“Feminists about the war” is a series of informal feminist talks. First-hand testimonies and thoughts of women active in civic activism before and during the full-scale Russia’s invasion are equally important as reports about political decisions.
In this material, you can read the conversation in text format. Also, you can watch the podcast with English subtitles on our YouTube.
How bad is the situation with sex education in Ukraine? Can we talk about it during the full-scale war? How does rape culture affect the perception of sexual crimes committed by the Russian occupiers?
Listen to the seventh episode of the “Feminists about the war” podcast. Our guests:
Olga Kukula — poet, feminist activist, sex education trainer and mentor at the non-formal school “Nevgamovni”
Maria Omel’ka — sexologist, feminist and LGBTQI+ activist
Anya Bobrovitska — ex-blogger, feminist activist, founder of the brand of massage candles
Anya Bobrovitska: Hi, my name is Anya. I am a sexual educator, cultural scholar, and feminist. I work in a government agency and recently found a brand of massage candles.
Maria Omel’ka: I am Masha. I am a sexologist, translator, activist, feminist, and part of the LGBTQ+ community. The English name of my specialization is sex therapy (a little bit different terminology). I’m also a sex blogger, although I’ve been inactive for the last few months, we’ll talk more about that soon.
Olga Kukula: Hi everyone! Glad to meet you all, girls. I am Olya. I have several professional identities — a mother, a poet, and a feminist. Also, I’m a civil activist, a sex educator, a mentor in the space “Restless ones”, and a tutor in the NGO “Girls”.
Sex education in Ukraine
Anya Bobrovitska: Firstly, I would like to discuss sex education. What do you think, how advanced is it in Ukraine?
Maria Omel’ka: I get the impression, that if we visualize the data in the form of a chart, then it definitely went upwards. It may be advancing slowly, but progress was imminent… up until the full-scale war.
I offered to facilitate training or hold a lecture on sex education. I could work everywhere: in bars, clubs, cafes, schools, kindergartens, universities — any private or public level. The reaction to my proposals two years ago and before the war are completely different things.
Last year before the war it seemed like everyone invited me, especially private structures because it is more challenging to manage with the government ones. In one week I might hold lectures in three-four schools and two bars, and it was a constant process. Now it’s getting clear that… Well, I don’t say that sex education is not on time, but at least not in the right context or volume, with a different target audience, themes, etc.
Olga Kukula: My experience is a bit different. In fact, since the beginning of the war, I started getting more invitations to hold an event. I gave lectures on different festivals. Also, I got an invitation to a private school. I was like: “Wow, the school!” I’ve also been invited to the summer camps… That’s why I’m not sure if the war has influenced it. I guess it may feel this way for you because you’re in England, right?
Maria Omel’ka: Yeah, I’m abroad almost all the time. I knew I will go abroad from the very beginning. There have been some circumstances that made me go — first to Spain, then to England. Maybe I’m not fully immersed in the context. But still, in the first months of the war, when the schools I collaborated with for a long time were asking me to hold some events, I eagerly agreed, and then they just disappeared.
Olga Kukula: Nowadays, people feel less need for sex education than before. We work with different topics in the NGO — domestic violence and so on. Many of the state authorities say that volunteering and war are the main things now, and the rest is not on the agenda.
Anya Bobrovitska: Once a subscriber messaged me about how I work with sexual education and talk about condoms when poor children from our Romani community suffer. By the way, it was this very same man which texted me that condoms are a scam, they don’t work, that lube breaks down condoms, and women’s natural lubricant breaks them down as well… I can’t imagine how it doesn’t destroy the dick in that case, but… He’s a grown-up man.
At my lectures, children ask if they can use a plastic bag instead of a condom, and that makes my skin crawl. I mean, geez, how can these things be irrelevant? I just don’t get it.
Olga Kukula: We organized events on menstrual hygiene aimed at children. In one of the regional schools, I told the students about different hygiene products. The Principles of Health teacher (that is the subject that has on sexual education) the teacher added: “But girls, you can’t use tampons”. And I was like: “You can”.
We met at recess, and I explained to her why it’s a myth, provided an anatomical explanation, and told her that teenage girls can use tampons. And then she said: “Thanks. I’m discussing everything with them, and we also talk about victim behavior” I was like “Victim WHAT?” She explained: “You can’t go out at night, wear short skirts, etc.” Geez! I educated her on this topic for ten minutes as well.
“My friend thought she had cancer when she started menstruating”: the way to sex education
Anya Bobrovitska: I would like to share my story about how the topics of sex and sexual education entered my life and listen to yours as well. My parents haven’t discussed sex with me. I mean they told me about the condoms, not the sex though. I don’t know how they thought it would work… Mom told me about menstruation, so I understood it.
Always or Contex came to our school to give a lecture about menstruation. But it was too late… It was the ninth grade, and almost everyone in the class already had their period. So, we didn’t learn anything new.
I had a friend that thought she had cancer when she started menstruating. Her parents didn’t tell her anything. I wonder how it was for you.
Maria Omel’ka: Unfortunately, I went to the medical university because my parents were doctors. Since early childhood, I have had a good grasp on the medical aspect of sex ed. I knew about everything: sex, giving birth, periods, etc. It was a bit too much for me.
When I was twelve, I saw childbirth for the first time. It was my mom who was giving birth. It’s not a traumatic experience for me, at least I don’t feel so, in therapy we didn’t regard it as trauma. It was just interesting.
I was quite knowledgeable since childhood. I assumed that everyone knew what I do. When I was 16, all my partners were older than me. Still, it was me who educated them, explaining why we needed condoms, lube, etc. I constantly thought that something was really off.
There is a story about my university. I saw who my groupmates were, soon-to-be Ukrainian doctors. I understood that I had not the slightest desire to send my relatives to one of these doctors. They weren’t diligent in anatomy, bribed their way into graduation and. I didn’t graduate. I won’t be a doctor. That’s how it happens — the only person that studied hard for the field won’t get into that field.
I realized that I was in dire need of a balance. There was a moment when I dropped out of the university and explored myself. Then sexology and sex education (for me they are inseparable) became a kind of revelation.
Olga Kukula: In seventh grade, I was a volunteer in the library. There I saw the biology books for ninth graders. I hadn’t exactly stolen them because I intended to return them. I just took them away from the library and showed the pictures to my classmates. That was probably the first sex education session I held.
In the ninth grade we came to the topic of sex. I tell this example to parents and teachers in my pieces of training or lectures. The biology teacher said to us “You already know everything about this theme” and we just moved on to another chapter. We shouldn’t act like her because there are a lot of myths.
I had my first sex at 19 with my future husband, and everything was good. I had an experience with sexual violence… I think it influenced me to take up sex education as well as my daughters. I’m a feminist, a social activist and a sex education trainer. And I have a very selfish goal — I want my daughters to live in a better world and not to face what I and other women I work with or know their stories faced in our lives. Same with other children, so I work in this direction.
Maria Omel’ka: I had a nice school. The biology lessons were good, and that’s where I got the best lectures on sex ed, contraception, STDs, etc. before my ninth grade. Mind that it was a public school in Donetsk. Neither the Ukrainian medical lyceum in Kyiv nor Kharkiv medical university topped these lessons. In fact, there wasn’t any sex ed, like, at all.
Anya Bobrovitska: At school we didn’t even have the anatomy atlas focused on women’s anatomy. I couldn’t learn how breasts function, since no one told us about it, and there was no atlas.
Maria Omel’ka: Medical education is so hard, especially in Ukraine. It seems it wants to kill you: to prevent you from sleeping, eating, etc. That’s why when you study all these topics, you regard it through an asexual lens of sorts — don’t want to offend anyone here. You’re so far from sex. It hurts, you want to sleep, eat, and die. You want to graduate and forget about the university.
Sex blogging during the full-scale war
Anya Bobrovitska: Maria, at the beginning you said that you stopped blogging, why?
Maria Omel’ka: After the beginning of the full-scale invasion I spent a lot of time getting to one country, then to the other I wanted to keep a blog, but certain contexts were lost or deemed inappropriate. I touched upon the topics that need to be described during the war: how to overcome stress, cope with anxiety, how to contact crisis support, etc.
And it was a moment when I felt completely drained. I don’t care that I’m not blogging now, even though it’s the first time over the past few years that I made a pause and I’m fine with that. I’m settling down in England, and it’s not that easy: I have three jobs, and two educations. Everything happens at the same time, relocation, something else… So, I just take my time.
Sex education has truly changed. In my recent education activities, I focused on sexualized violence. Currently it’s topic number one. In a sense, I’m glad that this topic was put in the spotlight. I am not glad because of the reasons for it.
I’m a sexologist, and I completed courses focusing on work with sexualized violence survivors. So that’s the topic I’m working on since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. I work with these clients almost every day. I felt relief that I didn’t manage to complete the course on work with children. I can’t imagine how I would do it.
I had a bit toxic personal rule: one client that survived rape means 1 liter of alcohol afterward, two = 2 liters, three = 3 liters. It was arduous for me to cope with it in the evening, not during the consultation. Now “I’d recovered from alcoholism”, congratulations to me.
Anya Bobrovitska: My story is quite similar. I blamed myself for not being active on my blog for one month and a half. There was even a moment when I questioned myself, not sure if I can call myself a sex educator if I’m not actually blogging.
My blog was active at the beginning of the full-scale war. I got involved right from the start. I’d written my greatest post ever — “Menstruation and war”. I felt like I’m a superstar when the number of my subscribers doubled in a day.
This post got 28 000 likes, for me it was… I didn’t expect it to happen, I was overwhelmed, and I felt I actually help others.
I worked with different topics: sex during the war, period, rape, everything I could… Suddenly I understood that I don’t want to speak or blog anymore. It only took away my energy, when I lived through an existential crisis.
I decided to study more systematically. Next year I plan to enroll in a master’s psychology program, as I really need it. When I graduated, I decided “no more academical studies”.
I understood that I am not going to work with rape. It’s too complicated for me. I’m not ready to take this responsibility. I don’t want to understand that I failed a person I simply couldn’t fail.
Currently, I make massage candles and give 50 UAH from each candle to charity. We made a big collection for this charity fund. They work with women who survived the war rape. I am a huge fan of their work. And I am proud that I can support them financially. I recommend everyone to join in.
Olya, what about you?
Olga Kukula: February 24 began in an interesting way… I had some plans. That isn’t something unique, but I had my plans. I wake up in the morning, and the kindergarten teacher writes in the group chat “Do not bring children today”. I have no idea why, I get angry, because of all my plans… Working with a child or without a child is a big difference, all my plans are about to collapse. Then I turn on the TV… and I understand everything.
During the first months I was not engaged in sex education at all, I focused on humanitarian aid and assistance. We used to write posts, and people from Frankivsk brought something. Then we applied for small rapid response grants, bought the necessary things, arranged them…
It was the rhythm of working your fingers to the bone. Almost without days off, and with children. Since all kindergartens were closed, I took them to work and back. It was very cold, I remember, in the office and everywhere.
Other activities helped me. I accidentally applied for an artistic residency and went to Poland for a month with my children in May-June. To the Bialowieza Forest near the Belarusian border, so far away. The residence was in the forest with other artists. It brought me back to myself and saved me from an emotional pit.
When I returned home, I went to psychotherapy again. At the beginning of the war, I refused because it seemed that I would be more vulnerable. That is, if I talk about my emotions, I will be more vulnerable, I will cry and will not be able to volunteer, etc.
Now in my organization I take part in several projects in which we improve women’s economic potential, work with IDPs, and provide indirect psychological support via the means of documentary theatre which is a great tool for that. I also returned to the school where I teach, as well as to the sex ed and projects implemented by the NGO “Girls”, focusing on sex ed in schools in several regions.
Anya Bobrovitska: When I was writing the post [about menstruation], it was essential for me. We have women in shelters, they even give birth. Menstrual hygiene is a must. Then I was looking for a gynecologist to help me write the post because I can’t answer many questions without medical education.
I also wrote to well-known women who consider themselves feminists and asked them to spread information about my search on their pages. One of them texted me “This is not on time, this is not what we are talking about now, how should we ask this?”. In general, you start menstruating when you didn’t expect it. And when it is, for example, also a shelter and you do with no idea what to do because you did not take a pad? It made me angry.
The rape theme in the media
Anya Bobrovitska: Another thing that made me angry was that many people as the problem was brought to the spotlight (especially regarding rape, or childbirth), began taking advantage of it and writing bullshit… Honestly, some of the posts on childbirth I read made me wanna cry. Not only was the advice they gave meaningless, but it was also outright dangerous. The same is true for advice on rape, when they wrote: “Women, you shouldn’t provoke men”.
Olga Kukula: The media want to bring attention to rape. Our organization has received such requests, and I also saw media commentary going like “If during the war you were assaulted, raped, or know someone else who was, share your story with us”. I would understand if it was about collecting the testimonies for the international criminal of justice… I guess even if women who survived sexual violence are ready to share their story, it’s not like they are always ready to hear comments.
First, you don’t know what the news piece will look like, as the topic is super sensitive. Second, women aren’t ready for media exposure when everyone suddenly will get interested in their stories. “Let’s tell these stories” is also a lack of sensitivity.
Maria Omel’ka: I am interviewed a lot on this topic and regularly asked if there are clients who want to share their experience. That is, they are usually found through a therapist. He doesn’t say “I have a client”, no. Less than 50% of the time, but the clients may be willing to share.
For instance, I have a story of a person that really wants to share it, albeit anonymously. The thing is, in our context rape is only discussed like: “These Rashists are morons: they torture, rape, kill, and so on”. But the real thing is that not only Rashists commit it. That’s something no one talks about, something no media will cover. When people feel how unjust it is, they want to fix it, of course, that would be something they would want to share.
It won’t happen in the acute phase: whenever possible, all of these people get to the crisis aid programs, receive supportive therapy, trauma therapy, etc. So, they aren’t in the acute phase for a long time.
Olga Kukula: That’s why I’m afraid that they can be hurt and severely retraumatized – either they themselves will lack sensitivity when telling their stories, or the comments and the feedback their sensitive story would receive would make it worse for the person.
Maria Omel’ka: That can happen in literally any media… Yes, this topic is a bit more sensitive, but I would say that people speaking up, and giving the interview, need to realize it.
I had an experience with British TV. This TV show didn’t focus on war, rape, or something like that. It was an entertainment program. I had to sign dozens of agreements, considering different things that could or couldn’t happen, specifying what I think about it. I had two sessions with a psychologist provided by the program, focusing on my well-being. Of course, it would be great to introduce such measures on our TV. But obviously, it’s different budgets. How much money do our journalists have if they do have money at all? And can it be compared to the budget of the main British channel?
Olga Kukula: My daughter, who is 5 years old, was interviewed with my consent. I was present. It was a journalist I know who took it for local media in Ivano-Frankivsk.
The child said what she wanted to say, I did not see anything wrong with it at all. It was cool, children often give out some gems. And when the interview came out and I read the comments, I was shocked. They started to accuse me of being a tyrant, of beating a child, although this was not the case either in the interview or in life.
I was just pregnant with my youngest at that time. I found myself in such a condition that I was taken to a village without the Internet. I was crying, I had hysteria, and everything was piling up, piling up…
Anya Bobrovitska: Once I had an interesting experience. I made a Tiktok or whatever and my data was leaked to the groups like “Catharsis”. It’s inadequate far-right groups that insult everyone and don’t do shit for themselves.
That was humorous because all the insults I got were about me being ugly, unfuckable, or whatever. My self-esteem regarding my body image is really high. I look at my photos and realize that I even meet the beauty standards set by the patriarchy. That’s what made it even funnier for me, that they only could find the faults in my appearance.
Now I have a better understanding of these comments, and feedback in general. I just realized that people are dumb, a lot of them are dumb and moronic, and you have to deal with it. I won’t give my attention to the fucked-up human beings that beat their children themselves, that dare to speak of women with slurs, calling females chicks or bitches… When the hell did I ask for their fucking opinion?
I don’t believe that self-objectification is real. Without patriarchy and the need to think about how other people perceive you and the need to adapt your sexuality to cater to their needs.
Nudes as a (un)healthy manifestation of sexuality
Anya Bobrovitska: I take nudes, I had dozens of such photoshoots. It’s not that they were erotic in nature, but beautifully captured body dressed in nice lingerie automatically acquires sexual undertones. That’s how I express my sexuality, even though every day I don’t dress in a stereotypically sexual way.
Perhaps this manifestation of sexuality is an adaptive mechanism of
patriarchy for some women who have not reflected on their internal misogyny or something else. If the patriarchy was destroyed, such manifestations of sexuality would not disappear. I like wearing fishnet tights, although they are considered vulgar and sexualized. I stylize them and enjoy them. I cover myself with glitter and shine like a star.
Maria Omel’ka: When I pursued my career path, my clients, school principals, and children began subscribing to my blog. I remember talking with my friend who’s a therapist as well: “So what now, cussing is a no-no? And butt picks as well? So, what do I do?”. I made a lot of drama out of it. At first, I had a personal blog, then my clients became my target audience, and the blog became more professional. A lot of my money depended on it.
Once we got drunk with this same friend: when therapists get wasted, something cool always comes out of it. During that drinking night (we were in Podil, in “Barbakan”), I created a private page, called it “Marie’s ass” and uploaded there some recent butt picks. You can’t imagine how happy I was! I totally agree that it shows the difference between catering to the patriarchy and freely expressing your sexuality.
As a therapist, I would ask “Who do you make it for?” And repeat this question several times. Sometimes I do it during the sessions with clients. I ask “What do you want? Why are you doing that? For whom are you doing that?” and reiterate it five times or so. If the answer still is “I do it for myself, to fulfill my needs, desires, for the pure love of it, for self-admiration”, it’s self-expression.
If they answer that they do it for the partner, likes, comments, or something else, then it is obvious — it’s not a form of self-expression.
Anya Bobrovitska: I think that highly depends on the situation. When I’m dressing up before sex, I do it for my partner as well.
I once published a cool article at TTM [TheyToldMe] which was called “Why do I post nudes?”. I had a proper list of questions about why and for what am I doing this, and why it’s important for me. Among the questions I answered was “What will your boyfriend say?”. Hypothetical boyfriend — at that time I had no partner. This question is a patriarchal feature that frames a woman as a sexual object, perceived not by the photos themselves, not by what she’s doing there and how she sees it, but rather by how her non-existent partner would react to that.
Obviously, I’m not looking for a partner that will say: “stop with nudes, shut this down, bye”.
Maria Omel’ka: I had a partner that criticized it severely. I was in an abusive relationship, that’s obvious. He didn’t disapprove of posting nudes per se, he condemned me for posting them without a good reason. Like if you’re selling period underwear, that’s fine. If you just decided to dance and put this on your stories, that’s not OK.
And I am still pissed with that. It’s not even the patriarchy, not even misogyny, it’s…
Anya Bobrovitska: It’s outright stupidity. In my first long-term relationship, I’ve been with a partner who was a literal moron. I can’t call him any other way; it took many years for me to heal afterward.
I am still healing. That was an abusive relationship. I wasn’t a blogger back then nor a sexual educator. He told me then that I simply couldn’t post photos like these.
Honestly, I need to give him credit in regard to that. I mean after we broke up, I was so angry that I started posting nudes on Instagram. In part, that’s how my sex blogger career began. That’s the only thing I got from him that I can be grateful for.
Olga Kukula: For a long time, I did not consider myself beautiful for subjective and objective reasons. I worked through these issues at the age of 27. I am 33 now, and I finally feel pretty. I have two nude photo shoots. As for posting on Instagram: I sometimes want to, but my husband is against it. This wouldn’t be much of an obstacle for me. I spent a lot of time explaining why it’s important.
Going back to the story when I received a lot of negative comments that hurt… I think about publicity, I have two children whom I take to school myself. Some of my students’ parents follow me on social media, and my parents are subscribed… I no longer consider my own desire, but whether I can take out all the comments, negative or positive.
Dick picks and the culture of consent
Olga Kukula: Probably you also had your own stories with men offering you sex, sending dick picks…
Anya Bobrovitska: For me it’s rather amusing.
Maria Omel’ka: Same. The coolest thing is on the next level: vulva picks, or a dick pick and a vulva.
Anya Bobrovitska: I once received nudes from a woman, it was solicited. I mean, a girl asked me if she could share her erotic photo with me. I am straight, but I was intrigued. Do you often get offers like this? So, I was like: “Sure, cool, would be glad to see”. It was really nice.
Olga Kukula: That’s cool when it’s about consent culture and respect. But sending the unsolicited pics… I received my first dick pick in VKontakte. I was 21 or so. A guy wrote “Olya” with a sharpie on his dick and sent me the photo. I was a bit traumatized and since then I’m not a big fan of such things.
Maria Omel’ka: Oh, the sharpie… I never experienced anything like that.
Olga Kukula: And the sharpie was green!
Anya Bobrovitska: I’d like to share one more hilarious dick pic story and we can knock it off. A guy once wrote to me. We chatted before, and he sent me a photo where he… It wasn’t a dick pic like that [shows how the pic is taken], it would be outright horrible. In the picture he sent there was his reflection in the mirror, his dick.
I opened my messages, freaked out but chose to ignore them. He then wrote: “Sorry, wrong dialogue” and quickly deleted it. Oh well, it wasn’t probably intended for me, shit happens. We haven’t chatted in a while. Probably he really didn’t want to send it to me.
I politely responded: “Oh, don’t mind, didn’t see anything, it’s OK!” He then sent me this very same photo and wrote: “I actually take nudes of sorts”. That was genuinely funny. I enjoy telling this story in the lectures for adults.
Maria Omel’ka: I want to quickly add, that sadly, regardless of your expectations of life in Britain, Spain, or wherever, it is the same everywhere. Local men, I mean mostly men, but also people of different sexes and genders, don’t know that they need to ask for permission first.
It seems like the level of sex ed in, for example, Britain isn’t much higher than in Ukraine.
Anya Bobrovitska: I think, we are done. Thanks a lot, it was interesting and comfortable to chat with you.
Maria Omel’ka: Same.