Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism by Kristen R. Ghodsee

The Bodley Head, £12.99

Review by Susan Swarbrick

This catchily titled critique of capitalism began as an op-ed piece that American academic Kristen R. Ghodsee wrote for the New York Times last year.

In it she argued that capitalism is bad for women, citing a comparative sociological study of East and West Germans conducted after reunification in 1990 which found that Eastern women had twice as many orgasms as Western women.

Ghodsee wrote: “Post-war West German women had stayed home and enjoyed all the labour-saving devices produced by the roaring capitalist economy. But they had less sex, and less satisfying sex, than women who had to line up for toilet paper.”

The column went viral. Its theme clearly struck a chord with what many women around the world had experienced, but until then hadn’t quite been able to pin down and articulate.

Even so, there was criticism levelled that Ghodsee, a professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, didn’t provide enough proof in her New York Times piece to substantiate her claims.

Writing a book has allowed the author to respond to such gripes and flesh out her theories, drawing upon Ghodsee’s years of research into what happened to women in countries that transitioned from state socialism to capitalism.

The subject matter first piqued her interest after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Ghodsee, travelling around Europe during the summer of 1990, found herself immersed within the initial wave of hope and euphoria that followed the collapse of the former Eastern Bloc.

It led to her subsequent academic career, studying how the lives of ordinary people – in particular, women – changed against this shifting political and economic landscape. Ghodsee has been a regular visitor to the region and spent time living in Bulgaria and both sides of a reunified Germany.

Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism is a clever and eye-catching title. I deliberately left it in view on my desk and have lost count of the number of colleagues who did a double-take or swift U-turn to take a closer look. It has sparked some interesting discussions.

The book delves into work, motherhood, sex and relationships, citizenship and leadership. At its heart, Ghodsee asserts that “unregulated capitalism is bad for women”. It is her belief that we can adapt some socialist ideas to the 21st century and vastly improve our standard of living.

“If done properly, socialism leads to economic independence, better labour conditions, better work/family balance, and yes, even better sex,” she writes.

It makes for fascinating, thought-provoking and often jarring reading. There are times that – as a woman – you may become so enraged that you will need to close its pages and seethe angrily at the lack of parity it exposes. At others, you will laugh out loud in solidarity.

The chapter “Women: Like Men, But Cheaper” examines issues including the gender pay gap and workplace discrimination. Perhaps most illuminating is the section on “Lisa”, a successful human resources executive who gave up work after getting married and starting a family.

Ghodsee describes her initial feelings of envy when comparing Lisa’s seemingly care-free life as a stay-at-home mum who “read novels, worked out and cooked lavish meals” to her own “crushing routine of harried days” juggling a full-time career alongside parenting.

We learn that Lisa is, in fact, in n unspoken but galling predicament: she is at the economic mercy of her husband. “All of the labour she performs caring for their children, organising their lives, and managing their home is invisible as far as the market is concerned,” writes Ghodsee.

In short, Lisa receives no wages and contributes no funds towards her own social security in old age. She is left with a gaping black hole on her CV. Everything – food, clothing, access to medical care – is derived from her husband’s income and he can deny access to that at will.

There are countless other examples in this vein within its pages. In the chapter “What To Expect When You’re Expecting Exploitation”, Ghodsee confronts head-on the reality of motherhood and how the much-lauded mantra of “having it all” is impossible under capitalism.

“Socialists have long understood that creating equity between men and women despite their biological differences requires collective forms of support for child rearing,” she writes.

This is merely a snapshot of the complex socio-economic arguments that Ghodsee shines a light on but should hopefully lend credence to why her writing is so refreshing and timely, not least with rise of the #MeToo and Time’s Up women's rights movements over the past year.

A series of mini biographies are peppered throughout, including Elena Lagadinova, the youngest female partisan fighting against Bulgaria’s Nazi-allied monarchy during the Second World War and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space who, in 1963, orbited the Earth 48 times on Vostok 6.

Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism will stoke a fire in the belly of many readers. Still, as Ghodsee herself acknowledges, not everyone will connect with her theories: “If you don’t give a whit about women’s lives because you’re a gynophobic right-wing internet troll, save your money and get back to your parents’ basement right now; this isn’t the book for you.”