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  • Sexual Knowledge: Feeling, Fact and Social Reform in Vienna, 1900–1934 by Britta McEwen
  • Lutz Sauerteig
Sexual Knowledge: Feeling, Fact and Social Reform in Vienna, 1900–1934. By Britta McEwen. New York: Berghahn, 2012. Pp. 232. Cloth $90.00. ISBN 978-0857453372.

The history of Germans’ sexualities in the twentieth century is now a well-established field of historical investigation. Numerous studies have explored a broad range of topics, including prostitution and venereal diseases, homosexuality, birth control and abortion, rape and sexual murder, sex education, sexual science, and pornography. Although we have a fairly well informed understanding of the history of sexualities in twentieth-century Germany, at least for the first half of the century, not that much is known about other German speaking countries, including Austria. McEwen’s superb study about the shaping of sexual knowledge of Austrians in Vienna during the first third of the twentieth century is thus warmly welcomed.

Vienna was key to the emerging sexual sciences in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with towering figures such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Sigmund Freud setting cornerstones for the understanding of sexuality. Viennese scientists were also central to the development of a hormonal-biological explanation of the body’s sexuality. Furthermore, Vienna, like Berlin or Paris, was, with its approach to the sexualized and erotic body in art and literature, a center stage for cultural modernity. McEwen demonstrates how the shaping of sexual knowledge in Vienna witnessed a “dramatic” shift, moving “from a scientific inquiry practiced largely by medical specialists” (2) around 1900—one that generated sexual knowledge to classify pathologies and healing individuals—to a “discrete social reform action” (179) in the new Republic of Austria during the interwar years. The latter aimed to treat the social body by focusing on a damaged, diseased, and impoverished Viennese population.

The first chapter sets the stage by analyzing Vienna’s public health policies. McEwen shows how the framework changed from a Catholic-guided focus on sexual continence before World War I to Social Democratic policies emphasizing individual [End Page 196] responsibility for sexual health. A key figure was the physician and Social Democrat, Julius Tandler, who became the head of Vienna’s Welfare Office during the interwar years. Tandler implemented a social medicine that was informed by eugenic ideas, population policies, disease prevention (in particular venereal diseases), marriage counseling, and “family surveillance” (36). Against Catholic opposition, Tandler and the Social Democratic government forced a policy shift toward individual responsibility for reproductive choices in the interest of the state and the common good.

The second chapter charts a specific Austrian approach toward sex education of the young. After World War I, Viennese Social Democrats and reformist educators strongly argued for a more medically informed approach to sex education. In response, Catholic educators developed “new approaches to the familiar themes of purity and heavenly love” (54). The increased interest in sex education not only spurred pedagogical debates but also resulted in a wide range of popular sex education publications for the young. Despite persisting differences between reformists and Catholics about procreation, McEwen reveals an emphasis, on both sides of the debate, on the “naturalness” of (heterosexual) sex, “the re-construction of motherhood, and the overwhelming necessity of purity and individual responsibility” (54), in particular with regard to the spread of venereal diseases.

The subsequent three chapters discuss different modes of mediating sexual knowledge for adults, starting with sex advice literature. As McEwen shows, one of the main purposes of advice literature for and about women was to educate them about how to protect their reproductive capacities. Reproductive and sexual knowledge was conveyed to women through both a medico-scientific approach and the mode of melodramatic narratives. Despite strong resistance from the Catholic Church, popular media propagated the idea of sexual partnership in a “companionate marriage” (19).

A new approach to mediating sexual knowledge emerged in the 1920s: the advice clinic. McEwen speaks of a new “clinical culture” (119) of sex and marriage advice, which she situates between the physician’s practice and the confessional. Traditional Catholic authority over marriage was soon challenged in Vienna by secular municipal marriage advice that competed with independent and even more...


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