Igor S. Kon  
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"Better AIDS than sex education". The Sexual counter-revolution in Russia

As a consequence of recent changes in adolescent sexual behavior, similar to the Western sexual revolution of the 1960s, compounded by the breakdown of state medical services and the general criminalization of the country, there exist some

dangerous trends 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 Russian Orthodox Church, and supported by "Pro Life." Its main targets are sex education, women's reproductive rights and freedom of sexuality-related information. Especially vicious attacks are aimed at homosexuals. The campaign is openly nationalistic and xenophobic. In the long run, it goes against the dominant values of the young generation and also has disastrous public health consequences.

The Sexual revolution and its problems

In the former Soviet Union sexuality was a taboo topic, as though it were non-existent. After 1987 the taboo was broken, and sex became a fashionable subject for both private and public discourse ( Kon, 1995, 1997a, 1997b, 1999a, 1999b).

Despite the official silence, general trends in Russian sexual behavior have been similar to what occurred in the Western countries. According to Serguey 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 surveys1(Chervyakov and Kon, 1998, 2000), the sexual behaviors and attitudes of urban adolescents are rapidly changing. 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)

1 The first of these took place in 1993 among 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, the 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, 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.

(See Table 1)
Gender Survey year Age
    12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19
Male 1993 2.3 4.1 11.4 17 38.2 49.3 - -
  1995 - - - - 50.5 57.1 69.8 77.5
Female 1993 0 1.8 3.7 11.8 25.5 45.8 - -
  1995 - - - - 33.3 52.4 50.8 54.8

Table 1. Proportion of sexually active respondents by age and gender

Similar overall changes took place both in the secondary and in vocational schools. This suggests that changes in the age of sexual debut cannot be treated as an artifact caused by changes in the sample design. We found further evidence ofa 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 among the 19-year-old respondents when they were 16 (23 % vs. 11 %). The same difference was found between the 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 large

The absolute figures are not surprising and are quite comparable to the US and West European data. But in Russia the change is occurring very rapidly, and adolescent sexuality, which is bly related to social class, is often violent and aggressive. Uncivilized and uncontrollable early sexual activity has serious moral and epidemiological consequences.

Thanks to medical efforts, 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 increase fifty-fold in Russia, and 78 fold among young people. In 1996, 265 new cases of syphilis were diagnosed per 100.000 of population. The 1999 figures for syphilis are lower - (185.4 : 100.000) but those for gonorrhea rose to 14.5 % since 1998. 14 % of the syphilis and 19 % of the gonorrhea sufferers are 15 – 19 year- olds.

The incidence of HIV has also begun to grow nearly exponentially. The cumulative number of HIV-infected reached 24.600 in 1999. Experts believe that the real figures may be much higher, perhaps double these figures. The total number of deaths from AIDS since 1987 is over 400. In some districts, like Irkutsk, HIV has already attained epidemic proportions.

These facts suggest that something must be done, and that the first step could be sex education

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 international experience (Rademakers, 1997 ) In Russian families intergenerational taboos on sexuality discourse are very b. According to the National Center for Public Opinion Research (VtsIOM) representative national survey in 1990, only 13 % of parents have ever talked with 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. The main sources of knowledge on sexuality are newspapers, books and magazines. However, this often merely means the replacement of one source of misinformation by another, more ‘virtual’ one.

Russian public opinion is 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, bly supported the idea of systematic sex education in schools. Only 3 to 20 % are opposed to it (Kon, 1999).

But who will do this work? And what exactly should be taught?

Teachers think 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 and how should be told to children. 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 it 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 will become one of the favorite curriculum subjects for students. 61 % of seventh-grade students and 73 % of the ninth-graders said that they be eager to attend such classes. Only 5 % of students would prefer to avoid them. There are much more serious disagreements among the interested groups, however, with respect to the content of sexeducation. 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.

  7 8 9 Total
  M F M F M F M F
Psychology of gender relationships









Conception, prenatal development and childbirth









Diversity in sexual orientation, homosexuality, etc.









Sexual techniques: how to receive more pleasure from sex









Sexual anatomy and physiology









Marriage and family life









Sexual hygiene (sex organs)









Methods of birth control









Sexual abuse and avoidance of sexual harassment









Prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS









Improvement of sexual health









Table 2. Students’ topic preferences for a course in sex education (those who indicated a topic as ‘very necessary’, %), 1997 survey

At the demand 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 curricula and textbooks “for classes 7, 8 and 9, considering the importance that young people should be able to make informed and responsible decisions before reaching the age of 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”.

The anti-sexual crusade

Naturally, new sexual freedom from the very beginning 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 whipping up 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 d 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, for 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 a 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 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 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 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 made a complaint to 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 lies. The idea of any sex education was 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 at all 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 “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 bly dissociated himself from this nationalist position as well as from the suggestions to re-introduce 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 to introduce any elements of sex education even at the local level, on their own initiative (this had been done in a few schools since the 1970s) .

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. With the help of some prominent scientists such as the President of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Dr. Yuri Ossipov and the Rector of Moscow State University, Professor V.A. Sadovnichij, the Moscow Patriarchy is even attempting to introduce the teaching of theology into the state owned secular universities – which is anti-constitutional, and is opposed by liberal intellectuals.

For some Russian newspapers anything which smacks of sex education is like a red flag before a bull. Militant sexophobia is raging not only in the communist, fascist and clerical mass media but also in many liberal (“Íĺçŕâčńčěŕ˙ ăŕçĺňŕ”, “Íîâŕ˙ ăŕçĺňŕ”, “Âĺ÷ĺđí˙˙ Ěîńęâŕ” etc) and official (“Đîńńčéńęŕ˙ ăŕçĺňŕ”) media outlets.

One of their main targets is the Russian Planned Parenthood Association. Since 1991 this is the only organization which in fact took 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 has been published for young adults and teens, is 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 don’t 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 with some strange and even exotic ideas. A serious criticism and discussion of it certainly be of use.

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 the leading experts in gynecology, pediatrics and other medical disciplines bly 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 “Meditsintskaya 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 its 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 there is 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 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 new anti-sexual crusade is extremely 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 this was the main citadel of Soviet “repressive psychiatry”) Professor A..A. Tkachenko, in his last 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 an “extremal circumstances”. According to Tkachenko, DSM and the subsequent WHO treatment of homosexuality “partly contradict the fundamental principles of medical diagnostics as a whole” (Tkachenko, 1999, p. 355).

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”. Frankly, I would gladly have taken money for these noble issues, but nobody in fact paid for them.

What next?

What may be the possible results of the current Russian sexual counter-revolution?

Basically, this is only the top of the iceberg. Under the guise of a moral renaissance, these people want to restore censorship and administrative control over private life. In the long run, this goal is virtually unattainable.

Sexual attitudes and practices in Russia are already highly diversified by age, gender, education, cohort, regional, ethnic, and social background. In the near future, this heterogeneity will probably increase and may produce new cultural tensions. But in the long run, it is the younger, urban, and better educated people who will have the upper hand in defining what is right and what is wrong. Any attempts by the state, Church, or local community to forcibly limit their sexual freedom is doomed to failure, and will be detrimental to the authority of the institutions making such an attempt.

The Communist Party, which had waged this new holy war, belongs to the past; it is a party of old men. The militant position of the Orthodox clergy also may 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 the crusade against sex research and sex education has very dangerous practical social consequences. Without professional 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 widens generation gap, which is already vast and yawning.

© Igor S. Kon

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