The most dangerous assertions that the medical profession has been responsible for have been attempts to see homosexuality as inherently self-destructive and to probe the psyches of lesbians and gay men for the root motivation that causes their 'illness.' Rofes, 1983.

In the 18th century sexuality became an increasing concern to the medical profession; medical ideas about sexual deviation came to enforce traditional religious concepts which were under attack. For example,

Tissot, 1758

Masturbation included everything that had previously been included in the 'sin against nature' by churchmen, namely all nonprocreative sex.

Loss of semen resulted in, or would lead to,

- cloudiness of ideas even to the point of madness,

- decay of bodily powers eventually resulting in coughs, fevers, and consumption (i.e. tuberculosis),

- acute pain in the head, rheumatic pains, and an aching numbness,

- pimples on the face, suppurating blisters upon the nose, breast, and thighs as well as painful itching,

- eventual weakness of the power of generation as indicated by impotence, premature ejaculation, gonorrhea, priapism, and tumors in the bladder, and

- disorder of the intestines, constipation, hemorrhoids, and so forth.

Masturbation in females meant that they suffered much the same ills as men, plus:

- hysterical fits,

- incurable jaundice,

- violent cramps in the stomach,

- pains in the nose,

- ulceration of the cervix and to the uterine, and

- tremors that deprived them of decency and reason.

Masturbation lowered women to the levels of the most lascivious brutes, and caused them to love women more than men.

Onanism (masturbation) was considered far more pernicious than an excess in marital or premarital fornication and, if engaged in by young people, would tend to destroy the mental faculties by putting much strain upon the nervous system.

Tardieu, 1857

All people with homosexual or similar appetites were criminal or vicious.

Pre late 19th century the term sodomy, which came into use in the Netherlands in the mid 16th century and which meant anal sex but in practice was used to mean every sexual act disapproved of, was regarded as a sin and a crime, punishable in some places by death. The term used for lesbians was 'tribady.' Sodomy or tribady (more rare used) was thought of as an activity someone might indulge in occasionally, it was not until the late 19th century that it came to be accepted as part of a person's character/nature.

Late 19th century, early 20th century, the term homosexuality began to be used. There were outpourings of theories by doctors, psychologists and sexologists from England, Germany, Italy and the U.S.A. Many said that homosexuality was innate, therefore it could not be a sin but was a sickness which should be cured. These 'experts' came up with theories about what homosexuality is, how to recognise homosexuals, what the causes of homosexuality were and how to 'cure' it. These theories are the origins of many of the negative myths and stereotypes about homosexuality which are still believed today. For example,

Ulrichs, 1860's

Homosexuality is an inborn condition. Ulrichs coined the term urning for male and urninging for female homosexuals.

Homosexuals were part of a third sex born with the characteristics of one sex and the sexual and emotional responses of the other.

This forms the basis for the belief that lesbians are men trapped in women's bodies and gay men are men trapped in women's bodies.

Moreau, 1887

Homosexuality is a sixth sense; it is a genital sense which is inborn and which could mean psychic and physical injury.

Such injury resulted from a hereditary taint, a sort of predisposition to perversion.

However, it might be further invoked by certain environmental conditions.

In any case, it is pathological.

Puberty and senility are times of particular genetic trauma for those predisposed to homosexuality.

Moll, 1893

Many urnings come from nervous or pathologically disposed families ...when the love of a homosexual woman is not responded to, serious disturbances of the nerve-system may ensue, leading even to paroxysms of fury.

Krafft-Ebing, 1894

Created two categories for homosexuals:

"sexual inversion as an acquired morbid phenomenon" and

"sexual inversion as an innate morbid phenomenon."

That is, some are born that way, others become that way.

He said "mental abnormalities and real disturbances of the intellect are commoner with urnings than in the case of other men."

and that lesbianism was a cerebral anomaly indicative of an inherited diseased condition of the central nervous system.

Tarnovsky, 1896

Said that homosexuals were born as a result of the nervous disturbances of their parents, including epilepsy, brain disease, insanity, hysteria, alcoholism, syphilis, pneumonia, exhaustion or anemia.


Studied criminal temperaments and included homosexuals as a type of criminal suffering from a form of insanity that should be treated in asylums rather than prisons.

Ellis, 1897

Supposedly treated homosexuality as neither a disease nor a crime. He wrote that female inversion was more common than male inversion and female inverts were boyish, nervy, having deep voices and the ability to whistle.

Male inverts resisted stereotyping but were prone to mild neurosis.

Carpenter, 1908

Characterised male homosexuals as having "defects in the direction of subtlety, evasiveness, timidity, vanity etc. while the female is just the opposite, fiery, active, bold and truthful, with defects running to brusqueness and coarseness."

Adler, 1917

Lesbianism is a form of 'masculine protest' whereby lesbians refuse to submit to being a sexual object for men.

The development of a lesbian lifestyle is based on the resentment of men rather than affirmation of women.


Concluded that lesbianism represented a way for women to avoid the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood.

Said there were two types of lesbians: predatory (not married) and women who are or have been married.

Predatory lesbians posed a potential threat to family life and hence were a danger to society.

Freud, 1920's

Said everyone was born bisexual, as a result, all people experience a homoerotic phase of psychosexual development.

Homosexual tendencies reside in every individual because repression or sublimation of homosexual desires never totally achieved. Hence search for a sexual object can take two paths leading to heterosexuality or homosexuality as a choice but homosexuality was an immature form of sexuality.

Homosexuality caused by mother fixation, penis envy, maternal indifference.

Whilst Freud said the patient was not ill, he nevertheless described lesbianism as an 'abnormality' caused by inadequate resolution of the Oedipus complex.

Freud said the essential feature of a 'normal' female sexual development was to transfer the site of orgasm from the clitoris to the vagina in order to accommodate heterosexual functioning. Those unable to do this are at a less mature state of sexual development.

(n.b. Kinsey, Masters and Johnson said that all orgasms are an extension of sensations originating from the clitoris. This exploded the myth of the vaginal orgasm which had far-reaching implications for female sexuality.)

Deutsch, 1932

Homosexuality is a 'perversion' developed in a setting of sadistic mothering and inadequate fathering.

Terman, Miles and Kelly, 1936

Said that passive female homosexuals were 'perverts.' perverts were homosexuals whose gender characteristics were 'appropriate' but by chance - possibly flavoured with curiosity - turned to a form of sexuality that went against his or her natural gender adjustment, implying that a 'pervert' was not a bona fide homosexual.

Active female homosexuals, on the other hand, were called 'inverts.' Inverts had inappropriate gender identity, mentality and emotionality,

Perverts and inverts were psychologically conditioned by parents from early childhood.

Ellis, 1936

Lesbianism caused through:

living in sex-segregated environments,

seduction by other women,

experiencing disappointment in heterosexual love, or

engaging in masturbation.

All these could all interact with a genetic disposition to produce lesbianism.

Hirschfield, 1936

Lesbians born with faulty genes, thus suffering from an incurable disease.

Henry, 1941

Involved with many other medical professionals in American study entitled "Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patterns." The purpose of the study was to assist doctors in identifying and treating patients who suffered from "sexual maladjustment." It was hoped the findings would go towards preventing the spread of 'sex variance' among the general population.

The experts recommended the family as the site for prevention of homosexuality. On the assumption that all male homosexuals were feminine and all female homosexuals were masculine, parents were warned to reinforce proper gender behaviours:

The sex variant is a person who has failed to achieve and maintain adult heterosexual modes of sexual expression ... [and is unable] to meet the responsibility of establishing and maintaining a home which involves the rearing of children....

Thompson, 1947

Lesbianism is a symptom of other underlying disorders; it is a behaviour that occurs when there are no available men.

Caprio, 1954

Saw lesbianism as a narcissitic extension of autoeroticism.

Said lesbianism was caused by various environmental traumatic influences during childhood and adolescence e.g.

- broken homes,

- sexually maladjusted parents,

- a sadistic feeling toward the opposite sex,

- death of a parent,

- predisposition to masculinity and precocious sexuality,

- homosexual seduction in childhood,

- excessive use of alcohol.

Caprio believed that lesbians were insanely jealous, exhibited sadomasochistic tendencies and had strong feelings of guilt and insecurity.

Socarides, 1963, Romm, 1965, Wilbur, 1976

Suggested the following contributed towards development of lesbianism:

- clitoral fixation,

- fear of men,

- fear of rejection,

- sexual abuse (including rape and incest) and

- ambivalence toward both parents.

Kaye, et al 1967

Viewed lesbianism as a "massive adaptational response to a crippling inhibition of normal heterosexual development."

* * * * * *

The these 'researchers' contributed to the belief that lesbians are sick, degenerate, and controlled by excessive sexual desires.

As a result of such research, various treatments were developed to change homosexual behaviour to heterosexual behaviour or to extinguish homosexual behaviour. These included:

- castration,

- vivisection,

- cliterodectomy,

- lobotomy,

- electroshock treatment,

- pharmacologic and hormonal injections, and

- aversion therapies.

Alongside these researchers others, e.g. Davis, 1929, Kinsey, and Hooker, 1957, were conducting research with non-institutionalised homosexuals which contradicted previously held assumptions: they found that homosexuals were remarkably similar to heterosexuals with the exception of sexual preference.

Kinsey asserted that homosexuality was a variation of sexual expression. He suggested that there was only a small percentage of the adult population who were exclusively heterosexual or homosexual and that most had both heterosexual and homosexual experiences.

Ford & Beach, 1951 discovered that there was some form of homosexual behaviour found in almost all species across all cultures.

These studies led the way to research in the early 1960's which saw the earlier theories being subjected to rigorous scientific scrutiny. The validity of the early research was seriously challenged for various reasons, not least because the authors based their understanding on people interviewed mainly in asylums, hospitals or prisons but also because they were influenced by prevailing religious values and limited by cultural biases.

A series of studies (Armon, 1960; Hopkins, 1969; Siegelman, 1972; Freedman, 1971; Obison & Wilson, 1974; Thompson et al 1971; Wilson & Green, 1971; Saghir & Robins, 1973; Oberstone & Sukoneck, 1976; Adelman, 1977; Bell & Weinberg, 1978; Hart et al 1978) proved that lesbians were no different in maturity or psychological adjustment to heterosexual women.

Many of these studies, along with the actions by the gay rights movement, led the way to the American Psychiatric Association voting, in 1973, to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a diagnostic category.

In 1974 the American Psychological Association recommended that psychologists "take the lead in removing the stigma of mental illness that has long been associated with homosexual orientations." (Conger, 1975, cited in Rothblum, 1994).

There has been substantial progress, particularly in the U.S.A., but even today, many psychiatrists and psychologists still consider homosexuality a perversion of normal psychosexual development and continue to put forward theories and attempt to change the sexual orientation of individuals:

McDougall, 1970

Lesbianism is an identification with the father in order to prevent psychotic symbiosis with mother; it is a body-ego disturbance.

Socarides, 1978

Lesbianism is caused by a disturbance of early object relations characterised by masochism.

It is a disturbance of separation-individuation (1968).

It is a disturbance with constitutional contributions (1963, 1968).

Siegel, 1988

Lesbianism is caused by a narcissistic mother interfereing with her daughter's identification.

It is a narcissistic disturbance.

It is a disturbance arising out of pathogenic family constellations.

Quinodoz, 1989

Lesbianism is a borderline phenomenon characterised by defences against both psychotic and oedipal anxieties.


Bullough, V.L. Homosexuality and The Medical Model, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol 1(1), 1974, p99-110.

Gartrell, N, The Lesbian as a ''Single Woman, American Journal of Psychotherapy, 1981, Vol 35(4), p502-509.

Rofes, E.E. I Thought People Like That Killed Themselves, Lesbians, Gay Men and Suicide, Grey Fox Press, 1983.

Browning, C. Changing Theories of Lesbiansim: Challenging the Stereotypes, Woman-Identified-Woman, 1984.

Minton, H.L., Femininity in Men and Masculinity in Women: American Psychiatry and Psychology Portray Homosexuality in the 1930's, Journal of Homosexuality, Vol 13(1), 1986, p1-21.

Dekker, R.M. & van de Pol, L.C. The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe, Macmillan Press, 1989.

Terry, J, Lesbians Under the Medical Gaze: Scientists Search for Remarkable Differences, The Journal of Sex Research, 1990, Vol 27(3), p317-339.

Jeffreys, S. Anticlimax, a feminist perspective on the sexual revolution, The Women's Press, 1990.

Magee, M. & Miller, D.C. 'She Foreswore her Womanhood': Psychoanalytic Views of Female Homosexuality, Clinical Social Work Journal, 1992, Vol 20(1), p67-87.

© J. Bridget/Lesbian Information Service, 1996