What Does Sex Have to Do with Socialism?
Extraction vs Relationality: Cross-posted with My Sex Bio
“I just don’t understand why anyone has to talk about their sex lives at work,” she said. “I don’t talk about my sex life at work.”
- Eric Peterson, Closet with a View
“To say that sex work is ‘just work’ is to forget that all work — men’s work, women’s work — is never just work: it is also sexed.”
- Amia Srinivasan, Does anyone have the right to sex?
Writing a series about sex and Socialism may seem strange. What do the two have to do with each other? But let’s try asking the question another way: What does sex have to do with Capitalism?
This, I think, makes the connection more apparent. Because if anyone sees the connection between sex and Socialism, I assure you, it is Capitalists. First, let’s make sure we do not fall into the Capitalist trap of thinking of Capitalism as private enterprise and Socialism as government control. Put simply, Capitalism and Socialism are defined by who controls the means of production: owners (Capitalism) or workers (Socialism). If this is new language, I suggest my previous article, or at least this tweet:
With this in heart, this article will explore Sex & Capitalism, Sex & Socialism, and finally a Call to Action.
Sex & Capitalism
Gendered Capitalism imposes a binary that erases gender nonconforming and genderqueer folk. It does this to privilege White hetero cis men by dividing work into feminized and masculinized labor. Feminized labor such as housework or care-work is unpaid or lesser-paid. Partly for these reasons, survivors and victims of domestic/sexual abuse are often forced to stay in such relationships to maintain access to housing and wealth for themselves and their children.
“Capitalism is bad at sex because it’s bad at relationships… Researchers found much higher rates of sexual satisfaction among women in the East than in the West. One survey found that 80 percent of East German women always experienced orgasm, compared to 63 percent in the West. In a particularly poignant divide, 82 percent of East German women in one study felt “happy” after sex, compared to just a little over half in the West. ”
- Liza Featherstone, Bad Romance
Toxic masculinity, or masculinization, is rooted in a hierarchy of deserving access to wealth and power, including entitlement to others’ bodies. Socialist tantra practitioners are not the people executing mass shootings, but rather Right-wing “incels.” They react to denial of their entitlement with violent rage in an attempt to impose a hierarchic market on the (re)distribution of sex. Gendered Capitalism teaches this entitlement and hierarchy.
“Maybe the problem with sex is capitalism… What’s at the bottom of the incel worldview: sex is a commodity, accumulation of this commodity enhances a man’s status, and every man has a right to accumulation, but women are in some mysterious way obstacles to this, and they are therefore the enemy as well as the commodity. They want high-status women, are furious at their own low status, but don’t question the system that allocates status and commodifies us all in ways that are painful and dehumanizing…
Feminism and capitalism are at odds, if under the one women are people and under the other they are property… Women who are deemed undesirable question the hierarchy that allots status and sexualization to certain kinds of bodies and denies it to others. They ask that we consider redistributing our values and attention and perhaps even desires. They ask everyone to be kinder and less locked into conventional ideas of who makes a good commodity. They ask us to be less capitalistic.”
- Rebecca Solnit, A broken idea of sex is flourishing. Blame capitalism
Media Matters has even called the Men’s Rights Movement the greatest pipeline into White Nationalism (a movement that, among other things, embraces Capitalism). White Nationalism’s Nazi idols persecuted and murdered members of the trans and queer community and burned the archives of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in 1933. Led by a gay advocate, the institute’s research contributed to the queer community’s legitimization in public perception.
Nazis, by the way, are Capitalist. It is current Right-wing strategy to associate them with Socialism, just as it was Right-wing strategy then to associate Socialism with Judaism. Hitler recognized the popularity of Socialism and infiltrated the German Workers’ Party. Once the party gained enough power in 1934, Hitler ordered the actual Socialists murdered, as well as other threats to his power, in the Night of the Long Knives, or Operation Hummingbird. Among those executed: Gregor Strasser, “figurehead of the Socialist-leaning faction”; and Hitler’s greatest threat to power, Ernst Röhm, the gay Socialist leader of the Sturmabteilung (also: SA, Storm Troopers, or Brown Shirts).
This purge of Socialists and threats to power used sexuality as one of the excuses for the murders. This is not to say that the purged people, or all Socialists, are “good” — more on that later — only that Hitler and the Nazis we know today are decidedly Capitalist. The famous poem about the Nazis begins, “First they came for the socialists.” The remaining officials after the Night of long Knives had no interest in abolishing private property (Marx’s single sentence summary of Communism). They had interest in abolishing people: Jewish and other folk of color, the disabled, and queer folk. And they did this by first removing their access to the means of production, a Capitalist undertaking. White able-bodied hetero-cis male bosses still controlled their employees, the central problem Socialists have with Capitalism.
Also little known is that once the Nazis gained sufficient power, their concentration camps included 34,000 forced sex workers meant to lure the more able-bodied laborers toward greater productivity. Doctor Anna Hájková studies “Jewish Holocaust victims who engaged in same sex desire, and the surrounding homophobia of the prisoner society.” The Nazis thus used homophobia as a way to keep prisoners divided, even when already facing comparative class unity in concentration camps.
Today, the Right uses confusion about trans people as a recruitment wedge into a fear-based movement. Claiming anxiety from learning someone is gay or trans (“Trans panic:” a literal phobia) will still let you walk away from murder in most of the USA.
In one analysis, Andrea Smith argues the three pillars of Capitalist White Supremacy all rest on the foundation of the heteropatriarchy. Power over Capital is assigned to people based on sex and sexuality, incentivizing those with the assigned privileges to extract Capital from others. She pulls from the Christian Right’s own words about their organizing: that US Exceptionalism rests on the building block of heterosexual married couples raising children. This belief also relates to the Fourteen Words that White Nationalists use as a slogan, and can be seen referenced in dating apps and by Right-Wing governors: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children.” White Nationalists organize around these words as a response to the completely fictional “White genocide” or “Great Replacement.” In particular, White Nationalist women promote the “#TradLife” (for “traditional”), which includes birthing White babies fast enough to out-pace families of color.
“Russia extended full suffrage to women in 1917, three years before the United States did. The Bolsheviks also liberalized divorce laws, guaranteed reproductive rights and attempted to socialize domestic labor by investing in public laundries and people’s canteens. Women were mobilized into the labor force and became financially untethered from men… ‘Even the best stimulation… will not help to achieve pleasure if a woman is stressed or overworked, worried about her future and financial stability.’ ”
- Kristin Ghodsee, Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism
At large, the Capitalist heteropatriarchy disallows women and the LGBTQ community from controlling the means of their own lives, let alone the means of production. It does this in part by controlling people’s reproductive capacity. This, alongside enforced monogamy and stigma against singles, controls intergenerational transfers of wealth and power. Capitalists secure vast inheritances for their children while other families are trapped in poverty, ensuring a desperation and scarcity among workers.
“[In] some of the Eastern Bloc countries, Czechoslovakia in particular, men were encouraged to better share housework with women. Since we know now that couples who split domestic work more evenly have more sex, it is presumed that this effect also existed behind the Iron Curtain. The Polish were a tad more conservative than their neighbors, but still developed a holistic approach to sexology that might explain why they are still more satisfied than Americans to this day.”
- Scotty Hendricks, Why sex behind the Iron Curtain was better for women
Human trafficking, even when not specifically for paid sexual intercourse, relies on sexual control for the purposes of profit. Trafficked people are not allowed their own autonomous relationships of any kind, let alone those with physical intimacy, that might offer agency over procreation. Controlling the means of reproduction was an integral part of the United States’ sanctioned human trafficking (often called slavery) that remains the bedrock of current US economic power. Meanwhile, rights for sex workers are constantly challenged by puritanical laws and attitudes around validity, even by much of the fellow working class (more of the divide and conquer strategy that created the White race itself).
“Why is part of the Make America Great Again agenda anti-abortion and anti-daycare? Precisely because these things are everyday challenges to the patriarchy… It is almost impossible to know what female pleasure free of economic dependency on men might look like. That surely is the goal of liberation. [Alexandra Kollontai, who wrote The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman,] wanted to destroy the link between sex and property. She was a romantic seeking something more authentic than marriage, based on love.”
- Suzanne Moore, Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism — review
Rape, as a weapon of war, is about the securing of power of not one individual over another, but a whole people over another. Female US soldiers are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by opposing soldiers. What do we think that means about the sexual assault committed by soldiers against foreign soldiers and/or civilians, for which there is little data?
Creating an entire “ism” out of Capital is to create a society that values property more than people, and uses both as a means to wield power. Gendering Capitalism with toxic masculinization and patriarchy weaponizes sexuality in that service. Is it any wonder then, that the most pro-Capitalist institutions, from the US military, to ICE/Border Patrol, to police, to Fox News, all have serious problems with not just isolated instances, but entire cultures of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape?
Under Capitalism, sex, and everything, is about power. In a Capitalist worldview of Sexual Market Value, sex with anyone the market deems less valuable is a failure to accumulate social Capital, no matter how nourishing and intimate the relationship. Conversely, sex with someone the market deems more valuable does accumulate such Capital, and therefore such power, again no matter the quality of relationship. It can be argued that under such a cynical outlook of sexual transaction, the most “rewarding” kind of sex is not the relational, ego transcendence of two becoming one, but the extractive conquest of hate sex against a member of a community whose ideology you oppose. Getting to have sex with them is not about communion, but demonstration that they are wrong because we still get what we want. Sexual activity becomes just another way to exercise power over others, and violent sex demonstrates our power to not care and get away with it. This is elevated to sacred as a contribution to the culture war of the people and ideologies we do identify with.
Sex & Socialism
Seen in this light, I think it becomes clear that the forces of Capital use sexuality to extract wealth and power in a variety of ways. How then do we return to sexual autonomy, where we are not sexually extracting from anyone, and what more, in relational mutuality? From this horror (Capitalist again!) to something more communal:
“After work, men read the paper while women washed the clothes. Men socialized with friends while women took care of children. Men played chess, joined clubs, talked politics, played music, read books, and went for walks, while women did the cooking, cleaning, and shopping. In short, men were able to develop themselves as human beings while women served the family (and men.) [sic] The Bolshevik solution was to socialize as much household labor as possible: to create public dining halls where people could take their meals, to build laundries to wash sheets and clothing, to create daycare centers or nurseries for children, and to reduce household labor to a minimum. People who worked in these enterprises, both men and women, would be well paid and respected as workers. Household labor, or a good portion of it, would be socialized and paid. Women would be free to pursue waged work, to go to school, and enjoy leisure time on a equal basis with men…
Marx, Engels, August Bebel, Clara Zetkin, Lenin, Aleksandra Kollontai, and many other socialist thinkers believed that waged labor created the preconditions for women’s emancipation. An independent wage would liberate women from the family as an economic unit and provide the basis for their economic independence, which in turn, would allow them to choose freely.”
- Wendy Goldman, Women, the Bolsheviks and Revolution
adrienne marie brown’s book Pleasure Activism explores ways that all kinds of pleasure, including sexual, contribute toward the movement for collective liberation. She emphasizes the giving nature of pleasure, opposed to the taking nature of hedonism: “Pleasure is a measure of freedom.” This analysis is emboldened by Lili Loofbourow’s work in The Female Price of Male Pleasure. Exploring the range of displeasure in sex, she writes, “…men tend to use the term [bad sex] to describe a passive partner or a boring experience. But when most women talk about “bad sex,” they tend to mean coercion, or emotional discomfort or, even more commonly, physical pain.”
Let’s let that breathe for a moment. The state of sexuality in the US today is that men are often not only not pleasuring women, but hurting them.
The female price of male pleasure
The world is disturbingly comfortable with the fact that women sometimes leave a sexual encounter in tears…
According to amb, the capacity to feel pleasure (provided we have a partner who is not harming us) is about believing we are enough. Capitalism, on the other hand, tells us that we must prove we deserve to meet our needs through “meritocracy” and social ladders. Advertising constantly tells us we can only be enough through consumption, with measurable effects on our quality of life. It is the abusive partner, growing our co-dependence by gaslighting our own self-worth. Socialism, and pleasure activism, tell us that we are enough to meet our needs right now. Those working hardest for universal housing, education, healthcare, and jobs are Socialists. Those working hardest to prevent it are Capitalists. Do we think that orgasms will be better with higher rates of houselessness? The beginning of sexual pleasure at a societal scale is material sufficiency.
“Part of the reason so few of us have a healthy relationship with pleasure is because a small minority of our species hoards the excess of resources, creating a false scarcity and then trying to sell us joy, sell us back to ourselves… Some think it a sign of their worth, their superiority. On a broad level, white people and men have been the primary recipients of this delusion, the belief that they deserve to have excess, while the majority of others don’t have enough … or further, that the majority of the world exists in some way to please them... Pleasure is not one of the spoils of capitalism. It is what our bodies, our human systems, are structured for; it is the aliveness and awakening, the gratitude and humility, the joy and celebration of being miraculous… Do you understand that you, as you are, who you are, is enough?”
- adrienne marie brown, Pleasure Activism
When greater amounts of society have their material needs met, not only do they enjoy more sexual activity (and therefore more pleasure), but people more firmly believe in their own, and each other’s worth. Fewer people struggling for housing, food, healthcare, and education mean fewer people whom we are socialized to view as discardable. Imagine a world where every single person lives in security and comfort. No one freezes to death for lack of shelter. The self-esteem of women, trans and queer folk, and people of color are regularly and institutionally supported through daily life. Sex work is legitimized and the rights of workers are supported. In this world, it will be much harder for anyone to sexually take advantage of another, because to do that, we must on some level devalue their feelings and needs. In a world built around meeting the basic human needs of every single person, this is simply less likely.
“Laws and norms against discrimination, the right to not be our husbands’ property, the right to vote, the right to be able to protect ourselves and our children from domestic violence — these and so many other rights weren’t handed down from on high by the Chamber of Commerce. They were won by social movements, many of which were led by socialists and feminists, who fought tooth and nail and suffered many defeats on the way to getting them.”
- Nicole M Ashcoff, Why Capitalism and Feminism Can’t Coexist
To be good at sex requires that we see the person in our partner(s). We must listen to their feelings and needs not only throughout the whole experience, but well before to even have that intimacy. To practice sex is to practice relationality over transaction. Relationality teaches us mutually nourishing communion. Transaction teaches us extraction: as much as we can get away with for as little as we can give up, where every gift amounts to a loss or liability. In order to ensure we do not sexually extract from anyone, we must develop a society that does not generally extract from anyone. Extraction is the basis of Capitalism, and a world without it is the vision of Socialism.
“It is striking, though unsurprising, that while men tend to respond to sexual marginalisation with a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, women who experience sexual marginalisation typically respond with talk not of entitlement but empowerment. Or, insofar as they do speak of entitlement, it is entitlement to respect, not to other people’s bodies.”
- Amia Srinivasan, Does anyone have the right to sex?
Strictly speaking, one could argue that Capitalism/Socialism revolve around worker/owner tensions and nothing else. Those who make these arguments tend toward class reductionism, the extreme of which argues that race, gender, and other bases of power/oppression do not matter. They believe that if we resolve wealth inequality, we solve for everything.
The truth is that these things are intersectional, or multidimensional. Capitalism funnels its power and profits to the owning class, but the owning class enforces its power based on various factors — including race, sex, and sexuality. Extraction is inherently an abuse of power, and because of patriarchy, power itself is masculinized. Extraction is often gendered as the masculine extracting from the feminine, and any men in the feminine role are less-than until they prove their value by extracting. Relationality is feminized. Women have time to play and talk feelings because they do not have land and workers from whom to do the serious business of extracting wealth.
This is why the most effective Socialists are feminists (and antiracists, et cetera). Practicing relationality, a strong feminist praxis, disrupts toxic masculinization’s imperative to dominate. Relationality is also among the most effective ways we can practice imagining what a post-Capitalism world might look like. Capitalism does not want us thinking about this. It has largely already exterminated this aspect of our creativity: “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”
“[East Germany] had enabled a natural, uncommercialized sexuality, unsullied by the demands of capitalism. The non-commodification of sex has come to be seen as a positive, praiseworthy aspect of East German life, and an integral and important part of the discreet charm of really existing socialism. East Germans, it is argued, enjoyed relationships based on equality and honesty, and regular trips to the nudist beach ensured a healthy, uncomplicated relationship to the naked body. This prelapsarian idyll was brought to an end only by the influx of West German pornography and erotic goods in the wake of unification.”
- Josie McLellan, Did Communists Have Better Sex? Sex and the Body in German Unification
It is no mystery then that Heteropatriarchal Capitalism has also feminized, and therefore devalued, creativity itself — if for the purpose of artistic expression. As much as Capitalists praise “disruptors” — who use creativity for the purpose of domination and extraction — Capitalism is extremely antagonistic toward any threat to its foundational hierarchy. Art’s impulses toward inquiry, empathy, and the imagining of new possibilities threaten this. Art, not seeking to extract from us, pushes toward relationality. To practice what Capitalism feminizes is to practice what threatens it, not to mention to become more whole.
“Focusing on individual success stories is far easier than changing the way business operates — but doesn’t actually improve women’s working lives… As a branding exercise it works — personal stories about women who have climbed the corporate ladder and smashed the glass ceiling play well… As comforting as the idea of “trickle-down feminism” might be, it’s never borne out in reality.”
- Dawn Foster, Why corporate feminism is convenient for capitalism
Similarly, the most effective feminists (and antiracists, et cetera) are Socialists. The force that materially empowers toxic masculinization is Capitalism. To grow Socialism is to grow solidarity, camaraderie, and community, such that we no longer extract from each other. We cannot live this while we kidnap nursing children from their mothers and sexually assault them under the guise of respect for borders. We cannot live this while we imprison humans for labor in facilities where rape and sexual assault occurs over hundreds of thousands of times per year, without inclusion in national crime statistics, often under the guise of punishment for possessing a fragrant plant, the same fragrant plant that others are cultivating to extract millions of dollars of profit for themselves. We cannot live this while we profit from weapons that kill families and children to imperialize foreign countries under the guise that we are protecting ourselves from “terrorists,” to say nothing about such domination encouraging a militant uprising that tends to feed toxic masculinization.
“Treatment of prison rape in ordinary television is often, with a few exceptions, bizarrely comical…. The same scenario pans out in so many procedural cop dramas, with all due allusions to cellies named Bubba and pretty-boys-like-you… The logic perpetuated by ongoing ease with prison rape is that certain bad people in particular bad settings either deserve sexual assault or do not deserve protection from it. That prison simply is a site where rape occurs is given as a deterrent and, in the event that an offender is not deterred, implied to be what they had coming all along. But the notion that prisoners who are raped should have behaved better to be less deserving is the apotheosis of the “asking for it” or “had it coming” arguments so commonly employed to dismiss victims of rape in the free population… in agreement that rape is sometimes an appropriate punishment. Hatred or indifference to people in prison, therefore, affirms a particularly poisonous view of rape itself: that it has its place in the order of things, especially where badly behaved people are concerned. So long as some 200,000 people are sexually violated in detention centers annually, rape will never really retreat into the realm of the unthinkable, no matter how many perpetrators we turn into victims.”
-Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, Why Americans Don’t Care About Prison Rape
So, are there Capitalist feminists? Fuck yeah there are. And their feminism tends not to go very far.
Call to Action
“The Socialist who is not a Feminist lacks breadth. The Feminist who is not a Socialist is lacking in strategy.”
- Louise W Kneeland, Feminism and Socialism
What are the implications here? What does this mean for our sex lives?
Because of the paradoxes created by Capitalism to enforce itself, a working class unity can only come from a foundation of material power (28:20) of those populations currently oppressed by Capitalism. This means queer and trans people of color, especially centering Black and Indigenous feminized folk. If we are to culturally upheave Capitalism, we must therefore embrace the analyses (valuable in their own right) that empower those populations, which is to say: a queer, antiracist, decolonial feminism. One that also addresses ableism, ageism, and Christian hegemony as well. For us hetero men especially: To do this effectively, and sincerely, means not using this for brownie points, and especially not in order to have sex.
For the 31 Days of Sexual Reflection, I suggest we do just that: reflect on our own sexuality’s relationship to White Supremacist Heteropatriarchal Capitalism. How are we materially oppressed or privileged? How does this enable or inhibit our capacity to feel pleasure? What messaging do we receive about our (and others’) deserving pleasure? How are we encouraged or discouraged from exploring ourselves sexually? What if we fully believed in our being worth pleasure? What if we offered more to our partners? What do want out of our sex lives? What might our partners want? What do we (un)consciously think we are sexually entitled to, and from whom? How do we sexually extract from others, and how can we better honor their boundaries? How do others sexually extract from us, and how can we better honor our own boundaries? How have we internalized Capitalism, racism, heteropatriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, or misogyny? How do we express those internalizations in our minds, desires, bedrooms, or in public?
Having seen just some of the scale of Capitalism’s relationship to sexuality, perhaps it is less absurd to now suggest that our “personal” preferences are shaped by sociopolitical reality. Capitalism therefore influences which behaviors, bodies, and people we desire. Part of our reflection then is also to investigate our preferences for how they have been shaped that way and how we might newly, heartfully shape them. To be clear, I am absolutely including myself.
“Consider the supreme fuckability of ‘hot blonde sluts’ and East Asian women, the comparative unfuckability of black women and Asian men, the fetishisation and fear of black male sexuality, the sexual disgust expressed towards disabled, trans and fat bodies. These too are political facts, which a truly intersectional feminism should demand that we take seriously. But the sex-positive gaze… threatens to neutralise these facts… covering not only for misogyny, but for racism, ableism, transphobia, and every other oppressive system that makes its way into the bedroom through the seemingly innocuous mechanism of ‘personal preference’… [The] radical self-love movements among black, fat and disabled women do ask us to treat our sexual preferences as less than perfectly fixed. ‘Black is beautiful’ and ‘Big is beautiful’ are not just slogans of empowerment, but proposals for a revaluation of our values…”
- Amia Srinivasan, Does anyone have the right to sex?
Importantly, let’s reflect in conversation. This includes reading texts, or learning from other media. (I have inundated this article with references to Feminist/Socialist sources, and good reading requires being in active conversation with the text.) And this text and other media include the work of creative artists like fiction (!) and art and poetry and plays and dance and films (docs too) and music and short stories and sculpture and photography and memes and comedy and comics and comics (I am partial to comics). We cannot however, rest on conversation with text; we then need to talk with each other. We must wrestle with these ideas in community. Isolated, we might think we have all the answers. But other people will always challenge wherever we settle. Collective liberation requires collective conversation. Wholeness can only occur in relationship. This is the shift from authoritarian dogma to collective dialectic.
I have many ideas of what we need to do, but it is a classic feature of toxic masculinization to impulsively diagnose, treat, and/or prescribe. The feminized asks us to reflect and inquire, to feel and talk to the discomfort in question. Solutions rooted in the impulse to escape discomfort center ourselves. Solutions grounded in communion with discomfort offer more holistic resolution, and center the needs of those most affected. Toxic masculinization champions logic removed from emotions, but it is precisely when we cut ourselves off from feeling that our strategies most suck.
I know I need to practice being presented with a problem and feeling into it rather than jumping to, “What if you tried this?” I suspect many of us do. And of course, the more heartfully we reflect on these problems, the more our thoughts and actions tend to naturally evolve into more harmonious, integrated ways of being — often before we even realize it.
When we live a dialectic, or inherent contradiction, we may live into the synthesis. Said another way, when we live the questions, we may live into the answers. One is the more masculinized, abstract language of Marxist logic. One is the more feminized, metaphoric language of Rilke’s poetry. And they say the same thing.