Agnieszka Kościańska, Gender, Pleasure, and Violence: The Construction of Expert Knowledge of Sexuality in Poland

In: European Journal for the History of Medicine and Health
Agata Ignaciuk Department of Pathological Anatomy and History of Science, University of Granada, 18071 Granada, Spain

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Agnieszka Kościańska, Gender, Pleasure, and Violence: The Construction of Expert Knowledge of Sexuality in Poland [New Anthropologies of Europe] (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2021), 268 pp., $42.00 (paperback), isbn 978 0 25305 309 1.

The turn of 2020s witnessed dynamic developments in critical scholarship on the history of gender, sexuality and reproduction in communist East Central Europe. Recent histories of women’s movements and emancipation, as well as expert knowledge and practices, have proven vital for a more comprehensive examination of the region’s recent social and cultural history, and have moved beyond the limiting vision of an East – West binary transected by a stiff and impermeable Iron Curtain. Agnieszka Kościańska’s Gender, Pleasure, and Violence, first published in Polish in 2014, can be situated at the intersection of histories of gender and expertise in the region, and has consolidated the author’s reputation as a pioneer of sexuality studies in Poland. With the explicit aim of contributing to an understanding of the region in its own terms, the English edition, published in 2021 by Indiana University Press and translated by Marta Rozmysłowicz, was revised and updated to provide international readers with an expertly contextualized, beautifully written yet brutal applied history of Polish sexual science. The book’s title catalogues the matrix of themes that intertwine from the post-World War ii era to the 2010s, through the development of sexual science, the ways in which this science constructed and continues to construct gendered definitions of “good sex”, and how, since the 1980s, these definitions have functioned in the courtroom, particularly in rape cases.

Methodologically, Gender, Pleasure, and Violence is a strikingly extensive endeavor, combining an ethnography of Polish sexology with historiographic analysis of the books, articles and agony columns produced by the country’s key sexologists. This combination of methods and sources generates a solid and convincing account of the continuities and changes in expert framings of pleasure and violence, produced originally – as Kościańska shows – through an interdisciplinary approach and dialogue with patients rather than, as was the case in capitalist countries, the dynamics of biomedicalization and commodification shaped by a proliferation of pornography and pharmacological solutions to sexual problems. The communist state, the silent but always active protagonist in this book, limited the circulation of porn and pharma while advancing socialist morality to elevate potentially reproductive sex within marriage to the peak of the hierarchy of sexual acts. Despite promoting women’s emancipation, after Stalinism the state based its strategies of easing women’s double – or triple, when including political or social militancy – burden on facilitating their temporary or part-time removal from paid employment, through such policies as lengthy maternity leaves during the final decades of communism. Vocal in the emancipation debates, sexologists highlighted the importance of women’s pleasure while simultaneously essentializing femininity as passive, and framing female agency as a responsibility for regulating the male sex drive. This and other paradoxes examined in Gender, Pleasure, and Violence contribute significantly to the rich and nuanced history of sex and sexology in the region.

The first chapter, on “The development of sexology and sexual rights activism in Europe and the United States”, provides a critical tour through the history of European and U.S. sexual science since the nineteenth century and constitutes an instructive introduction to the history of sexology for students and scholars alike. Kościańska then develops an original Polish history of sexology, a refined account of key experts, appreciated in all their ambiguity.

The second part of the book focuses on expert definitions of pleasure, placing Polish expertise within the broader theoretical context of sexual science in terms of norms, identity production, appropriation, and resistance. Chapters four and five examine representations of “good sex” in expert discourse during the final decades of communism and trace the persistence of – and resistance to – these discourses in contemporary Polish sexual expertise. While tracing the ongoing identification of “good sex” with the performance of “traditional” gender roles, Kościańska argues that the foundational interdisciplinarity of Polish sexology established its later receptivity to feminist and queer strands of expertise. Chapters six to eight, in many instances devastating to read, explore how expert definitions of male and female sexuality permeated judicial discourse and proceedings relating to sexual violence. Kościańska presents four rape cases in chapter seven, and demonstrates the ways in which sexological expertise was mobilized to frame survivors as either victims or culpable, and therefore either worthy or unworthy of state protection. A diligent selection of cases and minimal commentary enhance the intellectual and emotional impact of this chapter and testify to ethically engaged archival work.

In the final chapter, Kościańska discusses the incorporation of feminist theories of sexual violence into legal discourse; the theme of feminist reconceptualization of both pleasure and violence are prominent throughout the Conclusions. Overall, Gender, Pleasure, and Violence is an absorbing and powerful history of sexual science and its application, of persistence and transformations, of unobvious chronologies and, perhaps most importantly, of the sexual agency of experts and the people who sought and continue to seek their advice. I highly recommend this book to students and scholars interested in the history of sexuality and sexual science in and beyond East Central Europe.

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