The Uhse Legacyby Susan Quilliam
Germany, 1945. Not a pleasant place to be. Not only was the country physically devastated, its inhabitants were literally shell-shocked. The past held defeat, the future promised longterm social dissolution and economic ruin.
The present embodied utter horror, not least when it came to sexuality. The precocious Cabaret-erotica of the pre-war years had been followed by the biggest mass rape in history following the fall of Berlin. The sexual liberalism of wartime carpe diem had been transformed almost overnight into a post-conflict puritan backlash. The female liberation and independence of the war years had been preremptorily halted by homecoming troops reclaiming wives and girlfriends in the age-old way, insistently impregnating not only to prove the potency lost on the battlefield but to regain the sense of being cherished they had also lost. And, faced with such demand for childbearing – in the context of a seemingly doomed world into which their offspring would be born – more and more women were turning to illegal, often fatal, back-street abortion.
I repeat, Germany in 1945 was not a pleasant place to be. Particularly if you were female.
Enter Beate Uhse, twenty-four years of age, war widow, mother and ex-stunt pilot who spent her first post-war months – debarred from flying because of her wartime involvement with the Luftwaffe – trying to survive by selling black market produce door-to-door.
It was through this door-to-door salesmanship, as she talked with other women and heard not only their fear of yet another pregnancy but their absolute ignorance of how to avoid such, that Beate Uhse began to build a very different third career. She realised that women needed easy access to a contraception that they themselves controlled; in response she produced a small information leaflet. Schrift (Paper) X, as it was called, explained the ‘rythmn method’ – regulating fertility by making love only on days when conception was unlikely – and gave women the means to avoid pregnancy whilst also reducing the need to directly refuse their husbands’ sexual demands, with all the emotional and sometimes violent repercussions of such refusal. Unsurprisingly, Schrift X became, in today’s parlance, an instant bestseller.
While Uhse herself became, in today’s parlance, an agony aunt – the Marj Proops of postwar Germany. For women didn’t just want to know how to sidestep pregnancy, but how to enter fully and happily into pleasurable lovemaking. They didn’t just want to use the rythmn method, they wanted to swing from the chandeliers. They didn’t just want a leaflet on sexual continence, they wanted books on sexual technique. Uhse obliged. And then obliged again when she realised that there was just as big a need for information and inspiration from the Y as from the X chromosome.
It’s surely clear to ER readers that Uhse’s importance – albeit she is often unknown or unacknowledged besides other well-known sexologists – is that she not only recognised but also honoured sexual pleasure and fulfilment back in an era when such issues were little spoken about, let alone regarded as needs to be met. But she is also worth an entire ER article because of her financial success in doing so. Having Schrift X printed cost Uhse the then enormous sum of five pounds of butter – but this outlay initiated what is probably the first example of the global commercialisation of sex; Beate Uhse was arguably the first person in history to make money from sex in a truly worldwide way.
She’s done so of course not just from selling leaflets describing the rythmn method. Beate Uhse AG still offers mailorder sales, but has now added sex stores (Uhse’s “institute for marital hygiene” was the first in the world); online shopping; her own range of sex toys; party plans; chat rooms; telephone content; an erotic museum; an inhouse film production company; a television channel; a charity for supporting working women; an exhibition on the history of sexuality and more. For those ER readers who like their erotic information to come with facts and figures, the corporate site is replete with financial summaries, past and present acquisitions and a time-line detailing the date the corporation hit the million D-mark turnover (1956), reached the one million customer milestone (1961) and floated on the German stock exchange (1999). The company is currently one of the world’s biggest erotic providers; the achievement is undeniably impressive.
But… has this achievement anything to do with the current ER theme of “Germany”? Could Uhse have done the same were she a prewar college student from Ohio, or a contemporary pensioner from Okinawa? Whilst not wishing to stray into the dangerous realms of racial caricature and nationalistic fervour (look what a mess that approach landed us in last time round…) I would argue that Uhse’s achievements are linked inextricably with both her Germanic upbringing and the position of her country when she started her enterprise. The Teutonic theme is highly relevant here.
For as a sex educator, I know full well the open attitudes that have long informed German cultural norms; it is, for example, in Germany that teen mags such as Bravo offer their young readers informative full frontal nudity. and Uhse was a product of this outlook; her parents gave her sound and supportive sex education in an era when elsewhere in the world we had only just stopped hiding our table legs for fear they might offend. It was this upbringing that allowed her to be receptive to the sexual needs of her peers, and then effectively and without fuss teach her own sexual lessons to others.
Too, Uhse benefitted from a cultural pragmatism which allowed her to expand her enterprise from education into the realm of sexual pleasure with a commendable lack of hesitation or embarrassment either on her part nor on that of her customers. Nowadays this pragmatism can create unease – the infamous Beate Uhse booths at German motorway service stations where users can watch porn then use the handily-provided paper handkerchiefs to clean up resultant body fluids, nowadays raise a moue of distaste and BU AG has recently rebranded itself to have a more ‘salonfahg (socially acceptable) face. But again, such pragmatism was just what was needed in order to develop a global erotic enterprise.
Plus, surely, the conditions in postwar Germany lent teeth to that enterprise. The highly unpleasant conditions outlined earlier created an urgent demand for female contraceptive control and a deep desire for the balm of sexual pleasure – which in turn triggered a need for erotic information and inspiration. (Just as, years later, the fall of the Berlin Wall created a whole new market for Beate Ushe AG within an Eastern block starved of sexual information and titillation.) Would she have succeeded in a different, less needy and less desperate situation? Perhaps not.
Finally – and I only theorise here – would she herself have succeeded in a less desperate situation? Had she not been German, had she not continued to live in Germany… or, sans war, had she been able to continue her career as a stunt pilot, and live a full and happy married life, would she ever have thought to do what she did. More, would she ever have summoned the sheer bloodymindedness necessary to do keep doing what she did despite moral opprobrium, social censure and relentless legal opposition (her work was the subject of over 20,000 legal challenges)? No, let’s not beatify, if you’ll pardon the pun. But I do have huge admiration for a woman who not only survived post-war Germany and its challenges, but turned them to her advantage. So let’s hear it not only for Masters, Johnson, Kinsey, Comfort, Ann Summers and Marilyn French. Let’s add Beate Uhse to the Hall of Fame.