I had never been to a sex toy store before going to Germany for the first time about 9 years ago. To me sex toy stores were seedy places, with leering men lurking in dark corners. However, I had already bought my first vibrator – a hot pink model, sold through Bust magazine’s Boobtique. As cheap and as hard as it was, I loved that sad little thing, and was sad to leave it at home when I left to study abroad. At the same time, I was mortified at the thought of it being found the zealous post-9/11 search that was likely to occur. So it was packed away and put into storage.
Upon arriving in Germany, it seemed weird to me that this sex store called Beate Uhse (pronounced BAY-AH-TUH OOZ-UH) should be almost next door to the H&M in Munich. After visiting several other cities, I realized there was one in pretty much every shopping district, right along with all the other chain stores.
Finally, curiosity (and horniness) got the best of me and I went in. It was totally cool. Lots of lingerie and toys all along the wall. You could go upstairs for the porn. That visit, with the saleslady whose hair was as pink as my old vibrator and the gaggle of teen girls, totally revolutionized my idea of what sex toy shopping could be. It also represented a big step for me in being open about what I wanted sexually.
As the years went by, my fascination with both German culture and sex toys has only increased. There are lots of ways in which those two interests can intersect. Recently I read Mit Lust und Liebe. Mein Leben, the autobiography of the erotic chain’s founder, Beate Uhse.
As I learned about her life, part of me wanted to pick her up, wrap her up and make her my very own heroine, but she’s a problematic figure in sex positivity – she worked against a culture of sexual shame, but she seems to have repeatedly given little thought to the politics of pleasure when it came to her passion for flying, as well as her passion for her business.
Beate Uhse loved flying and became a stunt pilot when she was 17 – unheard of for a girl in the thirties. During WWII, the Luftwaffe offered her a job flying transport and she accepted in hopes that this would be a way for her to maintain her budding career as a pilot. Eventually, she was captured by British forces.
After the war ended, she started her involvement with sexual safety and pleasure by distributing birth control information to help reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies during the difficult (and food-scarce) post-war period.
As the economic situation improved in Germany, Beate Uhse developed a mail-order service offering condoms, lubricant, vibrators and information on sexual pleasure to married couples. By 1962, she had a storefront. Even as business boomed, she was indicted over 3000 times by local and federal governments for encouraging immorality, and promoting pornography (she actually did add porn to her inventory in the 1970s).
Still, Beate Uhse continued supplying what the German public clearly demanded and the business grew steadily.
What I find interesting is that, in contrast to the U.S. scene where men like Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt did the work and made the profit of liberalizing sexual attitudes, in Germany, a woman did.
There are, of course, lots of reasons why erotic stores in the U.S. have been traditionally aimed at men, instead of being places in which both men and women are comfortable, but it’s easy to think that Beate Uhse’s gender had something to do with it. At the same time, she was ever the businesswoman, if an open-minded one and had no political, much less feminist intentions in mind.
Perhaps this is why, in contrast to the generation of female-centered sex shops that developed in the 1980s (Babes in Toyland, etc.), Beate Uhse stores even in a city like Berlin seem really hetero-centric. Could it be that Beate Uhse’s pioneering embrace of sensual desire is limited in its potential for liberation because of her lack of political consciousness?