A decade ago, it was a challenge to find English-language books dealing with sexuality in Germany. Happily, a number of excellent works have appeared since then to fill the gap.1 A welcome addition to this list is Josie McLellan’s new book on sexuality in East Germany. Not only does it focus on the 1960s and 1970s—a period that still has not been researched heavily—but it also allows for interesting comparisons with changes taking place at the same time in western Europe.
Given what Americans often assume about the monolithic nature of totalitarianism, many readers will be surprised at how far the sexual revolution went in East Germany. Certainly, many of the features of what we think of as the sexual revolution failed to materialize behind the “Iron Curtain.” The state-controlled media kept erotica and pornographic publications from establishing a significant presence. The inability to organize free political and social organizations also severely hampered the ability to organize a homosexual movement. Moreover, the lack of a free market made the commercial sex offerings of the West (sex shops, X-rated movie theaters, gay bars, and striptease nightclubs, for example) almost entirely absent from East German cities. Despite these real differences, however, many transformations will seem surprisingly familiar: the divorce rate climbed steadily, nudist beaches spread along the coast, and more erotic material appeared in the state-controlled media than one might guess.
Dagmar Herzog has argued that East Germany underwent a sexual “evolution,” not revolution, but McLellan disputes this claim: “By insisting that a ‘sexual revolution’ did not take place in East Germany, we risk drawing a false dichotomy between East and West” (9). In fact, her book requires us to rethink our understanding of the sexual revolution more generally. Most histories tend to explain the sexual transformation of the twentieth century by linking it with the growing affluence of society, democratization, commercialization, and the transformation of discourses about sexuality. Since none of these changes happened to the same extent or in quite the same way in Communist Europe, though, the fact that a sexual revolution still took place suggests that there were some deeper social changes happening that drove new sexual behaviors and attitudes. In her analysis, McLellan searches [End Page 315] for a “bottom-up model of the sexual revolution” that led “ordinary people” to make “changes in their lives for private, often practical reasons” (11).
The state plays a critical yet ambiguous role in McLellan’s story. After a decade of “building socialism” in the previous Soviet sector of Germany, the state began to integrate some aspects of a more positive evaluation of sexuality into its culture and state policy during the 1960s. Although there was still an effort for some time to distance East Germany from the commercialized sexuality coming from the West, the Communist Party did embrace “healthy” sexuality as a natural attraction among young people, a critical aspect of loving relationships, and one of the freedoms and joys of socialism. Nude bathing was increasingly adopted by the East German population, and nude photos became a not uncommon sight in some of the available publications. By the early 1970s, a number of legal changes—including the decriminalization of homosexuality and the liberalization of abortion—suggested a fundamental reorientation of the state toward sexuality. “The GDR claimed to be the champion of love and intimacy,” McLellan notes, “and often proclaimed its moral superiority to the West in this regard” (83).
Nonetheless, there were real limits to Communism’s tolerance and sexual enlightenment. Although it was not illegal to have homosexual relationships after 1968, without the ability to organize clubs to fight prejudice, institutions to facilitate relationships, or events to raise public awareness about the problems that homosexuals faced, gay and lesbian East Germans still encountered very difficult circumstances in their lives. What nude photos were published in the East German press often revealed how deeply certain gendered stereotypes were still rooted in the culture: “Nude models were, as a...