A. Kościańska: Gender, Pleasure, and Violence

Gender, Pleasure, and Violence. The Construction of Expert Knowledge of Sexuality in Poland

Kościańska, Agnieszka
Anzahl Seiten
268 S.
$ 42.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Elisa-Maria Hiemer, Herder-Institut für historische Ostmitteleuropaforschung, Marburg

Issues linked to the broader field of sexuality (family planning and birth control, abortion, sex education) have recently become a frequently explored topic with regard to Central Europe. Especially anthropologists and cultural historians have contributed remarkably in this field, focusing particularly on the communist period.1 Agnieszka Kościańska’s book Gender, Pleasure, and Violence. The Construction of Expert Knowledge of Sexuality in Poland is the translation of her 2014 Polish version Płeć, przyjemność, przemoc. Making her study available to a wider audience is of high importance for overcoming a common misconception that Kościańska addresses in her introduction: She wants to debunk the myth that Poland was bound to “catch up with Europe” (p. 3) in every respect of life after 1989.

Kościańska refuses to accept this dominant (western) point of view that orientalizes Poland as an inferior, backward region. By contrasting Polish and US-American experts’ discourses, her book emphasizes the holistic approach of the Polish school of sexology. Whereas specialists in the US put clinical research first, Kazimierz Imieliński, the founder of the Polish School of Sexology in the 1960s, characterized the Polish approach as follows: “Sexology centers on […] intimate life […] in all of its […] aspects: psychological, sociological, pedagogical, ethical-moral, legal, ethnographic, anthropological, biological, hygienic, religious and medical” (cited on p. 1).

Consequently, the first chapter of the book (“Sexology and Society”) sets off by providing the reader with a transnational perspective: Kościańska analyzes Polish sexology framing it within the European and US research landscape. Starting with the US mainstream sexology research by Kinsey, Masters and Johnson as well as grassroot approaches such as the New View Campaign, she finally introduces three leading personalities of Polish sexology. In order to show how the notion of sexuality was formed and interpreted in different political regimes, she refers to Zbigniew Lew-Starowicz, an active researcher who “personifies today’s institutionalized sexology in Poland” (p. 53), Kazimierz Imieliński (who became the first Polish professor of Sexology in 1963), and Michalina Wisłocka (the author of Poland’s most popular sex guide Sztuka Kochania/The Art of Love, 1978).

Polish sexologists were committed to popularize their knowledge; therefore, many of their publications were based on patients’ questions. Yet, Kościańska scrutinizes the heteronormativity and the construction of normalcy by Polish leading specialists who framed their research by posing questions such as: What kind of woman and man enjoy a successful sex life? What constitutes normal and healthy sexual behavior? Leading US-American researchers instead followed a clinical approach trying to put human sexuality in figures.

The second part of the book (“Pleasure: Toward Good Sex”) reveals the ideological load of sex education in state socialist Poland and points to the fact that a lot of key terms in contemporary sexology still refer to this ideological subtext. The idea of having good sex was seen as a twofold phenomenon: On the one hand, Polish sexologists encouraged their readers and students to engage in dialogue with their partner and to learn how to adjust behavior in order to pleasure him or her. On the other hand, this approach was based on the educational strategy built during Stalinism as a part of the Soviet notion of culturedness: In an effort to create a new, modern society, the communist state assumed the role of teaching his citizens civilized and cultured behavior in all terms of life.

Although Kościańska aims at positioning Polish expertise in the global history of sexology, she does not refrain from critically analyzing research biases and problematic convictions that have remained a point of reference when speaking about sex in today’s Poland. She points out that Michalina Wisłocka’s popular book is highly problematic in terms of gender patterns (women being responsible for men’s sexual behavior) and Lew-Starowicz kept repeating misconceptions on homosexuality. Even in his texts from the 2000s, he tends to describe homosexuality as contradictory to what he perceives as (heteronormative) good sex. Kościańska’s criticism of the stars of polish Sexology is contrasted with their impact on today’s approach to talk about sex and gender: Kościańska introduces several NGOs and initiatives supporting LGBTQIA+ and shows that – on non-governmental level – a lot is being done to diversify the way young Poles are taught about sex nowadays.

Especially in the last chapter focusing on rape (“Violence: Expert Discourse of Rape”) Kościańska depicts how science influenced public and legal opinions. The misconception of victims being partially to blame derives from paternalistic convictions that women are responsible for the reactions they cause – especially in the field of sexuality that Wisłocka considers the female domain. It is this chapter that connects the historical and contemporary aspects most convincingly by shedding light on the stereotypes Polish experts perpetuated in their scientific texts: According to Lew-Starowicz, “rape prevention first and foremost points attention to avoiding situation that might provoke it” (p. 22). Indeed, contemporary research revealed “persisting stereotypes” (p. 154) when it comes to solving rape crimes.

One subchapter (“In the Courtroom”) is dedicated to rape trials during 1982, 1985, 2000 and 2002. In the hearings, the victims were often accused of having provoked the rape. The experts’ opinions often testified so called reckless behavior and/or referred to rich previous sexual experiences of the victims. Feminist research and associations of the early 1990s significantly contributed to the discussion on female body integrity. This also made experts rethink their assumptions: Lew-Starowicz abandoned the idea of male limits of self-restraint towards a feminist perspective.

As for the methodology, the book uses a multi-layered approach: Kościańska refers to archive material, in-depth interviews, participating observation, court files and scientific as well as popular publications. Her book is based on thorough research and offers a myriad of new insight for researchers but also for a broader readership. Regarding the English translation, a more detailed comparison between the western and eastern paradigms (as presented in the first chapter) would have been insightful. Nonetheless, Gender, Pleasure, and Violence succeeds in showing the entanglement of research, public life (jurisdiction) and personal destinies (patients, rape survivors). More generally, it underlines the responsibility of scientific research and its power to shape public opinions.

Kościańska’s book is an outstanding example of how to popularize Poland’s cultural history and can help readers from a non-(post)socialist background to understand the significance of research done behind the Iron Curtain. For decades, it has been an unquestioned primacy of the West to judge whether post-socialist countries have either failed or succeeded in their transformation – also in terms of culture. Kościańska opposes this self-assumed entitlement of the West by presenting not only a strong, but also a highly nuanced Polish point of view.2 In doing so, her book is a substantial contribution to overcome orientalization of Central European history and sciences.

1 For Poland see for example the works of Sylwia Kuźma-Markowska, Agata Ignaciuk, Michael Zok, for Czechoslovakia Kateřina Lišková, Denisa Nešt’áková, Eva Škorvanková, for Hungary: Eszter Varsa.
2 The book is published at a time when Poland is pursuing unprecedentedly restrictive sexual and moral policies. In addition to the tightening of abortion law in January 2021, a heteronormative and patriarchal image of family is being propagated, especially in the area of sex education in schools.

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