How much do you know about the scientific history of gender and sexuality? Throughout history, the study of sexual science has had setbacks but also advancements. Co-sponsored by O-Stem and the Rainbow Center, Alix Deymier, an assistant professor in biomedical engineering at UConn health, presented a brief history about gender studies in science through Zoom on Thursday evening.
The study of sexual science began in the 17th to 18th century during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe where separation of religion and state was still a developing idea, according to Deymier. She added that many believed that sex was only seen as a means for reproduction at the time.
“We move away from this idea of religion and morality as a definition of good and bad and we move to a point where secularism becomes more important,” Deymier said. “So morality stops being defined as something that is God’s will. Judaism, Catholicism, Christianity, all of these different religions had all these different takes on homosexuality, transgenderism, etc. and all those moral takes [that] are being pushed back with this move towards the law is going to establish morality.”
“We move away from this idea of religion and morality as a definition of good and bad and we move to a point where secularism becomes more important.”Alix Deymier, an assistant professor in biomedical engineering at UConn health
The father of sexual science was Alexandre Jean-Baptiste Parent-Duchatelet, a French specialist that fought for clean living conditions. He found that poor sewage systems were the cause of disease and poor health in Paris, according to Deymier. As he was doing research, Parent-Duchatelet saw that prostitutes were standing near the sewers. His experience talking to the prostitutes made him realize they weren’t morally bad like he was told to believe.
“He comes to the conclusion that prostitution is not caused by loose morals but instead prostitution is caused by sociological situations, so lack of access, poverty,” Deymier said.
Parent-Duchatelet not only published his findings but it was the first time where the act of human sexual behavior was discussed in public. He set the foundations that started conversations about sex as something people can scientifically study, according to Deymier. In Germany, Karl Heinrich Ulrich was a gay man who strongly advocated for gay rights in Europe. According to Deymier, even though Heinrich faced opposition, he still advocated for the government to decriminalize homosexuality.
Magnus Hirschfeld was a German physician who not only advocated for LGBTQIA+ rights, but also changed the way gender and sexuality were understood through his research, Deymier explained. He created an institute for sexual research in 1919 to specifically study sexuality, gender and gender identity. Hirschfeld also hired and provided housing for the LGBTQIA+ community in his institution. He pioneered the idea of a sexuality and gender spectrum, saying that there are 64 sexual intermediaries of gender and sexuality. According to Deymier, Hirschfeld also reinvented transgender science by performing sex-change procedures.
“Hirschfeld really believed that if you came together and you were able to show people that scientifically, homosexuality is totally normal and it’s just a different distribution of people, then there could be justice in the world,” Deymier said.
“Hirschfeld really believed that if you came together and you were able to show people that scientifically, homosexuality is totally normal and it’s just a different distribution of people, then there could be justice in the world.”Alix Deymier, an assistant professor in biomedical engineering at UConn health
In the 20th century, scientists who studied sexual science in Germany were Jewish. They were making breakthroughs in hormonal research, but then World War II broke out. The study of sexual science was not only put to a halt but research was destroyed, according to Deymier.
“Everything gets shut down,” Deymier said. “The Institute for Sexual Research gets completely sacked, they come in and they pull out everything. They burn everything. They destroy parts of the inside of the building. They attacked those who were living there, some of them killed. Others were taken out to concentration camps. Everything falls apart and for a long time during the war, there was no sexual research.”
“They attacked those who were living there, some of them killed. Others were taken out to concentration camps. Everything falls apart and for a long time during the war, there was no sexual research.”Alix Deymier, an assistant professor in biomedical engineering at UConn health
Deymier said after World War II, the study of sexual science then moved to America. Alfred Kinsey was an entomologist who found that some wasps mated with the same or both biological sexes. In order to learn more about wasps’ sexual behavior, he created the Kinsey scale for sexuality. As he studied wasps, he also thought about human gender/sexuality which led to the Kinsey sexuality scale for humans too. During this time, William Masters and Virginia Johnson advertised conversion therapy, but it was later seen that they had conducted inhumane and illegal experiments.
Despite setbacks, research in sexual science grew and scientists changed how homosexuality was viewed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), according to Deymier. She added that although there are achievements in gender studies, there is a lot more that needs to get done. Further research was conducted through brain studies of transgenders and cisgenders. According to Deymier, they found that a transgender person and cisgender person both have the same brain structure.
“There could be all these biological reasons but the danger of establishing biology as a cause is then people are gonna be like, ‘Eugenics, let’s get rid of gay genes ‘cause we don’t like it, make sure your kid doesn’t have hormones during fetal development,’ so I think we also get to a dangerous point and it’s very complex but this is where things stand now,” Deymier said.