Boyshevism: Sounds Familiar?
Agnieszka Kościańska
folders / Texts

When I read an avalanche of articles on those matters in Western magazines, I think with resentment, ‘Hey, we were the first’.

Irena Krzywicka[1]

Need to Educate

Officially, the international history of sex education begins in Sweden and Great Britain in the 1940s and 1950s; it is there that the first textbooks are written and the first classes are conducted on the subject.[2] But was that actually the case? The Polish history of sex education suggests otherwise. On 10 December 1920, the Ministry of Religious Denominations and Public Education ordered doctors to conduct lectures on hygiene, covering also sexual matters ‘from the biological, ethical, and social perspective’.[3] Of course, real-life practice varied, but that wasn’t just a Polish specificity — the Swedish and British had similar problems.[4]

In Poland, sex education — though the actual term wasn’t used — was postulated even before World War I. At the beginning of the 20th century, biology teacher, Wacław Jezierski, taught the first class on the subject and soon convinced his colleagues to follow suit.[5] But it was outside the school that sex education was discussed in the first place. As Jeffrey Weeks, a leading British historian of sexuality, once wrote, ‘As sex goes, so goes society’.[6] So talking about sex, or actually quarrelling about it, Poles were actually debating about Poland, about the desired model of society. Do we want a modern, egalitarian, open-minded, and secular Poland or a conservative, traditional, and Catholic one? Do we want the sexes to be equal and for women to be able to decide about their lives and bodies, or should the fathers and husbands wield all the power? Do we want rights for minorities (including sexual ones) or only for heterosexual ethnic Poles? Do we want to tell boys and girls the same about sex or should boys learn that they can do whatever they want, and girls that they should have no premarital sex, avoid arousing men, and fulfil themselves in motherhood? Do we want to talk openly with young people about sexuality, gender, and equality, or do we consider such dialogue demoralising?

It was exactly when the Second Polish Republic was being born that our contemporary debates — about sex, gender, equality — began. Also those about the model of the state, which is particularly evident in discussions about the (sexual) education of the future generations, hence their heatedness.

Yet back in 1920 the Ministry of Religious Denominations and Public Education was clearly looking for a compromise. Everyone agreed that sexuality education was necessary. Research conducted at the turn of the 20th century showed that sexual initiation took place early and in conditions of inequality.[7] Boys from middle-class homes used the services of ‘ladies of pleasure’ or ordinary ‘streetwalkers’, or forced housemaids to have sex with them. No one really cared about ‘fallen’ women or those simply low-born: cases of gonorrhoea or syphilis were considered their own fault, and their offspring had no rights whatsoever. To avoid pregnancy, they risked their health and freedom; the 1847 penal code of the Kingdom of Poland punished abortion with the deprivation of rights and exile to Siberia, which applied to both the woman terminating her pregnancy and the person or persons helping her. Still, backstreet abortions were standard before World War I and afterwards. A patient of a family-planning bureau, cited in a 1935 book, ‘used a catheter to miscarry as many as twelve times, even though on several occasions this caused her to become seriously ill.’[8]

Both the progressives and the conservatives realised the gravity of the issue and agreed that education was necessary. But whereas the former saw its place in school, demanding openness and equality[9] (and blaming patriarchy rather than women for sexually transmitted diseases)[10], the latter insisted it was a domestic rather than public matter (writing in 1930, a popular Catholic author, Father Henryk Weryński, advised mothers to explain that ‘children are given by God’[11]), and condemning the idea of sexual education at school as psychological exhibitionism.[12] While acknowledging the problem of the out-of-wedlock children of prostitutes and housemaids, they stopped short of postulating the abolition of patriarchy, legalisation of abortion, or promotion of contraceptives.

At this point — which is late 1920 — we can see an attempt to reconcile the positions of both sides by the Ministry of Religious Denominations and Public Education, led by Maciej Rataj. Sure, let the doctors speak to the youngsters about sex, but a textbook was also suggested: An Address to Young Men. A Lecture by Alexander Herzen, Delivered in Lausanne and Geneva. Written at the turn of the century and first published in Polish in 1904, the brochure wasn’t particularly progressive even at the time of its writing when we compare it, for example, with Walenty Miklaszewski’s An Address to Mature Youths (1906). Even the titles themselves are telling: while Miklaszewski addresses both sexes, Herzen speaks to boys only.

Laying the blame on capitalism and patriarchy, Miklaszewski wrote,

For as long as the education of girls aims to make them passive, to kill their innate instincts of thinking and action, until the girl has become an autonomous human being and been granted equal rights with the boy, until that time the relationship between the sexes will have no moral foundations and will be determined by man’s physical and legal domination over the woman.[13]

In his An Address to Adolescent Youths, also from 1906, Miklaszewski, a professor of law, argued that, ‘The extraordinary preoccupation with physical beauty, which is spreading faster than a plague across societies, has a terrible effect on [girls’] lives. The girl . . . succumbs to the influence of industrialists, who in the pursuit of profit keep changing the fashions, making the naïve beings believe that they won’t be liked if they don’t follow them.’[14] Herzen, in turn, tried to scare the lads, partly with diseases (something that Miklaszewski did too, both in An Address . . . and in his play, Three Marriages, staged in 1905), and partly with the prospect of things turning against them:

Shouldn’t the young man think about the kind of future that awaits the mother and child because of him? The mother will be rejected by her family, will give birth secretly or in a hospital . . . and may try to kill herself or the baby, in which case she will be tried for murder. For she knows not, poor thing, how to feed the baby and how to nurture it. Sometimes she is forced to resort to selling her body in order to earn a living. . . . How many times has an unfortunate girl, dressed in rags, been seen during a wedding or outside the church, handing a baby to the bride with the words, ‘It’s his child!’[15]

Despite efforts to reconcile the two camps during the interwar period, conflict gradually intensified.

Towards Cultural Reform

The key nexus of cultural reform was the milieu of the Wiadomości Literackie literary magazine. Everything began with Irena Krzywicka. Raised by a liberally-minded mother and concerned with social issues, the writer not only saw the suffering of women around her (‘In the house where I lived, three women died within a short time as a result of backstreet abortions’[16]). Consequently, she decided to start a struggle for what poet Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska called ‘good birth’ in one of her poems, i.e., reproduction rights in modern language. In order to demonstrate that it wasn’t just a women’s issue, Krzywicka persuaded writer Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński to dedicate himself the cause. He was joined by other leading figures from the field of literature and medicine, such as Wanda Melcer, Zofia Nałkowska, Justyna Budzińska-Tylicka, Herman Rubinraut, or the aforementioned Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, also from abroad: among those contributing to Życie Świadome, a sex-education supplement to Wiadomości Literackie, was Magnus Hirschfeld, a Kołobrzeg-born and Berlin-based sexologist, founder of the world’s first organisation for the emancipation of homosexual and transgender persons and initiator of the World League for Sexual Reform, an international movement for sexual and reproduction rights.

Krzywicka, Boy, and others rallied for the realisation of the League’s postulates in independent Poland, the shape of which continued to be negotiated. A 1933 leaflet read,

Promotion of humanist philosophy and secular ethics. Education reform. True emancipation of women. Child protection. Civil marriage. Maternity rights for every woman. Protection from unwanted pregnancy. Nationwide counselling centres for women. Effective and rational combating of the plague of miscarriages. Amendment of ‘anti-miscarriage’ penal code regulations as inexpedient and harmful. Sexual education, protection from venereal diseases. Liberalisation of prostitution laws. Abolition of capital punishment. An international alliance of people sharing the League’s views.[17]

The leaflet made no mention of the decriminalisation of homosexual relationships, a postulate that featured in the League’s international manifesto. It didn’t need to because the first modern Polish penal code, introduced in 1932, didn’t penalise homosexuality (except prostitution, Art. 207). Moreover, its definition of rape was broad enough to protect from homosexual rape too. In this regard, Poland was ahead of other European countries: in the Third Reich, homosexuals were sent to concentration camps, England and Wales had to wait until 1967 for the decriminalisation of homosexual relationships, and Scotland until 1981; the legal definition of rape in the UK was limited to penis-vagina penetration until the 21st century.

Progressive as it was, however, the 1932 penal code didn’t offer a comprehensive solution on birth control, which was a central issue for Krzywicka, Boy-Żeleński, and others. Just like after the fall of communism in 1989, the sharpest divide in the Second Polish Republic was that between ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ campaigns. The ‘abortion compromise’ wasn’t invented in the 1990s; it was already present then. Articles 231 and 232 provided for a penalty of up to three years’ imprisonment for a woman who terminated her pregnancy and up to five years for her helper(s). However, abortion was legal for health reasons and when the pregnancy was the result of a crime: sex with a minor or a mentally disabled person, rape, incest, or non-consensual sex (Art. 233). Abortion for social reasons wasn’t permitted. To activists, both in Poland and abroad, that was the crux of the matter. Friedrich Wolf, author of the play, Cyankali, which was also staged in Poland, pointedly, as Boy-Żeleński reported, exposed the ‘stupid and cruel’ regulation:

. . . we see on stage the contrast that happens every day in real life: unable to find professional assistance, an unemployed proletarian woman dies in the hands of amateurs, while the same doctor who, citing moral objections, refuses to help the pauper, eagerly obliges an affluent customer in the same situation. Dr Wolf’s play captures the ordeal of the proletariat, which is kept in purposeful ignorance in this respect while the moralisers retain all the privileges of impunity. It sheds a bright light on a regulation, powerless and murderous at the same time, that prevents nothing and only makes matters worse; that demoralises citizens, teaching them to ignore and circumvent the law; that encourages denouncement and blackmail; that, finally, turns one third of the population into criminals, since statistics tell us that one in three German women have undergone abortion at least once in their lives.[18]

Wolf contested the law also as a doctor, which eventually landed him in prison. But neither Wolf, nor Boy-Żeleński, nor any other pro-choice activists were advocates of abortion; they simply opposed its criminalisation. The solution lay in family planning, and here practical efforts were undertaken. In 1933, the first Polish ‘voluntary motherhood’ consultancy opened, offering inexpensive (or free) advice on how to avoid an unwanted pregnancy. One in three customers admitted to having undergone at least one abortion, and a 30-year-old ‘record holder’ had (illegally) terminated a total of 29 pregnancies. ‘What joy it is for these victims of excessive, thoughtless fertility to finally find a haven of voluntary motherhood in our consultancy!’[19] commented the bureau’s chief, Dr Justyna Budzińska-Tylicka.

Like these days, the activities of the progressives were denounced by conservative circles which demanded a complete ban on abortion (even if the woman’s health was at risk). They also protested the awareness-raising efforts. Priests slung mud at the family-planning bureaus, calling them ‘slaughterhouses of children’.[20] The Catholic Church firmly opposed any forms of family planning (including the so called natural ones, allowed today). The pope Pius XI called contraception a ‘violation of the natural act’. ‘Any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin’[21], he wrote in the Casti connubii encyclical (1930).

Shortly after the opening of the family-planning consultancy in Warsaw, Senator Maksymilian Thullie of the Christian Democratic caucus submitted an interpellation to the Minister of the Interior:

We learn that the Mayor of Warsaw has — due allegedly to the lobbying of Mr. Boy-Żeleński and Mrs. Budzińska-Tylicka — permitted the opening of a birth-control consultancy at Leszno Street. “Birth control” is obviously but a euphemism for pregnancy termination, which is a criminal offence. We need not to prove that the opening of this kind of enterprise will have a harmful effect on public morality. In fact, contraception procedures also have adverse health effects, as confirmed both by highly respectable medical authorities and by Soviet statistics, according to which they have left 37 percent of women in Russia infertile.

Therefore, we are asking the Minister:

1) is he willing to revoke the permit granted by the Mayor?

2) will he deign to instruct the political authorities subordinate to him on the unacceptability of issuing such permits?[22]

The minister stood up for the Leszno Street establishment and it survived, but, as Budzińska-Tylicka wrote, the lack of substantial state support meant that developing a nationwide network of similar bureaus proved unfeasible.[23] A ‘compromise’ again?

Another major item on the education agenda were sexually transmitted diseases. In the spirit of Miklaszewski’s views, the progressives connected the issue with gender inequality, among other things. Women prostitute themselves because a double-standard society leaves them no other option. Prostitutes were obliged to register with the police. Once on the list, there was no return to normal life for them. Consequently, emancipation and equal rights were the way to combat venereal diseases. However, the view never really took hold, and certainly not during the interwar period – on that score, half-measures have always been the norm. A perfect illustration of this is Za zasłoną [Behind the curtain], a 1938 educational melodrama directed by Tadeusz Chrzanowski. The movie tells a love story with syphilis in the background, criticising ignorance and prudery (there would have been no problem if Janek, played by Feliks Żukowski, hadn’t been ashamed to visit a doctor), but it again lays all the blame on women practicing the ‘oldest profession in the world’. As the Doctor, played by Stanisław Grolicki, explains, ‘When dusk falls, thousands of prostitutes take to the streets, circling like moths, luring, enticing, and each of them, each and every one, is a transmitter of venereal diseases. Will a reasonable man ever use a prostitute’s services? Never! But alcohol blurs reason. That’s why most infections occur when one is intoxicated.’


The sexual-education debates of the 1920s and 1930s continue to this day. The rhetoric is similar, the subjects and adversaries too, and, sadly, the issues themselves haven’t changed either. Despite many highly progressive legal regulations and ahead-of-their-time attempts of sexual education — despite the fact that ‘we were the first’ — consensus on matters such as sex education, birth control, or prevention of STDs has never really been achieved.

Sexual education remains a matter of contention between the progressives and conservatives. On the one hand, the tradition symbolised by Boy-Żeleński remains alive. In 1957, the Voluntary Motherhood Society was founded, alluding to it not only nominally, for among its initiators were people committed to the cause since the 1930s. The People’s Poland-era sexologists viewed the Wiadomości Literackie sexual-education movement as a major source of inspiration. Michalina Wisłocka was clear about it: ‘I loved Boy-Żeleński, I  thought he was a genius in terms of the promotion of contraception.’[24] A couple of years ago, the independent initiative Boyówki Femini­styczne [Feminist Boy Commando] was started. There has also been institutional continuity. The Voluntary Motherhood Society, renamed as the Family Planning Society and then the Family Development Society, has survived to this day and is affiliated with the Federation for Women and Family Planning, one of the offshoots of which is the ‘Pontoon’ Group of Sexual Educators, the most high-profile organisation today working on behalf of progressive, egalitarian sexual education. It has also been most sharply attacked by the conservatives on the other side of the divide, who accuse it of demoralising the Polish youth and propagating the ‘gender ideology’.

The old arguments are coming back. In the 1930s, Boy was called a communist, a ‘Boyshevik’, a  Freemason pursuing an ‘anti-Polish’ agenda, or someone ‘embroiling a beautiful Polish surname’ in a Jewish plan.[25] In the late 1980s, the critics of a progressive sexual-education textbook, drawn up by experts affiliated with the Family Development Society, wrote that it ‘attacks the consciousness of the Nation’s most precious treasure — the youth’ and warned that the ‘ghost of Boy-Żeleński is coming back to haunt us’.[26]

Today, Father Dariusz Oko compares ‘gender ideology’ to criminal communism[27], and a 2013 pastoral letter issued by the Polish Episcopate appealed for schools to keep equal-rights sexual education off their curricula and urged them to ‘resist the pressure of very few, but highly outspoken, communities with substantial funds at their disposal’.[28] Sounds familiar?

translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak

[1] Irena Krzywicka, Wyznania gorszycielki, Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1998, p. 234.
[2] See for example Mariola Chomczyńska-Miliszkiewicz, Edukacja seksualna w społeczeństwie współczesnym. Konteksty pedagogiczne i psychospołeczne, Lublin: Wydawnictwo UMCS, 2002, p. 16.
[3] Quoted in Marek Babik, Polskie koncepcje wychowania seksualnego w latach 1900–1939, Kraków: Wyższa Szkoła Filozoficzno-Pedagogiczna „Ignatianum”, Wydawnictwo WAM, 2010, p. 131; see also Kamil Janicki, Epoka hipokryzji. Seks i erotyka w przedwojennej Polsce, Kraków: Znak, 2015.
[4]Jonathan Zimmerman, Too Hot To Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.
[5] Jolanta Sikorska-Kulesza, ‘„Skąd się wziął twój braciszek?”. Początki dyskusji o wychowaniu seksualnym dzieci i młodzieży’, in Kobieta i małżeństwo. Społeczno-kulturowe aspekty seksualności: wiek XIX i XX, ed. Anna Żarnowska, Andrzej Szwarc, Warszawa: DiG, 2004. See also Wacław Jezierski, ‘„Drażliwe kwestje” w nauczaniu szkolnym’, Nowe Tory, no. 3, 1906.
[6] Jeffrey Weeks, Sexuality, Chichester, Sussex–London: Ellis Horwood and Tavistock, 1986, p. 29.
[7] E.g. Marian Falski, ‘Niektóre dane z życia młodzieży szkół średnich’, Nowe Tory, no. 8, 1906, pp. 781–809 (part 1); no. 9, pp. 861–878 (part 2). For more, see Agnieszka Kościańska, Zobaczyć łosia. Historia polskiej edukacji seksualnej od pierwszej lekcji do internetu, Wołowiec: Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2017, p. 54.
[8] Justyna Budzińska-Tylicka, Świadome macierzyństwo, Warsaw: Towarzystwo Wydawnicze „Rój”, 1935, p. 55.
[9] See for example Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński et al., Liga Reformy Obyczajów [leaflet], Warsaw: F. Piekarniak, 1933.
[10] Walenty Miklaszewski, ‘Odezwa do młodzieży dojrzałej’, Nowe Tory, no. 10, 1906, pp. 953–977; Walenty Miklaszewski, ‘Odezwa do młodzieży dojrzewającej’, Nowe Tory, no. 9, 1906, pp. 879–901.
[11] Henryk Weryński, Na progu uświadomienia, Poznań: Księgarnia św. Wojciecha, 1930, quoted in Marek Babik, p. 186.
[12] Marek Babik, p. 53.
[13] Walenty Miklaszewski, ‘Odezwa do młodzież dojrzałej’, p. 968.
[14] Walenty Miklaszewski, ‘Odezwa do młodzieży dojrzewającej’, p.895.
[15] Quoted in Marek Babik, p. 305.
[16] Irena Krzywicka, Wyznania gorszycielki, p. 234.
[17] Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, Liga Reformy Obyczajów.
[18] Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, Nasi okupanci, 1st edition, 1932,, accessed 3 December 2017.
[19] Justyna Budzińska-Tylicka, p. 56.
[20] Ibid.
[21]Casti connubii. Encyclical of Pope Pius XI on Christian Marriage,, accessed 13 February 2018.
[22] Quoted in Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, Nasi okupanci.
[23] Justyna Budzińska-Tylicka, pp. 58–59.
[24] Darek Zaborek, ‘Seksualistka. Rozmowa z dr Michaliną Wisłocką’, Gazeta Wyborcza, 20 September 2004,,127291,2291497.html, accessed 14 October 2017.
[25]Prawda o Boyu-Żeleńskim. Głosy krytyczne,ed. Czesław Lechnicki, Warsaw: Dom Książki Polskiej, 1933.
[26] Bolesław Suszka, Podręcznik szkolny „Przysposobienie do życia w rodzinie” — zagrożenie czy wyzwanie?, Poznań: Duszpasterstwo Rodzin Archidiecezji Poznańskiej, 1987. I cover the topic in detail in Agnieszka Kościańska.
[27] See for example Gender — ideologia totalna (interview with Dariusz Oko),, accessed 3 December 2017.
[28]List pasterski na Niedzielę Świętej Rodziny 2013 roku,, accessed 3 December 2017.

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