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Where did sex therapy begin?

While sex as a human behavior has been around as long as humans have been, sexual research and sex therapy are much newer concepts. Some sex therapists, myself included, consider Alexander Jean Baptiste Parent-Duchatelet to be the father of sex research. He was a French public health reformer who lived from 1790 to 1835. He worked on education and public understanding of health issues like cholera, tobacco use, sanitation, food cleanliness, and finally, the health concerns and function of prostitution in Paris. His most famous work was published posthumously in 1837 and it was called De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris (Prostitution in the City of Paris). It was research into sexual health and began a new path of sexual health and wellness research that continues today.

For the next approximately 100 years, a handful of sexually informative books were published, mostly by European men who were considering the psychology of sexuality. But by 1919, Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexology) which medically treated sexual issues, taught sex education, and had a large library which included books on sexual psychology and health. Tragically, among the atrocities of World War II, the institute was destroyed and the books burned.

In this same era, Sigmund Freud was conducting his work from 1885 to 1938 in Austria. He was also affected by WWII and spent the last of his life in hiding from Nazi persecution. Freud has become possibly the most famous psychotherapist in history. He redefined sexuality and popularized the notion of “libido”. Much of his work is considered flawed, but his research and therapy work was instrumental in creating psychotherapy as we know it today.

In 1938 Alfred Kinsey was asked to teach a class at his university called “Marriage and Family”. The class only allowed married or senior students to attend. It was a class that covered practical application of relationships and family. Several students approached Kinsey with questions about sexuality and sexual behaviors and Kinsey realized, not only did he not have answers for them, but also, there was no real research with which to search and find answers. In 1940 Kinsey ceased teaching the class in order to devote all his time to sex research, primarily via live interviews with people all over the country. Seven years of research later, Kinsey founded the new Institute for sex in conjunction with Indiana university. Though time has advanced and changed it, what is now the  Kinsey institute is still alive and conducting research in Indiana today.

Over the next 9 years of his career, Kinsey directed the institute, continued his research and published two books, Sexual behavior in the Human Male, and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. By 1956, when Kinsey suddenly passed away due to illness, it was estimated that he and his team had collected over 18,000 sexual histories and stories from participants. Kinsey had changed the course of the way the world saw sexual research and paved the way for therapy today.

Only a year after Kinsey’s death, in 1857 Masters and Johnson met and began working together on human sexuality research. Their work over the next 37 years began to look at sex more relationally and consider how sexual connection as well as sexual arousal actually functions. Much of their work still influences sex therapy today, though it has to be filtered carefully, because much of their later work was homophobic and untrue in regards to the queer community. Masters specifically promoted conversion therapy (a now-illegal kind of therapy where the therapist works to change someone’s sexual orientation from gay or queer to straight) despite Johnson’s concerns about it. Even though homosexuality was removed as a mental disorder from the DSM in 1973, Masters went on to continue his research with conversion therapy and even published a book about it in 1979, touting its success. Much of the book has been disproved and shown to be falsified data. Another 9 years later in 1988 Masters and Johnson published a book containing fearmongering and propaganda about the AIDS crisis and again slandering the queer community.

 After Masters’ retirement in 1944, Johnson went on to create and run a learning center focused on sexual education and wellness, and there are no reports of her continuing Masters’ homophobic crusade in this phase of her career.

It is harder to document the growth of sexual research and therapy after the 80s and 90s because suddenly, there was a burst of acceptance and research and so many books, classes, and associations blossomed. Female sexuality specifically has been much more explored in the last 20 years as well as further acceptance for the queer community, non–monogamous lifestyles, and kink.

We have come so far in the last 187 years since Alexander Jean Baptiste Parent-Duchatelet took a foray into sexual research and 139 years since Freud fathered psychotherapy. It hasn’t been that long in the scope of humanity’s growth and exploration of ourselves and our world. Sex therapy is still at the dawn of what I hope will be a long, amazing, and inclusive journey. We have so far to go, but oh, what a sunrise.