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  • Sexuality in Europe: A Twentieth-Century History by Dagmar Herzog
  • Robert A. Nye
Sexuality in Europe: A Twentieth-Century History. By Dagmar Herzog. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. 238. $28.99. (paper).

Dagmar Herzog’s survey of trends in the history of sexuality in twentieth-century Europe is a generous one, beginning in the late nineteenth century and ending yesterday. But it is not a simple summary of mainstream scholarship in the field. She is at pains throughout to give full coverage to the “little” countries and, where relevant, to the colonial domains of the European powers, and she includes much recherché information from multilingual European scholarly, journalistic, and web-based sources that usually escape the notice of historians. Though the amount of detail is remarkable for a survey of this kind, she does a more than adequate job of keeping her main themes in focus. [End Page 131]

Herzog has not written the history of sexuality as the simple history of its liberalization. She wishes to show that since the first steps in that direction were taken in the late nineteenth century, social upheaval, wars, repressive political regimes, religious revivals, and ethnic nationalisms have slowed or sometimes reversed the expansion of sexual pleasure and personal autonomy by implementing cultural, political, or religious injunctions that attempted to confine sexual desire to marital sexual reproduction. Though there has always been a political dimension to public discourse on sexuality, Herzog stresses that sexuality took on far greater political, symbolic, and metaphorical significance in the democratizing and modernizing countries of Western Europe when normative gender roles, sexual minorities, and nonmainstream sexual practices were first widely discussed.

The conflicts between conservatives and sexual reformers on abortion, homosexuality, and the gender double standard are astutely placed in national, legal, and religious contexts. Herzog observes the ironies of the debates in which abortion and homosexuality were opposed but never, or only tardily, criminalized, as in France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands; focuses on the eugenic and medical direction taken by sex reformers in Scandinavian countries; and discusses the strange alliances that surfaced in the struggles between regulationists and abolitionists over prostitution and contraception. Invariably, the discourses in which reform or resistance to these issues were articulated were embedded within a larger set of concerns about power, social class, or demographic trends in which the fate of the nation-state itself was seen to be at stake. While addressing these general themes, Herzog does a remarkable job following the chief legal, regulatory, and judicial developments in most European nations, which she correlates with religion, social and economic life, and cultural traditions.

She follows several secular trends in European nations that were largely independent of legal regulation or religious control. One of these was the gradual shift in middle-class men’s search for sexual satisfaction from prostitutes and lower-class women to premarital sex and wives in more egalitarian, eroticized marriages. A parallel shift from the attractions of difference to the appeals of similarity also shaped homosexual desire. Straight adult men who sought out younger or lower-class partners for casual sex did not necessarily compromise their masculine identities or enjoin penal sanction, but by the 1920s “straight” and “gay” had become more rigid categories of selfhood, with the result that gay men began to pair off (discreetly) with other adult males, and straight men increasingly sought out women of their own age and class. With some exceptions, lesbianism was always less threatening than male homosexuality and thus attracted fewer efforts at regulation and control, but Herzog accounts for the exceptions to all these trends by reference to demography, modernization, or cultural or ethnic reactions to political upheaval. [End Page 132]

Herzog demonstrates that liberal legal and social advances in the sexual realm have been extraordinarily fragile, depending as they do on political stability, advances in consumption and economic stability, and the retreat of conservative religious and moral authority. The world wars had the effect of scrambling and complicating liberalization. Mass conscription and the separation of lovers and spouses, and the partial inversion of gender roles in wartime offered new opportunities for wartime experimentation but also privation, escalation in sexual violence, and postwar waves of...


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pp. 131-133
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