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Katerina Liskova is not afraid to ask probing questions about the often surprising official attitudes toward sex in Czechoslovakia.by Vanda Thorne 19 December 2018
A stereotypical image of a communist woman (or man) depicts a person in a genderless working-class outfit complete with rolled-up sleeves, clenched fists, a determined look in the eyes, and a sickle, pneumatic drill, or the like in hand. References to sexuality are typically missing from such an image. But sex and sexuality were not officially deemed unimportant for citizens of the communist countries, as Masaryk University sociologist Katerina Liskova argues in her book Sexual Liberation, Socialist Style: Communist Czechoslovakia and the Science of Desire, 1945–1989. Liskova sets out to explore the ways in which state experts – sexologists, together with psychologists and demographers – shaped the most intimate aspects of people’s lives through their expertise on love, sex, and family. And some of her conclusions are rather surprising.
Contrary to expectations, instead of citizens drained of energy by dutiful work for the system, Liskova describes men and women in socialist Czechoslovakia as obsessed with sex. Perhaps even more interestingly, she also demonstrates that the communist government as well as the Party itself paid close attention to designing, presenting, and supervising their ideal version of good sex. In the West, gender and sexual liberation typically originated within social movements, “from below.” In the East, however, the changes in sexuality were imposed “from above” – by the System via its experts. Sex in communist Czechoslovakia was used as an important tool in changing discourses on public and private life that shifted from emphasizing work in the utopian 1950s to celebrating family in the “normalized” 1970s.
The Ideology of Pleasure
While the centrality of sexuality to the socialist/communist project permeates the book, the author distinguishes between what she terms a “sexual progressivism” of the 1950s and a “re-traditionalization” of sex and gender in the 1960s and 1970s. The story of socialist sex therefore moves in the opposite direction than expected: from more freedom initially to more restrictions later – from a celebration of love, work, and emancipation in the early postwar period to a promotion of traditional gender roles and quiet family life in the 1970s.
The 1950s communist government in Czechoslovakia, as in other communist states, openly declared achieving women’s equality as one of its most important goals, thus setting the stage for major legal and social changes. Women were guaranteed important legal rights: communist legal codes brought full equality within marriage, liberalized divorce, and legalized abortion. At the same time, the new socialist woman was to be free to choose her partner based on romantic love, not economic necessity. Intimacy was presented as an egalitarian enterprise among two (collectively groomed) individuals. Work mattered, but so did real love. Sex was also deemed important – the founding father of Czechoslovak sexology, Josef Hynie, argued that (marital) sex does not just fulfil a need for personal satisfaction; it leads to a cultivation of life in general. As Liskova points out, a “good” marriage was characterized by three main attributes: its successful societal function (i.e., having children), mutual love, and active marital sex.
But this politically charged period of utopian dreams also witnessed the beginning of a trend that became a permanent problem for the Czechoslovak government: declining birthrates. The emancipatory measures, such as full-time employment and access to divorce and abortion, were at the same time working to weaken women’s potential as mothers. Various expert committees were set up to battle the trend. That was achieved by making it more difficult to obtain abortion (by requiring women to have a compulsory interview with an abortion commission) and, more importantly, by encouraging women to have more children – by having more sex. The latter goal also involved managing pleasure, since Czechoslovak sexologists (all those the author mentions were men) declared it crucial that socialist women experience orgasm.
Liskova devotes an entire chapter to female orgasm. Examining female pleasure was apparently so important that by 1961 the first scientific conference devoted to this topic took place. But patterns of sexuality were changing, and this affected scientific interest in orgasm, too. Liskova analyzes numerous documents ranging from government reports to medical papers, demonstrating that the expert discussion of female orgasm shifted from viewing it as an essential condition of conception in the 1950s, to claiming it was a result of a proper performance of one’s gender role (masculine or feminine) in the 1960s, to arguing it was simply an effect of a (trainable) sexual technique in the 1970s. Orgasm therefore remained important, but for different reasons and desired functions.
The Regressive Sixties
The 1960s brought a radical backlash against the emancipatory policies of the previous decade, and this grew even stronger through the period of “normalization” following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Here, Liskova argues a rather startling point: Contrary to the usual associations with the 1960s, which portray the period as a rare moment of freedom, spontaneity, and openness (“socialism with a human face”), in terms of sexuality, the 1960s actually represented a step backward. Liskova argues that the pro-family reforms, which advocated a return to traditional domesticity and gender role division, were, in fact, designed by the reformers of the Prague Spring. The subsequent normalization regime thus merely incorporated them into its own advocacy of a return to a “normal,” quiet, family life.
From the mid-1960s, a growing pool of expertise on early child care signaled a shift from a focus on working women to children. Yet this did not suppress the continued professional interest in exploring and managing sexual fulfillment, which transformed into a new phenomenon of sexual guidebooks distributed on a mass scale in the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, emphasis on sexuality as a central part of private life worked as a welcome distraction orchestrated by the regime for its politically frustrated citizens. The regime was happy to advocate marital sex, which it saw as a way to keep people at home, away from public spaces as potential sites of unsanctioned political activity. However, both the regime and its sex experts viewed sex outside marriage in a negative light. The government, therefore, invested into a network of marital counselling centers, and incorporated classes for future parents (but no sex education) into school curricula to strengthen the institution of the socialist family. Officially celebrated nuclear family and hierarchically organized gender roles thus coexisted with a continued accent on marital sex as an important aspect of a functioning socialist society.
Liskova concludes her book with a chapter on male “deviance” – an interesting detour from an otherwise largely female-focused study. She justifies this move by claiming that female deviance was rather absent from the sexological radar throughout the entire communist period. She argues that various elaborations on what was labelled deviant behavior in males, including homosexuality, were visible at certain times in expert reports and invisible in other periods. But this invisibility was not necessarily as damaging as we might think. Liskova suggests that since official discourse during communism did not tolerate challenges to normative definitions of sexuality, the invisibility of certain minority gender groups – such as homosexuals – actually protected them from unwelcome official scrutiny and harassment.
The Liberating Straitjacket
Sex, as discussed in this book, is both a governmental tool for controlling population and an outlet for escaping such control. Communist citizens in Liskova’s analysis are far from the suppressed prudes we might expect. Similarly, the argument about the government’s investment in the best conditions for sex may seem shockingly irreconcilable with the ideology of communism. But it makes sense when we take into account the reasons behind such policies – such as the attempts to reverse the falling birthrate or encourage people to spend more time at home, away from the public sphere. Liskova presents sexologists as important mediators of categories of gender and sexuality, governmental collaborators in key demographic decisions, and rather autonomous scholars unrestrained by the political climate in communist Czechoslovakia. As she states: “Sexology often spoke the truth to power.”
This view, however, begs a question: Was power listening? It seems that while sexologists originated a lot of very progressive ideas, a majority were discussed in the closed circles of academic conferences and on the pages of professional journals. If the government listened, it was not necessarily for the reasons the sexologists envisioned. Liskova’s celebration of sexologists’ role in Czechoslovak society also underestimates important aspects of the communist system, such as censorship and propaganda, both of which significantly distorted scientific findings and other information released to the public as well as to the experts. Communist regimes were certainly not the only ideological manipulators of information, but they were not afraid to use methods and tools impermissible in Western democracies.
Sexual liberation in Czechoslovakia may have been dramatically different (and better) from what we had imagined. It certainly did not lag behind – many progressive ideas about sexuality proposed during the communist era actually preceded similar discussions in the West. But these developments remain tainted by the fact that they were initiated by a repressive government, albeit based on research by scientific experts. The title of Liskova’s book says it all. This was a real sexual liberation, but in a socialist style.
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