Henry Havelock Ellis (February 2, 1859 - July 8, 1939), known as Havelock Ellis, was a British physician, psychologist, and social reformer. His work on human sexuality challenged Victorian taboos on discussing the subject in public; it brought into the open details about not only normal heterosexual practices between husband and wife, but also such other practices as homosexuality and masturbation. His work greatly demystified sexual behavior for the general public in a society that enforced strict morality and taught that sexual behavior for women was for procreation only. Ellis championed the idea that sexual practices should be pleasurable for women as well as for men.
In his studies of human sexuality, Ellis opened the way for later researchers, including Alfred Kinsey whose work significantly affected attitudes toward sexuality in the United States. With the air of scientific respectability, Ellis and subsequent researchers led people to believe that they were missing out on pleasures others were experiencing. The work of Ellis played a significant role in transforming attitudes and practices relating to sex, and thereby in laying the foundation for the sexual revolution.
By exposing sexual practices in a value-free context, Ellis and other pioneers in the field of sexology provided a service in bringing greater equality and honesty into sexual relations. Their demystification of sexual practice, however, also encouraged pursuit of the immediate gratification of self-centered, lustful desires alien to a long-lasting true love, and it challenged those who believe moral constraints on sexual behavior are needed to support stable, loving families for raising emotionally healthy adults.
Henry Havelock Ellis was born on February 2, 1859, in Croydon, south of London, the son of Edward Peppin Ellis and Susannah Mary Wheatley. His father was a sea captain; his mother, the daughter of a sea captain, and many other relatives lived on or near the sea. When Ellis was seven years of age, his father took him on one of his voyages, to Australia and Peru. After his return Ellis went to a private school, the French and German College near Wimbledon, and afterward attended a school in Mitcham.
In April 1875, Ellis left London on his father's ship for Australia, and soon after his arrival in Sydney obtained a position as a master at a private school. It was discovered, however, that he had no training for this position, so he was forced to leave his post. He became a tutor for a family living a few miles from Carcoar. He spent a happy year there, doing a lot of reading, and then obtained a position as a master at a grammar school in Grafton. After the school’s headmaster had died, Ellis took over the position for a year, but was too young and inexperienced to do the job successfully. At the end of the year, he returned to Sydney, completed his teacher’s training, and was given charge of two government part-time elementary schools, one at Sparkes Creek and the other at Junction Creek.
Ellis returned to England in April 1879. He decided to take up the study of human sexuality and felt the best way to qualify for that was as a medical doctor. He studied medicine at St Thomas' Hospital, from 1881 to 1889. At the same time, he started to work for the newspaper, Westminster Review, editing its theological and religion section. After receiving his M.D. in 1889, Ellis practiced medicine for a short time, but did not have sufficient interest to work as a physician.
In 1883, Ellis joined The Fellowship of the New Life, a socialist debating group established by Edith Nesbit and Hubert Bland. The group later became known as the Fabian Society. Among the members were such influential social reformers as Edward Carpenter, George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Graham Wallas, and Walter Crane.
In 1887, Ellis became editor of the Mermaid Series of reprints of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Among the authors who worked on this project were Arthur Symons (1865-1945) and A.C. Swinburne (1837-1909). Ellis published his first works of non-fiction in the Contemporary Science Series, which he edited until 1914.
In November 1891, at the age of 32, Ellis married the English writer and proponent of women's rights, Edith Lees. From the beginning, their marriage was unconventional—Edith was openly lesbian and at the end of their honeymoon, Ellis went back to his bachelor rooms in Paddington, while she lived at Fellowship House. Their "open marriage" was the central subject in Ellis' autobiography, My Life (1939). None of Ellis' four sisters ever married.
In 1894, Ellis published his famous Man and Woman, which was translated into many languages. Between 1897 and 1910 he wrote his masterwork, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, published in six volumes. The seventh volume was published in 1928. His Sexual Inversion (1897), which was about homosexuals, was the most controversial of his works, and was banned from sale, pronounced as obscene.
The last years of his life Ellis spent in retirement near Ipswich, in Suffolk. He died on July 8, 1939 in Washbrook, England.
Like some other members of the Fabian Society, Ellis was a supporter of sexual liberation. His personal experiences, including his unsuccessful marriage, love for another woman, and his own sexual problems, led him toward intense interest in human sexuality. In his first major work, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Ellis explored sexual relations from a biological and multicultural perspective. Ellis was mostly interested in typical heterosexual behavior, but he also wrote on homosexuality, masturbation, and other sexual practices. He tried to demystify human sexuality. For example, he described masturbation as something normal, and assured his readers that it did not lead to serious illness.
The second volume of his Studies in the Psychology of Sex—Sexual Inversion—was the first English medical text book on homosexuality. In it Ellis described some 80 cases of homosexual males, both men and boys. Ellis did not consider homosexuality to be a disease, immoral, or a crime. He assumed that same-sex love transcends age as well as gender taboos, as seven of the twenty one examples in the book were of intergenerational relationships.
Although the term “homosexual” is attributed to Ellis, he wrote in 1897 that “homosexual is a barbarously hybrid word, and I claim no responsibility for it” (Ellis 1897).
Studies in the Psychology of Sex stirred serious controversy; it was much too liberal for the conservative Victorian society. Ellis even faced a trial for obscenity, which he eventually lost. His book was banned from publishing in Britain. However, an American publisher released the book with a slight change. The Evolution of Modesty, originally written after the Sexual Inversion, became the first book in the series while the later book was published as the second volume.
Ellis also advocated birth control and argued that women should enjoy their sex lives. Other important concepts developed by Ellis include auto-eroticism and narcissism, both of which were later taken up by Sigmund Freud.
Ellis was a supporter of eugenics, which he wrote about in his book on social hygiene. He believed that eugenics, the “art of good breeding,” was necessary for the human race to grow healthy:
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 1912)
Ellis did not condemn the Nazi sterilization program, believing that it was based on scientific principles.
According to Ellis in My Life (1939), his friends were much amused at his being considered an expert on sex, considering the fact that he suffered from impotence until the age of 60. Many believe that he never had sexual intercourse, either with a woman or a man.
Ellis wrote concerning the family:
The family only represents one aspect, however important aspect, of a human being's functions and activities… A life is beautiful and ideal, or the reverse, only when we have taken into our consideration the social as well as the family relationship (Ellis 1922).
Ellis’ work contributed to the study of human sexuality from a scientific perspective, bringing about a change in public attitudes toward sex in general. He pointed out that sexual behavior is the most elemental of all human behavior, and that taboos surrounding it were created by people’s ignorance about this important aspect of their lives. Thus, his work greatly contributed toward the demystification of sexual behavior, which was rather dominant in the age and society in which he lived. Ellis’ work paved the way to the surveys of Alfred Kinsey and other later researchers of human sexuality.
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