The Tumultuous History of Sexuality in 20th and 21st Century Europe

Dagmar Herzog discusses the “Century of Sex” in Wassong Lecture

HARTFORD, CT, April 25, 2013 – It’s common for most people to look back on the 20th century and think of it as the age of sexual liberalization, said historian Dagmar Herzog in the 16th annual Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture in European and American Art. But to do so would be wrong.

On the contrary, the 20th century was highly complex and often contradictory in its views of sexual rights, homosexuality, contraception, the eroticization of marriage, premarital sex, abortion, sexual imagery, prostitution, sexual violence, and a host of other issues that were intertwined with historical, political and religious events, said Herzog, Distinguished Professor of History and the Daniel Rose Faculty Scholar at the Graduate Center City University of New York.


Pictured from left to right are Sara Kippur, assistant professor of language and culture studies; Joseph F. Wassong, Jr., '59; his wife, Rebecca Skinner; Dagmar Herzog, Distinguished Professor of History and the Daniel Rose Faculty Scholar at the Graduate Center, City University of New York; Trinity President James F. Jones, Jr.; and Erik Vogt, Gwendolyn Miles Smith Professor of Philosophy.

Herzog was on hand Monday to discuss her book, Sexuality in Europe: A Twentieth-Century History, which has been described as “an original book [that] brings a fascinating and accessible new account of the tumultuous history of sexuality in Europe from the waning of Victorianism to the collapse of Communism and the rise of European Islam.” 

A 2012 John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, Herzog is currently a Visiting Research Scholar at the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University.

In her opening remarks, Herzog told her audience that there are three critical issues to keep in mind when thinking about the history of sexuality in Europe. The first deals with the grassroots appeal of sexual conservatism or the “backlashes” against liberalization. Many of those backlashes were closely linked to the political status quo of the time, such as National Socialism in Germany and Austria, fascism in Italy and Stalinism in the Soviet Union.

The second, said Herzog, were the problems embedded in the liberalizing efforts. For example, there was “horrifically disdainful discrimination against the disabled and against people of color in many lands that was used for much of the 20th century to justify the promotion of contraceptives.”

Third, there was the matter of “ambivalences,” she said, adding, “sex does not always make people happy.” Sex, she said, can involve conflicting feelings, such as ecstasy, delight, excitement, security, satisfaction, longing, vulnerability, jealousy, boredom and even repulsion.

Herzog went on to explain that the 20th century can be broken down into five historic phases, beginning with the first 20 years or so when “ordinary people were demanding their sexual rights.” Interestingly, abortion was considered less immoral than contraception. The period was also marked by the beginnings of research into sex.

The second phase, 1925 through 1945, witnessed a “top down” approach, with governments seeking to suppress peoples’ right and tighten restrictions on contraception and abortion. The political movements of the time were hugely influential, as the Nazis, for example, turned synagogues into brothels.

The third phase, 1945 through 1965 witnessed a post-war retrenchment and a return to conservatism. Marriage was in vogue again. The period 1965 to 1985 could be summed up in one of the slogans of the era: make love, not war. It was dominated by the “morality of pleasure” and was “the heyday of the sexual revolution.”

The final phase, from the 80s to the turn of the century was dominated by concerns over HIV/AIDS, sexual promiscuity and sexually transmitted disease. 

Also, the collapse of Communism had a huge impact on the history of sexuality of Europe. “There was a tremendous hostility to western values” among the residents who were living in countries formerly under the thumb of the Soviet Union, said Herzog. Homophobia was rampant, as was pornography. Nationalism was on the upswing as people rebelled against cross-cultural marriage.

In the end, said Herzog, she hoped that her book helped “emphasize the complexity of emotions brought to the topic and practice of sex – the yearnings, anxieties, and envies as well as the joys and delights.”

Its aim, she said, “was to help readers understand better things that are usually so confusing: from the disappointments as well as the electric excitements felt in the midst of the sexual revolution to the unexpected but wonderful recent return of romance in the midst of the ever-growing commercialization of sex in the era of Viagra, vibrators, and the Internet.” 

Herzog has published widely on the history of religion in Europe and the United States, on the Holocaust and its aftermath, and on the histories of gender and sexuality.

In addition to her latest book, Herzog is the author of Sex in Crisis: The New Sexual Revolution and the Future of American Politics; and Sex After Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany. She has edited six anthologies, including Brutality and Desire: War and Sexuality in Europe’s Twentieth Century and Lessons and Legacies VII: The Holocaust in International Perspective.

She has worked as a columnist, covering American politics for the Berlin-based die tagezeitung, and was recently appointed a member of the Board of Editors of the American Historical Review. Herzog is at work on a new project on the European and American histories of psychoanalysis, trauma and desire.

The Shirley G. Wassong Memorial Lecture in European and American Art, Culture and History is an outgrowth of a fund established in 1996 in her memory by friends, family and her husband, Joseph F. Wassong, Jr., ’59. The annual lecture features members of Trinity’s faculty and guest scholars in alternating years. The lecturers are from various academic disciplines, and their topics range from antiquity to the present day. This year’s event marks the 16th Wassong Memorial Lecture.

Joseph Wassong majored in history at Trinity, received his M.A. in history from Columbia University, and spent his career teaching at Naugatuck Valley Community College before retiring in 1999. Shirley Wassong was a graduate of Bryant College and spent her career as a dental assistant. She was a volunteer at St. Thomas Church in Thomaston, CT, the Thomaston Library, and the Thomaston Visiting Nurses Association. She was a member of the Connecticut Historical Society and, at the time of her death in 1995, was the curator of the Thomaston Historical Society.

Click here​ for photos from the event.