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June 07, 1999 02:30pm
Russia Recoils at New Sex Freedoms
Source: AP

MOSCOW (AP) - People once joked that there was no sex in Russia. Now some say there's too much.

It beckons from newsstands in almost every town, where magazines detailing ``How to Stage an Orgy'' dangle next to children's coloring books and recipe journals. It steams from young couples groping each other on escalators and park benches, eager to escape apartments overcrowded with watchful relatives.

Dismayed by the flood of personal freedom unleashed by the Soviet Union's demise, conservative lawmakers and church leaders are crusading to reverse Russia's sexual revolution.

In the Soviet era, people were imprisoned if caught with erotic books, homosexuality was illegal and even basic information about sex was difficult to come by. In a notorious televised discussion between U.S. and Soviet students in 1988, a Soviet woman responded to a sex-related question saying, ``We don't have sex.''

The Soviet collapse changed that. But it also spurred a rise in pornography, prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases.

On one recent day in Moscow, Olga, a 20-year-old prostitute, sidled up to a potential client in the Hotel Moskva near Red Square. Within moments, she and the graying visitor were openly discussing her fees: $200 for a half-hour, $2,000 for the night.

``Moscow flows with sex,'' said Olga, who spoke on condition her last name not be used. ``You can't get away from it.''

Participants on the Russian talk show ``About It'' describe masturbation, losing their virginity and sado-masochism. Women on a Moscow trolleybus, giggling, confer about their partners' sexual prowess.

Sex scandals raise few eyebrows, and adultery is widespread. Russian television viewers were amused but hardly shocked when state-run television aired a videotape in February showing a man resembling Russia's top prosecutor, Yuri Skuratov, having sex with two prostitutes.

Olga said she began selling her body last year, after the hair salon where she worked trimmed her hours to just a handful a week because of Russia's economic crisis.

``I don't have any illusions that (prostitution) is an ideal job,'' she said, speaking at a clinic where she was being tested for venereal disease. ``It's profitable.''

Venereal disease rates have soared since the Soviet collapse. Syphilis cases in Russia increased 50-fold from 1990 to 1998, according to World Health Organization estimates. Even accounting for Soviet habits of underreporting health problems, today's infection rate in Russia is staggering: at least 262 syphilis cases per 100,000 people, compared with about three per 100,000 in European countries.

AIDS, which appeared relatively late in Russia, also is on the rise.

Doctors say the main problem is the lack of sex education. Russians have grown accustomed to seeing soft-core porn on mainstream television, yet are still timid about teaching teen-agers about sex.

Contraceptives are unpopular and abortion remains the primary method of birth control; the Health Ministry estimates that Russian women on average have three to eight abortions.

Stanislav Govorukhin, a film director and hard-line parliament member, believes it's time for Russia to introduce ``morality police.''

Earlier this year, the Communist-dominated lower house of parliament, the State Duma, approved a bill on closing radio and television stations whose broadcasts were deemed morally impure. The president vetoed it. The Duma then voted to require strict licensing of sex-related goods and services.

Govorukhin has also spoken out against prostitution rings that allegedly peddle Russian teen-agers to brothels overseas.

Govorukhin's campaign has struck a nerve among many Russians, particularly parents worried about children's access to sex-related materials.

``Newspapers are serving as pimps, printing ads about sexual products and services,'' he said. ``Turn on the television, and you get the same.''

The editor of Russian Playboy, Konstantin Chernozatonsky, said the backlash was inevitable after sex in Russia moved so quickly from the closet to the family living room.

``It's not that (Russians) are trying new positions or anything. The difference is that the whole thing is more discussable,'' he said.

The Russian Orthodox Church, which holds significant sway over Russian politics, has opposed sex education in schools and spoken out against homosexuality, which was illegal in Russia until 1993.

Gay clubs now thrive in many Russian cities, but most gays and lesbians still keep their orientation quiet around colleagues. Homophobia remains rampant and same-sex couples have no domestic partner rights.

Flamboyant ultranationalist lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky - who published a book called ``The A to Z of Sex'' last year - spoke out against severe restrictions on sexual material during the Duma debates.

Zhirinovsky said he wrote his book about sex because ``man doesn't live for the factory whistle, for machine-gun fire, for stocks and shares, for revolution and reform.''  ``Man needs something more in life,'' he said.

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