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Newly emerged sex shops in Poland say they fulfill need but now risk prosecution


WARSAW, Poland -- In the back room of a Warsaw sex shop, the manager paraded his wares.

"Just like in the West," said Marek Czerwinski of BAKS on Pope John Paul II Street, displaying one of his top-selling items. "Very good quality. Made of a special synthetic material. Looks very realistic."

Disembodied as it was, surrealistic might have been a better word.

"Feel it," urged Mr. Czerwinski, a former fabric printer. "Just like the real thing."

The visitor prodded the proffered goods with a forefinger.

"It sells for 700,000 zlotys," Mr. Czerwinski said. That's a little under half the average monthly wage here. "Of course, we have cheaper models, in plastic, for 310,000 zlotys."

Mr. Czerwinski's chain of four sex shops is part of a cultural revolution that has swept Poland since the Communists were voted from power two years ago.

Despite a reputation for puritanism and a vocal rear-guard action by the Roman Catholic Church, Poles are now supporting about 100 sex shops throughout the country, including 15 in Warsaw.

They are one of the few flourishing sectors of Poland's battered economy. In roughly a year of selling dildos and inflatable dolls, vibrators and condoms and cassettes, aphrodisiacs and erotic magazines, Mr. Czerwinski reported a monthly turnover of some 400 million zlotys from his shops (about $42,000). Others are making more modest profits but are prospering.

Some of the customers are sex-shop stereotypes, like the small, bereted, raincoated clerk who sidled into downtown SEX-Appeal and, after much furtive perusal, asked in a whisper if the store stocked "Brigid," a life-size doll.

Some are ordinary Poles breathing the heady air of Western-style progress. A fresh-faced young couple, their arms around each other, inspected all of SEX-Appeal's wares. In the end, they bought just condoms, a scarcity elsewhere.

Condoms and aphrodisiacs were the top sellers, sales personnel reported, especially among workers and women -- a depressing comment, perhaps, on the stresses of Polish life. "Wives are not satisfied," Mr. Czerwinski said.

Concern for the client marked the sex shop staffs.

"There are reasons why some people cannot find a partner," said Robert Kozuchowski, a student who works as a sex-shop salesman. "Dolls are cheaper than prostitutes and much safer, too."

There are some elements of Polish society slow to accept this revolution, and they are mounting a counterrevolution.

In Lesko, a small town in southern Poland, the weekly Warsaw Voice reported, the parish priest erected a cross at the local sex shop and held prayer meetings there.

SEX-Appeal's windows were broken in the first week of operation. Molotov cocktails were hurled through the windows and doors, owner Krzysztof Boguszewski said.

Recently, the Justice Ministry weighed in with a diatribe against pornography.

"The spread of pornography and the damage it is doing demands effective action, including criminal proceedings," said Deputy Attorney General Aleksander Herzog. The law does not define pornography, but the Justice Ministry said that certain "graphic representations" should be considered pornographic regardless.

So far the only prosecution of note is that of former Communist government spokesman Jerzy Urban, whose spectacularly successful anti-clerical, anti-government weekly magazine Nie has contained some crude, satirical porn.

But the atmosphere is one of caution. Mr. Czerwinski withdrew all his hard-porn magazines and video cassettes from sale.

Mr. Boguszewski foresees a sex-shop crisis but says that closing the stores would be opening the "Pandora's box" of the fast-growing black market. "Everything would be available everywhere, but without any control," he said.

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