The Dictatorship of Sex explores the attempts to define and control sexual behavior in the years following the Russian Revolution. It is the first book to examine Soviet “sexual enlightenment,” a program of popular health and lifestyle advice intended to establish a model of sexual conduct for the men and women who would build socialism.
Leftist social theorists and political activists had long envisioned an egalitarian utopia, and after 1917, the medical profession took the leading role in solving the sex question (while at the same time carving out a niche for itself among postrevolutionary social institutions). Frances Bernstein reveals the tension between the doctors’ advocacy for relatively liberal social policy and the generally proscriptive nature of their advice, as well as their lack of interest in questions of personal pleasure, fulfillment, and sexual expression. While supporting the goals of the Soviet state, the enlighteners appealed to ‘irrefutable’ biological truths that ultimately supported a very traditional gender regime.
The Dictatorship of Sex offers a unique lens through which to contemplate a central conundrum of Russian history: the relationship between the supposedly ‘liberated’ 1920s and ‘repressive’ 1930s. Although most of the proponents of sexual enlightenment in the 1920s would suffer greatly during Stalin’s purges, their writings facilitated the Stalinist approach to sexuality and the family. Bernstein’s book will interest historians of Russia, gender, sexuality, and medicine, as well as anyone curious about social and ideological experiments in a revolutionary culture.