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Politics and the sexual lives of women

Sudhirendar Sharma | Updated on December 07, 2020

Side story: The book takes the reader into an insightful journey on why women are pushed to the economic margins of a highly unequal society under capitalism   -  ISTOCK.COM

Provocatively written and deftly argued, Kristen Ghodsee’s ‘Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism’ is based on her extensive research on the status of women in eastern European countries

* Ghodsee compares the socialist vision of free sexuality based on equal rights with the capitalist idea of commodified sexuality and concludes that women under socialism enjoyed more satisfying personal lives

* While Bulgarian women were pursuing careers during the post-World War II economic boom, American women were stocking their kitchens with appliances

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Human relationships are rarely equal when partners do not enjoy economic independence. The lack of equality not only inversely impacts relationships but the experience of sex itself. Shrouded in uneasy dealings between the sheets, the role of different structural relationships to something as fundamental as sex has rarely been acknowledged. In the capitalist world saturated with real and virtual sex, neoliberal ideologies have commercialised basic human emotions; they are things to be bought and sold, and these transactions have left women vulnerable to exploitation both within the household and at the workplace. Can it be argued that capitalism’s triumph is indeed a calamity for most women?

Kristen Ghodsee’s book Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism accomplishes the difficult task of engaging readers on a subject that may have lost much of its relevance in an era dominated by capitalist claims on undeterred human progress. Provocatively written and deftly argued, the book, published in 2018 but now available in paperback, spans an impressive intellectual scope and is based on Ghodsee’s extensive research on the status of women in eastern European countries. She prods us to think about the invisible workings of power and the ways in which it has filtered into people’s daily lives, so much so that most cannot detect the political hues it tends to take on. In this deeply researched book, Ghodsee wonders if capitalism has proven to be a worse influence on the lives of women than state socialism, a system that women were once so eager to cast aside. She convincingly lays bare a few hard facts to underscore her argument.

Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism / Kristen R Ghodsee / Non-fiction / Bodley Head / ₹599

 

The American ethnographer argues that privatisation and liberalisation of the economy have disproportionately eroded the safety nets that allowed women to combine work and family responsibilities with equal ease. Combining facts with lived experiences, she navigates the socio-political realities in countries that were once socialist to emphasise how policies and programmes were designed to invest vast resources in education and training to guarantee full employment, which to some degree ensured economic freedom for women. While Bulgarian women were pursuing careers during the post-World War II economic boom, American women were stocking their kitchens with appliances. One amongst many, this comparison reflects how political and economic structures insidiously pushed women into the world of social disparity and income inequality.

However, Ghodsee, a professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, in no way advocates a return to any form of 20th-century state socialism that had failed under the weight of its own contradictions. Instead, she suggests the need to combine the good aspects of both models (socialism and capitalism) while rejecting their obvious drawbacks.

Organised into six lively chapters, each beginning with a personal jumping-off point, Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism is a fascinating study of sexual economics which makes a compelling case for a more expansive understanding of feminism. It helps a reader gain multi-layered insights into the impact of the political organisation of society on the intimate lives of women and their freedom.

With this book, Ghodsee explores a subject that has remained under wraps for long. She compares the socialist vision of free sexuality based on equal rights with the capitalist idea of commodified sexuality to conclude that women under socialism enjoyed more satisfying personal lives. It is no secret that the reintroduction of free markets in Russia shockingly coincided with a return to the commodification of women, she writes. That many East Germans too believed that their pre-1989 sexuality was more spontaneous, natural and joyful compared to the “commercialised” and “instrumentalised” sexuality they encountered when they joined West Germany.

Ghodsee argues that unless women begin to question their fait accompli status, their capacity to remain wilfully ignorant about their rightful status will only grow and flourish. Although switching economic systems for having better sex may seem a tad trivial, embracing certain aspects of socialism alone can ensure freedom for women from the transactional ethos of sexual economics theory, which determines how men’s and women’s sexual thoughts, feelings, preferences and behavior follow fundamental economic principles. It is difficult not to agree with Ghodsee, whose experience of living in the socialist world comes handy in connecting academic theory with social practice.

Written with academic clarity and professional empathy, this book takes the reader into an insightful journey on why women are pushed to the economic margins of a highly unequal society under capitalism. As socialist ideas have begun to enjoy a renaissance among the younger generation in countries such as the US — recall the youth support that Bernie Sanders enjoys — an alternative political path to a more egalitarian society is indeed a possibility. After all, all that they told us about communism is not a lie but many claims about virtues of capitalism are indeed turning out to be untrue.

Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic

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Published on December 07, 2020
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