From the April 1985 issue of the Socialist Standard
A tangled web of myths and double standards still enmeshes the subject of sex and sex roles in our “liberated” and developed form of capitalism. For centuries, there has been a peculiar tendency to assign to women one of two equally extreme and repellent roles, that of either a solely sexual being — “whore” — in her relationship with men (whether this has ever been an enjoyable sexuality is doubtful) or a de-sexed and “decent” wife and mother, glorified and put on a pedestal. This division of women into prostitutes and madonnas has been surprisingly persistent. Agony columns still contain letters from men finding it difficult to enjoy sex with their wives/cohabitees after the arrival of a baby, because they feel the woman is now on a higher plane of sanctified motherhood and should not be debased by primaeval lust. The notion that sex is sinful and that women are to blame when men succumb to “sinful” practices runs through the three religions originating in the Middle East: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Until recently it was only prostitutes who committed a punishable offence, not the men using them. Rape victims are still told they were “leading a man on” if they were not “appropriately dressed” at the time; it would seem that only a full purdah is good enough for our courts of law.
First, for most women sex is still a means to power. Achieving the conventional standards of beauty, for example, still holds the greatest promise of power available to most women, and so we cultivate and package our individual attractiveness in order to trade it for economic gain, advances in status, and love. This is true even in radical and even feminist circles.) Heterosexual relationships, no matter how “equal” in bed, still represent contact between members of a dominant and a subordinate group. Most women are still dependent on male favour for their economic survival, whether at home or work.
(The Politics of Sexual Freedom, Peace News, 25 March 1978.)
It would be misleading to put all men in the “dominant” group, if this dominant economic group is understood to be the capitalist class (which consists of men and women). However, a lot of men are dominant in a domestic situation in as much as they hold the purse strings and the women depending on them can be properly characterised as “slaves of slaves”. In preparation for eventually trading their attractiveness for economic “security”, girls are strongly encouraged to take an interest in clothes and make-up from an early age. Their faces, their bodies and their hair are never quite good enough to measure up to the stereotyped, eighteen-year-old, Page Three girl, so chemists and department stores are crammed full with remedies from chemical and cosmetic companies which make enormous profits.
Several myths concerning women’s sexuality persist. Women are supposed to need to be “in love” with a man to enjoy sex. This is a complete fallacy; women are as capable as men of separating sexual enjoyment from any deeper feelings. Another prevalent myth is that women are supposed to find sex repugnant during pregnancy and after giving birth. This may show individual variation, of course, according to how the pregnancy affects the woman and the difficulty of the birth. But largely this is another superstition tied in with the “purity of motherhood” myth.
As for men, another set of sex roles are inculcated by society and another set of myths hold sway. As the capitalist class relies mostly on men to kill and torture for them in war and to compete for the top jobs in the labour market, we would expect the myths to be of a kind that encourage the belief that men are inherently brutal, cruel and domineering. Robert Briffault, for instance, argues as follows in an otherwise interesting chapter on love in his book Sin and Sex:
Every expert in matters erotic knows that tenderness, affection, and even respect are sentiments opposed to the full biological operation of the predatory and pugnacious masculine sexual urges. Their fulfilment requires, in whatever measure, a reversion to the brutal, dominating attitude of the animal male. It requires in some degree the elimination of love.
Although there is no doubt about humans being part of the animal world, it is naive to think that animals capable of writing the sonnets of Shakespeare and developing the scientific theories of Einstein will not show more sophistication and nuances in their sexual play than two ferrets mating in a subterranean tunnel. In the case of ferrets, rough treatment of the female is necessary for ovulation; the biology of humans is completely different.
Although 40 per cent of the workforce are now women, who are making inroads into education and jobs that were formerly reserved for men, it is still men who are expected to “succeed” financially. Under capitalism, their whole self-esteem is so closely tied in with their earning capacity and their jobs that unemployment or failure to get promoted can result in serious depression or even suicide. Stresses and strains at work find their outlet in violence in the home; if a man can’t be the boss at work, he can at least increase his efforts at being the boss at home. In a relationship, men are expected to take the first step; sexually, they are expected to “perform” and emotionally they are expected to be severely deficient, not to show fear, to be brave, not to cry; in short, to avoid too much display of sensitivity.
Another explanation for the strange myths surrounding women’s sexuality was put forward by Garrett Hardin in an article in the Ecologist of January 1974, entitled “Parenthood: Right or Privilege?” The effect of prostitution on the one side and “decent” women remaining virgins until marriage would be reduced fertility. Apparently, large families of between 8—16 children were only common in America at the time of the settlers and in Europe in the 19th century. Before that, families of four children were more common than those of twelve:
Delayed marriage, lifetime celibacy, prostitution, venereal disease, and sanctions against bastards and the mothers of bastards constituted a powerful system of population control at the family level. To mitigate any one element in such a system was to diminish its effectiveness in keeping population under control.
The shift of opinion regarding sex outside marriage (as well as women’s “right” to sexual fulfilment on an equal level with men) which has taken place in the West over the last few decades has been revolutionary. It is worth remembering that only about 20 years ago, many doctors still would not give unmarried women the contraceptive pill for moral reasons. Being able to easily control their fertility has undoubtedly been a significant step for women although the real "sexual liberation” will not take place until we have a society where neither men nor women will be dependent on a dominant class for their survival.
The way “sexual liberation” has been exploited and to some degree created by capitalist society is explained in the following two quotes from The Politics of Sexual Freedom, by Deirdre English and Barbara Ehrenreich:
Obsession with sex can only be understood in the context of the extreme privatisation of people’s lives. Very few people have meaningful work-lives and many people have never experienced a supportive community or sense of collectivity in any realm. Unfulfilled needs for social relatedness, and for creativity, are chanelled into the zone of "private life”, where they can’t do any harm. (Just try demanding more creativity or richer social relations in most jobs.) The less the collectivity or social satisfaction experienced by people in the public realms of work and community, the greater the pressure on the sexual relationship to provide life with meaning.
. . . This new emphasis on sex can be seen as part of an attempt to shore up the monogamous marriage, or to free it up slightly, to save the family. What all this adds up to is that the human need for sex is made to bear the burden of all our bodily starvation for contact and sensations, all our creative starvation, all our need for social contact, and even our need to find a meaning in our lives. In the face of overwhelming alienation, the emphasis on sex is used to encourage people to individualise and trivialise their problems — looking for the cause of their unhappiness in their sex-life, rather than in the world around them. Of course, the dominant culture would like us to believe that we can achieve happiness through personal, sexual satisfaction. This is what it will strive to provide if it will keep us quiet. For women . . . especially, every effort will be made to channel our demands away from the social and political realm (where they cannot be satisfied without thorough-going social and economic changes) and back towards some version of a "liberated” private life. This is a trap.
In capitalism, sexuality is for sale, exaggerated in importance and manipulated in the interest of the state and capital. Europeans today are three times as likely to get divorced and twice as likely to have illegitimate children as they were a generation ago. Most divorce suits are now filed by women and it seems more than a coincidence that literature concerned with the sexual fulfilment in marriage has been on the increase at the same time. If marriages are breaking up, more marriage counsellors and sex therapists can be employed to encourage workers to get their sex lives in order, accept monogamy and stay together.
Humans need to satisfy their basic need for adequate food, clothing and shelter; for a happy and well-balanced emotional life they must also form deep and lasting relationships with other people. These need not be of a sexual nature (if sex is narrowly defined as sexual intercourse only), although at the earliest stage in our life a close, physical relationship with a grown-up is absolutely essential.
Today, a lot of misery is caused by people having to live together for economic reasons when they would rather not. Some people spend a lifetime wearing each other down mentally and emotionally, wasting their lives away in an undignified relationship. The worst irony is when some claim it to be an unconditional success that two people have stayed together for forty years; the quantity is praised, the quality is not questioned.
It is difficult to envisage the complete liberation of human relationships which socialism will bring about. Free access to everything that is produced will mean economic security for all members of society; independence of men and women from employers; economic independence of children from parents and of women from men. Nobody will have to accept an intolerable situation for the sake of satisfying their basic needs. Men and women in socialism will be able to enjoy their lives as full, not fragmented, human beings; satisfying not only their sexual, but all kinds of affectionate and other needs as they occur, not the least being the need to spend our time doing useful work in the companionship of friends.
In socialism, the stereotyped sex roles imposed on men and women under capitalism will disappear. These are equally damaging to both sexes as the similarities between them are far greater than the differences. Both have the same need for companionship with others, for expressing and receiving affection and for feeling secure, both have the same capacity for getting upset and hurt.
Socialism will probably not distinguish between heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual relationships. Everybody will be free to adopt the life style and sexual preference of their choice; the attitude to sex will be relaxed and in proportion to all the other things that make life pleasurable. Perhaps the designations “homosexual”, “heterosexual” and “bisexual” themselves will even disappear, as people will find it superfluous to distinguish between various kinds of loving relationships.
Relationships will be entered into freely, nobody will regard another human being as his or her property. It will be generally understood that when one partner does not want a relationship to carry on any more, the relationship has in fact ceased to exist and any feelings of jealousy are futile. The total shift of attitudes this involves, will be taking place while the ideas of socialism are growing and will make the acceptance of these ideas as well as others a gradual one before socialism is introduced. There is no reason to expect that people in socialism will be more "promiscuous” than they are today although this would not incite moral condemnation. On the other hand, because of our complicated mental make up, we are much more likely to form lasting relationships.