No, Sex Wasn’t Better for Women Under Socialism

One of the most mercilessly mocked New York Times op-eds of recent memory was "Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism," a 2017 piece by Kristen R. Ghodsee. Undeterred by a flood of snarky Twitter commentary ("Before or after their husbands were sent to the Gulag?"), Ghodsee has now expanded her article into a short book with an almost identical title—it is now in the present tense, presumably for a more forward-looking approach.
She gets points for persistence, but the thesis doesn't really fare better in book form.
Make no mistake: The "socialism" in Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism is not the "capitalism + welfare state" Western European model. It's the hardcore Warsaw Pact variety that was dispatched to the proverbial ash heap of history in 1991. Indeed, the book's introduction opens with a photo of Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly into space in July 1963; the caption earnestly states that she later "became a prominent politician and led the Soviet delegation to the 1975 United Nations Conference on Women." Being a "prominent politician" in the USSR is a bit like being a prominent biologist in the Young Earth creationist community.
Ghodsee, a professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, approvingly notes the rising popularity of socialism; she clearly intends her book as a contribution to ongoing debates over socialist systems. But there is no reason to think that American millennials who favor "socialism" are thinking of Soviet-style state socialism, as opposed to, say, Scandinavian social democracy. Surely one can advocate for the latter (wisely or not) without trying to rehabilitate the former. And yet Ghodsee, who accuses "conservative cold warriors" of trying to discredit alternatives to capitalism by "screaming about Stalin's famines and purges," tries to do just that: "Although it's important not to romanticize the state socialist past, the ugly realities should not make us completely oblivious to the ideals of the early socialists, to the various attempts to reform the system from within (such as the Prague Spring, glasnost, or perestroika)....Acknowledging the bad does not negate the good."
"The good" allegedly includes female empowerment in general and good sex for women in particular. Ghodsee's thesis is that capitalism inevitably commodifies sex, cheapens female labor (because women, thanks to childbearing and other factors, have less bargaining power in the market), and relegates women's caring tasks to unpaid drudgery while forcing them to depend on male earnings. By contrast, the socialist message included the promise of both economic and sexual liberation for women.
The operative word here is promise. Ghodsee ruefully admits that things turned out a bit differently in reality. "Many women suffered under a double burden of mandatory formal employment and domestic work," she acknowledges, while "discussions of sexual harassment, domestic violence, and rape" were suppressed. Meanwhile, abortion was less a choice than a necessity, serving "as a primary form of birth control" (except where it was banned, as in Stalin's Soviet Union after 1936 and under the Ceausescu regime in Romania after 1966). Nonetheless, Ghodsee insists that women's integration into the workforce in the Soviet bloc was a trailblazing model of female employment, that institutional day care was a success, and that women's love lives benefited from not having to trade sex for material support.
The only actual evidence Ghodsee offers for the joys of socialist sex is some polls suggesting that East German women were having more and better sex than their Wessi sisters. (As the British social historian Josie McLennan demonstrates in her 2011 study, Love in a Time of Communism, the actual findings are complicated, contradictory, and often dubious. One such survey suggested that East German men were better endowed, which mostly seems to demonstrate that Communism breeds more prolific liars.) There's also some anecdotal stuff, such as a 40something Soviet-born woman who hears Ghodsee discuss her op-ed on a radio show and emails to say that she "nailed it"—with no mention of other Soviet-born women whose reaction was "You've got to be kidding."
As someone who lived in the Soviet Union until emigrating as a teen in 1980, I can say that Ghodsee must have a truly enormous pair of rose-colored glasses.
Ghodsee does acknowledge that the Soviet revolutionaries' initial embrace of sexual freedom and liberation from traditional family roles—notably championed by Alexandra Kollontai, the most prominent female Bolshevik—soon gave way to a far more conservative outlook. Childbearing became a national imperative; non-procreative sex, a bourgeois frivolity. The post-Stalin thaw ushered in a less repressive environment. But as the sexual revolution swept the West, Soviet culture remained remarkably puritanical well into the 1980s. One infamous moment that came to symbolize this prudery was when a woman in the Leningrad studio audience of a 1986 U.S.–Soviet satellite TV talk show seemed to declare, "In the Soviet Union, there is no sex." (She actually said "no sex on television," but the last two words were drowned out by laughter.)
Besides cultural attitudes, there were socialist practicalities—particularly a lack of privacy, to which Ghodsee only briefly alludes. Single young adults shared cramped apartments with parents, siblings, and often other relatives; so did most young marrieds. Many couples lacked even a private bedroom, which understandably put a damper on things; there were horror tales of conjugal moments ruined by a parent or in-law shouting "Cut it out, I'm trying to sleep!" from behind a curtain. Add the lack of contraceptives and the barbarity of Soviet abortion (anesthesia required a bribe), and it's a wonder any sex happened at all.
Things were not quite as bleak in some Soviet satellite countries—East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia—that had higher living standards and more cultural freedom. (They even allowed some bawdy films, a fact reflected in a Russian joke: Group sex Soviet-style is getting together with some Polish friends who tell you what they saw in a Swedish porno movie.) On the other hand, Ceausescu's Romania, where birth control was banned and fertile women's menstrual periods were monitored to combat illicit abortions, makes the USSR look like a sexual paradise.
Ghodsee's portrayal of women's public lives in Eastern Bloc countries is just as comically whitewashed. Thus, a handful of women who snagged high-level posts under regimes ruled by all-male elites are trotted out as evidence of "state socialist countries' commitment to the ideal of women's rights," though Ghodsee concedes that "actual practice did not live up to the rhetoric." You don't say.
A particularly odd section recounts Ghodsee's own experience in a Model U.N. high school club, where she decided to become the Eastern bloc specialist because she "knew" the boys would nix a female United States or United Kingdom representative as too implausible. "The lesson I learned at fifteen was that while it was implausible that my own country would allow a woman to make crucial foreign policy decision on the world stage, this was perfectly possible for the Soviet Union," Ghodsee writes. This was in 1986, when Jeane Kirkpatrick had just finished a four-year stint as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations—and no Warsaw Pact country had ever had a female U.N. envoy.
While Ghodsee is determined to see the best in the socialist East's Potemkin feminism, the capitalist West is judged by its anecdotal worst. A friend of Ghodsee's who becomes a full-time mother is reduced to begging her husband for a credit card for a night out and grimly resolves to accommodate his demands for more sex to earn her spending money. A male friend avoids too-intimidating ambitious women and marries a foreign gold-digger who ditches him as soon as she gets her green card. (In Ghodsee's world, apparently, no one in the socialist bloc ever traded sex for material goods such as a better living situation.) Another friend, a tech executive, swears he'll never hire another woman after a star employee has a baby and quits. There is no acknowledgment in this book that, for all our remaining problems of gender inequality, Western capitalism has done a pretty impressive job of adapting to women's changing roles, or that a flexible market offers unique opportunities to craft career paths compatible with child-rearing.
Work-family balance will remain a challenge for the foreseeable future. The generous family leave policies that Ghodsee admires may make things easier for some, but they often end up pushing women onto a career-limiting mommy track, which suggests that tradeoffs are inevitable. We can certainly strive to ensure that both women and men have more opportunities to choose a life that suits them and their children best, though Ghodsee's obsession with numerical parity (such as equal numbers of male and female stay-at-home parents) seems counterproductive.
The main lesson of this volume seems to be that many left-wing critics of capitalism can't bring themselves to fully repudiate the legacy of 20th-century Marxism-Leninism. Ghodsee concludes by claiming there "was a baby in all that bathwater." Not in this book, there isn't.
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