Koppel's 'Sex in the Soviet Union' is titillating, but it makes a point


December 19, 1990|By Michael Hill BTC

ABC's "The Koppel Report: Sex in the Soviet Union" is just what you think it is -- a cheap and titillating way to get viewers to watch a news documentary. But it is also something more.

Because in examining Soviets' views toward this most personal of acts, this hour reveals much of the confusion about individual liberty -- the meaning of it, the limits to it, the appropriate relationship between the individual and the state -- that currently grips that nation in turmoil.

There has been an outpouring of sexual material in the Soviet Union since Gorbachev's glasnost relaxed the strict rules that used to keep a tight rein on behavior. Reports from that country indicate that the people who used to live on the cutting edge by selling political tracts on the street now publish sex manuals.

"Sex in the Soviet Union," which will be on Channel 13 (WJZ) tonight at 10 o'clock, shows the crowds gathering around these vendors, examining their wares. Soft-core porn films are standard fare at so-called video clubs around the country, basement rooms where you pay admission to watch taped movies shown on a TV set.

A photographer who once flouted regulations to take pictures for a Playboy spread on the women of Moscow now finds that anything goes. A heavy metal band appears before its youthful rock crowd with a bevy of topless dancers. Gay men who once maintained strict secrecy now rendezvous in public areas. A gay woman leads a political movement to ensure the protection of alternative lifestyles.

Koppel, in part through interviews with some incisive Soviet experts, finds that Soviets are essentially going overboard, reacting to years of repression. And, beneath the excesses of the public displays, many practical problems remain.

One is the basic lack of privacy as Soviet couples often share their apartments with other families. Pressured by the demands of two jobs, limited economic prospects and a lot of heavy drinking, fully half the marriages, Koppel reports, end in divorce after only one year.

Birth control devices are hard to come by. Abortion is the standard alternative. It does not seem uncommon for a Soviet woman to have had a half dozen or more abortions.

AIDS is now appearing with the same epidemic-like spread it has shown in other countries. Prostitution is a job women turn to more and more often to make extra money and, in some cases, to meet a foreigner who might take them away from the despair of their homeland.

Koppel earnestly reports on all of this in his competent, cool, collected manner. And it is an impressive accumulation of evidence that compellingly proves that an examination of sex in the Soviet Union is a worthwhile endeavor.

What the documentary lacks is a point of view. Eventually, you just feel a bit overwhelmed by the information, which arrives in too many bits and pieces without enough analysis that would put it into some sort of perspective.

Then again, that might be the proper portrait of what is happening in the Soviet Union, where all sorts of repressed desires -- sex, nationalism, capitalism -- are emerging so quickly and haphazardly that proper perspective is in even shorter supply than meat in a Moscow food store.

There is one touch of irony in this report. To bring it up to American broadcast standards, ABC has to use computer effects to disguise a great deal of nudity. Hidden behind the blurs are not only pictures of the scantily clad in sex clubs and the nude photos openly displayed at kiosks around town, but also many images that were broadcast over Soviet television.

In other words, Russian TV now has more freedom to show nudity than American TV does. That, of course, wouldn't have been true when the hard-line communists were in power.

The Puritan-inspired censors who keep certain parts of the body -- as well as advertisements for condoms -- off of American TV usually wrap themselves in the flag and proclaim their allegiance to apple pie and motherhood. But it turns out that in their quest to ensure that individual desires conform to a state-approved model, they had a lot of allies in the old Kremlin.

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