With bad news assaulting us daily, it makes sense to grasp any source of hope. This helps explain why, after a long hiatus, there is renewed interest in socialism today, along with denunciations of escalating inequalities. So it is perhaps not so surprising to read the opening sentence of Kristen Ghodsee’s latest book, asserting confidently: “Unregulated capitalism is bad for women.” What is more surprising, however, is her title – Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism – referring to the ex-Soviet countries.
Whatever the failings of the West, one thing most people agree upon is that there was nothing comparable to the decade of 1960s liberation in the USSR, or the seven Warsaw Pact states, apart from a brief moment during the Prague Spring in 1968. Similarly, the rise of the women’s movement, as probably the single main beneficiary of 1960s politics in the West, had no counterpart under state socialism – the term Ghodsee uses for the Soviet Union and its spheres of influence – within their topdown women’s committees. Since the diverse Communist parties held firm discursive sway in Soviet states, right up until the moment of their sudden collapse almost 30 years ago, it was only notions of the collective good that could be voiced. Personal liberation, and especially sexual liberation, was regarded as little more than Western decadence. Or so we thought. Can this American scholar convince us otherwise? The title of Ghodsee’s book first appeared as the arresting headline of a short editorial in The New York Times in August 2017, triggering denunciation as well as interest, and enabling Ghodsee to accept a publisher’s challenge to prove her case.
Her book does indeed provide some evidence for her claim, drawing on research into intimate life in several state socialist countries. The most convincing findings come from studies comparing East and West German women, with the former reporting higher levels of both sexual confidence and satisfaction, including more frequent orgasms. These comparisons were undertaken before and immediately after “the Wall came down”. Ghodsee backs them up with sexological data from a few other Warsaw Pact countries, suggesting that Polish women during and after state socialism also register higher levels of sexual satisfaction than women in the United States. She does not address the possible limitations of this sexological data, where the issue of ageing does not feature, and there is little reference to gay, lesbian or queer agendas. But she does show that sexologists from a range of state socialist countries were always keen to emphasise that economic independence and reproductive choice were important issues for women, allowing them greater freedom in their sexual relations. (Ghodsee admits that Romania and Albania, and Russia under Stalin, were significant exceptions to any progressive sexual agenda.)
What this book makes clear is that a language of women’s equality remained an important ideological ingredient in many state socialist countries, informing women that they were better off than their capitalist counterparts – despite the lack of many desirable Western commodities. As Ghodsee notes, this emphasis undoubtedly related to the need for women in the Soviet workforce, but it also entailed certain securities in most of the Soviet countries. She also shows that it was the removal of such securities after the collapse of state socialism, with skyrocketing unemployment, closure of public nurseries and withdrawal of other benefits, that led to the plummeting fortunes of so many eastern European women post-1989.
Interestingly, Ghodsee suggests that women from West Germany ended up with reason to thank their GDR sisters who, forced to seek work in the West, began demanding crèches and kindergartens. “Thank God for those East German women,” one now prominent female publisher told Ghodsee, explaining that she would not have had a career without the struggles initiated by them. There are other books that back up such claims. Ghodsee’s book follows hard on the heels of Kateřina Lišková’s Sexual Liberation, Socialist Style, which argues a similar case for communist Czechoslovakia as a pioneer of sexual freedom in the 1950s, an era usually portrayed as simply a “horrible, gruesome, dark time” in Cold War propaganda.
However, Ghodsee says she has no desire to play down the murderous horrors and terrible restrictions inflicted on citizens in one-party states, most spectacularly, of course, under Stalin and Mao. Rather, as a Soviet scholar, she wants to see fuller histories written, ones that can move beyond the fixed narrative of speedy shifts from early egalitarian revolutionary ideals to totally repressive post-revolutionary situations. She is surely right that there is a real need to explore the complexities of the variable outcomes of “socialism” over the decades, including the significance of attempts at democratic socialism under capitalism, especially in the more redistributive, welfare-oriented Nordic countries. She is most frustrated with arguments, still dominant in the US, that any form of socialism soon ushers in totalitarianism, if not terror and gulags, as if forms of democratic socialism had never been envisaged or attempted.
Readers of this book may well wish to see a sharper focus on the diverse definitions of “socialism”, “communism” and their interface with the history of “Marxism”, although this would require a very different and more academic text. Ghodsee does note that it was a socialist man, Charles Fourier, who first coined the term “feminism” in 1837, and was a fierce advocate of women’s rights and sexual freedoms. Similarly, August Bebel, one of the founders of the Social Democratic Workers Party in Germany, just over 30 years later, again argued for women’s sexual emancipation, homosexual rights and other freedoms. These ideas were soon developed by Alexandra Kollantai, Rosa Luxemburg and other socialist women eager to combine women’s liberation with class struggle. Such ancestors lead Ghodsee to conclude that if we jettison socialism, we also abandon many of the ingredients necessary for the liberation of women.
While the book’s main agenda is to highlight aspects of women’s sexual emancipation under state socialism, there is also a crucial subtext that runs throughout, namely that capitalism disproportionately harms women. Due to its prioritisation of competitive labour markets, there is a devaluing of all those outside market production, who are doing the necessary, frequently unpaid, caring work of reproducing and maintaining humanity. Thus, Ghodsee’s key message for us is that, unless women belong to the small wealthy elite, they may well “be suffering from capitalism”, with poverty, unemployment and stress plaguing so many women with heavy domestic responsibilities. As she sees it, the collapse of state socialism helped facilitate the worst excesses of neoliberal rationality, with its ever-increasing removal of former safety nets and welfare provision, especially in Britain and the US. The new mantra of self-help and resilience has meant that in the US today there is still no guaranteed maternity leave and, especially since 2008, the imposition of brutal austerity regimes leaves so many women with little hope of escaping poverty, stress and depression, which always hit working-class and black women the hardest. At one point Ghodsee recycles a popular eastern European joke: “Everything that Communists told us about communism was wrong, but everything they told us about capitalism was right.”
This is a provocative and useful book, but I would have liked Ghodsee’s interest in socialism to extend well beyond earlier state support for women’s financial independence and sexual freedom. Once we feed in environmental sustainability to any anti-capitalist, egalitarian outlook today, we head towards a vision that is potentially more radical than any hitherto envisaged, including a total re-evaluation of the steadfast dedication to economic growth, always prominent in East and West alike. This vision is one that begins with prioritising economic security and welfare provision, but the goal would not be simply to enable women’s greater workforce participation or more self-directed and hence pleasurable intimacies. Rather, it would be to release a radical practice addressing all the conditions necessary for our care of each other and the well-being of the world we inhabit. Here, too, we may well encounter exciting erotic possibilities along the way.
Lynne Segal works at Birkbeck, University of London. Her latest book is Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy. She has also set up a small care collective.
Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence
By Kristen R. Ghodsee
Bodley Head, 240pp, £12.99
Published 15 November 2018
Kristen Ghodsee, professor of Russian and east European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, was born in New Jersey, to an immigrant father and the daughter of a Puerto Rican garment worker. In the 1970s, she recalls, the family moved to San Diego because her parents “viewed southern California as a promised land of opportunity where they could raise their kids to be good English-speaking Americans”.
Although she did not think that she could afford university and applied only to the University of California, Santa Cruz, Ghodsee was accepted, given a full scholarship and went on to UC Berkeley for her master’s and PhD. The experience left her with a sense of how “high-quality state-funded education could provide avenues for social mobility for those of us unlucky enough to be born without hereditary wealth or social status”.
For nearly two decades, Ghodsee has been doing ethnographic research on “socialism and postsocialism in eastern Europe”. This has allowed her to contribute to a “robust body of scholarship” showing that “Western stereotypes about communism are too simplistic”, although her new book is her “first attempt to present some of this research to the general public”.
Such material, in Ghodsee’s view, can help us to deal with the challenges of a world where “unregulated neoliberal capitalism” is “on the ropes”, where “austerity policies have produced incalculable human suffering” and where automation may soon leave many people without jobs.
What we now need, she explains, is “access to the most diverse and imaginative political toolkit of ideas to help us survive and thrive in the face of such drastic reconfigurations…By carefully revisiting the history of 20th-century state socialism, we can reject the negatives while salvaging policies and programmes that will help us realise a more just, sustainable and equitable future for all.”