Dagmar Herzog


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

Cover Interview of April 08, 2012


I am lucky that I was able to take a couple of extra years to collect materials for this book on twentieth-century Europe while I was writing a previous one about the sexual politics of the Religious Right in the United States.  This did two things: It allowed me to make use of remarkable new material just emerging on the countries of the former “Eastern bloc,” so that the story is not just a Western one—and it makes us see the West in a totally different light.  Second, working on the recent past in the U.S. helped me think about the extraordinarily intimate levels at which cultural retrenchment works. So Sexuality in Europe really can be thought of as part of the new “emotional turn” in cultural history. That’s not just because the book emphasizes the complexity of emotions brought to the topic and practice of sex—the yearnings, anxieties, and envies as well as the joys and delights. The aim was to help readers understand better things that are usually so confusing: from the disappointments as well as the electric excitements felt in the midst of the sexual revolution to the unexpected but wonderful recent return of romance in the midst of the ever-growing commercialization of sex in the era of Viagra, vibrators, and the Internet.

Throughout, I was especially concerned with unanticipated and/or paradoxical twists, for instance the at first appallingly ugly but then inventive and creative responses to HIV/AIDS, or the unprecedented reorientation of traditional sexual conservatives to a prohomosexual stance once they were faced with the ascent of neofundamentalism within some strands of European Islam, but also the alarming new trend in which the so infinitely precious and hard-won achievements of disability rights activists are abruptly being turned against women’s rights to reproductive self-determination.

Consent and self-determination are the moral bedrock of sexual ethics, and opponents of these values are incredibly clever.  But above all, I think that ethical debate needs historical awareness.

The book demonstrates the tremendous historical changeability of notions not only of sexual preference and identity but also of the very nature of desire and happiness. What was immoral or repugnant, what was thrilling or satisfying, varied enormously across time and space—understanding this offers fresh vantage points on the dilemmas of the present juncture as well.