Lyudmila Ivanova meant to say that there was no sex on Soviet television. But her infamous declaration, blurted out during a 1986 video-link program between women in Boston and Leningrad, has distorted popular understandings of intimate life behind the Iron Curtain for more than 30 years. Helping the myth along, George Orwell’s “1984” imagined a totalitarian state where the Party prohibited nonreproductive sex, because the pleasures of physical intimacy should not compete with love for Big Brother. Many American still read this novel for high school as an introduction to the nightmares of Stalinism.
But there is a book that dispels these pervasive stereotypes: “Man and Woman Intimately,” the most successful socialist sex manual of the Eastern bloc. The book, published despite restrictions on explicit materials in 1969, shows us that far from forbidding bedroom gymnastics, some 20th-century socialist states actively encouraged them.
The cover of the Bulgarian copy I found featured the image of a naked couple kissing behind a giant fig leaf. As I flipped through the cheap newsprint pages with their simple black-and-white diagrams, I marveled that such an explicit book could be published and so widely distributed under authoritarian regimes.
Originally written in German by the psychologist and family counselor Sigfried Schnabl, “Man and Woman Intimately” was translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Slovak, Russian, Lithuanian and Romanian, in addition to Bulgarian. Between 1970 and 1990, 18 editions appeared in East Germany alone, and it was one of the top two best-selling books of all time in the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
“Man and Woman Intimately” also found its way into the sitting rooms of neighboring West Germany and onto shelves halfway across the globe in Cuba. In what was then Czechoslovakia, four editions were printed between 1975 and 1985. In societies that banned all pornography and erotic texts, this book openly discussed everything from puberty to pregnancy to pleasure.
“His reassuring, no-nonsense recommendations for facilitating female orgasmic response,” explained the historian Dagmar Herzog, “were the centerpiece of his broader campaign to affirm the joys and the importance of heterosexual sex apart from its potential reproductive consequences.” In countries that suffered grave population losses during World War II and that required larger labor forces to accomplish plans for rapid industrialization, the promotion of recreational rather than procreational intimacy was absolutely revolutionary for conservative and largely peasant societies.
According to the Bulgarian novelist Georgi Gospodinov, a copy of “Man and Woman Intimately” could “be found in nearly every Bulgarian home of that time, well hidden in the upper back row of the library.”
“Every kid climbed up on a chair to find it as soon as their parents went out,” a 54-year-old Bulgarian friend explained to me in May. “It was the only book like that in the whole country.”
The first Bulgarian edition appeared in 1979, and all 160,000 copies quickly sold out. The government Publishing House for Medicine and Physical Education, which printed “Man and Woman Intimately,” specialized in medical textbooks and scientific literature. The choice of this publisher signaled the government’s belief that accurate information about human sexuality would improve the mental and physical health of the population, especially the youth. Seeing the high demand among its citizens, the price was reduced, and the publisher produced another 210,000 copies in 1981 and a further 15,000 in 1985. For a small country of about 8.5 million, with state publishing enterprises hampered by constant paper shortages, this was a massive print run.
So what was the appeal of the book, other than the obvious? For the author, it was about solving social and psychological problems. In his introduction, Schnabl explained that unhappiness in the bedroom could lead “to the development of inferiority complexes, depressions, [and] nervous complaints …” He viewed his work as a public service, explaining that a satisfying sex life must “become a reality for every citizen of our country” and that this task was “a challenge for those who are called upon to help others with their professional training and science.”
In the first five pages of the book, Schnabl presented statistics on the self-reported experience of orgasm among men and women in the GDR and advised his readers that socialist morality demanded a more equitable distribution of pleasure in the bedroom.
Although the East German censors allowed only simple line drawings at first, later editions included anatomically correct diagrams of female anatomy, including the exact location of the clitoris and how it appears at various stages of arousal. Schnabl also admonished men to slow down and become more emotionally available to their partners.
What made the book so special was Schnabl’s practical experience as a family therapist and his expansive understanding of human sexuality. “There are as many sexualities as there are people,” he told the German magazine Stern on his 80th birthday in 2007. Schnabl also proposed that same-sex attraction was natural, and his work led to a growing acceptance of gays and lesbians in the GDR.
From our present perspective, the book contains many flaws, including its almost exclusive focus on heterosexual sex and its disregard for the wider social and political context of the one-party state in East Germany. Reflecting on why the Politburo allowed his book to be printed so widely, Schnabl suggested, “When people are happy with each other and in bed, they don’t come up with dumb political thoughts.” He speculated that sex was a cheap way for the Politburo to keep the masses placated.
Communist leaders perhaps also hoped that an officially approved sex manual would quash the black market for smuggled Western erotica. Most socialist states believed pornography was demeaning to women. They considered the commodification of sexuality a symptom of bourgeois decadence. In the Bulgarian version of “Man and Woman Intimately,” an awkward preface by the director of the Institute for Health Education explains that the government published the book because it had a duty to “socially model” appropriate sexual behaviors lest the youth collect “incompetent information” through “illegal channels.”
But the motivations of the state did not undermine the social importance of the book in the lives of ordinary people. Schnabl not only affirmed recreational sex; he also taught men and women (but mostly men) how to be more generous and technically capable lovers.
Today historians are uncovering a wide diversity of sex-educational practices across the former Eastern bloc. The Poles had their own popular sex manual, “The Art of Loving,” which sold over 7 million copies after its first publication in 1978. The Yugoslavs actually had erotic magazines, including Chik, which targeted youth, and Start, a Yugoslav version of Playboy. While it is true that Soviet citizens lived in a much more conservative amorous culture, the East Germans and Czechoslovaks lived in sex-positive nations where leaders believed that improved intimacy constituted a unique benefit of life in noncapitalist society. Much of the difference reflected pre-socialist cultural attitudes toward human sexuality, and the relative balance of conservative rural vs. more liberal urban morality in each country. But nonaligned Yugoslavia’s model of “self-managing socialism” also allowed for greater political freedom than the more hard-line Warsaw Pact countries.
So it turns out there was plenty of sex happening on the other side of the Iron Curtain, although the openness of the public discussion around it varied dramatically from country to country and at different periods of time. But even in the prudish Soviet Union, people found their own ways to have fun. Indeed, when the BBC tracked down Lyudmila Ivanova in July 2017, the woman who supposedly said there was no sex in the Soviet Union was living happily with her fifth husband.