Feminists have often felt neglected or patronized by socialists. A good portion of feminist writing and politics in the 1970s and ’80s, for example, dealt with women’s experience of condescension from socialists, some of whom saw feminism as a form of identity politics that distracted from the real issues of economic and class inequality in capitalist societies.
Kristen R. Ghodsee, author of Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence, is of a younger generation; one that sees feminism as central to socialism. This book, which grew out of a 2017 New York Times op-ed that went viral, starts with a study of socialist states in Eastern Europe and their transition to forms of capitalism. She charts a history in which plans and policies concerning women in countries like the Soviet Union and Bulgaria were central to visions of the future, to plans for full employment and a flourishing economy. Such policies were not, as in the West, placatory responses to women’s demands.
Ghodsee, however, is clear: “I don’t advocate a return to any form of 20th-century state socialism.” Her focus is on what was proposed and achieved in socialist societies despite everything that went wrong (and she is surely right to do so), on the emancipatory policies that “evaporated” under the pressure of famine and war and tyranny and failure, and on what has happened in those countries since the breakup of the Soviet bloc in 1989. Shadowing this story is the slow and very differently motivated progress in not only the United States but also Scandinavia, toward greater equality between men and women — a progress that seems dangerously stalled at the moment.
Despite sluggish developments toward gender equality in the West and what Ghodsee sees as reversals of such policies in the East, the speed and surprise of the events of 1989 and the early 1990s have made her optimistic. She believes we, too, may find ourselves surprised into change we can’t quite foresee amid the current focus on equal pay and sexual harassment and the all too likely reductions in health security and the availability of abortions.
Capitalism is assumed, Ghodsee suggests, as the baseline; political ideas may be offered only as minor modifications to that status quo rather than as a new and different vision for society. Socialism has been demonized to the point where it becomes risky even to consider current or past examples of it.
Ghodsee’s focus in the second half of the book on sex and sexual relations, then, emerges elegantly from the argument she has developed: that a feminist politics is central to socialism because it cannot avoid its foundation in economic principles. So long as women are economically dependent on men, there can be no equality; without such equality, she argues, heterosexual relations will suffer and so will the experience of sex itself.
So long as feminism relies on issues of glass ceilings and employment quotas for educated women, the real and devastating inequalities that exist between men and women won’t change. We must instead see women’s work and participation in the economy and culture — and how that is combined with the rearing of children — as absolutely central issues for a functioning society.
Such change shouldn’t be demanded or conceded simply to make women happier; it should be a crucial part of a politics directed toward maximizing productive lives and potential for everybody. Ghodsee presents figures from a number of surveys to suggest that, in countries where women can and do earn as much as men and where the society supports women as workers as well as mothers, women enjoy better sex. She claims that the erosion of women’s economic potential since 1989 in some countries of the Eastern bloc has resulted in women reporting less sexual enjoyment and a deterioration in their sexual relations with men.
There can be no doubt that for a majority of people living in what were once socialist states (and are now struggling capitalist ones), life has become not easier, but harder, as the perks of capitalism don’t outweigh its drawbacks. For many it is hard to see the presence of 42 kinds of shampoo in a supermarket as just compensation for those years in the Soviet system when they had to queue up for toilet paper. As Ghodsee points out, the inhabitants of those socialist states were told lies about their own countries, but the truth about ours.
We are so used to the social constraints on sexual relations becoming part of the sexual experience itself — for some, after all, taboos and disapproval may be vital to their pleasures and satisfactions — that it is hard to eliminate all skepticism about the book title’s apparent claim.
Ghodsee, however, invokes a universal system of “sexual economics,” a theory developed by Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs in 2004. This “assumes an underlying capitalist economy in which women have an asset (sex) they can choose to sell or give away either as sex workers or in less overt, but no less transactional ways, as sugar babies, girl-friends, or wives” that is hard to dismantle or neutralize. And she is surely right to claim that we “would also assume that women living in a society that provides its citizens with subsidized access to basic needs such as food, shelter, healthcare and education would have few incentives to horde their sex in order to keep its price high.”