Red HandedKristen R. Ghodsee on Sex and Socialism

a white woman with brown hair is wearing a plaid button-down shirt and a brown blazer

Kristen R. Ghodsee, author of Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism (Photo credit: Alina Yabukova)

This article was published in Heat Issue #83 | Summer 2019

Capitalism is the problem.

In Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence, Dr. Kristen R. Ghodsee argues that unregulated capitalism disproportionately harms women and that the path forward might look a lot like democratic socialism. “If done properly,” Ghodsee writes, “socialism leads to economic independence, better labor conditions, better work/family balance, and yes, even better sex.”

By peeling back the Iron Curtain and examining what happened to women in countries that transitioned from state socialism to capitalism, Ghodsee shows how some women in the Eastern bloc enjoyed greater rights and privileges than those in Western liberal democracies. These countries invested in women’s education, worked to fully incorporate women into the labor force, provided ample maternity leave, and guaranteed free childcare. Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism highlights the stories of feminists and socialists who worked to make women’s lives better under socialism, while pointing to ways we can adapt their lessons for the future. I spoke with Ghodsee about the 2018 midterms, lean-in feminism, and, of course, sex under socialism.

There seems to be a wealth of research about the sex lives of people under socialism. Why is that? And what were you surprised to learn about sex under socialism?

The reason there was so much research was precisely because the socialists were trying to say, “Hey, we’re doing better in this department”—and they were trying to empirically prove it. [Scholars such as] Dagmar Herzog or Josie McLellan [have written] really interesting books about sex under socialism. And they suggest that, in some ways, enhancing people’s private lives and sexual pleasure was a really cheap way to keep the population satisfied in an economy of shortage.

The thing that really surprised me is the sex manuals. The socialist governments in Poland, the German Democratic Republic, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia actually published technique guides. It’s not at all what you would think about when you would think about a communist government. Sitting on my desk in front of me is a copy of a book that was published in Bulgaria where there’s a diagram [that points out], “Here is the clitoris. Here is what it looks like in various stages of arousal.” This is the communist government giving young men really useful information. These books [are] not as enlightened as books that we have today in 2018. But for 1979, these are pretty good books. I’m sure that there were a lot of young men who were like, “Oh! Thank you for this very important, intimate geography lesson.”

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Thank you to the government!

Yes! Thank you to the government for explaining this otherwise mysterious part of female anatomy. Remember of course, this is the Eastern bloc. Pornography is not allowed—as it’s considered demeaning to women—and there is no Internet, obviously. There’s no Internet anywhere in the world. So, it’s not like people have access to Internet porn. It’s important to mention that it varied considerably across the former Eastern bloc. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic were much more open than the Soviet Union, and Romania was terrible. I don’t want to generalize, but it’s important that there were these texts that had circulated and that people had access to.

In the same way that conservatives think the free market is going to create better health insurance systems, it seems like they also believe the free market is going to create better opportunities for women. But that doesn’t seem to be true.

On the one hand, there are Republicans and conservative women who think, Yes, women should compete equally with men. And to the extent that they’re disadvantaged in the labor market, it’s because they become mothers. And that becoming a mother is a choice. Therefore, if you want to be rich and you want to run with the big dogs, don’t have babies. That’s a choice too. But the market is the way to women’s liberation. That’s their argument. But there’s another section of the kind of free market fundamentalist right that basically says, “Look, there should be a division of labor in society, and women should stay home and take care of the kids and the sick people and the old people and the cleaning and the cooking and all the work that needs to be done, and men should go out and actually earn the money.” Sometimes this is implicit in the more conservative part of the Republican party, this sort of fantasy of a “make America great again” past that once upon a time, men were out there and the labor market wasn’t as crowded. So, wages were higher and we had a good division of labor. People weren’t so tired. There’s a fantasy that women’s true position is in the home, and that’s where their competitive advantage is because of their biology.

In some ways, even the free market fundamentalists aren’t united in their opinion on how the market can “set women free.” How will women truly be self-actualized? Will it be by competing with men on men’s terms, which is one model, or by being women and staying at home and taking advantage of this division of labor in society where women take care of the private sphere and men are out in the public sphere? Feminists have debated this for decades. Both of those models, obviously, are not very conducive to a plurality or multiplicity of women’s wants and desires. They can both be very, very limiting in terms of women really being able to fully self-actualize, particularly women who want to both have careers and be mothers.

You write about the national value of children as future taxpayers, soldiers, etc., and the benefit of creating systems of socialized care for them, and I was thinking about this argument people make about Republicans that they only care about life when it’s in the womb, but not afterward. What do you think is causing that disconnect between the enormous value we place on citizenship and not on caring for or rearing those citizens?

It’s a kind of cold-hearted economic calculation. Why should society pay for work that women will do for free? That’s sort of sad, but that’s the long and short of it. If you are going to have a larger welfare state and provide things such as early childhood education or Medicare for All or really good care for the elderly, all of that costs an enormous amount of money. That will increase taxes, and it will increase the burden on wealthy people and corporations. So, of course, wealthy people and corporations want to decrease taxes, and in order to decrease taxes, you have to cut social services. In order to cut social services, you have to transfer the care work that is done by women in the public sphere into the private sphere. I actually think they’re internally consistent. They want lots of money to flow upwards and not be redistributed. One way of preventing redistribution is by relying on the unpaid labor of women. This is a long-standing problem with capitalism, and that’s why socialists and socialist feminists have always historically argued that women’s true emancipation requires some socialization of care work.

You mention so-called gold digger academies in your book. Tell me more.

Oh my gosh. Wow! Yeah. I have a teenage daughter who keeps me up to date on the relevant memes that I need to know. So, I have a personal meme curator, and she curated a meme for me that was actually really sad. It was a picture of a young anime girl with some schoolbooks in her hand and she was saying basically that with the fall of the Soviet Union, she’s now free to choose between being a housewife or a [sex worker].

Obviously, it was meant [to be] very tongue-in-cheek, but what you see and what the data seems to suggest is that there has been this move [toward the] instrumentalization of sexuality. Women are making rational economic decisions, and it turns out that in contemporary Russia for one reason or the other, it may make more sense for young women to invest [in that] rather than becoming a doctor.

You read about young women who travel all around the world. They get all sorts of economic goodies for being young and beautiful. It seems like that’s a much easier path these days in some ways than actually investing in an education, especially in an economy that isn’t thriving. When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a lot of optimism, and that very, very quickly devolved into chaos, crime, and corruption in that part of the world.

When I was doing research in the ’90s and I would Google “Bulgarian women” or “Ukrainian women” or “Russian women,” what were the first 10 sites that came up? They were all these mail-order bride sites. These countries were full of women who had been brought up to think that they could be anything—doctors, lawyers, scientists—and the one thing that they wanted, because of the economic situation, was to just marry some Westerner and get the heck out of Eastern Europe. And so many women did that.

Reading your passages about sexual economics theory, which sees sex as a resource that is exchanged in a social or economic marketplace, I was hearing echoes of incel and MRA rhetoric about women’s “natural” instincts toward sex. What do you make of the appropriation of that theory for their worldview?

I think it’s very dangerous. Now, to be fair to Baumeister and Voss, the original authors of the paper [on sexual economics theory], I don’t think that they ever intended it to be used in the way that it has been used. There’s this guy, Roosh V [who] talks about the redistribution of women, a more equitable distribution of women as if women are commodities. He really gets sexual economics theory. If you take away women’s rights, if you take away birth control, and if you take away women’s economic independence, they will have no choice but to be economically dependent on men, and then they will each need to find one. That’s his worldview. So, that’s really scary stuff.

It’s really important to point out that sexual economics theory may be an accurate description of heterosexual courtship between men and women in capitalism, but it is not universal. And I think that the problem with incel rhetoric, this sort of more conservative rhetoric, is that they want to take that model and say, “This is a very natural thing that is in all historical periods and across all cultures.” That’s the kind of dangerous knowledge formation that I think actually can be very deeply distorting to men, especially men who feel like they are economically shut out of the market for one reason or the other and so then they turn to kind of horrific acts of violence.

a red book cover with a woman holding an arrow and red lettering

Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism by Kristen R. Ghodsee (Nation Books)

Coming out of the midterms, I wonder how you feel about the embrace of Democratic Socialist candidates this year.

I do think at least in the context of the United States, a lot of credit needs to be given to Bernie Sanders because he really inspired a generation of young people. He made the term “Democratic Socialists” okay to utter in the United States. And obviously, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—probably the most prominent of the young women—worked for him in 2016. A lot of her platform comes from Sanders’s platform. I think that the best thing about the success of these candidates is that it’s actually put socialism back into the lexicon of political vocabulary. We can actually have a conversation. Are we talking about redistribution? Are we talking about state ownership of the means of production? Are we talking about expanding the social welfare state? What are we actually talking about? That’s a really productive conversation. In terms of how much they’re actually going to be able to get done in the context of Washington, that remains to be seen.

You write, “In no country were women’s rights promoted as a project to support women’s individualism or self-actualization,” but that they were more about benefiting the collective life of the nation. It seems like now when we see women’s rights promoted as being about self-actualization, it’s often actually about capitalism: having a great job, having a beautiful house. What would a country that promotes women’s rights as self-actualization separate from capitalism look like?

There is a tension. If you’re focused too much on self-actualization, it can be co-opted very easily by “lean-in feminism,” a sort of corporate feminism where it’s all about having it all, so to speak. Completely opposite of that is where women’s rights are [about the] need to emancipate women so they can contribute equally to the collective projects of the nation. But what would it look like if you could have a balance between those two things, [with] a healthy dose of self-actualization, but also with a kind of concern for women’s equal participation, broadly speaking, within a collective societal project? That’s kind of an ideal in a way.

That is hard to achieve, but if we look at certain more democratic socialist or social democratic countries in Europe, we get a little bit closer. A lot of people talk about Sweden where there’s certainly a healthy sense of individualism and self-actualization, but there’s also massive amounts of state support for not only motherhood but also fatherhood, a really wide social safety net. The balance here is somewhere in the realm of social democracy or democratic socialism.

I think it’s really important to save feminism from capitalism. There’s been this sort of consumer, sexy feminism where it all comes down to “I’m a feminist because I buy certain products” or “I’m a feminist because I consume in a particular way.” And I think that there’s this alternative vision of feminism and of women’s activism. There is this other way of thinking more collectively that allows us to really embrace our value rather than only thinking of ourselves in terms of what we’re worth.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


by Dahlia Balcazar
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Dahlia Balcazar was a senior editor at Bitch Media, the co-host of the podcast Backtalk, and the host of the live show Feminist Snack Break. She’s passionate about horror films, ’90s music, girl gangs, and Shirley Jackson. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.