SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 226 March 2019

Sex and socialism

How profit-driven capitalism imposes restrictive gender roles on women and how things could be different under socialism are explored in a new book reviewed by CHRISTINE THOMAS.

Kristen R Ghodsee is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, but this is certainly no academic treatise (as she points out). With its provocative title, Ghodsee is aiming at a more popular audience, in particular millennials in the United States. Her basic argument is that unregulated capitalism is bad for women, including their sex lives, and that socialism would be better.

Given the growing interest in socialist ideas from young people in the USA this book is very timely. Ghodsee refers to the 2016 YouGov poll which found that 43% of 18-29 year-olds had a favourable opinion of socialism while only 32% felt positively about capitalism. There is also a significant gender difference, with 56% of men (of all ages) having a favourable view of capitalism compared to 47% of women.

Ghodsee’s intentions are laudable in wanting to counter the virulent anti-socialist/anti-communist propaganda that has been so prevalent in the USA, through a "balanced examination of the past", "so that we can discard the bad and move forward with the good, especially where women’s rights are concerned". But there are so many problems with this book that it’s difficult to know where to start.

Ghodsee gives extreme examples of life under capitalism that are not the experiences of most women. Her definition of socialism is vague and confused and her ideas on how it could be achieved even more so. Her arguments regarding women in the Eastern European Bloc states having better sex lives are based on anecdotes and dubious research (and limited by only dealing with heterosexual relationships). Despite these problems, however, the book does raise some interesting issues regarding how women’s lives could be transformed in a different kind of society.

Ghodsee correctly states that for socialists women’s full economic independence through participation in the workforce, and the collective, public provision of childcare and other services, are among the prerequisites for achieving women’s liberation. Because of the gendered division of labour, with women having the main responsibility for child rearing and the home, and capitalism consequently placing less value on women’s public labour than men’s historically, free markets continue to discriminate against women workers.

Stereotypical attitudes and expectations are still prevalent, with some employers viewing women as less reliable because of their caring responsibilities. Discrimination, social expectations and lack of affordable childcare mean women are overwhelmingly concentrated in ‘flexible’, part-time and lower paid jobs. The expansion of the public sector created opportunities for some women but privatisation and austerity are destroying many of those jobs, as well as vital services. The US is one of the few ‘advanced’ capitalist economies with no mandated paid maternity leave and where only 12% of workers are covered by paid parental leave policies.

Personal relations

What impact does this have on personal and intimate relationships? In her critique of capitalism Ghodsee refers to the ‘sexual economics theory’, an extreme, misogynist, right-wing theory based on the idea that a sexual marketplace exists in which women sell sex in return for love, protection, material favours, etc. For Ghodsee, this theory unconsciously echoes Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ observation that capitalism commodifies all human interactions and reduces women to chattel.

Of course, in the opinion of Marxists the development of societies based on class divisions did ultimately reduce the position of women to one of being the property of men within the private family unit. In 1848, when Marx and Engels were writing about capitalism’s effects on personal relationships, women of the ruling capitalist class were being exchanged in marriage for economic gain. It is also true that in capitalist society today sex as a commodity is clearly evident in its most extreme and brutal form in the sex ‘industry’, where mostly women but also transgender people and men are compelled through poverty and abuse to sell their bodies.

It is not the case, however, that in 21st century capitalism most personal relationships are formed through economic necessity. Instead, they are normally based, at least initially, on mutual attraction, affection, love, etc, certainly within the advanced capitalist countries. Having said that, capitalism clearly does have an effect on how we relate to each other. If you are stressed, working long hours in an unsatisfying job, juggling work and childcare, worried about whether you will keep your job or how to make ends meet, those factors will inevitably impact on your relationships with others, including your sex life.

While the material basis for men’s control over women within the family is not the same as it was in earlier class societies, the idea that men should control women still has currency. This is reflected in the fact that one in four women will experience violence at the hands of a partner or ex-partner at some time in their lives and in the high prevalence of rape. Moreover, violence against women is reinforced by the wider persistence of gender inequality. While most women are no longer entirely economically dependent on a male partner, low wages, cuts in benefits and inadequate or costly housing will impact on a woman’s ability to leave a violent or abusive relationship, or one that is no longer happy or fulfilling. It is no accident that the level of divorce declined in some countries after the 2008 economic crisis.

In the USA, the combination of the privatised health system and low wages can mean that some women are dependent on their partner’s health insurance which can influence their decision on whether to leave a relationship. It is also the case that the commodification and objectification of women’s bodies and sexuality in capitalist advertising, popular culture and pornography inevitably find their reflection in intimate relationships, just as social expectations about gender roles and behaviour do.

Women after the Russian revolution

Ghodsee refers to socialists such as August Bebel and Alexandra Kollontai, who believed that the values of a more egalitarian society, based on the collective ownership of the means of production and the socialisation of childcare and domestic work, would be reflected in personal relations, freeing sexuality from economic constraints. She writes about attempts to improve women’s lives after the Russian revolution which, among other things, introduced civil marriage, facilitated divorce, abolished the idea of illegitimacy, legalised abortion and decriminalised homosexuality. Legislation passed to protect women workers included equal pay for equal work and 16 weeks paid maternity leave.

The programme of the Bolsheviks, renamed as the Communist Party in 1918, declared that formal equality was insufficient. It was necessary to free women from the ‘material burdens’ of household work. As a consequence, the new workers’ state established public restaurants and laundries as well as nurseries. Ghodsee rightly states that these attempts to liberate women from domestic drudgery were hampered by the economic constraints of a country devastated first by the effects of world war and then by civil war and imperialist intervention. This meant that the state provision of services was scarce or non-existent in many parts of the country, and the quality of those that did exist left much to be desired.

There were attempts to experiment with alternative ways of living by young people whose attitudes had been transformed by the revolution. Ghodsee refers to a 1922 survey of students at the Sverdlov Communist University in Moscow which found that only 21% of men and 14% of women considered marriage as the ideal way to organise one’s sex life. A conscious campaign was conducted by the workers’ state, through the Zhenotdel (the women’s department of the Communist Party), with the aim of changing the backward and reactionary attitudes towards women that were still entrenched in society, especially among the peasants who made up the majority of the population. But the low cultural level, together with the lack of employment and inadequate public services meant that, despite liberalised divorce laws, economic autonomy was impossible for most women and they remained confined to the traditional patriarchal family rather than face destitution.

"At the end of the 1920s", writes Ghodsee, "Stalin decided it was much easier to return to a system in which women did all the childbearing and child rearing for free within the confines of more traditional forms of marriage, while also forcing them to work outside the home" – as if Stalin suddenly woke up one morning and thought ‘that’s a good idea!’ In reality, Stalin was the representative of a bureaucratic elite which had developed as a consequence of the revolution remaining internationally isolated in an economically and culturally backward society. While tasked with administering society, the bureaucracy sought to defend and extend its own privileged position to which everything became subordinated, including the needs of women.

The Stalinist bureaucracy went much further than was materially necessary in dismantling public laundries, restaurants and nurseries. It had the conscious aim of reinforcing the private family unit, not just as a cheap economic alternative to state-provided services but as a useful ideological tool. It was a means of asserting social control and disciplining family members, especially the youth, to accept hierarchical and bureaucratic authority. In 1936 abortion was made illegal in most cases and divorce became more difficult. Women were exhorted to fulfil their reproductive function on behalf of society while being simultaneously coerced into the labour market to boost economic production.

The Stalinist Eastern Bloc

The eastern European states which emerged after the second world war, and to which Ghodsee refers to back up her theory that economic independence improves women’s sex lives, were based on the same nationalised but bureaucratically managed economy as the Soviet Union, underpinned by the family as an economic and social unit. Nevertheless, as Ghodsee explains, important differences existed between states as far as women’s rights were concerned. The contrast, for example, between Romania, transitioning from a predominately peasant economy, which outlawed abortion and subjected women to horrific mandatory gynaecological examinations, and East Germany, which had a more liberal approach with regard to women’s reproductive rights, was quite stark.

Ghodsee does not idealise the Eastern Bloc countries and says quite clearly that she does not advocate a return to what she defines as 20th century ‘state socialism’. Her premise is that we should discard what was negative and learn from what was positive. She puts particular stress on the fact that these states, with all their variations, implemented policies – maternity and child benefits, childcare facilities, etc – that encouraged women’s participation in the workforce and therefore their economic independence from men. As a consequence, 91% of women in East Germany were economically active, for example.

The push by the ruling bureaucracies to increase women’s economic participation was driven by economic expediency and demographic factors not by a desire to emancipate women. Working outside the home can be an important step towards liberation but on its own is clearly insufficient, as women in the west have also found out over the past few decades. This includes what Ghodsee calls the ‘democratic socialist states’ of Scandinavia, where the provision of state-provided services and benefits for women went further than in many other European countries. What she doesn’t say is that those gains have been under attack for some time through cuts and privatisation, including by social democratic-led governments.

Real liberation requires a total economic and cultural transformation of society, including ending the role of the family as an economic and social institution. While equality was legally enshrined in the eastern European states, and women formally enjoyed the same rights as men, the reality was very different. The law also defined women as having a dual role in society, both productive and reproductive, and pro-natalist policies were aimed at women being able to fulfil this double responsibility. The emphasis of social policies would change depending on the specific needs of the Stalinist bureaucracy at any particular time.

The gendered division of labour in the home and women’s double burden persisted, however, just as it does under capitalism, and later campaigns to encourage men ‘to do their bit’ had little effect. According to a survey carried out in East Germany in 1985, women took on 60% of domestic work, while the figure in Poland and Hungary was around 80%. Since most women worked full time, these figures illustrate the heavy load they had to bear. Not to mention the added stress of overcrowded housing and shortages of consumer goods

Women’s unequal role within the family also underpinned workplace discrimination. In the Soviet Union women received 70% of male earnings (on a par with figures in the west today). Despite women being encouraged to take on what have traditionally been considered male jobs, gender segregation was rife: 100% of East German nursery and kindergarten teachers were women and 77% of school teachers. Where women did break into ‘male’ sectors of the economy they were usually concentrated in lower grade, lower paid and often monotonous and personally unsatisfying jobs. Ghodsee’s argument is that, despite these deficiencies, women’s economic dependence on men was reduced through the state guaranteeing a job, pension and other benefits.

As a consequence, she argues, it was possible to ‘decouple’ love and intimacy from economic considerations. With relationships freed from market influences, women were able to form and end relationships without economic constraints and were more confident about their sexuality. ‘Non-commodified’ sexuality led to better sex. Ghodsee admits that human sexuality is complex and difficult to study. But that does not stop her quoting extensively from various studies carried out in Eastern Bloc countries whose scientific base and methodology are dubious. It may well be true that women in eastern Europe had better orgasms than women in the west but, ultimately, we are relying on their word for it.

There is no doubt, however, that the collapse of the Stalinist regimes and the return to unfettered market capitalism in the 1990s had a devastating effect on women’s lives. Wholesale privatisation decimated jobs and childcare forcing many economically independent women back into the home. Sex became re-commodified as the market invaded every aspect of women’s lives. Impoverished young women were compelled to sell their bodies at home in order to survive or to fall prey to traffickers exploiting their misery by turning them into sex slaves in western Europe.

The basis for real equality

So what are Kristen Ghodsee’s proposals for the future? While she refers to revolutionary socialists, such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Rosa Luxemburg, she is basically a social democrat proposing more state intervention to transform capitalism into a more humane, just and equal system. Exactly how that could be achieved is not explained. If, however, as she hopes, her book encourages millennials to discover more about socialism and women’s liberation it will have served a purpose, despite its ideological confusion.

If it encourages young people to read the works of Alexandra Kollontai, for example, which explain how women’s liberation requires a far-reaching economic, social, cultural and psychological revolution, transforming not only economic relations but personal relations too, then that would be very positive. Kollontai explained how a workers’ revolution would abolish the capitalist market and the private ownership of the means of production. By implementing a democratically planned economy it would, as a first step, free the resources necessary for guaranteeing women’s economic independence and ending the unequal gendered division of labour within the family.

A society based on equality and cooperation, in which hierarchical relations and commodity production for profit are eliminated, would create the basis for new social values, norms and expectations to emerge regarding sexuality and gender. That, in turn, would be reflected in personal and intimate relationships. Yet, as our social attitudes and expectations have been shaped by capitalism, an ongoing ideological and cultural struggle would still be necessary in the initial period after a socialist revolution.

Kollontai’s ideas retain all their relevance for socialists today. Like Engels and Bebel before her, she had her own opinions about love, sex and personal relationships but was never prescriptive about what form they would take in a socialist society. Sex probably will be better under socialism but the only way of knowing for sure is to have a programme, party and strategy for making socialism a reality.

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