Why Sex Was Better Under Socialism Is One Hot Mess of a Book
It’s pretty colonialist, too.
Is there a better way to celebrate the good old socialist holiday of International Women’s Day than by putting a stake through the argument that socialism was so good for women, we have better sex under it?
U Penn professor Kristen Ghodsee wrote a book arguing that much. Although that book was advertised as a work of an anthropologist, there is no anthropology in it. That is to say, Ghodsee conducted no anthropological fieldwork to write Why Sex Was Better under Socialism (she references an interview with a Bulgarian woman in the New York Times article that was a precursor to the book; what happened to that?). No observations of rituals, kinship, detail of everyday life, or anything else that animates the minds of anthropologists, nothing.
The closest she comes to fieldwork, is reminiscing about experiences with her friends in the United States to set stage for her polemic. Some of these stories read like she straight made them up. The one about the ex boyfriend who died on 9/11 is certainly real (who makes up an ex that perished in a terrorist attack?), but her decision to publically critique his divorce is risible. While I dislike pretty much everything else about Why Sex Was Better under Socialism, this is my biggest problem with this book.
My second biggest problem is that I am impartial towards anthropology, and I don’t understand why an anthropologist should ditch her discipline for socialism. That Ghodsee railroads (can we say “colonizes”?) the Soviet “lived experience” to make domestic political points doesn’t help either.
Each chapter of the book is structured thusly: first, a problem with capitalism is illustrated by an anecdote, like the one of a marginalized San Francisco housewife who has to “fuck” (the dialog is rather wooden in Ghodsee’s account) her husband to get some walking around money. But, if that lady really is that miserable, why not divorce the control freak and get the alimony? Likewise, Cathy Young noted that the writer’s recollection of her high school Model UN doesn’t square with what was the common knowledge at the time.
After the problem with capitalist patriarchy is introduced, Ghodsee, the anthropologist, uses secondary sources to explain how state socialist countries had dealt with it from the top down. Her story of women’s liberation under socialism mirrors the official Kremlin narrative. Towards the end of each chapter, Ghodsee admits that the real conditions of women under socialism were far from perfect, that, yes, they worked double shift, and no, there were no women in Politburo. Next, ignoring these inconvenient facts, Ghodsee proclaims that we, too, can have all the socialist goodies, like mother and baby dorms for students who like to have amazing sex, but not the GULAGS, if we only embrace big government.
Ghodsee has swallowed commie propaganda hook, line and sinker. She produces statements like:
The first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova orbited the Earth forty-eight times in July 1963 on Vostok 6. After her career as a cosmonaut, Tereshkova became a prominent politician and led the Soviet delegation to the 1975 United Nations World Conference on Women.
But there were no politicians in the Soviet Union. Tereshkova was a figurehead sent to space to then be dispatched to dupe hapless westerners and impress the Third World.
Working on her dissertation, Ghodsee has spent over one hundred and fifty hours interviewing a Bulgarian apparatchik Elena Lagadinova. Lagadinova had told her that feminist ideal was not fully achieved under the socialism because the Eastern Bloc countries “did not have enough time to overcome the centuries-old idea that leaders should be men”. But “did not have enough time” was the standard socialist excuse for everything from alcoholism to crumbling infrastructure! How can a UC Berkeley-educated Eastern Europe specialist not know that? Like I said, the book is hot mess.
Instead of probing nomenclatura, why not explore a traditional approach from a field like anthropoliogy, the one centered around the experiences of real people? For instance, Ghodsee praised socialist states for providing women with crèches into which babies could be funneled when moms are slated to return to work. In her opinion, the arrangement leads, you guessed it, to better sex. Regardless, do anthropologists not study kinship? Soviet moms preferred leaving their kids with grandmothers to surrendering them to a vaguely sadistic institution. Extended family was a large factor in maintaining female labor force participation mandated by the state.
Something tells me that the book will inspire countless future dissertations about intimate life under state socialism. One would hope that an anthropologist approaching this topic would start with observation. If I were an adviser, I’d suggest doing fieldwork in Belarus, the country often described as socialist theme park, the marginal survivor of the socialist way of life.
Ghodsee’s best example of good socialist sex? East Germany, the one country most unlike all others behind the Iron Curtain. The author believes that because the state provided for women, the East German fraus didn’t have to pursue relationships for money, or to stay married if marriages weren’t working out, like we do under capitalism (wait, we do? — that one friend of hers does). Therefore, sex was good.
So, after coyly insisting that she’s opposed to economic reductionism (she did), the author produces an economic reductionist argument, and, incidentally, a poorly supported one. A hot Marxist mess. Although I myself conducted no research on this topic, but my working hypothesis is that economic system bares little if any relationship to the quality of sex.
Ghodsee provides the worst misogynists with their best arguments. By suggesting that women are better off when state assumes the role of husband because the material support provided by government comes with no strings attached, Ghodsee painted women as dependent and entitled.
It doesn’t occur to her to think critically of the incursion of the East German state, particularly its spy apparatus, into family life. When, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, unified Germany moved to open the Stasi archives, the attempt was quickly put on ice for a quarter century, partially because it surfaced that family members spied on each other. I’m sure sex was good: Liaisons Dangerous, socialist style.
Perhaps she got too much pushback on her original article, or maybe it’s a bit of a trendy Rusophobia — either way, Ghodsee confidently declared that that while sex was good in Bulgaria, Poland, and especially East Germany, Soviet sex “sucked”, particularly in the early years. Her evidence? A study that found that older Soviet women talked of marriage as an institution for child-rearing. That, and the fact that Stalin outlawed abortion.
I feel bad for my grandparents. They lived through wars, revolutions, and terror, remaining devoted to each other for decades. I can only hope that they had some fun along the way. They probably had: If sex was so bad in the Soviet Union, why do we have Doctor Zhivago?
And while Ghodsee, like a good American, confidently declares that the lesson of socialist women is that personal is political, Doctor Zhivago, along with other consequential works of Soviet literature, even the officially praised works like And Quiet Flows the Don, or Baranskaya’s A Week Like any Other, whom Ghodsee approvingly cites as quasi-feminist, teach the opposite. It’s personal that matters; the inner lives and private feelings of the little people who happened to live through horrible times. Channeling propaganda in place of “lived experiences” of people under socialism, Ghodsee has created one hot mess of a book.