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

Contributor

Suzanne Moore

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
And the Weak Suffer What They Must? by Yanis Varoufakis – review
Though heavy with egotistical bluster, the former Greek finance minister has valid points to make in this critique of the EU and global meltdown

Ian Birrell

25, Apr, 2016 @6:30 AM

Article image
Rise: How Jeremy Corbyn Inspired the Young to Create a New Socialism – review
Liam Young’s memoir-cum-analytical study of Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal to young voters lacks coherence

Stephen Bush

06, Mar, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
The best books of 2021, chosen by our guest authors
From piercing studies of colonialism to powerful domestic sagas and all points in between, our panel of writers share their favourite titles of 2021

05, Dec, 2021 @9:29 AM

Article image
The Long Road from Jarrow by Stuart Maconie review – ‘a tribute and a rallying call’
In retracing the steps of the Jarrow march of 1936, Stuart Maconie finds that much of the past remains with us

Rachel Reeves

24, Jul, 2017 @6:30 AM

Article image
Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism by Kristen Ghodsee – review
Did East German women have more orgasms than those in the west? How market forces affect sexuality

Emily Witt

09, Nov, 2018 @3:14 PM

Article image
Women vs Capitalism by Vicky Pryce review – insightful analysis
A former chief government economist offers compelling evidence that the market is still skewed to keep women out of top jobs

Rachel Reeves

04, Nov, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
The Long ‘68 by Richard Vinen review – a year of living earnestly
This look back at the banner-waving of 1968 is too shallow in perspective and too deep in statistics

Peter Conrad

19, Mar, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Hidden Hand review – China's true global ambitions exposed
Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg’s startling book about how the Chinese Communist party has spread its tentacles throughout the world is vital reading

Will Hutton

11, Aug, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman review – a tribute to our better nature
The Dutch historian’s overview of debate around humanity’s core instincts has blind spots, but its optimism is invigorating

Andrew Anthony

12, May, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again; Consent: A Memoir – reviews
Katherine Angel’s thought-provoking book examines the limitations of the concept of consent, while Vanessa Springora’s powerful memoir recounts the horrors of its abuse

Stephanie Merritt

02, Mar, 2021 @7:00 AM