Chapter One


During the twentieth century, the Western world saw some major changes in sexual practices and ideologies. The first and foremost was a heterosexualization of society – the monogamous heterosexual couple became the social standard. The older patriarchal model of marriage and family was replaced by a new version of couple relations that combined love and sex and demanded the equality of male and female lovers. The second change came with women’s sexual emancipation, although it did not mean that men and women would be seen as equal in the field of sexuality. The old biological conviction that men are the more sexual and women the more loving human beings persisted, creating many misunderstandings in heterosexual relations. The third development was the emancipation of homosexuality from a category of sin, crime and pathology to something next to normal. The fourth development was an increased visibility of sexuality in the media, in the arts, on the streets and elsewhere. Growing emancipation and visibility did not mean that puritanical attitudes changed that much – a fifth evident element could best be described as a lack of development in morals. Heterosexual coitus remained the norm, and other sexual pleasures are, in varying degrees, rejected. All over the West, it seemed that sexual liberalism was on the rise, but at the same time the number of moral panics, sex laws, crimes and criminals continued to grow rapidly. Of course, these changes did not mean that sexual citizens did not pursue sexual pleasures beyond social norms or enjoy tabooed erotic possibilities (see for overviews D’Emilio & Freedman 1988; Eder e.a. 1999; Hall 2000; Eder 2001).


In the late-nineteenth century, psychiatrists began to write about “perversions”, often in close cooperation with the subjects involved, including many male homosexuals and masochists. The invention of the perversions − sadism, masochism, fetishism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, zoöphilia (bestiality), nymphomania, homosexuality, lesbianism, pedophilia, necrophilia, and so on − was soon followed by a concern that many youngsters, who were seen as “sexually indifferent” or “polymorphous perverse”, would deviate from the right road of marriage, heterosexuality and reproduction. An effort was needed to sexually discipline youth not to be seduced by sexual diversity. Psychoanalysis showed how difficult this might be, and Sigmund Freud developed an “Oedipal” model of sexual development that started with polymorphous perversity and that ideally ended with a monogamous, reproductive relationship with clearly defined male and female roles. Although Freud used the word heterosexual, coined in 1869, as counterpoint to homosexual, he mostly referred to normal, which meant that heterosexuality was not just statistically the most common, but was considered in the first place socially normative behavior. This straight social obligation was, in the case of Freud, intertwined with traditional gender norms for males and females. He was well aware of the many difficulties on the path to the Oedipal triangle, but saw it as fundamental to civilized society. Individuals would have to overcome their perverse inclinations to become healthy heterosexuals (Freud 1905; Katz 1995; Tin 2008).

Although the work of Freud and the early sexologists met with resistance as they underlined a psychic and social world of infantile pleasures and sexual diversity, the answer on how to prevent “perversions” would be developed over the century. Initially, the straight norm remained unmentioned as such, but was rather explained as “natural”, an understanding which was tied to the most common interpretation of Darwinism, as being propelled by heterosexual selection. On the other hand, the perversions were depicted as unhealthy, dangerous, abject or scandalous; something no rational or bourgeois person would ever engage in. Only homosexuals could find supportive texts and examples in the margins of the mainstream. The media began to play a growing role in creating moral panics on sexual deviancy, starting with Oscar Wilde in 1895 and the Eulenburg-circle in 1907-8. Socialists used such scandals to put capitalism, church and aristocracy in the pillory for their sexual degeneracy. The Freudo-Marxist ideals of sexual utopians like those of Wilhelm Reich and the progressive Soviet writers were monogamy, heterosexuality and reproduction with the safety valve of divorce if such relations proved to be unhappy. Apart from the last point, Christians would not disagree with the socialists. A general line in socialist thought was the facilitation of relations between boys and girls to enhance heterosexuality and to prevent perversion; the homosociality of bourgeois society would supposedly only breed sexual aberrations, and male bonding in particular. Sex education in schools and for adults focused on biological facts that always concluded with straight morality. Regardless of how books such as Married Love (1918) by Marie Stopes, Ideal Marriage (1926) by Theodoor Hendrik van de Velde and all kinds of anatomy books with realistic depictions of the genitals might have been regarded as scandalous in their time, the message was an idealization of the heterosexual couple – in Stopes’ case combined with an ideal of planned parenthood. < figure 1 > Socialists and progressives of all kinds were supportive of women’s emancipation and propagated some sexual equality of the sexes, although both biological and feminist ideas on the differences between the sexes always complicated the struggle for gender equality. An exception to this straight and marital morality was offered by a few anarchists who defended free love for both genders and sexual orientations and opposed state interference in intimate life (Kissack 2008)

One of the main catalysts of heterosexualization was a tighter control of youngsters both in the nuclear family and in education. Especially after the Second World War and the sexual revolution, the nuclear family became more insulated; family members outside of parents and children were put at a distance, while household servants disappeared and the distance between workplace and home increased. Education was extended into and beyond puberty, and the school, more than the street or workplace, taught youth the lessons of life in this essential period of sexual awakening. The streets of cities and villages were typically places where ages and classes mixed, while the school was age-stratified and built on predominantly middle-class norms. Co-education was another way to promote straight norms and prevent the homosexual promiscuity of boys and girls among themselves. Other disciplinary institutions followed the same path of combating homosexual promiscuity. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, in prisons solitary incarceration was preferred above group cells to prevent same-sexual practices. The more repressive systems, however, used prison homosexuality as a way to control inmates by rewarding straight machos and punishing queens and punks who were used as sex objects by the first group (Kunzel 2008). In the Second World War, armies started to exclude homosexual men as risk factors for both mental disorders and treason (Bérubé 1990). < figure 2 >

The old marital norm had been represented as a reproductive couple with a working husband, and a wife responsible for the household and obedient to her spouse. Marriage was generally a dull affair in terms of love and sex and often a total dead end for women. The new heterosexual norm started with the idea of the necessity of sexual pleasure for the couple, and later took on an ideal of sexual equality between husband and wife. Marriage changed from an affair controlled by the larger family and became more the choice of the partners, with parents loosing influence over the young couple. In the past marriage and sex came first, then love might develop. In more recent times, love has become the precondition for the sexual life of a couple and weddings have become unessential. The development away from marriages arranged by, and integrated in, families and ruled by gender inequality shifted to loving, equal and more isolated couples whose primary aim was no longer reproduction − this was the major sexual revolution of the second half of the nineteenth century. It also meant that same-sex marriages became more feasible – the first civil unions for gay and lesbian couples were introduced in Denmark in 1989 while marriage was opened up for same-sex couples in the Netherlands in 2001.

Ideals of romantic love were still largely asexual in the early nineteenth century and could be both homosocial and heterosocial. From then on feminists and socialists deployed this as a model for marriage and started to include sexuality – but only between males and females. The contemporary ideology − that love and sex should be combined − was rather unthinkable in a past when love was about equal relations and sex about unequal ones. In those days, love and sex were considered opposites and not part of the same relationship. The deepest emotional bonds were often within, not between, genders. Boarding schools and fraternities created intimate friendships that some considered the foundation of public and political life. These bonds were valued above marriage because they were spiritual rather than physical. The new utopian ideals of socialists and feminists, who strived for better and more equal straight relations, became normative with the sexual revolution of the ‘60s. Multiple intragender attachments were replaced by single intergender ones. Apart from the gay worlds, places like the sports field now offer the main but meager possibility for men to experience homosocial intimacy, while women continued to have more opportunities to form special bonds, for example in friendships or female professions. Heterosexualization was building on the heterosocialization of society, and vice versa. Although there was no need to foster the sexual emancipation of women along heterssexual lines, this became the norm for reproductive and political-demographic reasons. While the change from marital to heterosexual norms may have been momentous, sexual diversity remained abject. Homosociality is now on the decline and heterosociality on the rise in most social fields.

The heterosexual couple who shared equality, and combined love and sex became the standard in the Western world (as eulogized by Anthony Giddens as “pure relation” (1990)), although patriarchal attitudes of men linger on in many intimate relations. This signaled a major sexual revolution. In the past, sexual relations were mainly between social unequals: male and female, rich and poor, client and prostitute, young and old. Even in gay and lesbian relations, which could have been the most equal, such power differences were the rule between butch and femme, queen and trade, man and boy (see below). The inequality of the past was replaced by equality as the new sexual norm. The gender inequality of former days may have been shunned, but for various reasons, sexual equality remains problematic; in the first place, because gender traditions are deeply engrained and do not change easily; and secondly, because it does not fit the sexual and social plurality people experience and enjoy (Sinfield 2002).

Gay men and lesbian women experience more social and erotic equality than heterosexual couples do, as men and women in a relationship still have to overcome their gender difference. Gays can be seen as the great victors of this drive for equality. On the other hand, traditional heterosexual couples, sadomasochists, pedophiles, zoophiles or prostitutes and their clients, and all those whose relations cannot fulfill the new norm of equality, lost out. Although the latter groups were never highly regarded, the sheer volume of hatred and legislation directed against them in recent years in the West shows how strict the new norm of equality has become – notwithstanding a long history of erotic inequality and also a general realization of how desire can flare up through social differences. Sadomasochists have a hard time getting their preferences accepted, and they do so by underlining that their practices are consensual – masochists agree to their own mental or physical humiliation. Consent is something child and animal lovers, and clients of prostitutes cannot claim easily these days. The main accepted difference is ethnicity, although preferences for a specific race are frowned upon and can be seen as racist. The most amazing aspect of this sexual revolution is that it has gone so unnoticed and that theories of both inequality and equality are dogmatic, unrealistic, and deny the existing variations in preferences that cannot be reduced to either of them (Sinfield 2002; Hekma 2008).

The greater stress placed on heterosexual pleasure led to a broadening of the sexual repertoire. Although the twentieth century did not invent new sexual practices, the general population engaged in a wider range of acts. Oral and anal sex in heterosexual relations is increasing; male sexual violence of the past probably declines; and consensual violence of SM-relations is on the rise – with men often being masochists. Over the generations, both men and women have more heterosexual partners before, inside, outside and after marriage; and more couples live unmarried, especially in the Scandinavian countries. People also engage in a wider range of sexual acts, with heterosexual coitus and self-stimulation being most common. The greatest winners of the sexual revolution are women, who in most sexual fields – not unlike other fields of labor, education, or politics – have come closer to engaging in the practices of men.

Sexual Emancipation of Women

During the twentieth century women gained more sexual possibilities. Feminism stressed a greater autonomy for women and although sexual independence may not have always been a favorite topic for feminists due to the strength of patriarchal and puritanical norms, some women used their rights to promote sexuality. Loosening family obligations and a greater respect for individual choices certainly helped women from the higher classes to create some spaces for their sexual freedom. The garçonnes of Paris, the women of the Bloomsbury group, the lesbians of Berlin, the female bohemians of New York’s Greenwich Village, women who lived as couples in “Boston marriages” and so many others in different places could now find their own sexual trajectories (Jay 1988).

< figure 3 > They still encountered many problems, whether they were promiscuous or chaste. The rise of sexology and a growing visibility of sexual issues made both men and women more aware of their sexual preferences. The growing stress in sex education literature that both husband and wife should enjoy marital relations favored women’s heterosexual emancipation inside marriage and beyond. Except for rare and individual voices, such as Simone de Beauvoir’s, there was a more widespread and shared assumption of women’s sexual autonomy since the ‘60s by feminists like Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone and many others. Over the next decade, lesbians and prostitutes would defend their own sexual existence, although the mainstream of the women’s movement remained staunchly “normal” and heterosexual. The idea that a woman could assume promiscuous practices, generally accepted for men, continued to be suspect. As yet, few females show pride in their sexual conquests.

The main problem that women’s sexual emancipation faces remains the discrepancy between ideas of male and female sexuality, which date from the eighteenth century (Laqueur 1990). Both biological and everyday conceptualizations assume women are less sexual than men, or that men prefer sex and women prefer love. This is attributed to the belief that women will become mothers who have a stronger interest in caring than in sexual desire. Popular Darwinian and psychological views on males showed men as sexual subjects, predators displaying mounting behavior, with females as submissive objects. A more sensible explanation is that the sexual socialization of girls teaches them not to be promiscuous, or in other words not to sexually explore. The gendered socialization that trains boys to be predators and girls to be Madonnas may have changed somewhat in recent decades, but the main structure has changed little. These opposing instructions for boys and girls makes heterosexuality a difficult endeavor, as sexual pleasure is complicated in a couple where one partner has been taught to pursue his sexual desires and the other has learned to restrain herself.

The majority of women fell under the heterosexual marital norm model and only a tiny minority escaped the demands of patriarchal and sexist ideology. Like men, sexual assertive women had some options. Rich women migrated to big cities or poorer countries where they faced less problems in living out their erotic lives. Paris and Capri attracted both men and women with variant desires. Poorer women could go to red light districts where sexual norms were more relaxed and where many sexual specialties found a space – from prostitution, lesbianism to sadomasochism and transgenderism. French (oral), Greek (anal) and Russian (SM) sex were offered to men in Amsterdam’s bordellos in the ‘30s. Women could become prostitutes or find other niches as bartenders, street-vendors or chamber-maids. Many of them were lesbians who sometimes invested money earned from sex work into bars that welcomed queers and dykes. These offered a home to women striving for autonomy in jobs as nurses, shop-assistants, seamstresses, actresses, artists, or stewardesses. Since the ‘60s, red light districts have become more exclusively heterosexual places for straight men, and women and queers who previously found a niche there, moved out and found other locations, such as neighborhood bars, sex clubs or gay streets. The profession of prostitutes now attracts other groups of mainly non-Western women. With the multitude of sexual transactions that are not clearly financial, the rise of sex tourism, stricter state regulation, and the growing abjection of sexual inequality, prostitution in the West seems on the decline, while other sexual possibilities (more for men than for women) broaden in discos, theme parties or on the internet.

The ‘60s brought a major sexual liberation for women with the introduction of the pill. Several other contraceptive methods had been used, such as condoms, shields or post-coital vaginal douches – the horrors and fears of the latter forgotten by later generations. The pill was easier to use and more effective, and became widely accessible. Although it was introduced as a family planning device, it immediately liberated women from certain bodily constraints and made the sexual life of the married and unmarried more carefree. Sometimes it was used as lever for sex by men and women then had to counter male sexual expectancies as they could no longer use the excuse of the dangers of pregnancy. The pill ensured women’s erotic emancipation but also contributed to a further heterosexualization of society, because it made sexual relations between male and female adolescents more unproblematic. Although concerns about the negative effects of the pill continued to be voiced, it is still generally used. Efforts to produce a male counterpart were undertaken but never got widely accepted indicating the continuing inequality between the sexes making women responsible for (non)reproduction.

The black, lesbian and prostitute women who demanded their rights since the ‘70s, in and outside the feminist movement, paved the way for women who defended variety in female sexuality, such as SM and pornography. Feminists also ensured their sexual subjectivity and autonomy in the art world. They encountered fierce opposition, not only from patriarchal men, but also from mainstream feminism who only accepted vanilla (“nice” heterosexual) sex. It led to the “Sex Wars” of the ‘80s where “radical” feminists who opposed SM, prostitution, pornography, transgenderism and sexual diversity, stood up against those who defended such pleasures and transgressions and were seen as having internalized male norms. The battles were fierce but have abated while the uneasy question of how to deal with sexual diversity still stands (Duggan e.a. 1995).

Today’s generation of young feminists defends sexual pleasure but mainly in its hetero- and marginally in its homo- variations, accepting and rejecting in different degrees the issues of promiscuity, pornography, prostitution, pedophilia, bestiality, public sex and SM. All these variations and their presence in mainstream media have led to concerns among women and others about the oversexualization, or pornification, of society. They complain that many women and especially girls develop a low self-esteem because of media representations, especially in soft porn and video clips, and they then feel obliged to don sexy clothing or undergo surgical changes. The presume oversexualized culture makes innocent girls the victims of male predators who feel empowered in their hegemonic masculinity by the same imagery. Some women even feel proud to be promiscuous and defend their behavior by seeing it as their sexual autonomy, but their critics charge that they only confirm masculinist norms (Levy 2005; Paasonen e.a. 2007). The complaints of these neo-feminists seem to be overdone as most young people lead rather unadventurous erotic lives, and are in effect often afraid to show erotic interest and generally believe that sex is only allowed in loving relations. The sexual overexposure is moreover mainly located on television channels and internet sites that the users access of their own choice, and is, except for small talk and insults, absent in most parts of public life –it is not on the streets, almost completely absent in education, care, sports and the family. Additionally, religion and politics provide mainly negative messages about eroticism. What these youngsters need is not puritanism or a closure of sexual imagery that often teaches them erotic basics but better education in schools on sexual citizenship and media use.

The general approach of the neo-feminists and their many male supporters looks very much like the perspective of evangelical Christians who now defend sexual pleasure and discuss extramarital sex no longer in terms of sin, but of a lack of self-esteem (Herzog 2008). Their terminology also resembles the terminology of late-nineteenth-century psychiatrists who differentiated perversion from perversity (the primary versus secondary interest in sexual variation) and sex as marital obligation from sex as diversion. Much may have changed, but the prejudices against gender and sexual diversity remain strong. A younger generation of feminists stands up against an older generation that still has a broader, but more silenced, view on erotic variation. The boundaries become drawn increasingly closer around the couple that may enjoy, in the privacy of their bedroom, coital sex spiced up with oral and anal sex, sexy clothing, a bit of female-friendly soft porn and perhaps some gentle flagellation. On the other hand, what is now discussed in terms of “instrumental sex”, the new term for promiscuity, continues to be rejected. The new ideology of sexual equality, promoted by socialists, social-democrats and feminists to various degrees for more than a century has become generalized, and the short episode in which some feminists defended sexual diversity and took a more instrumental approach to sex seems to have passed. “Slut” and “whore” remain terms of abjection among almost everyone.

Notwithstanding all the debates on the boundaries of sexual pleasures, women have gained the greatest advantage in the sexual changes in the twentieth century. While up until the sixties girls were expected to remain virgins until marriage, both pre- and extramarital sex became lesser concerns from the ‘70’s onwards. Recent surveys indicate that women masturbate more, have more heterosexual and lesbian sex, look more at pornography, engage more in various sexual variations and feel less guilty about sex (Laumann e.a.1994; Bozon e.a. 1998). Regarding most practices, the percentages of sexual activity for women are lower than those compared to men, but the gap between them is closing. There are some remarkable exceptions where women are over-taking men. In a recent Dutch survey, 40% of the women claimed to have used sex toys while less than 30% of the men did so (Bakker 2006). Women have gone from patriarchal control to some measure of sexual autonomy, but various social institutions and straight norms still impede on what they are allowed to do and what they allow themselves to do.

Homosexual Worlds

The first homosexual rights movement was established in 1897 in Germany, and now all Western countries have a plurality of LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) institutions. Most countries had laws against same-sexual practices, and even in countries that did not have them, such as France, homosexual men were persecuted and discriminated against, particularly for public indecency or loitering. Since the ‘60s, most laws against homosexuality have been eliminated and the European Union now forbids discrimination on grounds of homosexuality. In 2003, the United States Supreme Court declared the remaining sodomy-laws unconstitutional – 212 years after France had abolished them. There were no legal rights for homosexual men and women in 1900, and now they exist all over the Western world, and are even enshrined in the South-African constitution. In some countries, such as the United States, the incorporation of laws that protect gays and lesbians still has to be realized. In the USA army, for instance, the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy means that the army is not allowed to ask about sexual preferences, and gays and lesbians are not allowed to speak out (for an overview, see Aldrich 2006).

Germany, in particular Berlin, was the capital of (homo) sexual sciences, homosexual rights movements and gay culture at the beginning of the twentieth century. Magnus Hirschfeld who was the founder of the “Scientific-humanitarian Committee” (the homosexual rights movement), was also the editor of the Annual for Sexual Intermediaries, a prolific writer of sex books, and an expert-witness in many court cases. < figure 4 > Since 1919, he was the director of the Institute for Sexual Sciences and, up until his death in 1935, the pivotal queer of Europe. Several gay organizations co-existed in the ‘20s and both competed and cooperated in the fight against anti-homosexual laws and attitudes. They published dozens of journals and organized parties, while many bars catered to a variety of homosexual clienteles. This vibrant gay culture (and to a lesser extent lesbian and transgender cultures) attracted an international public. Writers like Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, André Gide, René Crevel, Yvan Goll and many others described Germany’s gay life or the Institute of Sexual Science of Hirschfeld, which was for most foreign guests a museum of exotic curiosities. Both Paris and London had also developed a vibrant queer subculture by that time, but suffered from anti-homosexual biases that prevented the development of a homosexual movement and culture comparable to those of Berlin and Germany (Tamagne 2000). < figure 5 >

All over the Western world the most important queer locations for encounters were public toilets, parks, railway stations and streets. Here the queers, often seen in gender-inverted terms, had sex with each other, but mostly sought out young men who were heterosexual and of itinerant professions: bell-boys, farmers and schoolboys, soldiers, sailors, servants, construction workers or police-officers - as we know so well from the life and work of Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, André Gide, Jean Cocteau, Joe Ackerley, Jean Genet and many others. These effeminate men (fags, sissies, queens in English, tantes or folles in French, Tunten in German, maricones in Spanish or nichten in Dutch) had a homosexual identity while their male sex-partners had no such identity. They were the passive partners of active and masculine heterosexual men, the latter enjoying such sex in the absence of women who were unavailable due to demands of virginity. Another large slice of gay sex life was between adult and adolescent men, or male youths. The gender dichotomy was even more pertinent for the lesbian world, where dykes (masculine lesbians) had no sex or relations with each other but only with femmes (feminine lesbians). The main setback for dykes was that women were considered to be non-sexual, although definitions of sex was so narrow that lesbian sex was not always seen as such in the absence of a penis in the act. At that time, the main theory of sexual desire implied that desires could only be inflamed between opposites, such as a passive, fag or sissy with an active macho. Desire was based on inequalities of gender, age and class: male with female, masculine dyke with feminine femme, active with passive, young with old, rich with poor. In most cases homosexual affairs were occasional and comparable to contacts in prostitution: the one partner paid the other, often the queer paid the straight but in some cases the money or services would flow the other way, from heterosexual men to fairy hustler boys. Payment could consist of money, a bed for a night, a dinner, drinks or gifts. Queers and straights met each other in the afore-mentioned public places and only rarely in gay bars (Chauncey 1994; Houlbrook 2005).

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895), called “the first queer of the world” (Sigusch 2000) even made a theory of this gendered and sexual opposition. According to him uranians (his term for homosexuals) were “female souls in male bodies” who longed for real men with “male souls in male bodies”. Urnindes, or lesbians, were “male souls in female bodies”. These gender-inverted souls were, according to him, the spiritual counterparts of hermaphroditic bodies. Equal sexual relations – both homo and hetero – were unthinkable but became the social norm in the ‘60s when gay men started to engage in sexual relations with each other, as did lesbian women. Gay men (more than lesbian women) then started to deny their gender inversion and to defend their masculinity, and “lipstick lesbians” began to replace the butches of former days.

It was only in the ‘50s, with ideals of social equality that the sexual border traffic between queer and trade declined. Now, gay men had sex with each other, were no longer ‘sissies’ and saw themselves as masculine. They rejected all signs of the formerly celebrated effeminacy and used psychological theories that defined homosexuals as just the same as heterosexuals, being only different in sexual partner choice. The meeting places shifted from the old haunts in public places to the semi-public subculture of bars, discos and saunas. These were more exclusively homosexual places where gays and (to a lesser degree) lesbians met each other and looked for stable love. Homosexual relations could no longer be compared to those in prostitution, as the fixed friendships of gay men and lesbian women started very much to look like marriage. Nonetheless their supposed or real effeminacy would continue to haunt gay men.

Lively debates in sexology on sexual variation, vibrant queer cultures, rich gay literature and homosexual rights movements that actively but unsuccessfully battled against criminal laws, faced their greatest setbacks in the twenties and thirties with the rise of communism and Stalinism in the Soviet-Union, of fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany. The fascist regimes of Franco in Spain and Salazar in Portugal had similar effects. Other European countries saw a tightening of rules and regulations, and queers (mainly those who loved younger men) faced, from the ‘30s on, castration as possible punishment for wrong desires and “criminal” practices. With the victory of the Axis after 1939, the only remaining gay movement was the Swiss Der Kreis. The Nazi-regime created one of the cruelest persecutions of homosexuality with 15,000 homosexual men incarcerated in concentration camps, half of whom would perish. The Soviet regime instituted anti-sodomy laws in 1934 that made homosexuals a prime goal of Stalinist persecutions. In both cases, the effects of criminalization that targeted a largely invisible group went beyond the concrete numbers of criminal persecutions, because legal and prison institutions were the ultimate manifestations of disciplinary measures that built upon others such as education, medicine and the social control of families, landladies, neighbors, political organizations or churches.

After the Second World War, homosexual emancipation took off again, this time with more success. It started in The Netherlands, Germany and the Scandinavian countries and spread to France, Belgium and the United States. After the War, the United States became the main locus of the gay movement because of its status as a major empire and because of the development of sexology. Paradoxically, it was the nation that would see not only the most dramatic developments, such as the Stonewall riots, but also the country to experience the least success among the Western countries. In 1951, the homosexual movement created its first cross-national body, the International Committee for Sexual Equality that had its main members from Western-Europe and Northern America. It faded away in the early sixties, but was revived in 1978 as the International Gay Association (IGA), renamed in 1986 ILGA to include lesbians and again in 2008 adding bisexuals and transgenders to the subtitle.

The first proposals for sexual reform came from England where the Wolfenden report (1957) suggested a broad decriminalization of homosexuality and prostitution. Partial legal changes were enacted in 1967 and other countries would follow suit, or had already preceded England (Sweden for example in 1944). Soon many more countries decriminalized homosexuality, with the United States finally doing so in 2003 through a landmark decision of the Supreme Court that declared sodomy laws unconstitutional. At the moment the European Union does not allow legal prohibitions against homosexuality in its (candidate) member states and demands anti-discrimination laws regarding gays and lesbians in labour relations.

The legal changes were a result of social changes – moves to individualization, democratization and secularization, all speeded up the drive for homosexual emancipation. Anti-war, black, hippie, students’ and women’s movements set an example for the gay and lesbian movement. Gay and lesbians came out of the closet and burst into the streets, most exemplary in New York in 1969 with the Stonewall riots following the 1968 Summer of Love. Homosexuality changed after 1970 from a sin, crime and disease to something akin to normal. Gays and lesbians came out to family, friends and colleagues in unprecedented numbers. They joined the subcultural movement but soon emerged above ground to begin the march through particular institutions. They created their own media and caucuses in various professional groups from churches, universities, trade unions, political parties, companies to armies and police forces. In the eighties, the disaster of AIDS struck among gay men, killing thousands of them. Many feared that the epidemic would lead to a backlash against the gay world, and it did so, seen in the form of moral panics and the closing down of saunas and dark rooms by authorities. The Cuban authorities introduced forced hospitalization of AIDS-patients, and the Swedish introduced obligatory registration of persons with HIV, who had to regularly report about their sex life to their physician. On the positive side, there came a greater acknowledgement of gay rights in the field of relations, insurance, pensions, health care, and housing. Lesbians demanded such rights at the same time because of their children. < figure 6 >

With the introduction of the legalization of gay and lesbian partnerships starting in Denmark in 1989, and later with the opening of marriage for same-sex couples in 2001 in the Netherlands, the feeling started to emerge that gays and lesbians were becoming equal to heterosexuals. The gigantic step forward from outcast to insider made many queer and straight people believe homosexual emancipation had reached its summit. But it has been more a legal than a social change. Society has remained hetero-normative, that is to say, heterosexuality has been increasingly more strictly applied as the norm and homosexuality seen as a second-rate choice. The most common way to enforce the heterosexual norm is the continuous promotion of straight examples, and the eternal insults of “fag”, “wankie”, and “queer” against boys and men who fail to show “gender-appropriate” or non-heterosexual behavior or characteristics (Pascoe 2007). For girls and women the main comparable insult is “slut”, used more than “dyke”. The most extreme examples of anti-homosexual prejudice and physical violence, including murder, continue unabated even in the most gay-friendly places. Dutch research showed that the acceptance of homosexuals comes only with the condition that they should behave “normally” – that is, they should show neither unmasculine nor sexual qualities but remain invisible. There is no discussion on the acceptance of heterosexuals. Western countries assert that they are open and democratic societies where no differences are made between the various kinds of sexual citizens. Yet heterosexuality remains the norm, with conditions established for gay men and lesbian women, where being accepted often exists more in theory than in practice. “Queerer” variations in sexual, gendered and cultural practices and behaviors face even greater intolerance.


In the late nineteenth century when eroticism became a central topic of literature and sexology opened up the study of perversions, sexuality became a popular topic in print. Serious publishers issued medical books that less respectable publishers ransacked in order to create popular versions and translations. There were books and pamphlets on sex education that discussed free love, sexual variation, prostitution, venereal diseases, contraception, neo-malthusianism and visualized the human body, including the genitals. Photography made new mass-produced porn available. The media followed suit and started to pay attention to sexual issues, often related to major scandals, such as those of Wilde and Eulenburg, but also to petty sex crimes. The latter became one of the major attractions of the yellow press. With some ups and downs, the media interest in erotic themes grew, and in most cases as soon as countries became liberated from right or left dictatorships, sex exploded in the media, from more serious material to straightforward pornography. This occurred in Germany, Spain and most former communist countries of Eastern-Europe. The commercialization and commodification of sexuality happened not only through the sex industry but also became a regular feature of advertising, as eroticism was used to sell all kinds of products, from perfumes to cars and houses.

Any time a new medium was invented, especially after the sexual revolution, it was immediately used for eroticism. This can be seen with the introduction of television, super-8 movies, video and the internet. When a new medium is introduced puritanical organizations protest and governments make regulations or restrict access, while the industry exploits sex to promote its new products. Yet the more sex a new medium offers, the quicker and broader it is spread and accepted. All media have been intensively used for the portrayal of various forms of sex, usually heterosexual. The more the media production is controlled by private persons, the wider variety of sexual pleasures can be shown. So television remains much more “heterosexual” than the internet where sites, weblogs and profiles offer a chance to expose the most obscure variations. The sexual variety of the media stands in stark contrast to the straight monoculture of street life where sexual variety remains, by and large, invisible.

The strong presence of sexual imagery through history has given rise to concerns of both conservative and religious groups alike, as well as some socialists and feminists. They believe that porn can lead to corruption of high Christian morality, family values, the pure working class ethos, and children’s innocence or will promote the sexual abuse of women by men. After the first ascent of anti-porn laws in the late nineteenth century, there have been regular moral panics and efforts to contest such imagery. An important wave of anti-porn fights occurred in the early ‘80s when “radical feminists” like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin not only combated porn, but also joined forces with Ronald Reagan’s Republicans, participated in the Meese Committee and helped formulate anti-porn measures. They did so with the slogan “Porn is the theory, rape the practice” of Robin Morgan. However, many feminists disagreed with them in this decade of the “Sex Wars” (see above). Nowadays the strongest opposition is directed against child pornography, because it involves child sexual abuse (see below). The other new panic concerns “violent” or “extreme” porn, which is often of the SM type material. < figure 7 >

The visibility of sex may be enormous in some public arenas but sex is often only privately accessible (internet, television). When it comes to certain places, anxiety about over-sexualization or pornification tends to be unfounded. Far too little attention is paid to sexual issues in other social fields such as education, labour, care, sports, families, religion or politics. Most of the attention, moreover, goes to heterosexual themes and images and little to sexuality outside this norm. When institutions pay attention to the erotic, it is often more negative than positive in its response: warnings are given against abuse, venereal diseases, unwanted pregnancies in education, harassment at the workplace, a taboo in sports, families and care. Sexuality in the political sphere mainly relates to scandals. Conservative politicians tend to use their opposition to gay marriage, abortion and prostitution to attract voters. In sports, care and primary relations, many contacts are physical and intimate, thus bordering on the erotic, but the most common and easy way to deal with them is often repression or denial, rather than a positive approach. There is little concept of sexual pleasure as something to be learned and cultivated and no concept of sexual citizenship among politicians, because they see sexual life as private and natural rather than something essential to social functioning. There is no concept of how eroticism could benefit work or educational relations. The outspoken anxiety about pornofication may originate from some real concerns, but to generalize it to a general social problem is mistaken.

Persisting Puritanism

The liberal laws of the nineteenth century that originated with the French Penal Code of 1810 were contested by socialists and Christians alike at the end of the century. Even “social” liberals followed suit and joined the struggle against immorality. Biblical perceptions that sex was for procreation in marriage; Darwinian ideas that the struggle for life needed a strong straight investment; and psychiatric ideas on sexual degeneracy and perversion − all put an end to a liberal age that had relied more on tradition than on law to control sexual practices. In the twentieth century, laws would be the final resort in exerting control on sexuality that routinely relied on medical and psychological interventions aided by social taboos and regulations on a local level. While the period around 1900 saw many new legal initiatives to control sexuality for example regarding ages of consent, pornography, contraception and abortion, homosexuality, and sex in power relations or in public − such efforts were doubled in the ‘30s in both legal and social fields, by the Nazi’s and their allies on one hand, and the communists on the other. Other countries at that time started to use psychiatry to combat what they saw as sexual “deviance” by castrating sex criminals or to select recruits for the army or other workplaces. After the Second War, the USA introduced sexual psychopath laws intended to punish more serious sex crimes. In practice, however, the laws were generally implemented for lesser crimes, since lust-murder and rape could already be dealt with through existing laws.

With the sexual revolution, laws were again abolished or restricted. After the pill, few countries continued to oppose contraception, while most countries started to allow abortion under certain broader conditions. Homosexuality and pornography were decriminalized, and divorce was made easier. This liberalization did not mean per se that persecution decreased. After the sex laws in England were liberalized in 1967, the number of persecutions for remaining crimes, such as public indecency, rose. The period of liberalization was also of a short duration. The concept of sexual violence was soon extended from rape to sexual harassment. Recently the European Union (Council Directive 97/80, 15 December 1997) demanded in labour relations that the company has to prove its good practice rather than the plaintiff proving the company guilty, which is a reversal of normal judicial procedure. What has become defined as the sexual abuse of children was extended, ages of consent went up and penalties became stiffer. Stalking became a crime in several countries. Some jurisdictions forbid the release of unrepenting pedophiles, and the UK wants to follow persons convicted for sex with minors up till 6 years after their release - unprecedented for any other crime (Times, 21-8-2008). Sex tourists can now be prosecuted back home for pedophile contacts committed in another country where they may not be a crime. The same legal clamp-down is apparent regarding child pornography, where criminalization has tightened from prosecuting the production and the sale of the material to the prosecution for possession or viewing it. During the sexual revolution, some considered such material as educational but since 1980 it has become illegal. In the recent past, legislators have only seen harm in the production for the children involved, but now it is believed that such material will also lead to sexual abuse of children. Virtual pornography is thus being forbidden in the EU, while the USA Supreme Court blocked such legislation because of the freedom of expression. It fits with the contemporary ideas of UNESCO, some states, and many NGO’s that children’s rights mean protecting them against sex, while still not providing access to sexual knowledge. Children are defined as those under 18 years. They are defined as potential victims, not as sexual agents.

A few places have legalized prostitution, like the Netherlands, Germany and some Australian states. Other countries have gone in the opposite direction and attempted to combat it altogether, such as Sweden, which has forbidden clients sex for money. In many USA jurisdictions, clients who have been caught with prostitutes are obliged to follow aversion therapies, paid for by heavy fines, where they learn to respect women and where former prostitutes insult and humiliate them. Even the Dutch may go from legalization back to abolition; the city of Amsterdam has closed down its zone for street prostitution and now has the intention to restrain the scope of its Red Light District. New laws on bestiality and animal pornography are the newest addition to the series of further restrictions on sexuality in countries that praise themselves for their alleged freedom. Iacuba and Maniglier (2005) have indicated that the percentage of persons in prison (currently still growing) in the USA and France for sex crimes has gone from about 5% to some 20% between 1970 and 2000 – because there are broader definitions of what constitutes a crime, more sex crimes have been added to the law books and harsher penalties are imposed. The extent of sexual liberation that has supposedly taken place since the sexual revolution is thus debatable in these countries.

Criminal prosecution of certain sexual behaviors is used as the ultimate way to handle tabooed sexual practices, but most disciplining was, and is, being done by social institutions from nuclear family, school, media, health care and finally the legal system. Although most people consider sexuality a private affair, such institutions often deal with unwanted sexual practices and desires in subtle but often strictly heterosexual ways.

Other Pleasures and Displeasures of Sex

In the 20th century, masturbation moved from an act that endangered bodily health, to a helpful device to learn about sexuality. Until the sexual revolution, children were warned about the dangers of solitary sex, because it would exhaust the body and lead to all kinds of maladies and weaknesses, or, as Freud saw it, endanger couple-sex. Since the sexual revolution, however, masturbation no longer constitutes a major problem, although it is still not considered a topic to be discussed in polite society. Masturbation is on the increase, certainly among women, and also among men who find it easier and less problematic to please themselves (sometimes with the help of pornography), rather than to engage with partners who may be unwilling or prefer other acts. The fears of Freud proved to be true. Along with individualization, modern society witnesses an onanization. Solitary sex competes with coital sex for being the most common sexual practice (Laqueur 2003).

Venereal diseases have remained a major problem. In 1910, salvarsan was developed as a new cure for syphilis, which replaced mercury and its frightening side-effects. Penicillin proved a new major breakthrough in 1940 and initiated a period of 40 years in which people could have sex without much concern – if they had access to it. In the early ‘80s, a new deadly disease starting in the USA, led to devastation among sexually active groups, primarily gay men in the beginning, but then to drugs users and hemophiliacs. AIDS was transmitted by blood and semen. The patients died very quickly but with new therapies halfway through the ‘90s, it changed from a mortal to a long-term illness. In the mean time the epidemic has spread all over the world, now affecting straights in Africa or India, rather than only gay men in the West. It remains a major concern because safe sex guidelines are not always followed.

Another major problem is the persistence of sexual violence throughout the world, notably the rape and sexual harassment of men, women, girls by (usually male) perpetrators, known and unknown to the victims. Families have been known to force their female relatives (usually daughters) to behave how they see fit which often means disregarding their sexual autonomy. In some countries, “honour killings” regularly occur where male family members (usually fathers or brothers) murder female relatives who have consorted with partners of their own choice. These have become a major concern. Violence also continues to be directed against sex-workers, gays and lesbians, transgenders and other sexual minority groups – sometimes by the institutions of the state. In the infamous “Spanner-case”, British courts condemned a group of gay men consensually engaging in SM-practices and the European Court of Justice supported this judgment. Persisting and widespread puritanism, hypocrisy and deeply ingrained heteronormativity impede sexual citizenship rights for all those who deviate from social norms. < figure 8 >

On the other hand, there have been major periods of sexual liberation, such as the ‘20s. In Paris, London, New York and above all in Berlin night life was flourishing. Paris was the city of light and the arts while Berlin, due to the enormous German inflation, became a place of cheap pleasures, the sex capital of the twenties. After the roaring ‘20s, the ‘30s became a decade of the threat of war and the rise of totalitarian regimes, first in Italy and subsequently in the Soviet Union, Germany, Spain and Portugal. Both the left and the right were puritanical and restricted sexual rights, for example on abortion and homosex – although the German Nazi’s allowed certain straight pleasures (Herzog 2005). After the war, many nations witnessed a short period of sexual fervor that was soon dampened in favor of a work ethic directed at rebuilding societies that had been devastated by the war. Only in the ‘60s did pleasure receive a central place again, soon to be marginalized by concerns over sexual violence and AIDS. Although most people have the feeling they are now freer than any earlier generation, evidence indicates the opposite as seen in the rising number of sex crimes, the lack of sexual satisfaction in many monogamous relations, and the high levels of physical and mental problems related to sex. In a country like the Netherlands, gays and lesbians may have equal rights, but they are only accepted under the condition that they behave “normally” – which, in reality, means heterosexual, both in terms of gender and sexuality.

Towards the 21st century

During the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, a discourse developed that saw sexual practices as being natural instead of cultural, more male than female, private rather than public affairs, and based in loving couple relations as opposed to pleasures that are separate from love. Sex was seen to be driven by a personal identity that excludes ‘the other’ as opposed to being based on a curiosity that reaches out. Since the sexual revolution, an obligation of equal sexual relations has been added to this list. The ‘60s did not break down this straight, restrictive view on sexual relations and gender identities, but rather engrained it deeper in social life. This ideology impeded the public cultivation of multigender polymorphous sexualities stimulated by curiosity and making sex food for thought or an inspiration for the arts. The dichotomy of male and female remains generally unchallenged, as does the sexual dichotomy of homo and hetero. Straight women at least reached closer to equality than gay men and lesbians do – sexual norms apparently being stricter than gender norms (Hekma 2005).

Much has changed in the twentieth century, in particular the change from an ideology of inequality to the opposite one that demands equality. Women may have made great leaps forward but are still regarded more as objects than subjects of sex. The same is true for gays and lesbians, whose emancipation has not disrupted the concept of heterosexuality as the norm. Newspapers repeatedly report about biological research that tells how different male and female are, or that homosexuality is innate – always privileging the natural over the cultural despite the fact that gender and sexuality have no meaning without public, cultural expressions. Pornography is much more widely available in printed form and on the internet but remains controversial in many jurisdictions. Even the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Amnesty International only defend sexual practices as long as they are private affairs, neglecting the facts that many people have no access to private space and that public pleasures of sexuality are not monstrous acts, as many people seem to believe, but mostly innocent. The sexual norm has become monogamous sex in private, and preferably heterosexual (Kulick 2005). Regardless of how much may have changed in a century, by and large, the heterosexual norm goes unchallenged and is often even unperceived. Sexual and gender diversity remains a utopian ideal.

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