Inspired by Alfred Kinsey’s pioneering research in the US, a brave band of Poles set out to break similar ground in 1960s Poland. Encountering resistance from both church and state, figures such as Michalina Wisłocka pushed through to pioneer help for thousands of people that sorely needed advice about both family planning and bedroom satisfaction.
The first officially licensed sexologist in the world
One of many little-known facts about Poland is that it was the first country in the world to have an officially licensed sexologist: Kazimierz Imieliński. Back in 1963, there was nobody in Poland quite like him. He was the first leader of the so-called Polish school of sexology – active in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, they created original scientific concepts for people's sexual lives and educated thousands of patients and millions of readers in a country where ‘those things’ were rarely mentioned.
Only a few years after the infamous Kinsey reports, a group of Polish doctors and educators founded an institution called the Conscious Motherhood Society (it would later change its name to Family Development Society, a title under which it still operates today). They started transforming lives and answering long-suppressed needs through marriage and family counselling, sex therapy and education, all while drawing inspiration from western research and developing their own concepts. Ensuring they did not work in isolation, they used the discoveries of researchers such as Masters and Johnson to found a school which was interdisciplinary, less focussed on biology, and more socially and culturally oriented.
In the classic spirit of intelligentsia, they kept their focus on education as a means of social change. It's safe to say they had it rough: the communist regime’s government didn't like their western inspirations, nor their focus on privacy and love instead of labour and class conflict. The church didn't exactly jump for joy either when they heard all the forward-thinking ideas about reproduction and family planning. But by getting actual feedback from the public themselves, the group overwhelmingly found that was what Poles wanted and needed.
Everything you ever wanted to know about sex
Imieliński wrote and co-wrote around 70 books and 260 scientific articles, summing up everything that could be said about human sexuality at the time. Inviting authors from different fields to contribute, he edited three huge volumes that still remain among the most important books on the subject: Biological Sexology, Social Sexology and Cultural Sexology.
While Kinsey wanted to measure heterosexuality and homosexuality on a scale from 1 to 6, and Masters and Johnson preferred observing thousands of orgasms to find a universal pattern of sexual intercourse, the Poles had a completely different approach: they believed in the existence of one system of knowledge about the human being that required combining specialties to understand behaviours and motivations.
Polish physicians collaborated with social scientists, literary critics, psychologists and even lawyers to create a broader view of what they called ‘sexual culture’. Sex was never taken out of its context of human relationships, nor treated as a purely biological function. This doesn’t mean that they were necessarily conservative (even though they probably were from a modern point of view, since they mostly prioritised heterosexual and marital sex), but they avoided treating people like rats in a laboratory. People were neither copulating machines nor ‘cases’ to classify.
Apart from describing human sexual lives in a scientific form, they wanted to educate the general public, something that wasn't easy since there were no institutions that would carry it out, nor any funding for it. As physician Krzysztof Kula wrote: ‘Every book about sex was treated like pornography, since the communists were saintlier than the Pope.’ As late as 1982, there were only 19 marriage counselling services throughout the whole country. Some were wildly popular, like the one in Trzech Krzyży Square in Warsaw. One of the medical assistants there, Anna Sadowska wrote:
The association's clinic was besieged by crowds of men and women, convinced that it was the only place where they could get any impartial information about contraception. Soon they realised that visiting doctors such as Michalina Wisłocka didn't only help in solving shameful problems, but also provided competent medical counselling, reinforced by personal experience and common sense. People craved information about family functioning and sexual conditions.
The Polish Kamasutra
Proving the demand for sexual advice was the overwhelming success of one of the biggest bestsellers in Polish literary history. ‘I don't give a shit about a PhD that will only give me a title on my grave. I've been writing a book for the last few weeks,’ wrote gynaecologist Michalina Wisłocka in her diary in 1964. It took her more than a decade to publish that book, which spent a few years in the censorship office, but when she finally did – encouraged by the fact that she found out she was further in her studies than the American researchers Masters and Johnson – the book turned out to be an enormous, unexpected success.
On The Art of Loving allegedly sold around seven million copies. How many copies were really available is impossible to tell: there was no ‘free market’, no official statistics, no New York Times Best Seller List. The books were copied, home-printed (not a difficult feat in a country with a highly-developed samizdat culture, where printing illegal leaflets was a rite of passage for politically-engaged young people), and distributed in every way possible. Reportedly, every household had a copy. Many children born in the 1970s and 1980s would steal it from their parents to read at night.
The book encountered many problems during the publishing process: as stated before, the puritan mentality of the communist censors made it difficult to publish almost anything about sexuality, let alone something that could be considered a sex manual. The official publishing date is listed as 1976, but On The Art of Loving was already being sold on the black market much earlier – the legend goes that one of the censors’ wives stole the manuscript and made the first copy. The full story of the struggle to get her book published is currently being made into a film called The Art of Love: The Story of Michalina Wisłocka due for release in 2017.
Wisłocka wanted to illustrate the book but photos were considered too explicit. When drawings were eventually created, she decided that they had been rendered unintelligible because the censor had demanded they were tiny, no bigger than postage stamps. Wisłocka asked the illustrator to paint one of the figures black to try make the presented positions a bit clearer, but allegedly this resulted in people asking her: ‘Why is a white woman with a negro?’
When you actually read On The Art of Loving, you’ll find it’s mostly addressed to young people considering getting married soon. Its focus on eroticism, rather than being something sordid, is simply a means for readers to develop deeper connections in their loving relationships. Written by a doctor, it speaks mostly about sex and quotes Kinsey, but it also quotes both Stendhal and Fromm and reminds readers of the need for poetry in their lives. It mentions the dangers of the telephone and telegraph(!) as dominating distractions in fast-paced modern life (compared to today, the ‘fast-paced’ lives of socialist Poland were almost certainly truly slow).
Wisłocka’s book is delightfully old-fashioned in describing the differences between boys (who, during puberty, seek the company of girls with a ‘puppy-like curiosity’) and girls (whose instinctive need for sexual intercourse is not as developed). It advocates foreplay, underlining the equal importance of both parties' needs, even mentioning pillow fighting as something worth trying. It also acknowledges the ‘reality’ and social conditions completely absent from Western literature, like the fact that many newly-wed couples have to live with their parents, that their apartments are small and that funds are scarce. It doesn't, as some might imagine, recommend a trip around the world to discover how to eat, pray and love, but instead offers practical realistic advice like buying flowers and cooking a meal together (in a tiny kitchen and with the few ingredients available).
Throwing away the shameful silence
Wisłocka, as well as Mikołaj Kozakiewicz, the author of other popular self-help books such as An Almost Perfect Marriage, were confronted with all these problems in their everyday counselling work. From their clients, they were well aware of the need to dedicate their professional lives to answering basic anatomical questions (such as how intimate parts are built, when a woman can get pregnant and how to control her fertility), and to never shy away from other pressing questions of a more intimate nature: what is an orgasm and how does one achieve one (especially when you’re a woman); how can one arouse one’s partner and how to refuse a partner’s advances without insulting them; and, not forgetting, what to do in bed to at least have a bit of fun.
Through their self-help books, they wanted to create a language that talked about sex without using medical terminology and vulgar expressions, which – as many Polish writers have emphasised – is actually extremely difficult in Polish. As Wisłocka wrote: ‘I’m sounding the alarm: let’s save the language of love and throw away the shameful silence. Let’s be human!’ Unlike the Americans whose books were read in spite of their difficult, medical language, Polish sexologists tried to reach the masses – and reach they did.
The last of the masters – around a decade younger than Wisłocka and Kozakiewicz – is Zbigniew Lew-Starowicz, a man still very active as an author and media personality. Recognised as an expert in all things sex, nobody knows precisely how many books and articles he has written, although he apparently voiced his desire for the Guinness record for the most, let’s say, ‘fertile’ author. His conservative views on controversial issues regarding sexuality are now criticised by modern sexologists, but there is no denying that for the last few decades he has worked tirelessly to educate younger specialists as well as the masses on how to solve their problems in bed and add more pleasure to their lives.
A legacy with stamina?
The accomplishments of the Polish school of sexology remain unrecognised in contemporary Poland – one could say they were too forward in their thinking during the communist-regime era, but too conservative to be the patrons of modern sex research, which is more influenced by Western thinkers from the realm of gender studies.
What has to be acknowledged and remembered though, is that they achieved what no modern scholars succeeded in: they provided the general public with straight-forward information, not only underlining the medical and technical aspects of sex and helping people with their problems, but creating their own holistic vision of a person as a biological, psychological, social and sexual creature.
In other words, a complete human being.