Sexuality in Europe: A 20th Century History

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Herzog, Dagmar.  Sexuality in Europe:  A Twentieth-Century History.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.   

Subject: A thematic and chronological overview of how Europeans have viewed and understood sexuality between 1900 and 2010.

Summary & Main Arguments: 

In a display of her mastery of the topic, Herzog deftly reveals how and why the twentieth century in Europe really was the “century of sex.”  By the turn of the century, she argues, societies’ obsession with ideas about sex meant that sex, and an increasingly predominant conception of a sexuality, influenced the other aspects of society that we don’t generally think of as being connected with sex: politics and economics (as well as those areas more traditionally connected to sex: religion and morality).

The main purpose of Herzog’s book is to challenge the notion that the “history of sexuality in the 20th century” is simply a story of liberation and progress, of overcoming barriers to reach sexual liberation and legal-political equality (she is firmly convincing in this effort).  Instead, she offers a more nuanced view of this history, one that she does not deny is ultimately successful in achieving victories for women and sexual minorities (she also shows how these processes create sexual minorities).  “To tell only a narrative of gradual progress would be to misunderstand how profoundly complicated the sexual politics of the twentieth century in Europe actually were” (1).

She lays out three issues that highlight the sporadic, stop-and-go nature of the developments of how Europeans understood sexuality:  1) backlashes feature prominently in her history.  Many of the major developments in the story can be seen as a backlash to a previous movement.  For example, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s is portrayed – in large part – as a backlash against the conservative tides of the 50s.  As time goes on and media and technology improve, these backlashes become more extreme, yet with shorter duration.  2) A second theme that she highlights is that the new, radical views of sexuality were not accepted by all, and they were not all perceived as utopian (even by self-identified liberals).  There were problems embedded within the new sexual norms, as well as defining what those new norms should be (or what a society without norms at all would look like).  Another problem was that people tended not to realize that sexual policies were tied to other issues like racism.  3) The third issue she brings up is that, while “sex became burdened with enormous significance” (2), it did not mean the same thing to everyone.  This ambivalence created –as well as highlighted existing – anxieties about a society in which sex was “free.”  (Fears of rape, abuse, exploitation, for example).

Apart from complicating the story of progress, the book’s other great strength is explicitly showing how sexual issues became political.  “In a constantly reconfigured combination of stimulus and regulation, prohibition and exposure, norm-expounding and obsessed detailing of deviance, liberalizing and repressive impulses together worked to make conflicts over sexual matters consequential for politics writ large” (3).

It’s impossible to highlight all of the book’s observations and points here, but I do want to mention a few that I found the most enlightening (from each chapter):

1) Between 1900-1914, sexuality was re-conceptualized, spurred by three factors: issues concerning prostitutes forced society to study the inequality of sexual responsibility among men and women.  She also shows how – through eugenics – the state succeeded in harnessing the power of fertility to reach political (and racial) goals.  Lastly, she shows how sex scandals (usually centered on homosexual acts) spread through a new print culture influenced societal beliefs of homosexuality, thus helping to define homosexuality as much as the medicalization of homosexuality.

2) World War One (by removing men from women and placing them in all male situations, also leaving more women among themselves back home – and by creating a period of instability in general), “dramatically quickened changes in the organization of understanding of sexuality that had been underway since the turn of the century” (45).  Moreover, WW Two witnessed a period of state intervention in citizens’ sexual lives that was hitherto unprecedented – by democracies as well as totalitarian regimes. Democratic countries were characterized by ambivalence: while cracking down on homosexuality, they were loosening the state’s control on contraceptives and abortion.

3) The Cold War period was one of sexual conservatism and wanting to return to a pre-war normality.  But, the seeds of a more liberal movement were already planted in steady economic growth, new consumer opportunities, and a growing understanding of “privacy.”  This formed a small place for liberal activists to get a foothold and then push for reform in the 1970s.

4) While the media perpetuated the tenets of the 1960s/70s sexual revolution, promoting free love and using sex to sell, it also exposed the conservative nature of the laws still on the books in these countries.  This allowed the minority of activists to initiate activism.

5) This chapter has the most information and can be daunting:  Due to the explosion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, there was initially a conservative backlash.  However, Herzog argues that the very real threat to society’s health forced Europe to grow more comfortable with confronting issues of sexuality (and sexual acts themselves).  This leads to an appreciation of human sexual diversity and the privacy of one’s “bedroom,” (though we see an increased government participation in sexuality through safe sex campaigns).  Perhaps most interesting is her handling of European Islam.  As Islam spread in Europe, traditionally conservative parties, beginning in the mid 1990s, took up sexually liberal stances (on abortion and homosexuality, for example) in order to se themselves apart from the “sexually oppressive” Muslims.  Gay and lesbian Muslims were able to use the LGBT-friendly space in Europe to redefine what Islam meant for them.

My comments: This is an excellent book.  It’s well written, and packed full of information – all into 220 pages.  It’s dense in info, but still accessible and can easily be used for undergrads because while explaining different views of sexuality, she avoids the theoretical jargon.  My one complaint is that she doesn’t look at east Europeans until they become nominally “European” – until after the fall of Communism, and in some cases, until their admittance into the EU.

For more books on European history and the history of sexuality, see my list of reviews HERE. 

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Categories: Book Review, History, Modern European History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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