Agnieszka Kościańska

Official website (REES Oxford)

Oficjalna strona (IEiAK UW)/Official website ENG (University of Warsaw)

I am Associate Professor in the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, University of Warsaw; in 2021 and in 2022 at Oxford (Leverhulme Visiting Professor). My research interests include gender and sexuality studies, religion, alternative spirituality, sexual and reproductive rights, (post)socialism, racism, discrimination, history of sexuality, sexual violence, sexology and sex education as well as local/alternative forms of agency and emancipation. I believe in public and engaged anthropology.

In the past, I was a visiting fellow at Harvard University (2010-2011, Marie Curie fellowship), the New School for Social Research (2006, Kosciuszko Foundation grant), the University of Copenhagen (2005, Danish Governmental scholarship), the Imre Kertész Kolleg Jena (2016, 2017-2018) and Edinburgh College of Art (2017, European Visiting Research Fellowship by the Caledonian Research Foundation and the Royal Society of Edinburgh).

Jestem profesorką w Instytucie Etnologii i Antropologii Kulturowej Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego; w 2021 i 2022 roku gościnnie na Oxfordzie (Leverhulme Visiting Professor). Prowadzę badania nad płcią i seksualnością, edukacją seksualną, historią seksualności, mechanizmami dyskryminacji, rasizmem, religijnością, przemocą seksualną, a także lokalnymi i alternatywnymi formami sprawczości i emancypacji. Jestem zwolenniczką antropologii zaangażowanej, podejmującej ważne kwestie społeczne, otwartej na dialog, obecnej w przestrzeni publicznej.

W przeszłości byłam stypendystką rządu duńskiego (Uniwersytet Kopenhaski, 2005), Fundacji Kościuszkowskiej (New School for Social Research, 2006), Imre Kertész Kolleg Jena (2016, 2017/2018), Royal Society of Edinburgh (2017, Edinburgh College of Art), Marie Curie Fellowship (Uniwersytet Warszawski i Uniwersytet Harvarda). Od stycznia 2017 roku jestem zastępczynią redaktora naczelnego „Ludu” , najstarszego polskiego pisma etnologicznego (wydawanego od 1895 roku). Zobacz nowy numer.


Gender, Pleasure, and Violence: The Construction of Expert Knowledge of Sexuality in Poland is an analysis of the development of expert knowledge of sexuality in Poland in the period from the late 1960s to present. I assume that expert knowledge naturalizes and normalizes certain behaviours and identities, while others are denied the status of normality and naturalness. Therefore, the book is also a story about the history of sexuality in Poland under communism and the changes that have taken place within it as a result of the postsocialist transition. I argue that expert knowledge of sexuality is a product of the interactions between different groups of patients and physicians, as well as other milieus such as women’s movement From these interactions emerges a picture of good sex and bad sex, and of the specific gender roles associated with them.

To See a Moose: The History of Polish Sex Education from the First Lesson to the Internet, Wołowiec, Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2017. This history of struggles against ignorance and double standards starts towards the end of the 19th century, when men learned sex from prostitutes, and when the prevalence of shameful diseases was an open secret. Kościańska guides readers through developments in the field of sex education throughout the 20th century. How did it come to be, that at the beginning of this new age storks suddenly ceased to deliver babies and stories about the birds and the bees no longer satisfied curious girls and boys? What does intercourse have to do with spotting moose? How was sex described in a school textbook scrapped by the communists for fear of offending religious sentiment? Finally, could folk songs convey more information than progressive self-help books? Among Kościańska’s protagonists are women and men who had the courage to change how sex was written about. Yet readers will be urged to keep their critical hats on in assessing the contributions of the cult figures of Polish sexology. This work is the first to critically examine Polish sex education in the 20th century. Read reviews in Acta Poloniae Historica (vol. 117, 2018. p. 318-22) and in Aspasia (2019, vol. 13, no. 1)

Instruktaż nadmierny. Historia pewnej przygody seksualnej (2018). Wywiada-rzeka z Wiesławem Sokolokiem. Fragment w „Dużym Formacie” (Czy sex przez wiatr jest możliwy?) i „Magazynie Kontakt

Instrukataż nadmierny (An Excessive Instruction) is a book long conversation with the sex educator and youth therapist Wiesław Sokoluk. In the book, Sokoluk tells the story of sex education handbook he co-authored in 1987. Although sex education has been offered in Polish schools since the late 1960s, initially there was no handbook. It was only in September 1987, when a handbook finally appeared. The handbook turned out to be remarkably progressive. In caused many controversies and was banned from schools after two months. It went further than any available sex and marriage manual for adults, which on the one hand affirmed sexuality, but on the other were rather conservative in their description of gender roles, placing sex in marriage. The handbook was also significantly more progressive than earlier sex education publications addressed to young people. While these publications explained in detail issues such as development, the physiological and psychological problems of adolescence or the physiology of reproduction, they were vague about sexuality and pathologized everything other than procreative marital intercourse. The 1987 handbook was explicit about teen sexuality and affirmed its various manifestations. It did not pathologize masturbation and it discussed issues like sexual techniques and sexual pleasure. It also called homosexual relationships “analogues” to heterosexual ones. Sokoluk based the handbook on his experience in youth counseling and education. Since the late 1970s, he travelled from school to school throughout Poland and answered students’ questions. He also operated the youth telephone hotline and collaborated with youth magazines; in both cases he answered sexuality related questions. Moreover, he ran the youth advisory centre at the Planned Parenthood Association in Warsaw, which consisted of a walk-in clinic and a mail counselling service. As he told me, while writing the handbook he had all his students’, clients’ and correspondents’ questions and letters in mind.

My Work


In 2016-2019 , I was a senior researcher in a HERA grant (Cruising the 1970s: Unearthing Pre-HIV/AIDS Queer Sexual Cultures, CRUSEV). My CRUSEV research resulted in a performance prepared with the artist Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay: You, dear Doctor, are my only rescue! / Jest Pan, Panie Doktorze, jedynym ratunkiem! (Edinburgh, August 2017); performed also in Exeter in March 2018, Warsaw in September 2018, in Brno in April 2019, and so on.

Performance in Exeter

Major Articles/Chapters/Special Issues

“The Handbook of Masturbation and Defloration’: tracing sources of recent neo-conservatism” in Intimacy and Mobility in an Era of Hardening Borders: Gender, Reproduction, Regulation, edited by Haldis Haukanes and Frances Pine, Manchester University Press, 2021

“Gender ideology”, an umbrella term covering sex education, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and gender mainstreaming, figures at the heart of various political conflicts in Poland (and throughout Central Europe) and is presented as the major threat to the nation. Political analysts assert that the attack on “gender ideology” contributed significantly to the electoral victory of the radical right in Poland, in 2015. This chapter traces the historical roots of the current attack on “gender ideology” and argues that it had already started by the mid-1980s when the Communist Party, hoping to win the battle over young’s people hearts against the Catholic Church, published a progressive sex education handbook to be used in all Polish high schools. The publication ignited a heated debate: reviewers called it “the handbook of masturbation and defloration” and warned about its demoralizing effects. Conservative critics explicitly equated sexuality and gender with issues of national belonging, mobilizing opposition around these concepts. This chapter argues that it was at this moment in the 1980s when current conservative thinking about gender and sexuality vis-à-vis the nation was born and shows that recent neo-conservative approaches towards gender and sexuality have in fact been forged over the last three decades.

“Gender on Trial: Changes in Legal and Discursive Practices Concerning Sexual Violence in Poland from the 1970s to the Present” (open access, Ethnologia Europaea 50(1), 2020)

Since 1932, Poland has had a progressive law regarding rape, according to which rape is defined regardless of the relationship between the rapist and the victim or their gender. However, this law has not been fully executed because of widespread stereotypes concerning rape. This paper draws on multiple ethnographic and archival sources and focuses on the changes in discourses on rape and court practices in rape cases that have occurred since the 1970s. It shows that feminists have been instrumental in shifting discourses of sexual violence and court practices in rape cases by bringing women’s/victims’ voices into the public sphere. This paper also unveils mechanisms of emancipation that were not possible without local developments in expert knowledge and local feminist activity.

Humanae Vitae, Birth Control and the Forgotten History of the Catholic Church in Poland (in The Schism of ’68, 2018)

Poland is often depicted as the archetypal Catholic country, and Polish Catholicism is frequently presented as conservative and homogeneous. This chapter seeks to destabilize this image, focusing on debates and practices related to birth control that show that Catholics throughout the country have adopted a variety of approaches to contraception. It opens with a close examination of debates over marriage and contraceptives in the 1960s in The Bond, a progressive Catholic monthly, while also excavating the legacy of Bishop Wojtyła (the future Pope John Paul II) in the articulation of an anti-contraception stance nationally and, most influentially, in the Vatican. It also discusses the social consequences of Humanae Vitae, excavating statistical data on religiosity alongside the near-universal usage of birth control methods today.

„Z racji swoich upodobań godny napiętnowania” – homofobia i seksizm w kryminologicznym dyskursie gwałtu („inter alia”, 2019, wolny dostęp)

Artykuł jest próbą analizy języka eksperckiego używanego w czasie procesu mężczyzn oskarżanych o zbiorowe zgwałcenie trzydziestotrzyletniego mężczyzny we wczesnych latach 90. XX wieku. Autorka dowodzi, że źródeł homofobicznego i seksistowskiego języka, jakim posługiwał się adwokat sprawców, należy szukać w dwóch dyskursach eksperckich ukształtowanych w latach 70. XX wieku: w dyskursie heteroseksualnego gwałtu, w obrębie którego ofiara jest zawsze postrzegana jako winna, i w kryminologicznym dyskursie o homoseksualności, w ramach którego homoseksualiści są ukazani jako jednoznacznie „zboczeni” i niemogący opanować swoich żądz seksualnych.

“Deserving stigmatization because of his inclinations:” Homophobia and sexism in the criminological discourse of rape. This article analyzes an expert discourse used during a court trial of men accused of gang raping a 30-year-old man in the early 1990s. The author argues that we could look for sources of homophobic and sexist language used by perpetrators’ lawyer in two expert discourses that were shaped during the 1970s: in the discourse of heterosexual rape, within which the female victim is perceived as responsible for rape, and in the criminological discourse of homosexuality, within which the homosexual is presented as explicitly “perverted” and unable to control his sexual desire.

Special issue of Focaal (The East speaks back: Gender and sexuality in postsocialist Europe, 2009)

Special issue of Sexualities (The science of sex in a space of uncertainty: Naturalizing and modernizing Europe’s East, past and present, 2016 )

“A woman should follow her own conscience”: understanding Catholic involvement in demonstrations against the abortion ban in Poland. LUD, vol. 105, pp. 12–43 with Agnieszka Kosiorowska & Natalia Pomian (open access)

In October 2020, a ruling by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal effectively ending legal abortion incited mass protests across the country. Despite the demonstrations being directed at both the government and the Catholic Church, many devout Catholics joined the protests against the Church’s opposition to family planning being enacted through state-imposed prohibition. Drawing on ongoing archival and ethnographic research, in this paper we address a number of issues relating to Catholicism and abortion: how it is possible that so many Catholics decided to take part in pro-choice marches openly opposing official Catholic teaching on birth control? What were their motivations?

“Sexology” in Companion to Sexuality Studies edited by Nancy A. Naples, Blackwell, 2020.

This chapter traces the development of sexology since its foundation in the second part of the nineteenth century through today. It also gives an overview of social scientific and historical research on sexology. It stresses the transnational character of sexology and draws on examples from multiple cultural contexts, taking into consideration various aspects of the development of sexology. Firstly, in examining the relation between sexology and the state, it asks if sexology is a tool in the hands of power to manage its subjects, or if it could serve as a space of resistance against the state. Secondly, it traces the connection between sexology and the process of constructing the other, especially the racial other in the colonial context. Thirdly, it looks at the production of sexological knowledge and points to the agency of sexological patients in this process. Next, in showing ambivalence around sexology and progress, it asks if sexology brings sexual liberation, or if it is rather a conservative force. The chapter concludes with a discussion about new developments in sexology, namely the invention of Viagra and its consequences.

Sex on equal terms? Polish sexology on women’s emancipation and ‘good sex’ from the 1970s to the present (Sexualities, 2016)

This article is based on discourse analysis of Polish sexological publications in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as on ethnographic fieldwork among contemporary sex experts. In these publications, sustaining so-called traditional gender roles was perceived as a necessary condition for a good sex life, and women’s emancipation was presented as an obstacle to this process. At the same time, sex was presented as an important element of personal, marital and social happiness and detailed guidelines on how to achieve this were provided. The article focuses on the mechanism of construction of sexual-scientific knowledge. It shows the very specific historical development of sexology in Poland: in the 1970s and 1980s sexology developed as an interdisciplinary field and sexuality was perceived as embedded in the socio-cultural context. This approach established foundations for contemporary sexological discourses. My analysis of sexological publications is placed in the context of the changing cultural-political situation in socialist Poland. On the one hand, the Communist Party promoted women’s full employment, on the other, it supported the traditional marriage and gender roles causing women’s double burden. In the postsocialist period, this tension has been reinforced by neoliberal gender and sexual ideology. The article highlights the interactions between sexologists, their patients and other groups such as feminists, and emphasizes patients’ agency in the processes of knowledge construction.

Feminist and Queer Sex Therapy: The Ethnography of Expert Knowledge of Sexuality in Poland (in Rethinking Ethnography in Central Europe, 2015)

This chapter discusses the development sex therapy and education informed by feminism and queer therapy. It is based on ethnographic and archival research on Polish sexology. The author argues that sexology in Poland developed as an interdisciplinary field and perceived sexuality as depended on society, culture and psychological settings. This approach is fundamentally different than the one of mainstream North American sexology within which sexuality is perceived as purely physiological. The specific Polish development made Polish sexology resilient to the global trend of biomedicalization (Clarke et al. 2010) and open to feminist and queer ideas which were missing in the past.

Mohair Berets: The Development of Fundamentalism
within the Catholic Church in Poland (in The Sociology of Religion: A Substantive and Transdisciplinary Approach, 2008)

« Le droit de cité » : sexologie, homosexualité et discours des droits de la personne dans la Pologne socialiste des années 1970 (“The right to citizenship”: Sexology, homosexuality and the discourse of rights in socialist Poland in the 1970s, Sextant 37, 2000, pp. 138-149 , open access)

The development of LGBT identity and rights in Poland is usually placed in the 1980s when the first queer magazines were published and the first associations were founded. In this paper, I look at processes that set the stage for this development. I argue that sexologists and their texts contributed to the makings of the early discourse of LGBT rights in Poland. I analyze the shift in sexological discourse that occurred in the course of the 1970s. Sexological popular writings from the early 1970s were focused on the suffering of homosexuals and stressed the pathological character of their sexuality. But in between the lines, these articles referenced gay rights, while texts from the late 1970s were explicit about homosexual emancipation. In this article, I ask why sexologists started to write differently about homosexuality. I point to the patient-oriented character of Polish sexology as well as to political processes related to the Cold War.

“’Treatment is possible and effective’?: Polish sexologists and queers in correspondence in late state socialism”, in Queers in State Socialism, edited by Tomasz Basiuk and Jędrzej Burszta. Routledge, 2020.

In 1970, a letter signed “JB from Wrocław” and sent to a sexologist read in part: “Homosexuality is the most horrible sexual perversion.” The sexologist, Zbigniew Lew-Starowicz, answered: “Treatment is possible and effective.” Lew-Starowicz ran a sex column in a highly popular, progressive student weekly between 1969 and 1990. By the mid-1980s, his approach towards homosexuality changed fundamentally. He wrote: “Treatment is neither necessary nor possible.” The chapter seeks to answer a set of questions that arises from reading Lew-Starowicz’s sex column: How did sexologists in state-socialist Poland perceive homosexuality? What happened between 1970 and 1985 that made Lew-Starowicz, along with many other Polish sex experts, change their views? Was the shift the same in relation to male and female homosexualities? The chapter reconstructs the dialogue between sexologists and their patients, highlighting the tension between the prevalent pathologization of sexual “others” and a humanistic approach, which promted some experts to empathize with their queer clients and to present homosexuality as “normal.”

The “power of silence”: Spirituality and women’s agency beyond the Catholic Church in Poland (Focaal, 2009)

This article looks at various models of women’s agency in Poland in the context of religion. Based on fieldwork among members of two feminized religious milieus—a new religious movement the Brahma Kumaris and an informal Catholic fundamentalist group—this article discusses the role of silence in ritual and everyday life as a form of agency. From the perspective of feminist discourse, particularly Western liberal feminism, silence is often interpreted as a lack of power. Drawing on informants’ experiences, under Polish gender regimes, particularly as they relate to the organization of public and private spheres, silence is shown to be a fundamental component of agency. The analysis of silence displays the complexity of religious issues in Poland and serves as a critique of assumptions about religious homogeneity and the pervasiveness of religious authority in Poland.

Beyond Viagra: Sex Therapy in Poland (open access, Sociologický časopis/Czech Sociological Review, 2014)

In the 1970s and 1980s, Poland, like most other countries in the region, provided not only unlimited access to abortion and contraceptives, but also a liberal sex education. This period moreover constituted a golden age in sexology in the country. Sexual science developed as a holistic discipline, embracing achievements in medicine, psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, history, and religious studies, providing recourses for sex education and therapy. Sexuality was perceived as multidimensional and embedded in relationships, culture, economy, and society at large. This approach was fundamentally different from the biomedical model, which started to develop rapidly in the United States after Masters and Johnson’s publication of Human Sexual Response in 1966. Contemporary feminist critics like Leonore Tiefer point out that Masters and Johnson’s approach initiated the process of biomedicalisation and commodification of sexuality and led to the domination of pharmaceutical industries in sex therapy. Meanwhile, owing to the given political and economic context, socialist sexual science was not tied to the market and remained holistic until the advent of capitalism in the 1990s. Along with the invention of Viagra, the free market significantly reshaped the field of sex therapy, giving priority to pharmacotherapy, promoting new sexual dysfunctions, and marginalising other forms of treatment. Nevertheless, Polish sexology was not fully transformed. It proved surprisingly resilient to the influence of pharmaceutical industries and the holistic approach to sex therapy remains highly valued and often practised; pharmacotherapy is perceived as insufficient and sexual dysfunctions, including erectile dysfunctions, are frequently treated using psychotherapy, which takes into account not only psychological but also social, economic and cultural issues. This article is based on the author’s ethnographic and archival research on the development of Polish sexology since the 1970s. She focuses on the relationship between sexuality, socialism, and capitalism and shows that an analysis of socialist sexology sheds light on the nature of the contemporary hegemonic understating of sexuality and sex therapy.

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