Sexuality and Consumption – 18th Century to 21st Century

Franz X. Eder / Mario Keller / Johann Kirchknopf / Oliver Kühschelm / Karin Moser / Stefan Ossmann, Institut für Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte, Universität Wien
23.11.2018 - 24.11.2018
Lukas Russ, Institut für Geschichte, Universität Wien

The international conference was held in honour of the sixtieth birthday of Franz X. Eder. Covering a timespan of more than 300 years, the presenters examined a diverse range of issues to question past and present notions of sexuality in the context of consumption.

PASCAL EITLER (Berlin) delivered the first keynote and spoke about recent interests and pending issues within contemporary historical research. Main themes of his presentation were the normalization, visualization, and orientalization of sexuality. In his view, sexuality should not be defined at all, but rather investigated with a broad scope that should orient itself on actual practices. Eitler criticized the notion that sexuality is always thought in exclusively binary categories (male and female, homosexual and heterosexual). He also advocated for more research on the sexuality of marginalized social groups, like elderly or disabled people. This led over to the first panel, which dealt with the legal and social normalization of homosexuality from the angle of consumer capitalism. JUSTIN BENGRY (London) emphasized that corporate marketing in Britain discovered homosexuals as a promising target group during the 1960s. Henceforth, commercial actors that saw an opening in gay consumer spending supported more progressive legislation on homosexuality. Similarly, FRED FEJES (Olomouc) discussed the emancipatory potential of consumer capitalism in the United States during the 1990s. Both speakers concluded that advertising contributed to normalizing gay and lesbian identities. In both cases, marketing strategists became aware of the purchasing power of a previously marginalized group. Bengry pointed out that homosexual activists soon realized that the media infrastructure of consumer capitalism offered enormous possibilities for promoting their cause and bringing about change in public opinion. In contrast, Fejes drew attention to the limitations of this strategy: while it successfully established a sexual minority as a distinct target group of consumers, it also implied conformity with a neo-liberal and media-centred political economy.

MAREEN HEYING (Düsseldorf) presented her binational comparative study on sex worker movements in Italy (Lucciole) and Germany (Hurenbewegung) in the 1980s and 1990s. She accessed her sources through the Archiv und Dokumentationszentrum Sexarbeit – Madonna, which is part of the Ida archival network. She argued that not only sex but even the female body can be perceived as a consumer good. Heying talked about the constant issue of sexism and objectification within the context of prostitution. The societal stigma, which is still attached to this occupation, has ever since forced women into hiding. Consequently, sex workers often conceal their identity by using a different one when attending their work. According to Heying, many prostitutes deliberately differentiate their private from their working body through dressing up in a costume and acting out a role. ELMAR GRACHER (Cologne) discussed the different spatial settings and locations of sex work in Cologne. Authorities moved sex work from the streets to more private and non-visible spaces. Drawing on sources such as court papers, police files, and newspaper articles, he used a micro-historical approach to assess small-scale sex businesses in Cologne until the 1980s. Within this context, he elaborated on the ambivalent relationship between hidden and visible spaces of sex work and the established underground economy from the 1960s to the 1980s. RAPHAEL REICHEL (Tübingen) talked about a geographically more distant location: Pattaya, “The World’s Capital of Sex”. The Thai city originally developed around a red-light district. Today prostitution is located in numerous side alleys, the so-called sois, which are marked by their differentiated economic and social status. He underlined that Pattaya is an extreme example of unregulated sex tourism but pointed out that the image of Pattaya and Thailand is currently changing. The city seeks to broaden its appeal beyond sex tourism and to establish itself as a destination for luxury and shopping.

JESSICA BORGE (Strasbourg) talked about covert motivations within the Consumer Association’s report issued by the Which?-magazine in the winter of 1963/64. The Which? Special Report on Contraceptives examined non-prescription birth control products according to their price and effectiveness. Her study questioned the authorship, dissemination and the intended effects of this report. She convincingly argued that not exclusively commercial contraceptive retailers like London Rubber used the consumer report, but also non-profit organisations, such as the British Family Planning Organisation, tried to use it as a propaganda document for publicly denouncing contraceptive commerce. In the long run, the widely publicized report served as a vehicle for the introduction of a British standard for rubber condoms and thereby turned the interest of investors and consumers towards non-female contraceptive products. MATLEENA FRISK (Helsinki) presented her research about the introduction of male deodorants on the Finnish market in the 1960s and 1970s. She stated that producers had to overcome the perception that deodorants were hygiene products for female use only. She demonstrated this development by indicating marketing implied changes in gender norms in advertisements from the Finnish youth magazine Suosikki. In the late 1960s, unisex deodorants paved the way for the new product until it lost its association with perfume and became acceptable to both women and men.

The second keynote by CHRISTINE HAUG (Munich) turned to the early modern period and discussed the topography of production, distribution and consumption of erotic and pornographic reading material in Europe. She called for more research on the cross-language and cross-border presence of these materials. In the 17th and 18th century closely knit networks of printers, peddlers and itinerant book carriers distributed erotic material across the many European borders. In her talk on the last panel, HEIKE STEINHOFF (Bochum) also explored the media presence of a “licentious underworld”. Focussing on the commodification of sexuality in Antebellum America, she discussed the example of the booklet Prostitution exposed. It cleverly played on the ambivalences of a moralizing discourse on prostitution that allowed the author to condemn prostitution and at the same time promote its consumption. Such booklets and flash papers aligned themselves with pious religious practice to commercialize sexuality. Serving as literary guides through the urban sexual underworld, they spread knowledge about sites of sexual consumption. KATRIN PILZ (Bruxelles / Vienna) detected a similar ambivalence in Viennese sex education films of the 1920s. A close analysis of two sex-ed films of the year 1922 revealed that no clear-cut boundaries between propaganda, educational effort and advertising existed. The films clearly tended towards eroticizing women’s bodies. They point to a widespread public interest in sexual hygiene and mark the beginnings of a profitable film genre. In the final presentation, ANAT ROSENBERG (Cambridge) again centred on how profit-seeking actors used ambivalences in the attitude towards sexuality. In the second half of the 19th century, the British market was increasingly flooded by advertising that was related to sexuality. The advertisements were ambiguous in many ways. Just as the book Prostitution exposed warned against the dangers of prostitution, such adverts for example stated that the promoted medicine was not to be used by pregnant women because it might induce miscarriage. Clearly, the medicine was marketed as a means to abort a pregnancy. However, the ambiguity extended to the questionable reliability and scientific nature of the medication.

To conclude, the conference featured contributions that covered both the history of sexuality and of consumption in a balanced way. It opted for leaving the definition of sexuality and consumption open to accommodate empirical research about a vast array of different historical phenomena. The presentations raised new questions for further research and discussed crucial issues like the stereotypical portrayals of sexuality that conceive men as consumers and women as the product to be consumed. Ultimately, the conference addressed the complexity of different agencies and the overlapping motives of a diverse set of agents. Sexuality and consumption were presented as complex interwoven constructs that change gradually as well as continuously, and therefore constantly open up new perspectives to investigate them.

Conference Overview:

Pascal Eitler (Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin): Consuming Sex, Producing Sex: Recent Interests and Open Questions in Historical Research

Panel 1: Legal and Social Normalisation of Homosexuality

Justin Bengry (University of London): “Get a Move On, Mr. Butler”: The Business of Homosexual Legal Reform

Fred Fejes (Florida Atlantic University, Palacký University Olomouc): “Normalizing” Lesbian/Gay Identity Through Consumption: The American Experience in the 1990s

Panel 2: Sex-Work/Sex-Markets

Mareen Heying (Heinrich Heine University, Düsseldorf): Sex as Consumer Good in the Context of Prostitution: The Political Stance of German and Italian Sex Workers in the 1980s and 1990s

Elmar Gracher (University of Cologne): Big Business at Hidden Places: Investigating the Development of Small-Scale Sex Businesses in Cologne between the 1960s and 1980s

Raphael Reichel (Eberhard Karls Universität, Tübingen): “The World’s Capital of Sex”: Negotiations, Practices and Sites of Sexuality and Consumption in Pattaya, Thailand

Panel 3: Sexualised Consumer Goods and Material Culture

Jessica Borge (University of Strasbourg): The 1963 Which? Contraceptive Report, British Standard 3704 and Anti-Commercial Action against the Condom by Social Stakeholders in Mid-Twentieth Century Britain

Matleena Frisk (University of Helsinki): Masculinity, Relationships, and Male Deodorant Usage in the 1960’s and Early 1970s Finland

Christine Haug (Ludwig-Maximilian-University, Munich): Erotic and Pornographic Reading Materials in Europe in the 17th and 18th Century: Distribution and Consumption

Panel 4: The Medialisation of Sexuality

Heike Steinhoff (Ruhr-University, Bochum): Licentious Underworlds: The Commodification and Regulation of Sexuality in Antebellum American Popular Culture

Katrin Pilz (Université Libre de Bruxelles / University of Vienna): Consuming Sexual Health: Viennese Sex Education Films of the 1920s

Anat Rosenberg (University of Cambridge): Advertising Sex in Late Victorian Britain

Tagungsbericht: Sexuality and Consumption – 18th Century to 21st Century, 23.11.2018 – 24.11.2018 Wien, in: H-Soz-Kult, 04.04.2019, <>.