- Before Porn Was Legal: The Erotic Empire of Beate Uhse by Elizabeth Heineman
Beate Uhse’s name is recognizable to anyone who has strolled through a German city. Uhse is the owner of what is arguably the world’s largest erotica firm, and her sex shops are a ubiquitous part of the landscape of modern Germany. In her fascinating study, Elizabeth Heineman demonstrates that, even more than a fixture in Germany’s consumer sex culture, Uhse’s story is an inextricable part of the history of West Germany’s sexual mores as well as the Federal Republic’s transformations from the rubble years to an economic miracle and ultimately democratic stability. Heineman argues convincingly that in the new democracy’s gradual process of liberalization, sexuality was a key site for learning liberalism. Beate Uhse’s growing empire held an important place in the political debates over the role of the state in shaping sexuality. The marketplace of sex, dominated by Uhse’s mail-order catalogs in the 1950s and the porn wave from the late 1960s into the 1970s, made sexual consumption a site for millions of West Germans not only to express their desires but also to push the state and competing political groups to prioritize civil liberties and freedom of commerce. Thus postwar West Germany was able to overcome Weimar- and Nazi-era debates over the role of the state in sexual life, as the new commercialization of sex allowed individuals to claim a space in which they could explore their desires in the free marketplace.
Heineman begins her study by analyzing West German sexual culture in the 1950s, during which time, she argues, there was no consensus on sexual morality. The lines between liberals and conservatives were not [End Page 127] clearly defined, as both sides showed concern for sexual moral order and constitutional principles, albeit from different perspectives. In addition, there was no agreement on the lessons learned from the Weimar and Nazi pasts. While Christian morality groups characterized the Nazi regime as too sexually permissive and sought legislation to prohibit what they considered obscene media, Social Democrats saw prohibition on erotica as a restriction of civil liberties that echoed Nazi-era repression. Conservatives won some victories in pushing for state-sponsored restrictions on erotic media, but legal loopholes allowed for mail-order distribution, which became the basis for firms like Beate Uhse’s to provide the fuel for West Germany’s “economic miracle in the bedroom” (61). In the 1950s and 1960s informational texts and contraceptives became the bread and butter of a sex industry that served a population struggling with the emotional effects of war and Nazism. By increasing women’s access to sex education and counseling and providing opportunities for couples to openly discuss sex, Beate Uhse’s firm was able to play a major role, Heineman argues, in the renegotiation of gender and sexual norms. At the peak of the economic miracle, half of all West German households had taken advantage of mail-order services from erotic firms, purchasing information about controlling fertility and experiencing greater pleasure. Sexuality and consumption became closely intertwined, and Beate Uhse’s firm became part of a public narrative adopted by journalists to explain the link between liberation and sexuality. Recovery from Nazism and the rubble years was a matter of searching for sexual pleasure, and sexual liberation was the antidote to totalitarianism.
Beate Uhse’s celebrity status embodied this phenomenon as West Germans went through a “sex wave” in the 1960s. By the middle of that decade, Uhse had opened over 350 shops, and 87 percent of Germans reported that they had heard of her company. Uhse’s own biography seemed to personify the new sexual sensibilities: a former pilot in the Nazi years who survived the economic trauma and the antisex environment of the 1950s, Uhse celebrated marital happiness through mutual sexual pleasure in committed relationships. By the late 1960s, however, the counterculture began to see her emphasis on marital bliss as rather unrevolutionary. With a watershed...