A sexual revolution: Dr. Sommer's advice column turns forty





THE TERM “SEXUAL REVOLUTION” has become such a cliché in recent decades that it is hard to imagine that it ever had a tangible meaning. And yet, the transformation of global sexual mores that picked up steam in the 1960s really did transform society in ways we are still trying to understand. But how did it get started? Despite the theoretical writings of Sigmund Freud and the prophets of free love, this social and cultural earthquake frequently had humble beginnings. In Central Europe, for example, the true sexual revolution was touched off by the teenage sex advice column of Dr. Sommer, which is marking its fortieth anniversary this month.

When Europe was “moral”

Today it is difficult to conceive that the hedonistic Europe consistently denounced by the American Right – who delight in pointing their fingers at the excesses of the likes of Roman Polanski or at the “green” brothels of Berlin – was once as straight-laced as the Oral Roberts University campus, at least when it came to childrearing. The German weekly youth magazine Bravo from the Kindler & Schiermeyer publishing company in Munich was no exception to the squeaky clean image the post-war Federal Republic was endeavoring to present to the world. Founded in 1956, the original Bravo revolved almost solely around the world of pop stars and entertainment (the first issue displayed Marilyn Monroe on the cover). A lackluster romance advice column was added in 1962, but otherwise the magazine maintained its overall wholesomeness throughout the Beatles era. But all of that changed in October of 1969, when the publishers added a new column, “What Moves You: A Consultation with Dr. Jochen Sommer,” which tackled youthful readers’ sex questions head-on.

Those kids sure had plenty of questions – an average of 3,000 a week, in fact – and Dr. Sommer’s answers ushered in a sexual revolution among German youth. These were still the days when parents blushed at the mere thought of discussing reproductive issues with their children. Today’s mandatory (and perfunctory) sex education in the schools was still a utopia. In fact, according to a recent survey one out of six German adults today attribute their understanding of the birds and the bees to Dr. Sommer’s columns and personal responses. The real figure is probably much higher.

What made his columns stand out was their refreshing openness. Dr. Sommer did not hesitate to call body parts and functions by their real names. In an age where many parents and teachers still warned teenagers that masturbation would drive them insane – or at least cause hair to grow on the palms of their hands – he also shattered a profound taboo by proclaiming the practice to be completely harmless and even natural. As a result, government authorities banned two issues of the magazine in 1972. “Sexual maturity alone does not authorize one to start up one’s sexual organs,” the child welfare agency sniffed. School teachers regularly confiscated it from students and the East German government banned the magazine altogether until 1990.

But times were changing fast, and by the end of the decade Germany was scarcely recognizable when it came to public attitudes about sex. This was to a large extent due to Dr. Sommer and the youth revolution he set into motion. Later columns touched on concerns such as condom etiquette, premature ejaculation, the elusive “G-spot,” and multiple partners. When I first encountered Bravo as a student in the 1980s it appeared to me to be nothing but a youthful version of Cosmopolitan...

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