Meet Havelock Ellis, the man who wrote the first English medical textbook on homosexuality — all the way back in 1897.
Topics like homosexuality, masturbation, birth control, and hallucinogenic drugs can be touchy ones even today. But that didn’t stop English physician and writer from publishing some controversial, forward-thinking ideas on topics like these — in the heart of the Victorian era.
Havelock Ellis’ Early Life
Havelock Ellis was born to Edward and Susannah Ellis in Croydon, England on Feb. 2, 1859. His father was a sea captain who spent a good deal of time away from home and as a result, Ellis was raised mainly by his mother, “an ardent evangelical Christian.”
However, the young boy was an avid reader who consumed countless scientific texts that were at odds with his mother’s strict faith, but it wasn’t until he was in his late teens that he came across Life in Nature by English doctor James Hinton, which led to a revelation that would form the basis for his future theories.
Hinton had hypothesized that if humans embraced sexual freedom, it would usher in a “new age of happiness.” Ellis was intrigued by this idea and decided that he wanted to study sexual behavior. In order to do so, he figured it was best to first train as a doctor — that way he could fully understand medical theories before moving on to deconstruct them.
Studying Sex In The Victorian Era
Despite Havelock Ellis’ desire to study sexuality, this was the Victorian Era, a notoriously stuffy and repressive age when, it was said, new brides were instructed to just “lie back and think of England” on their wedding nights. In this era, discussions of sexuality were strictly taboo, even in the medical field.
As Ellis himself noted, even medical manuals “ignored the anatomy and physiology of sex as completely as though this function formed no part whatever of animal life.”
Nevertheless, Ellis became a medical student at St. Thomas’s in London in 1880. Not particularly interested in the conventional medicine of the day, he took his time and proceeded through his studies halfheartedly, only showing interest in his midwifery courses (a skill that helped earn him a living while a student) and not graduating until 1889.
After medical school, this young iconoclast never started his own practice, but instead set about writing the texts on topics like masturbation and homosexuality that would come to define his controversial legacy.
An Unusual Marriage
The year after graduating medical school, Havelock Ellis published his first works: The Criminal and The New Spirit. The latter, which examined the “intimate thought and secret emotions” of men was not well-received, with one critic dismissively noting that “[Ellis’] reading has been rather too exclusively among the rebels and heretics of literature.”
But one person who did enjoy The New Spirit was English writer and women’s rights proponent Edith Lees, who in 1891 became Mrs. Edith Ellis, despite the fact that she was openly a lesbian. The marriage was a strange one by both Victorian and modern standards. The couple did not engage in sexual relations with each other and Ellis himself admitted, ” I… was conscious of no inevitably passionate sexual attraction to her.”
It was partially Edith’s homosexuality that led Havelock Ellis to eventually publish Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Sexual Inversion, the first English medical text on homosexuality and one that approached the matter from a serious standpoint rather than dismissing it as a mere perversion.
To compile the book, Ellis compiled case histories on several dozen homosexuals as a way to discuss their behaviors and make clear that homosexuality was a natural phenomenon as opposed to a disease or a sin.
The book naturally sparked public outrage upon its publication, even among more progressive sects, with one reader remarking “like breathing a bag of soot; it made me feel choked and dirty for three months.” The book even attracted police attention and at least one bookseller was arrested for peddling “a certain lewd wicked bawdy scandalous and obscene libel in the form of a book entitled Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Sexual Inversion.”
But this text was far from the only one written by Havelock Ellis to attract extreme controversy.
A Controversial Legacy
In addition to homosexuality, Havelock Ellis also wrote openly about masturbation among both men and women, arguing that the instinct was “natural” rather than “perverse.” Furthermore, he studied available research and reported that 97 percent of married men and 74 percent of married women “of good social standing” had admitted to masturbating at some point.
Meanwhile, Ellis wrote about sexual impulses among children (in his 1933 book Psychology of Sex), citing research indicating that kids as young as five can have sexual feelings and even masturbate in rudimentary ways. Perhaps just as controversially, Ellis published writings in support of birth control, the acknowledgment of transgender individuals, and even experimented with hallucinogens like peyote and mescaline and published the results.
Despite his forward-thinking views on topics like homosexuality and masturbation, Ellis also dabbled in some unsavory territory, namely eugenics. Though eugenics was popular throughout Europe and the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s (before the rise of the Nazis), and though Ellis himself took a measured approach on the topic, he nevertheless did support the basic idea of eugenics.
As he wrote in 1912:
“Eventually, it seems evident, a general system, whether private or public, whereby all personal facts, biological and mental, normal and morbid, are duly and systematically registered, must become inevitable if we are to have a real guide as to those persons who are most fit, or most unfit to carry on the race.”
Ellis even failed to condemn the forced sterilization program implemented by the Nazi regime, though he had in fact publicly objected to the general idea of forced sterilization in the past.
But for Havelock Ellis, eugenics, like so many other topics that had captured his interest, was yet another source of controversy for a man whose life and work was truly out of step with his own time.