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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Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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