Focus Project "History of Sexuality"

Veronika Settele & Lisa Hellriegel

A brochure advertising condoms and describing them as a marvellous invention
Advertisement for Condoms, 1913

Behind the Norm: Practices of Sexuality between Secularization and Scientification, 1848–1930

The research project (2023-2026) led by Veronika Settele examines the history of sexuality "behind the norm" from the mid-19th century to the first third of the 20th century in Western Europe. The two overarching questions of the project focus on changing ties to religion and denomination as well as the effects of the growing scientific examination of sexuality in biology, psychology and medicine on concrete practices of lust, violence and reproduction. The aim of the research project is a transnational history of the perception of sexuality. The research is based in particular on court and medical files as well as letters, diaries and autobiographies.

Research Projects

The Secularization of Sexuality in Europe

Pleasure and Procreation as Religious Practices in Germany and France, c. 1850-1930

In her habilitation project,Veronika Settele examines sexuality as a religious practice in the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant churches, and Judaism between the mid-19th century and 1930. Germany and France form the geographical focus of the study, which, however, takes into account other transnational references and sees itself as a Western European area study.

Through concrete practices of contraception, abortion, and premarital, extramarital, and marital sexual acts, the project examines a changing everyday significance of religious teachings and authorities for the experience of sexual pleasure and the organization of reproduction. With this focus, Settele follows the secularization theories of the sociologist of religion José Casanova and the anthropologist Talal Asad, who overcame binary ideas of a religious and increasingly private sphere on the one hand and a secular public (state) sphere on the other, for the modern age. The key question is the extent to which practices of sexual pleasure and (prevented) reproduction changed piety, ecclesiastical ties, and faith itself. Following Clifford Geertz, the project is based on a broad understanding of religion as a system of cultural meanings that incorporates individual needs for affection and external authority, and goes beyond narrower notions of clerical control and the legitimation of the nation-state in the nineteenth century.  In order to shift the focus of historical studies of sexuality from the normative level to everyday sexual practice, the study draws on first-person documents such as letters, diaries, autobiographies, and autobiographical novels, as well as church, police, and court records, medical case histories, and confessionals on the side of authoritarian intervention. This combination of sources is supplemented by colportage novels, joke collections, marriage guides, and press reports for the social context in which the individual actions took place.

Sexual Violence in the City

Change and Continuity in the Legal Practice in Cases of Sexual Violence against Adults in Major German Cities, 1900-1935

In her PhD thesis, Lisa Hellriegel analyzes which contemporary ideas of punishment, justice, and sexuality influenced legal proceedings regarding sexual violence from 1900 to 1935. She assesses the success and failure of reformist ideas and examines the impact of urban life on the legal system, such as the portrayal of the city as an immoral place. What impact did the growth of cities have on the occurrence of sexual violence, in terms of overcrowded living conditions or entertainment venues? Additionally, which public spaces within the city enabled the reporting and prosecution of sexual violence? This investigation centers on the free cities of Hamburg and Bremen, as well as the Prussian cities of Berlin and Altona. The study chronologically examines three political systems – the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, and National Socialism. Thus, she takes in consideration that social practices only partially respond to political changes.

The study relies on court files detailing criminal proceedings related to sexual violence and patient files to demonstrate the growing eugenic principles applied to "Sittlichkeitsverbrechen". Ego documents such as diaries, press materials, and published autobiographies complete the corpus of sources examined in this work. Special emphasis has been placed on the social practice level. Thus, this research combines the history of sexuality, legal history and urban history.

The Closure of Bremen's Helenenstraße (Brothel Street)

A Local Historical Perspective on the Discourse on Venereal Diseases and Prostitution, 1920s

In her BA thesis, completed in 2023, Yeliz Elze examined sources on the closure of Bremen‘s brothel street „Helenenstraße“. The closure of the brothel street and the republic-wide abolition of regulated prostitution had been discussed extensively and with vigour since early Weimar years among politicians, doctors and women’s rights activists. The closure was implemented in 1927 according to a new law, the „Reichsgesetz zur Bekämpfung der Geschlechtskrankheiten“ (law to combat venereal diseases). The study focuses on the role played by women’s rights activists and prostitutes in the political discourse on venereal diseases and prostitution. On the one hand, the local sources reveal unexpected networks between woman’s rights activists for sexual reform and the morality movement, amongst those who campaigned for the closure of the brothel street. On the other hand, the material demonstrated political activism of the prostitutes living in the brothel street who petitioned against the closure of their commercial space.

Yeliz Elze is studying for a master's degree in „Ungleichheiten in Geschichte und Gegenwart“ (Inequalities in Past and Present) at the University of Bremen and supports Veronika Settele and Lisa Hellriegel as a student assistant.


Workshop "Beyond Norms and Categories: Towards a History of Sexual Practices, 1850-1960"

We held the international workshop "Beyond Norms and Categories: Towards a History of Sexual Practices, 1850-1960" at the University of Bremen on February 20 and 21, 2024. The goal of the conference was to discuss the century before the so-called "sexual revolution" – without seeing this period as a prehistory – and to pay special attention to the history of social practices rather than the history of sexual norms. The workshop was the first event of the focus project "Behind the Norm: Practices of Sexuality between Secularization and Scientification, 1848-1930".

You can find the program and conference report by Alina Potempa and Teresa Schenk below.


Lisa Hellriegel and Veronika Settele, Ein europäischer Vergleich sexueller Tatbestände in Straf-, Zivil- und   Ehrgerichtsbarkeit, 1850-1960, in preparation.

Veronika Settele, Art. Sexualität, in: Das 20. Jahrhundert in Grundbegriffen. Lexikon zur historischen Semantik in Deutschland, in preparation.

Veronika Settele and Christoph Conrad, Keine Zukunft – keine Kinder? Gebärstreik zwischen Klassenkampf und Klimakrise, being published.

Veronika Settele, How to Best Campaign for Sexual Reform: Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Karl Maria Kertbeny and their Fiery Correspondence in the 1860s, in: History, Sexuality, Law. Verschränkung von Recht und Geschlecht im historischen Kontext, 25.1.2023,

Veronika Settele, Rezension zu Rainer Herrn. Der Liebe und dem Leid. Das Institut für Sexualwissenschaft 1919-1933, Berlin: Suhrkamp 2022, 681 S., in: sehepunkte 23 (2023),

Veronika Settele, Die Klitoris spielt in der Debatte um Geschlechterordnungen eine zentrale Rolle. Dass kaum ein anderes Organ so folgenreich missverstanden wurde, zeigt die Medizin- und Anatomiegeschichte, in: FAZ 16.9.2023, p. Z 5.

Modern History


 Workshop “Beyond Norms and Categories: Towards a History of Sexual Practices, 1850–1960” (20./21.2.2024)

The workshop on the history of sexual practices took place at the University of Bremen in February 2024. The conference report by Alina Potempa and Teresa Schenk has now been published.