When Walmart started selling USSR hammer and sickle–branded hoodies and sweatshirts for $18 in September, University of Pennsylvania professor Kristen R. Ghodsee summed up her reaction in a single word: shock. “When I think of Walmart, I think of big American flag decals,” she tells Broadly over the phone. “I wish I could be a fly on the wall when whoever in their corporate headquarters made that decision!”
Ghodsee was similarly surprised when the White House produced a “very weird” (her words) report in October titled "The Opportunity Costs of Socialism" that sought to argue, among other things, that socialism was bad because it was more expensive to buy a Ford Ranger XL in Scandinavia than the US. “People,” she surmises, “are obviously feeling a little threatened.”
That's understandable: In this year alone, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) fielded 40 winning candidates in the midterms (including political sensation Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez). Teen Vogue began publishing explainers on capitalism and Karl Marx, and a recent Gallup poll showed that 51 percent of Americans between 18 and 29 have a positive view of socialism.
It’s perfect timing for Ghodsee’s new book, Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism, a provocative and deftly argued text that comes with lofty ambitions. It aims to show that capitalism is bad for women—at work, at home, and in the bedroom—and argues that we could all do with injecting a little bit more socialism into our lives. “If done properly,” Ghodsee writes, “socialism leads to economic independence, better labor conditions, better work/family balance, and yes, even better sex.”
As Ghodsee puts it to me, socialism is an antidote to the empowerment culture that tells women that they just need to worker a little harder and lean in, Sheryl Sandberg–style, to lead happier and more fulfilled lives. "I think that too many young women are paralyzed by this feeling that they’re not working hard enough," she says. "This is a reverse self-help book: It’s the political economy that’s messing up your life! Stop blaming yourself."
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With two decades of research into Eastern Bloc state socialism under her belt, Ghodsee—a Guggenheim Fellow who teaches Russian and East European Studies at Penn—is uniquely qualified to produce a book that compares the sex lives of women under capitalism and socialism. (In fact, many women in Communist-controlled states in Eastern Europe got to experience both once their countries embraced free market capitalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall.)
The results make for staggering reading: One post-reunification survey found that East German women had twice as many orgasms as West German women. Another survey found 75 percent of East German women reporting that their last tryst had satisfied them, compared to 46 percent of women in West Germany.
Greater sexual satisfaction and a higher orgasm rate is not what we usually associate with tales of life behind the Iron Curtain. In the West, our image of Eastern European communism boils down to Good Bye, Lenin!–style stereotypes of miserable bread lines, tyrannical purges and oppressive re-education camps. The truth, Ghodsee points out, is far more complex—especially for women. At a time when American women were confined to the home, Eastern Europe demanded women’s full participation in the workforce. They were supported with the introduction of free healthcare, generous maternity leave, public education and subsidized housing. There were public canteens, public laundries, and even mending facilities where women could drop off their sewing.
“I don’t want to romanticize or idealize,” Ghodsee says. “The food wasn’t always that great and maybe they wouldn’t have done as great a job on your laundry as you would at home, but the idea was that in an ideal world, in theory, if you collectivize some of this labor, there would be economies of scale, and it would be much more efficient. And it would liberate women from what Lenin himself called the soul-crushing drudgery of housework.”
Things weren’t perfect, obviously. There were still wage disparities and gendered segregation in the workforce, women were still strongly encouraged to become mothers, and Stalin rolled back many of these advances in women’s rights on his rise to dictatorship. “I personally have no interest whatsoever in defending Stalin,” Ghodsee notes. “The thing I would say is you can’t reduce the incredible variety [of socialist movements] across geography and across history to Stalin and the gulags—that’s unfair. That’s like reducing all the history of capitalism to slavery or to the Great Depression in the 30s.”
"That old feminist idea that the personal is political—I want to argue that actually the political is personal, right?"
Allowing women a new measure of economic independence—and the safety net to take care of their basic needs—had a knock-on effect on their sex lives. The result was a kind of sexual emancipation that was far removed from the Western sexual revolution of the 60s. State-sponsored sexologists in Eastern European countries argued that it wasn’t about free love—it was about the economic and social contexts in which climax was achieved. Some Czech sexologists even claimed that good sex was impossible in heterosexual partnerships if men did not share in the housekeeping or childcare.
“They understood that if you are worried about paying your rent, if you’re exhausted because you’ve got three jobs, you’re not going to be having great sex,” Ghodsee explains. “You’re not going to be relaxed in the bedroom, you’re not going to be an open and generous partner.”
She adds: “That old feminist idea that the personal is political—I want to argue that actually, the political is personal, right? That absolutely what happens in the larger political economies of our countries and our world is going to affect what happens in the bedroom and what happens in our intimate relationships.”
Ghodsee, who describes herself as “more of a democratic socialist than a centrist,” says that she was initially hesitant to depart academic publishing to write a more commercially-oriented book (she has already written six books, including several ethnographies). “This was not my comfort zone—definitely not!” she laughs. “The one thing that I’m really happy about is they let me have really copious end notes.”
Ultimately, she says she was moved to write Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism because of her university students and her daughter. “I don’t know if responsibility is the right word, but I felt I had an obligation or desire to give something to the next generation,” she says. “Because they’re struggling—I can feel the struggle, and I can see the anxiety and frustration.”
The solution, she says, isn't to pathologize female anxiety, unhappiness, and low sex drives. "I’m hoping that the book is a way to get young people—especially young women—to think that look, it’s not just you, it’s not about getting yourself in the mood and buying the right toys and lingerie. It’s about actually having a society that supports us as women."
Though she still professes to be shocked at millennials’ increasing interest in socialism, she thinks it makes sense. In the late 2000s, they saw the Great Recession wipe out the savings of “good middle-class” parents who played by the rules. Worse, she says, there was absolutely no social safety net to catch their freefall. “A lot of young people here were brought up hearing that state socialism in Eastern Europe or communism around the world was really evil,” she says. “They heard those narratives, right? But they experienced the brutality of unregulated neoliberal capitalism.”
Ghodsee knows that the mere mention of socialism is enough to send right-wingers like Meghan McCain into meltdown, but she is keen to stress that she’s not advocating for Eastern Europe to launch a full-scale return to state socialism—merely that, post-recession and post–Occupy Wall Street, there’s never been a better time to see if certain socialist policies and ideas could offer an alternative to the ravages of untrammeled capitalism. With the membership of the Democratic Socialists of America exploding from 11,000 in 2016 to 47,000 in July this year, there’s plenty of people in the US who might support her in that, too.
“Young people come to socialist ideas and they get slammed over the head with the Great Leap Forward and the gulags and the purges,” she says. “That was exactly where I felt I actually could say something that would be valuable—which is to say, ‘Hey, there were actually some policies over there in Eastern Europe, especially around women’s issues, that were pretty good.’ Despite the whole system itself having some very major flaws and that nobody wants to bring it back, there are things that we could learn. There is a baby in the bathwater, and we should really pay attention to that.”
Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism by Kristen R. Ghodsee is out now from Penguin RandomHouse in the UK and Nation Books in the US.