Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism – review

Kristen R Ghodsee’s study of the links between female sexual pleasure and politics is a joyous read

Vote for me and have more orgasms! Politicians don’t usually campaign on these terms but in these days of Brexit anaesthesia maybe they should. Sex may feel mostly private and individual but it takes place in a system that changes how we may experience it. So does late capitalism make the earth move more or less? We have lived through a period in which we could actually test that. Before the Berlin Wall came down we had a communist and capitalist society living side by side. For all we were told about ugly, unfeminine communist women, the awful Stasi, the lack of material goods, the deprivations, west German women were grateful that as soon as east German women came over they demanded creches and childcare. They felt no stigma about being single parents. Some viewed their sexuality as free and somehow different to the commodified sexuality of the west.

If we look at many eastern European women now we see quite clearly the ravages of unfettered capitalism. The free market takes over as state socialism collapses and what happens? Women become items to be bought and sold, whether they are Russian mail-order brides, Ukrainian sex workers or Polish “maids”. This zippy little book argues that not only is unregulated capitalism bad in itself, it is also disproportionately bad for women.

The US academic Kristen Ghodsee has lived in several eastern European countries so she doesn’t wear rose-tinted spectacles, acknowledging that Albania and Romania have always been awful places for women, but she seeks with great brio and nuance to lay out what some socialist states achieved for women.

At heart this is about what happens when women are no longer economically dependent on men and childcare is collectivised. Socialist feminists have long argued that the liberation of women can only happen under a different economic situation. This is not about the current shrill demand for “communism now”, which denies gulags, labour camps and innate authoritarianism, it is about understanding the history of the many pioneers trying to change society not just through the organisation of workers’ rights but by challenging family structures. Once you demand creches and laundries and make domestic labour visible, male authority is contested. Why is part of the Make America Great Again agenda anti-abortion and anti-daycare? Precisely because these things are everyday challenges to the patriarchy.

It’s wonderful then to be reminded of women like Alexandra Kollontai who in 1910 – along with Clara Zetkin – spoke of the need for all childcare and housework to be socialised. Seven years later after the Bolshevik Revolution, Kollontai tried to put her ideas into practice, setting up the Zhenotdel, a women’s section. Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, was also involved but Stalin insisted “the woman question” had been answered and, disbanding it, overturned all of Kolontai’s liberal policies and forced her into exile.

These ideas have resurfaced in some Scandinavian democracies but Soviet history does make us see how conservative the US had become. In 1963, when Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, detailing the ennui and unhappiness of middle-class American women, Valentina Tereshkova had spent more time orbiting the earth than all the American cosmonauts put together

In this eminently readable account, Ghodsee points towards the way our intimate lives are embedded and commodified. Our attention, our affections, our love, our pleasure, our bodies are traded in ways that make many of us extremely unhappy. Mark Fisher wrote about mental health being a political issue. Ghodsee is politicising female sexual pleasure.

It is almost impossible to know what female pleasure free of economic dependency on men might look like. That surely is the goal of liberation. Kollontai wanted to destroy the link between sex and property. She was a romantic seeking something more authentic than marriage, based on love. Indeed after the sexual unification of Germany, a strange ideological war broke out over whether east German women had more orgasms than their western counterparts. The west German media lashed out, keen to assert their superiority.

A different kind of arms race perhaps… but as we watch the US slide backwards we have to wonder. The first step to Gilead is outlawing women’s right to work and making them economically dependent. So to insist there are other ways to live is important. That Ghodsee also makes this a joyous read is the cherry on the cake.

Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism by Kristen Ghodsee is published by Vintage (£12.99). To order a copy for £11.43 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Suzanne Moore

The GuardianTramp

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