The surprising history of sex in Central Europe

Jonathan Bousfield

written by
Jonathan Bousfield

updated 25.06.2019

So what is it that draws us to Vienna? The waltzes? The white horses? The cakes? Let’s be honest, it’s the sex.

Sex, that is, in the best possible taste: Gustav Klimt’s sensuous portraits, Egon Schiele’s edgy nudes, or the decidedly pervy paintings of Oskar Kokoschka; all with the good Viennese doctor Sigmund Freud offering expert commentary in the back of our minds.

All of these names are connected with the period just before WWI, when prudish bourgeois morality collided with a growing interest in what really lay beneath society’s surface. Suddenly sex was the main preoccupation of Viennese writers, artists and scientists – a preoccupation that has shaped our perception of the city to this day.

And what was true of Vienna was also true of the sprawling Habsburg Empire over which the city ruled. For the socially curious traveller of today, it’s not just sex in Vienna that’s so fascinating, but sex all over Central Europe.

From Poland to the Czech Republic, here are a few places you can get to grips with Central Europe’s obsession.

Start with sex in Vienna

All of the above has been thrown into sharp relief by the hugely popular exhibition Sex in Vienna, on show at the city’s Wien Museum until January 22, 2017.

Serious, scholarly but totally engrossing, pretty much everything you would ever want to now about sex is in here somewhere: prostitution, pornography, pick-up manuals, a potted history of contraception, the pecadilloes of Habsburg archdukes and – probably for the first time – an account of gay and lesbian life in the city.

One revealing detail: until 1920 each Viennese apartment block had an attendant responsible for checking-in residents coming home after 10pm, which basically meant that people couldn’t go out at night without being gossiped about. No wonder Viennese society was so repressed.


© Family TV/Shutterstock

See Schiele's nudes at the Leopold Museum, Vienna

Nobody explored the emotional landscapes of lust, tenderness and self-disgust with more intensity than Egon Schiele (1890–1918), and the biggest collection of his works is at Vienna’s Leopold Museum.

Many contemporaries found Schiele’s gritty, overtly sexual nudes either grotesque or obscene; indeed he wasn’t fully recognized as a great painter until Rudolf Leopold started collecting his work in the 1950s.

There are more paintings by Schiele, as well as the famous Kiss by his mentor Gustav Klimt, in the Belvedere Palace.

Get academic with Freud, Vienna and Příbor

The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Totem and Taboo (1913); many of Sigmund Freud’s capital works were written at his first-floor apartment-cum-consulting room on Vienna’s Berggasse, now home to the Sigmund Freud Museum.

It’s a rather dry display, however; the Sigmund Freud Museum in his native town of Příbor in the Czech Republic contains a lot more human warmth. “Let me tell you about my childhood”, the voiceover to the biographical film archly begins.


© Petr Jilek/Shutterstock

Get flirty on a Ferris wheel, Vienna

Opened to the public in 1766, the Prater park has long served as Vienna’s prime location for promenading, flirting, or arranging the kind of assignations that often finished up with a bit of a fumble in the bushes.

The Prater’s famous giant Ferris wheel or Riesenrad went into operation in 1897, immediately becoming a favoured place for romantic encounters – a status it still very much enjoys.

Sample the spas of Mariánské Lázně, Czech Republic

Today travellers go to backpacker hostels, music festivals or clubbing destinations in search of adventure; a century ago spa resorts were the centre of the action.

One of Central Europe’s most stylish spas was Mariánské Lázně (or Marienbad as it was then known), which attracted Habsburg Emperor Franz-Josef I and English King Edward VII alongside upper- and middle-class guests from all over the continent.

The sheer profusion of young and single visitors nurtured an auxiliary population of matchmakers, hustlers, and sex workers of both genders. Adjacent hotel rooms often had connecting doors, so that unmarried couples – or couples who were married but not to each other – could conduct affairs without any loss of decorum.

Nowadays the only adultery going on here is on the TV in your hotel room, although there are compensations: sitting in a sack inflated with Mariánské Lázně’s naturally-occurring carbon dioxide is one of the best ways of soothing your bones, improving circulation and enhancing sexual functions.


© Karel Gallas/Shutterstock

Witness bad behaviour in Zakopane, Poland

One hundred kilometres south of Kraków, the Tatra-Mountain settlement of Zakopane was another health resort that became a society magnet in the years before World War I.

By attracting TB sufferers and throwing them all together, Zakopane became a kind of unofficial contact bureau for big-city swingers. It was particularly popular with poets, artists and actresses, who all brought their own brand of bohemianism and bad behaviour to a place that increasingly offered an escape from the stuffy bourgeois morals of the big city.

Pretty representative was painter and dramatist Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (aka “Witkacy”; 1885–1939), whose poly-sexual bed-hopping antics led to the suicide of his fiancée Jadwiga Jaczewska in 1914. Visit the Willa Atma to see Witkacy’s portraits of society types, lovers and friends – the annotations in the corner of each canvas refer to the drugs he was taking while painting.

Meet the master of masochism in Lviv, Ukraine

The Ukrainian city of Lviv revels in its role as birthplace of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836–1895), author of Venus in Furs (first published in 1870) and the inspiration behind psychologist von Krafft-Ebing’s concept of masochism. There’s a life-size statue of the man just south of the main square and for some reason, it’s considered good luck to stick your hand in his trouser pocket.

Header image: Vienna © Pixabay / CC0.

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