Sexuality in Europe: A Twentieth-Century History

February 23, 2012

Author: Dagmar Herzog

Edition: First Publisher Cambridge University Press

Pages: 238

Price: £50.00 and £16.99

ISBN: 9780521870962 and 1691437

What is the purpose of sex? Is it an outlet for lust, simply a means of reproduction, or both? Answers to this question have changed over time, reflecting the shifting of attitudes towards sexuality. Sex, then, has a history. Focusing on the 20th century, which has sometimes been called “the century of sex” because of the many signs of increasing liberalisation, Dagmar Herzog addresses some of the key questions that have preoccupied gender historians over the past few decades, unpacking common assumptions about the triumphant march of progress.

Sexuality in Europe: A Twentieth-Century History also raises some newer, interesting points of discussion: why was it, for example, that abortion was favoured over contraception as a “more moral” means of birth control at the start of the century, and yet the opposite was true at the end of the century? Why was it that over the course of the century homosexuals and prostitutes came to be rigidly defined and marginalised, whereas previously having same-sex relations or selling your body for money did not hold the same stigma or lead to being labelled as a deviant?

Through its focus on topics ranging from Fascist and Nazi policies towards women and the impact of the two world wars on gender relations, to the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and relations between the sexes in contemporary Europe, Herzog’s book provides the broader context to sexuality over the course of the century.

It complements the slightly more traditional approach to 20th-century gender relations provided by Ann Taylor Allen’s extremely helpful 2007 book Women in Twentieth Century Europe, seeking to unearth what shaped the attitudes to and the practice of sex, and to explain why the changes occurred. Students are so often presented with accounts of gender relations that focus solely on women and the story of emancipation. Although both of these topics are important, Herzog’s work furnishes a more nuanced version of events that explains the contradictions and setbacks within the process of increasing liberalisation.

Furthermore, Sexuality in Europe tackles topics that are often neglected or only mentioned cursorially, such as masturbation, lesbianism, prostitution and sex within marriage. And in exploring this less well-trammelled ground, Herzog reveals the many discrepancies between outward prevailing norms and practices in private. All of this highlights the importance of looking at the private as well as the public sphere.

Without a doubt, Herzog’s work contains some of the most recent and innovative thinking in the field and will certainly be of interest both to students and academics alike. While her writing style is clear and accessible, if Sexuality in Europe is set alongside other textbooks, the information in it may appear rather densely presented. That said, students who persevere will be richly rewarded.

Who is it for? History students of social change in 20th-century Europe and gender historians.

Presentation: There are some great illustrations, but the text is rather dense for a textbook.

Would you recommend it? Absolutely. It is as fascinating as it is groundbreaking.

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