Before Porn was Legal: The Erotica Empire of Beate Uhse

October 13, 2011

Growing up in Cold War West Germany, teenagers would share knowing grins whenever the name Beate Uhse was mentioned: it stood for all things vaguely adult and naughty. Little did we know about the complexities that went hand in hand with that symbolic name - and that we were growing up in a time when the so-called "sex wave" had turned into something far more controversial that would antagonise parts of society.

Uhse was a household name and boasted levels of recognition in the population that most politicians can only dream of. In 1984, 94 per cent of West Germans knew of the woman who began building her erotica empire soon after the war, selling first brochures and then instructional books on sexuality and later making her name with a mail-order business. By the 1990s - not least thanks to the boost provided by a new market in the post-unification East - Uhse owned the first erotica business to trade successfully on the stock exchange.

Via a focus on one woman, Elizabeth Heineman tells an alternative story to the years of the economic miracle in the Federal Republic, beginning in the late 1940s and focusing on sexual consumer culture. This particular corner of the market was shaped by a number of entrepreneurs, legal debates and the burden of the immediate past. However, it was the intriguing marketing skills of Uhse (Beate Rotermund after her second marriage) that provided a link between the West German post-war experience - when politics was dominated by older men and pregnancy could pose a fatal dilemma - and Uhse's own colourful life story.

In three of this book's seven chapters, Heineman explores the "Beate Uhse myth" - the widowed young mother and entrepreneur who aimed to educate couples in the 1950s, the former Luftwaffe pilot who appeared to embody female emancipation, and finally the successful businesswoman whose role in disseminating and speaking in favour of pornography drew protests from feminists, among them Alice Schwarzer.

Uhse's personal narrative framework worked best in the 1950s. It is not least for this reason that the chapter "The Economic Miracle in the Bedroom" is the most revealing. It shows that at this point Uhse catered both for a substantial male market and a female one. It is the immediacy of the war experience and its trauma that lends the first decade after the Second World War a particular meaning, one that is easily forgotten amid today's predominantly commercialised lifestyles. The scene painted here includes men crippled by war, a shortage of husbands, and the widespread experience of emotional and sexual alienation after years of separation and economic anxieties.

But after the days of the economic miracle, with West Germans' lives slowly being reclaimed, matters became more complex. In the 1950s, Heineman explains, sexual consumption had been discreet but "now it became visible". While the polite language of "marital hygiene" was maintained in Uhse's publications, a division grew between the mail-order systems of earlier times and a new era of customers shopping in person.

In "The Sex Wave", Heineman explores a remarkable development: unexpectedly, the young sexual revolutionaries of the liberalising 1960s shared conservatives' distrust of Uhse's focus on pleasure. A benchmark court case, the so-called "Fanny Hill decision", and several legislative reforms finally "transformed the sex wave into a porn wave": in 1973, pornography was legalised in West Germany. The market changed for good and, says Heineman, "enlightenment gave way to voyeurism" - with explicit texts and images replacing what had once been a rather educational approach.

This is a detailed and densely woven account that carefully links West German history, legal considerations and political activism with the development of the business empires of Uhse and others. Before Porn was Legal argues that "when post-war West Germans talked about sexuality, they told a distinctively German story". It would be interesting to compare the narratives of other post-war European cultures with the particularities of the German experience, even if once business gains the upper hand, the history of sexual morals is bound to turn more international. But here, as Heineman shows, it is the rather surprising role in West German society played by a 1950s mail-order business and its particular language that is most illuminating and, surprisingly, even moving.

Before Porn was Legal: The Erotica Empire of Beate Uhse

By Elizabeth Heineman. University of Chicago Press 240pp, £22.50 ISBN 9780226325217. Published 23 August 2011

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