Did East Ger­man women have more or­gasms than those in the west? How mar­ket forces af­fect sex­u­al­ity

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Emily Witt

This book has a sim­ple premise: “Un­reg­u­lated cap­i­tal­ism is bad for women,” Kris­ten Gh­od­see ar­gues, “and if we adopt some ideas from so­cial­ism, women will have bet­ter lives.” Gh­od­see is an ethno­g­ra­pher who has re­searched the tran­si­tion from com­mu­nism to cap­i­tal­ism in eastern Eu­rope, with a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on gen­der­spe­cific con­se­quences. “The col­lapse of state so­cial­ism in 1989 cre­ated a per­fect lab­o­ra­tory to in­ves­ti­gate the ef­fects of cap­i­tal­ism on women’s lives,” she writes.

Less reg­u­lated economies, she finds, place a dis­pro­por­tion­ate bur­den on women. Women sub­sidise lower taxes through their un­paid labour at home. Cuts to the so­cial safety net mean more women have to care for chil­dren, the el­derly and the sick, forc­ing them into eco­nomic depen­dence. Gh­od­see con­tends that with­out state in­ter­ven­tion, the pri­vate sec­tor job mar­ket pun­ishes those who bear and raise chil­dren. The gov­ern­ment is bet­ter at en­sur­ing wage par­ity, and economies with more pub­lic sec­tor jobs tend to have more gen­der equal­ity too. Women bear the brunt of cap­i­tal­ism’s cycli­cal in­sta­bil­ity, and are of­ten the last to be hired and the first to be fired. They are paid less, they have less rep­re­sen­ta­tion in gov­ern­ment and, she writes, all of this af­fects their sex­u­al­ity. The less eco­nomic in­de­pen­dence women have, the more sex­u­al­ity and sex­ual re­la­tion­ships con­form to the mar­ket­place, with those who are dis­ad­van­taged in the free mar­ket pur­su­ing sex not for love or plea­sure but for a roof over their heads, health in­sur­ance, or ac­cess to the wealth or sta­tus that cap­i­tal­ism de­nies them.

Gh­od­see dis­tin­guishes be­tween the “state so­cial­ism” of eastern bloc coun­tries ruled by com­mu­nist par­ties that re­stricted po­lit­i­cal free­dom, and “demo­cratic so­cial­ism”, where gov­ern­ments pur­sue so­cial­ist prin­ci­ples as well as hav­ing free and fair elec­tions. She is not ad­vo­cat­ing a re­turn to life as it was in Soviet Rus­sia, but point­ing out cer­tain poli­cies un­der­taken un­der state so­cial­ism that could be suc­cess­fully adopted by demo­cratic coun­tries. Poli­cies in­formed by so­cial­ist ideals such as a gov­ern­ment jobs guar­an­tee, quo­tas for fe­male par­tic­i­pa­tion in cor­po­rate lead­er­ship and guar­an­teed child­care al­low women au­ton­omy, in­de­pen­dence and, she con­tends, a hap­pier sex­ual life. by Kris­ten Gh­od­see, Bod­ley Head, £12.99

“So­cial­ists have long un­der­stood that cre­at­ing eq­uity be­tween men and women de­spite their bi­o­log­i­cal sex dif­fer­ences re­quires col­lec­tive forms of sup­port for child rear­ing,” she writes. In East Ger­many, for ex­am­ple, the state sup­ported in­te­grat­ing women into the work­force with poli­cies that sub­sidised hous­ing, chil­dren’s cloth­ing, gro­ceries and child­care. This meant that women could more eas­ily con­sider hav­ing chil­dren with­out wait­ing for mar­riage. By 1989, 34% of all births in East Ger­many were to sin­gle par­ents. Af­ter Ger­man re­uni­fi­ca­tion, the end of th­ese sub­si­dies re­sulted in a “birth strike”: the fer­til­ity rate in for­mer East Ger­man states fell by 60%.

Her ar­gu­ment that so­cial­ism leads to “bet­ter” sex is harder to sub­stan­ti­ate. So many cul­tural fac­tors play into a sense of sex­ual sat­is­fac­tion, and cer­tain eastern Eu­ro­pean coun­tries re­port­ing higher rates of fe­male or­gasm dur­ing the cold war than the US or West Ger­many is not nec­es­sar­ily cor­re­lated to so­cial­ist poli­cies. What is true, how­ever, is that less in­equity de­com­mod­i­fies sex, and un­der­mines the odi­ous the­ory of “sex­ual eco­nomics” whereby women keep the “price” of sex high by deny­ing it. As Gh­od­see points out, “in so­ci­eties with high lev­els of gen­der equal­ity, with strong pro­tec­tions for re­pro­duc­tive free­dom, and with large so­cial safety nets, women al­most never have to worry about the price their sex will fetch on an open mar­ket.”

Gh­od­see also ar­gues that the cold war kept cap­i­tal­ism in check. In the 30 years since it ended, the US and Bri­tain have seen un­fet­tered dereg­u­la­tion, pri­vati­sa­tion and a sharp rise in in­equal­ity. The ef­fect on women has been dev­as­tat­ing. Wages have stag­nated, and more of the work­force has been thrown into the in­sta­bil­ity of the gig econ­omy. In the US, at least, birth rates have fallen. The rea­sons are un­clear, but the lack of state sup­port for work­ing mothers is prob­a­bly a fac­tor. There are many rea­sons to re­visit so­cial­ist poli­cies in a time of widen­ing in­equal­ity, but a fem­i­nist per­spec­tive of­fers some of the most pow­er­ful in­cen­tives. The elec­tion of Don­ald Trump and the con­fir­ma­tion of Brett Ka­vanaugh to the supreme court have given a height­ened sense of the cor­re­la­tion be­tween tax cuts, cuts to the so­cial safety net, and a pol­i­tics of sex­ism, in­clud­ing dis­dain for a woman’s au­ton­omy over her own body. Gh­od­see spells out the cap­i­tal­ist in­cen­tives be­hind poli­cies that are so of­ten dis­guised as “cul­ture wars”, and ends her book with the ex­hor­ta­tion to “push back at a dom­i­nant ide­ol­ogy” that con­fuses so­cial bonds with eco­nomic ex­change: “we can share our at­ten­tions with­out quan­ti­fy­ing their value, giv­ing and re­ceiv­ing rather than sell­ing and buy­ing.”

‘In so­ci­eties with high lev­els of gen­der equal­ity, women al­most never have to worry about the price their sex will fetch on an open mar­ket’

To buy Why Women Have Bet­ter Sex Un­der So­cial­ism for £11.43 go to guardian­book­shop.com.

Why Women Have Bet­ter Sex Un­der So­cial­ism: And Other Ar­gu­ments for Eco­nomic In­de­pen­dence

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