Dagmar Herzog


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

Cover Interview of April 09, 2012

The wide angle

The book arcs from the waning of Victorianism to the collapse of Communism and the rise of European Islam. Throughout, it investigates the shifting fortunes of prostitution and marriage, of pornography and disease, of contraception and abortion, and of queer and straight existence. It analyzes sexual violence in war and peace, the promotion of sexual satisfaction in both fascist and democratic societies, the role of eugenics and disability, the politicization and marketing of sex, and processes of secularization and religious renewal.

But my major obsession was different: I wanted to use the tools of both comparative and transnational history, with the case study of sex, to answer those classic historians’ questions about causation, periodization, and interpretation.  I was originally trained as a historian of Germany—here was my chance to explore developments in 25 countries and over 100 years.  So the organizing puzzles had to do with what combination of factors help to shift sexual cultures in either more liberal-progressive or more neotraditionalist-restrictive directions.

After all, what is it that drives historical change in this realm that is at once so intimate and personal and so publicly scrutinized? Is it primarily (as many have presumed) economic forces and technological advances? Or is it something as seemingly mundane as the party-political balance of power within national governments? Do shifting popular values lead to pressure for legal change, or is it the opposite? How important are individual activists or social movements? What is the role of religious teachings, of colonial encounters, of generational changes, of wars and military occupations?

The answers to these questions are relevant for all historians. What I discovered is that causation really was different in each historical circumstance. I was especially interested in the effects of scandals (they can often do more overnight than years of organizing), as well as in the impact of mass violence and its aftermath. But I was also especially interested in the interconnections between sexual and other kinds of politics.

I have had the privilege of teaching history of sexuality, from the eighteenth century to the present, in Europe and the United States, for the last twenty years, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, always using both secondary scholarship and primary documents. I learned an enormous amount from my students. So much of this book is my attempt to give back to them. At every point, I tried to bring into view what they had most been amazed by in delving into the difference of the past.