Sex, Lies and Red Tape

by by Joy Neumeyer

illustration by by Michelle Nguyen

YAROSLAVL, RUSSIA At the "Achieving Your Dreams" club, Anya Alexandrova is fruitlessly trying to hold the attention of the 15-year-olds in her charge.
"What makes a healthy lifestyle?" she implores for the third time.
"Having good friends," someone gamely says at last.
"Not doing drugs."
A voice calls out from the back.
"Sex!" The room explodes in giggles.

In the same room ten years ago, sex wouldn't have been a punchline, but the main topic of discussion. Then, the high-schoolers who gathered here were informed about the merits of condoms versus intrauterine devices, how to protect themselves from STD infection and a slew of other sexual health issues. Doverie (in Russian, "confidence"), the club's host organization, was founded in 1989 with the help of Planned Parenthood of New England as "The Center for the Formation of Sexual Culture." The NGO's rooms hummed with doctors performing gynecological exams and dispensing contraception, psychologists meeting with victims of sexual violence and educators talking to young people about the risks of HIV/AIDS. Today, although the center remains an active locus of social work (providing training classes for potential foster families), the topic of sex is all but verboten, relegated to the secrecy of private consultations with rape victims, or a hesitant question in a parental training class.
Since the dawning of perestroika in the mid-80s, Russia has witnessed an explosion of sexual culture for which decades of Soviet public silence on all things sex left the country completely unprepared--an official silence immortalized in the popular Soviet catchphrase "There is no sex in the USSR." After attempts to create systematized sex education through local organizations like Doverie were defeated by heated conservative opposition in the late 90s, the continuing low level of sexual education among its citizens has contributed to its astronomical rates of abortion, HIV infection and prostitution.
At a time when informal indicators suggest that the global economic crisis is leading to a surge in Russia's abortion and STD infection rates, sex education assumes an ever-more important role in educating citizens about contraceptive choices. The rise and fall of sex education in Yaroslavl provides a revealing look at the Russian government's and populace's troubled flirtation with sexual culture.
The Soviet state's policy towards sex was initially revolutionary, featuring the world's most progressive abortion law. From 1917 to 1936, women could receive free, safe abortions in state hospitals and some schools taught Freudian-based sex education. But by the mid-'20s, sex had already come to be viewed as a distraction from the class struggle. Aron Zalkind's 1924 "Twelve sexual precepts of the revolutionary proletariat" tidily summed up this growing attitude shaping sexual policy, which urged the youth to remember that "the progeny must be borne in mind on each occasion of the sexual act." Stalin's conservative turn in the 1930s, which sought to ensure a booming population whose industrial labor and military service would provide the backbone of the Communist future, resulted in the ultimate outlawing of abortion in 1936. Although this law was reversed during Khrushchev's thaw in 1956, until its 1991 implosion the Soviet system never introduced or supported sexual education classes.
The gradual dissolution of the Soviet state in the late 1980s brought with it an onslaught of once-forbidden erotic magazines, clubs and movie halls. Doverie's founder Valya Shelkova told the Independent, "Whenever there's freedom, there's also free sex." Although some contraceptives were available, they were mostly of poor quality, and awareness among women and medical staff about how to use them remained low. In the early '90s, the most common contraceptive methods in Russia were the rhythm method, withdrawal and condoms.
Education reforms in the mid-'90s broke the rigid top-down format of the Soviet system and ushered in new opportunities for introducing sex ed to Russian schools. Amidst ever-climbing abortion and STD infection rates, the Health Ministry and the Russian Association for Family Planning (supported by the International Association for Family Planning and UNESCO) began to devise plans for sex education on a large scale. In 1996, the Ministry of Education supported the creation of a sexual education program designed by the Netherlands center Organon and supervised by famed Russian sexologist I.S. Kon. Yaroslavl was selected as the site for the pilot program, and the Center for the Formation of Sexual Culture as its medical-pedagogical host.
From its inception, the plan encountered bureaucratic resistance and a lack of specialists to help implement the program at schools. Still, the program proceeded as planned, and students were excused from classes for one to two weeks to undergo education at the Center for Formation of Sexual Culture and other sites. Nadya Zyozina, who participated in the program, recollected lessons from gynecologists and psychologists who dispensed "medical biological information" and "told us about the relations between boys and girls." Beforehand, parents were called to a special meeting at which they were told about the program and asked to sign an approval form. Some parents took issue with the use of school time, and were especially offended by a questionnaire that asked students about their sexual experience. Lyobov Koloseva was a parent present at one of these meetings. "The majority of us approved, but a few uncultured people objected," she told the Independent. But, "it's always the idiots who are the loudest," she said.
A minority of outraged parents took their case to the media and found a vocal ally in the Russian Orthodox Church. When the government proposed to supply state funding to the project, which had previously been supported by international grants, priests embarked on an aggressive media campaign that made it all the way to the Moscow Patriarchy and received widespread attention in national media outlets. The campaign seized upon serious weaknesses in the pilot program, such as the Center's lack of proper medical license, and worked aggressively to discredit the notion of sex education as a whole.
"If I could go back, I would do it all differently," Shelkova said as she flipped through a fat file of clippings from Yaroslavl newspapers in the late '90s, which variously accused the organization of propagating abortion and depopulation, satanic activity and genocide. As the tide of popular opposition reached its peak, the Yaroslavl project was frozen; in 2000, plans to introduce sexual education as a mandatory course for the 11th grade were forgotten. Threatened with closure, the Center for the Formation of Sexual Culture eliminated its gynecological offices and renounced any direct attempts to education young people about contraception and reproductive health, and took on a new life as simply "Doverie," a nonthreatening host to parental training classes and after-school clubs about friendship and self-esteem. Shelkova says she now views sex education as parents' work. "Our responsibility is to teach them (how to talk to their children). We only step in if parents don't want to... or can't."
Since the controversy of the late '90s, no serious overtures have been made towards systematized sex education. Efforts remain sporadic and relegated to the local level; today in Yaroslavl, sexual health information is generally relegated to a week-long biology course.
Maiya Pavlova, a student at Yaroslavl's technical institute, told the Independent that while she and her friends use birth control pills, their cost renders them prohibitive for many. Abortions, on the other hand, are relatively cheap and easy to come by. Though condoms are inexpensive and widespread, they still bear the stigma of their notoriously thick and uncomfortable Soviet ancestors. Shelkova said that many young Russian women consider "it's better to have an abortion than use contraception."
If a current coalition of Russian lawmakers and citizens trying to lower one of the world's highest abortion rates is successful, this option may soon become more difficult. In April 2008, the State Duma outlawed abortion ads, with support from three out of four Duma factions: the majority United Russia, A Just Russia, and the Communist Party. At the time, the deputy chairman of the Duma Health Committee Sergei Kolesnikov told the Moscow News that lawmakers are at work on another bill that could seek to ban abortion in private clinics entirely. Recently, the government placed new restrictions on abortions after the 12th week of pregnancy, and tightened the conditions of the waiver women must sign before undergoing an abortion.
These anti-abortion measures have been part of a broader state campaign to counter the country's demographic situation with cash incentives to mothers and a moralizing focus on the bliss of marital and family life. Last year (proclaimed by the government "The Year of the Family") saw the highest birth rate in Russia in 25 years, with the rate of abortion being roughly equal. However, Russia Today reported that as Russia is increasingly hard-hit by the global economic crisis, search engines are seeing a ten-fold spike in abortion inquiries, and hotlines where women can seek information about abortion have had a surge in calls. Experts predict that this year, the number of newborns may drop by almost 200,000.
While the government hastens to introduce counter-abortion legal measures and homilies about marriage and family, it remains silent on fostering education at the local level about concrete sexual health issues, knowledge that experts like Kon assert is vital to lowering spiraling rates of not only abortion, but STD infection, prostitution, and a slew of other social scourges that hamper the growth of a healthy Russian population but are largely ignored by government resources. Focused on feeding the conservative fervor of Russians who view sex education as a corrupting Western import, the Ministry of Education, Shelkova said, is "simply not interested" in sex education.
For now, it seems, the Achieving Your Dreams Club will leave the matter of sex for after class.

Joy Neumeyer B'10 wishes you a happy International Worker's Day.