Dagmar Herzog


On her book Sexuality in Europe: A Twentieth-Century History

Cover Interview of April 09, 2012

In a nutshell

The twentieth century is often called “the century of sex” and seen as an era of increasing liberalization. Indeed, taking the century as a whole, we have seen the erosion of the double standard, the greater acceptance of premarital sex and the eroticization of marriage, the decriminalization and mainstreaming of homosexuality, and the saturation of the public sphere with sexual imagery and talk. Without a doubt, the twentieth century witnessed a vastly intensified preoccupation with sexual matters. But this standard paradigm of liberalization conceals another huge story.

Three issues are especially important to keep in mind. The first has to do with the grassroots appeal of sexual conservatism, the recurrent backlashes against liberalization. Some of the most significant aspects of sexual rights, including access to contraception, or freedom from persecution for homosexual sex, were for extended periods extraordinarily fragile. The backlashes were sometimes coordinated at the state level—think of National Socialism in Germany and Austria, fascism in Italy, Spain, or Portugal, or Stalinism in the Soviet Union. But they were also often carried by popular movements from below.

A second matter is just as essential, and it has to do with the problems often embedded also within what were thought to be liberalizing efforts. In some cases, we can look back and see what contemporaries could not, or did not care to, see—for example, the horrifically disdainful discrimination against the disabled and against people of color in many lands that was used for much of the twentieth century to justify the promotion of contraceptives.  In other cases, we ourselves today remain challenged to make sense of such matters as the increasing commercialization of sex. And in yet other cases—for example over the connections between sex and love, or the lack thereof—the disputes over how best to organize sexual politics remain ongoing.

And third, there is the related matter of ambivalences.  Sex does not always make people happy. Quite apart from the recurring dark sides of sexuality in the form of rape, abuse, exploitation, hurt, and harassment—which also have their important histories, both with regard to what human beings have done to each other but also with respect to the campaigns fought against such pain and against the conditions that facilitate it—also sex that was mutually willed could be the site of many conflicting feelings: explosive, transformative ecstasy, delight, and excitement; serene security, satisfaction, status confirmation, the pleasures of conformity to norms; anguished longing, vulnerability, insecurity, jealousy; or habit, duty, boredom, even repulsion.

These emotions matter. It is not least because sex is complicated that human beings are so politically and socially manipulable in this area—although historians have too rarely reflected openly on this complicatedness when trying to explain how sexual cultures change.  My aim in the book was, first, to reconstruct the extraordinarily varied ways people in the past imagined sex and, second, to analyze how activists of all stripes battled over the ethics of sex, and struggled to change laws, attitudes, and practices.