Visualizing Sex Research

A Birkbeck Symposium on the “Visual Archives of Sexology”

2 December 2017

Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, Time, 24 August 1953.

How and why have images been used historically to support the scientific study of human sexuality? What does it mean to speak of a “visual archive” of sexology in modernity? These were some of the key questions framing a symposium of eleven scholars held in the warm surrounds of Birkbeck’s Keynes Library on 2 December.

The first session opened with a three-part exploration of cinematic, photographic, and artistic images produced in conjunction with Berlin sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld’s famous Institute of Sexual Science (1919-1933), often held up as a beacon of early 20th-century European sex research. Setting the ball rolling, my (Katie Sutton, Visiting Fellow with Birkbeck Gender and Sexuality) paper examined competing modes for representing trans individuals: in Hirschfeld’s sexological publications on the one hand, and in the publications of an emerging Weimar “transvestite” subculture on the other. Despite occasionally striking parallels between these two visual archives, they served quite distinct purposes: for sexologists, photography offered a new and seemingly more objective form of evidence, while for an emerging trans community, it provided an important basis of self-presentation and political strategizing.

Institute for Sexual Science, Berlin.


Screenshot from Different from the Others (dir. Oswald, 1919)

The establishment of new visual modes for representing Germany’s “third sex” similarly informed Ina Linge’s (U Exeter) examination of the “social hygiene” film Different from the Others (1919), directed by Richard Oswald in collaboration with Hirschfeld. Taking up the pertinent question of gaps in the sexological archive, Linge showed how attending more closely to the visual helps us to think through frustrating absences in the archive. Previous readings of this film, which exists now only in fragmentary form, in terms of a progress-oriented model of identity politics have tended to obscure what is actually on the screen—in this case, an attempt to showcase a much wider spectrum of non-normative genders and sexualities than the surface narrative of male homosexual suicide suggests.


Heike Bauer (Birkbeck, University of London) continued this exploration of the hidden sides of the sexological archive, reflecting on the gendered limits of much existing scholarship on Hirschfeld’s Institute, as well as the ambiguity of photographs taken in and of this space. Images of the Institute’s rooms often sit somewhere between the domestic and the clinical, the enabling and the oppressive, refracting broader tensions in the history of sexology. Similarly, artworks and illustrations produced in association with Hirshfeld and his Institute at times occupy spaces that are at once ambiguous and productive. Through the interplay between Hirschfeld’s lesser-known writings on corporal punishment and a spanking cartoon by feminist artist Rahel Szalit-Marcus in the journal Die Aufklärung (“Enlightenment” or “Sex Education,” 1929/30), Bauer showed how this image might be read as an instance of feminist resistance, a “willful subject” (Ahmed) that through its positioning subtly critiques the male-centredness of Hirschfeld’s writings on child abuse.

Entering the era of post-World War II psychology and social science, Joan Lubin (U Penn) opened the second panel by taking up the interplay of statistical data and visual imagery surrounding the famous Kinsey reports. Images such as the above Time magazine cover featuring Kinsey surrounded by birds, bees, roses, and a sexually symbolic bowtie, or staged photographs of research team members in interview situations, formed a crucial part of the Institute’s public face, at a time when the precise methods of the research team were largely the stuff of gossip. Voyeuristic examples of the “I was interviewed by Kinsey” genre in women’s magazines or pulp fiction can offer, Lubin argued, important insights into the historical experience of having one’s emotions “Kinseyized,” bringing together the scientific, the statistical, and the salacious in simultaneously distorting and appealing ways.

In a move away from the lens-based image, Katherine Hubbard (U Surrey) then took participants into the world of Rorschach inkblots, examining their role in psychological testing of “queer” subjects since the 1970s. After a spot of audience participation—those present were asked to compare responses to a series of five blots commonly used by projective psychologists—Hubbard offered a different perspective on the queerly ambiguous imagery of modern sex research to previous papers. Examining both the emancipatory and pathologizing aspects of historical Rorschach testing, she argued that the identification of ambiguously sexed figures has frequently been used as a distinct if problematic psychological marker of queerness. At the same time, a number of “ambiguously sexed” British female doctors themselves deployed Rorschach methods to challenge the negative impact of practices such as lobotomy.

Rorschach inkblot (Source:

Shifting the discussion towards the state socialist East, Katerina Liskova (TU Berlin/Masaryk U) then examined the ways in which sexual imagery in post-war Czechoslovak marriage manuals might be mapped onto a larger shift from a “long 1950s” anti-capitalist gender model of sex between equals, to a more patriarchal and family-centered model from the late 1960s. Her presentation explored the often blurred boundaries between pornographic, instructional, and scientific imagery in these decades, while emphasizing the pioneering research of Czechoslovak sexologists on topics such as female orgasm and male homosexuality. A subsequent discussion centered on the distancing effects of black and white versus colour imagery that can support perceptions of scientific respectability and objectivity—for example, in the depiction of instructional mannequins used to illustrate sex positions.

The final panel was guided by theoretical questions of translation and dissemination. Müge Işıklar Koçak (Dokuz Eylul University) brought a translation and interpretation perspective to historical sexological publications in Turkey, exploring some of the visual paratexts and “pseudo” translations that helped to shape this genre in the early 20th century. These include a fascinating subgenre of “concealed” translations in the 1950s and 1960s: original works presented as translations in order to gain scientific authority among a broad reading public, as well as works altered to such an extent in “translation” that they come to serve very different functions to the original text. Like much of the imagery examined by Liskova and Lubin, these texts tread a delicate line between the medical and the salacious, while often drawing on older Arabo-Persian traditions to blur the Foucauldian distinction between a western scientia sexualis and an eastern ars erotica.

Leon Rocha (University of Liverpool) then took us on a virtual tour of the China Sex Museum in Tong Li near Shanghai, founded by emeritus sociology professor Liu Dalin (1932-). Rocha examined how the museum strategically deploys Chinese history and material culture to do sexual politics in the present; its often anachronistically curated galleries offer a steady narrative of neoliberal progress or “walking towards sexual civilization,” albeit “with Chinese characteristics.” Rather than the sexual maverick he would present himself as, argued Rocha, this institution in fact reflects Liu Dalin’s status as an establishment intellectual whose aims align well with those of the Chinese state. As a result, visitors can celebrate their connections to an ancient Chinese erotic heritage while ignoring the less comfortable aspects of that history.


Wrapping up the day’s proceedings with a series of thoughtful vignettes under the heading “John Money’s Doodles,” Jeanne Vaccaro (UC Davis) examined a series of works from an exhibit she curated at the Cooper Union in 2015, “Bring your own Body: Transgender between Archives and Aesthetics.” Reflecting on the various ways in which we encounter “the archive”—at the level of the tactile, the visual, the corporal—Vaccaro considered some of the ways in which images might contribute to “animating the sexological imaginary of transgender.” A photograph of Christine Jorgensen in the hallway at Indiana University, for example, taken during a visit when Kinsey collected her history, can provide pause for reflecting on how sexology has emerged as an institution informed by at times very porous links with transgender community. Sexologist John Money’s pen and pencil doodles, too, provide cause for revisiting his writings on sex, gender, and identity. Taken together, such investigations can help to explore the possibilities of a “transutopian aesthetic”; one which demands recovering violent erasures and revisiting the archives of marginalized communities.

Christine Jorgensen visiting the Institute for Sex Research, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, 1953. Gelatin silver print.
© William Dellenback, courtesy of the Kinsey Institute, Indiana University

1The close of the symposium marked the beginning of a rich evening program. In a public lecture held to a packed house, Ashkan Sepahvand, Fellow at Berlin’s Schwules Museum* (Gay Museum), offered an engaging postcolonially infused account of his own role as curator of the recent exhibition “Odarodle – An imaginary their_story of naturepeoples, 1535-2017,” followed by the celebratory launch of Heike Bauer’s widely acclaimed new book, The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture (Temple UP, 2017).


This post was contributed by Katie Sutton, BiGS/BISR Visiting Research Fellow, October – December 2017.

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