Capitalism is bad at sex because it’s bad at relationships. Socialism can do better.
- Liza Featherstone
Americans, or perhaps mostly those who are young and heterosexual, are suffering a sex drought. The reasons are complicated, but according to an exhaustive and copiously well-researched article by the Atlantic’s Kate Julian, the problem is a queasy cocktail of social alienation, technology, anxiety, depression and neoliberal pressure to succeed. And the Wall Street Journal reports that lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret is struggling because “Sex Isn’t Selling.”
Capitalism has been trying to sell sex since its beginnings. Now we’re not buying. Julian quotes the Swedish health minister after a recent study found a similar problem in that country: “If the social conditions for a good sex life — for example through stress or other unhealthy factors — have deteriorated… it’s a political problem.” In this context, Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence, anthropologist Kristen Ghodsee’s short, crisp and wonderfully engaging polemic, couldn’t be more urgent.
“Unregulated capitalism is bad for women,” Ghodsee argues, “and if we adopt some ideas from socialism, women will have better lives… yes, even better sex.” It’s a historically grounded argument, based on her extensive scholarship on the former USSR and Eastern bloc countries.
Convincingly, Ghodsee makes the case that through publicly available childcare, full participation in the workforce, investment in women’s education, and robust feminist propaganda, socialist states made tremendous advances, even in quite patriarchal cultures, toward women’s equality. They also greatly improved the material quality of women’s lives. Maternal and infant mortality dropped and illiteracy essentially vanished. All this had tremendous implications for heterosexual sex: with men and women benefiting equally from public services like education and healthcare and from access to stable, decently paid work, women ceased to be dependent on men. Sex and love could be considered on their own terms, free from economic incentives. As Ghodsee bluntly puts it, “Women didn’t have to marry for money.”
It’s easy to imagine that such conditions might improve women’s lives. Yet, does it go without saying that decommodified sex is necessarily better sex? After all, some sex workers and customers enjoy their encounters; some kept men and women probably do as well. I do not enjoy sex less if a man picks up the check (complicatedly, I might enjoy it more). So, luckily for those of us who need convincing, Ghodsee has strong evidence to support her claim that women had better sex under socialism.
Of all the residents of the former Soviet bloc, it is East German women’s sex lives that have been the most robustly researched, and informatively contrasted with those of their less fortunate West German counterparts, who lived under capitalism (plus religiosity, an additional libidinal drag). In addition to policies like universal child care and female employment, the government did strong feminist ideological work, promoting gender equality and women’s independence as specific benefits of socialism, even propagandizing on the importance of men sharing domestic labor. Because East German women became economically independent of men, men were more sexually attentive and generous than men in the West. By contrast, with women depending on them for survival, West German men had little incentive to improve their bedroom game. In addition, life in the GDR was more relaxing than in the West, with little economic stress and an abundance of leisure time.
This difference had clear and measurable results. …