Archive for Sexology

back to services

Archive Papers

The following article was first published in German in "Neue Zürcher Zeitung", Feb. 19, 1986
The picture on the right shows a detail of the 1000 Swiss Frank note, which honors Forel with a portrait as one of the great Swiss scientists.

Erwin J. Haeberle

Auguste Forel - The First Swiss Sexologist

During the next few months, a historical exhibition can be seen in Zurich which is of both local and general scientific interest ("The Birth of Sexology", visiting exhibition at the Collection of Medical History, University of Zurich, Rämistr. 71. Shown until autumn 1986.) It is devoted to the beginnings of sexology which, after having originated in Berlin, came to a temporary end in Europe when the Nazis destroyed the first Institute for Sexology. The founder of this institute, Magnus Hirschfeld, first went to Switzerland and then into French exile. He died in Nice in 1935. Integrated into the Zurich exhibition are the lives and works of Forel, Brupbacher and Hanselmann, three Zurich sexual reformers with international influence. Especially Auguste Forel (1848-1931), born in Morges (Vaud), the psychatrist, researcher of the brain and of ants, director of the clinic Burghölzli and professor at the university of Zurich, can be called the pioneer of sexology in Switzerland.

The psychiatric clinic "Burghölzli", Zurich, in Forel's time.

Forel's fame in the traditional fields of science is secure. Less well known, however, are his contributions to the development of sexology and his collaboration with Hirschfeld as presidents of a World League for Sexual Reform, which, even then, held well-recognized international congresses in Copenhagen, London, Vienna, and Brno. On the other hand, it was precisely this kind of activity that has led certain people to attack Forel as a prophet of Nazi sterilization and annihilation programs.

A Book Causes Trouble

Forel had, "at the very pinnacle of his life", and after twenty years of hard work, given up the directorship of the Burghölzli and retired to private life in the Canton of Vaud, when, in 1905, he entered scientifically unmapped territory with his book "The Sexual Question". Historically, it was the first book to provide a comprehensive treatment of human sexual life from both the biological and sociological perspectives. It not only reached enormous sales in many languages, but also became the target of vehement attacks, especially from religious circles. Already in the first year of publication, a certain pastor Ritter at the Church of Our Lady (Fraumünster) in Zurich thundered in a high holiday sermon: "A book like a punch with a fist ... Here, with deliberate impudence, man is being described as a advanced animal without any moral responsibility... Thus, legal permission is being demanded for things that were abominations even in paganism ... Such thinking is a moral aberration, a disorienting fog emanating from the swampy lower depths of the flesh".

Title page of the American edition of Forel's
"The Sexual Question".

But which were these abominations that Forel wanted legalized? They were, first of all, the complete legal equality of the sexes and the formal recognition that female house work was just as valid as male work outside the house. In addition, he demanded the decriminalization of concubinage and all mutually consentual sexual relations among adults, including incest and all "perversions" as long as they did not violate the rigths of others. In the case of homosexuality, he even regretted that marriage between men was prohibited, since it would be "quite harmless to society". Moreover, Forel demanded the free availability of all contraceptives, and he even wanted abortion to be allowed in cases of rape, danger to the mother's health, mental illness and similar contingencies. It goes without saying that, at the beginning of our century, such a program, proposed by a renowned scientist, had the character of a provocation. However, Forel had thought long and hard about all of this, and he provided extensive justifications for his demands, albeit without any reference to traditional Christian ethics. Although he had grown up in a pious Calvinistic atmosphere, Forel very early on had developed religious doubts and had therefore, at age 16, even refused to participate in the customary religious confirmation ceremony. The strength of will that manifested itself in this youthful rebellion also remained typical of him in his later life. Wherever his own honest conviction was involved, he cared little for the tender nerves of other people.

Blunt Language

He was always deliberately blunt, not only in content, but also in manner. Thus, for example, he demanded the reform of a law punishing sex with animals (bestiality) in these no-nonsense terms: "A poor imbecile, who is scorned by all girls, is prompted by his unsatisfied sex drive to mate with a contentedly chewing cow in the darkness of the stable. The cow pays no attention and is not inconvenienced at all, either in her modesty or in her well-being .... Where does the law get the right to punish such an act? This is a relic of religious mysticim, something similar to punishing the sin against the holy spirit."

Forel wanted to free the law from such frivolities. In his opinion, the law could justify its existence only as a rational, utilitarian system. However, many other scientists from very different disciplines also demanded the secularization of the criminal law. They, too, wanted a "rational" answer to the sexual question, i.e. a comprehensive sexual reform on the basis of scientific insight. Thus, Forel's grand publication made an essential contribution to the establishment of a special "science of sex", for which Hirschfeld coined the fitting slogan: "Per scientiam ad justitiam!" (Through science to justice!)

Thus, it was only fair that, in 1908, Forel also appeared as a contributor to the first Journal of Sexology (Zeitschrift für Sexualwissenschaft), which was edited by Hirschfeld in Berlin. Additional authors were the then still largely controversial psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler and Wilhelm Stekel, the established academic authorities Paolo Mantagazza and Cesare Lombroso, and many others. However, while most Freudians shied away from practical socio-political action and gradually withdrew from the circle of the sexologists, Forel, the passionate activist, remained in touch with Hirschfeld until his death. In addition, he became co-editor of a special sex reform journal "Heredity and Sex Life" (Vererbung und Geschlechtsleben) and wrote for Helene Stöcker's feminist "New Generation" (Neue Generation). Three years before his death, he still accepted the presidency of the World League for Sexual Reform - together with Hirschfeld and Havelock Ellis. This league tried, as far as possible, to promote his demands internationally.

Forel and Eugenics

As a psychiatrist, Forel early on had come to know the devastating individual and social effects of alcoholism and had then devoted his life to fighting it. As a crusader for abstinence from alcohol, he counted, above all, on persuasion and personal example, but he was also naive enough to hope for improvement through legal prohibition. He never quite realized the grotesque failure of the American Prohibition experiment. He was equally trusting with regard to the American laws allowing forced sterilizations, which were presumably applied only in the most exceptional cases. Their actual racist misuse simply escaped him. Indeed, Forel praised such laws as "eugenic" and seriously believed that they would contribute to a deliberate, evermore perfect breeding of the human race. As an ardent pacifist, he deplored the "kakogenics" of war, i.e. the "counter selection" which slaughtered the best and the healthiest on the battlefield while the old and sick survived at home. Conversely, he believed that he should prevent all those suffering from hereditary diseases from having children by persuading them to use contraception or have themselves sterilized voluntarily. Curiously enough, due to claims made by the endocrinologist Eugen Steinach, the male sterilization operation (vasectomy) was, at the time, much more popular with the rich as a means of rejuvenation than with the poor as a means of contraception. Many otherwise critical minds believed in the illusionary effect, and even Sigmund Freud underwent the "Steinach operation" on this mistaken assumption. Forel, however, wanted to see an increase in "high quality" races and individuals and a decrease of those of "lower quality". Indeed, he even raised the issue of "instant euthanasia" at birth in cases of the worst malformations. Such ideas, presented in the innocent scientific jargon of the time, have now come under the shadow of the subsequent Nazi atrocities. Thus, there is a danger of "projecting backward" what we have learned since then and of making Forel, ex post facto, a fellow ideologue of Himmler. In fact, right after the end of WW II, the Swiss newspaper "Solothurner Anzeiger" succumbed to this danger and wrote on July 28, 1945: " The world felt disgust and horror when the atrocities in the German death camps became known .... However, it is not enough to drag the SS subhumans to the scaffold .... In 1942, the book by Auguste Forel "The Sexual Question" was published by a Swiss publisher in its 17th edition (!) .... This work, after discussing "inferior races" (!) and breeding selection (!), raises the question whether born cripples and children with severe malformations should be kept alive under all circumstances .... However, there is only a small step from killing these cripples to gassing the old and infirm and to the modern death camp for so-called inferior races .... Whoever asks another person to commit murder is punishable under our law. Yet, when someone, in the name of science, asks for the murder of hundreds of thousands, one keeps both eyes firmly shut and later hypocritically claims to be horrified by the practical application of these theories. How much longer will the Swiss people tolerate this Nazi spirit in their own house?"

Racist Breeding Policies?

These simplistic suggestions, which take Forel's ideas out of their scientific and historical context, do not stand up to closer scrutiny. It is true that Forel shared many errors with his contemporaries, and he also had a strangely imperialistic attitude toward the "black" and "yellow" races. On the other hand, however, he was much too honest, conscientious, and selfless to become guilty of the slightest inhumane act. On the contrary, every reader of his writings cannot help but be amazed how tirelessly Forel fought every prejudice, discrimination, or injustice he heard about. There is no doubt that he would have used all of his energy to fight the Nazi state and its racial policies. Even in old age he signed appeals against the death penalty and against antisemitism, indeed against all forms of racism, and, in doing so, he pointed to the racial mix in his own family.

Even where, according to our present convictions, he becomes questionable, he eventually disarms us through his self-critical, if occasionally bizarre logic. For example, he once seriously proposed a simple solution to the dispute about the higher value of either the "white" or the "yellow" race: Mutual adoption of each other's children. The East Asian children, raised in Europe by European parents and the European children, raised in East Asia by East Asian parents, were to be compared once they had reached adulthood. In any case, for him, deliberate "breeding" was a voluntary project to be realized over centuries. He rejected the notion of a racial ideal: "There is no such thing as an "ideal human being". Still, thanks to our many racial intermarriages, there are now better, i.e. more socially responsible, ethical human beings in the world. They truly long for an unattainable perfection, if only as a future vision. They want to achive an international human race without wars, without pleasure drugs that affect their brains, without money. This can be achieved by eugenics, although never completely, if we fight our egotistical drives. Eugenics takes time and patience."

Thus, there could be no question that Forel's book "The Sexual Question" was banned in Nazi Germany. Indeed, there exists a special expert opinion written in 1938 by the Nazi psychiatrist M. H. Göring which explains the reasons for the ban. C. Müller, the director of the Forel Archive in Lausanne-Cery, has published it two years ago, and it proves once and for all that Forel could not be used for the purposes of the Nazis. As Göring painstakingly enumerates, Forel's statements concerning the "race question", the death penalty, homosexuality, sexual equality, contraception, abortion, and sterilization were unacceptable.

Forel's Sexological Legacy

When an special exhibition in Zurich now remembers the origins of sexology, one is also entitled to take pride in its great Swiss pioneer. The path leading him to sexology was logical and inescapable, and the impulses he gave it continued to have their effects for a long time. Forel was, above all, a scientist, and he was used to approaching problems, including sexual problems, in a rational manner. As a physician and psychiatrist, he also cared about the health of the individual and that of society. However, his sense of duty and his passionate temperament demanded that he should convert his insights into some practical social committment.

Forel's assistant Fritz Brupbacher.

His assistant in Zurich, the subsequent medical activist Fritz Brupbacher, described him this way: "Every one of his lectures was a feast .... Forel, himself beset with problems, was always bubbling, shining, glittering; he pulled us along, he seized us. Wherever there was a prejudice, he grabbed it by the neck; where a courageous word was called for, Forel uttered it to the horror of his colleagues and to the not inconsiderable horror of the Zurich government .... He always fought egocentrism and "superior" attitudes in the young; he always tried to get them involved in social causes."

For Forel and the other sex researchers with whom he corresponded, the driving motive was a sexual reform on a scientific basis. If, today, their faith in the force of reason seems somewhat naive, we still can regard Forel's personal example as a model to be followed. In spite of physical infirmities, he remained active in old age, modest and undemanding in his home life, but combative and never intimidated in public, he was a strong and credible proponent of the new science.

Letter from Forel to Hirschfeld and the participants of the WLSR London congress. For translation, click here. Auguste Forel in old age.

Fortunately, he did not live to see the destruction of this young science by the Nazis. With Hitler's rise to power in Germany, not only Forel's books were banned, but also those of all other early sexologists. Indeed, those still alive were driven into exile. Hirschfeld's first Institute for Sexology was plundered as early as 1933, the sexological societies had to disband, and even the World League for Sexual Reform did not long survive the deaths of their presidents Forel and Hirschfeld.

It was only after the end of WW II that sexology experienced a rebirth, this time in the United States due to the pathbreaking studies by Kinsey and Masters & Johnson. Seven sexological world congresses have taken place again: in Paris (1974), Montréal (1976), Rome (1978), Mexico City (1979), Jerusalem (1981), Washington, D.C. (1983), and Delhi (1985). Thus, an important pre-war tradition has been revived, and, in 1987, Heidelberg will be the next congress venue. At that time, European sexology will also again be able to make important contributions. For the last few years, Switzerland even has had a sexological university unit - the Unité de Sexologie at the University of Geneva. Those familiar with the course of history see some poetic justice at work here: Forel's sexological legacy survives on the shores of Lake Geneva, where he, like Voltaire and Rousseau before him, had worked for the benefit of the whole of mankind.

page up back to services

Note: Our directories depend on the input of interested readers. For corrections, additions, and suggestions, please contact: