In Cuba, as well, you found that even though Castro was extremely homophobic, Cuban society developed progressive LGBT rights at a rate far outpacing that of the West. How did LGBT rights move faster under a homophobic autocrat?
I kept finding it weird when I came across it when I read around these subjects – for race, for gender, for sexual minority rights – but I hadn’t found a good work to directly tie a lot of these observations together.
To rectify this, I read a book I want to briefly summarize, a brilliant book with the unambiguous and unapologetic title: Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence by Kristen R. Ghodsee. It was recommended to me in part by Patron David Thompson. Thank you to everyone who provides me with the links and suggestions I devour.
The first paragraph of the first chapter is cheerfully blunt:
The argument of this book can be summed up succinctly: Unregulated capitalism is bad for women, and if we adopt some ideas from socialism, women will have better lives. If done properly, socialism leads to economic independence, better labor conditions, better work/family balance, and, yes, even better sex.
Before this first line is a portrait of Valentina Tereshkova, who became the first woman in space in 1963 and, “a prominent politician [who] led the Soviet delegation to the 1975 United Nations World Conference on Women”. What is not said, but I think is relevant to the arguments that follow later in the book, is that the first American female astronaut in space was Sally Ride, who only got there as late as 1983: The same year would see the first black astronaut.
A full 20 years after Tereshkova orbited the Earth 48 times, Sally Ride would be sent up with a string of 100 tampons, ‘just to be safe’, as the engineers were apparently too squeamish to ask what the correct number was. Or how tampons were used.
The book goes into the role of the USSR as a foil to capitalism, a foil we’ve lost since the Berlin wall fell. Ghodsee points to the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958 being a direct response to Sputnik’s launch the year before: The Soviet’s educated women in the space race meant double the population to pull from, a resource the US hadn’t been producing. Without the space race, US women would have been discouraged from education for far longer.
This might be surprising to you, if you believed that boys and girls going to the same schools and having access to the same universities should result in similar outcomes. The barriers against this are ubiquitous and almost invisible when you’re immersed in them, like trying to see the air in front of your face.
Proponents of capitalism as a system will argue that women weren’t as free under state socialism in East Germany. State control was more oppressive, there were material and resource shortages, and a one-party political system.
These are all fair criticisms, but it’s important to remember that it’s not the system I’m advocating for. We look at these states not as ideals, but as contrasts, systems radically different from our own, and how reapplying our economic systems to theirs recreated the prejudices and gendered hierarchies we should want to eradicate.
It is easy enough to rebuke the societies that emerged from Stalinism. Even avowed United States communist contemporaries like Henry Wallace wrote as much. However, these countries weren’t entirely flawed, and we shouldn’t dismiss what we can learn from them about the gender hierarchies our system creates. Differences that aren’t inherent to humans, or biological.
Government oppression is not the only kind of restriction on freedom that’s important. One original definition of a ‘serf’, as distinct from a peasant, was material: It was partially defined as someone too poor to move away from their place of birth. Material conditions inform what freedoms we have and can act on, even if there is otherwise no government intervention.
For instance, let’s take freedom of speech. Even if you are not prosecuted for saying something, you may be fired for it. If it is too difficult to find a new job afterward, you are consigned to poverty. Milo Yiannopoulos $4 million in debt stands as an example of corporate deplatforming instead of government restriction, and illustrates how his freedom of speech was previously elevated above most other people’s by having access to capital.
There are subtle ways we subconsciously undervalue women, even if we consciously believe in equality.
If you aren’t aware of ‘patriarchy’ as a concept, at least outside of memes making fun of people, Ghodsee says early in perhaps the best single line summary of the topic I’ve read; “Competitive labor markets discriminate against those whose reproductive biology makes them primarily responsible for child bearing.”
A programmer I’m friends with, who has asked to be credited as “my sexy, smart, sensual sister-from-another-mister”, but will also accept ‘Crystal’, told me about one way this can happen:
At one job, there was a group of three employees who worked 100% remote. That was how their job had been for years and although there were sometimes ruffled feathers over management wanting more facetime from them, they did their work as assigned and no one complained.
One of the remote employees went on maternity leave, and a week before she was supposed to return, our manager started grousing about it. “I pay people to work,” he said at one point. “Not to sit at home and raise their kid.”
He tried to fire her, but there are laws preventing this.
Many hiring managers will avoid hiring young women to avoid this problem: Can’t fire a woman for getting pregnant if you just don’t hire women who might get pregnant. Men, who are not expected to carry a child to term and not expected to take care of it after, do not face this discrimination.
This is partially why the more socialist Denmark allows its 32 weeks of parental leave provided to new parents to be split between mother and father as they desire.
Ghodsee emphasises that the old state-socialist countries went far further than that by providing a network of public creches, kindergartens, laundries and cafeterias. The socialising of domestic work made it far easier for people of both genders to participate equally in the workforce. It also meant that domestic work was paid work, instead of a social responsibility.
The last part is a core problem for capitalism. There are a lot of reasons for it best summarized in works like Piketty’s “Capital” and Graeber’s “Debt”, but capitalism thrives on not paying for labour. It will seek to cut wages wherever possible, as it’s the one expense that eats into profits. These public services paid for by taxes are paid for by taxing the wealthy, who benefit the least from these services directly.
I’d like to highlight the fact that daycares are far more efficient in terms of workers-per-child, and early social development is a good and important thing. Mothers looking after their children on a more individual basis is still work, even though it is unpaid labour, it’s just a really inefficient distribution of that labour that keeps them out of the workforce.
But it means that labour isn’t being paid for in taxes, which benefits the wealthy.
This is why you won’t see these same measures be taken under capitalism and, more importantly, why you will see capitalism try to keep women in the home providing domestic labour for free. In fact, while East German women were working in space programs, it wasn’t until 1957 that married West German women were allowed to work at all without their husband’s permission.
As to why neoliberal capitalism is especially vicious, it should be noted that these jobs are government sector and social service jobs. One of neoliberalism’s primary goals is towards privatization of the public sector. Austerity is used as a tool to reduce spending, which inevitably means the cutting of government jobs, jobs which privatization will not replace.
These jobs that fall victim to budget cuts and austerity are usually held by women, as women are funnelled into the social services and white collar professional sectors most at risk. In the US, for instance, 91% of all nurses are female. These are the jobs that neoliberalism will cut most aggressively, which quite often means that women will be compelled to do the same work, but for free or out of necessity.
A lack of paid nurses does not reduce the demand for nursing, and that demand can’t be ignored or substituted effectively.
This means that even when women can get jobs under neoliberal capitalism, they are worse paid – less jobs means more demand, devaluing wages – and less stable than the jobs typically offered to men.
This reinforces why, for women in this system, their main source of financial stability will be from their partner or spouse. This is not always true all the time, and overvaluing white collar work over blue collar work can create many situations where wives will earn more than husbands, but it will be more true more of the time.
This means that sexual and familial relationships under capitalism have to be considered as a business partnership as well as a social relationship. Half of all marriages end in divorce in the West, and the biggest cause is financial stress.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, new democratic governments rapidly privatized state assets and dismantled social safety nets. Men under these newly emerging capitalist economies regained their “natural” roles as family patriarchs, and women were expected to return home as mothers and wives supported by their husbands. Across Eastern Europe, post-1989 nationalists argued that capitalist competition would relieve women of the notorious double burden and restore familial and societal harmony by allowing men to reassert their masculine authority as breadwinners. However, this meant that men could once again wield financial power over women. For instance, the renowned historian of sexuality Dagmar Herzog shared a conversation with several East German men in their late forties in 2006. They told her that “it was really annoying that East German women had so much sexual self-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.’”
Ghodsee relates the story of her friend Lisa later in the book to convey just how much power that is, and it is a brutal and miserable and too common story. I’ll point it out as a personal highlight, but save it for those who have an interest in the source material after reading this.
What the Lisa story looks at is what the business enterprise means in real terms for men and women in a relationship under capitalism. When access to socialized childcare is removed, it places a heavy financial burden on new parents who want to use privatized equivalents. This means that the option to stay in the workforce is limited to those parents who earn more than childcare costs – both in time and energy.
This encourages many women to drop out of the workforce, which in turn makes it much harder for them to enter back into it as none of the work she does as a mother counts for a resume.
For those women who drop out of the workforce to become full time housewives, they lose financial independence in their lives. The money in their relationship is not theirs, and the labour they do in the home is not compensated. In America, where even healthcare is not socialized, they may even be dependant on their husband’s workplace health insurance for access to healthcare.
Their bargaining chip becomes sex. The thing they can exchange or withhold for payment. This is the business agreement they enter into, and what marriage means to a lot of women under capitalism.
This is where the book’s title comes in: Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism.
In 1988, Kurt Starke and Ulrich Clement conducted the first comparative study of the self-reported sexual experiences of East and West German female students. They found that the East German women said they enjoyed sex more and reported a higher rate of orgasm than their Western counterparts. In 1990, another study comparing the sexual attitudes of youth in the two Germanys found that GDR men’s and women’s preferences were more in sync with each other than those of young men and women in the West. For example, one survey found that 73 percent of East German women and 74 percent of East German men wanted to get married. In contrast, 71 percent of women in the West desired marriage, but only 57 percent of Western men did, a fourteen-point difference. A different survey about sexual experiences uncovered much higher levels of self-reported sensual enjoyment among East German women. When asked if their last tryst had left them feeling satisfied, 75 percent of GDR women and 74 percent of GDR men said yes, compared to 84 percent of FRG men and a mere 46 percent of FRG women. Finally, respondents were asked to report whether they felt “happy” after sex. Among the East German women 82 percent agreed, whereas among West German women only 52 percent reported feeling “happy.” To reverse that statistic, only 18 percent of GDR females were not “happy” after sex, compared to almost half of the surveyed females in the FRG.
It should be a lot clearer why these numbers are so different under the two different economic systems. Sex, under capitalism, is more often a transaction. As Oscar Wilde said; “Everything in human life is really about sex, except sex. Sex is about power” When you remove power from the equation, the sex is more freely allowed to be that: Just sex.
In a brilliant article in Dissent, “Cockblocked by Redistribution: A Pick-Up Artist in Denmark,” Katie J. M. Baker exposed how the American womanizer Daryush Valizadeh (aka Roosh) warned his fans that Denmark was a veritable desert for men on the hunt for easy women. The country’s generous social safety net and gender equalizing policies apparently render Valizadeh’s alpha male seduction techniques useless because Danish women don’t need men for financial security. In less egalitarian countries, women understand that sexual relationships provide an avenue for social mobility—the Cinderella fantasy. But when women earn their own money and live in societies where the state supports their independence, Prince Charming loses his appeal. Roosh’s book, Don’t Bang Denmark, stands as a testament to the idea that redistributive policies can provide women the stability and security that mitigates the effects of discrimination in daily life.
That article can be found here. I’d like to pluck this quote from Don’t Bang Denmark, which the article highlights:
Denmark sucks balls for [picking up] women, but it kills the United States when it comes to having a higher standard of living.[…] Unfortunately, we have to accept that they go hand-in-hand, that we can’t fulfill basic human rights for all without viewing everyone as equal.
This is said in a bitter and angry tone – not surprising, considering the author’s work writing what the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as ‘rape guides’. In nations with more equality, it’s harder to victimize and prey on women. This is part of what it meant earlier, in the Herzog quote, about communism giving you less power as a man. I don’t think this is a bad thing.
This brings women back to being seen as, or treated as, a commodity. In this social transaction I’m describing, the business relationship, men are the earners while women are the earned, the property. Early anti-communist propaganda warned that it would result in the communal sharing of wives, which indicates exactly how literally wives were seen as property.
This commodification of women and sex extends far past women’s bargaining power in relationships. It is leveraged into capitalism itself. “Sex sells” we’re told again and again: But it’s far more often regarding subjects like booth babes and pinup models, it’s men’s sexual desire being exploited.
Again, I talked to Crystal about her workplace history. I’d like to again thank her for the patience she has shown with me in the past talking about these subjects,
There was one job where my manager approached me with an opportunity to work as a liaison between the frontend and backend teams, because they were constantly at odds with one another. He explained that my prior experience with both roles would be useful, since I could understand each side of things. “Plus,” he continued in what I would eventually learn was the voice he used whenever he was about to say something I needed to report to HR, “you being a woman will throw them off. They won’t know what to do with you.”
It didn’t seem that bad of a remark at the time, and I was excited by the prospect of doing something to help both teams, so I shrugged it off. Later, however, when he asked how things were going and I commented that their team lead was being very helpful, he laughed. “Yeah, I’m sure he is. It’s the only time he can get a woman to talk to him for more than thirty seconds.”
I felt dirty. I felt bad for the team lead being disrespected like that, but I also felt like some kind of cheap prostitute sent out to wine and dine a client.
It’s not just sex and sexuality that’s commodified, but these structures are made – in the same way a human eye is made for seeing, even though there is no intentional designer – for the social labour of child raising and rearing. Motherhood itself is commodified not by individuals, but by the society at large that requires those individuals choose to continue reproducing the labour force.
Ah, that was a very Marxist way to say: Society needs babies, and it needs those babies to grow up to be functional adults, but it doesn’t want to pay for it, so it needs to bully people into doing it anyway.
If capitalism wants this outcome, and it doesn’t want to subsidize or socialize it, then the bullying option is far cheaper: Restricting birth control and abortion rights. This is partially why it’s so appealing to conservative and right-wing ideological positions.
Writing in the immediate aftermath of state socialism’s collapse, the Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić explained, “We live surrounded by newly opened porno shops, porno magazines, peepshows, stripteases, unemployment, and galloping poverty. In the press they call Budapest ‘the city of love, the Bangkok of Eastern Europe.’ Romanian women are prostituting themselves for a single dollar at the Romanian-Yugoslav border. In the midst of all this, our anti-choice nationalist governments are threatening our right to abortion and telling us to multiply, to give birth to more Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Croats, Slovaks.”
Here we see the commodification of sex tied to the government drive to crack down on reproductive rights. If it’s detrimental to women to become mothers, then it becomes a matter of not giving them the choice.
This overt bullying was not particularly taken to well by the women who had known what it was to have freedom over this aspect of their lives.
It’s in another part of the book entirely that Ghodsee writes this:
Given that many women preferred formal employment to the unpaid drudgery of housework, it should not be surprising that post-1989 birthrates plunged. Although birthrates in Eastern Europe were higher than those in Western Europe before 1989, they began to fall as soon as the refamilization process began. The institution of free markets actually hindered rather than helped new family formation. Nowhere was this more profound than in Eastern Germany, where skyrocketing unemployment and the collapse of support for child care contributed to an unprecedented and uncoordinated drop in fertility, what the West German press called the “birth strike.” Over a five-year period, the birthrate in the East German states of reunified Germany fell by 60 percent. Although the fertility rates have climbed out of the pits of the 1990s in some countries, the former state socialist nations of Eastern Europe have some of the lowest birthrates in the world today. In 2017, Bulgaria had the fastest-shrinking population in the world, and sixteen of the top twenty nations facing the steepest expected population declines by 2030 were former state socialist nations.
The refamilization process being the cutting of socialized laundries, kindergartens and other childcare and domestic services to encourage women back into the kitchen and the nursery to reinforce the family unit.
It’s called the ‘refamiliziation process’ for a reason. It could be argued that capitalism isn’t inherently sexist, but that it’s built off of previous systems that were sexist and adopted them. A goal of reformation then would be to ideologically change the system to change material outcomes, creating a positive feedback loop.
This misunderstands the purpose of the family unit, which many see as a natural human construct, or as a positive development from the tribal construct.
Looking at many tribal societies, though, we don’t see this. Many Australian Aboriginals, for instance, refer to everyone older than them in their society as ‘aunty’ or ‘uncle’. it’s not just because they’re all closely related, but because the notion of family stretches equally to the whole community.
We see this change with agricultural societies and the idea of preservable wealth. Wealth that can keep and be passed down to children. The concept of an inheritance. When wealth can be hoarded, it makes sense to care who your children are and to give them a leg up in society. From here develops many of the different flavours of sexism devoted to keeping women in the home, and of slavery.
Capitalism, and especially conservativism, prides itself on the family unit, and of the virtues of family. It also has little to say against accumulation of wealth, and in fact believes it should be the best motivator of the people under the system.
From this I argue that capitalism, even when implemented on an entirely blank slate society, would reinvent and trend towards patriarchy again, and towards discrimination. We see these massive regressions in Eastern Europe not just because the dominant, richer culture was the one to reform them – though that certainly didn’t help – but because these are traits built right into the bedrock of the ideology.