The dust from the tugged-down Iron Curtain had barely settled before I came into the world. The tyrannical reputation of the governments involved, however, has survived to the present day. But how has youth culture and sexual liberation in these countries evolved?
If you spend enough time in Berlin to form a considered opinion of the city, it’s hard to escape the dichotomies that the past has accorded it. But for all the countless social differences between East and West Berliners – perhaps only subtle at most to outsiders – the lines actually become less distinct after a while. Abroad, Berlin has a general reputation as a hedonistic paradise, seemingly stemming from its cabaret glory days after the First World War. So, if the city itself symbolises the collision of the past and present, what can be said of the lands to the east of its partition and the respective influence of the governments of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and other members of the Warsaw Pact on sexual liberation? And how does the precedent of the GDR influence attitudes towards sex in a modern, unified Germany?
A rigid society
In the kind of society where your own family could be spying on you, and even get you thrown in jail if there was something in it for them, nobody could be blamed for assuming that sex in the GDR was a clandestine affair. One of the most poignant scenes in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film The Lives of Others (2006) shows a Stasi monitor, listening into his subject in his home, realise his lonely and farcical existence as he hears the subject making love to his partner. While this is on the one hand a clear testament to how the Stasi would wheedle itself into even the most intimate aspects of citizens’ lives, it also shows that people actually did indulge in sex outside of the purpose of creating new little East Germans. While we do have to keep in mind that this is a film – so, artistic licence and all that – there’s also a cultural idiosyncrasy at play. The GDR regulated relationships that it considered to be subversive, especially those between artists – and indeed, this is a word that would describe the characters in the film. But the only reason for this paranoia was due to suspicion of character, which may be irremovable from the self, but sex in itself was not the crime here.
Jürgen Lemke, author of 1989’s Ganz normal anders, which focuses on gay men’s experience in the GDR, jokes that people couldn’t travel to Italy – stereotypically romantic, Western country – so there was quite enough time for the greatest activity in the world. “Westerners are so uptight,” he chuckles in an interview, “that they all go swimming with their clothes on”. Here at E&M, we’ve already discussed that the simple act of getting naked doesn’t actually necessarily need to have anything to do with sexuality or desire at all. But we can pretty much all agree it’s something that takes some guts, and when you compare this East German tradition to modern attitudes towards nudity and the censorship thereof in the USA, for example, you can’t help feeling some admiration or even wonder why it hasn’t taken off elsewhere.
Women on the edge of glory
Boasting the most successful economy in the Eastern Bloc, perhaps the GDR did have some saving graces. On paper, it was also one of its most gender-egalitarian societies – women’s relative financial independence meant that they did not have to stay with their husbands. Surely this would mean that they would also take charge of their lives in other areas.
Sexual liberation and women’s bodily autonomy go hand in hand. For comparison’s sake, let’s travel a few kilometres east. During Communist times, women in Poland had easy access to contraceptives. Ironically, though, the influence of Catholicism has been somewhat strong on post-Curtain Poland, inducing something of a regression. Nowadays, for example, it is perfectly legal for a Polish woman to be denied contraceptives by a healthcare provider.
However, it’s important to remember that this type of oppression is in fact not exclusive to Eastern Bloc countries. In Ireland – a place that belongs both cognitively and incidentally also geographically to Western Europe – a debate is fiercely raging on its ruthless abortion laws. Nobody can really explain why it is the only part of Europe to have a constitutional band on abortion, but the obvious assumption is due to traditions deeply rooted in the Catholic Church. It is an open secret that several thousand desperate Irish women flee to England and Wales to get abortions. Needless to say, this solution is only accessible to a handful of those affected; not only do they have to foot the bill for the crossing, but an abortion there can set you back around £400. If this is not an option, either for financial reasons or because they are already simply not in a fit condition as a result of the pregnancy, they may pay with their lives – such was the devastating fate of Savita Halappanavar in 2012.
Such an extreme and common occurrence is the kind of thing we wouldn’t be surprised to hear happening in a country like the GDR; indeed, it’s somewhat reminiscent of the borders imposed against citizens for vain reasons, and the fact that they risked everything to cross them. When witnessing the various lists and memorials in Berlin to those murdered whilst trying to reach the West, these governmental attempts to regulate personal autonomy become more and more palpable – whether to live somewhere else, or to be a parent or not.
On the other hand, the rejection of traditional teaching has firmly established itself into the present. A 2011 survey found that the majority of children in the former East German states were born out of wedlock. Not only does this indicate a waning interest in the institution of marriage, but the total difference of these births when compared to West German states is a stark average of 40%. The trend is ongoing; the morning-after pill has only just become available in Germany prescription-free this year, apparently accompanying a fall in the annual number of abortions nationwide. This surge in reproductive autonomy suggests that women are more focused on their careers and education than starting a family, and that if accidents do happen, they no longer feel influenced or burdened by the doctrines of old times. It is not a moral question at all, but simply a sign of the times, indicating shifting priorities.
In the introduction of her book Love in the Time of Communism, Dr Josie McLellan rightly asserts that we must take care not to let “Western” or “Eastern” bias – or indeed of any other dichotomy – taint our own definitions of sexual liberation, “particularly in the absence [in East Germany] of many of the things which are assumed to have driven the sexual revolution in the West – a free press, the sex industry, the student movement, an independent judiciary”.
Aren’t we all just individuals with unique DNA, experiences and desires? Does it matter where we were born and grew up?
And indeed, a sexual revolution does not have to be defined by a nation. Aren’t we all just individuals with unique DNA, experiences and desires? Does it matter where we were born and grew up? Is it more to do with our parents and peers, the diversity that exists within a culture that blots our perceptions and inhibitions? There are plenty of flings that take place with language barriers, after all.
The word revolution also seems to suggest something that only happens once and then everything is different after that, but the truth is that a revolution is ongoing. There is still a long way to go until ideals are achieved. Sexual freedom may have been achieved, generally speaking, but this is still only in a heteronormative sense and to some extent, there will always be centuries of bias lurking in the background that hinders progress. On the reproductive side of things, it seems that activists will always have to contend with conservative authorities in order to get basic rights, but the important thing is that these revolutionary minds will always be there, whatever the generation.