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Unsafe and Ignorant, Or How Russians Do Sex

Created: 24.05.2005 13:00 MSK (GMT +3), Updated: 18:14 MSK

Rita Storm



Everyone knows that when you’re sleeping with someone, you’re sleeping with everyone they’ve ever slept with. To anyone who’s benefited from Western medicine and education, regular STD testing is part of basic hygiene. Once a year or so, you go pee in a cup and get stuck with a needle and subject yourself to a few other medical procedures the descriptions of which we’ll omit here, then breathe a sigh of relief and forget about it.

On the other hand, an average Russian’s thoughts on safe sex include the following maxim: Having sex while wearing a condom is like smelling flowers while wearing a gas mask. In Russia, gays and drug users make up the two highest-risk groups for contracting AIDS, but plenty other unpleasant maladies await the modern roaming heterosexual.

As far as protection goes, Russians most frequently fall back on tried, and, well, not particularly true method of coitus interruptus — which does a lousy job enough of protecting against unwanted pregnancies and nothing to protect against infections.

Leonid Spivak, an urologist, says that it isn’t that Russians don’t know of the risks — “On one hand, the awareness is great, because everyone has heard tons of names of various diseases,” he clarifies the situation. “But people can’t quite wrap their brain around the information — what’s dangerous and what isn’t.” The plague of ignorance that breeds the plague of STDs is aided by another national trait — the “overall negligence,” Spivak says.

A real-life story from “Valentina” (name changed): Two years ago, she had had an affair with a married man. After the affair was over, Valentina had some female health problems and was told by her doctor to get tested for a number of STDs — which she was found to have. She got treated for the diseases, but a) the affair having ended badly and b) Russia lacking a sort of STD etiquette that dictates warning former and current partners, Valentina never told the man he should get tested as well. The man went on merrily with his life, sleeping with his wife and having other affairs. Recently, Valentina had decided to finally tell him she had contracted STDs from him during their affair two years ago. The man was stupefied — it had never occurred to him to get tested or that he might have had a problem. He went in for some lab tests and was found to have all the diseases he had given Valentina, and more. We don’t know how he told his wife — if he has.

Private interviews reveal this story to ring a bell with many Russians. Many don’t think they can contract a disease simply because of their high social status — surely they and people they sleep with can’t possibly be infected? But STDs know no social boundaries, Spivak says: “Quite frequently, young women come in thinking they have cystitis [a urinary tract infection] that won’t go away, and we find gonorrhea. Of course, when you tell a young woman who’s well-off and professional and is sure she’s clean that unfortunately, she has such a disease, she’s going to be rather shocked.”

Many diseases can lie dormant or do their dirty work without any apparent symptoms. Regular testing helps diagnose such cases before they become a real problem. Unfortunately, Russian women tend to go in for their tests only after they feel something’s amiss, whereas men tend not to go at all. Concern about their sexual health is low priority compared to financial well-being.

Spivak, who has been practicing medicine since 1996, remembers people being more concerned with their health before Russia’s landmark financial crisis in 1998, when the country defaulted on its loans. “It used to be in vogue to get treated, to be inspected by physicians, and to be concerned with health. After the crisis, this situation changed — for several years, people were preoccupied with other problems.” In the recent years, as post-crisis life slowly climbed back up, he has been seeing an increase of patients once again — but definitely not because of any growing sense of social responsibility.

In a way, the negligence and the ignorance can be understood — many a Russian can tell you horror stories about their first encounter with a physician who first breached the intimate subject of sex. School nurses during mandatory check-ups who bark at a group of teenage girls in just their underwear, “Do you have a sex life?” or “Are you virgins?” are a common experience. The emotional damage sustained can be enough to prevent anyone from ever going near an ob/gyn’s office again.

Even now, with the health care model slowly shifting from the state-run to commercial, and private clinics sprouting up like mushrooms, you never know if you’re going to run into a modern-looking gentle doctor who’s going to educate you (education of his patients takes a lot of Spivak’s time, he says), or a cheerful old man with Santa’s belly laugh who’s going to wave your lab tests away and say, “It’s ok, if you women didn’t get sick, I’d be out of a job!” (Just such a doctor was reluctant to treat a friend with several STDs because she didn’t have any outward symptoms — “Don’t treat it if it doesn’t bother you,” was his logic).

Perhaps, one day in Russia, STD prevention will be common sense in the sense of actually being common. That would take a combined effort of the government, health care professionals, and sex educators, who would make sure that any introduction to sex health basics is clear and informative and definitely not scarring. Until then, having a healthy sex life might remain a fad for the upper class.