Dagmar Herzog


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

Cover Interview of April 09, 2012

A close-up

Readers have riveted onto different things.  Some are most struck by the world of one hundred years ago, which I try to recreate in the first chapter. How prostitution was everywhere the open-secret supplement to marriage, how prostitutes were considered far more sexually exciting than wives, and how much effort it took to eroticize marriage.  Or how abortion was once considered far less immoral than contraception.  Or how incompletely the categories of homo- and heterosexuality had been disentangled.

Others are drawn most strongly to the chapter on sexual violence in World War II and the Holocaust.  They are interested in how the Nazis, far from being generally sexually repressive, were actually wildly pro-sex for the majority of the population (nondisabled, heterosexual “Aryans”)—upsetting the Christian churches profoundly—and yet also managed to associate Jewishness with “dirty” sex.  And they are concerned to understand the sexual abuse and humiliation of victims within the concentration and death camps, whether in the context of pseudoscientific “reproductive” experiments or just sheer sadism among the guards.  It is difficult but important to grasp this hideous combination of disinhibition and incitement with cruelty and horror—not least because it explains a great deal about the turn to conservatism after the war.

The chapter I like best is about the sexual revolution of the 1960s to 1970s.  In some ways, it’s the time period people feel they know best, but here too there are so many surprises. For example, the standard story we are now often told is that women were the losers of the revolution, nothing but sexual objects for commitment-phobic men.  But actually it turns out that there were many men who had deep ambivalence about sexual freedom for women.  I am also moved by the anguished disappointment of the activists of the Make Love Not War generation when it turned out that the consumer capitalism they reviled was a major factor in the liberalization of sexual mores they had been fighting for.  And it is important to remember that discomfort with sexual liberties, and male annoyance at women’s demands for better heterosexual sex, were two key factors in what would become a renewed turn toward sexual conservatism.  Although the forms in which disappointments were expressed were still rather inchoate, a backlash against the sexual revolution was already building—before anyone had ever even heard of the disease that would eventually be called HIV/AIDS.