Back in the nineties, public service announcements and commercial ads promoted condoms as protection against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Since the turn of the century however, mass media have mostly changed their public service messages into ones denying that sex can be made safer by condom use, notes Borusiak. She finds this change to be an indicator of a broader paradigm shift in the relationship between the government and public in Russia, including, in particular, the government’s attempts to control the most intimate aspects of citizens’ lives.
Since the early post-Soviet period, the Russian public was introduced to the simple idea that condoms can protect from STIs and unplanned pregnancies. As a result, the country's abortion rates dropped by 2.5 times, according to Borusiak.
People's sex life was considered their private affair where the state had no business to interfere. There was a general assumption that people own their bodies and should be allowed to use them in any way, except for doing extremely dangerous things. According to Borusiak, it represented a drift away from the traditionally repressive attitude towards sex as a lowly pleasure. Everyone’s right to family planning was recognized as inalienable and deserving of support. Thus, educational programs were developed for students in order to promote family planning and prevent abortions and STIs.
The situation changed with the change of political climate in Russia in the 2000s. “The government, which sought to appear strong as opposed to the weak government of the 1990s, could not but attempt to extend its influence on citizens' family life and intimacy,” explains Borusiak.
Since the mid-2000s, the government has commissioned public service announcements – first aired in Moscow and then in other Russian cities – to promote loyalty in marriage and abstinence before marriage by insisting that there is no such thing as safe sex. “This message takes us back to repressive attitudes towards sex, with sex-related risks intentionally portrayed as inevitable," Borusiak notes. Furthermore, family planning is regarded as damaging to the state’s policy of boosting birth rates.
Borusiak reminds us that the No Such Thing as Safe Sex ad campaign in Moscow was first launched in 2005 amidst statements that allowing condom manufacturers to finance AIDS prevention in the first place was a mistake which had led to a decline in morals. Policies have become increasingly conservative since then. Borusiak notes that the Framework Concept of Russia's Family Policy through 2025 says explicitly that the family is not a private affair and the purpose of marriage is to "bear and jointly raise three or more children."
Borusiak found, however, that in recent years in Russia, public attitudes towards sex and intimacy have grown increasingly liberal and accepting of premarital and extramarital sex.
Today, according to national surveys conducted by the Levada Centre, just 23% of Russians – compared to 29% in 2007 and 42% in 1992 – consider premarital sex morally wrong. Young adults in Russia accept premarital relationships as a norm, but such attitudes do not translate into promiscuity or lack of feelings, Borusiak argues. She interviewed students from leading Moscow universities and found that single young Russians consider being sexually active a social norm to the same extent as going to college. That said, the vast majority of her respondents were convinced that being promiscuous is wrong, that sex partners should be bound by love, emotional attachment, and respect, and should be in a long-term relationship.
Borusiak also interviewed HSE students majoring in advertising and public relations, asking them about their attitudes towards (un)safe sex ad campaigns. In response to the question of whether they preferred ads promoting contraception or those insisting on abstinence before marriage, most students said that ads featuring effective contraception made more sense to them, since a change of social attitudes viewing premarital sex as normal is unlikely. In addition to this, virtually every respondent said that regardless of effective contraception, even more important are things like acting responsibly in one’s relationship, and emotional intimacy, love, and mutual trust. The respondents did not consider random and short-lived relationships as the norm.
The No Such Thing as Safe Sex ads are not changing young people's morals. “Sexual behavior is today's space of freedom, and any attempt to radically change this trend will fail,” Borusiak argues. However, messages that condoms do not protect from infection and that one will suffer for being sexually active are potentially dangerous, since they may lead young people to believe that using condoms does not make sense.
Traditional mass media in Russia, guided by the conservative policies of the government and the Orthodox Church, insist that sex is always unsafe and the only way to protect yourself is to be either faithful to your spouse or abstinent. At the same time, commercial advertisers use the internet to convince young people that they can and should have fun, because sex can be made safer. “As long as the internet is relatively free and the target audience actively uses it, this fight between conservative and progressive approaches will continue," Borusiak concludes.