Sex and sexual education get confused with each other too often. As the success story of German entrepreneur and owner of the first sex shop in the world, Beate Uhse, exemplifies, this can create a climate in which the commerce-driven erotica industry proliferates, whilst sexual hygiene provisions are left to diminish.
Beate Uhse set up her firm in 1948, Germany. Her first product was a pamphlet informing women about the Knaus-Ogino method, a natural form of contraception. This sold in about 32.000 copies in less than two months, a success that attested more to the acute demand for sexual education and less to Uhse’s otherwise unmatched entrepreneurial skills.
As the academic Elizabeth Heineman notes in “Before Porn Was Legal,” post-war social policies were geared to reinstate the nuclear family as the fundamental pillar of society. To combat the abiding influence of the Nazi era and its immoral approaches to sexuality, local authorities drew on the Christian dictum to legitimise their position. They encouraged citizens to start families early and give birth to many children. Anything else to do with sexuality was banned.
This led to the rapid proliferation of false beliefs and detrimental practices: to terminate unwanted pregnancies, most sought the help of unsolicited doctors or else, used knitting needles, hot baths and other makeshift solutions. Sexually transmitted diseases were at an all-time high, and patients diagnosed with venereal disease or syphilis were offered no treatment. Those suffering from erectile disorders, frigidity, or other psychological issues had to make do without consultation. In this climate, Uhse’s business achieved unexpected levels of growth in a relatively short time frame, revealing the shortcomings of the shambolic system.
However, her success wasn’t registered as a proof that the introduction of widely accessible healthcare services for sexual hygiene was necessary. Instead, she was criticised for trading what was deemed as profane material, with most objections aimed at the explicitly sexual content of her wares. As Kate Connolly articulates, several shops were burnt by anti-obscenity protesters at the end of the 1960s, whilst her business was made the subject of approximately 2000 court proceedings. This didn’t happen because people would have wanted single women to die from botched abortions: it was the result of the generic tendency of equating sex with erotic pleasure, with filth. Anything sex-related was believed immoral – to the point that people had no courage to buy condoms in shops, using mail-order services instead. The public uproar against Uhse alone shows how much the country needed a better-suited framework for sexual education.
It’s worth bearing in mind that botched abortions, homophobic hate crimes, and other sex hygiene-related issues remain undocumented. There is no register available to shed light on the number of people lost because of the shortcomings of the healthcare system. It’s important to emphasise that this stigma could not have fully disappeared in 50 years. These are issues people still prefer to keep private about, raising the question: why haven’t there been more measures instilled to provide suitable sexual education to young and old people alike? Why are most of us still stealing ideas from PornHub?
To answer these questions, it’s worth returning to Beate Uhse’s case. By the 1970s, the entrepreneur became a powerhouse. Her business grew further: brick and mortar shops welcomed thousands of clients daily, across the whole country; with new services ranging from books about marital hygiene; sexual psychology sessions with a number of in-house therapists; sex toys; an in-house porn production company and an in-house publishing house specialising in erotic fiction. The growth of the business even warranted the dissolution of the censorship laws, and following the 1971 “orgasm trial,” the state withdrew its influence from the erotica industry and granted individual sellers the liberty to decide which products to sell, regardless of their content. Sexuality became as free as free market capitalism.
As Beate Uhse’s success illustrates, the need for and access to sexual hygiene provisions can easily become overshadowed by the popular demand for pornography and erotica. An over-saturated market offering a plethora of gadgets needn’t be interpreted as the signifier of a well-educated, sexually active, and healthy population.
Word: Leila Kozma
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu