Modernism represented a pervasive adherence to the concept of progress, to the idea of constant movement toward the achievement of ever-changing ideals. As modernism in art was to take us ever closer to the purest expressions of the sublime, modern science was charged with bringing us closer to pure truth, final truth—and if not these, then an improved version of truth, one closer to truth than any of the previous versions of the truth, as if changes in truth were synonymous with increases in truth. In more practical terms, the application of science to the realm of the sexual was expected to solve its historic mysteries, to unlock puzzles old and new, until all that was natural yielded up its lawful recipes.

Sexology was born in this modernist tradition. The modernization of sex critically involved the naturalization of sex; the sexual was to be subjected to the perspectives of natural science which, in turn, required the quest for taxonomies, structures, and mechanisms of change that paralleled the vocabulary of the natural sciences as they were applied to all other life forms. A cool detachment or impersonality and a grinding empiricism, more often in rhetoric than practice, justified the license to investigate, to observe, and commit public talk about sex.

While being cloaked in a version of science brought new legitimacies for conducting sex research, it also carried its own burdens. Willingly or unwillingly, all who participated were drafted for continuing debate on the parameters of normality and healthfulness; even those who struggled to expand the definitions of both normality and health, and thereby lessen the exclusion of many of those whose sexual behaviors were distrusted or despised, inevitably gave credence to the very concepts of normality or healthfulness.