Letter from Berlin

Letter from Berlin, the cool capital city of the Western country that arguably has the most brutal history of the Western world and is suddenly being hailed as the last bastion of liberal democracy. Ex-pat Laura Radosh will be writing for ROAR about what it’s like to watch from overseas as your country and your ideals go down the drain.

Occasionally, I wonder what went wrong with the sexual revolution. You know, the pill that was supposed to uncouple sex from procreation and give rise to women’s sexual emancipation, unleashing female desire and throwing us all into a cesspool of hedonism. I wondered again when I watched Peggy Orenstein’s ted-talk about her research on girls and sex. The very short version if you can’t find the time to watch or read her book: Young women think it’s fine to have sex, but they don’t feel they’re entitled to enjoy it. When I told my German partner she said: “But Americans are such prudes, it’s probably different here.”

Any international comparison is bound to stumble over research differences, but I did get lost in a 265-page 2015 German government qualitative study of 60 straight people between the ages of 18 and 22: “Sexual experiences during youth and processes of negotiation in relations between the sexes” (Germans like catchy titles). It’s chock-full of pithy nuggets such as “While the question of who is due the active part is almost no longer tied to gender roles, but seems instead to be a question of individual proclivity, the demand to empathize with the partner’s needs and to take responsibility for their fulfillment is less clearly divorced from ingroup and outgroup understandings of femininity.” (German universities require 2 semesters in “Making sure no one outside your field understands you.” I know, translating them is what I do for a living.) At first I thought that convolution of double negatives translated as: “Girls or boys can take the first step, but girls still have to do the emotional work.” But then I read on: “Here, the focus is on self-representation: just as girls like to show that they are able to stake—and also assert—their sexual claims, boys like to present themselves as partners who have internalized the demand for considerate men who are able to fulfil their partner’s sexual needs.” So if this small sample is representative, young women in Germany do think they’re entitled to pleasure, but it’s up to young men to make sure they get it. Good luck with that.

Since that study also suggests that young people are more likely to have fulfilled sexual relations when they come from families that fight a lot, I’m inclined to believe whatever it says. But does this mean that German women are more emancipated? I don’t know exactly what we need to look at decide that (salaries? number of women in positions of authority? access to abortion?) and, again, international statistics are not easily comparable, but still I’d say the answer is a definite “no.”

Let’s look at working mothers, something my completely unrepresentative sample of one can tell you it is really annoying to be in this country. If you’re an American feminist, chances are your high your social media feed sends you recurrent reminders that the USA, with 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave (not to mention paternity leave), lags behind all other industrialized countries. Germany offers 14 months of parental leave at 67% of your salary. Theoretically, parents can split this any way they want (if there are two parents, one parent cannot take more than 12 months). In reality, only the fathers of every 3rd child born in Germany (for some reason that is 79% of all fathers) takes any parental leave, but 90% of those take only the 2 months the family would otherwise have lost AND they take it when the mother is also not working (that’s nice for the family of course, but Mom’s not getting much of a break or much help getting back to work, is she?). Over 80% of all mothers take off at least 12 months (your employer must hold a job for you three years after your child is born, so you can also take two unpaid years if you can afford it). The German government has also committed to a child-care spot for every child between the ages of 3 and 6. These spots are state-subsidized (in some states, like Berlin, they’re even free, but in reality, there’s often not enough spots. And in former West Germany, daycare often only goes until 1:00 pm and it’s very difficult to impossible to find care for a one-or two-year-old. And having someone else take care of a child under 12 months makes you a Rabenmutter, a raven mother who pushes her children out of the nest before they can fly. Actually, having someone else take care of your child at all makes you a bad mother. German being what it is, there’s a word for it—fremdbetreuung—which translates literally as stranger care, heard often in the sentence “I would never let my (perhaps age) child be cared-for-by-strangers.”

But maybe you live somewhere with good, affordable, easy-to-get, all-day preschool care and you don’t mind your friends and neighbors calling you names. So you go back to work when your child is one. Then your child enters school. Most German schools end a 1:00 pm, so the child can go home for lunch (the big meal of the day) and enjoy the afternoon. Probably (but not always) the school has a subsidized after-school program until 4:00 pm (yes, the normal German work day is also 9 to 5), but it isn’t necessarily in the school building so your first grader might be crossing streets without adult supervision to get there, something even permissive German parents might not feel so great about. Also, you only get a spot if both parents work. And I will never forget the day the bookkeeper in the office I worked at got a call at 11 (she’d just gotten to work, because her daughter didn’t start school until the second hour that day) saying the gym teacher was sick, so she’d have to come pick up her kid at 12:15. “What?!” I said “there’s no substitute teachers?” She looked at me like I had completely unreasonable expectations. Berlin just recently promised not to start school late or let children out early, but even then I always wonder how you’re supposed to work and cook a big meal between the hours of 8:30 and 12:30 (assuming the child is still young enough to need to be picked up).

On top of these insane structures, old prejudices (Rabenmutter was apparently coined by Martin Luther), and gilded-cage maternity-leave laws, comes Ehegattensplitting, a 1958 tax law for married couples whereby all of the couple’s income is split and then each half taxed at the tax bracket for that half. Between this and being able to take off your spouse as your dependent if you have a child under 24, if one partner earns significantly more than the other, the family actually *loses* money if both partners work.

By now you will not be surprised that only 34.4 percent of mothers with children over the age of six work full-time (a whopping 7.5% more than moms of preschoolers). Nor that no matter what incentives the government thinks up, the German birth rate remains one of the lowest in the world. But maybe German women just don’t want to work because they’re having more fun in bed.


Laura Radosh is a Brooklyn-bred, Berlin-based translator. Mostly she uses her words to channel social science and humanities research, though currently she’s working on a hard sci-fi novel. She’s delighted to use them here to hold high the banner of intersectional feminism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *