Sex and Sexuality in the Russian Revolution

This might seem like an overly political post for the Well Woman blog, but I came across this while doing a history assignment and I found it fascinating. Sex and sexuality are not topics usually discussed in relation to the Russian revolution, but this podcast discusses the ways in which sexual liberty was an integral part of the revolution, initially. However, it shows the complicated relationship between government and sexuality and the numerous contradictions embedded in government policy.

For example, after the revolution, free abortion was made available to everyone by law (for public health reasons rather than for the sake of sexual liberation), but the doctors performing the operations often did not approve and treated patients brutally by withholding anesthetic and strapping down patients’ ankles.

Another example is of sexual assault law. (24:00)

According to the speaker, “rape was defined as non-consensual sexual intercourse obtained using either physical or psychological force. There were also laws against statutory rape, but they weren’t age based. It was based on whether a person had reached sexual maturity, which was a term, however, left undefined by the law, and which ended up meaning that doctors could decide what sexual maturity meant”

This gave final say to doctors, who were not invested in the rights and needs of survivors. For example,”when dealing with statutory rape, to assess sexual maturity, the doctors came up with their own standard…and the standard was virginity, which…they never applied to men…If a woman was sexually active, she was presumed to have consented, unless she was heavily injured. What that ended up meaning was that doctors had the ability to make the psychological coercion part of the law a dead letter”

This shows the inherent failure of sexual assault law, which, even with presumably good intentions, was mainly left up to the discretion of practicing doctors who did not believe in sexual freedom or women’s rights.The law also did not have a term for survivors of sexual assault, and simply called them “accusers”, which speaks to attitudes of the time towards sexual assault.

In general it seems that laws were either poorly enacted with no mechanism to check sexist, discriminatory practice, or were unable to alter strongly-held popular beliefs. In addition to gruesome abortion practice, failure to practically address psychological sexual coercion, and sexist, abusive virginity testing as a measure of consent, the government struggled with successful practice in numerous other ways including:

1) All divorce became legal by request from either party, and children could no-longer be considered illegitimate. Child support was required to be paid to children’s guardian regardless of the supporting parent’s gender or proof of paternity. However, the resources and will did not exist to ensure the law was enforced.

2) The government paid for scientists to research sex and sexuality, but the concept of sex for fun or women’s pleasure was not mentioned. Masturbation was demonized for “encouraging individualism”.

3) It became legal to change one’s gender on legal documents and request gender reassignment surgery, however popular culture still believed strongly in a strict gender binary and concepts of queerness and sexual fluidity were often hostile.

4) Russia became the second European country to repeal anti-sodomy laws and single-sex marriage was legalized, but it is unclear to what extent homosexuality was accepted culturally, and what the government did (if anything) to promote or protect gay rights.

These are just a few examples of the complicated, confusing history of sex and sexuality in revolutionary Russia, and there is much more to learn of Russian legal history during this short period before the repeal of many of these laws under Stalin. In reality there was a gap between theory and practice and even as laws were changed, practice lagged behind, without time to catch up. I think this sheds an interesting light on laws surrounding sex and sexuality in our own time, especially the gap between law and practice and the current arguments for and against sexual health services and rights. What role does government play in enacting these rights, and how can people ensure governments approach these issues with sexual health needs in mind? How are these laws successfully enforced and what is the mechanism for allowing necessary changes to failed policies? Sexual health policies are still complicated and controversial today, and in many ways, very different from the world of 1920’s Russia, but I think we can always learn from the events of history, even if just to learn from history’s failure.