Intrigued by Kristen R Ghodsee’s research published in the New York Times last week JOHN GREEN recalls the aspects of life in East Germany that might have prompted such conclusions
Many readers may think of the former socialist countries as being full of serious Stakhanovite men and heavy-set peasant women, leading lives of hard work and little pleasure. Well if you do think that, it will come as a surprise to you that according to a recent essay by Kristen R Ghodsee in the series Red Century, about the history and legacy of communism 100 years after the Russian Revolution, published in the New York Times last week, women had better sex under socialism.
She writes: “A comparative sociological study of East and West Germans conducted after reunification in 1990 found that Eastern women had twice as many orgasms as Western women. Researchers marvelled at this disparity in reported sexual satisfaction.”
While East German women invariably carried a double burden of formal employment and housework, most women in West Germany stayed at home and also had access to more labour-saving devices produced by the bouyant economy. But apparently, according to the author, they had less sex and less satisfying sex than women in the East.
It was also certainly true that life in general was not so sexualised as in the West. There was an absence of using women’s bodies to sell consumer products and there was no objectification of women’s bodies. This was reflected in the numbers of sexual assaults in both states.
A study carried out in 1990 showed that 62 per cent of girls interviewed in West Germany had experienced a sexual assault of some sort, whereas of those who had grown up in the GDR it was 36 per cent.
Of course any reporting on sexual behaviour has to be viewed with a certain amount of scepticism and there have been other studies that suggest there was little difference in terms of sexual behaviour between East and West.
However, it is certainly true that women throughout the socialist bloc did have many rights and privileges not widespread in the West at the time, including generous state investment in their education and training, their full incorporation into the workforce, generous maternity leave allowances and guaranteed free childcare.
Ghodsee spoke to Daniela Gruber, a recently married 30 year-old, in the eastern German city of Jena and more than 20 years after reunification. “Her own mother — born and raised under the Communist system — was putting pressure on Gruber to have a baby,” she writes.
Gruber says that her mother “… doesn’t understand how much harder it is now — it was so easy for women before the Wall fell. They had kindergartens and creches, and they could take maternity leave and have their jobs held for them. I work contract to contract and don’t have time to get pregnant.”
Ghodsee says that “This generational divide between daughters and mothers who reached adulthood on either side of 1989 supports the idea that women had more fulfilling lives during the communist era. And they owed this quality of life, in part, to the fact that these governments saw women’s emancipation as central to socialism.”
The number of orgasms GDR women may have had is perhaps not so relevant, but certainly the attitudes to gender relations, to marriage and sex were much more relaxed and untrammelled by religious or social factors as they were in the West. Women didn’t have to fear that a sexual encounter would result in an unwanted pregnancy, demotion or loss of job — being in a relationship outside marriage brought no stigma with it. Job security as well as the right to a home at a low rent were guaranteed.
It is perhaps little wonder that without the pressures that women (and men) experience under capitalism as well as the absence of ubiquitous sexualised advertising helped make sex non-stressful.
It is also certainly true that women in the territory of the former GDR as well as throughout Eastern Europe have been the big losers since the demise of socialism. It is they who have suffered the biggest loss of jobs and the resultant erosion of economic independence.
The imposition of capitalism’s stereotypical gender imagery and the closure of the many state-funded childcare facilities have also hit women hardest.
Ghodsee notes that many Western feminists, even if they grudgingly recognised what state socialism did for women, were critical because they did not emerge from an independent women’s movement, but came from above.
But the liberation brought about in the socialist countries, Ghodsee writes, “radically transformed millions of lives across the globe, including those of many women who still walk among us as the mothers and grandmothers of adults in the now democratic member states of the European Union”. Quite a surprising viewpoint to be given space in the New York Times.