A sexual revolution: Dr. Sommer's advice column turns forty
Dr. Martin Goldstein, alias "Dr. Sommer"
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.
The first issue of Bravo in 1956
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.
Today "Dr. Sommer's Consultation" regularly features full-frontal nudity on its glossy pages. This week’s column contains detailed masturbation tips and illustrated suggestions for the best sex positions to adopt when losing one’s virginity. Yes, there's no doubt it's all very informative, and it may be healthy overall, although the boundary between enlightenment and outright teenage pornography is becoming increasingly difficult to discern.
Dr. Sommer's advice column today
Looking back, Dr. Sommer may have been one of the greatest revolutionaries of the twentieth century. He is also one of the most famous men who never existed.
A phantom career
The original “Dr. Sommer” was a physician and Lutheran religion teacher called Martin Goldstein, who at that time was employed as a youth psychologist in Düsseldorf. He wrote the Dr. Sommer column from 1969 until his retirement from the magazine in 1984 (also using the pseudonym “Dr. Alexander Korff” for more explicit topics), after which he was replaced by a team of psychologists and sex experts under the direction of Margit Tetz and, later on, Marthe Kniep. In 1993 the magazine launched “Bravo-TV” together with a daily Dr. Sommer feature on cable, and its on-line presence has been growing ever since.
Why didn’t Goldstein publish the column under his own name? At that time, fame as a teenage sex columnist did little for a physician’s reputation. In addition, Goldstein said in a recent interview, “If I had used my real name, the kids would all have beaten a path to my door.”
By this time you might be wondering just what made Goldstein such an expert on teenage sexuality in the first place. In fact, he is not speaking from experience. His personal story is the story of German youth itself in the middle of the twentieth century, and it is deeply ironic that the man who transformed teenage sex in Germany did not have any such encounters of his own until after his own marriage at age twenty-seven. In fact, he was lucky to make it out of his teenage years alive.
“I had no youth”
Goldstein was born in Bielefeld as the son of a non-observant Jewish father and a Protestant German mother in 1927. When the Nazis came to power, the young Lutheran boy was duly excluded from the Hitler Youth and other activities, and was finally kicked out of public school altogether in 1942. He then began a vocational training program. Although Germany’s so-called half-Jews – particularly those of Christian faith – frequently fared well under the Nazis, Goldstein was not so lucky. In September of 1944 the Gestapo picked him up and transported him to a forced labor camp near Zeitz in Saxony. There he was put to work cleaning machinery in a gasoline factory. Whenever Allied bombers rumbled overhead, he also had the job of igniting fog powder to hide the factory from view.
Goldstein suffered little hardship in the labor camp, but was an eyewitness to the atrocities committed in a nearby outpost of the Buchenwald concentration camp, where the inmates were starved and beaten to death before his eyes. A few months later his mother arrived at the factory gate to take him home. She had fought and pleaded with the Gestapo and his vocational training school to allow him to return to Bielefeld. Skilled workers were in short supply in those days and Martin got lucky.
Inmates of the Buchenwald concentration camp following
their liberation in April of 1945
His luck did not last long. He had scarcely returned home when his father received an order to report for deportation to Theresienstadt in February of 1945. Martin accompanied him to the station and saw the box car door close upon him. A month later, Martin’s own marching orders to the gas ovens arrived. But he refused to be led away like a lamb to the slaughter and escaped into the woods, where he lived off of acorns and wild herbs until the American 3rd Armored Division arrived in early April. “I cheered the bombs falling on Bielefeld,“ he said in a recent interview for the daily newspaper Die Welt. “I thought: they are bringing our freedom closer. Then, when the Gestapo headquarters were bombed out, I knew that my file no longer existed. I was free.” (Goldstein’s father also survived the war.) His inner freedom came much later. “It took me fifty years before I was able to tell anyone about this.”
After the war, Goldstein completed high school and then studied medicine. One influence on his later career as a sex consultant was the continued hypocrisy of his own family and particularly that of their liberal Lutheran pastor. This open-minded cleric had married his Jewish-Protestant parents and had bravely protected Jews from the Nazis, and yet remained extremely prudish in all matters dealing with sex. “I am very Lutheran,” Goldstein admits. “I’m downright fundamentalist.” But he was plagued with guilt feelings and waited until his wedding night before he had his first sexual experience. His problem was shame, not fear. “I was afraid of the Gestapo, not sexual intercourse,” he says.
Forty years after penning his first column, Goldstein remains a critic of contemporary sexual mores and sex ed. In his latest book, Teenagerliebe (“Teenager Love”), Goldstein calls for “initiation” ceremonies for young people into the world of love and sex. He believes that “love schools” need to be established where teenagers can learn all there is to know about these matters from trusted adults before they take the leap for themselves. “Sex is still a taboo,” Goldstein says. Despite the vast quantities of explicit information available at the click of a mouse, the Western world is as hypocritical as ever. “Society has not become more open when it comes to dealing with the problems and needs of kids going through puberty. We need something like a love school.”
But as long as the increasingly trashy Bravo brand can sell half a million magazines every week and cash in on juicy add revenues in print, on TV and online, Goldstein's love schools will likely have to wait. Both in his youth and today, hypocrisy is still the biggest business in town. Still, thanks to Goldstein and his successors the kids are finally getting the straight story from sympathetic experts, after all, and that is certainly a revolution worth celebrating.