Do Communists Have Better Sex? is a gem of a little film that explores the startlingly different notions of sexuality and romance on either side of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. That title is cheeky, but it’s serious too – it turns out there’s a scientific answer to that question, and it may surprise you. The history covered by the film is profound, covering clashing political ideologies, morality and feminism, for starters. But it doesn’t leave out the fun.
East vs West
East Germans were very frank and unabashed about sex and personal pleasure, and so is this doco. With its wonderfully brazen vintage clips of sex education films, softcore porn and nudist home movies, let’s just say it’s not quite safe for viewing at work.
In 1945, after defeating the Nazis, the Western Allies and the Soviets divided war-torn Germany. Germans were suddenly separated into opposing political spheres and stayed that way for decades, until 1989.
West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germanyt) was the epitome of capitalism and the postwar “economic miracle”; behind the Iron Curtain, the German Democratic Republic was a highly controlled, centrally managed Stalinist state. When the wall was torn down, the reunited nation became a sociologist’s dream – a country sharing a language and fundamental culture but with a lifetime of sharp differences in economies, media, education, religion and women’s rights, all now available to be studied in detail.
Among the mountains of sociological data based on interviews with Germans that emerged in the following years, there was a recurring theme: East German people – especially and very significantly East German women – consistently reported that sex was better for them and that their romantic lives were happier and more satisfying.
What are capitalists doing wrong?
We’re so used to thinking of our capitalist society, with its constant stimulation, pop-culture boundary-pushing and focus on beauty and selfish pleasure, as the epitome of freedom and sexual liberty. So why were East German women happier in bed?
To borrow the political cliché: It’s the economy, stupid.
East Germany was a planned economy, and, after the devastation of the war, the majority of workers were women. The GDR looked after its female workforce with universal free childcare services that we can only dream of, as well as state-run laundries and kitchens. Divorce was easy and fast, and much less frowned upon. Birth control and abortion became readily available, even encouraged by the state.
All of this, along with the lack of a controlling religious structure, led to radical differences in morality. The family unit was nowhere near as sacred as it was in the West. Premarital sex was seen as fun, healthy and normal, nothing to be ashamed of. And with a robust social safety net to protect them, women were free to leave bad relationships.
By contrast, in our society, women tend to stay in abusive relationships because of economic insecurity. This made for consensual, caring, easygoing sex, a far cry from the commodified, male-centric gratification of the West.
The relief of sex
Do Communists Have Better Sex? isn’t trying to convince us the GDR was some sort of paradise. For one thing, it was “communist” in name only – it wasn’t a truly socialist society where workers controlled production and shared the wealth. It was a state-capitalist economy, marked by austerity and oppression that many rightfully wanted to escape. Life could be quite dreary east of the wall – as archive footage of a scanty, unappealing food market illustrates. Great sex was a refuge from all this.
And though the GDR was progressive on many fronts – far more progressive than contemporary Australia on reproductive rights, for example – it could be repressive too, especially for LGBT people. The GDR inherited some of the regressive official ideology of the Stalinist Soviet Union, in which masculinity was idealised and homosexuality was considered deviant. In its 50-minute runtime, Do Communists Have Better Sex? focuses mainly on hetero sex and relationships. And there were, to be sure, interesting attitudes towards masculinity; as the doco tells us, in the GDR, “Women ruled in bed.” But archived clips from newscasts also highlight pervasive homophobia.
That’s a sad contrast to the possibilities of women’s liberation that were on offer. The point is that, far from being an entirely de-humanised, homogenous place, like we often picture totalitarian regimes, East Germany was a complex society with its own humanity, its own problems – and with some striking differences that still shed light for us today.
The topics raised by the film are more relevant than ever. The rampant insecurity of our society, with its historic inequality, precarious job market and increasing poverty, might make us wonder if we’d be happier and freer in a different kind of society. A majority of young people now reject capitalism, and watching Do Communists Have Better Sex? you begin to understand there might be some very intimate reasons why.
Watch Do Communists Have Better Sex? Tuesday 8 January at 9:30pm on SBS VICELAND. After it airs, the doco will stream at SBS On Demand: