Ilustration: Roma Gavrilă |

Sex was dangerous. For women, sex could be fatal. Sex was an obligation. If you didn’t want to have sex with your husband, you were frigid. If you got pregnant, it was your problem. If your husband left you, it was your fault. Your pleasure didn’t matter. Your body wasn’t yours. The only advice from your parents was: don’t bring shame on us. The only advice they passed on to their daughters was: don’t get pregnant.

This is how many of the women I interviewed for this article described their experience of sex during the communist period. They are the generations of mothers and grandmothers for whom sex meant the possibility of losing control of one’s life, paying for clandestine abortions, physical suffering and a culture of permanent risk.

Between 1966 and 1989, abortions were almost completely banned in Romania, contraception was unavailable, and sex education was almost non-existent. A woman had a patriotic duty: she had to give birth at all costs.

“The idea of sex was related to fear and terror,” says Mihaela Miroiu, feminist theorist, activist and Professor at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies (SNSPA). “Of course, it was, in a way, about pleasure too, but it was a pleasure that had hellish consequences.”

The Decree Chronicles has set out to explore the impact of the legislation that almost completely banned abortions on the way women in Romania experienced their sexual lives, and to ask to what extent does this legacy of the traumatic past impact on today’s views on sexuality, intimacy and sexual identity.

Some of the interviewees wanted their identities to be protected in the context of personal and sensitive information. Others demanded that only their first name be published. Only a few agreed to give their first and last names.

Guilty of Her Own Death

Guilty of Her Own Death

Edwina Crăciun was two years old when she found her mother dead at home, from an abortion she had performed on herself. 

“My mother died in 1981 because she tried to have another home abortion. This time she tried oleander and completely poisoned herself.” 

Her name was Jenica. She was 29 years old when she lost her life. The family spoke with the policeman and the village doctor, who wrote the official cause of death as cardiac arrest. The real cause had to be covered up because not only was the result of a clandestine abortion, but also due to another secret.

“I later found out that she wasn’t pregnant with my father,” says Edwina, “that she no longer loved him and that she was having an affair with another man. Then I heard that my father beat her, that she liked to dance and sing, that she was full of life. She was also very beautiful. I only have one picture of us together. These are the facts. How it affected us all, that’s a different story.”

Nearly 10,000 women died during the communist era as a result of clandestine abortions. This is the official number of recorded cases. Sometimes the cause of death was hidden and other causes were reported instead, as in the case of Jenica.

The daughter grew up facing pity from those around her. “They didn’t refer to me in any other way than ‘poor her’.” But others in her local community would make judgments about her mother’s virtue.

“Your mother died because she was a whore,” some relatives told Edwina.

The daughter internalized this negative vision of her mother throughout her teenage years. She did not receive any post-traumatic support,  and only at the age of 20 did someone finally tell her that her mother loved her very much.

“Now I know she was very, very brave,” she says.

Jenica had the courage to seek pleasure and love in a society in which women were condemned for it, believes Edwina.

“Now I have her eyes,” she adds.

“Some Women Didn’t Survive.
I Did.”

“Some Women Didn’t Survive. I Did.”

“For me, sex doesn’t matter,” says Dichița, a 58-year-old woman. She agreed to speak to us on condition of anonymity. Dichița is her childhood nickname.

“In Ceaușescu’s time, we had abortions all on our own,” she says. “Some women died, some survived. I survived.” Dichița has four children, and experienced 14 abortions.

She grew up in a poor family, with alcoholic parents who left school after two years of study  They never gave her a packed lunch to take with her to classes. At breaktime, she came home from school to look for something to eat. She would find her father drunk, and would scrape the inside of food-cans to scoop up the leftover fat.

“[My parents] had children either by accident, or so they could have someone around the house,” says Dichița. “It was clear that we were not wanted because we were neglected.” There was no question of education or advice. “I didn’t know anything about birth, I didn’t know anything about sex, I was scared and disoriented.”

At the age of 16, she met a boy who worked on a construction site. Her first sexual experience resembled a rape.

“I was on my period, but it didn’t matter to him. He insisted and, in the end, it happened… it was very painful and forceful. I remember him lying next to me after he had finished, and his penis was on my thigh, full of blood. I think we met two more times, then I got pregnant. My belly was growing. When my family noticed, they beat me. When the baby’s father heard that I was pregnant, he disappeared. I found him. I sued him for alimony, but he only paid me three months and that was all”

, says Dichița. 

The year was 1980. Dichița was 17 years old and had a child born out of wedlock. It was one of the most difficult situations for a woman during the communist era.

Nicolae Ceauşescu at the Women National Conference, 1978. | Photo: The Communist Online Photo Archive, cota 141/1978

Single Mothers Faced “Stigma”

Single Mothers Faced “Stigma”

With the introduction of the 1966 decree, sex became asource of fear: if you became pregnant, you were obliged to keep the child. If you were not married, the family would disown you, or treat you badly.

“As a single woman [with child], you carried a stigma,” says Professor Mihaela Miroiu. “You passed for a person of loose morals and a person of loose morals finds it difficult to make friends among married women. [The suspicion was] if you have a child out of wedlock, it means that you have sex outside of marriage and it means that you could also have sex with my husband.”

Propaganda media encouraged women to stay in unhappy marriages and condemned those who chose to divorce. | Foto: Flacăra 

When her out-of-wedlock child turned two and a half, Dichița met her current husband. “And that’s where the real ordeal began,” she says.

The man was jealous and violent. When he started beating her child too, she thought about leaving him. She was just over 20 years old. But she was pregnant again, and to avoid poverty and the shame of being a single mother with two children, she stayed with the man who abused her.

He only wanted to have sex with her when he was drunk. The sex act was likerape, says Dichița. “I would wake up with him on top of me at one or two o’clock at night.” If she refused him, he would insult her and accuse her of sleeping with others. She felt so terrorized and found his accusations so absurd that she tried to commit suicide. The man did not take any precautions during sexual intercourse, which is why Dichița often became pregnant. When that happened, he encouraged her to get rid of the pregnancy. “I nearly died every time,” she recalls. When she was having an abortion, her husband would not stay in the house.

“[At that time] one of the virtues of being a woman was not to pursue her own sexual pleasure. Moreover, the family code implied that sexuality was a family obligation. You would not have been able to invoke​ ​marital rape, since sexuality was a marital duty. The women owed it [to their husbands]. And the general view was that the issue of pregnancy prevention was a matter for the woman”

, says Miroiu.

Dichița says about herself that she has been “family oriented and very serious”. There has been no sexual pleasure for her. Sex has been endured, like other hardships in life. “Even though I was tired of him, and I was thinking of leaving him, I had nowhere to go. I endured beatings, insults, humiliation, all in vain. I have been a silent person.”

“It’s a Miracle I Didn’t Go Crazy”

“It’s a Miracle I Didn’t Go Crazy”

Among the first and most important works of research about the way women experienced and related to sex and sexuality during the communist period is a study by Adriana Băban, a Professor in Health Psychology, Behavioral & Psychosomatic Medicine and Qualitative Research Methods at Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca.

The 1996 study entitled ‘Women’s Sexual Life: A Traumatic Experience in Socialist Romania’ is based on 50 interviews with women from Cluj who were between 18 and 50 years old in 1988.

Out of 50 women, only five said they were able to find contraceptives on the black market. 40 out of 50 women had endured several clandestine abortions. Only one person said something positive about the beginning of her sex life: “I never accepted my parents’ outdated ideas. When I made love for the first time, I found it quite enjoyable and romantic.”

The women’s testimonies show that sex was associated with duty and could cause traumatic experiences:

“When I saw how useless those contraceptive methods were and that I was pregnant again, I thought to myself that it would be better to have surgery and remove my uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes. Absolutely everything.”
“For me, sex life is not that important. Sexuality is men’s business. They are the ones who take the initiative when they feel the need, and the women are there to accept and satisfy them.”
“It took me a long time to get used to my husband. Although I loved him, I did not feel any pleasure during sexual intercourse. I was just making love out of duty. My husband often reproached me for being cold as ice. I only had my first orgasm eight years after our marriage.”

All the women interviewed said that they wanted to be mothers, but none of them wanted to have more than two children. The reasons were poverty, housing shortages and the difficulties of everyday life.

“When I realized I was pregnant, it was the end of the world to me,” said one woman. “I nearly killed myself,” said another.

“Don’t Bring Shame on Us”

“Don’t Bring Shame on Us”

Sexuality was a taboo subject, surrounded by shame and silence, regardless of the social background of the women.

Dorina, a 56-year-old woman raised in the countryside, says the topic was strictly avoided in her family. When she had her first period at the age of 11, she was scared because she didn’t know what was happening to her. All she heard from her mother was: “Be careful not to bring shame on me, and don’t get pregnant.”

Ioana Coja, aged 72, was born into a family in Bucharest. Her father was a gynecologist and a university professor. Her mother also had higher education studies. In terms of sexuality, however, their silence was identical to that of the farmer’s family, in which Dorina grew up.

Ioana’s parents told her nothing about sexuality or physical development. When she had her first period, she thought she was going to die. The family thought such things were trivial, and it wasn’t elegant to talk about them. Ioana Coja found out about sex from Romanian writer Liviu Rebreanu’s 1932 novel Răscoala (The Revolt),  which describes a rape scene.

“The idea of ​​sex education was non-existent. It was something only whores knew about. A girl from a normal family, with normal parents, shouldn’t concern herself with such things, because she risked becoming a whore”

, Ioana remembers.

Professor Mihaela Miroiu says that she first heard about female orgasm in a movie on a pirated video cassette. She was 28 years old. “So great was our ignorance, so poor our language on that topic, so great our lack of culture,” she adds.

Her first reaction was one of anger. “Why didn’t I know all this? Why didn’t my mother tell me? Although my mother, bless her, came from the same world. At the time, our mothers taught us that we had to be virgins until marriage and that all men were pigs, that they only pursued their own pleasure, then they took their hats and their trousers and left, leaving us to deal with the trouble.”

Fear and shame were the basis of the “sex education” offered to girls at the time of the Decree. The idea that sexuality was shameful, even immoral, was supposed to scare girls off sex until they were married. Only then did they have the right – but also the duty – to become sexual beings.

But the taboos and shame surrounding sex were not a garment you could take off after marriage. As Adriana Băban writes in her 1996 study, “the sudden possibility of sexual involvement, after years of denying yourself even the allusion to such an experience, was a complex emotional issue”.

The silence about sex and sexuality was something that not only existed in the family environment, but also among friends. Women didn’t talk to each other about it. “Regarding our sex life, if there was a conversation, it was extremely short and poor in vocabulary,” says Miroiu. “It was more like a monotonously expressed syllogism of bitterness, because we had no culture on this topic.”

“My mother, Joan of Arc”

“My mother, Joan of Arc”

Emilia (a pseudonym) says that her mother really wanted to study architecture, but at the age of 19 she became pregnant. The father was a “dubious guy, a mythomaniac with whom she had little in common, but who exploited his wife’s weaknesses”. They married and divorced three years later.

Emilia’s mother did not study architecture and raised her alone throughout the hardships of the ‘90s. She sold jeans brought from Turkey to support the two of them.

“You can’t imagine how much potential the woman had, how cool she was and how all that potential was destroyed after I was born. She was a fine and young woman, but also an immature mother. Trauma freezes your growth at the age when it hits, and traps you in that moment for a long time. Well, my mother was 19 years old all her life, and it suited her. She was… fun. But it’s awful, I loved her enormously, she was my best friend, but underneath all of this is the thought that my existence destroyed her chances in life”

, says Emilia.

Her mother blamed herself for getting pregnant at the age of 19 and considered it immoral to have sex at that age. “I think she thought that she had done something immeasurably stupid, something that totally dishonored her and her whole family,” says Emilia. “That she was not… a good girl, she hadn’t waited for her wedding.”

Her daughter tenderly called her ‘Joan of Arc’ after her mother proudly told a gynecologist that she hadn’t had sex in 15 years. “The immature child in her was waiting for someone to tell her ‘well done, that’s what a good, honorable woman does. She abstains until she no longer needs it’.”

A propaganda article in a communist magazine promoting “the joy of maternity”. | Photo: Flacăra 

The trauma of unwanted pregnancies and clandestine abortions was so strong in some cases, that women decided to give up sex.

Maria (a pseudonym), a 53-year-old woman, says her mother “was done” with having sex after giving birth to her fourth child. “My mother loved us, but she hadn’t wanted us,” she says.
“She told us that she wanted to have one child, the rest of us were accidents, and she had tried to get rid of the pregnancies by different methods.”

Maria says that it was not easy for them to hear that they were unwanted, but that she understands how difficult the situation was for her mother. She was 17, she fell in love, but she didn’t know anything about relationships.

“When she came to her senses, she was 30 years old and had four children.”

She chose sexual abstinence for fear of becoming pregnant again. She told her husband that she would never have sex with him again and that he should do whatever he considered. “And my father started drinking,” says Maria.

Under What Conditions
Does a Woman Have an Orgasm?

Under What Conditions Does a Woman Have an Orgasm?

The burden of unwanted pregnancies and clandestine abortions was often carried by women alone, without the support of their husbands.

Ioana Coja says that if complications arose from a clandestine abortion, her husband would suddenly disappear. During such an episode, the husband went to his father, leaving her alone in the house with two small children, while bleeding in the family bathroom. When he returned in the evening, he asked her: ‘Are you still in this situation?’

When I ask Ioana, “Were you afraid to have sex?”, she answers “of course”. The only time sex wasn’t a reason to worry was when she was already pregnant.

Ionela (a pseudonym) is 34 years old and remembers that her grandmother told her how she would lock herself in the bathroom and perform an abortion on herself on several ocassions. She almost died of a hemorrhage several times. The husband, Ionela’s grandfather, was absent from family life. He was a waiter at the Party canteen and “treated his home like a hotel”. The couple lived in different worlds.

“Out at the local bar, he heard all kinds of stories about adultery, while she was a bit of a prude. I think she saw sex as the duty of a married women. But she told me a story once, that, when she didn’t want to touch his penis, my grandfather packed her bags and took her to the train station.”

How did men relate to all the sexual anxiety felt by women? “The important thing was for them to feel pleasure,” says Ioana Coja. “Women mattered very little. At that time, at best, if your partner was a gentleman, he would agree to pay the woman who was giving you the abortion.” 

“In most of the cases I know, [the woman and the man] were two people who walked parallel paths from a sexual point of view,” explains Miroiu. There were men who had a moral sense and empathized with women, but unfortunately, they were not the rule, argues the professor. Care and empathy were more of an exception. The explanation lies in the fact that they were part of a culture in which the will of women didn’t matter. That’s what they learned from both their family, and from society.

“There was a joke during Communism that expressed this. A listener of Radio Yerevan phones in to ask: ‘Under what conditions does a woman have an orgasm?’ Radio Yerevan answers: ‘Who cares?’ This is probably the reason why we talk so little about that even now,” adds Miroiu.

Your Body Belonged to the State

Your Body Belonged to the State

Many testimonies about sex and sexuality during the time of the Decree are based on the idea that what a woman wanted didn’t matter and her body was not her own. 

“A woman’s body belonged to the state. The police made sure that the woman fulfilled her role as a woman and gave birth to children,” explains psychotherapist Cătălina Hetel.

Dorina, 56 years old, remembers that, as a student, she was forced to undergo a gynecological check-up alongside her colleagues, before she could take her final exams. The feeling was similar to being taken to the slaughterhouse. The gynecologist, “a man with a pretty dirty mouth”, wanted to see her breasts as well. He put his hand on them and told her that she could breastfeed, “even if the breasts are small, they are free”. It was her first contact with a gynecologist.

The woman’s body also belonged to the community.

“My mother had me when she was 21 years old,” says Ionela. “They had been in a relationship for five years before they got married, and because she had not become pregnant in her first year after marriage, people asked her if she was ill. Both society and her relatives were expecting the child to appear straight away.”

Unwanted Children

Unwanted Children

Unwanted pregnancies led to many families in which the partners barely knew each other. They were strangers who shared a life together.

These couples – often very young – never got to know who they were, what they liked, and what they wanted. Their relationships were often hindered precisely by the pregnancies that brought them together, explains psychotherapist Cătălina Hetel. 

Many children, born six or seven months after their parents’ wedding, realize in therapy that their parents got married because of them, that the parents had to stay together because of the pregnancy, and not because they chose it. This has a strong emotional impact on the children.

“We develop our sense of self through the eyes of the mother. The mother looks at us with pride, with love, [she is saying] he/she is mine, I am glad of it. Some say: ‘I didn’t see that’. Very often, for that mother, the child was a turn in the road. From that moment on, she had to take a particular road. Maybe if the child hadn’t existed, her path would have been different. It’s a very painful moment to start your life from”

, says Cătălina Hetel.

Decree 770 was passed in October 1966. In the same month the most important Romanian magazine issued this cover.

In some cases, mothers simply told their children that they didn’t want them and that they were accidents.

“I am a product of the Decree issued in ’66,” says Cristina Săracu “I was born in ’67. I know from my mother, who told me she didn’t want me, but since she didn’t have a choice, she had me. She told me this in a moment when she was upset.” 

Cristina says that she has always known that she was attracted to women, but the first time she talked about it with someone other than her partner was in the early 2000s, when she confessed it to a friend.

Homosexuality was criminalized in Romania through article 200, introduced in the Penal Code in 1968. The provision was only repealed in 2001. Cristina says that her first relationship with a woman began in her freshman year of college, in 1987, and lasted 13 years. She describes the relationship as “wonderful” for the most part, including when it came to sex. There was no risk of getting pregnant in a lesbian couple. On the other hand, if they were caught, they could end up in jail or lose their job, their family, and their reputation.

Emilia, whose mother did not study architecture because she got pregnant, says that she sees a strong separation between the ideas of sex and having ​​a child. “It seems to me more immoral to have a child [than to have sex],” she says. “I found all sorts of explanations for it, the environment, career, that life is painful and there’s no point in bringing a child into this world. But I think in truth I have this underlying belief that having children can ruin your life.”

“It’s Awful to Be a Woman”

“It’s Awful to Be a Woman”

Having experienced the turbulence of a period whensex could easily lead to unwanted pregnancies and turn their lives upside down, many mothers passed on these fears to their daughters and granddaughters.

In general, girls have learned from their mothers that sexuality is wrong, and being a woman is something terrible and difficult, says Cătălina Hetel.

“After so many troubles with my unwanted pregnancies, it’s a miracle I didn’t go crazy. That’s why I’m happy I have two boys instead of two girls who would have had to go through the same troubles as I did”

, says one of the women interviewed by researcher Adriana Băban.

Fear and repression dominated the way parents talked to their children about sexuality even after the fall of the communist regime and the ending of Decree 770. Ruxandra, aged 36, grew up hearing her mother, who had had several clandestine abortions, telling her all the time that she mustn’t get pregnant. As a child, she never saw her parents show affection towards each other.

Ruxandra has never been pregnant, but she didn’t enjoy her sex life either, at first. For a long time, she repressed her sexual emotions and desires. It was only at the age of 28 that she began to see things differently, when she came out of a relationship with her only sexual partner up to that point. She says that she went through her second adolescence and began to know herself. “I was very competent at my job, but in terms of who I was, I had to start almost from zero when I was 28 years old,” she says.

There were also women who rediscovered themselves in terms of sexuality after 1989, after they escaped the stress of pregnancy, and their children grew up. Watching TV series and movies from abroad brought a different conception of sex and intimacy. Ionela, aged 34, says she has a very close relationship with her mother. They talk about Ionela’s relationships, and about sex toys. “I think she rediscovered herself after I grew up,” she says. “She reinvented herself. My mother is an incredible woman. In my first relationship, I went to her right away, and we went to the gynecologist together so I could get all the information.”

Mihaela Miroiu says that she sees a radical change in the perception of sexuality in the generations who are now a little over or under 20, who have less inhibitions and “have a clearly formed idea that there are no differences between men and women when it comes to demanding a qualitative relationship from the other”.

I Don’t Want to Be Like My Mother

I Don’t Want to Be Like My Mother

One of the legacies of the way women and men related to sexuality before 1989 is a flawed relationship with intimacy, believes psychotherapist Catalina Hetel. If sex can be dangerous, then everything about intimacy is dangerous. “I think one of the problems couples have now is the issue of intimacy,” she says. “They don’t know how to be intimate. People talk about their sex life, but it’s considerably more difficult to talk about intimacy.”

Another legacy is the lack of models in the couple’s life, adds the psychotherapist.  Parents were often two strangers living in the same house and doing chores together, not two partners. As adults, their children say they don’t want to be like them in relationships, but they don’t know how else to behave.

Some of Hetel’s patients say they only remember their mother as a mother, but have no memory of her as a wife or a partner. Being a wife, in their minds, meant feeding their husband, ironing his clothes, and nagging him from time to time. Raised in this environment, daughters, in turn, don’t know how to approach their partners, especially after they have become mothers. There are also men who say they don’t want to be like their fathers, but they have no idea how else to behave, and how to be present in their marriage.

These children often reject this maternal model, and think: I don’t want to be like my mother. Mothers were perceived as being either cold and absent, or too present and anxious. In many cases, mothers lost themselves in their relationship with their children, becoming overly concerned about them, sacrificing all the joys of life for their children, in order to rid themselves of the burden of sex or of a man they did not love.

The Past as Warning

The Past as Warning

Maria, a 53-year-old woman whose mother lived in sexual abstinence after the age of 30, says the era of the Decree was a terrible time for women.

She remembers an image from August 1989, when she arrived at the hospital after losing a pregnancy: several women lined up in examination chairs, undergoing surgery for abortions without anesthetic, and a stream of blood coming from behind a curtain where a woman was crying, while a man kept asking her: “Who did this to you? If you’re not going to talk, you’re going to die!”

“My 31-year-old daughter can’t understand my fear of gynecologists,” says Maria. “I keep explaining, but she can’t possibly understand. Life at the time was an ordeal for women.”

Psychotherapist Cătălina Hetel says that many women survived by denying what happened, and saying to themselvesIt wasn’t like that or It wasn’t as bad as that or We still found a way

“Denial is the easiest mechanism of defense,” she adds. “You can’t go through all that madness and always be aware of what’s happening to you. Their daughters are angry with the mothers because they don’t understand why they didn’t see it, and why they didn’t notice the abnormality of it. I often tell them that if they had noticed the abnormality, they would have gone crazy.”

Some women try to talk about what they went through, but in a detached manner, says the psychotherapist. “Do you know what a post-traumatic story is like? It’s cold. I did that, I had 15 abortions, I sat on the kitchen table, it was ok. They are recounting something absolutely traumatic with detachment.” This style of remembering is a way to avoid the emotions associated with those events, which could be overwhelming. “They tell the story in such a way as to not feel. If they felt [the emotions], they would be too much.”

Still, the psychotherapist believes that these experiences need to be put into words. Otherwise, the trauma rolls from generation to generation. It is a transgenerational burden, passed on, silently, through family secrets, and through lack of awareness at a societal level. Such effects continue to echo in how Romanians today relate to one another. 

“For example, we are very tolerant of abuse, but we don’t understand why. We have experienced abuse, we have been taught that it is not abuse, that it is love, and we are no longer decoding it correctly. We don’t decode abuse as abuse. We don’t decode lies as lies”

, adds Cătălina Hetel.

“You can’t battle history,” says Mihaela Miroiu. “It was what it was.”

We can only take note, understand and use the past as an alarm system.


About the author


Author

  • Jurnalistă la Libertatea. A scris anterior pentru publicația Scena9 și platforma Romania Insider. Alte colaborări au inclus Balkan Insight, Politico sau Decât o Revistă.