This chapter explores transformations in European sexual mores and practices in the era of the two world wars. It pays particular attention to the contradictory dynamics of the interwar era: on the one hand, a considerable loosening of sexual customs, especially for females; on the other, an unprecedented effort on the part of national and local governments to intervene in their citizens’ private lives. The phenomenon of increased state intervention in the intimate sphere—that of relationships, bedrooms, and bodies—would be true both for those nations that turned to fascism and those that remained democratic. But no changes would be as convulsive and consequential as those wrought by the slaughter unleashed in the Second World War, as sexuality also exploded out of the familial framework—a fact that explains a great deal about the renewed turns to conservatism and domesticity which would follow in that war’s wake.
When attempting to understand the cultural politics of gender in Europe after 1945, some readers will undoubtedly anticipate answers to the following question: To what extent have the impact of the Cold War, the rise of feminism, the supposedly sexually liberated 1960s, the emergence of ‘post-feminism’, and the putative ‘crisis of masculinity’ changed attitudes towards gender and sexuality, and impacted on gender-related legislation? This article examines the cultural politics of gender at the juncture of globalisation, securitisation, and Europeanisation, and explores how Europeans have ‘fashioned their distinction’ in attempts to reconstitute themselves as global citizens in a multi-ethnic, post-imperial Europe. By focusing on the commoditisation of white femaleness, the coercive normalisation of Muslim masculinity, the ‘liberation’ of the veiled Muslim woman, and the eroticisation of black men in white consumer fantasy, the article's analysis of exemplary cases demonstrates how gendered imaginaries in Europe are forged by a complex dialogue with race, nation, capitalism, sex, and security.