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OCTOBER 29, 2009 12:19PM

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

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 Martin Goldstein
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.


Love schools

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.


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I had no idea. Of course, nothing compares to the cabaret era of Berlin in the 1920s in terms of a sexual revolution, not to mention perversion. I also remember as a kid, strumming through the pages of Quick (my grandfather subscribed) and drooling over the pix.
You're right about the cabaret era, John, but of course that was Berlin. The rest of society remained (officially) straightlaced until the 1970s when they started relaxing all the morality laws so that there's virtually nothing left of them today. The exceptions are interesting, though, and I'll be getting to them in a later post.
This is very good. Thoughtful & informative. All too true: "hypocrisy is still the biggest business in town."
I think it rather naive at this point to continue to brand so called 'trashy' pop culture as hypocritical when it comes to sex. It is simply desperate for survival. The availability of online porn 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, has saturated culture with sex, and all kinds, from the mutually loving to the sadomasochistically morose. This leaves media like print, including pop magazines and TV, in an impossible situation, still tied as they are to antiquated systems of self-imposed censorship. The various expressions of disappointment on the part of older adherents of sexual liberation seems to revolve around the fact that it hasn't turned out the way they wanted it to. But the idea that today's youth are somehow sheltered from sex is fucking ridiculous. I would also add that since the older media made their beds by accepting the prissy authority of the FCC and other agencies of power, then they should die in it. And good riddance. The perversity, variety, beauty, and yes even terror of sex online (is that real? that can't be real...can it...?) is breathtaking. It resists even such rational censorship as Herr Doctor's. And who knows what kind of sexual culture will be produced by the internet generation. Could 'love' itself come to be considered a 'hang-up'? Will we finally be freed to some extent from the tyranny of this bourgeois way of going about sex? Love is, after all, the invaluable prop of the most vile hypocrisy: I love you, and therefore I know you, and now, I can kill you with impunity. Here is Christian love in all its "shock and awe" essence.
interesting story.
seems like you want a balance in sexuality between not to much not too little to me. but good piece.
quaint. but jerry springer and and celeb mags suggest good ol' youessay is the leader, both in hypocrisy and depravity.

i wonder if homo sap will learn to be human before homo superior makes him obsolete?
This is an awesome piece! Thanks for publicizing an unknown hero.
You may well be right on that. Let me point out that the good doctor is in no way condemning the current situation, but rather pointing out that despite all the instant info at kids' fingertips they are still basically as confused and needy as ever (a standpoint I share), which explains his utopian and rather retro notion of "love schools."

As I stated in the article, while "Bravo" seems pretty tawdry to the older generation, its openness might well be the best thing that has ever happened to kids when it comes to sex. In the old days, pornography was frequently their only source of written and visual information about the questions they had. But "sunlight is the best disinfectant," as they say, and laying it all out as graphically and honestly as "Dr. Sommer" has been doing might indeed prevent a lot of problems down the road. Of course, by American standards the magazine is pure pornography and would fall squarely under child protection laws, but that's a different issue altogether.

Is the magazine hypocritical? Perhaps, perhaps not. I'm merely pointing out that besides providing a valuable educational service it is also selling bad taste for good money. But criticizing "Bravo" is like criticizing "Harry Potter," or the incoming tide for that matter. You can do it if you want, but the effort is much better spent elsewhere.
Why in the world would you consider it appropriate to illustrate the story about Goldstein's sex advice column with a photo of naked concentration camp prisoners? The connection seems tenuous at best, especially in light of what Goldstein and his family went through. And do you seriously believe that "Goldstein suffered little hardship in the labor camp"? Isn't forced labor hardship by definition? I appreciate your reports on German culture, but please avoid being flippant about it.
@Sabine Schmidt
No flippancy is intended. My point is merely to highlight the spectacular contrast between the horrific experiences that Goldstein suffered - the brutal theft of his youth - with the modern youth culture he did so much to help create. Yes, it's horrible all right, as the photo so graphically illustrates, but it's all part of our recent history and should not be suppressed.

Regarding Goldstein's personal experiences in the labor camp: This is his own assessment in the interview I quoted from. He was merely put to work along with POWs and foreign contract labor, not directly tortured or otherwise abused. However, he witnessed the horrors of the nearby concentration camp and knew what he had to expect when his luck ran out, as it did in February when the Gestapo came to get him. His survival, and that of his father, is nothing short of miraculous.