The Arty Semite

The Einsteins of Sex

By Benjamin Ivry

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Courtesy of the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation, Berlin
Magnus Hirschfeld, a man Freud referred to as a “flabby, unappetizing fellow.”

More than just spiritual forefathers of the sex therapist and ex-Haganah sniper Ruth Westheimer, a trio of German Jewish sexologists preceded Sigmund Freud in innovations. Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935); Iwan Bloch (1872–1922); and Albert Moll (1862–1939) are no longer household names, but they star in Modernism and Perversion: Sexual Deviance in Sexology and Literature, 1850-1930. Its author, Anna Schaffner, states that all three drew inspiration from literature, whereas Freud made overt efforts to distinguish between life and bookish fantasies. In search of better understanding minorities, Moll and Bloch read French authors such as Rétif de la Bretonne and the Marquis de Sade as if they too were sexologists who had compiled accounts of human behavior. For his part, Hirschfeld was more than just “The Einstein of Sex,” an American journalistic moniker invented in the 1920s. A lucid, well-documented 2010 study, Magnus Hirschfeld and the Quest for Sexual Freedom: A History of the First International Sexual Freedom Movement by Elena Mancini, underlines Hirschfeld’s family roots in Kolberg (today’s Kolobrzeg in northwestern Poland), attending synagogue on the High Holy Days.

Mancini explains that as an advocate of the rights of “racial and sexual minorities,” Hirschfeld “stressed the normalcy and universal character of difference.” Hirschfeld’s “liberal humanistic approach in emancipating marginalized groups,” Mancini adds, was suppressed not just by the Nazis, but by “persistent postwar anti-Semitism in Germany through the 1950s and early 1960s.” Even early on, Hirschfeld’s open-minded stance offended some intellectuals, such as the notoriously homophobic Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, whose attacks led Hirschfeld to resign from the Psychoanalytical Association, which had been founded in 1910 by Freud. In turn, Hirschfeld’s resignation irked Freud, who called Hirschfeld a “flabby, unappetizing fellow, incapable of learning anything.” Undeterred, Hirschfeld embarked on a world research tour, studying comparative sexual behavior. In 1932 he landed in Palestine, where he heartily approved of Jewish denizens having conquered “all the repressions and unconscious feelings of erotic inferiority frequently found at this age.” In such works as The Sexual History of the World War and Transvestites: The Erotic Drive To Cross Dress, outdated but still of historical value, Hirschfeld cast a surprisingly tolerant eye on some unusual behavior.

See a TV documentary about Magnus Hirschfeld here.

And watch a 2010 talk by social scientist Erwin J. Haeberle about the Jewish pioneers of sexology, including Hirschfeld here.


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