In 1955, the Austrian newspaper Österreichische Volksstimme published an article called „Dangerous Magnets“ (see Figure 1). The article was accompanied with a picture that shows a boy standing in front of a shopping window in Vienna. On display were so called „dirt and trash“ magazines. The article suggests that these magazines – primarily featuring sex and crime contents – would attract Austria’s younger generation with an almost magnetic pull they could not resist. For adults it was clear that this “dirt and trash” posed a real threat to the morality of their kids. The article further suggests how the allure of sex and crime worked: through its visual qualities. The shop owner, who is criticized as unscrupulous profiteer in the article, trusts the visual appeal of the goods on display – and his strategy works, as the reader learns: The shop thrives, and kids and youngsters spend their pocket money on the cheap novellas. With every sold piece, the article’s author explains, the readers lose a bit more of their innocence and moral steadfastness, and become vulnerable to depravity and criminality. By threatening the Austrian youth – the young republic’s hope after years of war and destruction – the corruptive potential of sex and crime would put the reconstruction of the Austrian nation as such in jeopardy. Consequently, the article ends with the plea that “These displays must finally disappear from our cityscape.”1 The implicit argument in this appeal is striking: With the “magnets” out of sight also their “pull” would vanish – and the Austrian youth be saved from the many dangers of publicly visible sex and crime.
The paper takes this contemporary fear of the visual as starting point to probe sexual imagery in the public space in 1950s Vienna. The 1950s were the heyday in the policing of sexual imagery in the public. This was a direct consequence of the political and cultural situation in Austria after the Second World War. Austrians tried to whitewash themselves from their former involvement in Nazism, genocide, and the war, and portrayed the country as innocent and clean in every way. In this context, vigorous efforts to ban everything sexual set in and gave the decade its nickname as “prudish 1950s”. One result of this development was the establishment of an anti-pornography law in 1950 to fight “indecent” media. Throughout the 1950s, many cases according to this law were heard. The majority of such cases were investigated and stood trial in Austria’s capital Vienna, which forms the geographical basis for this paper. Even though political and media debates on “dirt and trash” are well researched, the actual prosecution practices, and the interplay between politics, police authorities, courts, the media, and guardians of morality has hardly been studied. The paper takes this as starting point to investigate the various actors and their policing practices. It draws on criminal case files against pornography to shed some light on questions such as: How did materials interpreted as sexually suggestive actually look like? In which socio-economic contexts did they arise? How and by whom were they policed? How can the efficacy of this policing be assessed?
Criminal case files are highly formalized text types, characterized by legal language and officials, standardized procedures of recording and explaining, and full of references and abbreviations. However, through their various text genres – reports to the police, testimonies, internal memos, indictments, appeals against a decision, amongst others – they offer a wide range of perspectives and background information that would have otherwise gone unnoticed for the historian when using other types of sources. A close reading of criminal case files thus gives a unique insight into incriminated materials, the socio-economic context of sexual imagery in the public, and the work of police and authorities. The cases analyzed are exemplary: in the course of the decade, police authorities and courts had to deal with several similar cases. More general trends can therefore be derived from the selected examples.
Building on post-structural thought, geographers of sexuality have highlighted that public spaces are not stable and unchangeable entities but rather products of constant negotiation and performative practices. What people know and opine about spaces, and what they are doing or explicitly not doing in them in a sexual way, actively constitutes spaces and gives them their characteristics in the first place. What is considered etiquette in one space is taboo in another. These performative processes are affected by historical, cultural, and geographic conventions as well as gendered and sexualized norms. Drawing on these considerations, the paper explores examples in which various social actors negotiated the acceptability of erotic imagery in the public space.2
At first, I discuss the so-called “fight against dirt and trash” that forms the immediate backdrop of the criminal case files analyzed. The following section reviews the anti-pornography law and its provisions. I then discuss four criminal proceedings to show in an exemplary way how the fight over sexual imagery in the public sphere was a conflict between entrepreneurs and guardians of morality. Two of the cases deal with eroticized advertising for consumer goods, the other two with striptease and advertisement for striptease. The paper then ends with a brief conclusion.
The newspaper article cited above is just one example of a broad discourse that engaged Austrian society for decades, but especially since the end of the Second World War and throughout the 1950s: the fight against “dirt and trash” (Schmutz und Schund in German). “Dirt and trash” refers to all kinds of media products that were considered culturally inferior and potentially youth endangering. A clear definition is (and was) notoriously hard to achieve: In the German-speaking area, the usage of the terminology can be traced back to the 18th century where “dirt and trash” denoted lowbrow literature vis-à-vis the allegedly more sophisticated products of bourgeois high culture. Typically, “dirt” referred to sexualized media and “trash” to other cultural artifacts considered youth endangering like displays of brutality or criminality. The elusive nature of the terminology later helped to adapt the concept to other media forms as well, for example to film in the early or to comics in the middle of the 20th century. However, media considered “dirty” or “trashy” was not just considered of low cultural value but was understood as real social threat: it would undermine power relations in society, destroy the sense of morality, and act criminogenic, besides other negative effects.3 As historian Kaspar Maase has pointed out, the fight against “dirt and trash” was a way for bourgeois elites to legitimize their moral and aesthetic standards as generally binding norm and thereby securing their cultural capital.4
The fight against “dirt and trash” was already well established in the early 20th century. In Austria, it was mainly driven by Catholics and conservatives that used it to express their anti-modern sentiments and to reject new media such as film.5 With §516 of the criminal law, that punished the “arousal of public nuisance”, a legal provision existed that could also be used to fight indecent media of all kinds. Later, during the interwar period, the topic became highly politicized. In the Weimar Republic, for example, both conservatives and National Socialists campaigned against “dirt and trash” and claimed to “clean up” the lax morals of the newly founded democratic republic.6 In Austria, the situation was similar. Already in 1929, explicit legal provisions against indecent media were introduced. Only a couple of years later, in 1934, in the context of the clerical-fascist and authoritarian Federal State of Austria (the so-called Ständestaat), a further “decree for the protection of morality and public health” was issued. After the Anschluss, Austria’s annexation into Nazi Germany in 1938, both §516 and the 1929 provision remained on the books.7 However, after the Second World War the fight against “dirt and trash” became a new significance in the context of postwar reconstruction of Austrian society. Beyond economic reconstruction, Austria had to find a new identity after years of war, genocide, and National Socialism. Official politics quickly made use of the so-called victim thesis – Austria as innocent victim of Nazi Germany – and highlighted unproblematic aspects like the richness of culture or the beauty of the landscape as ‘typically’ Austrian.8 Political and public debates of the time were characterized by a kind of escapism: Nazism and Austria’s involvement therein were not discussed and mostly not even mentioned. A critical accounting would only start decades later in the 1980s. This general trend affected all parts of politics and left an especially strong imprint on the politics of culture and education. By appropriating the cultural achievements of the Habsburg past and styling itself as “cultural nation”, the young Austrian republic could bypass both immediate past as well as giving itself a new, decidedly apolitical, and thus unproblematic identity.9 As historian Dagmar Herzog has highlighted, debates over sexual morality played an important role during the post-war years for coming to terms with the Nazi past. Since Nazism was widely interpreted as sexually licentious, the re-establishment of a rigid sexual morality was believed to further de-Nazification and democratization.10 In this context, the fight against “dirt and trash” was yet another tool for securing Austria’s image as ‘clean’ and ‘innocent’ country.
Ideologically, the new Austrian identity was formed by politicians of the conservative, Christian-social Austrian People’s Party and the Catholic Church. Austrian Catholicism quickly managed to become a major cultural force again after being severely repressed under National Socialism.11 Both the Austrian People’s Party and the Catholic Church – often in unison – fought all kinds of “dirt and trash” media since the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, using all available means, be it the shaping of public opinion, various forms of activism, or direct political influence. In this context, media forms that did not correspond with the ideal of high culture were combated, from US-American comic books and gangster films to serialized novels or allegedly kitschy love stories – and especially sexual imagery in every form.12 Eventually, the conservative campaigning payed off: 1950 saw the establishment of an anti-pornography law which allowed to legally prosecute sexual imagery.
However, the postwar period was not just characterized by moral but also by economic reconstruction. After an economically difficult situation in the immediate postwar years, the Austrian national economy saw a considerable recovery throughout the 1950s. The economic recuperation was widespread and lasting: both the gross domestic product and average household incomes rose, unemployment sunk, and slowly consumer capitalism gained a foothold. After years of poverty, need, and scarcity, the contemporaries witnessed an “economic miracle”. The good economic situation granted relative affluence for the majority of the population and gave ever more people the chance to participate in the emerging consumer culture.13 As the remainder of this paper will demonstrate, the principle of “sex sells” played an important role in the advertising of the many goods and services that were now available.
Since the late 1940s, the Austrian press was engaged in heated debates regarding the introduction of an anti-“dirt and trash” law. Conservative and Catholic newspapers were in favor of a law, and in 1948 government officials began on working on the first draft. Especially Catholic organizations demanded the quick establishment of the law. To press their claim, they resorted to activism and organized nationwide demonstrations, protest actions against cinema owners who showed “dirt and trash” movies, or so-called “self-help” initiatives against producers of sex magazines. In many of these actions, members of the Austrian People’s Party were involved. Parties from the other side of the political spectrum, like social democrats or communists, saw the whole topic much more critically. They welcomed youth protection in general but feared the law to become a censorship provision in disguise. Generally, they believed Austria’s youth to be threatened by the poor economic conditions, high rates of unemployment, or bad housing, but not by “dirt and trash”. However, when the draft law was discussed in the National Council of the Austrian Parliament in March 1950, all parties unanimously voted for the law.14 The Judiciary Committee of the Austrian National Council highlighted that the law should recover traditional customs and morals amongst Austria’s youth that had been shattered through Nazism and the war.15
And so, the Federal Law Concerning the Elimination of Lewd Publications and the Protection of Youth against Ethical Endangerment, as the law was officially named, was passed.16 In everyday language use the law was simply named pornography law or dirt and trash-law. The law’s two major provisions were paragraphs 1 and 2. §1 penalized the production and publication of obscene materials in general.17 §2, on which this paper lays its focus, was an explicit youth protection provision. According to §2, a., “A person is guilty of a misdemeanor if he knowingly offers or makes available to a person under 16 years of age, in return for payment, any writing, image or other representation likely to endanger the moral or health development of juveniles by stimulating lust or misleading sexual instincts, or any such film or phonogram.”18
The law commentary explained that due to their special psychological lability and impressionability, youngsters deserved special protection against everything that could “mislead” their developing sexual instincts.19 Which kinds of sexual representations were seen as capable of such a “misleading” was not specified in the law but was subject to judicial interpretation, and, as we will see, regularly led to legal challenges.20 A misdemeanor against §2 of the law could result in prison sentences of one to six months and financial penalties of up to 250,000 Schilling – a very high sum for the standards of the time.21
The application of the law was believed to be a quite sensitive task, and so only the Austrian regional courts – and not every district court – were charged with the law’s execution. Here again the law’s general focus on youth protection can be seen. Because in Vienna there was the only specialized Juvenile Court, all cases from eastern Austria should be heard at this court. For the rest of the country, the regional courts in Linz, Graz, and Innsbruck were in charge. All proceedings went in the form of courts of lay assessors. One lay assessor at least had to be a youth specialist by profession, such as a teacher or a person working in youth welfare. These persons were seen as especially skilled in judging negative influences for youngsters.22
Austria was not the only European country that introduced new obscenity legislation in the post-war years. In Switzerland, legal provisions against „dirt and trash“ were introduced, already in 1942 with the establishment of the first nationwide penal code.23 In West Germany, an anti-“dirt and trash” law was introduced in 1953 after years of intense debate. As in Austria, especially conservative political parties and the Catholic church were in favor of the law and saw it as a way to counteract the alleged moral decline in the wake of Nazism.24 However, the renewed interest in obscenity legislation was not limited to German-speaking countries. For example, France introduced a law regulating publications for young people in 194925, and with the Obscene Publications Act, also England established similar legal provisions in 1959.26
As already mentioned, in the 1950s the Viennese Juvenile Court was especially busy judging cases according to the newly established pornography law. The next two sections study some of these criminal case files in more detail. At first, I discuss two cases of striptease performances or advertisement for them, then I discuss two cases of sexualized advertisement for consumer goods.
In 1953, the two businessmen Bruno R. and Rudolf B. got reported to the police for allegedly having made public images that would depict “largely exposed female bodies in lewd poses” which would probably fall under §2 of the pornography law.27 The offending object was a parking meter made of cardboard. The parking meter acted as advertisement for the Maxim – a prestigious night and striptease club in Vienna owned by Bruno R. – and was attached to parking cars in downtown Vienna by his employees.28
By twisting the disc in the parking meter, alternatingly one of four black and white pictures or an advertising slogan like “international artist show from 10pm” or “17 beautiful women. 2am erotic night show” appeared. Two of the pictures showed semi-clothed, the other two bare breasted women. For example, one of the pictures shows a topless woman with light hair, attired only with panties on which the proverbial ivy leaf is attached (see Figure 2). The woman’s breasts are clearly visible. The scenery is scarce. The woman leans against a tree trunk as only decoration, the photo’s background is empty. The other photos are of similar type. According to Bruno R. “The images of women are pictures of artists who were continuously employed by me at that time and who are known all over the world. They were also in agreement with the representation of the pictures.”29 In total, 10,000 pieces of the parking meter were produced.30
The police report was filed from a police officer on patrol in Vienna’s city center who feared that the ‘indecent’ parking meter could fall into the hands of minors.31 For Bruno R., the Maxim’s owner, and Rudolf B., the printer who had produced the parking meter, the result was a court trial according to §2 of the pornography law. The indictment found that “The depiction of naked female bodies in connection with the words ‘erotic night show’ is quite capable of endangering the moral or health development of young persons by stimulating lust and misleading the sexual instinct.”32 Thus, R. and B. would clearly have committed a misdemeanor against §2 of the pornography law.
In the subsequent trial, Bruno R. and Rudolf B. tried to convince the court that they had payed close attention that only adults could see the advertisement’s erotic content: all parking meters were tucked under the wipers facing the car window; they were attached in a way that only the slogans but not the pictures of the women were visible; they were distributed only in the night hours; furthermore, they contained the inscription “must not be supplied to minors”.33 However, the court was not convinced on these grounds but attached more value to the police man’s testimony that the parking meters would have been attached with the erotic depictions clearly visible for passers-by – and that means theoretically also for minors.34 “Due to the uncontrolled attachment to passenger cars”, so the court in its verdict, the accused would have knowingly accepted that some parking meters were attached until the morning hours and “were thus made available to a wider circle of young people under the age of 16, mainly schoolchildren on their way to school.”35 Following this reasoning, both Bruno R. and Rudolf B. were found guilty and got sentenced to two months of strict detention on probation. Additionally, and besides having to pay the court fees, Bruno R. was fined to pay a very high penalty of 20,000 Schilling and Rudolf B. 1,000 Schilling.36
The convicts appealed the judgement. According to them, the court had failed to proof that minors under the age of 16 had in fact been exposed to the incriminated material. Furthermore, the court had failed to properly determine the material’s potential to “mislead the sexual instinct” and to proof the ill intent of the convicts: since the incriminated material’s purpose was advertisement for a night club (underaged youths were banned from entering), the assumption that the convicts had acted knowingly was unsubstantial.37 In its ruling, the Supreme Court of Justice, who had to deliberate on the appeals, accepted the reasoning that a mere “abstract endangerment” of youngsters was insufficient, declared the conviction as null and void, and redirected the trial back to the trial court.38
In the renewed trial, the accused highlighted again that the parking meters had to be seen as advertisement and that they doubted the material to be indecent – one could see bare breasted or semi-clothed women all the time in newspapers and posters that are accessible for youngsters.39 The reasoning of the court is interesting in many regards. Firstly, the court declared that “the various, especially economic, interests of the adult citizen in being allowed to distribute obscene printed matter must be weighed against those of the general public in protecting young people against the danger posed by such printed matter to their health and moral development.”40 The court thus accepted Bruno R.’s and Rudolf B.’s commercial interests as being equally worth of legal protection as youth protection measures – crucial is the weighing of interests. Since the accused took every precaution – for example with the imprint that the parking meter “must not be supplied to minors” or the prudence in the way the parking meter was attached to the cars – the court had to judge in favor of their commercial interests.41
Secondly, the court had to accept a very specific cautionary measure taken by the accused Bruno R. that was also rooted in commercial considerations: the time when the parking meters were distributed. Since the Maxim was a nightclub, premature advertisement made no sense as guests would only come in the night hours. Therefore, R.’s employees started distributing the parking meters not before 9pm. However, due to the closing hour of 4am, too late a distribution would be nonsensical as well, and so R.’s employees stopped distributing the parking meters at 1am the latest. Since youngsters under the age of 16 were not allowed to be on the streets during the night hours, according to the Viennese youth protection legislation, R. had ensured that only adults could see the erotic depictions. Even if a car with an attached parking meter would park beyond the night hours – which in theory would open up the possibility for youngsters to see the parking meter and the erotic depictions in the morning hours – R. was not to blame as he took every precaution one could ask for.42 The ruling thus expanded the economic sphere spatially-temporally: during the night, erotic advertisement for adults was now allowed on public streets. Ironically, it was the close adherence to youth protection legislation itself that made the ruling possible in the first place. Because according to current law, persons under 16 years of age were not allowed on public spaces during the night43, and §2 of the pornography law – itself an explicit youth protection provision – defined these very same under 16-year-olds as the group to be protected, R. was successful with his appeal since the advertisement targeted adults only.
Bruno R. and Rudolf B. got acquitted.44 R.’s employees who distributed the parking meters were legally prosecuted in a separate case that was also soon closed.45 Eventually, all people involved got away without a conviction. In addition, Bruno R., the Maxim’s owner, was allowed to use the parking meter further on to advertise his night club – at least during night hours.46
A case from the later 1950s gives an insight into another form of sexualized or eroticized imagery in the public space: striptease. In 1958, the showwoman and owner of the two establishments “Apollo Show” and “Boudoir of Don Juan”, Rosa Luise F., and the manager of her two establishments, Josef S., were accused of granting under 16-year-olds entry to their striptease show.47 The two premises were located in the Viennese Wurstelprater, a centuries-old amusement park in Vienna’s second district, close to the city center. The Wurstelprater (that still exists) is part of a huge public park called the Prater (the term Wurstelprater derives from the general name Prater), since decades one of Vienna’s hot spots for street prostitution. After the Second World War, the Prater quickly became the most important entertainment district of Vienna once again, featuring amusement rides, revues, and sexualized entertainment.48
The bone of contention was a striptease show as part of a full-length entertainment program. The program consisted of three parts: after a performance of magic tricks the striptease was the main attraction before the show ended with the screening of around 40 nude pictures of young women via an episcope. The striptease show was advertised under varying names such as “A girl before bedtime” or “Viennese laundry maid”, and was performed by the 18-year-old Rosa K.49 During the 1950s, specialized striptease clubs slowly became established in European cities. However, the striptease show in the Prater stood more in the tradition of the variety or the burlesque show where the striptease is only a part of the whole performance.50 The performance, however, did not have much to do with the magnificent revues known, for example, from France. The reports in the criminal case file describe the interior of the establishment as quite poorly: in the middle of a room of 20 square meters a small platform of 1,5 meters width and 60cm height, covered in red fabric, was installed. In front of this little stage were four benches, behind them some standing capacities. There was obviously no music played and no special lighting during the striptease show that took around 15 minutes in total. The show was attended by around 50 people for an entrance fee of only 3 Schilling, which was very cheap also for the standards of the time.51
Interestingly, the criminal case file holds a detailed description of the striptease show by a policeman that is worth to be cited at full length:
The undressing proceeded as follows: first she took off a white apron, then a skirt, a blouse, a second skirt, a second blouse, a pair of breeches, a brassiere and finally a pair of nylon panties. She hung the discarded garments on a string stretched in front of the stage, so that the spectators sitting and standing in front of her saw only her exposed upper body. Subsequently, she took the clothes hanging on the string to herself, so that her whole body was to be seen. She had covered her genitals with a triangular bib and no pubic hair was visible. After a few awkward movements, she left the stage, walking backwards.52
The criminal case files hold some background information on the striptease performer and how she found the job. The dancer Rosa K. had been working as kitchen ancillary in a tavern in Carinthia. K., who did not like her job, ran away, broke off contact with her parents, and made her way to Vienna. Here she was hired as striptease dancer by the showman who performed the magic tricks in the revue. Rosa K. stated that she earned 100 Schilling per striptease and that she furthermore participated in the profits.53 Working as a striptease dancer obviously granted her a good income.
Interesting is how the case found its way to the police. It was a newspaper article in the weekly Wiener Samstag, claiming that youngsters had access to striptease shows in the Wurstelprater, that set the ball rolling. The Austrian Ministry of Education directly informed the prosecution department of the Vienna Juvenile Court about the article and its allegations and requested to initiate investigations.54 Back then, the Ministry of Education was led by Heinrich Drimmel from the Austrian People’s Party, one of the most ardent fighters against “dirt and trash” of the time. Drimmel was not just an advocate of the many anti-dirt and trash initiatives during the 1950s, which he heavily supported, he also openly regretted the lack of censorship in Austria as means of youth protection in an article published the very same year in a Christian-social periodical for teachers.55 He can be considered a hardliner who willingly used his influence as politician and minister to fight “dirt and trash”. The example shows that under his guidance the Ministry of Education was a major pillar of the state-run fight against “indecency” in the public.
The article titled “Cheap speculation with eroticism: Strip-tease has no place in the Prater” explained that “The fact that the worst strip-tease scenes are shown in one of these venues must be vigorously protested against. A brothel atmosphere and the cheapest speculation with eroticism have no place in an amusement park that is visited by thousands of young people every day.”56 Alarming for the authorities, however, was a passage claiming that amongst the audience “were many very young apprentices (!)”. In the criminal case file, this passage was underscored in red color, as it obviously prompted the authorities to act.57
As a result, the prosecution department of the Vienna Juvenile Court requested the district police department and the press police – a separate authority specialized on criminally relevant offences against the press law that was also typically involved in cases regarding the pornography law – to inspect the said establishment. In the next few weeks, the police interrogated all people involved, that means the establishment’s owner, his manager, the striptease dancer, and several other employees, and inspected the establishment a couple of times.58 It turned out that the establishment abided all youth protection provisions. The ban on young people was communicated in verbal announcements and with a board in the entrance area.59 Only in one case, three boys under 16-years of age attended the striptease show. However, this was only possible since they used faked identification cards.60 Over the course of the investigations, also the episcope slides with the nude pictures were confiscated. They proofed to be harmless and were returned to the manager.61 For the police the results of the investigation were not enough, and eventually the case was closed without further criminal prosecution.
Even though the investigation was ultimately inconclusive, the case is still quite revealing. Allegations of a newspaper sufficed that an official ministry of the Austrian government mandated comprehensive police investigations that lasted several weeks and occupied a number of police officers, only to result in nothing since the allegations had been unsubstantial in the first place. This shows how heated the anti-dirt and trash discourse was at the time and how seriously it was taken by the authorities.
A case in which the liminal space of a shop window was negotiated occurred in 1956. In this year, Walter A., a car seller in Vienna’s city center, got reported to the police for showcasing a lightly dressed and thus allegedly “indecent” shop window mannequin.62 Fortunately, photographs of the incriminated mannequin, taken during police investigations, survived as part of the criminal case file, giving us the chance to see what the contemporaries had seen.
The incriminated material was a “female” shop window mannequin made of plastic with a height of approximately 1,5 meters (see Figure 3). The mannequin wore only a dark-colored negligée and a long pearl necklace. Some other clothes like a blouse, a hat, and boots lay strewn around the mannequin, giving the impression that “she” just undressed herself. The presentation was accompanied with a text written on a board that said “Clothes no longer make the people, important is the car today” (the German original Kleider machen nicht mehr Leute, wichtig ist das Auto heute rhymes). The text varies the old proverb “Clothes make people” and implies that nowadays it would be cars that “make the people”. In an interrogation during police investigation, A., who had just renovated and reopened his shop, explained that the idea for the mannequin as “eyecatcher” came from his architect.63 The lightly dressed mannequin is thus a clear instance of an early “sex sells” advertisement.64 The message conveyed by the whole arrangement is clear: a car ups its owners’ social prestige and results in a modern and “sexy” lifestyle. The borough mayor promptly criticized the intended effect: “[…] the type of advertising had no connection with the type of business and was undoubtedly only intended to be eye-catching.”65 The statement is a good example how widespread the fear of the “magnetic pull” of sexual imagery was.
The police investigations lasted for several weeks and consisted in repeated inspections of how exactly the mannequin was clothed with the negligée and whether youngsters were standing in front of the shopping window, as the critics had claimed. Curiously enough, the question of how much of the mannequin’s breast was visible stood at the heart of the investigation. The first police report, from the end of October 1956, stated that “The right strap is pulled over the shoulder of the doll, revealing almost the entire right breast.”66 Another police officer involved later specified that the breast was even more exposed than can be seen on one of the photographs he made, but that he could not photograph the mannequin in its original state because “the owner would have started arguing about the style.”67 To underscore how much the breast was exposed, he added that he could even discern that the doll has neither nipples nor areolas.68 The police officer in charge criticized this kind of presentation of the mannequin and prompted Walter A., the owner of the car shop, to fixate the strap of the negligée so that the breast is not exposed any longer. After a week, the doll’s appearance was objected once more as the breast was still largely exposed. Walter A. explained that he had in fact fixated the strap with a glue strip, but that the strip had obviously detached itself, thus laying bare the breast involuntarily.69
In the meanwhile, the police officers requested the press police to start their own investigation if a criminal proceeding after §2 of the pornography law is appropriate “currently or as long as the breast of the mannequin was exposed”.70 The press police found that the current state of the mannequin – with “the right breast of the doll […] almost entirely visible” – would in fact justify investigations according to §2 of the pornography law.71
Even though nowadays such investigations seem absurd, they reveal much about the societal climate and the difficulties the contemporary police had when policing sexual imagery in the public sphere. Obviously, the vagueness of the pornography law’s provisions obstructed straightforward investigations: the responsible police station had to contact their colleagues from the press police at first to ensure that investigations are justified at all. The law’s terminology that penalized such abstract transgressions as the endangerment of “the moral or health development of juveniles by stimulating lust or misleading sexual instincts” was clearly inappropriate for everyday police work. It furthermore reveals how limited the understanding of youth endangerment was: a naked female body sufficed, even if it was made of plastic. How evident this understanding was is further shown by Walter A.’s statement, after another objection by the police, that the “female” mannequin “will be replaced by a dressed male doll that will certainly not cause any offense.”72 The fact that this statement has gone uncommented by the police shows clearly how male-centered and heteronormative the whole debate was.
The mannequin attracted not just the police’s attention. Soon, other actors got involved. The borough mayor, Otto Friesinger from the Austrian People’s Party, informed the district’s police department that he had received several complaints from neighbors who criticized the mannequin “as obscene and harmful to youth”.73 The criminal case files do not hold more information on these people. However, what the example shows is that they were obviously influenced by the “dirt and trash” discourse: Conservative and Catholic newspapers demanded, time and again, that the public should get involved in the fight against sexual imagery in the public space by reporting any “offenses” to the authorities. Such demands were obviously successful.
The Viennese Catholic Youth, a pioneer in the fight against sexualized imagery, reported the shop window mannequin as well. The Catholic Youth’s report to the police explained that “This depiction is undoubtedly likely to grossly offend morality or shamefacedness in a way that causes public offense.”74 Already in the early 20th century, Catholics used similar terminology to denounce all forms of “public indecency” and “moral decadence”.75 Consequently, the Catholic Youth demanded legal action against the allegedly obscene shop window mannequin.
Finally, the police were not able to proof a real endangerment of youngsters. While some of the police officers stated that they had witnessed not just 14- to 15-year-old boys in front of the shop window who “were looking at the doll with great interest”, but also passers-by that “described the display of the doll as tasteless and made disparaging remarks about it”, other officers disagreed and put on record that they had never seen youngsters in front of the shopping window during their patrol.76 Since the criminal case file does not hold any interrogation protocols of youngsters, the police obviously failed to proof the criminal offense.
After another complaint by the police, six weeks after investigations had started, Walter A. removed the doll altogether. Even though the case was closed without a court hearing77, the policing of the public sphere worked out: pressured by both the police and the other parties who filed complaints, the shop window mannequin disappeared out of sight after eight weeks.78
The most prominent case of policing sexual imagery in 1950s Austria (not just Vienna) occurred in 1953 and dealt with an advertising poster by the Austrian lingerie producer Palmers.79 Founded in 1914, Palmers is one of the most traditional and established Austrian underwear manufacturers that is still in the business. Through the decades, the company set great value on spectacular advertising campaigns which resulted in a high brand recognition until today.80
In December 1953, the company advertised their nylons with a placard showing female legs in stockings. The woman on the poster is only visible in parts. She wears an undergarment and the said nylons and the viewer sees her pulling one of them up to the hem of her underdress. The poster, designed by the German advertising designer Gerhard Brause in an airbrush-like style, directs the viewer’s gaze on the long, well-shaped legs – and thus on the product itself, the nylons. The label says “2 pairs of nylon stockings in the new twin pack” and mentions the price, “59 Schilling” (see Figure 4).
Figure 4: The original advertising poster.
The Ministry of Education urged the Ministry of the Interior to ban the exposing, displaying, and posting of the advertisement poster with reference to the pornography law throughout Austria in all places where it was accessible to people under 16 years of age. As justification it stated that “the very realistic depiction of a part of a barely clothed woman’s body is likely to offend modesty and to have a harmful influence on the moral development of juvenile persons, especially by stimulating lasciviousness.”81 However, the company and the ministry reached a consensus: the poster was not removed but pasted over with a dark-colored skirt.82 That way, the hem of the underdress and the woman’s hands were not visible anymore – and the stimulation of lasciviousness prevented, at least according to the logic of the ministry (see Figure 5)
Figure 5: The censored advertisement poster.
However, the plan failed. The pasting over of the advertisement poster aroused only more attention on the incriminated image. For the company, the whole situation proved to be very beneficial: the poster became topic number one, reaching a much higher advertising effect than it normally would have. In the days after the pasting over, the company’s turnover increased sixfold. The designer of the poster, Gerhard Brause, was awarded a bonus from which he allegedly bought himself a car. The event was also noticed abroad: A Berlin-based newspaper reported about the scandal in mocking tone.83 In addition, the incident found its way into Austrian literature, with writer H. C. Artmann dedicating an entire poem to the curious episode.84
The event led to political squabbling as well. It was the Ministry of Education, led by Ernst Kolb from the conservative Austrian People’s Party, who instructed the Ministry of the Interior, run by Oskar Helmer from the Socialist Party, to censor the poster. The Socialist Party was highly skeptical towards all forms of censorship and so the Arbeiter Zeitung, the Socialist Party’s official party organ, highlighted that the Ministry of the Interior had to act according to the pornography law, but that the real philistines were to be found in the Ministry of Education that was led by the political competitor.85 Newspapers without such a direct party affiliation just ridiculed the whole affair as small-minded and laughable.86 The example shows that censorship measures were a double-edged sword, also for political authorities. The application of youth protection measures, at least in such a bold way, could quickly change to the contrary.87
As the analysis has shown, it was the negotiation of female bodies in the public space that formed the backbone of all criminal case files. Critics interpreted the depiction of female bodies as almost automatically obscene: be it painted female legs, photographed breasts, or female genitalia made of plastic, it was always the female body that grabbed the attention of guardians of morality. Depictions of male bodies, on the other side, were absent from the case files. The male body was referenced in only one case, and then as polar opposite: contrary to the female body, it was not seen as capable to arouse public attention and violate decency.
Guardians of morality approached the policing of public space through a male gaze: they criticized all depictions that (allegedly) could arouse male, heterosexual viewers. What they criticized as erotic was believed to be erotic for men – female perspectives were dismissed. The policing of eroticism in 1950s Vienna was thus gendered and (re)produced heteronormative assumptions of eroticism, sensuality, and sexuality.88 According to the moral concepts of the time, eroticism was limited to depictions of female legs or secondary sex characteristics like breasts. More explicit depictions that went beyond the display of naked breasts or showed (or even hinted at) sexual intercourse were inconceivable for the standards of the time. Also real striptease shows adhered to these boundaries, as the case files show.
Another striking aspect is that nearly all cases dealt with advertising. The allure of (half-) naked female bodies became a staple in advertising as economic growth increased and consumer capitalism entered the Austrian national economy. Even though most depictions were quite cautious in their visual qualities compared to later decades, this suggests that the eroticization of public space was a gradual process that began long before the so-called Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.89
Taking a closer look at the involved actors, the analysis has shown a clear distinction between the accusers and the accused. Accusers predominantly had a conservative, bourgeois background as, for example, the neighbors, the borough mayor, and the Viennese Catholic youth who all reported the shop window mannequin to the police. The accused were all entrepreneurs trying to advertise their products with erotic depictions or who sold erotic entertainment. The case of the striptease show in the Viennese Wurstelprater furthermore shows the role played by politics and the media: within the context of the fight against “dirt and trash”, newspapers actively denounced entrepreneurs for whom eroticism was part of their business, and even official politics like the (then conservatively governed) Ministry of Education had their share in policing sexual imagery in the public space.
The effects of policing and legal prosecution, however, were quite mixed in their efficacy. The most prominent example that censorship measures can change to the contrary is the case against the Palmers lingerie advertising. Here, the censoring of the allegedly youth endangering representation by the Ministry of the Interior reached exactly the opposite of what was intended: the advertisement poster became even more prominent, the administrative measures were ridiculed, and the company enjoyed rocketing sales numbers as result. In other cases, the vagueness of the pornography law’s provisions, the inability of the courts to really prove the offenses, or the lodging of appeals complicated the legal punishment of sexual imagery. Nevertheless, the activism by guardians of morality produced social pressure that sometimes resulted in sexual imagery being banned from public sight, as in the case of the shop window mannequin that was removed despite the official dismissal of the case. How such informal effects of policing sexual imagery turned out in other cultural, geographical, and temporal contexts would be worthwhile for future studies. In the long run, however, the “dangerous magnets” of sexual imagery increasingly found their way into the public space and grew ever more daring with the decades to come.
Figure 1: Illustration in Gefährliche Magnete, in: Österreichische Volksstimme, October 12, 1955, 6
Figure 2: Evidence from the criminal case file WStLA, JGH, A3 – Vr-Strafakten, 705/1953
Figure 3: Evidence from the criminal case file WStLA, JGH, A3 – Vr-Strafakten, 1751/1956
Figure 4: “Palmers Strümpfe - Zwillings-Packung”, 1953, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek / Austrian National Library, https://onb.digital//result/113040F1
Figure 5: “Palmers Plakat von Gerhard Brause”, 1953, taken by Harry Weber, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek / Austrian National Library, https://onb.digital//result/116EED1B