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  • Sexual Knowledge: Feeling, Fact, and Social Reform in Vienna, 1900–1934 by Britta McEwen
  • Nancy M. Wingfield
Sexual Knowledge: Feeling, Fact, and Social Reform in Vienna, 1900–1934. By Britta McEwen. New York: Berghahn, 2012. Pp. 240. $90.00 (cloth).

This book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on gender and sexuality in Habsburg central Europe. Like so many others on the topic, the volume focuses on Vienna. Britta McEwen argues that the imperial capital’s unique intellectual, political, and religious traditions had great impact on the transformation of sexual knowledge in the early twentieth century. Her analysis of sexual knowledge reveals how the progressive postwar state defined sexuality in scientific terms. Following a detailed introduction, which begins with a vignette of the interaction between Ida Bauer (“Dora”) and her doctor, Sigmund Freud, to exemplify Vienna as a “laboratory for sexual knowledge,” the book is divided into six topical chapters. They range from “City Hall and Sexual Hygiene in Red Vienna” through “Popular Sexual Knowledge for and about Women” to “Clinic Culture.” A brief conclusion follows.

The first chapter addresses postwar social-democratic city hall sexual hygiene politics, when “healthy” sex became a state concern. The newly established public health and welfare office under the leadership of Julius Tandler shaped municipal health and welfare policy to strengthen and replenish the population, because Vienna’s birthrate had dropped precipitously [End Page 163] during World War I. In the second and third chapters, McEwen analyzes sexual education. In the former, she provides a fascinating discussion of the development of—and varied attitudes toward—practices of sex education for children in republican Austria. The literature on sexual enlightenment could be adapted to both political and religious needs, and both Catholic and socialist pedagogues agreed that sexual desire in young people should be sublimated through physical exertion. Indeed, the idea of sexual education as prevention—against disease or sin—predominated between the wars. The latter chapter addresses sexual information for adults, with sexual knowledge transformed from a medical discourse in the late Habsburg Monarchy to a popular reform movement that was both addressed to and about women. In chapter 4, McEwen returns to municipal medical care in her discussion of clinical culture. During the 1920s sexual information was increasingly disseminated at clinics, whose development McEwen details. Viennese residents sought a variety of kinds of sexual knowledge, which was delivered in a moral message, but not that of the Catholic Church.

The fifth chapter, which features Hugo Bettauer, author-journalist, deserter, divorcee, and alleged pornographer, constitutes a sort of interlude in the book. In early 1924 Julius Tandler sought to have Bettauer’s recently founded newspaper, Er und Sie: Wochenschrift für Lebenskultur und Erotik (He and she: A weekly newspaper of lifestyle reform and the erotic), censored for endangering the moral well-being of youth. Bettauer was tried and found innocent of pornography charges but was assassinated on 10 March 1925 by a Sudeten German-born nationalist who believed sexual information led to perverse sexual behavior and infection, thus endangering the national causes to which he was committed. McEwen employs the fascinating Bettauer case to exemplify the widening chasm between Social Democratic and opposition Christian Social approaches to civic culture and to challenge the narrative of monolithic Austrian Social Democratic rule in Vienna. The final chapter moves sexual knowledge onto the international stage with discussion of the fourth conference of the World League for Sexual Reform held in Vienna in 1930.

Although the book’s subtitle dates the study from 1900 to the prohibition of the Austrian Social Democratic Party following its defeat in the February 1934 Civil War, the author focuses mainly on the Republic of Austria rather than the Habsburg-era roots of the issues she discusses. The all-important war years, 1914 to 1918, are for the most part absent. The lack of discussion of wartime developments misses the opportunity to connect better the fin de siècle beginnings of the production of sexual knowledge to the developments in the postwar Austrian state. Greater attention to the war would have strengthened this book, since it disrupted traditional constraints and communal and familial monitoring mechanisms; offered...


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