“Sztuka kochania. Historia Michaliny Wisłockiej” (The art of lovemaking. The story of Michalina Wisłocka). A film directed by Maria Sadowska. Warsaw, Poland, 2017.
Cinema has recently given Poland a new heroine. Not one that is dressed in a soldier uniform, but white medical scrubs. The doctor in question, an OB-GYN named Michalina Wisłocka, was matter-of-factly a household name in communist Poland. She was a popular doctor who in the post-war period worked at planned parenthood centres and family clinics. Long lines of patients in front of Wisłocka’s offices were evidently a sign that her approach to reproductive health was what Polish women (and men) truly needed at the time. It included a solid science-based medical knowledge offered together with unconventional advice on love-making and inter-human relationships. In simple terms, Wisłocka was popularising a modern approach to human sexuality. One that was recognizing and respecting men and women’s needs. In post-war communist Poland, despite the official party rhetoric on women’s emancipation and equal treatment of men and women, such practices were hard to find. Let alone a “manual” of love-making which Wisłocka also wrote, addressing it mainly to young couples. Titled Sztuka kochania (The Art of Love-Making) it was said to have brought a “fifty shades” effect to a communist state, airing out prude of many bedrooms.
Today, Wisłocka has made a double comeback. Her bestselling book was republished in an updated form in the late autumn of 2016. In January 2017, a movie with the same title was released. Coincidentally, this return takes place at rather unusual times. Looking at the surface, Poland has again been going through what we can call a social revolution. Or regression, as some prefer to say. With the high praise of traditional family values in official rhetoric and government policies since October 2015, Polish society is now showing more conservatism than ever before. This is especially true for those of its segments that loudly cheerlead a departure from the post-modern permissiveness, something that they primarily associate with the much-contested “gender ideology”. In a black-and-white manner, they create a dichotomy “anything goes” vs traditional marriage, doing their best to defend the latter. This is, for sure, how things look on the one side. And, as said above, mainly on the surface.
Deeper into the society, however, the spectrum of grey is much wider. Just like it was in Wisłocka’s times. Plus, forty years of experience that Poland has gained since, including the period of systemic transformation and the country’s re-opening to the West and its value-system. As a result, Polish society is now indeed much more emancipated, also in the most private of all spheres. This change has been further cemented by the flourishing publishing market, which yearly produces a wide spectrum of sex-ed literature, both Polish and foreign, as well as a much wider access to counselling services.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that in response to a very restrictive anti-abortion bill that was first proposed in the autumn of 2016 demonstrations were summoned throughout Poland. The black protests, as these massive gatherings have come to be called, were attended by representatives of all generations and both sexes. Their participants were in large numbers holding banners with all kinds of pro-choice slogans. To some commentators, this mobilisation in defence of women’s rights was a sign of Wisłocka’s true success. One that has exceeded the first selling of her book in 1976. The question is whether such a judgement is justified?
Taboos yes, stereotypes no
The answer to this question, as well as that whether it makes sense to glorify Wisłocka today, is a “yes” and “no”. Let me start with a “no”. From both the movie and the reading of the book, whose assessments undoubtedly require consideration for the reality in which Wisłocka operated, we can conclude that the doctor’s heroism came mainly from her success in the elimination of the taboos that were deeply rooted in the very conservative Polish society. This breakthrough which Wisłocka’s predecessors failed to achieve in the inter-war period, was most visible in the language that the doctor used to communicate with her patients and readers. Its emancipating effects were for sure long-term. It allowed Poles to freely call anatomical organs by their names, instead of referring to them as “it” or “they”.
Nonetheless, this breaking down of taboos, as needed as it was, did not go hand in hand with the overcoming of certain gender-related stereotypes. On the contrary, as we can learn from both the film and the book, Wisłocka through her counselling, maintained, or even enforced, many of them. Take the example of advice given to women to dress nicely around the house (however, it would be unfair not to mention that similar hints were directed at men), smile or not show nudity to a partner. Defenders of Wisłocka will naturally point to the context of the post-war Poland but how to explain the fact that the new, updated edition of the book, published by the liberal publisher Agora in 2016, does not include any references that would send today’s readers to more modern sources? Ones that would provide today’s state of knowledge on inter-human relations and sexuality. As a result, what we are getting today is an edition of the book and a movie that are not fully compatible with the 21st century reality and may thus bring the effects opposite to the ones Wisłocka brought through her work. Namely, harm instead of help.
Heroine of today
So what is Wisłocka that makes her a heroine today and gives the positive answer to the question whether she is indeed a heroine of today? Ticket sales, just like pirated copies of Wisłocka’s book in the late 1970s, show that her story and advice still attract attention. And that is not purely for nostalgic reasons as Wisłocka’s opponents would like to say. To understand what makes the message of the forty-year-old manual of love-making today, which, as said above, includes in ways more regressive than progressive advice, it is best to understand the needs of today’s Polish society.
Just as in the 1970s it was affected by the illness of conservative prude, seemingly in the second decade of the 21st century it seems to be suffering from an anxiety that is attributed to many macro- and micro-level sources. To just name a few, they include: experience of over two decades of system transformation, along with its positive and negative consequences, social changes accompanying globalisation and its effects on local communities, increased secularisation and self-expression. In this context of post-modernity experienced by a post-communist society it is not surprising that a doctor who, through her book and by means of a movie, stresses the value of emotional stability that comes out from long-term intimate relationships and the nurturing that they require is a new heroine. In this aspect Wisłocka for sure preceded her times.
Iwona Reichardt is deputy editor-in-chief of New Eastern Europe. She holds a PhD in political science.