Sex and Socialism

Communist Czechoslovakia developed radical ideas about sexuality and women’s equality.

Kateřina Lišková's 'Sexual Liberation, Socialist Style' was recently published by Cambridge University Press.

Cambridge University Press may exaggerate in calling Kateřina Lišková’s Sexual Liberation, Socialist Style ‘the first account of sexual liberation in Eastern Europe during the Cold War,’ but its depiction of the different approach to sexuality in Communist countries is revolutionary. Her aim is to debunk the common belief that state-socialist countries were necessarily more prudish — if anything, she argues, the reverse was true.

Lišková’s book focuses on sexology in post-war Czechoslovakia, a ‘scientific’ approach to sex which was embraced by the authorities and popularised in the mainstream press. Not only did Communist Czechoslovakia decriminalise abortion and homosexuality long before most of the west, it made the female orgasm an ideological battleground.

In the early 1950s, Communist Czechoslovakia was concerned with raising birth rates and the state’s sexologists deemed the female orgasm essential for conception. From these pragmatic beginnings, sex began to saturate public discourse, particularly through national radio. Liskova approaches this subject from an implicitly feminist viewpoint, revealing how women were central to the state-socialist sexual project. Not only was the state regularly encouraging people to have sex and telling them that the female orgasm was crucial for conception, but also that a happy sex life would result from a more equal relationship between spouses.

The book tracks the changes in sexual politics over the decades, which were quite unlike developments in western Europe at the same time. In the 1950s, a new type of family was promulgated, where mutual love and partnership was said to cure sexual ailments. An importance was ascribed to women’s work outside the home, while the husband’s help in housework was considered to be a positive sexual stimulant, and even a form of foreplay. In the second half of the 1960s, however, an increased public discourse about sex was combined with the return of normative gender roles. After the Prague Spring was crushed, a ‘cool’, no-strings-attached sexuality came alongside an insistence that technique, rather than equality, was the key to sexual pleasure. Sex, like much else, was declared to be something that happened behind closed doors, divorcing it from any form of political utopia. By the 1980s, it was considered a purely biological matter.

This makes it clear that the current backlash to women’s reproductive rights and LGBT rights in post-Communist countries was in preparation during state socialism’s decline. The authorities back then had already rejected the idea that true equality was good for sex, and that work and sex were entangled.

Lišková’s formidable research might also make us look differently at today’s changes in sexuality. As in late-socialist Czechoslovakia, sex itself has become ever easier and less taboo, but the old questions of gender equality, of reproduction, and of family forms, remain unresolved. Sex, and with it feminism, may have become more available, but only as a frozen commodity.