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In hit film, Poland revisits its sexual revolution

Polish actress Magdalena Boczarska plays the role of Michalina Wislocka, on the set of a movie 'Sztuka Kochania' ('The Art of Love'), directed by Maria Sadowska
AFP

Warsaw (AFP) – Poles are taking a nostalgic look back at the sexual revolution which swept their communist yet deeply conservative Catholic country in the 1970s thanks to a biopic about a gynaecologist who made women’s pleasure matter too.

Women, many of them in their sixties, are flocking to see “The Art of Love”, about the late Michalina Wislocka, who was renowned for her best-selling 1975 sex self-help book of the same name.

The film, released just as Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government is pushing conservative values — notably the traditional roles of wife, mother and homemaker — has been a local blockbuster, with nearly a million and a half tickets sold in its first three weeks. 

“This woman changed our lives, but it’s a struggle that isn’t over yet, and I’m hoping I may even learn something new,” said Zofia, a 60-year-old retiree, all smiles as she entered a Warsaw cinema. 

Zofia said she came “in tribute” to Wislocka, who blazed a trail by being the first Polish author to write about sex in a clear, simple and candid way. 

Although prudish and often chauvinist censors attempted to cut explicit chapters, Wislocka’s book was published in full thanks in part to the wives of high-ranking Communist Party officials. 

Her graphic tips on masturbation, for example, could transform marital sex from an often boring and even painful chore into a delight. 

She also offered more subtle advice on how to achieve emotional satisfaction, including how to discreetly conceive a child with a lover when married to an attentive but sterile husband.

The film by director Maria Sadowska reveals Wislocka’s exuberant yet steely personality and a complicated personal life, which saw her spend years in a love triangle and really enjoy sex only after reaching her forties.

– ‘Talking about sex!’ –

Audiences giggle over dialogue between censors in the Communist Party’s cultural department and Wislocka, deftly played by Polish actress Magdalena Boczarska.

“You’re talking about sex!” exclaims an exasperated censor, insisting that the “subversive” chapter on female orgasms be cut. 

“I’m talking about love,” Wislocka replies, leaving two communist party apparatchiks speechless after telling them that “you came out of a vagina too.” 

Wislocka’s book and work “influenced a whole generation” because she was the first in Poland to publicly promote the “right of women to orgasm”, Professor Zbigniew Izdebski, a sexologist, told AFP. 

With strict Polish Catholicism ruling out pre-marital sex and contraception, Wislocka’s approach was revolutionary, Izdebski said, adding that sex had become “heavily politicised” under the PiS government, which came to power in October 2015.  

But despite the stir Wislocka caused in Polish bedrooms during the 1970s, “Polish society is still quite conservative in terms of sexuality,” he said.

But Izdebski said he had recently completed a study, “Sexuality of the Poles 2017”, which suggests things are changing once again. 

The survey of 2,500 adults found that Poles aged 20 to 49 “attach more importance to sex” and are interested in “more varied forms of sexual activity” than those over 50.

But a quarter of the women surveyed said they feared getting pregnant and only 30 percent said they used oral contraception.

– New abortion limits? –

Attempts to impose a near total ban on abortions have “injected anxiety into the sex lives of Poles”, Izdebski found. 

Polish women scored a major victory in October when they forced the PiS-dominated parliament to reject a bill that would have allowed abortions only if the woman’s life was at risk, and increase the maximum jail term for practitioners to five years from two.

Poland’s existing legislation, among the most restrictive in Europe, bans all abortions unless the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or poses a health risk to the mother, or the foetus is severely deformed.

But on Valentine’s Day, the PiS government presented a bill restricting access to emergency contraceptive pills, or the so-called “morning-after pill”. Now sold over the counter to anyone over 15 years old, the bill would have made the pill available only with a doctor’s prescription. 

Izdebski also says that the “family life” courses taught in schools, intended to prepare young Poles for marriage, “reinforce stereotypes about the role of women and completely ignore the joys of sex”.

Michalina Wislocka died in 2005 at the age of 84, but it appears she is still encouraging Polish women to fight.

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