Feminism, Materialism, and Sex

Liberal feminists overwhelmingly refer to themselves as “sex positive.” This term has always been intriguing to me, let alone what it represents. Given the sheer number of people who describe themselves as sex positive, it is difficult to pin down a particular definition. Generally, however, sex positive feminists are said to believe that, for women (because they rarely assume a non-cis woman subject), expressing sexuality can be a pathway to liberation as long as that expression occurs under consent.

Those feminists who disagree with this statement are said to be “sex negative.” This term is interpolated to presume many different ideologies, including: sex worker exclusive radical feminism (SWERF), lesbian separatism, Rick Santorum-esque prude politics, and even trans exclusion.

This odd dichotomization is as liberal as liberal feminism comes. The uncritical acceptance of sexuality as reliant upon consent – and, even more mindbogglingly, as a revolutionary tactic – has no basis in material reality. On the other hand, the implications of “sex negative” feminist demands, such as the legal work of Catherine MacKinnon, have empirically spelled catastrophe for people who experience gendered violence. Top-down bans on prostitution, pornography, et cetera have only made sexual violence more covert, banned to the shadows of liberal society.

It is high time that we expand upon and (re)develop a framework for Marxists who are interested in gendered violence to approach sex, sexual violence, and consent in capitalism. I will henceforth refer to this framework as “sex critical.”

I will orient this sex critical framework under three main theses. First, sex critique rejects the notion of consent as a monolith separate from social relations shaped by capitalism. Second, sex critique draws upon the recognition that sex workers are workers who operate at a sensitive intersection within the proletariat and should be centered as such through structural analysis. Third, sex critique rejects both liberal feminist and radical feminist passivity by orienting critique toward action to end capitalism.

 

Choices

When I was going through first year orientation at school, my hallway was sex-separated (of course, I was brought with the cis women) and ushered into different rooms to watch a video about rape culture. In the video, sex was compared to drinking tea. The narrator took on a pleased tone, suggesting, “You would never force tea down someone’s throat if you didn’t want it, so why would you force someone to have sex with you without consent?”

The audience erupted into laughter. I pulled on my collar.

This video reminded me how liberally (in more ways than one) most sex positive feminists throw around the idea of consent. Beyond the irrelevant question of advertising, when choosing whether or not to drink tea, one experiences very few social forces when the time comes to say, “Yes, I’d love a cup!” or “No thank you.” The same is obviously not true for whether or not to have sex.

Freya Brown explains the problem with this consent model, in “Let’s Talk About ‘Consent'”:

The problem with rape, according to the “consent” framework, is not that rape is a crucial mechanism through which men exert dominance over other genders and women especially, but merely that it is (apparently) sex that one party does not agree to. This is typical of bourgeois, legalistic models in that it refuses to consider relations of power and oppression and instead frames sex as an exchange between equal parties.

Brown goes on to invoke “agency,” another tenant of the consent model. Uncritically of course, liberal feminists often invoke agency as the final goal of their feminist project – if only women could express their natural agency through sexuality, they would finally throw off the chains of patriarchy!

However, agency is always caught in the grip of capitalism. Women who express their agency wake up the next day to find that their agency is being used to oppress other women around them. Susan B. Anthony, for instance, famously expressed her agency by winning the right to vote and explicitly excluding women of color from achieving the same. Today, Taylor Swift’s agency to produce videos that objectify and denigrate black women’s bodies is met with millions of dollars of revenue, a new liberal feminist anthem, and the quiet maintenance of the status quo.

Even if micro-relational agency were not caught up in its oppressive implications, I struggle to believe that agency for women in capitalism – or, really, for any oppressed person – is really possible, especially in the context of sex. In “Patriarchy and Historical Materialism,” Colin Farrelly argues:

The subordination of women becomes formalized, and intensified, by the creation of superstructures that help stabilize these oppressive relations of production. Such relations give men effective control over the reproductive and caring labor of women.

Gender is convenient for capitalism. Given the high percentage of the population who have similar external genitalia (regardless of the internal differences which complicate the narrative, as we learn from intersex studies), it’s easy to sell as a binary system. Given the ruse of masculine strength and feminine frailty, it’s easy to make one gender dominate the other. Given the nature of this domination, it’s easy to assign women domestic labor and lower the value of their labor to zero.

To maintain the sexual division of labor located at the base, Farrelly isolates superstructures which maintain the heteropatriarchy. Some of these superstructures include heterosexism, in which people with vaginas are expected to enjoy a particular form of reproductive sex with people with penises; reproductive futurism, in which the end goal of a supposedly-happy life is to reproduce in a normative, hegemonic manner; and the constant fetishization of non-cisgender men, especially those who are oppressed through racism.

Therefore, to have the agency to consent to sex is questionable in a world where women are presumed to be always-available to men. Even consent in the context of non-heterosexual sex is always already coded through the lens of fetishization, always for the end of fulfilling the sexual desires of cisgender, heterosexual men. And, of course, for the double-end of maintaining the capitalist systems that perpetuate this domination in the first place.

 

Against SWERF ideology

I am not the first person to come to the conclusions that I have marked above. Radical feminists, sex-negative feminists, and lesbian feminists have been making similar arguments for a long time. Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon come to mind.

These feminists arrive at a similar conclusion, but their analysis veers improperly when they determine that the conclusion to the ruse of consent is to hold everything accountable except capitalism. MacKinnon, for example, famously fought to criminalize pornography. Her efforts were futile, but if they had worked, she would have only offered a reactionary, piecemeal reform while maintaining the machine of capital. Her work would offer similar results as the pro-life movement: She would only empower the rhetorical coat hanger.

Additionally, radical feminists are notorious for holding non-cisgender men culpable for their own oppression on an individual level. (I have been called “gender traitor” more than once!) Rather than listening to the needs of sex workers, they have admonished them for doing their job – sometimes, for doing the only job that they can find to feed themselves.

There are two main problems with this focus. First, the individuality: It would be impossible for any analysis to parse through the reasons why every single person who has engaged in any level of sex work, from something as small as being a sugar baby to a full-time position, has done so. Holding people to some moralistic standard for the “ideal feminist life” ignores myriad structural antagonisms that cause people to enter into the fold of sex work. It is more productive, as I will describe later, to critique capitalism itself, the structure that endangers sex workers and promotes heteropatriarchy.

Second, the culpability: If a coal miner is not said to sell their body when they potentially contract lung problems or various cancers by doing their job, then why is a sex worker said to sell their body? The only distinction between these two positions, on any material level, is a moralistic stance that reads like misogyny. Sex work is work. While we must not fall into the liberal trap of presuming that sex work is not gendered work, sex negativity is not a solution to gender; it only papers over the antagonisms that it purports to critique.

 

What is to be done?

Central to sex critique is, of course, critique. Teresa L. Ebert, in “Ludic Feminism, the Body, Performance, and Labor: Bringing Materialism Back into Feminist Cultural Studies,” writes (emphasis mine):

…critique is a mode of knowing that inquires into what is not said, into the silences and the suppressed or missing, in order to uncover the concealed operations of power and underlying socioeconomic relations connecting the myriad details and seemingly disparate events and representations of our lives.

As much as the radical-in-theory but liberal-in-practice feminists like to ignore it, sex is inevitable because people desire it. Due to this desire, the demand for sex work and the demand for pornography are also both inevitable. Therefore, instead of squabbling over the best method to ban something that will never truly leave society, feminists would be better off spending their time addressing the material realities that shape these demands. Only then can our critique be mobilized into real changes for the lives of those marginalized by gendered violence.

Ebert continues:

Critique enables us to explain how gender, race, sexual, and class oppression operate so we can change it.

Therefore, any “feminist” project that doesn’t spill over – any sexual soul searching that only benefits oneself – is useless at best and pacifying at worst.

As alluded to many times before, the end goal for sex critique should be the abolition of capitalism and its replacement with public ownership of the means of production. With this, the division of labor no longer would mandate a hierarchy between the ways that bodies operate in the social sphere. Perhaps gender would become irrelevant, too, though I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.

As any Marxist analysis, sex critique situates sex and sexual violence within structural strata originating from the means of production. However, sex critique does not footnote gendered violence or the experiences of sex workers. Quite frankly, any Marxist who doesn’t take the experiences of those who face gendered violence seriously needs to re-read Engels’s analysis of the family unit. Gendered violence a quotidian social force that naturalizes capitalism; it’s simply practical, let alone beneficial to communist organizing, to address it directly.

Marxists must strive for, of course, “…a ruthless criticism of everything existing.” Even in talking about sex, our work is not pleasurable. Without falling into the “Marxism is a science!” trap, I want to end by emphasizing objectivity. Ebert continues:

Pleasure and desire can be the over- riding concern only for the classes of people (middle and upper) who are already “free” from economic want and have the means to pursue or, more specifically in commodity cultures, to consume the means for pleasure. It is also these classes who have the relative luxury of displacing the body as means of labor onto the body as pleasure zone.

Do not engage in politics to please yourself. If you are only patting yourself on the back and calling it political, you’re probably doing more harm than good. Our critique should not be pleasant; it should crush what we take for granted. Critique for those whose labor is devalued by the system and by the so-called feminists who purport to be their allies. Critique for sex workers.

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