Special Reports / Civil partnerships and democracy

Sexuality untamed

Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski · 19 February 2013
Łukasz Pawłowski interviews Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska, an MP from the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO), former Minister of Labour and Social Policy

Łukasz Pawłowski: Why do discussions about social issues – like civil partnerships or in vitro reproduction – still arouse intense controversy among Polish politicians?

Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska: I believe that conservative circles are basically afraid to talk about sexuality. For some people this subject is so difficult that they do not even want to start any discussion and abruptly bring it to a close. How else can we explain a decision to stop all the bills on civil partnerships from being sent for work in parliamentary commissions? All the projects would be forwarded for further work, if they did not concern homosexual partnerships. That is because a discussion about informal heterosexual partnerships does not automatically lead to discussions about sexuality. In those cases, we can ignore notions of sex completely because we assume that it is obvious that two heterosexual people have sexual intercourse. It is so obvious, that it does not draw anybody’s attention to it. In the case of homosexual partnerships things are different – here sexuality is hard to ignore. I read on some website Jacek Kurski’s statement that this whole discussion about civil partnerships is in fact a disguised debate about homosexual partnerships. That is of course one subject of the debate but it is not disguised! The act on civil partnerships will concern both homosexual and heterosexual unions. No one hides it. But any debate about homosexual partnerships is so difficult that some people prefer not to address it in the first place.

What causes these problems with talking about sex?

One of the reasons is a lack of sexual education. An argument continuously put forward in the debate about civil partnerships says that such partnerships endanger the family. I can understand the reasoning that heterosexual partnerships, where a legal bond connecting partners is much weaker, may create some competition for the traditional family model. Some people may decide that it is better to enter into a civil partnership instead of marriage, because it is then easier to quit. But how can homosexual partnerships endanger the family? So that is not the matter. The thing is that when we agree on such partnerships they will enter our public space. And suddenly parents will have to explain to their children not only why men and women are together, but also why two men or two women can do that and why this other way of life is also equally valid.

Usually it was said that the Church’s influence, MPs’ own moral and religious beliefs or party discipline made the MPs vote the way they did. Almost no one mentioned problems with talking about sexuality. Conversely, many opponents of civil partnerships alluded to sexuality in their statements – they said that such partnerships are unproductive, hedonistic, endanger the future of our species, etc.

This is what I mean. When someone talks about civil partnerships in a sexual context, it is always about their being unproductive or hedonistic. Sexuality has bad connotations. It evokes an assumption of gaining pleasure from sex without the other things a partnership should bring, such as sacrifice, pain, being faithful for a lifetime, etc. Of course it is to a certain extent connected to the teachings of the Church, where sex is a taboo subject. In this sense this connection exists, I just see it in a more personal context. It is not the Church’s doctrine that prevents many conservatives from changing the law. There are several situations when the Church takes a certain stance, but people act differently. For instance the Church deems marriage to be holy and unbreakable, but I know a lot of right-wing people who have been married two or three times. It does not disturb them despite the Church’s clear stance on the matter. Meanwhile, many of these same people are afraid of civil partnerships on a very individual level.

Does it stem from the fact that Poland has actually never undergone a real sexual revolution, which in the 1960s brought about a substantial change in the way sex was perceived in the West, where it ceased to be merely a method of reproduction and instead became part of everyday life?

You are right, in 1968 we had a different revolution here. Apparently, the sexual revolution has not reached us yet. For many people sex is an important thing in life, but at the same time it is treated as something sinful which should not be talked about. Instead we should strive to perceive sexuality as a natural and potentially very pleasant part of everyone’s life.

On the other hand, references to sex and sexuality can be found throughout popular culture – from glossy magazines and music videos, to books and films.

Of course nowadays people talk and write about sex a lot, but often in a very vulgarized way. Therefore, sexual education is necessary at least to prevent young people on the cusp of adulthood from doing stupid things out of ignorance. And such things may turn out to be very costly. Information of this sort is simply useful – regardless of one’s religious or moral beliefs. I cannot see anything wrong with a teenage girl learning that unprotected sex may result in a pregnancy that will not allow her to live the life she has imagined. And only treating sex as a taboo subject, as an inconvenient element of life can make people oppose sexual education in schools. It results from a belief that if we do not tell young people about something, they will surely never get to know it.

The Civic Platform announces that it will return to the subject of civil partnerships, but if the reasons behind the reluctance to change the law are as deeply rooted as you say they are, the chances of achieving any progress seem minimal.

The conservatives from the Civic Platform decided to propose their own legislation. I believe it to be an arduous task, but maybe they will succeed. They would like to introduce those legal changes demanded by people in informal relationships, like easier access to hospital information, inheritance of property, mutual care, etc., without calling such relationships civil partnerships.

What would be your opinion of this legislation, if they ever do propose it?

The subject of civil partnerships is something that people need to familiarise themselves with, and it also requires some educational activities. Every debate, every discussion, even a huge argument serves the purpose of familiarisation. The same thing happened when women demanded equal rights – the whole process took a hundred years. In vitro fertilization is yet another example. Admittedly, the Parliament has not reached a satisfactory agreement, but after a few years of debate an average person knows much more about the issue and does not find this practice negative in and of itself. The situation with civil partnerships is analogous. They have always existed, more and more children are born in them. Every debate on this subject serves the purpose of taming this “devil” which may in the end not turn out to be so dangerous after all.

So should conservative legislation be proposed, which would somehow facilitate the lives of people living together outside of marriage, but avoided calling the thing by its name, would you find it good?

Maybe not good, but it would be a step in the right direction, it would open the door at least slightly. If it turns out that it is the only bill we can force through the Parliament, it will still be better than nothing. It will create some space, because in the long term laws serve a standard-setting function – people get accustomed to such partnerships and little by little they begin to accept them.