From whichever side you look at it, there is a positive correlation between socialism and sexual satisfaction of women.

Cecilia cannot help but cry as she watches on YouTube the videos of the Berlin Wall being hammered down to the ground. She is so carried away with watching the people gathering around the wall and a woman who is waltzing in circles, she realizes the tears coming down her cheeks only when her daughter asks her if she is OK. She explains to her daughter that she is crying out of joy that she feels for these people and not out of grief: “[…] Because they are so happy. […] Because they endured this unacceptable thing. Because that woman probably thought, like so many people had, that the Wall would eventually come down, but not in her lifetime, that she would never see this day, and yet she had, and now she was dancing.”[2]

This scene is from Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret. However, a similar scene could have taken place in any other location––after all, real socialism in the cultural meaning world of the “West” amounts to nothing more than the continuously repeated cliches about greyness, people waiting in long queues to get some basic food supplies, and particularly, the claustrophobia of being confined behind a wall in East Germany. However, in the social world constructed through Moriarty’s books (I think Çatlak Zemin readers might be familiar with some of these books or particularly with the TV-series version of Big Little Lies which featured Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman), this moment of pity points at a great irony. Indeed, the female characters of Moriarty are for the most part women who do not work in paid-jobs or work part-time or precarious jobs, who are busy for every second of their lives with the child-husband-house triangle, who have relatively satisfying, familiar but passionless sexual lives if their husbands happen to be “good”, who are from time to time bored within the confines of this constricted life but forget these troublesome thoughts when their children return home in the evening. In other words, here, we read about Cecilia, the Tupperware subcontractor –who assumes the lion’s share of the responsibility of raising their three daughters when her husband is on business trips, who undertakes all the house chores and attends PTA meetings during the daytime and takes the children to ballet and soccer classes in the evening– pitying and being happy for a woman from East Germany about whose life she knows next to nothing. As I said, it is a perfect cliche.

The irony here reveals itself when we move beyond the cliche and take a closer look at the lives of women who were living in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War period. Let’s compare Cecilia’s life with that of another woman who was born in Czechoslovakia in 1943:

“When we got married, we had to work to pay off the loan we got for the apartment and the furniture we bought. Within a year, our first child was born. Maternity leave was only for eight months, so, after eight months I had to return to work. I used to wake our daughter up at half past five each morning because the daycare center opened at six o’clock and it took us 15 minutes to get to the nursery by tram. When I got to the nursery, I used to dress my daughter in her uniform, and then rush to the six-thirty train to get to work. […] Since my husband used to leave work at two in the afternoon at the time, he was taking our daughter from the daycare center, doing the grocery shopping, and preparing the meal. By the time he was done with all this work, it would already be five o’clock and I would be returning home. We used to put our daughter to bed early at night because the next day, we had to be ready for the same routine. My husband and I were both exhausted after such a day.”

Don’t get me wrong, this woman in explaining all these things in detail aims to criticize socialism. However, what she narrates sounds like the dream of women (especially of those with children) today: state-guaranteed employment, eight months of paid parental leave, free day-care center, which is only 15 minutes away from one’s home, free public transport, leaving work to arrive home at five o’clock. And a seemingly egalitarian marriage – at least a husband who undertakes the chores of picking the child up after school, shopping, and cooking… In whose shoes would you rather be, those of the author of this narrative or of Cecilia’s?

Or, let’s think about the “mother-child dormitories” that East Germany instituted to make it easier for single mothers to receive university education. Women stayed in the dormitories with their children, benefited from state-subsidized baby-food, clothing, and toys, and were able to leave their children at the free 24-hour day-care centers provided in the dormitories – so, these dormitories made it easier for women not only to attend classes, but also to have a political and social life (apparently, the classmates of these women were usually not able to tell that these women were single mothers unless they were informed so). In today’s capitalist world where we cannot even start to imagine such institutional support –this will come as no surprise– there is a solid connection between single motherhood and poverty. It is utterly difficult for single mothers to continue their education and climb the ladder in the business world (for mothers who are not single, this is a matter of precluding wage raise and blocking promotions, that is, “punishing” motherhood).

While the situation for women[3] is not exactly the same in all Eastern Bloc countries[4], nearly all socialist countries in the aftermath of the war implemented various measures to increase women’s equal participation in the workforce. These measures which included investments in women’s education, free nurseries, collective laundries, communal kitchens, access to contraception, and abortion also included the “sexual revolution” of which Alexandra Kollontai laid the foundations following the Bolshevik Revolution.

The fact that women are symbols of modernity, progress, etc. is not something specific to the socialist regimes; what is interesting is that women’s sexual satisfaction has become one of the elements of the ideological war waged in the Eastern Bloc against the capitalist West. Enormous amount of research focusing on women’s sexuality and satisfaction have been conducted during that period. In East Germany, interest in female sexuality has been most intense. Undoubtedly, the “natural experiment” situation created by the division of Germany must have played a role in the increase of researchers’ interest on the subject. As a matter of fact, since the two Germanies were assumed to be a part of the same monolithic culture until 1949, it was assumed that any difference between the sexual cultures of the East and the West could only be attributed to the difference created by socialism. And this is a very critical point: these studies on sexual behavior which were conducted before and after 1989 repeatedly demonstrate that in socialist regimes women had more and better sex.[5] Following the fall of socialism, this “sexual gain” of women has melted away as a result of the rise in inequalities and the “return to family” politics in the former Eastern Bloc countries. From whichever side you look at it, there is a positive correlation between socialism and sexual satisfaction of women.

Various explanations are offered as reasons for this correlation. Kristen Ghodshee, in her book Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism, published last year, argues that this is basically linked to women’s economic independence from men. In fact, the logic is rather simple: in a context where women’s education levels are similar, they work in similar jobs, and the government support mechanisms for women are in place at all levels, there is a need for non-economic reasons for women to be/to stay in a relationship/marriage with men – in other words, in order to convince women, men need to make themselves more attractive. This means that among other things, they have to show more effort in bed (or elsewhere if their imagination allows it)! As a group of East German men stated (extremely shamelessly) after the fall of the German Wall: “the sexual self-confidence and economic independence of East Germany women was really annoying. Anyway, a physician’s salary was barely a few cents more than that of a theater worker, so, even a physician’s salary was not enough to pick up a woman. To be with a woman, you had to be an interesting person.” OH MY GOD, EVEN THE THOUGHT OF IT IS SPINE-CHILLING!

When we stretch this idea, it hinges on a slightly more ambiguous and broader argument: the socialist regimes increase gender equality (though not to a full extent) in the sphere of culture. Women’s equal participation in employment is of course a very important pillar of this. The socialist states of the Eastern Bloc have made great efforts to eliminate the difference between women’s work and men’s work. Undoubtedly, this is due to the post-war male population’s inability to supply the necessary workforce for industrial development. However, whatever the motivation behind this effort was, the impact of cultural change that was effected cannot be underestimated: since socialist regimes cared about the economic contribution of women at all levels, contrary to the approach of capitalism which tried to marginalize women in business life, a serious propaganda prompting men to share housework and childcare equally with women was carried out.[6] Women’s representation has increased not only in business life, but also in politics. Those who research the subject argue that increasing gender equality in these different spheres of life also increases equality in sexuality. The narratives of those who experienced the period suggest that this equality was directly related to higher sexual satisfaction. In addition, propaganda on sexual life had been carried out since the 1950s at least in some Eastern Bloc countries. The publications of the period (all sourced by the the states) preached that “good sex can only be achieved by the satisfaction of a woman and it cannot be achieved without equality between male and female partners”.

On the other hand, socialism had prevented the commercialization of sexuality between women and men not only at the level of the individual relations but also at the market level: according to historian Dogmar Herzog’s book Sex after Fascism, which compares the sexual cultures of East and West Germany, the most important characteristic that distinguishes the East from the West is the absence of sex industries (meaning pornography, and sex toys, as well as sex work), the influence of which has gradually increased in the capitalist world during the second half of the 20th century.[7] This, of course, is a controversial point, since there are arguments as to the emancipatory potential of these practices for women today. However, what is important here is that, sex industries that emerged in this historical context completely prioritized men’s pleasure and satisfaction and objectified women. An example that is not directly related to orgasm is rather to the point: the culture of nudity that has developed in East Germany since the 1960s, for example naked sunbathing and swimming on the beaches, was becoming increasingly widespread and despite the police measures it was becoming a nationwide norm. This can be read as an evidence to the fact that women in East Germany were less obsessed with their bodies as well as an indication of men’s aggressive sexuality being somewhat inhibited. After all, the culture of nudity that the East German police could not prevent for years was destroyed in a couple of weeks by the Western men –whose “gaze has been pornographically trained”– who had flocked to the beaches to see the “naked Ossi” after the fall of the Wall. The women no longer felt comfortable or safe under the gaze of these men.

The West, of course, offers counter arguments to explain the link between socialism and women’s sexual satisfaction. Sexologists from West Germany tried very hard to understand how the sex lives of women from East Germany who work double shifts with restricted access to consumer goods are more satisfying than that of the Western women who do not have to go to work and who spend the whole day in their beloved homes with their beloved children and beloved vacuum cleaners. Their conclusion was that people in East Germany turned to sexuality to find the satisfaction that they cannot find anywhere else on account of factors such as the low level of welfare in East Germany and the lack of competition in the socialist economy. In other words, since people consume themselves less in the business life and had limited options for recreational activities, they turned to sex.

When seen from today, this claim does not seem at all unfounded. According to research, young people and adults living in the most developed capitalist countries (the US, Japan, England, Australia are some of the prominent examples) have less sex compared to the previous generations’ youth. This decrease in ratios is more noticeable among heterosexuals and young people. Among business circles, Victoria Secret’s falling sales are seen as an end of the “sex sales” era. There is no single reason for this dynamic, but it is undeniable that wage work is increasingly colonizing daily life and the culture of glorifying overwork has become the norm. It is not possible to disregard the concomitant increase in physical fatigue, performance anxiety, and depression. So, in the capitalist world, people have too much work to have sex (let’s be honest, haven’t we all had those nights when we came home tired from work, put the children to sleep, if we have any, and laid down next to our tired partner and stared at our phones for hours? Of course, this is true for those who can afford a partner. For those who do not have one, finding a partner has become a difficult “business” in itself.)[8]

Additionally, while this downfall trend shows that not only women but also men are affected adversely in terms of sexuality by capitalism, it does not say much about the satisfaction women get from sexual relations (whether the frequency is high or low), especially from heterosexual sex. I am sure that taking into consideration our own experiences we all have a lot to say about this issue. However, almost all around the world, it is accepted that there is an increase “orgasm gap” based on gender and sexual orientation (this does not apply to lesbian women) just as there is an increase in the gender-based wage gap. In more egalitarian countries, this gap is closing somehow. Male ejaculation is seen as the peak (and often the end) of the intercourse – unfortunately, not only among men but also among women. There are also studies showing that even men who care about their partners’ orgasm, care not about their partner but about themselves (in order to feel more masculine, for instance). This does not mean much to women since faking an orgasm is a tactic commonly utilized by many women.

Of course, real socialism made many people and groups pay heavy prices. Its report card is not clean even if we assess it in terms of its performance in the field of sexuality: there is no way to deny the oppression of gays and trans people in the Eastern Bloc. Additionally, the fact that Soviet soldiers used rape of women as a weapon of war during the occupation of East Germany shows that Stalin Russia, besides the horrendousness of these acts, was not very close to the idea of equality. Therefore, what the Eastern Bloc experience offers us is not a glorious past that we would like to return to, but a memory that offers clues as to the changes we want to make in this world.

Sexual desire and pleasure, of course, have an aspect that cannot be reduced to economic and cultural factors. However, we cannot assume that our sexuality is not affected at all by the social and political environment. The thought exercise that I tried to undertake here suggests that a cause-and-effect sequence which begins with economic independence will empower women. And this will free women from being confined and caught up in unsatisfactory as well as violent relationships. That is, socialism can serve the liberation of women from partners and bosses that exploit sexuality (besides labor) as well as to change the world in which women’s consent is not sought and sexual satisfaction is undermined (embodied in Aziz Ansari[9]) –respect and orgasm alongside bread and roses!

They say that the threat of socialism has returned. I do not really believe this is true[10], but I say that as women, we should do our best to bring it back.

Translator: İpek Tabur

Proof-reader: Müge Karahan

For the original in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için

[1] This heading refers to the joke developed through the body and sexuality representations done by Hasbiye Günaçtı over the years: “When socialism comes, foreplay will be history because all will be seen as sex.”

[2] The excerpts in this text are taken from online books, so, unfortunately, I cannot provide the page numbers.

[3] The sources to which I referred as I write this piece center on the experiences of cis-heterosexual women. The main reason behind this is that the oppressive approach of socialist regimes towards homosexuals and trans people was reflected in the studies carried out in those years and non-heterosexual sexuality did not find a place in this research. However, I think that at least some of the arguments put forward can speak to the experiences of all women, not just to those of this specific group.

[4] Russia of the 1930s and 1940s is one of the socialist regimes where everything was worst for women (including sex). During this period, most of women’s gains (such as access to abortion) under Lenin have been lost after Stalin came to power – let’s not forget that Stalin sent Kollontai to exile. This situation was reversed after Stalin’s death. It seems like the women living in the “homeland” were also catching up with the rest of the Eastern Bloc in increasing sexual satisfaction. Regimes in Romania and Albania with policies that encourage repressive pro-natalist policies were not so comfortable for women.

[5] How to measure “better sex” is of course a controversial issue. On the one hand, Eastern Bloc sexologists emphasize that they do not reduce the quality of sex to having an orgasm and that they have developed a more holistic approach. The material they produced also supports this view. However, since the number of orgasms seems to be a number that can be remembered, the most commonly used findings when referring to these studies are the ones pertaining to the frequency of orgasms.

[6] The success of these is debatable since, of course, there is a certain male resistance to these incentives. But the narratives of many women, such as that of the Czechoslovakian woman I have quoted above, show that this effort has been fruitful to some extent. Needless to say, there are serious differences between the different former socialist regimes in this matter too.

[7] There are notable exceptions to this among Eastern Bloc countries — such as Czechoslovakia being the “communist sex trade center” and Poland being the center of pornography industry.

[8] In another story from Ghodsee’s book, Ana Durcheva, who remembers her youth and early adult years under socialism as filled with romanticism compares her own experiences with those of her daughter: “All she does is work. When she comes home, she does not have the energy to spend time with her husband. But that does not matter anyways since her husband is also exhausted. They sit in front of the TV like zombies. In our time, we had much more fun.” Ana states that her romanticism is grounded on the fact that as a divorced woman she had a job and a salary and that she did not need to be supported by a man.

[9] I think the reactions to the incident of Aziz Ansari demonstrate very clearly that the bar for women’s consent is positioned very low in general and that it is not a matter of importance whether  sex is a positive or a negative experience for women. This is why I think this example is very important.

[10] On the other hand, “scarlet fear” is extremely real. Here is an example that I have to share: before the publication of the aforementioned book, Ghodsee’s piece with the almost same title which was published in New York Times was shit stormed. My personal favorite is the Cold War flavored reaction by the Fox News: “New York Times Wants Us to Believe Communists Have Better Sex” –with your permission I will refrain from promoting them by providing the link here.


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