Friday, June 15, 2018

Gross Domestic Orgasm by Kristen Ghodsee


Do communists have better sex? That is the question posed in a 2006 German documentary film called Liebte der Osten anders?- Sex im geteilten Deutschland (Did the East love differently? Sex in a divided Germany), a wonderful reflection on how the two contrasting political and economic systems of the 20th century manifested themselves in the realm of intimacy.

 Every once in awhile I read a book  or watch a film that makes me spend the next weeks regretting that I wasn’t the person who wrote or directed it. That’s what I felt about the film, and that is why I (perhaps foolishly) agreed to lead a discussion about it with an audience full of West Germans when I was a fellow at the Freiburg Institutes of Advanced Studies (FRIAS) in March 2015. In the spirit of open academic inquiry, I thought it might be possible to publically explore whether an oppressive political system like that of the GDR could paradoxically lead to greater individual satisfaction in everyday life.

My FRIAS hosts announced my talk to the whole university and the wider Freiburg scholarly community. The old anatomy classroom filled with my colleagues and a surprising number of younger people, unfamiliar faces who slid into seats behind the narrow wooden bench desks that ran in long, tiered semicircles around the back arch of the room. The ceiling of the lecture hall was high and the seating was steeply angled; I would deliver my talk from behind a podium in a small round pit below the audience. At exactly thirty minutes past five o’clock, the academic director of FRIAS introduced me, and I stated by showing three clips from the film.

The documentary builds on sexological research conducted in the months immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Here were two populations of Germans – more or less similar in all respects  save for the four decades they spent under capitalism and communism. The film starts with a scene of animated East Germans flooding into the West clutching televisions and bananas. A cartoon sociologist proceeds to measure “from a strictly scientific point of view, of course, everything having to do with sex in the two Germanys.” This animated sociologist stands between two couples: one from the West and one from the East. A blue curtain falls in front of the West Germans and a red curtain falls before the East Germans. When the curtains rise, the West German man sits satisfied atop the West German woman while the positions of the East Germans are reversed. The narrator then reports, ‘the East German women’s orgasm rate was apparently double that of their West German sister.” Sex in the former GDR was “earlier, better and more often”. The question: why?

The second film clip discusses the differences between women’s social position in West versus East Germany after World War II. The devastated postwar economies of both Germanys suffered acute labor shortages and surpluses of women. But whereas the East German government fully incorporated the ladies into the labor force, liberating them from their economic dependence on men, the West German government reinforced traditional family structure as a way of distancing itself from the supposedly loose morality of the Nazi era. Where East German women got state support for their roles as mothers and workers in the form of expanded nurseries, kindergartens, public laundries, canteens, and generous maternity leaves and child allowances, the government of the Federal Republic of Germany taught women to cook and clean and stay at home with their children. According to film makers, the economic emancipation of East German women perhaps resulted in greater control over their bodies and sexuality. They could choose partners out of love and attraction rather than financial necessity.

The final clip investigates the commercialization of sex in Western Germany after the sexual revolution in the late 1960s and 1970s. Prominent German sexologists discuss how sex and sexuality became commodities in the West, something to be bought and sold, or at least manipulated to sell products. In the absence of consumer culture, pornography, or advertising, amorous activities supposedly remained free and natural in the East. Finally, over 90% of the East German population participated in the mass culture of nudism which prevailed in the GDR, a totally un-sexualized, family activity that the government once tried to suppress but later fully embraced as evidence of the superiority of socialism.

I showed these three snippets of the film hoping to spark a debate about the public memory of Germany’s communist past. “Today,” I said,” stereotypes about communism in Eastern Europe lead us to believe that everything was bleak and gray. But when I talk to people about ordinary life under communism in Bulgaria, for instance, they tell me that it wasn’t always that bad, that there were some good things, especially with regard to social stability and women’s rights. But when I talk to people in the West, all I hear about is labor camps and secret police. I once gave a lecture in Washington, DC, about post-communist nostalgia in Eastern Europe. When I finished, a West German woman asserted that I couldn’t trust the opinions of people from Eastern Europe. She said they suffered from permanent psychological damage because they lived under a totalitarian regime.”

I caught the eyes of a young woman in the second row, another fellow at FRIAS, who had been born in the GDR. I knew from our lunch conversations that her grandparents were fervent communists filled with what Germans called Ostalgie ( nostalgia for the East). She looked wary, warning me with her eyes that it was useless to challenge West German prejudices about communism. I often met resistance to my scholarly research on women’s rights before 1989, especially from those invested in the narrative of totalitarianism. Most West Germans embraced the uncritical view that people who lived under communism were either duplicitous collaborators or mindless automatons. It was my mission to complicate things.

Of course sexual satisfaction is a subjective category, one based on men’s and women’s personal recollections of their experience. I agree that self-reporting presents methodological challenges. But when a sociological study finds that East German women claim greater sexual satisfaction than their Western peers, and this study is conducted by the same researchers under the same circumstances – asking the same questions about the frequency of sex and how often this intercourse leads to orgasm to a representative  sample of both East and West Germans – it seems worth investigating why. There was a fact of the matter: women were either having sex with their partners or the weren’t. And despite the vast differences in the political and economic systems of the FRG and the GDR, the basic mechanisms of the act remained similar on both sides of the Iron curtain. Moreover, even if the East German woman just imagined that their sex lives were more satisfying, this still tells us something important about their erotic proclivities compared to their Western counterparts. Since love and sex play a large role in the vast majority of adult lives, we might glean important lessons about the intimate effects of capitalism compare to state socialism. As historian Dagmar Herzog asserted, “Sex can be the site for talking about very many other things besides sex.”

“So why would the East German women report that they had better and more frequent sex than their Western sisters?” I said to the audience. “The film suggests possible answers, but leaves this open to interpretation.”

Silence filed the lecture hall until a West German FRIAS fellow raised his hand. “Maybe East Germans had nothing better to do.”

I smiled and nodded. “Yes, that might account for part of it. For example, there were fewer opportunities for shopping. I read a recent study that found 55 percent of British women in relationships found shopping more satisfying than sex with their partners.”

A few members of the audience laughed.

A middle-aged woman raised her hand. “What about the role of the state? Maybe private lives were more important in East Germany because people lacked freedom in the public sphere.”

One great thing about my job is that I get to read a lot of books about everyday life during and after communism in Eastern Europe. Even if I haven’t done primary research on the topic, I can reference those who have. I responded to this question by citing the work of the Oxford historian Paul Betts, who agreed that East Germans retreated to the private sphere to avoid an over-intrusive state. Another historian, Josie McLellen, specifically examined sex in the GDR during the Honecker years (1971-1989) in her book Love in the Time of Communism. She argued that East Germans grew more pessimistic about their political and economic system, they embraced nudism and sensual enjoyments as a salve for their existential woes. The regime responded by decriminalizing homosexuality, encouraging premarital coitus and de-stigmatizing single motherhood as a way to placate a restless populations. The East German communist said, “Sex yes, travel no.”

Another hand went up. ”What about the role of the church, which was much stronger in West Germany than in the East? Were things different in Poland, where the  Catholic Church still played a role under communism?”

In response to this question I discussed the work of  Agnieszka Koscianska ,a Polish colleague of mine and an anthropologist studying the history of sexology in her country. She examined sex education and treatment of sexual dysfunctions in Poland before and after communism and found that, despite the influence of the Catholic Church, progressive sex education was widely available in schools and abortion remained legal. Koscianska contrasted biomedical and physiological understanding of sexuality in the United States with the more holistic view supported by communist sexologists. After 1989, the dominant narrative in scientific circles was that “the backwards East had to catch up with the West,” but Koscianska’s research showed that, in many ways, the East surpassed the West in terms of having a more nuanced understanding of sexuality. She argued that American researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson focused exclusively on physical aspects, claiming that good sex was the result of proper stimulation for both  men and women, who moved through a four-stage response cycle. This view, based on laboratory experiments, came to dominate the international field of sexology and led to the medicalization of sexuality, ultimately benefiting the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, which developed drugs targeting physiological problems.

In Poland, by contrast, sexologists complemented their medical knowledge with psychology, history, and philosophy. They viewed human sexuality as embedded in the wider context of human interactions. Polish sexologists explored individual desires for love, intimacy, and meaning, and listened carefully to the dreams and frustrations of their patients. The communist government paid salaries and provided research budgets, a stark contrast with the prevalence of private and corporate funding in the West. In her interviews with sexologists, Koscianska explained that they only realized their previous privileges after 1989.

After the fall of communism, market pressures impacted Polish sexologists as much as their North American colleagues, but their sex-positive legacy, which accounted for higher rates of sexual satisfaction even decades after communism ended. According to the studies cited by Koscianska, 75 percent of Polish women were free of sexual dysfunction compared to 55 percent of American women.

“So despite the conservative gender roles promoted by the Catholic Church and the post-1989 ban on abortion, ”I said, “Polish women are still having a much better time in bed than women in the West.”

Five more hands shot up. A French woman asked if I had rates of female sexual satisfaction for other European countries. I didn’t.

My East German colleague raised her hand, and I nodded at her.

“ My mother was East German, “: she aid, “and she had to work and take care of the children and the housework, and she was so very busy and very exhausted. Yes, women had rights in the workplace, but men did not help in the home. There was still a lot of inequality between men and women.”

“Yes, the notorious double burden.” I said “This often comes up when I talk about women’s rights under state socialism. Women did have a lot of responsibilities in the home and in the workplace, they were not allowed to stay at home an be housewives or to work part time. The state forced everyone to work at a formal job, and not all those jobs were so great. But socialist countries conducted a lot of surveys, and when women were asked if they would prefer stay home if their husband’s income could support them, the overwhelming majority of women in all communist countries said ‘no.” Women wanted to work.

I walked around to the front of the podium and leaned against the table. “But the fascinating thing is that the women in the West could stay home and be housewives. They weren’t trying to combine work and family, but they still reported having less sex than their partners, and less satisfying sex, than women in the East. Doesn’t that sound like a contradiction? Western women had more time to themselves – to sleep, to work out, to do yoga, or whatever – but by their own report they had sex less often. If Eastern women were exhausted, apparently their Western counterparts were more so.”

I continued by explaining that in my twenty years of researching Bulgaria, people often told me that they had much more time under communism. Sure, they complained about having to wait in line to procure basic goods, and the  about soul-crushing bureaucracy involved in procuring a private car or a new apartment, things that could take years without the right connections or a well-placed bribe. Some basic things like tampons or disposable diapers were impossible to buy, and time-saving consumer appliances were in limited supply, increasing the time needed for domestic work. At the same time, they complained to me that life was faster now, that they must run everywhere to get everything done, and that they lead exhausting, multitasking lives with no time for friends or family or lovers. The conundrum for me, however, is that I’ve seen time budget data from 1969. Back then Bulgarian women reported that they labored for about 14.5 hours a day if you combined their home and work responsibilities, and also included time spent commuting or waiting in line for scarce goods. Despite the sheer number of hours they worked, somehow time moved more slowly. Bulgarians often recall weekends and paid holidays free from modern anxiety and stress.

“So maybe the comparison is not about the actual amount of time spent at home or at work or waiting in line for toilet paper, but about the stress one feels about the passing of time, the anxiety produced by living in a society where time is money. Maybe in the East, timer, like sex, wasn’t something to be bought and sold.”

I paused to gather my thoughts and walked back behind the lectern. “The second part of your comment is something I hear quite often. And its something I spend a lot of time thinking about in my own research.

My Ossi colleague raised an issue which haunted every talk I gave about women’s rights under socialism. Western feminists always pointed out that the situation of women in communist countries was never as good as their governments claimed: patriarchy at home remained; there existed a gender division of labor and a gender pay gap; and communist political elites were overwhelmingly male. East European nations encouraged heterosexual relationships and often promoted gender roles to improve falling birthrates. Much of this was true, but not at all times or in all socialist countries.

And focusing on these negatives deflected attention from the many positives; East European women enjoyed far more rights and privileges compared to Western women, particularly when it came to state supports for finding a work-family balance. Western feminist demands were often for things already granted to women in socialist countries: formal legal equality enshrined in the constitution, expanded educational and professional opportunities, full incorporation into the labor force, abortion on demand, liberalized divorce laws, the ability to keep one’s maiden name, and equal property rights, as well as massive social supports for child-bearing and child rearing. All these changes meant that women gained independence from men and no longer felt compelled to trade their bodies for the economic security that bound women to unhappy marriages and sexually incompetent lovers. My colleague Dagmar Herzog recalls a fascinating conversation she had with several East German men in their mid-forties in 2006: “it was really annoying that East German women had so much sexual confidence and economic independence. Money was useless, they complained. The few extra Eastern Marks that a doctor could make in contrast with, say, someone who worked in the theater, did absolutely no good, they explained, in luring or retaining women the way a doctor’s salary could and did in the West. ‘You had to be interesting.’ What pressure. And as one revealed: ‘I have much more power now as a man in unified Germany than I ever did in communist days.” In other words, the economic disadvantages that capitalism creates for women give greater power to men who don’t have to ‘be interesting’ if they have money.

The financial and sexual independence of women was not only particular to Eastern Germany. At various points, communists advocated for free love and sexual liberation through-out the Eastern Bloc, starting, of course, with the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution of 1917. One early Russian women’s rights advocate, Alexandra Kollontai, proposed that satisfying one’s desires should be like quenching one’s thirst – having sexual intercourse should be like drinking a glass of water. For their part, early socialist thinkers believed that monogamous marriage was a tool for the bourgeois enslavement of women, an institution that guaranteed the production of legitimate heirs who could inherit a man’s private property. Do away with heritable property and you do away with the need for marriage. Or you can do away with monogamous marriage and thereby challenge the basis of the economic system responsible for the reproduction of class inequalities. That was the idea anyway.

Beginning in October 1918, the Soviet Union liberalized divorce and abortion laws, decriminalized homosexuality, permitted cohabitation, and ushered in a host of reforms that instigated a red revolution. But without birth control, this early emancipation produced many broken marriages and broken hearts, as well as countless children born out of wedlock. The epidemic of divorces and extramarital affairs created social hardships when Soviet leaders wanted people to concentrate their efforts on growing the economy. Giving Soviet women control over their fertility also led to a precipitous decline in the birthrate, perceived as a threat to their country’s military power. By 1936, Stalin reversed most of the liberal laws, ushering in a conservative, pronatalist era that lasted for decades to come.

But the example of the early Soviet experiment was a liberalized family code, as well as the continued importance of socialist theories about women’s emancipation, had important impacts on East European nations after World World War II. In Czechoslovakia, for instance, the sociologists Katerina Liskova argues that the idea of woman’s economic and political equality with men infused all the early sex manuals available in Czechoslovak  between 1948 and 1968. For the first two decades of state socialism, Czechoslovak sexologists advised the population that satisfying sexual relations and health marriages could only result from an equal partnership between male and female partners. The state sponsored publications and television shows to educate the population on the desirability of equal partnerships well before Western feminists even had a language to critique the myth of the happy housewife.

In Bulgaria, the state women’s committee pursued strategies to promote sexual equality within both the workplace and the home. In a 1972 Politburo decision to enhance the status of women and increase the birthrate, the socialist government explicitly called for the reeducation of men so that they would share household responsibilities with their wives. The Bulgaria state-run women’s magazine, The Woman Today, published articles discussing the importance of fathers and showing images of men changing diapers and boiling laundry. Legal provisions for maternity leave allowed mothers to transfer part of their unused leave to their husbands, and the state encouraged men to take an act role in parenting as early as 1968. In the end, most efforts to encourage men to help a home proved unsuccessful. Patriarchy remained strong in Bulgarian families, proving that the centralized authority of a communist state was not as all-powerful as many in the West imagined it.

By the time I finished talking, I gauged the crowd and felt their attention fading. I still saw several raised hands, but I made eye contact with the professor who had introduced me. He put up a finger, signaling me to take one more question. I scanned the hall and pointed to an economist that I’d seen around the FRAIS lunchroom.

“What does it matter if people have better sex lives?” he said. “Sex is no substitute for freedom. The word “freedom” hung in the air. For many West Germans, freedom served as a trump card. Freedom of movement, freedom of speech, freedom of choice. Questioning freedom made you an apologist for dictatorship. A room full of eyes turned on me.

I inhaled and left the podium, walking around to address the economist without the protection of the formal lectern. I chose my words with care, deciding not to speak about Germany but about the country that I knew best.

“I am an American, and I usually live in the United States. I pressed a hand to my chest. I lowered my voice and spoke in a slow and clear tone to ensure that my words were not misunderstood. “In my country we have freedom of speech, of assembly, of the press, of religion. I have the freedom to buy a gun, or many guns, and I have the freedom to vote in democratic elections at the local, state, and national level. All these rights guarantee to me as part of the social contract.”

I paused to think about the message I wanted to convey. “But there are many people in my country who live precarious lives: people who have lost their jobs, or who fear losing them. People who have jobs, who are working full time, but do not make enough money to pay their bills. People living without health insurance or access to basic health care. People who are homeless. Children who are homeless. Men and women who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. People who want to work, but who can’t find jobs. They are technically free, but is that the most important thing for them?”

I stopped again, gathering my thoughts and examining the faces around the hall. “I suppose everything depends on what you mean by the word ‘freedom.’ Maybe when you have your basic needs taken care of; when you know that you’ll have food to eat and a roof over your head; when you know that you will be taken care of if you get sick and that your children will be able to go to good schools; when you know your body is not something you need to sell to survive; maybe that produces a different kind of freedom. I don’t think these two types of freedom need to be mutually exclusive, but in practice it seems to me that our Western societies privilege the first kind of freedom over the second.”

I looked at the economist. He glared down at me, frowning. I straightened up,. “I suppose what I find most interesting about the film, is the idea that communists did have better sex and that this more satisfying intimacy arose because their society’s commitment to equality, particularly between men and women. I am not denying that the GDR got a lot of things wrong: the consumer shortages, the travel restrictions, and the Stasi listening in on everyone and compelling people to inform on their family and friends. It’s just that too often we allow our stereotypes about communism to blind us to the possibility that there might have been a few good things under that system, even if these were only very personal things like having better romantic relationships.”

I scanned the faces in the room once more. “After 1989, maybe the West threw the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe we could have learned a few things from the East. Instead we discredited everything. I think we might all have very different opinions about what is important in life: feeling free or feeling secure or feeling loved and respected by our partners. Maybe different people in different circumstances, in different cultures and historical eras, have worldviews that differ from our own.”

I rested my eyes on a young student sitting in the third row. She smiled at me. I smiled back. “Even about something as basic as what it means to be free.”


Red Hangover, Chapter 8



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