Sexual Culture and Politics in Contemporary Russia
By Igor S. Kon,
Paper presented at the International Social Science Conference, Dubrovnik, Croatia, June 12-16, 2001 www.csun.edu/~sr2022/events/SIT2001.html.
As a consequence of recent changes in adolescent sexual behavior, similar to the Western sexual revolution of the 1960s but compounded by the breakdown of state medical services and the general criminalization of the country, some dangerous trends now exist in Russian sexual life – including the spread of STDs and HIV. The only reasonable answer to this challenge is sex education. But since 1997 all efforts in this direction have been blocked by a powerful anti-sexual crusade, organized by Russian Communist Party and the Russian Orthodox Church, and supported by "Pro Life." Its main targets are sex education, women's reproductive rights and freedom of sexuality-related information. The campaign is openly nationalistic, xenophobic, homophobic and anti-semitic . And it has disastrous public health consequences.
1. Post-Soviet sexuality
In the former Soviet Union sexuality was a taboo topic, as though it were virtually non-existent. After 1987 the taboo was broken, and sex became a fashionable subject for both private and public discourse ( Kon, 1995, 1997a, 1999a, 1999b).
Despite the official silence, general trends in Russian sexual behavior have been similar to what occurred in the Western countries. The liberalization of sexual morality began long before perestroika, back in the 1960s and 1970s (Bocharova, 1994, Kon, 1997, Haavio-Mannila and Rotkirch, 1997). According to Sergey Golod’s surveys in Leningrad-St.Petersburg, in 1965 only 5.3 % of sexually experienced university students reported having first had intercourse before the age of 16; in 1972 this figure was 8 % and in 1995 it had risen to 12 % (Golod, 1996, p. 59).
According to our 1993, 1995 and 1997 surveys(Chervyakov and Kon, 1998, 2000), the sexual behaviors and attitudes of urban adolescents are changing rapidly. In 1993 25% of 16 years-old girls and 38 % of boys had coital experience; in 1995 the respective figures were already 33% and 50%. Among 17 year-olds, the respective growth is from 46% to 52% (females) and from 49% to 57% (males) .
(See Table 1)
Table 1. Proportion of sexually active respondents by age and gender
Similar overall changes took place both in secondary and in vocational schools. This suggests that changes in the age of sexual first experiences cannot be treated as an event caused by changes in the sample design. We found further evidence of a dramatic change in sexual behavior between 1993 and 1995 when we analyzed answers to the question about age at first intercourse independently for different age groups within one and the same sample (survey of 1995). Among 16-year-old women, there were twice as many sexually experienced girls than was the case for the 19-year-old respondents when they were 16 (23 % vs. 11 %). The same difference was found between 17-year-old women and 19 year-olds who had been sexually experienced at 17 (45 % versus 24 % respectively) The same tendencies were observed among male students, although the changes were not as great.
The absolute figures are not surprising and are quite comparable to US and West European data. But in Russia change is occurring very rapidly, and adolescent sexuality, which is strongly related to social class, is often violent and aggressive. There is also tension between the processes of liberalization and gender equality in sexual values and practices. “In Russia, liberalisation began during the Soviet Union and was speeded up by the free press and the commercialisation of the 1980s and 1990s. In the Nordic countries, liberalisation reached its height in the 1970s. Today, liberalism and permissiveness are sometimes questioned from the perspective of gender equality and/or a new morality. In Russia, on the contrary, liberalism has undermined the arguments for gender equality from the Soviet era” (Haavio-Mannila and Rotkirch, 2001, p.13)
Uncivilized and uncontrollable early sexual activity has serious moral and epidemiological consequences.
Thanks to efforts, by medical personnel, the abortion rate has declined in recent years. According to official figures, in 1990 women aged 15 to 49 reported having 114 abortions for 1000 women, in 1992 -98, and in 1995 - 74. Yet the figure is still very high. Child prostitution and sexual violence are flourishing. For about 10 % of teenage girls their first sexual initiation is associated with some degree of coercion.
There is an enormous growth of STDs and AIDS. Between 1990 and 1996 the incidence of syphilis increased fifty-fold in Russia, and 78-fold among young people. In 1996, 265 new cases of syphilis were diagnosed per 100.000 of the population. The incidence of HIV has also begun to grow nearly exponentially. In some districts, such as Irkutsk, HIV has already attained epidemic proportions: hence the importance of sex education strategy.
2. Attitudes to sex education
Systematic sex education is long overdue in Russia. It has been discussed in the mass media since 1962. An attempt to introduce a special course in the early 1980s was welcomed by parents, but failed because teachers were not ready to teach it.
The idea that sex education can be done by parents themselves runs counter to all of international experience (Rademakers, 1997 ) In Russian families intergenerational taboos on sexuality discourse are very strong. According to the National Center for Public Opinion Research (VtsIOM) representative national survey in 1990, only 13 % of parents have ever talked to their children about sexual matters.
According to our 1997 survey, today’s students have much more information about sexuality at their disposal than did their parents. For their parents’ cohort, the main source of information about sexuality was conversations with peers. Today printed materials and electronic media are most important, and the main sources of knowledge on sexuality are newspapers, books and magazines. However, this often means merely the replacement of one source of misinformation by another, ‘virtual’ one.
Until 1997, Russian public opinion was generally in favor of sex education. In all national public opinion polls conducted by VTsIOM since 1989, the vast majority of adults – between 60 and 90 %, depending upon age and social background, strongly supported the idea of systematic sex education in schools. Only 3 to 20 % were opposed to it (Kon, 1999). But who will in fact undertake to do this work? And what exactly should be taught?
Teachers thought that parents should provide sex education for their children. In our 1997 survey, 78 % of the teachers agreed with this. However, this same survey showed that the family cannot take on this responsibility. Only about one out of five teenagers considered it acceptable to discuss problems of sexuality with his or her parents. Parents themselves only reluctantly initiate such topics of conversation with their children. More than half of them never initiated such talks, another quarter had taken the initiative only once or twice, and only one in five mothers had such conversations with their children several times (the fathers did not do so at all). The primary inhibiting factors were a lack of psychological and educational readiness. More than three-quarters of the parents said they needed special books explaining what should be told to children, and how this should be done. About two-thirds of the parents think it would be useful to have seminars for parents about sex education in the schools their children attend.
But the school is also incapable of doing this. Three-quarters of the teachers were convinced that form teachers (persons who are primarily responsible for social and moral education) should discuss issues of gender and sexual relations with their students. However, 65 % of teachers reported never having done this, and another 15 % had done so only once or twice. It is clear why this is the case: only 11.5 % of teachers feel that they are well prepared for this task. Eighty five per cent were in favor of special courses on the fundamentals of sexology in pedagogical universities.
In general, respondents in the 1997 survey were unanimous that sex education courses in schools must be launched. It might be expected that such courses would become one of the favorite curriculum subjects for students. 61 % of seventh-grade students and 73 % of the ninth-graders said that they were eager to attend such classes. Only 5 % of students would prefer to avoid them. There were much more serious disagreements among the interested groups, however, with respect to the content of sex education. Teachers would like to offer a detailed treatment of anatomy, physiology and ethics, whereas students are more interested in practical issues and in sexual pleasure.
Table 2. Students’ preferences regarding topics for a course in sex education (those who indicated a topic as ‘very necessary’, %), 1997 survey
At the request of the Russian Ministry of Education, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in collaboration with UNESCO in 1996 awarded a 3-year grant for experimental work in 16 selected schools, to develop a workable curriculum and textbooks “for classes 7, 8 and 9, considering the importance of the fact that young people should be able to make informed and responsible decisions before reaching the age for potentially starting sexual activities”. There was no cultural imperialism or any attempt to invent something uniform and compulsory for the entire country. The introduction to the project emphasized that “to ensure cultural acceptability, the curricula and text-books will be developed by Russian experts, making use of knowledge and experience from other countries, and with the input of technical assistance from foreign experts”.
From the very beginning sexual freedom has been used by communists and nationalists as a political scapegoat.
The first massive campaign, in the form of an anti-pornography crusade, was initiated by the Communist Party in 1991. In provoking moral panic, the Communist Party was pursuing very clear political goals. The anti-pornography campaign was aimed at diverting popular attention from pressing political issues and the government's economic failures. In defending morality and the family, the Party was deflecting blame from itself for the weakening and destruction of morals and the family. Communist leaders were trying to cement the developing alliance between themselves and conservative religious and nationalist organizations. Anti-pornography slogans enabled them to control and channel popular frenzy by branding the democratic mass media as a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy bent on corrupting the morals of young people, destroying traditional values, etc. But despite all efforts, the campaign failed, since people did not swallow the bait (see Kon, 1995, 1997a)
The second round, which is aimed at sex education, has been much more successful.
The “UNESCO project” was formally initiated in October, 1996. Its first step was sociological monitoring, an attempt to assess sexual values, attitudes and information levels of children, parents and teachers of a few pilot schools, on a strictly voluntary basis. Similar monitoring was also planned for the next stages of the experiment. Unfortunately, without consulting the experts, Ministry of Education officials announced the commencement of such a sensitive undertaking without any political and psychological preparation. Even worse, the Ministry sent to 30.000 schools a package of 5 self-made, sloppily edited and unrealistic (some of them required more than 300 class hours “alternative sex education programs”, which had never been tested in the classrooms. Though these programs had nothing to do with the “UNESCO project,” they were perceived as being a part of it.
Before it was even born, the project came under fire and was labeled as a “Western ideological plot against Russian children”. An aggressive group of Pro-Life activists filed a complaint with the communist-dominated Parliament’s National security committee. In some Moscow district towns people were asked in the streets: “Do you want children to be taught in school how to engage in sex? If not, please, sign the petition to ban this demonic project”. Priests and activists told their audiences that all bad things in Western life were rooted in sex education, that Western governments are now trying to ban or eliminate it, and that only the corrupt Russian government, at the instigation of the “World sexological-industrial complex”, was acting against the best interests of the country. All this was supported by pseudoscientific data ( for example, that in England boys begin to masturbate at 9 years of age, and at 11 they are already completely impotent) and other lies.
The idea of any sex education was strongly and formally denounced by the Russian Orthodox Church.
At an important round-table in the Russian Academy of Education on March 6, 1997, influential priests declared that Russia does not need any sex education whatever in the schools, because this had always been successfully done by the Church: up to 80% of the time during the sacrament of confession is dedicated to sexual matters. Some prominent members of the Academy ( Antonina Khripkova, Valeria Mukhina, Nikolai Nikandrov, Irina Dubrovina and others) also attacked the so-called “Western” spirit. As Professor Khripkova put it, “we don’t need the Netherlands’ experience; we have our own traditional wisdom”. The President of the Academy Dr. Arthur Petrovsky strongly dissociated himself from this nationalist position as well as from the suggestions for re-introducing moral censorship. But the general decision was to freeze the UNESCO project, and instead of “sexuality education” to improve moral education “with some elements of sex education” (this opportunistic formula was used in 1962). Prof. Dmitry Kolessov proclaimed that instead of children’s “right to know” educators should defend their “right not to know” (pravo na neznanie).
After lengthy debates a special academic commission for the preparation of a new program was formed (in which I refused to take part), but the new, openly conservative project was equally unacceptable to the clergy, and nothing came of it. In the Academy’s recent program statements on children’s health sexuality or sex education are not even mentioned. The Ministry of Education formally cancelled its previously approved programs. Now it is very dangerous for Russian school principals on their own initiative to introduce any elements of sex education even at the local level (this had been done in a few schools since the 1970s) .
In 2000, there was even a trial in St. Petersburg: teachers who used a Netherlands- made educational videofilm were sentenced for “propaganda of masturbation”, which, according to the accusers, is a very dangerous habit (I have not seen this film and therefore cannot evaluate it)
During the 1999 parliamentary elections the Communist Party of Russian Federation (CPRF) presented this “anti-sex-education” campaign as its most important political victory. The official position of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is trying to put itself in the shoes of the former Agitprop, is the same. For some Russian newspapers anything which smacks of sex education is like waving a red flag before a bull. Militant sexophobia is raging not only in the communist, fascist and clerical mass media but also in much of the liberal and official («Rossiiskay gazeta”) media .
One of their main targets is the Russian Planned Parenthood Association. Since 1991 this was the only organization which in fact had taken action to reduce the rate of abortion and to promote sexual and contraceptive knowledge. Now it is being denounced by Christian fundamentalists as a “satanic institution”, propagating abortion and depopulation. The official slogan of RPPA “The birth of healthy and wanted children, responsible parenthood” was presented in communist “Pravda” and in religious newspapers as “One child per family”. The booklet “Your friend the condom”, which was published for young adults and teens, was described as if it were addressed to first-grade children.
Since there is no sex education in Russian schools or even in universities, the anti-sexual crusaders created another target –so-called valeology (from Latin “valeo” – a good health). I do not know if such a discipline has ever been institutionalized anywhere in the West. Russian valeology looks like a hybrid of social hygiene and preventive medicine, along with some strange and even exotic ideas. Serious criticism and discussion of it would certainly be useful.
But for the fundamentalists, any “science of health” which is not approved by the Church is anathema. Like their U.S. allies, they are absolutely indifferent to real issues of public health, social hygiene, STD or HIV prevention. They claim that “valeology” is simply another name for “sex education” and violently attack it for being a) Western, b)non-Orthodox and c) prosexual.
Even the medical profession is split. In 1997 the Ministry of Health and leading experts in gynecology, pediatrics and other medical disciplines strongly supported the need for family planning, contraception and sex education. But scholars and state officials are worried about their moral and political reputations. In January, 1999 “Meditsinskaya gazeta” (a professional newspaper for medical doctors) published an open letter to the Minister of Education, signed by 130 medical experts, clergymen, teachers and writers, against valeology and sex education. The dominant values of the Editor-in-chief, Andrei Poltorak, are clearly expressed in the title of his recent interview: “Honor the doctor… since it was God who created him” (Poltorak, 2000) (why not: “Don’t kill the viruses, since it was God who created them”?)
The anti-sexual crusade is openly nationalistic, xenophobic, sexist, misogynist and homophobic. Everything Russian is presented as pure, spiritual and moral, and everything Western – as dirty and vile. Sex education is treated as the most serious attempt possible to undermine Russia’s national security, more dangerous then HIV
( Soviet propaganda in the 1980s attributed HIV to the Pentagon) .
“Rossiiskaya gazeta”’s deputy editor-in-chief Victoria Molodtsova quotes a phrase from an unnamed educational program stating that “ to become a real man, the male must not only be brave and courageous but also acquire some traditionally “feminine” qualities…” (such as sensitivity, compassion and understanding). The journalist’s commentary is: A Vologda peasant male doesn’t need feminization; the educators arguing for the “feminization” of Russian males are really trying to promote homosexuality, and are being paid for their subversive activities by Western secret services.
The crusade against sex education is extremely militant and aggressive. At the clerical site <zhizn'.orthodoxy.ru.htm> there is a slogan:
Be prepared for the most energetic means of self-defence!”
According to this site, the main danger for Russian children and their parents are not abortions, HIV or syphilis but the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), which expresses the interests of the contraceptive industry, and the United Nations Population Fund, which is interested in the depopulation of Russia, so that the West can appropriate its natural resources. Parents are being taught how to sabotage any attempts to introduce sex education, even including taking their children out of the schools. They are told that condoms are inefficient against both HIVor STDS, and also againt pregnancy.
Moscow Patriarchy published a special formal address to adolescents, which is formulated in words which would be more appropriate for the General Staff or State Security than for a Christian Church:
“Children! The enemies of God, enemies of Russia for hundreds of years have tried to conquer our native land with the help of fire and the sword, but each time they were shamefully defeated and sent to their graves in the borderless fields of Russia. Now they have understood that is impossible to conquer Russia by military force… Now they want to annihilate our people with the help of depravity, pornography, drugs, tobacco and vodka – by the same means by which THEIR forfathers annihilated American Indians”.
Militant Orthodox fundamentalism is not limited to sex education. There is even a protest movement against the introduction of national social security code numbers (these codes are named INN, so the movement is called “INN jihad” – Muslim sacred war). Its radical wing claims that “the idea of a compulsory INN codes for t total outside control of the population of Russia was born as a result of joint actions of the US secret services, members of Satanist organizations and of international Zionist (Russian euphemism for Jewish – I.K..) financial groups” (Verkhovsky, 2001).
The anti-sexual crusade is openly homophobic. Despite the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1993 and its formal “depathologization” in 1999, some leading Russian psychiatrists still believe that homosexuality is an illness. The Head of the Laboratory of Forensic Sexology of the Serbsky National Research Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry (earlier it was the main citadel of Soviet “repressive psychiatry”) Professor A..A. Tkachenko, in his most recent book “Sexual perversions-paraphilias” , which is advertised as “the first Russian monograph containing the results of an interdisciplinary study of abnormal sexual behavior”, writes that the APA 1973 decision was unscientific and misleading, and taken in a “extreme circumstances”. According to Tkachenko, DSM and the subsequent WHO treatment of homosexuality “partially contradict the fundamental principles of medical diagnostics as a whole” (Tkachenko, 1999, p. 355).
Public opinion in Russia is still rather homophobic. In May 1998, to the VTsIOM question, “What do you think, is homosexuality basically …”, 33.1 % answered “an illness or a result of psychic trauma”, 35.1 % - “depravity, bad habit” and only 18.3 % - “sexual orientation, having an equal right to exist” (13 % didn’t have an opinion).
This is exploited by the mass-media. It is often claimed that all sex education programmes are drawn up by pedophiles and gay men.
Very often libelous attacks are personalized. Irina Medvedeva told the readers of “Nezavisimaia gazeta” in 1997 that unnamed Western pharmaceutical companies had paid Professor Kon $ 50.000 to support sex education in Russia Victoria Molodtsova in “Rossiiskaya gazeta” in 1999 discovered that “one rich foundation” had paid me another $ 50.000 for “the defense of homosexuals’ rights” ( both statements are, unfortunately, wrong).
Mass-media provocations may have practical consequences. 30 January I became a victim of a fascist attack in the main lecture hall of the Moscow State University. I was invited for an open lecture, “Men in a changing world” (not about sexuality) The lecture was presided over and introduced by the Rector, Professor V.A. Sadovnichii Suddenly a group of about 20-30 bandit-like young men, who had nothing to do with the University, stood up and displayed large home-made insulting signs with slogans accusing me of engaging in propaganda for sexual depravity, homosexuality, pedophilia and so on, and made terrible noises. The audience, which included several prominent professors, was stunned and shocked. A piece of cream tart hit me from behind and several smoke bombs were set off, the smoke being a symbol of Hell. When Rector called the police, the hooligans left the room (one of them was caught) and I quietly finished my lecture and answered over 40 questions. This carefully prepared fascist performance (in which there was nothing spontaneous) was unprecedented in the history of Moscow University.
The following week, while I was working at home, I was called by the head of the local police who asked me not to open my door, since there was a suspicious object there and the police office had had an anonymous call that it was a bomb. On the door and the wall of my apartment a star of David and the “satanic” numerals “666” had been written. A specially trained police dog discovered that the bomb was a fake. Yet in the next few days I had two anonymous telephone calls, threatening that I would be brutally murdered, The story was reported by the popular Moscow newspaper “Moskovskii komsomolets” and by the St. Petersburg weekly “Chas pik,” but there was no criminal investigation (fascist and hate crimes generally remain unpunished in Russia).
The current anti-sexual crusade is only the top of the iceberg. Under the guise of a moral renaissance, Russian Orthodoxy and its allies are trying to restore censorship and administrative control over private life.
In the long run, this goal seems to be unattainable. Sexual attitudes and practices in Russia are already highly diversified by age, gender, education, cohort, regional, ethnic, and social background. Any attempts by the state, Church, or local community to forcibly limit young people’s sexual freedom is doomed to failure. The militant position of the Orthodox clergy may even have a boomerang effect. They seem to have forgotten an old Soviet joke: “How can you make art flourish and religion decay? - It’s very easy, you simply disconnect art from the State and make religion compulsory”.
Yet this crusade is a part of a growing wave of nationalism, xenophobia and militarism. And it has very dangerous political and practical consequences. Without sex education it is impossible to solve such urgent public health issues as STD and HIV prevention. Effective family planning is equally impossible without sexual knowledge. And, last but not least, the anti-sexual crusade is widening the already vast and yawning generation gap.
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Paraphilias). Moscow : Triada XVerkhovskii, A. (2001). Problema INN grozit raskolom. No ne Tserkvi, a pravoslavnym fundamentalistam. http://www.polit.ru/documents/401411.html.
. The first of these took place in 1993 with 1615 secondary school and vocational school students aged 12 to 17 in Moscow and St. Petersburg. A self-administered questionnaire was used. The second survey, sponsored by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, was conducted in 1995. A self-administered questionnaire was completed by 2871 respondents aged 16 to 19 in Moscow, Novgorod (a medium-sized city), Borisoglebsk and Yeletz (small towns). Unmarried girls and boys, students of secondary and vocational schools, university students and working adolescents were sampled in equal proportions in each of the four sites. Educational institutions were randomly sampled within each site. The questionnaire contained questions about issues such as the context of the first sexual experience, first and the last partner, number of partners, etc. The third survey formed part of the project ‘In-school sex education for Russian teenagers’, sponsored by the Ministry of Education and supported by UNFPA and UNESCO. Data was collected from seventh to ninth grade students, their parents and teachers in eight sites throughout Russia (Moscow, the Moscow district, St. Petersburg, Arkhangelsk, Krasnodar, Krasnoyarsk, Udmurtia and Yaroslavl) in 16 schools which agreed to take part in the project. Fieldwork was carried out in the first quarter of 1997. In toto, about 4000 students’ questionnaires, 1300 parents’ questionnaires and 400 teachers’ questionnaires were found suitable for data processing.