tagReviews & EssaysSex in the New Russia

Sex in the New Russia


When the Soviet Union fell, chaos descended over Russia in many different aspects of life. The economy plummeted, Mafiosi ruled the streets, and government officials committed blatant acts of corruption. One of the most startling things to come out of this sudden upheaval was the immense outpouring of sex and sexuality into Russian culture. The repressiveness of the Soviet regime lifted under Glasnost and one of the many outcomes was that sex was finally allowed to be talked about in public. This sudden openness led to a variety of things, all of them products of sudden excess after long years of deprivation. Pornography and erotic imagery became commonplace, STDs became a large problem and sex crimes of all kinds increased. "The breakdown of the old social order, rising economic insecurity, poverty and frustration often exploded into domestic violence and sexual abuse." This sudden deluge of sex also led to other serious problems, including a sharp upswing in human-trafficking and prostitution in Russia. Today, the country is faced with many problems on the sexual front, from learning to accept homosexuality to controlling the rampant prostitution problem that exists in every city. The only way in which such problems can be solved is through a campaign of education which would illuminate the sexual world for the people of Russia after decades of ignorance.


In the Soviet Union, sex was the ultimate taboo topic. No one talked about it and it was somehow considered unpatriotic to want to discuss or participate in sexual activity of any kind. Igor Kon quotes George Orwell's 1984 in one of the chapters of his book The Sexual Revolution in Russia in order to help understand the mindset which made the Soviet era so puritanical in regard to sexuality:

It was not merely that the sex instinct created a world of its own that was outside the Party's control and which therefore had to be destroyed if possible. What was more important was that sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could transformed into war-fever and leader-worship.

Sex was something which was volatile, unpredictable, and potentially embarrassing, and so it had no place in Soviet society. In the eyes of the Soviets, the sex instinct clouded one's mind and made it much more difficult for one to serve the state effectively. Contraception was never widely used in the Soviet Union, and abortion seemed to be the most popular method of birth control.

The legacy of Soviet prudishness or "sexophobia," as eminent sexologist Igor Kon names it, contributes in a large way to the problems of sexuality which exist in Russia today. The people of Russia went nearly overnight from never seeing erotic imagery on display to being completely surrounded by it. Pornography appeared everywhere in the early nineties, and sex soon became a way of life. Many did not know how to handle this new freedom, and so STDs began to proliferate, sexual violence and prostitution increased, and the abortion rate rose significantly. "Sex work in particular became a coping strategy, as well as a shortcut, in most cases only wishful, to a Western lifestyle." Now that the West was suddenly no longer the arch-enemy, and now that images of western sexuality were free to enter the country, sex became fashionable and exotic. Homosexuality was finally allowed to exist in Russia after years of repression when it was decriminalized in 1993. This move was in large part due to the new Western influence rather than to any particular desire to make life easier for the gays of Russia.

All, in all, the legacy of the Soviets made the sudden excess of sexual behavior in Russia much more problematic. To go from prudishness to decadence in a matter of months is bound to create many problems, and it certainly did so for Russia. In examining aspects of the new sexual culture in Russia it is incredibly important to take into account the barren legacy of the virtually nonexistent Soviet sexuality.


Russia is not the best country in which to be a member of the gay community. Despite the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1993, there is still widespread homophobia and ignorance throughout the country which prevents homosexuals from obtaining any true freedom. They are discriminated against not only by their fellow citizens but also by members of their very own government.

Many Russian gays live in fear of their own identities and there are very few who are willing to stand up and be activists for the cause. When gays and gay rights activists are frequently beaten up by both their fellow citizens and their police force, and there is little government sympathy for the plight of homosexuals, only a brave few are willing to literally risk their lives for the cause. Because of this sudden visibility after many long years of invisibility under the Soviet Union, many gays have become dubious that activism is even necessary. They had never been discriminated against when they were invisible, but now that homosexuality has become such a high-profile issue, the discrimination rarely ceases. Widespread public ignorance is the main root of this problem. Most Russians have no context for homosexuality, and because there is no real widespread initiative to teach the facts, myths abound. Many blame the gay community for the spread of AIDS in Russia, despite the fact that it has now become a problem with which people of all orientations must be concerned. Without proper education, there will never be an end to the frantic homophobia which characterizes gay-straight relations in Russia.


The problem which is perhaps most representative of the sudden overload of sex in Russian culture is the extreme prominence of prostitution. Not only does organized crime make use of women for monetary gain, but private citizens have been finding it easier and easier to turn to prostitution for support on the one side and for sexual comfort on the other. The prevalence of sex in the culture makes it possible for men to approach women on the street asking to purchase sexual favors and to be at least tolerably certain of getting a positive answer. Businesses place blatant ads stating that in order to be hired, female employees must have "no hang-ups," meaning that they must not be averse to performing sexual favors for their employer and possibly also their co-workers. Prostitution has essentially become the second job for many women working in low-income professions. Female college students use their bodies to pay for books, food and amusements.

There are many reasons for the ease with which prostitution has become such a large part of Russia's sexual culture. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, women were no longer guaranteed the right of equal employment or of any job whatsoever. Women are often paid significantly less than their male co-workers, and they could be fired at the slightest provocation. Failure to acquiesce to a superior's sexual advances would be enough to lose many women their jobs. The adoption of prostitution may be a last resort for such women, and they may think that they will do it only a few times, just until they can find steady employment. Many however, find themselves sucked into the world of prostitution for the ease with which it can help them support themselves. This quote from Natalia Khodyreva's article on prostitution, "Sexuality for Whom?" epitomizes the ease with which a woman might find herself working as a prostitute:

At first it was awful to think of, and probably I would not have brought myself to do it if I had not encountered a man who encouraged me. I was just walking along the street one day thinking about this very problem when a car stopped beside me. The man asked, "Do you work?" It was then that I tried it. I replied, "Yes, I work." It was my very first experience working as a prostitute. And since that day I started working every day.

Examples such as this one are numerous. Russian men have been so inundated with sexual images and ideas in recent years that they feel as if it is permissible to accost random women on the street with offers of money in exchange for sexual favors.

Western glamour also plays its part in the prominence of prostitution in today's Russia. The sudden flood of Western pornography, erotic films, and literature in Russia after the Soviet Union's fall made being paid for sex seem as if it were glamorous and desirable, a life in which one is paid for pleasure. Many women are roped into a life of prostitution not by their lack of morals or their low self-esteems but because there are naïve enough to believe that the life of a prostitute is glamorous and easy. In reality, these women are faced with a truly brutal life. Many of them lose their ability to be intimate with another human being. They see sex as a job, something from which they must be detached if they do not want to be hurt. They are also faced day after day with the possibility of contracting and spreading STDs, including HIV/AIDS. Most Russian men seem to feel that condoms are unnecessary, even when one is having sex with an unknown prostitute. In the words of one woman,

Many men don't use condoms at all because they are sure that being in a rubber is like living in a space suit. But in response to my question are they not afraid to contract a disease, they used to look at me with innocent eyes and say something like: "Well I hope today I am your first man?"

Such an offhand response reflects not only an unconcern for personal health but also the widespread ignorance of the Russian public when it comes to sex. This man seems to think that as long as this prostitute has not had sex with any other clients on that particular day then she is free of disease. Such behavior demonstrates the need for some sort of comprehensive sex education to become available to the public. Without such measures, Russia will never be able to combat either the spread of sexually transmitted diseases or the rising popularity of prostitution as a career choice for women.


An issue which can be said to go hand in hand with that of prostitution is the problem of human trafficking. Russia has become one of the largest exporters of captive sex workers in the world, with Russian women working as prostitutes in an estimated fifty foreign countries . The conditions which arose following the collapse of the Soviet Union were ideal for the proliferation of human trafficking. Economic instability, job discrimination, and the threat of the mafia were all great incentives for women to attempt to emigrate to a foreign country in order to find work. Human traffickers will post ads which prey upon these desires. They promise steady jobs in prosperous countries and help the women obtain all of the necessary documentation for their trips. When they arrive at their destinations however, all of their legal documentation is confiscated. They are told that they owe the agency a massive debt for their traveling expenses and it is quickly represented to them that the only way in which they can pay off their obligation is by prostituting themselves. In this way, Russian women are lured all over the world, isolated, and then enslaved.

This issue brings to light another problem which has arisen from the sudden deluge of sex in Russian culture. Russian women, who had been guaranteed equal rights under the Soviet Union now find themselves the victims of sexism at every turn. The prominence of the woman trafficking trade in Russia illustrates the low status which women now occupy in the minds of many of Russia's men. They have become sexual objects and it is only in this objectification that others are able to justify selling them as chattel to foreign countries.

Mail-order brides are another concern related to the trafficking of women. While the process of becoming a mail order bride is far kinder than that of becoming a prostitute, it is still a reflection of the dismal state of sexuality in Russia during the current times. These women want to exit the country for the same reasons that their kidnapped sisters did: for security and a chance at making a new life. They market themselves to middle-aged, upper-middle class men in the hopes that these men will give them a ticket out of Russia and an automatic place in a Western country. They are prostituting themselves, although to a lesser degree than women who are trafficked. They must shape themselves so that they become what western men seek in a Russian mail-order bride: they must be intelligent, obedient, and enjoy the domestic responsibilities of the traditional housewife. They objectify themselves in order to be marketable. This sort of mindset is comparable to that which seems increasingly pervasive among young women throughout Russia. They believe that it is acceptable and even common to have to sell their bodies in order to achieve material security.


Almost all of Russia's current problems of sexuality can be said to stem from the lack of a comprehensive system of sexual education. There are many factors which contribute to this lack, one of which is of course the Soviet legacy of sex as a subject far too taboo to discuss in anywhere as public as a classroom. Despite the fact that images of sex are widely available throughout Russia, the subject remains taboo among family members. Mothers and fathers cannot be depended upon to instruct their children accurately in the facts of life, and in fact many parents will avoid talking about sex with their children at all costs. Teachers have expressed great interest in beginning to teach sexual education in school, but they lack a standardized curriculum to go upon and there is no widespread initiative to create one.

Sex education has also been hindered by the joint resistance of the Russian Orthodox Church and the remnants of the communist party. Old soviet "sexophobia" and the desire of the church to take back control of the morals of the country after decades of Soviet repression make these two bodies unwilling to allow a system of sex education. The church maintains that it should be the primary body involved with the sexual health of the nation, being that around eighty percent of what is heard in the confessional is sexual in nature. Together, these two influential groups have effectively put a hold on the creation of a system of sex education. The desire for such instruction, however, lingers in both students and teachers, who are becoming aware of the significance of the problem of ignorance in sexual matters. The public wants to learn how to protect themselves from sexual violence and sexually transmitted diseases like HIV, and it is only through a comprehensive system of education that they can do so.


The prevalence of sex in Russia which proceeded the fall of the Soviet Union caused many problems for the new democracy. Violent sex crimes such as rape and domestic violence increased in part due to the depression which seized the minds of the nation. The chaos which resulted in widespread unemployment and economic instability made it all too easy for women from many walks of life to turn to prostitution in order to support themselves, or to become the victim of a human trafficking scheme. Widespread homophobia illustrates the paranoia of the public when it comes to sex and is perhaps the most convincing proof of the need for a system of sex education to be put into place in Russian. Education is really the only key to the current problems of sexuality in Russia. Laws and legislations can only go so far; it is schooling which creates the most lasting change.


Aleksandar Stulhofer and Theo Sandfort, Sexuality and Gender in Postcommunist Eastern Europe and Russia (Binghampton: The Haworth Press, 2005).

Donna Hughes, Supplying Women for the Sex Industry, ed. Aleksandar Stulhofer and Theo Sandfort (Binghampton: The Haworth Press).

Igor Kon, The Sexual Revolution in Russia (New York: The Free Press, 1995).

Igor S. Kon, Sexual Culture and Politics in Contemporary Russia, ed. Aleksandar Stulhofer and Theo Sandfort (Binghampton: The Haworth Press).

Igor S. Kon, Homophobia as a Litmus Test of Russian Democracy (Sociological Research: 2009)

Paul W. Goldschmidt, Pornography in Russia, ed. Adele Marie Barker (Duke University Press, 1999).

Natalia Khodyreva, Sexuality for Whom?, ed. Aleksandar Stulhofer and Theo Sandfort (Binghampton: The Haworth Press).

Johanna Granville, From Russia Without Love: The "Fourth Wave" of Global Human Trafficking

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