"A Nation of Nudists": Austrian Culture & SexUALITY

Think of Austria and you think of elderly men with red cheeks in lederhosen, of cafes full of posh Viennese and maybe - but only maybe - a historical figure like Mozart or one of our dead emperors. Not the sort of image that you would associate with sex, is it?

The oldest Austrian depiction of a naked woman: The Venus of Willendorf, still crispy at the age of 27,000 yearsWell, if you think twice, you might realise that Sigmund Freud was Austrian (at least until he was kicked out of the country through Nazi prosecution), and nobody would seriously consider Freud to be non-sexual, despite of Mr Psychoanalysis′ soft spot for lederhosen. So it can′t be all sober and dry in Austria after all.

"You are a nation of nudists" is a statement by an English friend of mine, whose grandparents were Austrian. We are. There is absolutely no doubt that we are: All over the country there is a vibrant sauna culture, often with no gender segregation; most spas and many lakeside lidos have "FKK" ("Freikörperkultur" - a somewhat strange term meaning "free body culture") zones for nude swimming; and naked bodies are displayed in advertisements without a trace of modesty.

For most of my life, this wouldn′t have occurred strange to me - until I moved to the US. International visitors are often…well, surprised to see how open people in Austria handle issues like nudity or sex. Think of John Irving′s novels - whenever they are set in Vienna, you can bet that there is a prostitute featuring at some point.

Legal Status of Prostitution in Austria

Prostitution is in principle not criminalized in Austria (with the exception of the strange Alemannic province of Vorarlberg in the very West), but tightly regulated. In most provinces, women have to be at least 19 years old and registered in order to work legally as prostitutes. The registration requires frequent health checks. Street prostitution is not legal, but occurs in all major cities. If a village is big enough to support a church and a pub, you should also expect a brothel.

Most brothels are easy to recognise: Red lanterns indicate the business of the house and red hearts in the windows should attract clients. Austria′s biggest red-light district is the Gürtel road in Vienna, where nightclubs and brothels fill a boulevard over the course of several blocks.

Since Vienna is a very inclusive place, the borders of this "district" are blurred and not as sharply drawn as in places like Hamburg or Amsterdam. The oldest brothel of Austria is probably the one in the "Herrengasse" (appropriately meaning "gentleman′s lane") in Salzburg, founded in 1547.

Prostitutes also feature in prominent positions in Austrian literature: Think of the "Rhapsody" (some editions are translated as "Dream Story"; it was the base for Stanley Kubrick's last movie "Eyes Wide Shut") or "Hands Around" by Arthur Schnitzler, who is famous for erotic references in his works. One novel in which the main character is a prostitute is "The Story of a Vienna Whore" by the journalist and writer Felix Salten, who thereby proved high adaptability in terms of target groups - as he also wrote "Bambi".

Sex as a Key Ingredient to the Austrian Personality

Bambi made it to become a popular Disney movie, whereas the story of the young prostitute Josefine Mutzenbacher is still classified as child pornography and banned in several countries. Such examples show the high degree of promiscuity that seems to have been widely spread in the "fin de siecle" Vienna. Even Emperor Franz Joseph I, all the sober Catholic workaholic, conservatively engaged in fighting democratic ideas, was a notorious cheater.

The oh-so-Catholic Emperor Franz Joseph I was a notorious cheater and with a soft spot for prostitutes

His wife Empress Elisabeth encouraged him to take mistresses, especially his long-term lover Katharina Schratt. An even more open testimony of these days are the diaries of Alma Mahler-Werfel, legendary for her appeal and "impact" on several of Vienna′s leading artists and intellectuals. Even the involuntary inventor of sado-masochism was Austrian: The Count Leopold of Sacher-Masoch was a historian who had a pretty bizarre affair with a Baroness Bogdanoff (whose real name was the much more peasanty Fanny Pistor). He loved to submit himself to the baroness′ cruel mood swings and played slave to her.

In 1870, he published his not-quite-fiction novel "Venus im Pelze" ("Venus in fur"), in which a dominant woman named "Wanda" is the main character. In 1873, Sacher-Masoch married a woman who changed her name into Wanda and got involved in a menage en trois with his wife and another fake noble lady, this time a fake countess. Since the scandalous lifestyle quickly spread in gossip-loving Austria, the Sacher-Masoch was soon to be the nation′s most famous slave. When the early psychoanalyst Richard von Krafft-Ebing published his opus magnum "Psychopathia Sexualis" in Vienna in 1886, he popularised the term "masochism" in honour (?) of the count.

Be prepared for Nudity...

Keeping all this in mind, you should not be too surprised to see sex shops, night clubs and brothels openly advertising their services in the public almost anywhere in Austria. Sometimes you will see pornographic magazines wrapped in black plastic foil - but this is done for branding purposes (it′s the way people in the US do it, so it must be cool…), and not because of a legal requirement to hide them.

I don′t think Austrians are more promiscuous than people elsewhere - but there is definitely a culture of handling sexuality and nudity more openly than anywhere outside of Western Europe.

Back to "background"

Further Reading

aeiou says it all - Austrian culture and history

Fucking (a Village) in Austria

Vienna's Red Light District

Prostitution in Vienna

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