by Joshua McGuffie*
On Wednesday, February 19th, Dr. Dagmar Herzog, of the City University of New York, graced Oregon State with her lecture, “Sexuality in Europe: A 20th-Century History and a History of the Present.” She offered a lighthearted but academically thorough treatment of themes in European understandings of sexuality. In her lecture, Dr. Herzog focused on two concerns: first, the history and periodization of sexuality in the 20th Century and second, recent history and the path into the future.
After noting that “people are still made tense by a free and open discussion of sexuality,” Dr. Herzog launched into her talk, reminding the audience that the 20th Century has been called the “century of sex.” As such, the century has been characterized by a general liberalizing trend punctuated with sexually conservative backlashes. Sex, Dr. Herzog argued, became built into everything. Identity, privacy, civil rights, secularization, commerce and politics have internalized sex as a key theme. “Sex ends up annexing” almost every part of life in 20th Century Europe.
How did this happen?
Dr. Herzog’s breaks the 20th Century into five periods. The first, from 1900 to 1925, was a time of sexual yearning, perhaps a revolt against Victorian mores! Importantly, during this period the move was made to separate sex from reproduction in a meaningful way. Abortion and abortive actions were, at least by the working class, not stigmatized. Prostitution declined as pre-marital sex increased.
From 1925 to 1945, however, a backlash occurred. States, liberal, fascist, and communist, all enacted programs to channel the populace’s sexual energy. Abortion restrictions and the criminalization of homosexuality abounded. Nazi and fascist notions of eugenics fueled state incursions into sex in diabolical ways. In Germany a sexual schizophrenia developed, as the government encouraged sexuality in the desirable while eschewing it for the undesirable. Liberalization faltered across the continent.
The postwar swing, from 1945 to 1965, can be seen as conservative, but certainly not to the extent of the fascist years. Dr. Herzog referred to “postwar retrenchment and domesticity.” Hardly what one might consider liberal sexual themes. Yet, in spite of popular conservative sentiment, liberal activists gained steam during this staid period.
The years from 1965 to 1980 earned the tag “make love, not war!” Dr. Herzog challenged the audience to take this claim seriously. Activists, particularly anti-war activists, really believed that in sexuality lay the solution to systematic violence. They also argued that pleasure was good. Dr. Herzog showed a wonderful slide showing German Catholic opposition to Pope Paul VI’s rejection of the pill. Sensuality is, one suspects, rarely an attribute associated with German Catholicism. Yet the liberalizing roots ran deep in the 1960’s and ’70’s.
Lastly, Dr. Herzog deemed the time from 1981 to 2000 the era of HIV/AIDS. This period, at first punctuated by fear, became characterized by realignment of ‘practices and partnerships.’ Liberalization continued, but in a way that acknowledged the risk of disease. Notably, public health agencies in Western European countries led the way in promoting safer sex.
Periodization complete, Dr. Herzog moved on to a “what now” kind of reflection to wrap up the lecture. She pointed out trends in Eastern European sexual views after the fall of Communism. With the resurgence of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, many former Soviet block nations experienced a surge in conservatism. Poland notably became exceedingly anti-abortion. Romania only liberalized laws regarding homosexuality based on pressure from the EU. Fascism and homophobia have been wed in nefarious ways by nationalistic politicians and political groups. Much of these moves have an anti-Western flavor. So, one of the current challenges for understanding sexuality in Europe involves understanding how the Eastern countries have reacted to the invasion of Western ideals and products.
The rise of Europe’s Islamic population has further problematized questions around sexuality. Dr. Herzog discussed the irony that Western Europeans with a program for liberalizing sexuality have become, in some cases, reactionary against Muslims who are attempting to chart their own sexual course. Understanding sexuality in Europe will have to include understanding Muslim trends, which now include a robust, public, and proudly Islamic LGBT movement.
To conclude, Dr. Herzog discussed sex and ambivalence in a market world and the potential for a new Western European sexual conservatism, especially around abortion. Her treatment of this vast and potentially unwieldy topic was concise and accessible. Sexuality and opinions around sexuality certainly are complex and variable. Dr. Herzog’s contribution to this zesty topic is certainly appreciated as a voice of clarity in the midst of an often dissonant chorus.
*Joshua McGuffie is a graduate student in the History of Science program at Oregon State University