Why sex behind the Iron Curtain was better for women

A new book about life under communism reveals an unexpected benefit.

  • A new book by Kristen Ghodsee argues that women had much better sex in communist Eastern Europe than in the West.
  • She attributes this to steps those states took to empower women and their resulting economic independence.
  • While rebuilding the Iron Curtain isn't called for, the author suggests we can learn ways to empower women from these communist regimes.

Think of every image of communist Eastern Europe you've ever seen and every establishing shot of it ever put to film. You're probably thinking of long lines of people waiting to get bread, drab grey tenements, and prematurely aged couples reading Pravda while their neighbors are arrested for crimes against the people they probably didn't commit.

This image is popular and not without some truth to it, but if a new book by Kristen Ghodsee is correct you'll need to add another idea to your stereotypes: Excellent sex.


Women had better sex under socialism

After the reunification of Germany, a few interesting studies were undertaken about the sex lives of German women from both sides of the Iron Curtain.

To the surprise of many in the West, two-thirds of the East German woman reported that they "almost always" had an orgasm during sex, with another 18 percent revealing they did so "often". What's more, 82% of them reported being "happy" after sex. On the other hand, the West German women experienced orgasms half as much as their communist counterparts and only 52% of them reported being "happy" after sex.

In Russia, studies on various kinds of relationships show a proliferation of people viewing relationships as a mere "calculation" after the fall of communism and a slew of friendship- and romance-driven ones during the days of the USSR. When combined with interviews given by Eastern Bloc women on how life was before and after the fall of communism, there is a clear dividing line between sex before and after capitalism won.

But, why was this the case?

Ironically, a capitalistic idea called sexual economics theory can shed some light on the subject.

The idea rests on a few questionable assumptions; it assumes that men have much higher sex drives than women and that women are more than willing to use sex as an exchangeable service to acquire goods and services from men on a regular basis. While these are far from generally accepted ideas, the theory is a useful tool for discussion.

In the theory, the "price of sex" can vary based on supply and demand, much like any other commodity. When there are more women then men the price falls, when there are more men than women the price goes up. Casual sex causes the price to drop. In a society where women cannot make money outside the home, marriage can be the "price" of assuring a lifetime deal where women are guaranteed economic support and men are assured intimacy.

However, if women are economically independent – in the USSR women were encouraged to go into STEM fields and made up 50% of all "engineering and technical specialists", and many Eastern Bloc countries made attempts at public childcare services for working families – then the need for this vanishes.

The idea then is that when women have economic independence, accessible childcare options that make parenting while working easier, and the right to leave relationships they no longer care for, the commodification of sex ends and the markets described above break down. Since Eastern Bloc men could no longer "buy" sex by just being providers, they had to be competent at it instead if they wanted to keep their relationships working.

The author also explains that in some of the Eastern Bloc countries, Czechoslovakia in particular, men were encouraged to better share housework with women. Since we know now that couples who split domestic work more evenly have more sex, it is presumed that this effect also existed behind the Iron Curtain. The Polish were a tad more conservative than their neighbors, but still developed a holistic approach to sexology that might explain why they are still more satisfied than Americans to this day.

So, should we all start wearing Mao Jackets and singing the Internationale?

Not quite, as good sex doesn't fully justify the other things Soviet-style communism did, and the Romanian communists didn't manage to achieve any of the benefits mentioned above. Dr. Ghodsee doesn't endorse a return to state socialism at all. Instead, she suggests that we learn from both the communist states of old and the social democratic countries of today and how they made life for women better.

The use of quotas in Scandinavian countries to increase the number of women on the executive committees of large corporations has been rather successful, though the limited success of the program in creating change outside the boardroom leaves some room for improvement. Other programs that Dr. Ghodsee suggests America steal from other countries include mandatory maternity leave and bolder action on ending the wage gap.

She also mentions that because women have lower wages and own less wealth than men, government programs that provide services for everybody are more likely to benefit women. It is entirely possible to implement programs like universal health and childcare or job guarantees without falling to authoritarianism. She also mentions how people who work in the public sector tend to be female and suggests expanding it to improve economic opportunity.

This all sounds suspiciously like communist propaganda, comrade; extremely persuasive propaganda.

More than a few objections have been raised about the hypothesis that sex was better under communism since the idea was first put forward. A few of these are worth mentioning.

First of all, all of the data is self-reported. While the statistics are probably fine in this case, women in East Germany had no reason to lie any more than women in West Germany, and though there isn't a better way to learn all of this, the data should be taken with a grain of salt.

Secondly, while the common interpretation of these studies is that the socioeconomic status of women was the driver behind the improved sex, other explanations have been put forward. One of the more amusing ones is that in a society plagued by rationing there might not be much else to do in the way of entertainment on a Friday night.

Despite these issues, the primary finding still stands; women in the Eastern Bloc claimed to have better sex lives than their Western counterparts, and there are explanations as to why this might be the case that aren't too far-fetched.

Should we all storm the barricades in the name of Marx and better sex lives? Probably not, but the lessons from behind the Iron Curtain on sex, relationships, and giving new families the support they need are still of use. As Ghodsee says about state socialist systems, "There was a baby in that bathwater. It's time we got around to saving it."

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.