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.


A college student walks into a doctor’s office…

In the spirit of taking care of personal health during the flu season I wanted to share some information which I think is a good step towards greater agency over personal health.

For many of us coming to college is the first time we are faced with making our own doctors appointments, dealing with insurance claims and all the other things that come with taking care of your own health without our parent’s help.

An important part of being able to understand your own health and advocate for yourself is to know your medical history. It can be helpful to know what you have and haven’t been vaccinated for, when your last physical was, or what medications you’re allergic to.

One way to access this information is through electronic health records (EHRs), which are available online. More and more doctors offices are switching from paper to electronic health records (83% of healthcare providers offer EHRs, according to and some even have smartphone apps where records are accessible. Not all doctors offer EHRs yet, but if yours does, it might be worth it to take a look and familiarize yourself with any important information.

Getting access to your EHRs is fairly simple, but the process can vary from doctor to doctor. Generally, you need to:

1) Contact the doctor(s) you have had in the past and ask if they offer online access to health records.

2) If they do, ask how to set up an account. Because medical information is protected by certain privacy laws you will generally be asked to sign a waiver allowing your records to become accessible through an online account and you may be required to physically go to your doctor’s office to sign the waiver form—although online, faxed or verbal consent is also accepted by some doctors).

3) Once the waiver is completed, your doctor will notify you when your EHR account has been activated, and you will be able to see your medical history online.

4) Many EHR portals are also available on smartphone apps such as “MyChart”, so that once you’ve created an EHR account you can also download an app to access your medical history on your phone. This can be especially useful when you are at the doctor’s office if need to answer a medical question on the spot and you can look up the answer on your phone.

Doctor’s offices and medical processes can be confusing and intimidating, and having a better understanding of your own medical history can help you have more agency over your own health.

To health and wellness!