Histories of Sexualities in Central and Eastern Europe

Łukasz Szulc

Historical studies of sexualities in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) remain scarce. Researchers from the region, as well as other parts of the world, however, are increasingly uncovering both the regional commonalities and local specificities of how diverse sexualities were lived, policed and represented in CEE, the area stretching from Austria and Germany in the west to regions of Russia in the east, and from the Baltic in the north to the Balkans in the south. Recently, some of the most exciting work on the subject was presented at an interdisciplinary conference, ‘Sex and Sexuality in East-Central Europe, Past and Present’, organized by Agnieszka KościańskaAnita KurimayKateřina LiškováHadley Z. Renkin and Eszter Timár at the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University in Budapest in October 2015. While many papers discussed CEE sexualities in a contemporary context,  I will only report on those that were historical in nature.


Conference participants discussed the self-presentation practices of homosexuals, including playfulness during a period of oppression under state socialism. Photo from Ryszard Kisiel’s archive, 1985/1986. (Courtesy of artist Karol Radziszewski’s Kisieland, 2009-ongoing).

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Bad for the Soul, Good for the Body: Religion, Medicine and Masturbation in the Middle Ages

Katherine Harvey

In the early twelfth century, reported Gerald of Wales, a demon physically attacked a young monk. Whenever this monk prostrated himself in prayer, ‘an evil spirit approaches him, places its hands on his genital organs, and does not stop rubbing his body with its own until he is so agitated that he is polluted by an emission of semen.’ Otherwise, the young monk behaved well. Yet when Bishop Hildegard of Le Mans (1096-1125) considered the case, he ruled that the monk could no longer be considered a virgin, since he has been ‘polluted…through masturbation’ and has been tempted by the devil to consent to a ‘shameful act of fornication.’

Sins of Sodom

The Sins of Sodom,’ from the Egerton Genesis Picture Book (BL Egerton 1984)

Stories such as this one have contributed to the popular view that, throughout history, masturbation has been considered as inherently sinful; only in our modern, so-called sexually-liberated age has the taboo surrounding self-pleasure started to dissolve. There is certainly some truth in this view, for Bishop Hildegard was not the only medieval churchman to be concerned by the sinful nature of solo sexual acts. Continue reading

Rape and the Sexual Politics of Homosociality: The U.S. Military Occupation of Okinawa, 1955-56

Histories of Asian Sexualities is an ongoing series at Notches addressing the role of sex and sexuality within Asia and among the Asian diaspora. We are excited to present the inaugural piece in this series by Yuki Takauchi. Her essay reveals the homosocial bond that American military officials and local leaders formed during the postwar occupation of Okinawa, Japan, by examining how they responded to the rape and murder of an Okinawan girl by an American serviceman. By examining the intersections of power, agency, and social change, this series provides an understanding of sexuality within the context of different Asian societies and diasporic communities, while also developing a foundation for comparison with other world regions. We are currently accepting further submission for this series. Please send inquires to Aiko Takeuchi-Demirci at aiko.t.demirci@gmail.com.


Yuki Takauchi

On the night of 3 September 1955, a six-year-old Okinawan girl named Yumiko Nagayama was kidnapped, raped, and murdered. The next morning Yumiko’s body was found in a garbage dump on the Kadena Air Base, sliced with a knife from the lower part of the abdomen to the anus. Two days later, the Okinawan police arrested the perpetrator, Sergeant Issac J. Hurt. The Okinawan people’s anger over the “Yumiko-chan incident” triggered the first massive protest against U.S. occupational policies, called the “All-Okinawan Fight” in 1956. Ever since, the metaphor of rape has framed historical understandings of the U.S. military’s occupation of Okinawa, also referred to in Japanese as Ryukyu. Indeed, the literature on military occupation—like colonial studies on modern Europe more generally—often relies on heterosexual metaphors to explain unequal power relations between the occupiers and the occupied. However, these heterosexual metaphors tend to overlook a far more pervasive homosocial fiction, one promoted by the United States and perpetuated by local Okinawan elites. In the era of decolonization, it was imperative for the United States to avoid any association with European colonial powers. Consequently, U.S. occupation officials promoted the fiction of egalitarian homosocial U.S.-Ryukyu friendship in order to publicize Okinawa as “a showcase for democracy,” a place in which the indigenous populations embraced the U.S. military presence and American democratic values.

Koza Yaejima Street(Red-light district) circa 1955. “Maps of new home: Vol.3,” Okinawa Times. (Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.)

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Homophile Priests, LGBT Rights, and Scottish Churches, 1967-1986

Jeffrey Meek

There’s a long history to the intersection of religious faith and sexuality in Scotland. The introduction of same-sex marriage, LGBT clergy, and the Church of Scotland’s liberalising attitude to LGBT+ rights and issues all attest to significant changes within the institution. While the Church of England played a crucial role in the establishment of the Wolfenden Committee in 1954, which sat to examine the legal position regarding homosexual offences and prostitution, the Church of Scotland, by contrast, appeared remarkably reluctant to engage with any measure of homosexual law reform. Indeed, the church feared that the recommendation of the 1957 Wolfenden Report to decriminalise consensual sex between male adults would ‘lead to further and greater depravities’ (‘Church and Nation’, Glasgow Herald, 7 May 1958, p. 6). The Church of Scotland maintained this line for over a decade, albeit softening its stance slightly by the end of the 1960s, at which time it viewed homosexuals as suffering from a pitiful handicap (Church of Scotland, Assembly Report, 1967). I’ve written elsewhere about how the church’s public disavowal of homosexual law reform impacted upon religious queers in Scotland, but there is another story to tell, one which positions both the protestant Church of Scotland and the Scottish Roman Catholic Church centrally in the development of the homosexual law reform movement in Scotland.


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Stalling Civil Rights: Conservative Sexual Thought has been in the Toilet Since the 1940s

Gillian Frank

Houston’s Proposition 1 bathroom ordinance. What does it mean to you? Any man at any time could enter a woman’s bathroom simply by claiming to be a woman that day. No one is exempt. Even registered sex offenders could follow women or young girls into the bathroom and if a business tried to stop them, they’d be fined. Protect women’s privacy. Prevent danger. Vote no on the Proposition 1 bathroom ordinance.

The above advertisement aired frequently in Houston, Texas this past month and depicted a man accosting a young girl in a bathroom stall. Its purpose was to convince voters about the dangers of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which protected 15 classes of people from discrimination, including LGBT people. Opponents of HERO vilified transgender people as sexual predators and portrayed an ordinance protecting them as a “bathroom bill.” In so doing, they reframed a referendum question on civil rights as a question of whether to permit male sexual predators to molest children in women’s bathrooms. This strategy was dreadfully effective. On November 3, Houston voters rejected the city’s anti-discrimination law by a 61-39 percent margin.

The conservative idea that civil rights protections sexually endanger women and children in public bathrooms is not new. In fact, conservative sexual thought has been in the toilet since the 1940s. During the WWII era, conservatives began employing the idea that social equality for African Americans would lead to sexual danger for white women in bathrooms. In the decades since, conservatives used this trope to negate the civil rights claims of women and sexual minorities. Placing Houston’s rejection of HERO within the history of discrimination against racial minorities, sexual minorities and women reveals a broader pattern: when previously marginalized groups demanded access to public accommodations, conservatives responded with toilet talk to stall these groups’ aspirations for social equality.

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