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Review of Kristen Ghodsee’s “Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism”

by Brant Roberts
“In short, the author walks a fine line between conservative criticism of socialism and uncritically embracing the system, all while asking the readers to take into account what could work for everyone in a democratic-socialist future.”

“If women’s liberation is unthinkable without communism, then communism is unthinkable without women’s liberation.” – Inessa Armand

“What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new?” – Friedrich Engels[1]

After the reunification of Germany in 1990 the Chancellor Helmut Kohl made an appeal to East Germans, “No one will be worse off; for many, life will be better.”[2] After almost 30 years since the end of really-existing-socialism[3] those words have rung deeply hollow. The liberal consensus of the end of history has been revealed as a farce for every nation that emerged from the socialist states, and a renewed popular discourse around socialism and democratic-socialism has begun to overtake the largely Western narratives about these political systems and economic modes of production. While there have been many recently published works on the subject, none cut more directly into the experience of women under socialism than renowned anthropologist Kristin Ghodsee’s new book Why Women Have Better Sex under Socialism and Other Arguments for Economic Independence.

Ghodsee’s book is written with the intention of rescuing what state-led measures worked for women under socialism without justifying what went wrong under the governments that implemented them. In short, the author walks a fine line between conservative criticism of socialism and uncritically embracing the system, all while asking the readers to take into account what could work for everyone in a democratic-socialist future. Weaving personal narratives throughout the book, Ghodsee’s approach to spelling out women’s experiences under socialism and comparing them with her close friends’ experiences in the West was done seamlessly and did not distract from the main points of the book – if anything, her narratives strengthened them in ways that made the book far more fascinating. Although an academic, she avoids the narrow, jargon-ridden presentation style that fills the volumes of most works on socialist history. Most importantly, she chose to publish the book with a non-academic press which has made it far easier to reach a popular audience with far less purchasing power than a university library.

Having travelled and interviewed people as an anthropologist across the former Eastern Bloc since 1989, Ghodsee has seen what the transition from socialism to capitalism looked like and how it changed the everyday lives of ordinary people, especially women. The book covers the lived differences for women who experienced both systems, including: social reproduction and household labor time; access to abortion; the ease of getting a divorce; the mostly broken glass-ceiling to political power; sex work; the practice of citizenship; and, perhaps most importantly, how often women experienced orgasms. Avoiding the often orientalized portrayal of these countries by Western scholars, she critically examines each one and lays out what worked well in these societies for women and what did not.

By 1961 the US was losing the cultural side of the Cold War, having been surpassed both in the space-race and in the Olympics in terms of gold medals; the reason for this is simply that the socialist states – especially the Soviet Union – had double the brain power since they had empowered women to work in every professional field and had allowed them to train as athletes.[4] It was largely in response to this problem that President John F. Kennedy created the Commission on the Status of Women.[5] That stronger rights for women in the West came about during this period, and stronger rights for women in the socialist states came about as the Cold War began, should be no surprise as the competition for progress was a much better arena for all women than after the Cold War. It is in this context that Ghodsee’s book should be read.

As Ghodsee points out, not every socialist country regarded women’s rights at the same scale as others. For example, although abortion had been legalized in the Soviet Union, thanks to the work of Alexandra Kollantai and many other women who took part in the revolution, it was criminalized again under Stalin and then decriminalized again by 1955. In Romania abortion was outlawed in 1966, and in Albania the state actively worked to restrict access to birth control, sex education and abortion.[6]

The end of state socialism not only reintroduced the commodification of everyday life but also the commodification of women’s bodies. Ghodsee sums up the latter:

“Today, Russian mail-order brides, Ukrainian sex workers, Moldovan nannies, and Polish maids flood Western Europe. Unscrupulous middle men harvest blonde hair from poor Belorussian teenagers for New York wig makers. In St. Petersburg, women attend academies for aspiring gold diggers. Prague is the epicenter of the European porn industry. Human traffickers prowl the streets of Sofia, Bucharest, and Chisinau for hapless girls dreaming of a more prosperous life in the West.”[7]

That private property and capitalist relations created these problems should be no surprise to American readers. In arguing that the socializing of Indigenous men and women into patriarchy preceded capitalist relations and built the social foundation for colonization, Lakota scholar Nick Estes notes, “to gain access to Indigenous lands, white men had used Indigenous men to break communal land practices and undermine Indigenous women’s political authority.”[8] The situation today is dire and while the end of socialism meant the end of long lines for products, it was also the beginning of a much worse situation. Indeed, a common joke across Eastern Europe since 1989 reflects these feelings:

“In the middle of the night, a woman screams and jumps out of bed, eyes filled with terror. Her startled husband watches her rush into the bathroom and open the medicine cabinet. She then dashes to the kitchen and inspects the inside of the refrigerator. Finally she flings open a window and gazes out onto the street below their apartment. She takes a deep breath and returns to bed. “What’s wrong with you?” her husband says. “What happened?” “I had a terrible nightmare,” she says. “I dreamed that we had the medicine we needed, that our refrigerator was full of food, and that the streets outside were safe and clean.” “How is that a nightmare?” The woman shakes her head and shudders. “I thought the Communists were back in power.”[9]

Women’s taste in men under socialism was not constrained to the same problems that many women face today – being in relationships/marriages for strictly financial reasons, access to health insurance via their partner’s job, being in a worse living situation, staying in only for the sake of their children, going into debt, etc. – rather, women were able to choose more freely who they wanted to be with because of the social safety net provided by the state. In short, as one East German man put it, money was not enough, “You had to be interesting.”[10]

The social safety net was arguably the backbone of socialist economies in that everyone had some relation to it and every family relied on it some way. It also had an ideological function in that men were socialized into sharing household work and raising children through different forms of state media.[11] In both East Germany and Bulgaria, “state publications encouraged men to participate in domestic work, sharing the burden of child care more equitably with their wives, who were also employed full-time.”[12] One of the implications was that men had to be more generous in the bedroom given that, unlike their counterparts in the West, women had the social mobility and autonomy to leave.

The title itself is inspired by sexual satisfaction surveys performed by East German researchers in West and East Germany between 1984 and 1990. The questions ranged from the desire to get married to if they enjoyed their last sexual encounter. The results of the former were “73 percent of East German women and 74 percent of East German men wanted to get married” while “71 percent of women in the West desired marriage, but only 57 percent of Western men did, a fourteen point difference.” The results of the latter were “75 percent of GDR [East German] women and 74 percent of GDR men said yes, compared to 84 percent of FRG [West German] men and a mere 46 percent of FRG women.”[13] That there was 38 percent difference is revealing of the lived disparity between women who have a strong social safety net and women who have nothing remotely close.

There is little worth criticizing in Ghodsee’s book as she neatly edged-up much of her prose and positions. However, given that cultural production received so much funding and attention from the socialist states, it is surprising that Ghodsee did not include any mentions of films that portrayed women. For example, while it’s easy to critique East German films such as Destinies of Women (1952) and Divided Heaven (1964) as state propaganda, there were films that produced much more realistic portrayals of the everyday lives women from Traces of Stones (1966) to The Legend of Paul and Paula (1973). I mention East German films the most here since most of her supporting data comes from East Germany.

That this book has gotten so much attention and warranted so many reviews already – including a few bad ones – is only further testament to the interest that so many people have in the history of the policies of the socialist states and how they shaped the everyday lives of people. Ghodsee even received one critical email in response to her New York Times op-ed from a Czechoslovak woman, who had experienced socialism and is now residing in Switzerland,

“When I got married, we had to work to be able to pay off loans for both the flat as well as furniture we had bought. Within a year, we had our first child. The “generous” maternity leave was eight months after which I went back to work. I had to gently wake our little daughter every morning at 5:30am as the day care center opened at 6am and it took 15 minutes by tram to get there. Once at the day care center, I had to dress her in a uniform and hurry to take the bus at 6:30am to get to work. I often only just managed to catch the bus and it was not unusual that the doors of the bus would close behind me with part of my coat still hanging outside. At the time, my husband was getting off work at 2pm which meant that he could pick up our daughter, buy some groceries and prepare dinner in time for my return at around 5pm. Shortly after that, we would put our daughter to bed as the next day promised the same rushed routine as the day before. My husband and I were both tired after such a day….”[14]

That this letter was meant as a criticism speaks volumes; while one can understand how tired anyone is after a day of labor and social work, the idea that this was a problem is baffling. The mothers of the rest of the world would be astonished at practices such as, eight months of maternity leave, having adequate public transit close to residential areas and workplaces, free day care centers, getting off work after only six to eight hours, having a husband willing to cook dinner and pick up their child on the way home from work, and having a flat close to all of their needs. Ghodsee’s book is a much welcomed addition to socialist thought since, unfortunately, there have been few, if any, books published on the topic of women’s experiences under socialism. The most striking experience in the book is that of Bulgarian socialist Elena Lagadinova who began her political experience as an antifascist partisan and ended up as a full member of the Bulgarian Politburo.[15] It was because of the work of antifascist women like Lagadinova that many of the first steps for women’s emancipation were implemented. While many of these policies were reversed with the reintroduction of capitalism and private property, this book documents what could be the policies of the future, post-capitalism.


About the Reviewer: Brant Roberts is based out of Houston and is a member of the editorial collective Houston Review of Books. His writings have appeared in Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, The Daily Cougar, and Threshold Magazine.


[1] Friedrich Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, 1884, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/ch02d.htm

[2] https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-01-02-tm-7719-story.html

[3] From here on, reduced to “socialism.”

[4] As a side note, it is interesting that the gender gap in testing among children in the former Socialist states was much smaller than in the rest of Europe. The implication is that socialist education for everyone was far more inclusive and did not restrict girls to the same patriarchal standards as other European states. Math, Girls and Socialism, May 2018: http://ftp.iza.org/dp11532.pdf

[5] https://www.jfklibrary.org/asset-viewer/archives/JFKPOF/093/JFKPOF-093-004

[6] Kristen Ghodsee, Why Women had Better Sex Under Socialism and Other Arguments for Economic Independence (London: Vintage, 2018), 67.

[7] Ibid., 12. Ghodsee cites numerous examples of these issues in the book’s footnotes.

[8] Nick Estes, Our History is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (New York: Verso, 2019), 83.

[9] Kristen Ghodsee, Why Women had Better Sex Under Socialism and Other Arguments for Economic Independence (London: Vintage, 2018), 12-13.

[10] Ibid., 10.

[11] Ibid., 61.

[12] Ibid., 133.

[13] Ibid., 135.

[14] Ibid., 63.

[15] Ibid., 90-91.

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