‘Sex at last!’ was the headline of an article in the German weekly Die Zeit about the opening of the first sex shop in Leipzig, East Germany in June 1990. These were the dying days of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a country whose citizens “were not allowed to show themselves naked or see the naked bodies of others, except at the nudist beach.” “The workers and peasants,” the article went on, “could only practice voyeurism under the covers of the marriage bed.” The collapse of the Berlin Wall, Communism and the impending unification were giving them, at last, the opportunity to make up for lost time, according to the article’s author.
Stereotypes aside, it turns out that the author’s claims could not have been further from the truth. There is a growing body of research that shows that there was a much more to the private life of East Germans, and others living under socialism than their Western neighbors assumed. Scholars like Paul Betts (Within Walls: Private Life in the German Democratic Republic, 2011), Werner Habermehl (Sexualverhalten der Deutschen. Aktuelle Daten – intime Wahrheiten, 1993), Kateřina Lišková (Sexual Liberation, Socialist Style: Communist Czechoslovakia and the Science of Desire, 1945-1989, 2018) and Josie McClellan (Love in the Time of Communism: Intimacy and Sexuality in the GDR, 2011) have shown that the GDR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and other countries experienced a sexual revolution under communist rule that is now forgotten. “Within a short space of time East Germans appeared to have moved from sexual victimhood to an assertion of a specifically Eastern – and superior – sexuality,” concludes Josie McLellan in a 2011 article.
Recently, sex and socialism has once again become a topic of a rather fierce debate on the opinion pages of major newspapers. Professor Kristen R. Ghodsee, who teaches Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, published a widely read, and much criticized, op-ed “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism” in the New York Times in August 2017. In the essay, she refers to a study conducted after reunification in 1990 that found women in Eastern Germany had twice as many orgasms as women in Western Germany. Ghodsee argues that communist regimes viewed women’s emancipation as central to advanced “scientific socialist” societies. Women’s economic independence, widely available crèches and kindergartens, paid child care and generous parental leave policies meant women did not have to worry about their financial stability and, therefore, had more time for pleasure (Czechoslovak sexologists started doing research on the female orgasm in as early as 1952).
Ghodsee has now published a book that elaborates on her argument: Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism. And Other Arguments for Economic Independence (Nation Books, 2018). Her main claim is that, under socialism, love and sex are freed from economic considerations, whereas, under capitalism, sex is a commodity women have to sell – as sex workers, sugar babies, girlfriends or wives – because they are economically dependent on men. “I am fascinated by sexual economics theory and think the model gives valuable insight into the way sexuality is experienced in capitalist societies,” she writes. “Essentially, sexual economics theory is right, but only within the confines of the free market system.….socialist sex was supposedly better because women enjoyed greater economic security, and because sex was less commodified than in the capitalist West.” Theoretically this assumption is sound, yet the problem with Ghodsee’s book is that the evidence base is rather scant. Ghodsee’s – excellent – book reads very much like a political pamphlet, a plea to (re)consider the merits of socialism and socialist thinkers and theories, illustrated with pictures and short bios of prominent socialist-feminist thinkers of the past two centuries.
Did women have better sex under socialism? And was sex in general better in the former Eastern Bloc? The answers, it seems, may very much depend on one’s political persuasion.