Young Americans are having less sex than ever. It seems counterintuitive in an age when dates are supposedly available with the swipe of fingertip across a smartphone, but according to a 2017 study from the Archives of Sexual Behaviour, younger millennials—those born in the early 1990s—are more than twice as likely to be sexually inactive during their early 20s than previous generations at the same age.
For heterosexual women in particular, there are a number of reasons this might be the case. It could be the deprioritization of female pleasure, resulting in fewer orgasms for women. Or it might be capitalism. Kristen Ghodsee, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism, argues that the economic system contributes not only to women’s sexual dissatisfaction, but to their ability to find satisfying romantic partners and any semblance of work-life balance.
Speaking to Truthdig shortly after the book’s release, Ghodsee emphasizes that she’s not advocating a return to Stalinism. “I’m not saying that we should go back to any form of 20th-century state socialism,” she explains. “Those experiments failed. What I am saying is that there are ways in which there were policies and ideas for policies that were put into place, and that we can extract and get rid of all of the nasty residue of 20th-century state socialist authoritarianism, and take these policies and repurpose them for the 21st century.”
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
Ilana Novick: What does it mean to have better sex under socialism? Is it about the act itself, and romance, or is it about how relationships between men and women are impacted by their country’s political system?
Kristen Ghodsee: The title obviously makes it sound as if it’s only about some kind of intimate transaction between people, but I’m really thinking about the relationships more broadly between men and women and society.
I’m not only even talking just about intimate relationships. I’m actually talking about friendships, I’m talking about parent-child relationships, I’m basically talking about the ways in which human beings in 2018 are increasingly seeing their attentions, affections and emotions being commodified by the market.
What I wanted to do is to do a thought experiment and say, “OK, what would heterosexual relationships look like outside of a market economy?” That’s actually not a really easy study to conduct in 2018, for obvious reasons. So, I decided to go back and look very specifically at these technological studies that were done in the former Eastern bloc.
IN: Speaking of sex itself, I wanted to ask you about the surveys you referenced, from Poland, Germany and other Eastern bloc countries, where women reported a higher rate of sexual satisfaction than in similar studies in Western countries. Tell me about these studies. How confident are you in their results?
KG: This is a very subjective question, but it’s interesting nevertheless, even though the data is complicated, that East German women reported feeling happy after sex at a much higher rate than West German women did. When I use this data, it’s a small evidentiary base, partially because not a lot of people have done work on this, and I think that more people now will; I hope that people will. But it’s also because I’m thinking about this sexual economics theory and the socialist critique of capitalist sexual relations.
It turns out if we want to do an experiment and we want to actually look at what sex is like in different economic systems, this is the perfect natural experiment—to look at women who lived or were raised and became sexually mature under socialism, and then experience a completely different type of sexuality post-’89 or ’91. In the book I talk about a study that’s also done in the urban areas—middle-class urban women in Russia—and it turns out that there is a very different sexual script that emerges after ’91 than women who were born between ’45 and ’65 in the Soviet Union.
Then the other thing that I talk about in the book is [that] we can actually look at studies in this country—and there’s another study in Western Germany—that show us whether or not people who share household chores more equitably have more or less sex. It turns out there are a couple of good studies that show that the perception that household chores are equally shared actually results in higher sexual frequency.
Now, again, that’s a quantity-versus-quality issue, and this is a very difficult conversation to have, but I think a lot of people would generally say if you’re having more sex with your partner, it’s probably just going to be better because you’re going to have more practice. You’ll know a lot more about what your partner likes and doesn’t like.
IN: Capitalism, and specifically market economies’ impact on two areas of women’s lives—work and finding relationships—is a big focus of the book. It seems like women, whether simply because of deeply ingrained gender roles or the kinds of work they seek, end up with less leverage both in terms of finding well-compensated, satisfying work and equitable relationships. Is that right? And if so, why?
KG: The specific thing that I latch onto in the book is this sexual economics theory, which is a 2004 paper that tries to define heterosexual courtship, and sex and sexuality is something that women sell and men buy on a market where prices are determined by supply and demand. When I read that paper, knowing what I know about socialist critiques of capitalist sexuality that go all the way back to the 19th century, I was really struck by how this sexual economics theory paper ends up, probably unknowingly, replicating the language of these old socialist critics of capitalist sexuality.
But it’s not just about sex. I’m very careful about the term “sex,” because I also realized that one of the issues with the book that has been raised is that I don’t really deal very much with people who fall outside of the heteronormative span, but I think that it applies broadly to anyone who’s having relationships in a capitalist economy.
IN: You write about how the Soviet Union’s advances in science and technology, achieved with the help of women, spurred the American government to pass legislation that ultimately gave women more civil rights. Does the United States have an equivalent to the Soviet Union today? Do we need the specter of competition in order to make life more equitable for women?
KG: I absolutely think so. You can just look back at the history of this country, and a lot of social progress was made because of a really threatening alternative to capitalism that we wanted to avoid.
You can look at all sorts of examples of American-funded government studies. The Americans sent economists to the Soviet Union in the ’50s to see what the Soviets were doing to incorporate women into the labor force, and these reports are very clearly telling the federal government that we have to do something about our quote unquote woman power, right? So that when President Kennedy establishes the first Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, in the preamble to that executive order, it says that he’s going to establish this committee to look at the role of women in our society for the interest of national security. So they were definitely thinking about these things in terms of Cold War competition with a rival.
IN: Even as many state socialist countries were able to integrate women into the workforce, they all encountered challenges when these women had children—similar challenges to the ones many American families living under capitalism face today: Even if women work outside the home, the women do the bulk of the domestic labor and child care. Why does this problem seem to transcend economic systems?
KG: Feminists have been debating this for a really long time. As long as women are … primarily responsible for child care and childbearing and rearing and nursing and all of that stuff, you are always going to have this really deep tension between wanting to have women in the workforce and requiring them or desiring of them their reproductive labors.
I’m not going to pretend that the state socialist societies in Eastern Europe got this perfect, because patriarchy ran really deep. Even though some really tried very hard to get fathers involved in child-rearing and to get husbands and partners involved in domestic work, overwhelmingly women faced a double burden. They had formal employment responsibilities and then they would come home and they would have domestic work. … In the case of Bulgaria, there was a 1969 time-budget survey that was done by the Bulgarian Women’s Committee and they found that between work and housework and commuting, Bulgarian women were working about 14.5 hours a day, which was incredibly exhausting, and this was partially contributing to the falling birth rate, because people were just too overwhelmed to even consider having another child.
IN: What did these countries do to get fathers more involved in child care and domestic labor?
KG: Most of these societies—with some really glaring exceptions, as in Romania and Albania—but most by the late socialist period still required women to be in the workforce, but they were implementing all of these really progressive policies—job-protected paid maternity leave, child allowances, very generous subsidies for early nursery schools and kindergartens. Basically, they’re trying to socialize some of the reproductive labor so that society basically helps bear some of the burden for these children, because, of course, the state wants these children because they’re future citizens and taxpayers, and they’re going to pay into the pension plan and potentially be soldiers, so children are, in fact, a social good.
IN: Are there countries that get this balance right today?
KG: I think that where we have really good examples of a balance between allowing women in to work in the labor force but then also really supporting them in their reproductive roles while not being coercive about it are in places like Sweden or in places like Iceland or Norway or Denmark or Finland—these Scandinavian countries which really have a very nice balance of incorporating women into the labor force and a really robust social safety net that really supports families with young children. In the case of Sweden, and I believe in Iceland as well, their whole parental-leave policy is set up so that fathers also have to take mandatory time out of the labor force in order for the couple to fully benefit from the money for parental leaves. This money comes out of tax revenue and it’s something the state is—basically, that society is—willing to pay for because they see this as a valuable thing.
Now, I am very aware of the fact that the Scandinavian countries are very small, and they’re more ethnically homogenous than a big, massive country like the United States. But I do think that we can look at some of our closest allies—the U.K., we can look at Canada … France, for instance, is a really good example—that have taken a lot of these policies and adapted them so that some of the reproductive labor required of women is socialized.
IN: Even as governments, for example, subsidize child care and incentivize men taking parental leave, men and women still struggle to balance domestic labor, in terms of the full range of domestic labor: actually raising children, cleaning, cooking, etc. How much does this government legislation actually influence the interactions that we have in our private lives?
KG: Those are precisely the core issues that I’m actually trying to deal with in the book.
So we can look at, again, a comparative study of Austria and Hungary. Austria and Hungary are very similar culturally. They were both part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, they were divided, obviously, after World War II into communism and capitalism. What we can look at is in 2017, we can look at Eurostat figures that show us very clearly that the percentage of Hungarian children that are in full-time child care is much higher than the percentage of Austrian children who are in full-time child care. The reason for that is that Hungarian men and Hungarian society accept that women should work, or when women want to work, they’re not being bad human beings or bad mothers by leaving their children at a daycare center or at a kindergarten or a crèche.
What we see in countries where there’s greater levels of gender equality and more state support for all sorts of social services—so we’re not only talking about child care but also health care and also tertiary education, you know, college or trade school—the pressure on the individual is released. We’re all a lot more relaxed, because we’re a lot less stressed. And secondly, we’re also in a situation where women have a social safety net, so that they don’t have to stay with a man in order to pay her rent, or in order to get health care, or all of the things that women do. They stay in abusive or unhappy or unhealthy relationships because they’re afraid of losing this material base.
IN: How do economic systems impact relationship satisfaction and how men and women relate to each other?
KG: Think about it. We talk about investing in relationships. We talk about investing in a friendship, or you spend time with somebody. You don’t share time with somebody—you spend time. So even the way that we talk about human relationships is increasingly using very commodified language, and I think that that’s what leads to this kind of disingenuousness. It can lead—it doesn’t necessarily lead, but it can lead—to a kind of disingenuousness, so that your reactions with other people are always sort of framed in, “What is this going to do for me or how am I going to benefit from this?” Rather than, “Wow, I just want to hang out with this person because I think they’re cool and I really like them and I just want to share my time.” It’s a very different way of embodying ourselves as subjects.
This article originally appeared on Truthdig.com.