Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935)

Often considered the most important early pioneer of sexology, and nicknamed the “Einstein of sex” by the press of his time, Magnus Hirschfeld’s influence is undoubtable. Though often questioned, even today, and always controversial, Hirschfeld’s ideas about homosexuality and sex reform were among the first attempts to scientifically explain and defend homosexuality; though his views may seem stereotypical and limiting today (such as his belief that all gay men were effeminate), his passion and organizational skills helped sexology grow as a science and challenged traditional views of sexuality. One of his organizations, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, is credited as being the first official organization concerned with gay rights (Schultheiss & Glina). He also published the first Journal of Sexology and opened the first Institute for Sexology (Bullough, 1994; Bauer, 2005a).

Hirschfeld was born in May 1868 in modern-day Kolobrzeg, Germany. His father was a well-known physician while his mother was from a prominent Jewish family. He sought to follow in his father’s footsteps and studied medicine all over Germany before earning his doctorate in 1892. After earning his degree he traveled around the world before returning to Germany and opening his first practice in his hometown as a general practitioner and obstetrician. In 1896 he moved to Berlin and began to specialize in hydropathy (the use of water to treat illness). It was in Berlin that he first began his research into sex and sexuality; his first published work in the field was entitled “Sappho and Socrates, How Can One Explain the Love of Men and Women for Individuals of Their Own Sex?” A pamphlet arguing that homosexuality was a natural variation of human sexuality and should thus be decriminalized, “Sappho and Socrates” was in part inspired by the suicide of one of Hirschfeld’s patients, a young gay man who could no longer handle the “double life he was forced to lead” (Bullough, 1994; Bauer, 2005a).

Hirschfeld is perhaps best known now for his theory of the “third sex.” Though the term had been used by other early sexologists, and the concept is seen in other cultures around the world (Hirschfeld was hailed in India as the “modern Vatsayana of the West” after the Hindu philosopher who wrote the Kama Sutra), Hirschfeld is credited with popularizing the term in the early 20th century(Bauer, 2005b). Homosexuals were viewed as belonging to this third sex, which was not “something complete and closed in itself,” but rather an intermediary state between different states of sexuality, of which there are an infinite number of possibilities (Bauer, 2005b; Bullough, 1994). This third sex was an attempt of Hirschfeld’s to demonstrate the limitations of the dichotomous view of gender and the role sex and sexuality played in that dichotomy. In this way, Hirschfeld was incredibly ahead of his time, and perhaps even ours, as his challenges to the way we perceive gender could still be seen as controversial today. Hirschfeld was a staunch advocate for sexual minorities, and his theory of the third sex was one of the ways in which he sought to expand traditional views of sex and sexuality in order to benefit those considered the sexual deviants of the time(Bauer, 2005b).

Hirschfeld could also be considered an early feminist, as he was an advocate for women’s rights and sexuality and a supporter of the Women’s Movement through his association and collaborations with Helene Stocker, founder of the League for the Protection of Mothers(Brennan & Hegarty, 2007). Along with advocating for the decriminalization of homosexuality, Hirschfeld also supported the use of contraceptives and abortion, engaged in marriage counseling along with calling for marriage reform, and sought to spread sex education. He also spoke out against social policies that required abstinence from female teachers and civil servants (Magnus Hirschfeld Society). While many other sexologists also excluded lesbians from their studies on homosexuality, Hirschfeld was more inclusive, studying the sexual lives of women and including them in his theories.

An anti-Semitic Nazi newspaper attacking Hirschfeld as the "Apostle of Indecency."

While the Nazis were rising to power in Germany, Hirschfeld was traveling around the world giving lectures on sexology. Being a Jewish sexologist doubly marked Hirschfeld as a target of the Nazis, and his Institute for Sexology, considered to be a part of a “degenerate culture,” was sacked in 1933 by Nazi police(Brennan & Hegarty, 2007). Most of his research and books were destroyed, and he was told by friends not to return to Germany. He instead moved to France, where he lived until his death in 1935. Though he had without a doubt been the expert of sex and sexuality leading up to World War II, Hirschfeld’s work was largely ignored throughout the mid-20th century. There have been more recent attempts to study his work to show the contributions he made not only to sexology, but to other disciplines such as sociology and psychology.

Below is a short video that gives a brief overview of Hirschfeld’s life and work.



By Kylie McFatridge

Bullough, V. L. (1994). Science in the bedroom: A history of sex research. Retrieved from:http://www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/GESUND/ARCHIV/LIBRO.HTM

Bauer, J. E. (2005a). Hirschfeld, Magnus. Retrieved from: http://www.glbtq.com/social-  sciences/hirschfeld_m.html

Bauer, J. E. (2005b). On the nameless love and infinite sexualities. Journal of Homosexuality, 50 (1), 1- 26.  doi:10.1300/J082v50n01_01

Brennan, T. & Hegarty, P. (2007). Who was Magnus Hirschfeld and why do we need to know? History &  Philosophy of Psychology, 9(1), 12-28.

Magnus Hirschfeld Society. (2002). Institute for sexual science (1919-1933). Retrieved from:  http://www.hirschfeld.in-berlin.de/institut/en/ifsframe.html

Schultheiss, D. & Glina, S. (2010). Highlights from the history of sexual medicine. The Journal of Sex  Medicine, 7, 2031-2043. doi:10.1111/j.1743-6109.2010.01866.x.

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