When communism was established in Eastern Europe after World War II, the new regimes universally claimed that they fought for gender equality. What that actually came to mean, especially with regard to intimacy and specific sexual practices, from self-presentation to relationships, is a much more complicated story that has not been substantially researched. Therefore, to make claims about general trends and outcomes is not yet warranted, some recent attempts notwithstanding. What is possible and starting to happen is a ripple effect of the #metoo campaign, which is enabling us to start patching together a more nuanced image of how women under communism experienced sexuality in public and private, as subjects and more often objects of male-dominated heteronormative discourses and policies.
My first sexual experience was on a bus in Bucharest. I was 7, surrounded by a throng of people. Like many other kids who lived in the communist bloc, I had parents who worked full time, which meant that I mostly went to school alone. I also came back from school alone. I spent most of my days from about 7 am until 5 or 6 pm, when my parents got home, with a key around my neck, doing my best to take care of myself. My story is that of millions of other girls.
I went to school by bus and tram, riding the public transportation made available by the communist regime. On paper, this public transportation was a great achievement. But supply and demand were not correlated in any consumer-friendly fashion. And that meant that any bus, tram, or metro car was likely to come infrequently and be completely crammed. If you were lucky enough to live at the end of a route, you might secure a seat or somewhat secluded spot on the bus. Even then, old men and women had priority for seating and you would likely get kicked off a seat if one was approaching, whether you wanted to or not. And children were never considered vulnerable in the same way and in need of protection. We were mostly invisible.
Most of the time, however, as a four-foot girl with a school bag (and for me also a violin case), you were just an inconvenient body mass at best, or a sexual object at worst. I don’t remember exactly when it first happened. I just know that I lost count of how many times it happened over my years of living in Romania. I would shimmy my way onto the bus, and at some point I felt a poke on my backside. I had no idea what an erection was. I didn’t even know what a penis was. There was no sex education in school and my parents never talked to me about these things. But I felt disturbed by it; it seemed to be out of order.
Other times a hand would somehow “end up” grabbing, fondling, squeezing, or brushing against my butt. There were even worse scenes. Some man might have an erection while facing me and rubbing himself against my crotch or torso. Later on, as I grew taller and my breasts started showing, the frequency of frontal assaults that included rubbing, grabbing, and poking only increased. When I got to high school and lived within reasonable walking distance, I started taking the bus only in the winter, when I had enough clothes on to attenuate some of these offensive experiences and it was either too cold or too snowy to walk the 45 minutes it took to get to my high school.
I learned to use my book bag and violin case as my weapons. I learned to be aggressive and swear. I learned to talk back, step on the feet, and on occasion provide an actual-not-proverbial kick in the nuts. But I never forgot the trauma and horror of those daily trips. Today, when people share images of the communist period that include crowded bus scenes, I cringe and experience the total recall of those days.
How many such incidents took place in Romania every day? I would guess thousands. And that is just in one country. I don’t recall a single conversation about this issue when I was growing up there. No parent, teacher, or any other adult, male or female, ever asked me if I thought travel by bus was safe, or if I had had any bad experiences. I have a hard time believing that most adult women had not had the exact same experience as I did every day, and that includes my mother and grandmother. But neither ever broached the subject with me.
As I think back on the frequency of these forms of sexual violence, I realize that one never talked about any sexual violence. There was no talk of rape (how could there be, in the workers’ paradise?); the word was taboo. The concept of consent itself did not exist. Of course rapes took place and were a tool used frequently by men in power to humiliate women over whom they had authority (e.g., teachers/professors, supervisors at work, the secret police in an interrogation). Rapes took place in the family as well, again unreported because the police itself was the tool of the regime and never looked out for the interests of individual citizens, especially not women.
I never saw a man stand up to a heckler, groper, or any other kind of sexual aggressor. Men did not hear or see these actions, unless they were the ones performing them. Women had to find coping mechanisms on their own, and I am not sure how many wives and husbands talked about these issues as a common concern. When, at the age of 14, I was attacked by an adolescent boy at the entrance of my apartment building and barely escaped by using my violin to hit him hard, I hid the experience from my mom. I was scared and dreaded coming home especially in the evening, when it was dark. I was ashamed. It felt like it was somehow my fault that I needed to come home from school after dark (meaning after 5:30 in the winter). I never felt free to discuss my fear of being sexually assaulted, because there was no precedent, no language, no acknowledgement of its pervasiveness. I only understood that my mother also experienced sexual harassment when she pulled me out of school around age 15 to take me with her at meetings with certain male officials. I recognized the leery look in their eyes. It was the same as that of men who had harassed me along the years on the bus, in the street, in the park.
And then there are the specific ways in which unprotected heterosexual vaginal sex became a matter of fear for women in Romania between 1966 and 1990. The passage of the drastic anti-abortion legislation in 1966, together with the relative unavailability of any other forms of birth control, rendered women objects of greater surveillance by the state, including, for some, forced monthly gynecological exams. In terms of erotic relations, it created enormous pressures and stress on women. Many became afraid of sexual contact with their husbands, out of fear of becoming pregnant under conditions that were oppressive and debilitating for bringing up a child.
Today, some women have started to share these experiences of sexual violation and frequent humiliation. It may be that there are men out there who had the same experiences I did at a young age while going to and from school. We can’t know how such profoundly altering experiences shaped how women and men came to understand, relate to, and experience sex under communism. But we need to start creating room for these questions and narratives. For the regime’s official discourse of gender equality was largely a sham, and no serious commentary on the experience of sex under communism can proceed without attention to such stories.
Maria Bucur is an American-Romanian historian of modern Eastern Europe and gender in the twentieth century. She has written on the history of eugenics in Eastern Europe, memory and war in twentieth-century Romania, gender and modernism, and gender and citizenship. She teaches history and gender studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she holds the John W. Hill Professorship.