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Sex for Fun: Reflections from Ann Snitow’s Przegorzały Classroom 

Ann Snitow helped change the discussion around sexuality in Poland, and she also changed my life.

Ann Snitow, a fierce feminist, a passionate, provocative thinker and activist, and a dear friend and colleague, died peacefully in her home Saturday, after a long, difficult and heroic battle with cancer. Ann made a difference in the lives of thousands and was a key creative force at The New School, as this post, in our history of The New School series, reveals. -Jeff

In her 1999 essay “Feminism Travels: Cautionary Tales,” New School professor (now emerita) of Gender Studies Ann Snitow summarized her first ten years of involvement with feminist activism in Central and East Europe. She describes the challenges of the work with characteristic frankness. “As disparate Western feminisms move across borders in the accelerating round of international activity I will damply abbreviate as ‘globalization,’ the likelihood of wasted effort, misunderstanding, and even of what I consider damaging uses of the categories of gender analysis multiply.” [1] But the larger effort is never wasted, and the multiplication of categories can itself be liberating. This is a story from a bit later, a story of a fruitful and truly emancipatory East-West exchange.

In 2017, I published a book about the history of sex education in Poland. To See a Moose describes how Polish sex education textbooks under state socialism and after dealt with sexuality related issues. Although in many ways progressive, these books treated sex elliptically. Instead of talking about sex, they were full of hygiene related instructions and stories that are not really related to sexuality, for instance about scout excursions to see a moose. There was no space for open conversation about sex, either in the classroom, or in relationships. The manuals I analyzed for my research were straightforward in insisting that women especially should not talk too much about their sexual needs and fantasies. Neither should they incite sexual contacts. Rather, they should exercise so-called “female diplomacy”: maneuver from behind the scenes, and act to make their partners figure out their desires.

After the publication of my book, I was interviewed for a major Polish liberal newspaper about the history of sex education in the country. After discussing trips to see a moose and other similar examples from sex education textbooks, the journalist asked about alternative approaches to sexuality and sex education, as well as about the roots of my own thinking on the topic. As I am a product of Polish sex education myself, the question appeared to be very difficult to answer. How can we do it differently? How was it really possible for me to have become a researcher of sexuality in Poland? When I started my research on the theme in 2008, there was not a single published work on the history of expert discourses of sexuality in Poland.

It was during this interview when I first had the inkling that it was Ann Snitow who showed me alternative approaches and who gave me the analytical tools to study the history and anthropology of sexuality. Ann taught me how to look at sexuality-related issues in an affirmative way. Thanks to her I discovered that sexuality and issues such as the social construction of sexual pleasure could be subjects of scientific inquiry.

It all started in Przegorzały during the 2004 Summer Institute of the New School’s Transregional Center for Democratic Studies. I took the gender theory class with Professor Ann Snitow. I remember this class with Ann very well: a charismatic teacher, a vibrant intellectual atmosphere, and the students — young feminists from across eastern Europe and from the US. One morning, we discussed feminist approaches to sexuality. “Sex is for fun!,” said Ann as she entered the room. In comparison to what I had read earlier about sexuality — in those very Polish sex ed textbooks I would critically analyze years later — the simple statement “sex is for fun” was nothing short of a revelation. Not for the family, not for the nation. Not because of “duty and sacrifice” (as one of Ann’s students, my senior by a few years, but definitely a product of the same sex ed system as I, put it[2]), but just for fun.

Back then, I didn’t know that “sex for fun” was a major slogan used by No More Nice Girls, one of Ann’s sex positive activist initiatives; it was years later that I saw a 1985 photo portraying Ann, her partner Daniel Goode, Carole Vance and Joan Braderman with a banner that read “sex for fun.” As a famous sex positive feminist who back in the 1980s fought for the legality of pornography, Ann crushed sex related stereotypes in my head. That sex could be “for fun” was something that Polish young people would never have heard from their sex educators. Together with the readings assigned for the class, like a piece on sexuality in Soviet Russia by Michel Rivkin-Fish, and numerous discussions that I had with Ann, “Sex is for fun!” made me interested in conducting critical sex research. It came back in the form of a theoretical framework, which materialized in my research on Polish expert knowledge of sexuality and sex education.

I have been in touch with Ann since that summer and together we have been deconstructing Polish ideas about sex. Once, when I visited Ann in New York City and told her about the concept of “female diplomacy,” she replied that it was very Polish not to talk about these things. I came to realize that women are not naturally like this, but rather that this is just the result of certain historical developments. Ann also gave me the strength to do critical sex research. I remember the passion with which she talked about her involvement in the feminist sex wars over the legality of pornography in the 1980s. I observed closely how she invested her energy and her personal resources to support local feminist activities throughout Eastern Europe. (The scale of her influence could be seen when she was presented the inaugural Courage in Public Scholarship Award by NSSR-Europe in 2015.) In rather conservative Poland, a female scholar working on sexuality could hardly expect to be respected. But I knew from Ann that our goals required courage and sometimes even personal sacrifices.

Meeting Ann in the early 2000s and having her as a mentor have been a transformative experience in many ways. I learned a lot about feminist theory and feminist studies of sexuality. Thanks to her inspiration and support I was able not only to conduct research on sexuality, but to (co-)edit readers in anthropology of gender and sexuality that have served Polish students for more than a decade now. The effort of deconstructing ideas about sex in Ann’s and my East-West exchanges has multiplied the categories of gender analysis in most fruitful ways, and the research continues.

But there was something else, equally important, that I learned from Ann during that first 2004 class and the TCDS Summer Institute as a whole: politically engaged and public scholarship. What we do as academics makes no sense if we don’t transform it into knowledge that brings about change, that contributes to our fight against inequality, patriarchy, (hetero)sexism, and the backlash against liberal values. This is, I think, the greatest value I learned from Ann Snitow, and one which I try to pass on to my own students.

Agnieszka Kościańska is an associate professor at the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, University of Warsaw. She is the author and (co)editor of several volumes on gender and sexuality, including the monographs, Gender, Pleasure, and Violence: The Construction of Expert Knowledge of Sexuality in Poland(forthcoming in English with Indiana University Press, Polish version: 2014, University of Warsaw Press) and To See a Moose: The History of Polish Sex Education from the First Lesson to the Internet (forthcoming in English with Berghahn Books, Polish version: 2017, Czarne).

 


[1] Ann Snitow, The Feminism of Uncertainty: A Gender Diary (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2015), 205-206.

[2] Snitow, The Feminism of Uncertainty, 231

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Agnieszka Kościańska

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