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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Havelock Ellis’ search for the sacred : sexology, spirituality and science in turn-of-the century Britain Paul, Catherine


Havelock Ellis, the prolific sexologist and social reformer, was a key participant in what George Mosse has described as a shift from the clergyman to the scientist as the guardian of normality. And yet, analysis of Ellis' life (1859-1939) and work complicates the "priest to scientist" trajectory. Throughout his writing Ellis used the idea of the "sacred" to represent the sexual impulse, he borrowed the authority and respectability of priests for the new sexual scientist and the role of "saviour" for the eugenic project. In order to justify his claims he demonized women's sexuality and religious excess in new ways. For Ellis the sexual impulse could be understood as a potent, "sacred" force in all aspects of life; those women, especially nuns, who denied this reality were shown to be mentally, physically and spiritually degenerate. In his writing about masturbation, particularly Auto-Erotism and its appendix, "The Auto-erotic Factor in Religion," Ellis vilified women's sexuality as being more prone to perversion than men's and especially dangerous when these women did not conform with existing gender norms. This was partly a response to the growing popularity of sisterhoods during Ellis' lifetime. Ellis saw these women as obstacles to eugenic progress. Historians' assessment of Ellis as a solely secular theorist limits our understanding of how closely scientific, sexual and spiritual knowledge(s) were interwoven at the time. It is difficult to deal with religious belief and spiritual experience within the confines of a discipline which defines itself - in implicit opposition to the irrationality and subjectivity of religion - as "rational" and "objective." Analysis of Ellis' work provides an entry point into the complicated interactions between science and religion around issues of sexuality, gender and race. This analysis is crucial for understanding the conflicts arising around sex education in schools, gay rights, labels such as "terrorists," and responses to HIV/AIDS.

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