Before Porn Was Legal: The Erotica Empire of Beate Uhse

Before Porn Was Legal: The Erotica Empire of Beate Uhse

by Elizabeth Heineman

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Overview

Before Porn Was Legal: The Erotica Empire of Beate Uhse by Elizabeth Heineman

Struggling to survive in post­–World War II Germany, Beate Uhse (1919–2001)—a former Luftwaffe pilot, war widow, and young mother—turned to selling goods on the black market. A self-penned guide to the rhythm method found eager buyers and started Uhse on her path to becoming the world’s largest erotica entrepreneur. Battling restrictive legislation, powerful churches, and conservative social mores, she built a mail-order business in the 1950s that sold condoms, sex aids, self-help books, and more. The following decades brought the world’s first erotica shop, the legalization of pornography, the expansion of her business into eastern Germany, and web-based commerce.

Uhse was only one of many erotica entrepreneurs who played a role in the social and sexual revolution accompanying Germany’s transition from Nazism to liberal democracy. Tracing the activities of entrepreneurs, customers, government officials, and citizen-activists, Before Porn Was Legal brings to light the profound social, legal, and cultural changes that attended the growth of the erotica sector. Heineman’s innovative readings of governmental and industry records, oral histories, and the erotica industry’s products uncover the roots of today’s sexual marketplace and reveal the indelible ways in which sexual expression and consumption have become intertwined.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226325217
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/15/2011
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Heineman is associate professor in the Department of History and in the Department of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. She is the author of What Difference Does a Husband Make? Women and Marital Status in Nazi and Postwar Germany and editor of Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones: From the Ancient World to the Era of Human Rights.

Read an Excerpt

Before Porn Was Legal

THE EROTICA EMPIRE OF BEATE UHSE
By Elizabeth Heineman

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-32521-7


Chapter One

Introduction

Sex, Consumption, and German History

Beate Rotermund's biography is fascinating by any measure. But the story of Beate Uhse is important because it tells of social, legal, and cultural change so profound that it created a world that would have been unrecognizable just a generation earlier. And while many such momentous changes have occurred because of radical political or economic upheaval or a particularly devastating war, this one occurred in a period notable for its peace, political stability, and economic growth. Furthermore, at the center of this history was not political organization or economic change but rather sex.

The era of West Germany's economic miracle—roughly 1948 to 1973—constitutes the core of this study. In the early postwar period, Germans were too poor, and the economy too uncertain, for the erotica industry to flourish, despite the collapse of Nazi censorship. By contrast, in the early years of the Federal Republic, economic expansion created consumer demand and encouraged aggressive business practices. Increasingly integrated markets enabled West German firms to dominate international trade, even as liberal legislation permitted smaller states like Denmark and Sweden to play a major role in shaping the industry. By the time of the recession of the 1970s, the consumerist landscape had been permanently altered. Furthermore, West Germany joined other Western states in liberalizing its sexual-criminal code in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Among other things, West Germany eliminated "obscene texts and images" as a legal category and substituted "pornography," which, as of January 1, 1975, was regulated rather than banned.

Changes in the sexual environment made the world of 1975 unrecognizable from the perspective of 1950, but those changes were embedded in political, economic, social, and cultural developments, both domestic and international. And they were embedded in individual life histories, like that of Beate Rotermund. This introduction outlines the ways that the "history of sexual morals in the Federal Republic" reveals these other stories.

Learning Liberalism through Sexuality

After the Second World War, a population that had deeply internalized Nazi norms transformed itself, in a single generation, into one of the most reliably liberal societies in the world. To be sure, under its first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, West Germany embraced an authoritarian political style and upheld sharp social hierarchies. Yet in the 1950s, West Germans became acquainted with parliamentary rules of play, party politics, and pluralism—all in a context of increasing wealth and stability, unlike their experience in the Weimar Republic (1919–33). Social and cultural changes brought popular internalization of liberal values in the 1960s and 1970s. Historian Ulrich Herbert has called this "liberalization as a learning process."

At both the political and the popular level, sexuality was a site for learning liberalism, not a matter to be reformed once liberalism was learned. In the eighteenth century, practitioners of civil society understood male virility as the basis of married men's authority in the household; this authority underpinned their claims of autonomy against the claims of the absolutist state. The bourgeois sexual-moral order thus underlay the very notion of liberal citizenship. With the transition from absolutism to liberalism, the state became the guarantor rather than the repressor of civil society. Upholding the sexual-moral order that justified liberalism became a state function, even though, after a few radical experiments, secular law regarding such matters as homosexuality, adultery, divorce, and contraception differed little from church law. Yet liberalism's language of equality before the law complicated matters: why should women, homosexuals, and men too poor to support their own households be lesser citizens? The tension between the state's role in upholding a sexual-moral order giving married men a monopoly on full citizenship, on the one hand, and liberalism's claims of equality, on the other, has not been fully resolved to this day.

In the nineteenth century, the enfranchisement of unpropertied men awarded active citizenship to masses of people who did not adhere to bourgeois notions of propriety. Protesting the legal double standard for men and women, feminists gained increased rights for women and, in the early twentieth century, the vote in many places. At the same time, industrialization and urbanization created new sexualized spaces and mass markets. Moral purity activists battled what they saw as the corruptions of liberalism, where the enfranchisement of women and working-class men, socialized by tawdry consumer culture, was liberalism's logical and dangerous consequence. The Papal Encyclical of 1864 denounced liberalism as incompatible with Catholicism, and Protestants also numbered among antiliberal moral purity activists. In the context of this "moral panic," Western states across the political spectrum tightened their obscenity legislation. The United States, with the world's most liberal political structures at the time, in 1873 adopted the Comstock Act, which barred the dissemination of "obscenity" through the mails, effectively banning contraception. In 1871, a newly unified Germany, dominated by illiberal Prussia, adopted Prussian legislation on matters ranging from same-sex acts to prostitution, overturning more liberal standards in states such as Baden. In 1900, Germany adopted the Lex Heinze, which among other things banned the dissemination of obscene texts and images.

The political crises of the twentieth century, however, changed the equation. Although Christian conservatives—by the 1920s worried not only about liberalism but also about communism—exhibited sympathies to fascism between the wars, World War II led them to see "godless" communism and fascism as twin dangers. Where conservatives had previously seen liberalism as threatening the sexual-moral order, they now considered a sexual-moral order necessary to defend liberalism against Communism or Nazism. So, for example, West German conservatives secured the passage of the Law on the Dissemination of Youth-Endangering Texts and Images in 1953. Conservatives hoped this law would help youth to gain a firm moral sensibility that would protect them from the temptations of political radicalism. Those who considered civil liberties central to liberalism also compared a liberal sexual culture favorably to the situation under Communism, but on different terms, contrasting their society's relative openness with East Germany's intolerance of a sexualized youth culture. In West Germany, the term Rechtsgut, or "object of the law," encapsulated the liberal notion that the proper concern of the law was to protect individuals and the community from harm, not to preserve a moral order. Still, liberals took for granted that a well-functioning society required some sort of sexual-moral order. Those who would liberalize the law did not want the state dictating morality; they presumed that a mature citizenry would regulate itself.

After World War II, liberals and conservatives differed culturally on what range of behaviors constituted a healthy sexual-moral order, and they differed politically on the proper role of the state in shaping that sexuality. They wrestled, however, with the exact same questions: how to balance liberalism's reliance on a sexual-moral order, on the one hand, and its promise of individual freedom, on the other. Major legislation typically brought party-line votes, with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) backing preservation of the sexual-moral order and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Free Democratic Party (FDP) prioritizing civil liberties, but members of all parties struggled with the balance between the two. For that reason, this book distinguishes between "liberal" and "conservative" voices in each debate, regardless of protagonists' party affiliation.

Sexual consumer goods or erotica held a unique place in this debate. If the state wished to uphold the sexual-moral order by regulating not only behavior but also commerce, then economic liberalism—the freedom of the marketplace from state interference—was at issue. Furthermore, unlike disapproved forms of sexual behavior, such as homosexuality or premarital sex, erotica employed media and so evoked such liberal principles as freedom of the press. Finally, although erotica was often associated with illicit activity, it could also serve married couples, people educating themselves for marriage, scholars, and connoisseurs of art and literature. Some objects served medical functions. Until the "porn wave," contraceptives and informational texts were the backbone of the industry. Whether erotica strengthened or disrupted the sexual-moral order was thus open to question.

With the "porn wave" that started in 1969, arousing texts, images, and films replaced contraceptives and informative books as the lynchpin of the industry. With this shift, solitary pleasure-seekers became a more important constituency. Masturbation occupied an awkward place in the catalog of dubious sexual behaviors, since it had been identified as a major problem not by the church but rather by Enlightenment thinkers. Masturbation threatened the rational subject because of its solipsistic nature, its prioritization of fantasy over reason, and the fact that, as a purely internal and secret act, it was subject to no inherent constraints. With the rise of psychology in the twentieth century, adult masturbation came to be seen as a sign of arrested development: a failure of the path that should transform the egoistical, sensual infant into a civilized adult. In both the classical Enlightenment and the modern psychological iteration of the problem, masturbation indicated that one was unfit for civil society. A society of masturbators threatened the liberal order.

Even aside from political formation, masturbation posed a different question. Opponents to church-based restrictions on nonprocreative sex might argue that other types of sexual relations—premarital, marital with contraceptives, homosexual—served to strengthen human bonds, a worthy goal in its own right. But what social goal did masturbation serve?

While members of government and civil society debated the (de)regulation of homosexuality, divorce, and abortion, they were silent on masturbation. There was no need to debate its decriminalization, since it was not illegal. Masturbation was, however, a central subtext of debates about arousing texts and images, whose legal status was at issue. The same question that applied to other sexual activities might be applied to masturbation: whom did it harm?

As activists and legislators sorted out the relationship between liberalism and sexuality, ordinary West Germans tried to create good lives for themselves, in part by establishing satisfying sexual partnerships. During and immediately after World War II, sex outside traditional restraints had flourished, but often in contexts of suffering or violence. Most West Germans dreamt of a return to "normalcy," even if they had never experienced what they considered normal: a married couple living together; the husband earning enough to provide a few extras; the wife caring for just the right number of offspring; children untraumatized by war, bereavement, or hunger. This private vision of "normalcy" coincided with theories of the "traditional" family as a bulwark against totalitarianism, and it helps to explain the power of ideologies of domesticity across the West.

Yet wedding bells or reunification after wartime separation did not always lead couples to live happily ever after. Ensconced in their conjugal homes, couples faced problems that neither state nor church cared to address. Economic need led most to want to limit the size of their families. A poor sex education, shame, and sexual traumas of recent years made unsatisfying or even abhorrent sex a point of tension for many couples.

Furthermore, the fact that so few Germans had ever experienced "normalcy" had a flip side: Germans had lived through many other things. Memories of emotionally laden experiences during the Nazi years left a yearning for something more than security—at least, once security was assured, and as long as it was not endangered in the search for "something more." Associated with stability, the family was a safe place in which to seek intensely felt experience—unlike the mass political movements in which so many Germans had earlier sought "something more" and which still constituted a frightening counterexample to the East. With fewer married mothers working for pay than ever before, an ideology of masculinity serving the family rather than the nation, and the domestication of leisure, more time with children was one way of intensifying family experience. Deeper bonds with one's spouse was another. For established couples, a more powerful erotic bond offered intensely felt experience in a stable setting. At a time when nearly all political parties intoned women's equality while insisting on distinct roles for men and women, concern for erotic pleasure made men and women equally important, even as it permitted—even celebrated—biological difference and distinct functions. The "privatization of emotion" promised to quell some of the dangers of public emotion.

Neither state nor church offered any help to people who were sexually alive but unwed. There were gay men and lesbians, straight lovers who could not marry, and "surplus" women left by male deaths in the war. There were young people who wanted to learn about sex even if they did not want to have it yet, or who desired sex although they were not ready for marriage. These young people, with their enforced sexual ignorance, became West Germany's married couples. Even if church and state approved of marital sexuality, a wedding ceremony did not magically transform sexually ignorant single people into knowledgeable and confident spouses.

For married couples and single people alike, sex was usually about personal happiness, not the health of the state or God's plan. This prioritization of the individual ran counter to authoritative structures, and it was part of the process by which West Germans began to internalize liberal values.

The history of emotion is thus closely tied to the history of liberalism. Germans had recently emerged from an emotionally illiberal regime. The Nazis had choreographed public displays of emotion while penalizing deviant expressions of emotion, whether utterances of opposition to the regime, sympathy toward a member of a group deemed outside the national community, or "defeatist" words about the war. Expressions of certain political sentiments were risky after 1945, but the Federal Republic had few state-imposed strictures against expressions of emotion.

Still, in both regimes, emotional suffering might coincide with the imposition of state penalties. In Nazi Germany, the goal of safety for oneself and one's family might conflict with the goal of remaining true to deeply held political, religious, or ethical convictions. In the Federal Republic, the goal of retaining a secure place among family and friends might conflict with the goal of fulfilling erotic and emotional longing for someone of the same sex. The Jehovah's Witness who followed her conscience in Nazi Germany, like the gay man who followed his erotic desires in the Federal Republic, risked state-imposed penalties.

Yet even when state-imposed penalties did not come to pass, emotional suffering—the inner torment individuals experience when two or more high-priority personal goals are irreconcilable—could be crushing. Consider the Jehovah's Witness who survived the Third Reich by renouncing her faith, the gay man in either regime who remained celibate out of fear of arrest, or the war widow who cohabitated with her lover because marriage would terminate her widow's pension, only to be snubbed by her neighbors. Importantly, the scenarios continue within marriage: the couple who wanted to limit the size of their family but equally wanted to remain faithful to the dictates of the Catholic Church; the woman who loved her husband but abhorred sex.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Before Porn Was Legal by Elizabeth Heineman Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments       

Prelude: The Beate Uhse Myth 

1          Introduction: Sex, Consumption, and German History   

2          The Permissive Prudish State   

3          The Economic Miracle in the Bedroom 

4          Interlude: The Beate Uhse Myth           

5          The Sex Wave 

6          The Porn Wave           

7          Postlude: The Beate Uhse Myth           

Interviews        

Abbreviations  

Notes  

Index

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