studies provided by Symonds Symonds, John Addington were the most enticing parts of the study. Despite the study’s scientific approach, Victorian readers found it prurient and sought to limit its distribution. In 1898, less than one year after Sexual Inversion was published, a British book merchant was arrested and tried for selling the book. During the trial, the presiding judge rejected Ellis’s claim that the book was a work of science, calling the claim a pretense the author had adopted in order to justify selling “a filthy publication.” Noted playwright Shaw and philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell Russell, Bertrand came to Ellis’s defense in England, as did Henry L. Mencken in the United States, but to no avail.

Sexual Inversion was banned from being sold to the general public, and as the six final volumes of Studies in the Psychology of Sex were readied for publication, they could not be published in England but were printed in the United States by a publisher of medical texts. Not until 1935 were these banned volumes legally sold to anyone other than physicians, social workers, criminologists, and approved professionals.

Some critics of Ellis’s work consider it too didactic, noting that it focuses too much on morality and contending that this focus compromises the objectivity of Ellis’s conclusions. Certainly, Ellis frequently departs from the dispassionate point of view that scientific investigation demands. His view of sex is that it must be accompanied by love to be satisfactory. However admirable a notion, it is one that is difficult if not impossible to quantify, and it weakens the scientific objectivity of Ellis’s studies. Still, his studies remain exceedingly important and notable in the history of modern sexology.


The publication of Sexual Inversion and subsequent volumes of Studies in the Psychology of Sex in both the United States and Germany established Havelock Ellis as a pioneer in the study of sexual behavior. His name, along with that of Sigmund Freud Freud, Sigmund , will forever be associated with the scientific study of sex. The anecdotal nature of many of Ellis’s investigations make them suspect as studies that have unquestionable scientific legitimacy, even though his analyses of these case studies are generally penetrating and insightful.

The suppression of Ellis’s work failed to keep that work from reaching a public that had long desired a public discussion of sexual matters. Had the public distribution of Ellis’s work never been questioned or censored, it is possible the work would have received quite a different response, especially from the general public and other nonmedical professionals.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bland, Lucy, and Laura Doan. Sexology in Culture: Labeling Bodies and Desires. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Chapter 10 provides an overview of the professional relationship between Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collis, John Stewart. Havelock Ellis, Artist of Life: A Study of His Work and Life. New York: W. Sloane, 1959. A fair assessment of Ellis’s consideration of the relationship between romantic love and sex.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellis, Havelock. Havelock Ellis on Life and Sex: Essays of Love and Virtue. Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City, 1937. Ellis’s most cogent essays on the relationship between love and sex.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grosskurth, Phyllis. Havelock Ellis: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980. Among the most dependable assessments of Ellis as a writer on sexual matters and as someone confronting his own demons.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Powell, Anthony. Under Review: Further Writing on Writers, 1946-1990. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Provides an overview of Ellis and his work in a three-page essay on the noted sexologist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Paul. The Modernization of Sex: Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey, William Masters, and Virginia Johnson. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. Robinson devotes a forty-one-page chapter to discussing Ellis as a modernist.

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Categories: History