January 1, 2021
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Gender, Pleasure, and Violence

The Construction of Expert Knowledge of Sexuality in Poland

Behind the Iron Curtain, the politics of sexuality and gender were, in many ways, more progressive than the West.

While Polish citizens undoubtedly suffered under the oppressive totalitarianism of socialism, abortion was legal, clear laws protected victims of rape, and it was relatively easy to legally change one's gender. In Gender, Pleasure, and Violence, Agnieszka Kościańska reveals that sexologists—experts such as physicians, therapists, and educators—not only treated patients but also held sex education classes at school, published regular columns in the press, and authored highly popular sex manuals that sold millions of copies. Yet strict gender roles within the home meant that true equality was never fully within reach. Drawing on interviews, participant observation, and archival work, Kościańska shares how professions like sexologists defined the notions of sexual pleasure and sexual violence under these sweeping cultural changes.

By tracing the study of sexual human behavior as it was developed and professionalized in Poland since the 1960s, Gender, Pleasure, and Violence explores how the collapse of socialism brought both restrictions in gender rights and new opportunities.

About the Authors

Agnieszka Kościańska is Associate Professor in the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, University of Warsaw. She is author and co-editor of several volumes on gender and sexuality, including (in Polish) The Power of Silence: Gender and Religious Conversion.


"Gender, Pleasure, and Violence is one of the most interesting critical works on sexuality published in Poland in recent years."—Barbara Klich-Kluczewska, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland, Aspasia, reviewing a previous edition or volume

"Agnieszka Kościańska's brilliant book, Gender, Pleasure, and Violence, is a theoretically rich and methodologically robust exploration of expert knowledge of the field of Polish sexology before and after the fall of communism in 1989. Challenging the pervasive stereotypes of state socialist Eastern Europe as one monolithic totalitarian nightmare, Kościańska investigates the societal debates and public struggles that animated the field of Polish sexology throughout the post-War era.  She deftly reveals how a more holistic and complex understanding of human sexuality was in many ways superior to its overly medicalized and pharmaceuticalized counterpart in the West. Kościańska tells a nuanced story about the many controversies and contradictions, but this book ultimately details how the medical/psychological establishment in communist Poland came to embrace far more progressive views than a Western reader might imagine for that era. This accessible book is an absolute must-read for anyone who wants to know what sex was really like under socialism."—Kristen Ghodsee, University of Pennsylvania

"This book masterfully combines historical depth, ethnographic sensitivity, and an impressive command of comparative scholarship on gender and sexuality. This is more than a vivid account of the history of sexology and sexual practice in communist Poland. Agnieszka Kościańska challenges us to rethink bigger subjects such as the idea of progressivism, the nature of state socialism, and the hegemony of the West."—Malgorzata Fidelis, University of Illinois at Chicago

"Published in Polish in 2014, and now available in English, Agnieszka Kościańska's book is the first to discuss the history of sexuality in socialist and postspocialist Poland which inspired the development of new research on the subject. Based on rich ethnographic and archival sources, Gender, Pleasure, and Violence constitutes a brilliant anthropological exploration of the past and proves that there is no simple answer to the question of the heritage of communism in Central Europe."—Joanna Mishtal, University of Central Florida

"Richly researched and engagingly written, this book challenges what you thought you knew about socialist sex. Focusing on Poland, Kościańska seamlessly combines anthropological methods with archival research to show what conditions socialism created for pleasure and how central expertise was for emancipating sexuality. A fascinating read, which will shape the debates about sex and gender in Europe for years to come."—Kateřina Lišková, Masaryk University, Czech Republic

"This is a powerful and important book, which tells us much about how, from Socialism to postsocialism, Poles have come to think about sex and its personal, social, economic, and political meanings. Carefully mapping the patterns of Polish sexological and expert scientific discourses on sex and sexuality during and after Socialism, Kościańska combines meticulous archival work with rigorous ethnographic fieldwork to unfold a richly detailed and fascinating comparative history of Polish sexology's unique, and uniquely holistic, theoretical and political trajectories - and its profound social impact. Deeply rooted in cutting-edge scholarship on Central and Eastern European sexualities past and present, and consistently attentive to the shifting complexities of the relationship between official, expert discourses and women's and patients' agency, Gender, Pleasure, and Violence neatly brings together complex theoretical debates and specific, concrete practices to show how Polish sexology and expert sexual knowledge, and its intimate interactions with psychological and medical patients, feminists and queer activists, and cases of sexual violence, constructed new forms of gendered and sexual subjectivities, and gendered and sexual social orders. Kościańska convincingly demonstrates that despite its strongly emancipatory side, Polish sexology's impact was ultimately shaped by a profound gender conservatism, in which a particular vision of "healthy and satisfying sex" served to reinforce dominant sexual and gender hierarchies. Challenging our current narratives about the sites, sources, and personal, social, and political functions of scientific knowledge about sexuality, Gender, Pleasure, and Violence should be obligatory reading for those wishing to rethink not only the relationships between both science and sexuality, and Socialism and sex, but the significance of sex and sexuality to the emergence of alternate modernities, and the nature of the relationship between "East" and "West."—Hadley Z. Renkin, Central European University

"In highlighting the patient-centric and holistic approaches that Polish sexology developed in the 1970s and 1980s the book offers an important counternarrative to the presumed historical superiority of Western sexological approaches and more generally a rebuttal of Western representations of state socialism as a non-modern and static system. . . . Capturing the complexities of sexologists and sexological discourses under state-socialism aside, the book is particularly insightful in discussing continuities and changes within sexological approaches to sex and sexuality since 1989."—Anita Kurimay, Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe

"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 – i.e. 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. In doing so, her book is a substantial contribution to overcome orientalization of Central European history and sciences."—Elisa-Maria Hiemer, Herder Institute for Historical Research on East Central Europe, Marburg, H / SOZ / KULT

"Gender, Pleasure, and Violence presents a complex and fascinating picture of Polish sexology in the twentieth century. The author's detailed research and nuanced analysis renders palpable the robustness of the community of experts and their output, showing that sexuality was a topic of sustained interest in the medical community. The author sees many Polish sexologists as global pioneers in their approach, which combined psychological and cultural elements earlier than many US counterparts. Embracing a sex-positive perspective early on, Polish sexologists provided both expertise and educational materials for wider consumption that depicted sexual pleasure as a natural component of our humanity, which needed to be understood, nurtured, and valued."—Maria Bucur, Aspasia


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