Sex Ed Soviet Style
No nasty pictures, but a surpising revelation about Russian intamacy
Moscow Times, September 30, 1998
AIDS Epidemic Was Russia’s Sexual Revolution
By Irina Glushchenko
The early years of perestroika were set against the backdrop of the West’s
spiralling AIDS epidemic. This was also when the first telemost, or live
U.S.-Soviet television link-up, took place. I watched all but one of these
broadcasts. Later, my grandmother excitedly told me what I had missed on
that occasion: “An American woman asked something about sex, but one of our
women got up and said there was no sex here!”
The phrase “There is no sex in the U.S.S.R.” subsequently went down in the
annals of history and provided millions with a laugh at that unfortunate
woman’s expense. So how exactly do people have children in the Soviet Union,
people would ask with a snigger? But if we stop to consider just what sex
meant for us, then she was right in a way f there really was no sex in the
in the 1970s, reports from the United States often appeared on the pages
of the newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta, the staple diet of every educated
family. I still remember one article about New York’s 42nd Street. Although
it didn’t give any particular details, the fleeting mention of the words
striptease, sadism, masochism, sexual deviance, prostitution and pornography
caused a sweet sensation of horror, nonetheless. Near the end, it said that
naked girls dance in cafes on the street. “It would really be something to
go there,” wishful teenagers would comment as they read the piece. (I did
go there in 1992, and I was extremely disappointed.)
Russian clubs today
Reading these reports we naturally pictured countries in the West, and the
United States in particular, as the center of all earthly depravity and sin.
When a family acquaintance returned from a business trip in the United States,
my grandmother even asked him how much sex he saw while he was there. It’s
a shame I don’t remember how he replied.
In the Soviet Union the word sex was only used in social and political articles
about the flaws of capitalist society and occasionally in translated works
of literature. It certainly did not figure in speech as a rule. Distinct
from the word pol, or gender, and polovaya zhizn denoting sexual relations
in a functional sense, the word sex was laden with mystery and impropriety.
And it certainly had no place in family life.
Although the actual concept of a conventional family was in itself utterly
bourgeois in its origin, the Soviet state carefully guarded the foundations
of the family, primarily because things were easier that way. The authorities
had to know who lived where, and this was done by means of registration and
residence permits. The family was the lowest level of society that the state
was able to regulate and everything that happened outside the boundaries
of the family was regarded as suspicious and undesirable. Since it was impossible
to eradicate life on an individual basis altogether, family life was
paradoxically regarded as belonging to the sphere of public and not private
life. And amidst all of this, the role of sexual relations in society was
limited to childbearing exclusively within the family.
Since promiscuous sexual freedom was seen as undermining the foundations
of the family, the state created various administrative obstacles to extramarital
sex. Unmarried couples could not share hotel rooms; nonresidents were not
allowed to stay the night in student dormitories. Soviet people basically
had nowhere to be alone. These norms survived right up to the end of the
Soviet period, although in less draconian form.
There was no sexual education in schools, since this could lead youngsters
into evil ways. There was certainly no instruction in taking precautions,
going on the assumption that if a person is unsure about this aspect, he
or she just won’t go through with it. The greater the risk, the less the
desire. “How do you best avoid pregnancy?” went the old joke. “By drinking
tomato juice.” ? “Before or after?” ? “Instead of.”
Once, when I was in the fourth grade, our teacher took all the girls to one
side and told us about menstruation and a few other things. As much as they
were innocent in themselves, these explanations were delivered in a suitably
menacing way, designed to ward us off certain contacts with boys. The way
she portrayed it, once we reached sexual maturity we were pretty much likely
to get pregnant from kissing. After this talk one girl went to her parents
complaining that “they’re telling us about adult love.” That was the end
of the talks.
The magazine “Health” was a limited source of knowledge, and a few spartan
facts could be gleaned from medical encyclopedias. Another unique form of
sexual education was provided by lecturers travelling around resorts, droning
on about venereal diseases, which inevitably put you off any sort of sex
So is this all to say there was no depravity in the Soviet Union? Of course
there was. But it wasn’t sex. Sex presumes the presence of a certain culture.
Children were born here not as a result of sex but of polovaya zhizn. You
have to admit there is a difference.
I remember how our press came down on the West’s “sexual revolution” and
how the rebellion of young people against bourgeois society in the late ’60s
was perceived in the Soviet Union as a sign of the final breakdown of the
bourgeoisie. Nor did the hippies escape the vitriol, because although they
rejected bourgeois society, they also rejected order and authority. The most
feared thing in the Soviet Union was any spontaneous, uncontrollable and
chaotic process that did not yield to planning. The authorities didn’t like
drifters who frequently changed their place of work, and they frowned absolutely
upon “casual encounters” and a “disorderly polovaya zhizn.”
the end of the 1970s there were some changes, mainly in youth culture. This
was immediately reflected in the Russian language, with the introduction
of the term seksualno ozabochenny, or “sexually preoccupied,” and the appearance
of the concept of the “Swedish family,” believed to have been inspired by
the example of the pop group Abba, where everyone sleeps in one bed and no
one is sure who fathered whom.
Not Abba, but worthy to practice procreation with!
By the time perestroika came around, the AIDS menace was gathering momentum
in the West. With the gradual opening-up of our society we could no longer
afford to ignore such a terrible danger. And so it happened that the AIDS
scourge acted like a magic wand on our country, since any struggle against
the disease was inconceivable without sexual enlightenment.
And off came the lid. Under the flag of this struggle, strange as it seems,
prostitution was virtually legalized, pornography appeared and sexual liberation
flourished. If in the West the appearance of AIDS was the end of the sexual
revolution, here it was only the beginning.
Irina Glushchenko is a theater critic who writes for Nezavisimaya Gazeta
and Dom Aktyora. She contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.