Erwin J. Haeberle

A Brief History of Sexological Collections
November 2011


Sexological Institutes and Libraries. 1

Special private collections. 3

1. Books. 3

2. Art 4

3. Internet 4

Special public collections. 5

Traditional Museums. 6

"Erotic Art Museums" 6

"Sex Museums" 7

Summing up: 8


It is a truism that every scientific effort begins with a collection (of data, specimens, artifacts, documents, literature etc.). The larger and more varied the collection, the greater its scientific value.

In the history of science, private collections have played an important role. Well before most of our present museums and academic institutions were established, members of the nobility and clergy, bankers, businessmen, explorers of every stripe as well as various idiosyncratic dilletantes and amateurs had started important collections, and many of these were eventually made available to scientists and a wider public. In the meantime, of course, official research institutes also began their own collections, an effort that continues to this day. All of this is common knowledge.

It is perhaps less well known that many valuable private collections were partially or totally destroyed by disapproving or uncompehending family members after the death of the collector. This has been especially true of collections containing erotic material. An unfortunate example is the destruction of notes and manuscripts of the explorer Richard Burton (1821-1890) by his widow, presumably because of their homoerotic content.

Sexological Institutes and Libraries

In any case, it was not until around the turn of the 20th century that sexology emerged as a science in its own right. This was mostly the work of German Jewish doctors. They published the first sexological journal in 1908, founded the first sexological society in 1913, and organized the first international sexological congress in 1921 – all in Berlin.
Their history is not as well known as it should be, because it was deliberately destroyed by the Nazis in Germany and, after the end of WW II, largely forgotten even in the rest of the world. The first formal Institute for Sexology (Institut für Sexualwissenschaft) was founded in 1919 in Berlin by the physician Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935). It was not only a place of research, education, medical consultation and treatment, but also a museum with a vast collection of erotica and sexual curiosa. Needless to say, much of it had been received from private donors. Hirschfeld used some of this material in the fourth volume (Illustrations) of his magnum opus "Geschlechtskunde" (Sexual Knowledge), published in five volumes from 1926-1930. The Institute had visitors from many countries, including Margaret Sanger, André Gide, Christopher Isherwood, and Jawaharlal Nehru. From 1930-1932, Hirschfeld himself undertook a trip around the world (USA, Asia, Near East, Europe), lecturing about his new science and collecting even more material which he sent home to Berlin.

However, in early 1933 the sexually repressive new Nazi government, with the help of Nazi students, had the Institute plundered and its library publicly burned. All of its collections were lost, and the Institute was officially closed. Its Jewish staff physicians fled into exile. Its founder Hirschfeld died two years later in France. 

When, in 1938, the German Nazi government annexed Austria in the so-called "Anschluss", another sexological institute was closed and its Jewish founder driven into exile. The Vienna Institute for Sex Research (Institut für Sexualforschung) had been established in the 1920’s by the author, publisher, and soccer enthusiast Leo Schidrowitz (1894-1956). He escaped to Brazil, but after the end of WW II, returned to Vienna and resumed his writing career, for example  with  a "History of Soccer in Austria". He did not reopen his Institute, however, and his prolific literary activity was cut short by his relatively early death. Fortunately, a large part of his substantial collection of erotic art, originally published in book form as a Picture Encyclopedia of Eroticism (Bilderlexikon der Erotik), was made available on DVD a few years ago.

It was not until 1947 that the American zoologist Alfred C. Kinsey (1894-1954) was able to found a new Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University and to start a new sexological library and collection, again with donations from many private sources. This collection, which keeps growing to this day, is now the largest of its kind in the world, containing a great variety of inoffensive material as well as "hardcore pornography" of every conceivable kind dating back to the earliest days of photography ("daguerreotypy"). Over the years, Kinsey’s collection has proved invaluable to scholars from many countries and many fields. (In the meantime, the institute has changed its name to the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction.)

I myself was able to use the collection for two important exhibitions when I worked at the Kinsey Institute as a research associate. The first of these used uncontroversial, but very rare historical documents for 50 display panels illustrating "The Birth of Sexology in Berlin 1908-1933". The exhibition was first shown in 1983 at the World Congress for Sexology in Washington, D.C. and subsequently in several European countries and in China. The second exhibition used photos from the Kinsey Institute’s pornography collection for a show in Germany at the Munich City Museum (Münchner Stadtmuseum) in 1985 under the title "Das Aktfoto"  - the world’s first comprehensive show of nude photographs. It included a separate section of "obscene" photography (closed to visitors under 18). Thanks to the Kinsey collection, I was able to contribute a chapter on "Forbidden Nudes - ‘Obscene’  Photographs 1850 -1950" to the large, illustrated volume that summarized this unique, pioneering exhibtion. (1)

Shortly thereafter, and partially in response to the two exhibitions, I received  some historical, sexologically relevant documents and photos from some colleagues and then began a collection of my own. Over the years, I was able to collect a great variety of photographs, videos, letters, sexual diaries, audiotapes, newspaper clips, and artifacts and also obtained more private donations of such material. Some of it is of such delicate, personal character that it cannot be made available even to bona fide researchers without special precautions. Some "illegal" photographs had originally been seized by the police and were eventually made available to me by criminal courts who wanted them to be used for scientific puposes. A few years ago, I donated the entire collection, together with my books and papers, to the Central Library of Humboldt University (Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum), where it is now being  kept under the name of Haeberle-Hirschfeld-Archiv.

In San Francisco, the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, a private graduate school, has  assembled a very extensive sexological library together with a great amount of erotological material and what is probably the world’s largest collection of "pornographic" films. It covers every conceivable form of sexually explicit content from all periods of film history  -  starting with the very first silent "stag films" through every decade of the 20th century to the present. However, the library and  the erotological and film collections are available only to the Institute’s students and to invited researchers.

Special private collections

1. Books

In the early 1980’s, when I lived in Europe as a visiting professor, a famous German author put me in touch with two private collectors who specialized in illustrated pornographic books. The first of these was a wealthy, retired Swiss businessman, who had bought important items from another, apparently very vast collection assembled by the great Swiss-French actor Michel Simon (1895-1975) and auctioned off after his death. The Swiss businessman had then acquired many more rare items on his own. He showed me, among other things, the exquisitely bound and designed sexual diary of a well-known 19th-century French writer, who had documented his sexual exploits in North Africa with detailed comments and corresponding photographs. Another item was a very obscene, hand-illustrated satire on Hitler, Göring and other Nazi leaders. All books in his collection were unique originals and had considerable artistic and historical value.

The second collector was an elderly, highly educated German, who had amassed what was probably the world’s largest historical collection of this kind in the world. Because of its sheer size, it had to be kept in two different locations in different cities. Eventually, I was granted the privilege of visiting him at both addresses, where I found  the book cases reaching up to the ceiling and covering every wall of every room. For a trained philologist like myself, the impression was overwhelming. This all the more as the books were of the highest quality, many of them hand-illustrated by famous artists. I especially remember a whole book entirely hand-written in beautiful script and brilliantly illustrated. I was also able to inspect several large-format, leather-bound pornographic volumes printed in Paris shorty before the French Revolution. These heavy, magnificent tomes with their elegantly designed texts and most exquisit etchings on the finest paper, must have cost a fortune even in their own time. I have never seen books of a higher technical quality anywhere else. Apparently, the French ancien régime had supported a whole industry of exclusive luxury printing and binding, and much of it was openly, clearly, and deliberately "pornographic". Quite obviously, the whole German collection had an enormous material value, quite apart from its importance for our cultural history. However, as the owner explained to me, it was not possible to have it insured. Its only protection was the fact that the outside world did not know about it.

For me, it was also interesting to discover that the Swiss and the German collector knew each other. Indeed, they told me about a third collector in Southern France who possessed an equally large number of illustrated pornographic books. I was also given to understand that there were still other collectors around the world who shared the same passion. It seemed therefore, that there was a "secret brotherhood" of collectors, unknown to traditional scholars.

As far as I know, neither the Swiss nor the German collection was ever made available to researchers. Unfortunately, after my return to the US, I lost touch with both collectors. Later attempts to reach them proved futile. I must now assume that they are no longer alive. I can only hope that their collections were kept intact after their death and not sold item by precious item by their surviving family members.

2. Art

An important collector of sexologically relevant art was the German Marxist cultural historian Eduard Fuchs (1870-1940). Although this was not his main interest, he used his vast collection of caricatures and other illustrations to produce six great volumes of an "Illustrated History of Morals" (Illustrierte Sittengeschichte) and a commercially very successful "History of Erotic Art" (Geschichte der erotischen Kunst). Fuchs kept his collection in his own, large home in Berlin and used it for many other publications, mainly about historical caricatures. In this field, he was a highly respected pioneer. However, when the Nazis took over the German government in 1933, Fuchs was forced to flee to Paris, where he died before the conquering German troops arrived in 1940. His collection had already been seized by the Nazi authorities, who sold parts of it abroad. The rest has been lost.

Interestingly enough, during this entire period and for many more years, Paris harbored another important collection:

Just as the actor Michel Simon had assembled a large number of erotica, so had the openly homosexual French writer Roger Peyrefitte (1907-2000). Based on this collection, the German art collector D.M. Klinger, presumably adding material of his own, founded an online erotic art museum, The DMK Collection – a Virtual Erotic-Art-Museum. He also published numerous books on the history of erotic art. Strictly speaking, therefore, his art collection is no longer entirely private. In some way, the case resembles that of the already mentioned Schidrowitz and Fuchs collections. Similar, if smaller, erotic art collections are now easily found in the internet. Many offer reproductions of their pictures, sculptures, and/ot photos for sale.

3. Internet

In recent years, newspapers and television stations have often reported the arrest of individuals or whole groups of individuals alleged to have collected thousands or even tens of thousands of photos and/or videos of "child pornography". As a rule, the police does not share such collections with sex researchers, and thus one can only speculate about the actual content and character of these collections and the motivation of the collectors.

One is on firmer ground when it comes to less controversial subjects. Sexologists know, for instance, that, even in the past, some fetishists, transvestites, and sadomasochists had collected images reflecting their particular erotic interests. Indeed, some of these collections have found their way into university archives like that of the Kinsey Institute. Such formerly private collections are not necessarily "pornographic" or even erotic in the usual sense. For example, a certain fetishist may find photos of a woman in a fur coat or in high-heeled boots sexually stimulating, while most other people have no interest in them at all. However, pictures like these are still important for sex research, because they reveal much about the erotic predilections of the collector. Thus, they enable us to gain a better understanding of certain sexual minorities and the enormous variety of human sexual behavior. 

Today, in the age of the internet, one can assume that special collections of this kind continue, since they have become so much easier to start and to expand. On the other hand, it is also possible that many individuals, who formerly would have become collectors, no longer consider it necessary, because the internet has already done the work for them. After all, a considerable number of "regular" internet "porn sites" now offer an almost unlimited supply of erotic images. For the convenience of the user, the sites very often provide special search options or are already divided into a number of different "search categories". This way, almost any sexual inclination can quickly find the desired material. In other words: The internet itself constantly provides access to vast collections of  "pornographic" pictures and videos of many kinds, so that the individual, no matter what his erotic taste, no longer has to start a collection of his own. Much of this material is freely accessible and constantly being updated and expanded. As a result, some internet "porn sites" have thousands or even several hundred thousand - in some cases several million - visitors daily.

We are therefore dealing here with a new phenomenon - the globalization of pornography. Where, in the past, there had been a multitude of separate, individual private collections, we now also have a single, permanent, enormously large public reservoir of erotic material from which anyone, at any time, can choose according to his personal preference. Thus, the line between public and private "pornography" is increasingly becoming blurred. This all the more, since countless "amateurs" are now filming themselves during sexual activity and then make the films available world-wide on freely accessible public internet platforms.

Special public collections

In the meantime, many universities and research institutes have accepted donations of formerly controversial collections, for example those of "gay activists", i.e. prominent figures in the homosexual rights movement. In the USA , one can name Cornell University which now holds the papers of the late David Goodstein, publisher of "The Advocate", a leading "gay" magazine, Yale University and its papers of Larry Kramer, a prominent "gay" activist, writer and playwright, the University of Minnesota and its "Tretter collection", named after its donor, the "gay" activist Jean-Nickolaus Tretter. These are just a few examples, but there are many others.

Some very large "gay and lesbian" collections are privately managed, but have become publicly accessible, such as ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles and a corresponding collection at the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library.  Again, these are just a few examples, because there are many more. This is also true for Europe, where we have a number of "Gay/Lesbian" collections in several countries. The most prominent of these is perhaps the Schwules Museum (Gay Museum) in Berlin with its regular exhibitions. In the same city, the Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft has collected material relating to Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexology, which has been shown in Europe and in the US, and is now online. Also in Berlin, a large lesbian library and archive called "Spinnboden" is publicly accessible and maintains its own web site. Similar collections exist in other European countries.

As a rule, however, these collections do not contain any erotica or material that could be considered "pornographic" under current legal standards. This is also true of the Archief Edward Brongersma in Amsterdam. The well-educated, well-situated donor had, throughout his life, a strong personal and academic interest in pedophilia and hebephilia. Thus, he was able to amass the world’s largest collection on the subject. However, after his death, the police raided his house and witheld a large amount of material as "child pornography" before it turned over the rest to the Dutch International Institute for Social History. Because of this unfortunate turn of events, researchers remain deprived of a unique and very valuable resource that could help them gain a better understanding of this currently often discussed subject matter.

A special case is presented by the serious and informative "
Museums of Contraception" in Cleveland, Ohio, and Vienna, Austria. These offer scientific information about the history of contraception. Only a century ago, this subject was absolutely taboo, as the example of the American birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) and her early struggles so amply illustrate. Today, museums like these are no longer controversial at all.  

Last, but not least, one should take note of the very important German Museum of Hygiene (Deutsches Hygiene Museum) in Dresden, Germany. This outstanding scientific museum is devoted to the general subject of human health, including sexual health. Established in 1912, and originally based on the private collection of a successful industrialist, the museum has, over the years, acquired ever more objects, and now uses its vast collections for both its permanent and its temporary exhibitions. It has become a magnet for the general public as well as for scientist from many fields. It also cooperates closely with academic institutions.

Traditional Museums

With the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which began in the 18th century, archeologists discovered not only ancient houses, gardens, weapons, and items of everyday use, but also a great deal of ancient erotic art. For a long time, this part of the Roman heritage was kept away from the general public and made accessible only to selected viewers in a "secret cabinet". However, today the erotic art from Pompei is accessible to all visitors of the National Archeological Museum in Naples. Following or, in some cases, even preceding this example, many great museums of the world have now made their ancient Greek and Roman erotic vase paintings, goblets, plates, lamps, mosaics, statuettes etc. part of their regular displays, putting them into their wider cultural context. In the same spirit, the Museo Egizio in Turin made its so-called Turin Erotic Papyrus available to a larger public. This legendary Egyptian papyrus, dating back more than 3000 years, shows very explicit and drastic drawings of sexual encounters. In addition, some traditional great libraries, which formerly  kept "obscene" books locked away, have gradually become less restrictive.

"Erotic Art Museums"

The recent, more open-minded attitude in matters of sex has now also made another development possible: In the last few decades, more openly erotic or "pornographic" materials have begun to be displayed in special "erotic art museums". In the early 1970s, for example, there existed an International Museum of Erotic Art in downtown San Francisco, which displayed works of very high artistic quality from the collection of Phyllis and Eberhard Kronhausen. The exhibits ranged from traditional Japanese scrolls (by Hokusai) to contemporary American "Pop Art". Unfortunately, the museum closed after some time.

The American private collector Naomi Wilzig had, over many years, acquired a large number of erotic art objects from all historical periods and many different cultures. Finally, she decided  to make her collection availble to the public in a World Erotic Art Museum, based in Miami, FL, where it is now attracting both national and international attention.

There is also a popular Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas NV. Based on private collections, it contains erotic artifacts, fine art, and film. It also offers some erotic art for sale.

Also in Las Vegas, there is an erotic art gallery,featuring to contemporary artists - the Sin City Gallery. In addition, one can find more and more special erotic art exhibitions, such as the one in San Francisco in 2011. In the future, more of these can be expected in many more locations.

"Sex Museums"

As a result of an increasingly liberal sexual attitude in many countries, a number of "sex museums" have recently opened all around the world. Such museums can now be found in Berlin, Hamburg, Prague, Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, New York, and even in Seoul, South Korea, and in still other cities. Not all of them meet scientific standards, and thus their educational value is often rather limited. In many cases, they are just commercial enterprises and as such part of a new entertainment industry catering mainly to tourists. These museums offer a great variety of "titillating" displays, but, at the same time, carefully avoid showing truly controversial material that could jeopardize their business.

An important exception to this rule is the China Sex Museum founded in Shanghai by Prof. Liu Dalin and now run by him and his associate Dr. Hu Honxia in Tongli and Wuhan, China. The founder had started his collection in the 1980’s and, in the 1990’s, had shown parts of it outside of China, for example also in Berlin in 1995 at the State Library (Staatsbibliothek), where it was a great success under the title "5000 Years of Sexual Culture in China".
I myself had the privilege of  arranging  the visit and assisting in the presentation. Prof. Liu is a well-recognized scholar and the author of many books, among them the first national Chinese sex survey "Sexual Behavior in Modern China" (Chinese edition 1992, English edition 1997). I was Prof. Liu’s  co-author of this survey and again of a German book "
Die Harmonie von Ying und Yang" 2004.

Prof. Liu’s museum is of great scientific value, because it presents erotic material of every conceivable kind from the earliest times of Chinese culture to the present, spanning a total of ca. 9000 years. This is also being recognized and appreciated by the Chinese government, which has supported the museum in various ways as an institution of national importance . Nevertheless, it remains a private enterprise of the two directors, who are frequently asked to open branch museums in other parts of China. This whole phenomenon must be seen in the context of China’s recent rediscovery of its own historical roots and renewed pride in its cultural heritage. Thus, Western ideas of "indecency", "obscenity", or"pornography" cannot meaningfully be applied to the museum and its collections. In any case, the very large main museum in Tongli, comprising a whole campus of several buildings with offices, meeting rooms, guest rooms, and a tea pavillion in a large, picturesque sculpture garden, is enormously popular with Chinese and Western visitors alike.

Summing up:

Private collections have played a significant role in the development of sexology as a legitimate field of study and, indeed, as a science in its own right. Its various subfields - sexual biology, sexual medicine, non-medical sex therapy, sexual psychology, sex education, history of sex, economics of sex, sociology of sex, gender studies etc. – are flourishing in many countries. Indeed, in one form or another, "human sexuality studies" have become permanently extablished in a number American, European, and Asian universities, where they can lead to advanced academic degrees (M.A. , Ph.D.). This development has been furthered by the
World Health Organization (WHO), which, in 1975, offered a definition of "sexual health" and has, ever since, demanded the creation of corresponding university curricula. It is self-evident, that formal academic programs in sexual health can and should profit from all kinds of sexological collections, be they ethnological or historical, sociological, medical, criminological, literary or artistic.  

It is therefore unfortunate that some very valuable collections were prevented from making their full contribution, because they were destroyed or censored before they could be made available to sexologists. The reason was usually a strong social taboo which prompted family members, the police, and criminal courts to intervene. Thus, moral outrage trumped the interests of science.

From the 19th to the middle of the 20th century, such a general taboo was homosexuality. Anything related to this subject was suppressed as undermining the morals of society. Another, equally powerful taboo was contraception. Providing information about contraceptive methods was illegal, even for doctors, not only in the USA, but also in European countries.

In the 20th century, these traditional taboos were reinforced and overshadowed by an even greater taboo - that of sexology itself. For many years, the sexually repressive régimes of Stalinism and Nazism dominated large parts of Europe and strangled the young science. In China, a radical, so-called "Cultural Revolution", also known as the "decade of unrest", lasted from 1966 through 1976. It systematically destroyed much of the country’s cultural heritage, including a rich tradtion of sexological literature and erotic art.

As we have seen, these taboos have now lost much of their power in many countries, including China. The present great taboo, at least in the West, is something else entirely – pedophilia, the sexual interest of adults in children. In the 19th century, this had not been much of an issue, in spite of the fact that child prostitution was common. Girls as young as 12 were working in brothels of Victorian London (the "age of consent" was 12, later raised to 13.)  There were, of course, serious efforts to fight this widely deplored social evil, but they did not involve any public outrage about "pedophiles" and "predators". Instead, he issue was framed in a very different way - as a problem of morality, power, and economics. The  true enemies that had to be fought were  male ruthlessness and hypocrisy, wide-spread poverty, class divisions, exploitation, child labor, etc. Thus, the customers of these young girls were condemned as morally depraved egotists. They were disgusting, unscrupulous brutes, but otherwise "ordinary" men, and exactly that was the problem.

Conversely, the well-mannered author and pedophile Lewis Carroll (pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, 1832-1892) had no trouble seeking and enjoying the company of very young girls, whom he entertained with riddles, poems, and stories, and for whom he wrote  "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass". Of course, he never molested them in any way or otherwise violated the rules of "propriety". Thus, when he asked the parents of some of these girls for permission to take nude photograph of them, he was gladly accomodated, and the pictures themselves were admired and eagerly shown around as "charming", "lovely", and "innocent". Nowadays, they may well meet the definition of "child pornography" in some jurisdictions.

As this latter example shows, general sexual attitudes change. However, the interest of science - in this case sexology -  always remains the same: A sex researcher must find out "everything that is the case" in his field. Whether it is homosexuality, contraception, pedophilia, or pornography (however defined) - they all are proper objects of his research. If he really wants to acquire the knowledge that would allow him to be of service to his society, he cannot be bound by public opinion and social taboos. For him, there must be nor unexplored territory, no unknown area of human sexual behavior. Thus, for a sexologist, censoring  a collection of erotica amounts to nothing less than sacrilege. Indeed, they very items deemed inacceptable by the censors must interest him most.

It is therefore to be hoped that, in the future, sexological experts will be consulted when "pornographic" collections become the object of court proceedings. No matter what the result of  such proceedings, the collections should be preserved and made available to research, if they are found to have scientific value. This is a judgment the reseachers must make, not the police. If the case is dismissed and the collection returned to the collector, he should feel obliged to donate or sell it to a suitable academic institution. Or he should will it to such an institution after his death. If the collection remains confiscated by the authorities, it is they who should feel obliged to make it available to a university or museum after the conclusion of the case. With respect to human sexual behavior, our scientific knowledge is still too limited to deprive researchers of relevant material, whether it is offensive or not according to the moral convictions of a particular time and place. 


1. J. Haeberle: „Der verbotene Akt – „Unzüchtige" Fotos von 1850 – 1950", in: Das Aktfoto: Geschichte, Ideologie, Ästhetik, M. Köhler, Gisela Barche, eds., C. J. Bucher, München 1985, pp. 240 – 252