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Awesome Men Throughout History: Havelock Ellis

For some reason, people who study human sexuality tend to be intemperate weirdos. Not that there’s anything morally wrong with being an intemperate weirdo, but it’s an awfully self-selecting sample. Granted, it’s also an unavoidable one in Puritanical backwaters like America and, for the purposes of this column, England, but I wanted to point it out as something of an introduction to this week’s Awesome Man Throughout History: Havelock Ellis.

The great Havelock Ellis

Ellis, born in England in 1859, was a physician, writer, and social reformer who co-authored the first English-language medical textbook on homosexuality, and published a lot on the subjects of sexual practices and inclinations. He also, as you’ll read, had more bats in his belfry than the Cathedral of San Agustin.

That said, Ellis’ view of homosexuality were remarkably tolerant for the time. One of his biographers, Jeffrey Weeks, has said that “Ellis’s aim was to demonstrate that homosexuality (or inversion, his preferred term) was not a product of peculiar national vices, or periods of social decay, but a common and recurrent part of human sexuality.” Phyllis Grosskurth, another biographer, agreed, calling Ellis’ opinions “unprecedented…never before had homosexuality been treated so soberly, so comprehensively, so sympathetically.”

Keep in mind that those accolades came much later; at the time Ellis’ works were published, he was considered a disgusting radical and booksellers were arrested for peddling his work. Ellis himself was savaged by critics and reviewers, and his 1897 book, Sexual Inversion, was described in court as a “certain lewd, wicked, bawdy, scandalous libel.”

At this point, you might be rolling your eyes and muttering unfavorable things about Ellis yourself. But stop yourself for a minute and think about how nothing exists in a vacuum. Think about how intolerant, hateful, and humorless British society was at that time. Think of the kind of person who maintained and upheld that social attitude. Now think about how necessary it is to bother and annoy that kind of person at all costs. That’s what Ellis was doing.

Funny thing is, Ellis hadn’t done much field research, so to speak, when it came to sex. In fact, he’d almost never done the deed, something that his friends chuckled about in private when his books caught so many arrows from the press. Ellis’ wife was an out-and-proud lesbian, so naturally they had an open relationship, and Ellis himself was basically impotent until he was 60 years old, when he figured out that what turned him on was watching women pee. Really. He called it undinsim for some reason, but it’s better known as urolagnia today.

So what makes Havelock Ellis so awesome? It wasn’t because his lifestyle was far, far beyond the mainstream – Ellis had plenty of what were considered normal views back then, including his lifelong support of eugenics, which says a lot about how screwed up that time period really was.

No, what redeems Havelock was his fervent belief that, in the words of philosopher and critic Bertrand Russell, “almost all civilized people are in some way what would be thought abnormal, and they suffer because they don’t know that really ever so many people are just like them.” Ellis’ work was a precursor to Freud, psychoanalysis, Craigslist personals ads, and any other mechanism that helps broken people feel less isolated from society and themselves. Laugh at those efforts if you must, but that’s a man’s job.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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