Book review: The Art of Loving. The Story of Michalina Wisłocka by Maria Sadowska
Sex for killing worries? Better not, it may result in a hangover, like getting drunk on your own. Total nudity? Boring, it is better to cover yourself even with the proverbial fig leaf. The man does not have to be beautiful, but he should be well-kept, and the same goes for the woman.
What they do in bed should not be a marital duty and serve only procreation. Sex can be varied. Funny. Tender. And may give great pleasure to both partners. When Michalina Wisłocka collects these and other tips and announces them in Poland in 1978 in a book entitled “The Art of Loving” [English edition A Practical Guide to Marital Bliss, 1978], a veritable frenzy is unleashed. Everyone wants to read it. Lots of people copy it on mimeographs. They fight for it. They print pirated versions and sell it at the bazaars. They blush when seeing the sexual positions presented there. The book is sold in 7 million copies. The author becomes famous overnight. So famous that readers stop her in the street and kiss her hands. But they also hate her. Because she writes there about contraception and abortion, they call her “Hitler in a skirt” and threaten to pour hydrochloric acid at her at literary meetings.
When “The Art of Loving” appears in 1978, revolutionizing the sexual life of the Poles, the West has already had the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the second wave of feminism following it. The electrifying subject of human sexuality has been discussed there for years. The need, as they say, is the mother of invention. Those who conduct pioneering research in this field have problems with it themselves. Henry Havelock Ellis, whom Great Britain owes the seven volume Study of Sexual Psychology published in 1897-1928, is himself an impotent married to a lesbian. In his monumental work he undermines the theories saying that sex serves exclusively procreation, he questions the belief about the harmfulness of masturbation, and announces that homosexuality is not a disease. The American researcher Alfred Kinsey has problems with his marital sexual life, for he is generously endowed by nature. Seeking solutions for this problem and others, he studies thousands of patients and writes groundbreaking books: Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), both of which revolutionize the then prudish America. Kinsey’s knowledge is tested empirically in the 1950s by William H. Masters and Virginia Johnson, who subject sex to precise observations in the laboratory. They engage in it to such an extent that they become a married couple. Thanks to them the world learns the truth about orgasm.
Sex as a Taboo
This knowledge does not reach Poland. In the late 1970s very little is known here about sex. There are no sources to learn about it—pornography is illegal, the Internet is still a thing of the future. Many Polish women do not know what orgasm is. The most common method of contraception is prayer. Those with a higher degree of initiation engage in coitus interruptus. Although condoms are available, they are not very popular and are difficult to get. More enlightened physicians promote spermicidal pessaries, but their effectiveness leaves much to be desired.
Nevertheless, it is still a progress compared to the backwardness in Poland in the 1950s. “People in the countryside knew nothing about sex. For example, men were complaining that their uterus was growing. He comes here so many times, for the uterus is strangling him. It is growing so big that it is strangling him. […] And women were complaining that the pussy is aching or itching. They also called it ‘a little nest.’ Another term was ‘a doggy.’ Men called their thing ‘Matthew,’” said Michalina Wisłocka, the mother of the Polish sexual revolution herself, in an interview.
“I am the sexual revolution and I am coming!” This motto promoting the film, based on her life and available since recently to be seen in Polish cinemas, illustrates her intentions very well. This scandalmongering gynecologist and sexologist decides to carry the torch of sexual education on her own. She is perfectly suited to the task—in the coarse times of the People’s Republic she lives an absolutely non-standard life and she does not lack courage. She always says what she thinks, bluntly. Apparently this is an effect of Asperger’s syndrome, one of its symptoms being uncontrolled honesty. She dresses strangely, in colorful attire, always with a scarf around her head. The way she lives scandalizes public opinion. For although Wisłocka, born in 1921, has war experiences and a severe illness behind her, her discoveries—like in the case of other researchers—are primarily influenced by the experiences connected with her intimate life.
Mrs. Sex is like the proverbial shoemaker’s children—she is sexually frigid. She gets married as a teenager, but her husband does not manage to arouse desire in her. Sex gives her no pleasure. She is astonished that her best her friend Wanda actually loves it. One day she comes across “Stories to the accompaniment of a lute” by Koizumi Yakumo. She reads there about a great scholar and his two wives and she finds a Solomonic solution: Wanda should live with them. They would both have sex with Michalina’s husband, Stach, although Wanda—as the one with more temperament—much more frequently.
Strangely enough, the system works for a good few years. Finally both women get pregnant with Wisłocki–Wanda gives birth to a son, Michalina to a daughter. Publicly they say that both children are the fruit of the Wisłocki marriage. And then the arrangements suddenly breaks down—Wanda has enough being the third one and besides that, numerous love affairs of Stach and his disloyalty come to light. Wanda goes away and takes her son with her, the son who is, by the way, the greatest victim of the triangle—the discovery that Wisłocka is not his mother breaks his life. In a few years, Wisłockis are divorced.
She meets the mysterious sailor Jerzy, who gives her the first orgasm in her life, when on holiday. She is already over 30. Although their affair will last only a month—Jerzy is married—its effects will stay in the Polish culture forever. For it is Jerzy who persuaded Wisłocka to write “The Art of Loving.”
“There are no frigid women, only those not aroused sexually,” she writes. “Haste is an unforgivable mistake in love.” She explains how a woman and a man are built. She proves that sex not only serves procreation but also creates a bond between partners. It improves the mood, it may be fun. And above all, Wisłocka shows that “this” can be done not only in the missionary position. In fact, many readers will not bother reading the text, limiting themselves to browsing these positions with a flushed face.
The struggle to publish “The Art of Loving” will take almost 10 years. “The author has to reckon with the culture and traditions of the Polish society. In the entire popular world literature I have never seen more than 100 pages on intercourse and orgasm,” writes one of the reviewers. Nine out of eleven give a negative assessment to the book. It also irritates them that the author is a woman. Conservatively minded men do not like the fact that she could have something to say about sex.
Indeed, this casts a shadow over her career. Although as a gynecologist she receives hundreds of patients, treats infertility, demands wide access to contraception, educates women, travels all over Poland with lectures on conscious maternity, and in the 1970s she even visits a craftsman in Konstancin and orders “slings” enhancing the rigidity of the penis, she is unable to make an academic career. The community of gynecologists does not allow her to write her habilitation treatise.
Problems with the Censorship
When the book finally goes to the censors, the officials complain that the drawings of sexual positions are too big. They want them reduced to the size of postage stamps. Wisłocka wonders how to make them more readable. She proposes to the graphic designer that the woman should be drawn white and the man black. “But why a white woman with a Negro?!” cry the people in outrage. Reviewers painstakingly seek signs of immorality. They try to throw away chapters about contraception and masturbation, which they regard as harmful. “If masturbation was so harmful, everyone would be very damaged,” writes the furious Wisłocka to them. The Central Committee of the Communist Party arrests the book—and its members passionately read its photocopied version after hours.
The breakthrough comes when a new director appears in the Iskry publishing house, a friend of Michalina. He explains to the minister that it is a quiet book for marriages. “On the cover you put the groom with a bow tie and the bride with a veil,” finally says the minister. “And they will stop saying that it is debauchery, for if for married couples, then for married couples.”
The first run will be 100,000, but in the official announcements it will be reduced to 10,000—in order not to scandalize the public. Seven million copies will sell—not counting illegal copies, of course. Wisłocka herself buys her first pirated copy at a bazaar. The book will also be sold in shocking numbers in China, Bulgaria, or East Germany.
The merit of “The Art of Loving” is not only the fact that it appears at all in the absolute desert, which Poland was then in the matters of sexual education, but also that it speaks about them in a very accessible, simple language. A language which could reach—and reach it did—millions. This is a big breakthrough, because until then, sex was spoken about (if at all) in understatements and ambiguities. Wisłocka puts the cards on the table. She pulls the Poles away from thinking about love—dominant for more than 100 years since the culture of Romanticism—as a grand, disembodied rapture, a kinship of souls. She shows that love is also biology. She ignites their imagination, showing that you can have sex not only in the missionary position. She persuades women that they also can have pleasure from sexual life.
When the book is published, Wisłocka becomes a star overnight. She goes on a round of lectures. “You write so much about the sexual positions, how do you know about them?” they ask. “A blind man will not write about colors!” she retorts. She sails around the world. She buys land near Warsaw and a fur coat made of fox tails. She still behaves very eccentrically. She drinks Coca-Cola with a large amount of sugar. She gives long monologues on subjects that preoccupy her. When she gets bored with someone, she stops talking to him and leaves.
In the 1990s, Wisłocka’s fame passes away. Porn shops, porn videos, and porn magazines appear. “The Art of Loving” has an increasingly numerous and bold competition. It ceases to scandalize. Its author falls into a growing obscurity, she lives in poverty. But her appetite for life remains. In an advanced age and poor health she keeps flirting with young physicians. She dies in 2005.
Although her textbook teaching the Poles to enjoy sex is slightly outdated today (modern, then unknown methods of contraception have appeared, sexual awareness has been completely transformed, and in the light of the gender revolution Wisłocka’s advice on how to seduce a man and make him stay may amuse or even irritate), Wisłocka’s efforts are relevant in a different dimension. This is well illustrated by the film The Art of Loving. A story of Michalina Wisłocka, recently released in Polish cinemas. For this intelligent cinema of the middle, directed by Maria Sadowska and with a script by Krzysztof Rak (responsible for the success of another Polish film, Bogowie, directed by Łukasz Palkowski), well played, funny, and brilliant, talks about something which is still very relevant in Poland—about the power of women, their solidarity, and their influence on the mechanisms of power.
In the film The Art of Loving—in accordance with conventional wisdom—it is women, wives of party officials, who indirectly make the publication of the book possible, in a gesture of solidarity with Wisłocka and other representatives of their sex, very much needing sexual enlightenment. In contemporary Poland, where the conservative government entertains ideas of tightening the anti-abortion law, even now very restrictive compared to other European countries, and women take to the streets in their mass and participate in black marches to oppose that, the film takes on a new dimension. It also shows that women must still pay a high price for devoting themselves to work in the shape of being misunderstood or having problems with arranging their personal life. The revolution in this area is still going on. As is the fight for good Polish contemporary cinema—which the film community increasingly seems to be winning.
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