It could be a Friday night at the theater. Outside a performance center in Moscow, girls in heels and long coats and men in suits line up mainly as couples, talking quietly, men with their hands lightly placed on their partners' backs. At the door, a girl in jeans is being denied entrance.
"But I really wanted to come in!"
She takes off her jeans, folds them up, and puts them in her purse.
"Now I can come in?"
A small black-and-white sign reads: Porn Pop Party.
According to some of the classy queuers, securing a ticket to this sex party isn't easy. Hopefuls must fill out an online form. Then the party organizers do a social media check on each applicant, making a judgment based on the applicant's "look" and whether they have mutual friends.
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Inside there is a dance floor where two girls wearing gimp masks are playing Die Antwoord. In a second room, guests sit in pairs as a glittery, 23-year-old blonde named Elena Rydkina is speaking instructions into a microphone.
"Touch the knee of your partner."
"Now, undress each other."
A bunch of high-tech dildos lie next to her, discarded, part of an earlier demonstration.
Last year, Rydkina and her friend Tanya Dmitrieva started Sexprosvet, a sex education project for adults that aims to, according to its tagline, eliminate "sexual ignorance in a country where there is no sex." More to the point, the group targets sexual illiteracy in the post-Soviet landscape through a combination of lectures—with titles like, "Aesthetic Gynecology and Urology: Statistics and Social Request" and "Power and Sexuality: Formation of Queer Theory"—and sex-positive events like the Porn Pop Party. They also host talks and events on topics like polyamory and BDSM, which are, according to Dmitrieva, taboo in Moscow, associated with cult-like subcultures and slandered as "perverted and dirty—even by the nice people and family friends whom I respect and love."
Dmitrieva is a fast-talking 20-something who taught French at a local high school before co-founding Sexprosvet. On the night of the event, she rushes between rooms, panicking about the construction of the fetish maze. She hands out her business card: "Tanya Dmitrieva: I am making sex everyday."
When it comes to sex, the government doesn't understand anything.
Having grown up in the 90s, after the Soviet Union collapsed, she thinks the Russian millennials she meets are uncomfortable talking about sex and sexuality because of the jarring political shifts of their childhoods. "American culture very aggressively interrupted our society," she says. "Suddenly, sex was all over TV, but we didn't really have things like sex education in schools."
It was simultaneously too much information and not enough, but the current situation, she says, is worse. "Now there is no information at all," she says. "Putin came and started this politics where family and church are the most precious things, and he is shutting everything down."
The Russian government still does not offer sex ed in schools, despite a growing HIV epidemic. In 2013, the former children's ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov, justified his opposition to sex ed by saying, "The best sex education that exists is Russian literature."
But Tanya doesn't want to use Sexprosvet as a political middle finger against the Duma's insistence on protecting the innocence of its nation's youth. To go to a Sexprosvet event, you must be over 18. "We are within the law," she says, in what can be imagined as her no-nonsense teachers voice.
That doesn't mean she thinks the law is good. "Many of the new laws are aiming to take us back to totalitarianism," she explains, referring to everything from 2013's controversial anti–gay "propaganda" legislation to the more recent "Big Brother law," a harsh anti-terrorism measure whose nickname was coined by Edward Snowden himself.
Indeed, Sexprosvet is not the first crew in Moscow to try and promote a little bit of sexual liberation in the context of Putin's legislative moralizing—but they're more equipped to combat it than their pornier predecessors, at least for right now. Far from the inner city pridelands, in a sports bar outside Moscow, a man in his 40s named Sergey Loginov rolls his eyes. "When it comes to sex, the government doesn't understand anything."
In 2003, the police came to the home of the self-described "inventor of the Russian porn industry." They searched his flat and went through his papers, took his tape recorder and his tapes. A court in Moscow convicted him of "illegal distribution" of pornographic materials under Article 242 of the Russian constitution—which bans all "illegal" production and dissemination of pornography—and gave him a one-year suspended sentence—"fantasy jail," as Loginov likes to call it. "Stupid, crazy, fascist people," he says.
Then, he says, his career began. "After the police attacked me, I said, 'Oh, you fuck me for nothing. You call this porn? Pictures of nude girls is porn? I will make real porn movies.'" From there, his destiny was clear—in 2004 alone, he says he made 20 films. "The police made me a porn producer in Russia."
Without sex ed in schools, porn might have served as young Russians' gateway to sex and sexuality. During the 2000s, there were attempts to clarify the questionable legal foundation of Article 242. What, exactly, constitutes "illegal" pornography? But politicians in parliament dragged their heels, knowing they couldn't enforce the blanket-ban law that they wanted. "There is no reason… to pass a law that will not work," the United Russia Deputy Oleg Morozov said in 2006—even if pornography, in his opinion, was "no less serious a crime than xenophobia and extremism."
In order to sell pornography in Russia, the Ministry of Culture must approve it first. Loginov says he's made 250 government-approved films—more than anyone else in Russia, he claims.
Nobody understands me in this country. Putin is the criminal, not me.
"Only two companies in Russia have the papers from the ministry to be legal," he says. "Mine and Sergei Pryanishnikov's."
Pryanishnikov's nickname is the "Russian Larry Flint," probably at least partially because of all the years he spent in court: suing the police for raids and theft, suing the Ministry of Culture when they tried to leash the loins of his creativity for vulgar language in titles like Anal Supremacy and Brave Female Masturbators.
"I was very interested in the legal aspect of distributing pornography," Pryanishnikov tells me over the phone. The media-savvy entrepreneur lives in St Petersburg, where he tried, unsuccessfully, to run for mayor in 2003, promising the city a sexual revolution. Nevertheless, the four-part series White Night of Sankt-Petersburg, which he made to toast the 300th anniversary of the city, was a big hit.
But Pryanishnikov's days of kickstarting the sexual revolution are over—he's in real estate now. "When I started, [porn] was an untapped market," he tells me, "but business died because of the internet. Fighting piracy is impossible."
When it comes to online pornography, government watchdog Roskomnadzor replaces the Ministry of Culture as the moral police. A law passed in 2012 allows Russia's federal communications agency to blacklist sites without a court order. Since then, censorship has ranged from shutting down sites containing child pornography to banning sites like Pornhub because they allegedly "propagandize non-traditional sexual relations and foster disrespect toward parents and other family members."
Loginov grew up 150 kilometers from Moscow. During his childhood in the Soviet Union, "it was absolutely impossible to read anything about sex," he says. "We couldn't even get anything on the black market—didn't exist outside Moscow." But despite a brief period of productivity in the 2000s, the rise of online pornography has also forced Loginov to seek his fortune elsewhere. He shot his last film five years ago, on the first floor above the bar we're sitting in.
"Nobody understands me in this country," he says. "Putin is the criminal, not me. Who can teach life to whom? Not Putin, to me."
Earlier that week, at a coworking space in the center of Moscow, several young professionals, among them Sexprosvet's Elena Rydkina, met to organize a podium discussion about the future of sex. "We will have many experts from the sex industry speaking, but no pornographers—they are all in hiding," explained Rydkina, shrugging her shoulders.