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Sexologist Volkmar Sigusch: 'Our Society is Still Ignorant about Sex'

By Thomas Hüetlin and Claudia Voigt

German sexologist Volkmar Sigusch was one of the main thinkers behind the sexual revolution of the 1960s. In a SPIEGEL interview, he discusses its legacy, the benefits of online porn, why open marriages can sometimes be a good option and why it's important to keep things dirty in the bedroom.

Photo Gallery: The Legacy of a Sexual Revolution Photos
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SPIEGEL: Professor Sigusch, you headed the Institute for Sexual Science in Frankfurt for 33 years while working as a therapist. Do people ever tell the truth about sex?

Volkmar Sigusch: When it comes to sexuality, people like to tell lies. It's only when it comes to money that they lie more.

SPIEGEL: You are viewed as having been one of the main theorists behind the sexual revolution of the late 1960s. How profoundly did our sex lives change at the time?

Sigusch: I will always be referred to as a theorist, but I was only a fellow traveller with a degree. The sexual revolution produced cultural convulsions that were unparalleled in the 20th century. The female sex was historically sexualized and required to have orgasms for the first time. Sexual "deviants," particularly homosexuals, achieved partial emancipation.

SPIEGEL: Free love produces free people and a free society -- that was the idea, at least. But it didn't work.

Sigusch: At the time, the idea that the entire, despised society would come crashing down if things became liberated sexually seemed to make sense. But, in truth, a "King Sex" was set up. And the things that could be derived from the sexual sphere -- happiness, endless fun and the end of capitalism -- were grossly overestimated. The symbolic overglorification was downright unbearable.

SPIEGEL: But weren't you, as a sexual scientist, also fighting against the uptightness of the 1950s and '60s?

Sigusch: That's true. But I had little in common with those who parroted someone like (Freud student, psychoanalyst and sex theorist) Wilhelm Reich. The sexual revolution of the 1960s was mostly a movement of young people. I felt that the so-called "free relationships" were overrated.

SPIEGEL: How do you explain the fact that, despite the radical changes, most people still subscribe to the ideal of a solid, monogamous relationship?

Sigusch: Because it's the most compatible with our spiritual origins. Father, mother, small family -- that's the way we've developed our souls, the way we've become, and the way we feel safe, protected and loved.

SPIEGEL: Even so, problems usually spring up in many relationships.

Sigusch: Sexual desire declines after four to seven years. That's been proven.

SPIEGEL: German writer Gottfried Benn once wrote that marriage is an institution that cripples the sex drive.

Sigusch: There are many options in a marriage. If the couple has been together for a certain amount of time and has a certain amount of liberalism or life experience, it could be the kind of relationship in which one partner ventures into the occasional affair, which is then forgiven. This only happens every 13 years on average, but it obviously does occur.

SPIEGEL: That rarely? Perhaps there's a discrepancy in this case between the truth and scientific findings.

Sigusch: Some 95 percent of all sexual contact still occurs in permanent relationships. That's an impressive number. Nevertheless, lack of sexual desire is naturally an issue. With an intelligent couple, it ought to be possible for the husband or wife to look for satisfaction outside the relationship -- while always taking the partner into consideration, meaning acting openly but still discreetly. Perhaps the couple got married at 25 and now they're 45 and this is an option. And if a couple is still together, or perhaps finds its way back together, I like to say that it's forever. They belong together, it's a good fit, it's the right pairing. It almost gives me goose bumps.

SPIEGEL: But hasn't the idea of the open relationship failed because it's so hard to deal with the consequences?

Sigusch: You've described that correctly. The social problem is that we haven't come up with any alternative models. Our culture hasn't developed an ars erotica. Think, for example, of conditions in India or in Japanese culture and of how the erotic has been cultivated there. They're not as clinical and rabbit-like as we are.

SPIEGEL: That's a cliché.

Sigusch: No, it isn't. In and out and done -- it's still that way today. End of story. It's a tragedy.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that our society has been talking about sex for 40 years but nothing has really changed?

Sigusch: I maintain that we are still a largely ignorant society when it comes to sex. We speak incorrectly and superficially about sexuality. And when you talk about it too much, you run the risk of destroying its mystery.

SPIEGEL: So, on the one hand, couples don't talk enough and don't know enough about their desires and, on the other hand, they talk too much?

Sigusch: You've got me there. It's important for a couple to talk about their sexual preferences. On the other hand, the aura of the mysterious should be preserved.

SPIEGEL: What exactly is this "aura of the mysterious"?

Sigusch: A minor perversion that a couple shares, for example. A fetish that one of the two partners finds arousing, or a particular sexual scenario. I'm reminded of a female patient who was particularly aroused by the shape of her husband's shoulder. And this hint of perversion should ideally remain a secret for both partners. I'm talking about a spiritual concentration in the unconscious. Fantasies have to remain dirty. Cleanliness, scrupulousness and rationality are poison for eroticism.

SPIEGEL: How do websites like YouPorn, which is viewed by millions, change sexuality?

Sigusch: It's part of the neo-sexual revolution that began in the late 1970s and continues to this day. A key feature of this revolution is the large-scale publication and commercialization of details that were once secret. Sexuality has been trivialized. The interesting thing about this is that exaggerated portrayals apparently destroy desire more effectively than any repression.

SPIEGEL: Can YouPorn help reduce feelings of sexual guilt?

Sigusch: Only superficially. But for people who are desperate and searching, sexuality on the Internet offers an incredible release. In the past, every pervert believed that he was the only one who had an abstruse desire. Today, he can find out on the Internet that there's someone like him in New Zealand or Patagonia. On the other hand, Internet sexuality shows that we're becoming more and more self-involved. I'm talking about self-sex.

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About Volkmar Sigusch
Dorothee van Bömmel/DER SPIEGEL
Volkmar Sigusch, 70, is one of the world's foremost sex researchers. After fleeing East Germany in 1961, he studied medicine, psychology and philosophy, the latter as a student of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. In 1972, he became the then-youngest German professor of medicine at the University of Frankfurt, when he was awarded the first-ever professorship in sexology. Since then, Sigusch has acted as a theorist and expert on social policy issues, and he has played a key role in liberalizing Germany's laws penalizing homosexuality. Until 2006, Sigusch led Frankfurt University's Institute for Sexual Science and its associated sexual medicine clinic. In 2005, he published "Neo-sexuality: On the Cultural Change of Love and Perversion." In early March 2011, he released his new book "Searching for Sexual Freedom."

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