The Sex Reform Movement in Weimar Germany (1919-1933)
“The original Birth Control movement in this country before 1933 was closely united with a rather unpleasant sort of sexual science and still has the peculiar flavor of indecency” – Historian Atina Grossman
The so-called sex reform movement of Weimar Germany (1919-1933), was dedicated to providing more sexual and, in turn, social freedoms to men and women. Its two major aims were to give working class men and women access to information about and means of birth control and to reform the Paragraphs 218 and 219 of the German Penal Code of 1871 that prohibited abortion and the help for it.
The movement was supported by members of the liberal, social democratic, socialist and communist parties, by laymen and doctors, by writers and artist and became at the end of the Weimar Republic the largest non-party mass movement that include hundred-thousands of men and women. It was composed of several smaller and larger associations on the local and national level that joined the cause and organized birth control clinics and information meetings, movie screenings and theater performances, protest actions and large demonstrations. The rise to power of the Nazi Party in January 1933 ended the movement. Many of its supporters were persecuted by the Nazis and imprisoned or had to migrate.
Women’s liberation by access to birth control and the right to control their own body was not the only aim of the sex reform movement, another was the recognition of all forms of sexuality including homosexuality. In July 1919, the Institute of Sexual Research (Institut für Sexualwissenschaft ), the first of its kind, was founded by Magnus Hirschfeld (1836-1935). Hirschfeld was a German Jewish physician and sexologist with a practice in Berlin-Charlottenburg, who had founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee, WhK) in Berlin already in 1897, to campaign for social recognition of gay, bisexual and transgender men and women, and against their legal persecution. The Institute of Sexual Research educated the public with the aim of a better understanding of sex and sexuality as a whole and offered in-depth education on the topic. he World League for Sexual Reform was a League for coordinating knowledge about the enhancement of sexual function. Hirschfeld initiated also the founding of the World League for Sexual Reform in 1921, during the First Congress for Sexual Reform in Berlin, which he had organized. Further congresses were held in Copenhagen (1928), London (1929), Vienna (1930), and Brno (1932).
The fight for a reform of the regulation of prostitution also emerged as part of the struggle for sex reform during the Weimar Republic with the aim to prevent the persecution of the women. While other countries were cracking down on prostitution by declaring it to be a sexual crime, the welfare state of Weimar Germany began decriminalizing it by implementing legislation like “The Law for Combatting Venereal Diseases,” passed in 1927. These laws required that doctors begin treating women who came in with sexually transmitted diseases, even prostitutes, without persecuting them.
The Weimar sex reform movement did not reach most of its aims until 1933, but it changed the thinking of many contemporaries long-lastingly. Most of its aims for a legal reform were not realized before the 1970s in West Germany.
Olivia Porter, Global Studies, Class of 2020
Literature and Websites
- Grossman, Atina. “Girlkultur or Thoroughly Rationalized Female: A New Woman in Weimar Germany?” In Women in Culture and Politics: A Century of Change,” ed. Judith Friedlander et al., 62-64, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1986.
- Kennedy, Hubert C. “Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft (1919-1933).” In Journal of the History of Sexuality 12, no. 1 (2002):122-126.
- Roos, Julia. Weimar Through the Lens of Gender: Prostitution Reform, Woman’s Emancipation, and German Democracy, 1919-1933. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.