Fout, John C. “Sexual Politics in Wilhelmine Germany: the Male Gender Crisis, Moral Purity, and Homophobia,” in Fout, John C., ed. Forbidden History: the State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Subject: A reevaluation of the fight between homosexual rights advocates and moral purity reformers in late Imperial Germany.
Main Points: In this chapter, Fout gives a good deal of biographical information on many of the leading homosexual rights advocates (Hirschfeld, Kraft-Ebbing, etc) as well as the emerging moral purity groups of the period. What makes his chapter interesting is that he argues that while the medicalization of sexuality was obviously a central issue in the story of modernity and sexuality, the role played by Protestant moral purity organizers was just as, if not more, important in shaping understandings of homosexuality (at least in Germany).
This is because Fout’s main focus – and he argues that it was the purity organizers’ focus as well – is gender norms, not “sexuality” in the form of object choice determined by biology. In this sense, “the moral purity organizations increasingly saw their role as championing the existing – and, in their minds, divinely ordained – gender order” (261). He goes on to say that the “debate was only outwardly about the sins of sexual vice; in reality it reflected an implicit crisis in gender relations, primarily in the form of a growing concern about eroding gender boundaries on the part of a large segment of the middle-class male population as well as a part of the male working class” (262).
Fout makes clear that an important part in this history is the purity organizations’ relationships with the Protestant and Catholic churches. These close ties with the Church allowed the organizations to speak with authority in restating the dominant sexual and gender paradigm (277). This paradigm called for traditional, “natural” roles: sex was procreative only, and only allowed in monogamous, heterosexual marriages. Men were meant to be hardened and masculine, dominating over the private, weak and feminine women. This is why homosexuals were seen as abhorrent, because they blurred gender divides.
While studying these organizations more closely, Fout discovers what he argues is an underlying cause for the widespread homophobia in the late years of the German Empire. 100% of membership in these organizations was men; moreover, 70% of membership had a university education; only 4% came from the working class. Therefore, the idea of “normality” that these organizations were campaigning for was a very specific, bourgeois notion of acceptability.
Moreover, Fout argues that it was sexism that was underlying these organizations’ homophobia and overall plans. The “moral purity movement was in reality a male-dominated, clerical-led response to the growing presence of women of all classes in the workplace and in the public domain” (279). The attack on homosexuality, then, was a tool in the overall attempt to keep women in the private sphere. “The concern was to “keep men on top” literally and figuratively, and that meant the preservation of the myth of male sexual dominance and female submissiveness in all things sexual” (280). Male homosexuals threatened this dominance by transgressing gender and sexual norms by being sexually passive.
A last interesting point: Fout concludes that contrary to Hirschfeld and the entire sexology movement, which sought to establish an essentialist understanding of (homo)sexuality (that homosexuality was inborn and had existed throughout all of history), the moral purity movement advocated for what we would now call a social constructionist view of sexuality: that society and individuals could shape and define appropriate sexual behavior. “While homosexuals in part may have been victims of their biological makeup, the individual’s intellectual and moral capacities made it possible to overcome the body” (288).
My Comments: Overall, I thought this was an interesting chapter. I hadn’t read anything in much detail about the opposition to the emerging homosexual emancipation movement in late 19th century Germany (all of the stuff I’ve read tended to be very focused on the emancipation organizers themselves). I also thought it was important that Fout reminds us that homosexuality was only one of a number of issues that these moral purity organizations were concerned with.
But, the chapter left me with a couple of questions. Number one: where are the women? Of course, this is a male-dominated story, but you can’t have a chapter about “sexual politics” and never mention lesbians (or never even mention that you’re not going to mention lesbians). Did they not receive attention from these purity organizations because they weren’t seen as eroding masculinity (but what about the fact that lesbians were taking “their” women away from them and cutting men out of the picture?).
Also, I’d like to know what middle class women had to say about homosexuals – men and women. Did they view masculine lesbians as an infringement on traditional femininity? Or would scholars like Marcus and Vicinus say that there was no “lesbian” at this point in time – only a number of female-female relationships that were seen as acceptable? \
For more books on modern German history or the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews.