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  • Unawareness and Expertise:Acquiring Knowledge about Sexuality in Postwar Poland
  • Agata Ignaciuk (bio) and Natalia Jarska (bio)

In an interview conducted in 2018, Elżbieta, a female laboratory technician born in 1961 and living in the large industrial city of Łódź in central Poland, narrated her experience of sex education: "When I was fourteen or fifteen the famous book Sztuka kochania [Art of love] was published. And during winter holidays, it so happened that the secondary school pupils did a work placement at a press, and each of us got a copy. So the four of us [who did the placement], two boys, a girl, and myself, had the book, and we lent it out as well. It had influence. Of course, our parents did not know what kind of a book it was. We considered it to be forbidden fruit, because we were still underaged."1

Individual and collective interaction with expert literature was central to Elżbieta's narrative of how she acquired sexual knowledge. This article examines personal narratives of formal and informal sex education by two generations of Poles, the first coming of age in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the second approximating to their children's generation. We argue that the state-supported expertization of sexuality and reproduction played an important role in the development of sexual identities among Polish men and women during the second half of the twentieth century. We demonstrate how, from the 1950s onward, knowledge about the sexual body began and continued to be framed as valuable and symptomatic of modernity, as well as necessary for personal and familial happiness. The [End Page 121] delegation of sex education to experts, especially to expert literature, continued as a preferred form of sexual enlightenment. The growing availability of information about sex, disseminated through both formal and informal channels, was a significant element in the empowerment of girls and women, particularly those with education living in urban areas.

In this article, we follow Lutz Sauerteig and Roger Davidson's broad conceptualization of sex education as an umbrella term to encompass activities relating to the production, dissemination, and acquisition of knowledge about sex in a variety of formal and informal spaces, such as state-sanctioned programs, mass media, peer groups, and the family.2 Regulated or not, sex education in these spaces can be understood as forms of hierarchically structured dialogue, such as exchanges between sexologists and patients, educators and pupils, parents and children, and even peers with varying levels of knowledge. Our perception of sexual knowledge is broad and includes not only ideas about sexual intercourse but also self-management of reproductive health and the reproductive body, including menstruation, pregnancy, and fertility management. In fact, official sex education programs in Europe have historically tended to focus on this latter aspect of sexuality, framed in terms of risk, while exhibiting an ongoing reluctance to address the erotic and pleasurable side of sexuality.3

These programs were responding to two preexisting societal conditions that are the focus of this article: sexual ignorance or unawareness and acquired misconceptions, both key themes of this article. Unawareness (nieuświadomienie) implies lack of knowledge to be overcome by sexual education (uświadomienie). However, as Londa Schiebinger has argued, lack of knowledge should not be viewed as neutral and is "often not merely the absence of knowledge but an outcome of cultural and political struggle."4 An example of this is the positive redefinition of lack of knowledge as chastity in Catholic sex education materials in many European countries throughout the twentieth century.5 In addition, as Lesley Hall has noted, sex education has not merely been viewed as "a matter of transmitting the 'correct' [End Page 122] information to the ignorant child, but more about eradicating ideas already gleaned, and re-educating the child with healthy and scientific (according to the standards of the day) knowledge."6 This issue has been highlighted when conflicting models of "scientific" knowledge about sex exist, as they did in Poland during the second half of the twentieth century.

Our research engages with the recent historiography that places social discourses about sexuality in dialogue with personal narratives of sexual and reproductive...