‘Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism And Other Arguments for Economic Independence’ (Kristen R. Ghodsee) A Review
Date Posted: Thursday 29th October 2020
Publisher: Vintage (UK), 2018
by Lucy Smout Szablewska
This is a book to read if you are interested in an accessible primer on feminism written in a semi-formal writing style by an academic with strong opinions on how to take the best from communism and capitalism and create a better world. The book came out of a polemical think piece in the New York Times in 2017 on why women in Eastern Europe and Russia enjoyed sex more when they were living behind the Iron Curtain. The author was asked to expand her provocative argument into a full-blown book with the same title. She did so with gusto, drawing on 20 years of scholarship on the transition from state socialism to capitalism in Eastern Europe.
Ghodsee’s key argument is that unregulated capitalism is bad for women, and that their lives will improve if we adopt some ideas from socialism. In order to move forward we need to learn from the past. There is a lot to learn from careful scrutiny of countries which put socialism into practice by setting up systems to enable the government to regulate the market and provide the basic necessities for life. She is careful not to advocate a return to state socialism as practiced in the Eastern and Soviet Bloc during the communist era. Instead she argues that if we adopt two key ideas – more redistribution and less commodification of human interactions – women will have better lives. Her thinking is heavily shaped by the current US context, specifically Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election and the forthcoming 2020 election. Her aim is explicit – to mobilise younger women in the USA to vote for progressive politics to bring about a more just and equitable society.
Five of the six chapters revolve around familiar concerns – unpaid domestic labour, parenthood and childcare, leadership and sexual relations, and the sixth chapter pulls the threads together. Each chapter begins with an anecdotal story about life in the USA, drawn from the author’s personal experience or one of her friend’s experiences. Every chapter then goes on to lay out opinions drawn primarily from a range of academic books and newspaper articles. At the beginning of each chapter in the version of the book published by Bodley Head/Vintage is a black and white photo of a leading thinker. One of them is Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, and a national heroine in Russia. These role models are then referred to later in the book (but not necessarily in the chapter).
The nitty gritty about sex under socialism comes in chapters 4 and 5. In Chapter 4 Ghodsee starts by examining sexual economics theories which posit that women have an asset – sex – which they can choose to sell or give away to meet their basic needs. In societies with high levels of gender equality, protections for reproductive freedom and social protection, women do not have to worry about what price their sex will fetch on the open market. However when sex is commodified, as it is under capitalism, it is unfulfilling. Although Ghodsee points out the flaws in such excessively simplistic approaches, she is fascinated by the fundamental ideas they spark about how to free sexuality from economic constraint, and by theorists who sought to put them into practice, such as the early Russian feminist Alexandra Kollontai.
But where are societies free from economic constraint? There aren’t any, but in socialist Eastern Europe there was a commitment to gender equality, economic independence and free sexuality. So in chapter 5 Ghodsee examines studies comparing sexuality in East and West Germany pre-1989, an ideal testing ground for comparative research. She reports on research that sexual relations appeared to be more natural and fulfilling in East Germany than in commodified and traditional West Germany. She also considers research on sexuality in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. She concludes that ‘the experiences of some state socialist countries in Eastern Europe suggests that there was something different about sexual relations under socialism, and that at least one significant factor in this regard is the social supports put in place to promote women’s economic independence.’ (p.148).
For me the book’s strength lies in the debunking of arguments that yearning for state socialism by some people in Eastern Europe is nostalgic, rather than based on a legitimate comparison of the gains of the post-1989 era with the unequal distribution of the wealth and painful economic restructuring. Ghodsee also sheds valuable light on the oft-neglected contribution of leading twentieth-century feminist thinkers in countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
But, however laudable her intentions, the book has three intertwined limitations. The first is that the hybrid scholarship and journalism don’t always sit comfortably. There is a tension between the author’s chatty opinionated voice that she might use to mobilise students, and her scholarly voice which seeks to analyse and contextualise in nuanced ways. Although the argument that economically independent women have better sex is built up step by step, there is a tendency to generalise at times about all the people in one country. For instance ‘while American women were stocking their kitchens with the latest appliances during the post-war economic boom, the Bulgarian government encouraged girls to pursue careers’ (p.35) and ‘because of the ongoing influence of the church, the Poles did little to challenge traditional gender roles’ (p.142).
Secondly, there is not always enough evidence for bold claims about ‘better sex’, which is a complex and contested topic. What partial evidence there is comes from other researchers’ studies, such as sexual satisfaction surveys, rather than her own research. This links to the third limitation, which is that there is a dearth of women’s voices. I wanted to hear more about what women had to say. I wanted light to be shed on their multiple and contradictory perspectives, rather than to be led through a literature review which focused overwhelmingly on secondary evidence that bolstered the argument. I also wanted to understand how the authoritarian dimensions of life behind the Iron Curtain fitted in. Such considerations might lead to the conclusion that life under state socialism is probably best described as different to now, and different for different people, rather than better or worse. It might also tell us that sexuality is often weaponised personally and societally – we have more sex, better sex, they have less sex, bad sex. By trying to understand how and why it is talked about in different ways at different times we can make better sense of important patterns of change.
I was drawn to the book by my interest in Central and Eastern Europe. I finished the book feeling full of admiration for the thought-provoking title and laudable mission to get us all to pull together, but frustrated that it hadn’t answered my questions. I concluded that it might have been better to have condensed the material into a series of shorter articles on the need for a stronger redistributive state in the USA – and for US citizens to go out and vote for a better system on November 3.
Lastly, two alternative reads. Privatizing Poland: Baby food, big business, and the remaking of labor by Elizabeth Cullen Dunn (published in 2004) lays out more nuanced scholarship on socialist and post-socialist Eastern Europe, and Helen Lewis’s book Difficult Women A history of feminism in 11 fights (published in 2020) is an unashamedly ‘partial, imperfect, personal’ primer on feminism.
Dr Szablewska is a part-time postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Geography at Durham University, UK.