How the science of sexuality got its name.
Sexology is simultaneously a completely sensible and very silly name for a scientific discipline. On the one hand, it’s completely perfect—sex plus ology. Simple. But on the other, there’s something about it that just sounds made-up.
Semantics of Sex
Turning to the sexy subject of etymology for a moment, the origins of the word sex are Latin while the suffix -logy is Greek, meaning ‘talk of’. That middle O is just kind of… there. In the most commonly-used words with that suffix, there is an O at the end of the first part of the Greek word it follows. Bio+logy, mytho+logy, geo+logy, psycho+logy, and so on. Sexology is a hybrid word, something once considered borderline barbaric (and the subject of a great gag in a Tom Stoppard play, where a character exclaims, “Homosexuals? Who is responsible for this barbarity? It's half Greek and half Latin!”).
That’s possibly part of why it sounds a bit silly—it would probably be more technically correct if it was called something like erology, using the Greek word for sexual passion. But sexology also just sounds sliiiightly like a word made up by someone claiming to be an expert in the subject—like Captain Zapp Brannigan from Futurama and his “very sexy learning disability” sexlexia.
The forgotten founder
But sexology is the word, and sexology is the field. The word was coined by Elizabeth Osgood Goodrich Willard in her 1867 book Sexology As The Philosophy Of Life: Implying Social Organization And Government, the title page bearing the message “It belongs to the Sphere of Woman to nurse infant Men and teach them their A, B, C’s”. It is a deeply, deeply unusual book that reads like it includes every thought the author ever had, taking in everything from the creation of the universe to why humanity evolved in the places it did. It contains some strikingly modern thoughts about equal rights and protection from abuse that are tragically as true in 2021 as when they were written, as well as some incredibly messed-up ones about different groups of people that, frankly, don’t need to be repeated.
Sexology As The Philosophy Of Life is, ultimately, more about gender roles than sexuality, ascribing male and female attributes to various concepts and ideas in a well-intentioned, incredibly rambling argument for equality. While as a piece of work it isn’t what we would now think of as sexology, it did give the field a name.
Adoption of the name.
However, it took a while for the name to catch on—there is such an overlap with biology, psychology, and other fields that work would be seen solely as a subset of those than its own, discipline-straddling arena, and the adoption of a name, silly or not, did a lot to legitimize sexuality as an area one could specialize in. (Unfortunately, at the time a lot of the work being done was of the “let’s eradicate all non-procreational sex” vein, but that happily ended.) 1908 saw the word used in the name of an academic journal for the first time, the short-lived Journal of Sexology, and five years later the Society For Sexology was founded.
Not a lot is known about Goodrich Willard’s life—other than, as mentioned above, every thought she ever had—but there’s no way of knowing what the field of sex studies would look like without her contribution, however minor a word might seem. The whole field might be immeasurably different, decades behind and struggling for recognition.