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Before Porn Was Legal

The Erotica Empire of Beate Uhse

Struggling to survive in post­–World War II Germany, Beate Uhse (1919–2001)—a former Luftwaffe pilot, war widow, and young mother—turned to selling goods on the black market. A self-penned guide to the rhythm method found eager buyers and started Uhse on her path to becoming the world’s largest erotica entrepreneur. Battling restrictive legislation, powerful churches, and conservative social mores, she built a mail-order business in the 1950s that sold condoms, sex aids, self-help books, and more. The following decades brought the world’s first erotica shop, the legalization of pornography, the expansion of her business into eastern Germany, and web-based commerce.

Uhse was only one of many erotica entrepreneurs who played a role in the social and sexual revolution accompanying Germany’s transition from Nazism to liberal democracy. Tracing the activities of entrepreneurs, customers, government officials, and citizen-activists, Before Porn Was Legal brings to light the profound social, legal, and cultural changes that attended the growth of the erotica sector. Heineman’s innovative readings of governmental and industry records, oral histories, and the erotica industry’s products uncover the roots of today’s sexual marketplace and reveal the indelible ways in which sexual expression and consumption have become intertwined.

240 pages | 23 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Culture Studies

Gender and Sexuality

History: European History


Before Porn was Legal is part chronicle of liberalism, part rags-to-riches tale of businesswoman Beate Uhse and her sex empire, and part morality tale of the economic clout of male consumers. Elizabeth Heineman takes her readers through a story of why sex matters to the recent history of Germany and, by extension, all societies that find the marketplace called on to mediate tensions between sexual freedom and shifting social morality. Concise, sharply argued, smart. Heineman does for Uhse what Barbara Ehrenreich did for Hugh Hefner in The Hearts of Men and Kathy Peiss did for Madame C. J. Walker in Hope in a Jar: she brings readers into the frothy intersection of desire and commodities.”

Jane Gerhard, Mount Holyoke College

“This outstanding book explores the relationship between sexual emancipation, consumerism, and mail-order marketing in the context of West Germans recovering from the legacy of Nazi rule. Elizabeth Heineman’s history of Beate Uhse’s erotica empire is filled with paradoxes, insights, and unintended consequences.”

Claudia Koonz, Duke University

“This is a well-written work of exhaustive scholarship. Elizabeth Heineman approaches her topic from multiple perspectives and has a great story to tell, one that will be read by a broad public interested not only in modern Germany but also in the history of sexuality, consumer culture, and the ways societies negotiate moral standards.”

Robert G. Moeller, University of California, Irvine

Table of Contents


Prelude: The Beate Uhse Myth 

1          Introduction: Sex, Consumption, and German History   

2          The Permissive Prudish State   

3          The Economic Miracle in the Bedroom 

4          Interlude: The Beate Uhse Myth           

5          The Sex Wave 

6          The Porn Wave           

7          Postlude: The Beate Uhse Myth           






Western Association of Women Historians: Barbara Penny Kanner Prize
Honorable Mention

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