clock menu more-arrow no yes

Why women have better sex under socialism, according to an anthropologist

An interview with Kristen Ghodsee on her provocative thesis.

A stained-glass window with a portrait of Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian cosmonaut and the first woman to fly in space.
Shutterstock

A new book by Kristen Ghodsee, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that women have better sex under socialism.

If that sounds strange to you, consider this: A survey of East and West Germans after reunification in 1990 found that Eastern women (the socialist side of Germany during the Cold War) had twice as many orgasms as Western women.

What in the world accounts for such a wide gap?

According to Ghodsee, it’s about social safety nets. If, she argues, you build a society that supports women and doesn’t punish them for having children or devalue their labor, it turns out they’ll be happier and have better sex.

The line between social safety nets and better sex is blurrier than the title of the book implies, but there are some interesting ideas here. And, to her credit, Ghodsee doesn’t reduce everything to a simplistic choice between capitalism and socialism, nor does she call for a return to Soviet-Style communism, which obviously failed. Her book is really about using socialist principles to offset the gender inequities in capitalist societies.

I spoke with Ghodsee about those principles and how capitalist countries like the United States can benefit from adopting them. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Your book has a pretty clickbait-y title, but it’s really about how the free market discriminates against women and traps them in dependent relationships. Can you sum up your thesis?

Kristen Ghodsee

The main idea is a pretty simple one, and it’s one that’s been around for quite a long time, which is that unregulated free markets disproportionately harm people who have primary responsibility for caregiving. And in our economy, in 2018, that generally still means women.

And when I say caregiving, I mean not only childbearing and child-rearing, but also care for the elderly and care for the sick. So the basic idea is that free markets require or depend on the free labor that caregivers provide for free in the home, mostly because it’s very expensive to pay for. If we moved child care or elderly care more into the market, it would require vast amounts of public resources, which means higher taxes, and many countries prefer not to do this.

And so there’s this way in which contemporary profits are supported by free labor that women provide in the home. And this free labor actually ends up trapping women in dependent relationships, largely with men, and that means, ultimately, that women get stuck because they have all these care responsibilities for which they are not paid. They are stuck in the home, generally financially dependent on a partner or spouse, and that unfortunately leads to people being in unhealthy or abusive or unhappy relationships.

Sean Illing

What you’re describing is a sort of division of labor that emerges under capitalism. Women, because of the type of work they either incline to or are culturally pushed into, end up with less bargaining power in the free market and therefore less economic independence. Is that right?

Kristen Ghodsee

Exactly. It’s a vicious cycle. Economists call this “statistical discrimination.” Basically, women have caregiving responsibilities outside of the home, largely because of societal expectations that women will care for children and the elderly and so on, and their wages tend to be comparatively lower than men.

If there’s a married couple and it comes time to decide who’s going to stay home to take care of the child or take care of an elderly parent, the most rational thing to do is to choose the person who makes the lower wage, which in this case is going to be the woman.

So there’s this self-perpetuating cycle where, in an unregulated capitalist market, women are going to be statistically discriminated against because employers typically use demographic information about certain groups to think about productivity expectations. And if you consider that sometimes women are going to be in and out of the labor force to meet these care obligations, you should expect them to pay them less.

Hence we get stuck in this constant cycle that can’t be fixed without some kind of government intervention.

Sean Illing

So what’s the solution? Should we return to 19th- or 20th-century Soviet-style socialism? Or are you advocating for something like Scandinavian social democracy?

Kristen Ghodsee

Thank you for asking! I am not in any way advocating for a return to 20th-century state socialism, and I get a little frustrated when my opponents try to pin the book as some kind of nostalgic longing for totalitarianism. That is not at all what I’m saying.

I’m saying there are policies that have been tested and have been put into place, not only in Eastern Europe in the 20th century, but also in Scandinavia and across Western Europe and other advanced countries like Canada or Australia that work and improve the lives of women. These are not strictly socialist countries; they’re capitalist countries as well, and we can learn from them.

Sean lIling

What kinds of policies?

Kristen Ghodsee

There are ways in which the state can intervene in the market by supporting things like universal child care, by supporting mandatory job-protected paid maternity leave, by supporting various policies to help the elderly or the sick.

All of those things end up reducing the burden that is placed on women, which allows them to become economically independent, if they so choose, and that allows for a greater amount of freedom and liberty — which, by the way, is what we’re supposed to universally support. We should all want women to make life choices based on their own ideas and abilities and not based on their financial circumstances.

Just to give you a more concrete example, one of the things that we talk about in conversations about Medicare for all is the ways in which American workers are trapped in places of employment because if they leave their employer they’ll lose their health care and there’s no public alternative.

But one of the things that we don’t talk about is the way that dependent spouses, both men and women, are trapped in relationships if they’re getting their health care through their partner. Removing health care from the private market eliminates this problem altogether.

Sean Illing

I have to ask about the claim on the cover of the book. What evidence is there that women had better sex under socialism? As far as I can tell, it’s just a couple of surveys, which honestly isn’t all that compelling.

Kristen Ghodsee

There is some empirical evidence that shows, particularly in the context of East and West Germany, that East German women reported much higher levels of sexual satisfaction than West German women. Now this is subjective self-reporting, but it’s still useful and instructive.

We also have some really good evidence from places like Poland and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. There was a recent book published called Sexual Liberation, Socialist Style, which discusses the ways in which these state socialist countries reimagined the field of sexology to be much more all-encompassing and individualistic than the kind of mass-pharmaceutical model that we see around sexology in the West.

There are also some studies, which are controversial but really interesting, that show that couples who share housework or share child care responsibilities more equally tend to have more sex. I’m not sure if they’re having better sex, but they seem to be having more sex.

To be clear, though, sexuality is very complicated and there are a lot of cultural factors here, and I don’t want to reduce all of this to a couple of studies. But I do think we have enough evidence to draw some reasonable inferences.

Sean Illing

It’s not just about sexual relationships, though, right? Part of what you’re getting at is a general collapse of intimacy in capitalist societies.

Kristen Ghodsee

Exactly. I’m talking about sexual relationships, but also relationships between parents and children, between friends. We’re living in a moment where capitalism is no longer just commodifying our labor in the market. Capitalism is also beginning to commodify our emotions, our attentions, and our affections.

And as the market starts to seep into our most personal relationships, and again these can be romantic or platonic, we are becoming alienated from our emotions in a really problematic way that I think has actually contributed to a broader epidemic of loneliness.

Sean Illing

Many women in these socialist systems endured the double burden of domestic work and mandatory employment, and so even if you’re right about better sex, what does it matter against the broader backdrop of political oppression?

Kristen Ghodsee

Right, and many people have pointed that out, which is why I don’t think we should go back to a Soviet-style system. I’m saying that there are these interesting experiments about how human relations might be different in a non-market economy. That’s the theoretical question that I’m really interested in.

You recently did an interview with a divorce lawyer about marriage, and I was struck by the ways in which he talked about marriage as this property relationship, of all these important property considerations that you have to think of when you get married or when you want to get a divorce.

And all I’m trying to point out in this study is that in countries where women had economic independence, because of state support, they didn’t have the same economic or financial incentives to marry or to prevent them from getting divorced, as women do in a country like the United States in 2018.

To be clear, I’m not saying better sex is worth all the authoritarianism and travel restrictions and purges we saw in oppressive socialist states. But it’s worth understanding what some of these societies might have gotten right outside of a market economy.

Sean Illing

It’s worth noting that trade-offs are inevitable in any system. I’m 100 percent with you on maternity leave policies — I think our current system is a moral disgrace — but a world in which women are bearing children is bound to produce some professional disparities that I’m not sure we can totally resolve, although I think we should remedy the effects of this as much as possible.

Kristen Ghodsee

You’re absolutely right about the realities of what I call “care work.” And gender roles aren’t going away anytime soon. We know, for instance, that even after 70 years in the Soviet Union, the patriarchy was really not watered down very much at all. So there are always going to be these disparities.

The question is how big are those disparities? And we know that, for instance, in places like Sweden or even places like France, women are not as economically disadvantaged by their childbearing and child-caring roles as they are in the United States. It is very, very difficult to be a mother in the United States when you don’t have access to quality child care. You have very little protection in terms of job-protected paid maternity.

We can do better, we should do better, and there are countless examples around the world of capitalist countries that have incorporated socialist principles in order to create more equality between women and men. We should learn from them.

Sean Illing

It’s a bit of a pivot, but we’re short on time and I really want to ask you about your critique of what we might call the Sheryl Sandberg “Lean In” approach to feminism, which is basically focused on self-empowerment and self-promotion. I’ve heard similar arguments from writers like Jessa Crispin who claim that feminism, properly understood, is anti-capitalist. Is that how you see it?

Kristen Ghodsee

This is a debate that goes back to the middle of the 19th century, between what were called “bourgeoisie feminists” and “socialist feminists.” I would say my book definitely fits into this framework.

I do think that, unfortunately, a lot of what passes for contemporary feminism is actually in bed with capitalism. As you put it, it’s this Sheryl Sandberg lean-in corporate feminism where it’s all about individual achievement and succeeding by replicating the values of men and sticking it to the guys in your professional space.

But I actually think that men are our allies. They should be our allies because this is a structural problem with the economy and it hurts men as much as women, albeit in different ways. If we’re going to pursue a more progressive path to change in this country, we need women and men sticking together and fighting against the structural roots of the problem.

If we follow the Sandberg model, we end up perpetuating the patriarchy more than challenging it.