- Twentieth-Century Sexuality: A History
In Twentieth Century Sexuality: A History, Angus McLaren succeeds in accomplishing in a little over two hundred pages exactly what his title promises; to provide a history of twentieth century sexuality, at least in the West. And in the process of reaching this ambitious goal, he gives us vast stimulation and food for thought.
McLaren has therefore written a very important book and one that crackles with insights while being as comprehensive as can be imagined. As such, his work is quite unique, with considerable strengths. This is all the more so because McLaren sets up certain ground rules. McLaren here writes a rare international history, insisting, rightly, that national histories “can blind us to the more important sex and gender conventions that the nations of Western Europe and North America share”. (p3) McLaren practises what he preaches and his blending together of international trends is one of the most effective parts of the book. Also McLaren makes good his promise that his book will not be “historically impoverished” like many others by expanding on the key international themes in the history of sexuality since 1900. Each chapter represents a different discourse underlying his core premise that “there is no truth about sex to be discovered” (p5). The First World War established the theme of “sexual panic” that has so characterised the Twentieth century as in the 1920’s fears of “hypersexual youths” drove policing of young people in Europe and America and a youth culture emerged on the back of an incipient and U.S.-led mass culture.
In the 1920’s too, marriage manuals proliferated as a stream of advice poured out aiming to ensure marital success in an era of “great expectations” amidst radical calls to prevent “race suicide” by legalising birth control and abortion as a means to family stability. As this “compulsory heterosexuality” developed a counter discourse appeared that identified “mannish women” and “effeminate men”, that is homosexuals, as an “other” group on the outskirts of society.
Then in two stunning chapters, McLaren turns his attention to Freud and the Nazis. Freud came to prominence in a context where sexual science was beginning to undermine the notion that reproductive heterosexuality was a natural given. With particular reference to his work on the frigid woman, McLaren discusses how Freud cast even more doubt on this by showing that the reproductive instinct was “the result of a variety of psychic combinations and developmental processes”. (p123). This further divorced reproduction and procreation from sexuality. At the forefront of international sex reform was the Weimar Republic. In this context of fears of racial suicide and expanding sexual boundaries there emerged the Nazi attempt to force women back into traditional roles and to impose a strict system of eugenics-led reproduction on Germany, [End Page 501] most notoriously manifested in the SS Lebensborn program. Hence Germany, which before 1933 led the world in sex reform, after 1933 headed a conservative reaction.
Since 1945, the leader in changes in sexual discourse has been the United States. Other nations were either in sync with or behind the Americans in this regard. McLaren rightly identifies Kinsey as in the vanguard. His matter of fact reduction of sexuality to a variety of outlets for orgasm divorced procreation from sex altogether and publicised internationally the prevalence of homosexuality. But, equally (and much more dubiously) the United States in the 1950s took over the discourse of reaction that the Nazis had pursued so effectively: hence the Cold War sex panic over heterosexuality echoed the Nazi persecution just fifteen years earlier. McLaren is able to make this observation because he understands the context in which Hitler appeared—“the Nazis invented very little” (p140). This is useful because we see the Nazis’ sexual policy as a genuine product of culture and history. But McLaren, by doing this, also enters into debates about the peculiarity of Nazism which are best left for elsewhere. McLaren handles the sexual revolution of the 1960s/1970s very well too. He piles on a mass of facts...