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The woman behind the world's first sex shop: Beate Uhse

Born 100 years ago, Beate Uhse changed society by starting a company for "marital hygiene" that quickly turned into a sex shop empire. But while she was an emancipated woman for her time, was Uhse a feminist?

For decades, just mentioning the name Beate Uhse made Germans blush.

She is the woman who brought sex — or more specifically, the accessories related to it — out of bedroom drawers and into retail displays. That happened at a time when no one openly talked about sexuality, especially not about its pleasurable aspects.

Beate Köstlin was born on October 25, 1919 in East Prussia (today Russia). Her parents raised her with liberal values. She got to see how animals breed on her father's farm; her mother, one of the first female doctors in Germany, was straightforward with her on sexual matters and provided her contraception.

Read more: Fewer German women are taking the pill

Beate also learned that girls were as valuable and talented as boys. She decided in 1937 to become a pilot in Berlin. After receiving her license on her 18th birthday, she became a competition stunt pilot.

In 1939 she married her stunt-piloting instructor, Hans-Jürgen Uhse, and they had a son together five years later. When her husband died in a flight accident the next year, it didn't stop Beate Uhse from flying. She was promoted to the rank of captain of the Luftwaffe in 1944. But she never discussed her involvement in the war after it ended.

Beate Uhse in April 1945 (picture-alliance/dpa)

Beate Uhse in April 1945

Sex, no longer a men's thing

As a former pilot for the German army, Uhse was no longer allowed to fly after World War II. She moved to Flensburg with her son. To make a living, she started selling door-to-door products. This led her to meet housewives who revealed how they feared getting pregnant in the dire early postwar years.

Remembering the contraceptive methods she had learned from her mother, Uhse prepared a brochure explaining the Kanus-Ogino rhythm method of contraception to help women identify their fertile and infertile days. "It wasn't safe, but better than nothing," she later recalled.

She started selling the guide, called Pamphlet X, through her mail order company. The 32,000 copies she had sold by 1947 served as her startup capital to establish a business that would turn into an empire.

In 1951, the mail order company took the name Beate Uhse Mail Order Co. and she started selling condoms and books on "marital hygiene," the term used for a married couple's sexuality at the time.

Beate Uhse in front of her store in 1969 (picture-alliance/dpa)

In front of her store in 1969

Her catalog offered items that everyone might need, but never dared talk about; another aspect contributing to the success of the company was her personalized approach, giving her own name to the business and her publications and addressing clients directly in the description of her products.

The company experienced rapid growth. Ten years later, she was already employing 200 people and opened the world's first sex shop in Flensburg, described at the time as a "specialty store for marital hygiene."

The police were called to act against the store since it was said to "inflame and satisfy lustful desires in a manner contrary to decency and morality." By 1992, Uhse had been indicted over 2,000 times. She was socially marginalized because of her company; for instance, the German Book Trade association didn't want to include her as a publisher, and she wasn't admitted to the local tennis club —she simply built her own tennis court instead.  

Selling porn: A betrayal of women?

By the 1970s, moral laws loosened significantly in Germany, which allowed the company to focus on lust and pleasure instead of marital hygiene. In addition to condoms, ointments and magazines, various sex toys, lingerie and sexual enhancers were added to the list of items it sold.

When pornography was legalized in Germany in 1975, the company also started selling VHS tapes and distributing films. Feminists criticized her for promoting works that turned women into sex objects.

whip (picture-alliance/dpa/C. Charisius)

Whip it: Following the success of the film 'Fifty Shades of Grey,' the company's sex toy sales increased

Uhse had remarried in 1949 and took the name of her husband, retailer Ernst-Walter Rotermund, but she didn't change it for her business. The company went through a split following disputes between her sons, and a second company, Orion Erotic Mail Order, was established.

Uhse is said to have suffered greatly from the division of the company and her sons' dispute. Her second husband didn't turn out to be such a good match either. She divorced after 20 years of marriage, and started a relationship with a 25-year younger American.

An early 'influencer'

The German erotic chain struggled for survival towards the end of her life; but at least she finally received recognition for her pioneering work. Long considered a persona non grata in her adoptive city, she was invited to sign Flensburg's Golden Book for her 80th birthday. Ten years earlier, in 1989, she was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit.

Beate Uhse deutsche Unternehmerin (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Hesse)

'Expansion in Scandinavia': Beate Rotermund-Uhse in 2000

Was Beate Uhse a pioneer of women's emancipation — or was it just about business? She herself was undisputedly an emancipated woman who left her mark in male-dominated fields as a pilot, and a company founder. She undoubtedly contributed to publicizing taboo topics and didn't fear facing threats, lawsuits or social exclusion.

Her company's attitude towards the objectification of women through pornography, however, shows that "she didn't care that much about the emancipation of women," said biographer Katrin Rönicke on public radio Deutschlandfunk. She rather defines Beate Uhse as an early "influencer" — a person who sold products by marketing her own personality.

Beate Uhse died in 2001 at the age of 81 years as a result of pneumonia.

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