If capitalism is the age of the commodity, then patriarchy under capitalism is the age of commodity sexuality. Capitalist-patriarchal relations are defined by the evaporation (or near-evaporation) of the ‘moral housewife’ model, and the success of new forms of subjugation through liberal or neo-colonial notions of liberation.

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A truly capitalist sexuality began emerging shortly after WWII and was consolidated by the 1980s, with the so-called “Sexual Revolution” in the imperial metropoles. The result of intensifying contradictions was a large political rupture that challenged many of the old sexual conventions as well as created new prospects for further political change. There were many tendencies competing for dominance within the wimmin’s movement during this period, some truly revolutionary and some reformist. The result, much like the outcome of most of the struggles against oppression in the past century, was a compromise between neoliberal and postmodernist segments and the bourgeois establishment. Broadly speaking, the progressives at the forefront of capitalist liberalization — fighting for “democracy”, “humyn rights”, and the right of everyone to the equalizing majesty of the market — also sought to apply the same principles to sexuality. Taboos and moralisms lose any battle against profit, and stifling sexual hold-overs from the feudal and early bourgeois period were in contradiction to the need of capitalism to continually remove barriers to capital accumulation. To name but a few social developments during this period, the traditional nuclear family began to “break down”, the divorce rate soared, the number staying out of wedlock grew, extra-marital births skyrocketed, teen sex increased, polyamory challenged monogamy, sex became less taboo as a public topic, the legal status of prostitution trended towards decriminalization, and the pornography industry exploded. The Sexual Revolution period also saw the start of the queer movement and the “promotion of alternative sexual lifestyles”, heterosexual or otherwise. Through these historical developments, as we will explore throughout the rest of this article, we have the split between “sex-negative” feminism, and “sex-positive” feminism.

Dworkin, in Pornography: Men Possessing Women, writes that:

The old pornography industry was a right-wing industry: secret money, secret sin, secret sex, secret promiscuity, secret buying and selling of women, secret profit, secret pleasure not only from sex but also from the buying and selling. The new pornography industry is a left-wing industry: promoted especially by the boys of the sixties as simple pleasure, lusty fun, public sex, the whore brought out of the bourgeois (sic) home into the streets for the democratic consumption of all men; her freedom, her free sexuality, is as his whore—and she likes it. It is her political will as well as her sexual will; it is liberation. The dirty little secret of the left-wing pornography industry is not sex but commerce.

We see that there is big money to be made in the commodification of sexuality. It’s not just the explicit depictions of nakedness sold to fetishistic consumers as a masturbatory and social ideal, but everywhere the mantra “sex sells” is employed. Everywhere oppression eroticized and money collide. Everywhere Sadian freedoms open up new markets and revitalize old ones. Pornography, makeup, fashion, contraception, advertisement, alcohol, bars, clubs, and so on construct a capitalist raunch culture where sex is profitable and more sex is more profit. Capitalist society has even popularized a new type of sex, “kink”, where one must buy harnesses, ball-gags, whips, and all manner of commodities to aid in heightened sexual violence. The possibility of a uniquely capitalist sexuality is not just due to capitalist relations of production, but also to capitalist forces of production. The invention of contraceptive, abortive, and paternity testing technologies make the “sex conservatism/shaming/monogamy/virginity/purity” nexus (characteristic of old sexual norms) obsolete and irrelevant to the purposes of controlling pregnancy and paternity (an important function). A study published by the U.K.-based The Center for Social Justice notes that:1

[Until] the late 1960s only a minority of women had sex before they married. The advent of the contraceptive pill was a major factor in changing what was regarded as permissible. Before the passage of the National Health Service (Family Planning) Act 1967, making the pill available to unmarried women, the majority of brides had not had sex prior to their wedding day.

Continuing the examination of the “right wing” and “left wing” sexual ideologies, Dworkin writes that:

The right-wing ideology claims that the division of mother and whore is phenomenologically real. The virgin is the potential mother. The left-wing ideology claims that sexual freedom is in the unrestrained use of women, the use of women as a collective natural resource, not privatized, not owned by one man but instead used by many. The metaphysics is the same on the Left and on the Right: the sexuality of the woman actualized is the sexuality of the whore; desire on her part is the slut’s lust; once sexually available, it does not matter how she is used, why, by whom, by how many, or how often. Her sexual will can exist only as a will to be used. Whatever happens to her, it is all the same. If she loathes it, it is not wrong, she is.

What Dworkin is describing here is wimmin’s status as “commodities” in a sexual sense. The institution of marriage and that of “prostitution” are–in one sense–ultimately the same; distinguishable only by the moral compass of the right wing, or by the period of exclusivity and number of owners. The “left-wing” notions of “freedom” that Dworkin notes here were thrown out into the open, directly challenging the alternative “right-wing” method for sexual domination. In this sense, the modern view of sexuality does not really challenge the basic notion of what womynhood is: the state of being owned, used, or valued solely on the basis of existence as a sexual thing for men. What we have is merely a new interpretation of the old premise. In this way, wimmin can be freed from the kitchen, freed from the bedroom, and freed from the laundryroom, yet with ultimately no real consequence to their character. They are still wimmin, they still are valued as wimmin and in this line of thinking their responsibility, their social utility, is based on their ability to be sexually available to men; whether monopolized or democratized.

Dworkin also writes that:

The new pornography industry is held, by leftist males, to be inherently radical. Sex is claimed by the Left as a leftist phenomenon; the trade in women is most of sex. The politics of liberation are claimed as indigenous to the Left by the Left; central to the politics of liberation is the mass-marketing of material that depicts women being used as whores. The pimps of pornography are hailed by leftists as saviors and savants. Larry Flynt has been proclaimed a savior of the counterculture, a working-class hero, and even, in a full-page advertisement in The New York Times signed by distinguished leftist literati, an “American Dissident” persecuted as Soviet dissidents are. Hugh Hefner is viewed as a pioneer of sexual freedom who showed, in the words of columnist Max Lerner, “how the legislating of sexuality could be fought, how the absurd antiplay and anti-pleasure ethic could be turned into a stylish hedonism and a lifeway which includes play and playfulness along with work.” Lerner also credits Hefner with being a precursor of the women’s movement.

On the Left, the sexually liberated woman is the woman of pornography. Free male sexuality wants, has a right to, produces, and consumes pornography because pornography is pleasure. Leftist sensibility promotes and protects pornography because pornography is freedom. The pornography glut is bread and roses for the masses. Freedom is the mass-marketing of woman as whore. Free sexuality for the woman is in being massively consumed, denied an individual nature, denied any sexual sensibility other than that which serves the male. Capitalism is not wicked or cruel when the commodity is the whore; profit is not wicked or cruel when the alienated worker is a female piece of meat; corporate bloodsucking is not wicked or cruel when the corporations in question, organized crime syndicates, sell cunt; racism is not wicked or cruel when the black cunt or yellow cunt or red cunt or Hispanic cunt or Jewish cunt has her legs splayed for any man’s pleasure; poverty is not wicked or cruel when it is the poverty of dispossessed women who have only themselves to sell; violence by the powerful against the powerless is not wicked or cruel when it is called sex; slavery is not wicked or cruel when it is sexual slavery; torture is not wicked or cruel when the tormented are women, whores, cunts. The new pornography is left-wing; and the new pornography is a vast graveyard where the Left has gone to die. The Left cannot have its whores and its politics too.

“Sex-positive feminism”, or in other words Dworkin’s “Left”, sought to position itself at the forefront of the evolution of patriarchy into something befitting the needs of modern political economy. It is distinctly liberal with its dismissal of collective struggle in favor of individualism and store-bought conception of wimmin’s liberation, and distinctly First Worldist with its complicity in furthering patterns of international exploitation with explicit or implicit support for sex tourism. With the global division between what has become the “marketplace of the world” in the First World, and the “storehouse and factory of the world” in the Third World, there is the perfect environment for new patriarchal relations to be the further advanced by liberal political movements. For example, ‘kink’ as a rather new development in contemporary “late-capitalist” sexuality, has been totally marketized. Established as an entirely new industry with its own marketable subculture, it has fed into the larger system of consumer gratification which is possible only in the First World at its current scale. Although these things of course exist in all corners of the globe, the epicenters of their development in the Third World have been fostered around the “sex-tourism” hotspots, which are built to serve the colonialist and child-hungry men of the west. The way that this correlates with the accusation of First-Worldism on the part of the liberal and “sex-positive” feminists of the global north is in the manner by which they extol these developments of “individual liberty” as being congruent with the needs for wimmin in the global south to achieve liberation, in total denial that this system constructed in the First World not only requires the subjugation of the south to accomplish, but further it has not produced any less of a violent and patriarchal society in the First World.

But to really delve deeper into what “sex-positive feminism” is at its core, we can look to defenses or explanations of the principles of “sex-positive feminism” from the proponents of it themselves. They all tend to converge toward the same basic argument, that of the centrality of the issue of “s–t shaming” [hereafter “sex shaming”]. For example, one such explanation of the basic tenets states that:2

Essentially, sex-positive feminists argue that people should be able to engage in various sexual acts and have various sexual preferences free of shame as long as those preferences and acts are safe and consensual. By achieving sexual liberation, women cannot be shamed for their natural desire for sex which consequently mitigates social oppression.

Slut-shaming [sic] is a common issue which sex-positive feminists aim to combat. A succinct definition of slut-shaming by Alon Levy is “the implication that if a woman has sex that traditional society disapproves of, she should feel guilty and inferior”.

The problem here is not whether sex shaming exists or not–it certainly does–the problem is in trying to understand how sex shaming relates to certain historical processes, what the role of sex shaming is in modern society, and how centering our understanding of liberation on decontextualized persynal choice as the supposed alternative to “sex shaming” actually covers up anti-womyn violence.3

Men will find almost any reason to try and prove that “she really wanted it”, including sex shaming. In this way there are actually two distinct types of sex shaming: one born from an antiquated disagreement with modern sexual developments, and one born from rape culture. The problem arises when these two types are conflated and the whole thing is identified as the central principle of modern sexuality. When the enemy is identified as “traditional [old] society”, rather than every manifestation of patriarchy [new or old], we become little more than inadvertent accomplices for the modernization of patriarchy. When we ignore that the construction of narratives about promiscuity are either an artifact of a dying culture or a servant to the higher cause of rape culture, in favor of an analysis that identifies “sex shaming” as an autonomous social dynamic, we’re not actually getting to the root of the problem.

Within the framework of modern patriarchal sexuality, the male camp even has disagreements over sex shaming when it comes to the advancement of rape culture. Particularly illustrative, with over four times the amount of upvotes than the competition, the top-rated definition of “s–t shaming” on Urban Dictionary defines it as:4

An unfortunate phenomenon in which people degrade or mock a woman because she enjoys having sex, has sex a lot, or may even just be rumored to participate in sexual activity. Often it’s accompanied by urban legends such as the common virgin misconception that the vagina becomes larger or looser with use — in fact, sex has no effect on vaginal size.

However, since most people would rather women be MORE sexually active than less, slut shaming is counterproductive to the aims of most men and quite a few ladies.

Guy 1: Ha ha Megan had sex with two guys, she’s such a SLUT!

Guy 2: You idiot, do you want her to stop having sex? We should be encouraging this. Your slut shaming will simply discourage more women from sleeping with us and we will be virgins forever.

However ‘free’ and ‘liberated’ sexual attitudes have become in the last century, the fundamental nature of our sexual paradigm–that of the eroticization of dominance–remains intact. Subordination through victorian monogamy is now complimented by the wonderful new possibility of subordination through kinky polyamory. Such is the extent of capitalist ingenuity, the breadth of choice offered of the market, the grandiosity of bourgeois freedoms. A great deal of feminist activity has been wasted advancing the logic of capitalist society, rather than fighting for a sexuality truly orthogonal to patriarchy. No doubt new forms of capitalist sexuality are still to come, and no doubt “sex-positive” feminists will be on the front lines. Just as the overthrow of colonialism and the transition to neo-colonialism struck nerve with the “traditional” elements of white capitalist society, modern “sex-positive” feminism also excites some degree of hatred and scorn from “traditional” male capitalist society, yet still ultimately remains united with the basic principles of the system. In contrast, the roots of a modern revolutionary feminism lie in the identification of changing sexual mores as “progress” only in the bourgeois sense.

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what “sex-positive” feminists identify as the main sexual antagonisms in society

When not exalting liberal notions of “free speech” and decrying “censorship”, almost all criticisms of so-called “sex-negative” feminist analysis converge toward sneered accusations of “right-wing puritanism”. Typifying this, an article entitled Pornography and the Sex Censor by Cathy Crosson, published in the theoretical journal of the U.S.-based trotskyist organization Solidarity, describes the work of the (apparently overly inhibited) Dworkin and MacKinnon as: “deeply conservative”, “gender-hating”, “anti-sex”, “authoritarian”, and “Victorian feminism”.5 It also reproduces the conclusion of Nadine Strossen’s book Defending Pornography that “the procensorship feminist philosophy is a carbon copy of the right-wing view of sexuality and gender roles”. In the reduction of all disagreement to the simple issue of “prudery”, we observe that “sex-positive” feminism is blinded by the dynamic between new and old sexuality. It demonstrates a failure to comprehend the possibility of any criticism of sexuality that identifies male domination regardless of the historically superficial characteristics produced by and for each unique patriarchal social formation.

Any theory must be tested through its explanatory capacity, and our understanding of the political economy behind modern sexual development gives us the tools to answer Crosson’s attempt at an empirical criticism:5

[It] is empirically false that sexual materials cause violence and sexism in any important sense. No reputable scientific evidence supports such a causal link. The cross-cultural evidence against the notion that pornography causes violence and discrimination is particularly compelling. Strossen cites numerous studies indicating that if anything, censorship of sexual expression correlates negatively with gender equality. Saudi Arabia strictly bans pornography, and China, where death sentences are imposed for trafficking in pornography and women are subjected to forced abortions, is hardly a model of women’s liberation. On the other hand, the cultures most tolerant of erotic materials-such as Denmark and Sweden-have achieved greater gender equality than any of the more sexually repressive societies in the West.

In the ‘old capitalist’ societies of the imperialist metropoles, capitalist sexuality has had a comparatively long time to develop. However, in ‘new capitalist’ societies of the periphery where capitalism is younger, the proliferation of “gender egalitarianism” (according to bourgeois standards) is less advanced. Along with the need for markets built around sex to be expanded (and for sexual attitudes to follow), all wimmin need to be sent out of the home where they can contribute to the economy in a way that is directly visible to capital by producing surplus value or helping in the realization of surplus value stolen through imperialism in varying degrees. Crosson is unable to identify the historical causes behind the differing political conditions of sexuality throughout the world, and thus mistakes the correlative relationship between “progressive” attitudes towards pornography and other “gender egalitarian” practices, as a causative relationship. Capitalist ‘underdevelopment’ causing attendant sexual ‘underdevelopment’ does not mean that pornography is an anti-patriarchal force for feminism; only that the complete marketization of society is still in progress. Opposition to ‘new sexuality’, contraception, and other stunted examples of equality within the limits of the left-liberal paradigm all correlate together, because these things form a web of mutually reinforcing and internally consistent set of practices for a sexuality that serves a specific mode of production. As Angel Archer points out:6

The ideology of liberal democracy—of capital—has the tendency to equalize all work. For profits to be accumulated from trade in commodities (which are the product of applied labor-power), labor-power in the abstract must necessarily have the ability to be freely bought and sold—to be commanded by capital. The kinds of arbitrary restrictions on civil rights opposed by porn viewers—such as preventing some women from working outside their homes—do not follow the long term logic of the accumulation of capital. Porn viewers, consuming media which is a technologically advanced product of sexual labor, therefore tend to hold ideologies which are more advanced from the perspective of capital’s ability to extract value from gendered labor.

In short, “sex-positive” feminism represents an incredibly stunted view of liberation imported from the advancement of capitalist culture and industry.

Join the conversation! 7 Comments

  1. Sorry- this seems so dated! It’s as if queer feminist erotic media never happened. It’s like you missed a whole generation…

    Reply
    • It is not a question of whether that kind of thing happened but whether or not that reflects the premise of the article. I am starting to think you never read it to begin with. This is meant to underline the relations of sexual oppression and to analyze the bullshit liberal tendencies which have done more to reproduce this than they have to approach any kind of legitimate collective liberation. Offer up more of a criticism than simply “but we have feminist erotic media” and perhaps a more productive discussion can take place. The argument here is that the “feminist” erotic media you are talking about does nothing to actually curb the oppressive sexual relations which exist under capitalist and patriarchal society. In fact, these medias only misunderstand the source and the structure of patriarchy and paint the solution as something which is individually “discovered” through “capturing our sexuality.” These kinds of solutions have done nothing to curb the rape culture that predominates society. We must take a proactive, offensive approach to stripping men and male society of its power to reproduce sexual/gendered oppression against women and non-men, rather than sitting back and relying on ideas of individual liberation.

      Reply
      • Is queer/feminist erotic media generally communist? I don’t think so. Is it going to materially destroy the basis of Capitalist Heteropatriarchy? Highly doubtful.

        I still don’t think this changes the fact that you resorted to a verty limited and dated argument, fighting against what many would call a “strawman”.

        The critique which should be made of the sex industry is huge, but that fails to aggress the facts that not all who do “sex work” are waged and/or oppressed in the sense that Dworkin and MacKinnon tended to paint them in, with such broad brush strokes.

        The Crosson perspective is not the only critique of what is now a somewhat dated argument,

      • You may say that the argument is dated, and while I will concede that many of Dworkin’s positions (though those quoted in this article I do find compelling) are sometimes just off the mark or do too much to sound provocative in a very classic posture that has mostly been abandoned (I say mostly, but it still exists) in today’s rhetoric, I would posit that at worst this thought is “incomplete” or that it lacks the kind of final conclusion and touches which could make it more thorough and helpful.

        Frankly I do think that the article is correct, or at least 90% so. Though what I will say in response to what you’ve written is that primarily I think the focus for things such as this is to decry the enormous inadequacies of the current trajectory of even those “radical” trends which seem to constantly look to men for approval for our movements existence. They always seem to come late to the party, never able to really hit the mark on opposing rapists until the man in question has already accumulated his fair share of survivors. This is a problem. There is no doubting that those who constantly lauded James Dean as the model male feminist and who were shocked at the realization that this man was a rapist (something which shocked no one on the other side) was just kindof symptomatic to their own inability to really provide for the defense of women, but rather just a cheer squad for the most tolerable kind of feminism to male society: the one that tells women not to fear his sexual desire.

        Now, granted that I don’t think women should fear sex, but rather I think that the real apprehension is already there, the fact that so many women have had to get over what sex positive feminists have described as “repressed internal misogyny” in order to live out what they consider comfortable sex lives that are sufficiently “liberating” on an individual level is something we shouldn’t be shrugging off. The fact that Sex Positivity has taken aim primarily at women as the agents of patriarchy rather than men, and stated that we ourselves are the problem and must not exact revolution on the patriarchal system, but revolt in our heads against the way we think about that system is instead necessary. That is bogus reformism and would be shaken off as such in any other department, but not here. Why?

        I think it is also important to note the fact that the obsession with the sex industry is not specific to Dworkin and MacKinnon in their writings, but is laced throughout all the various sex positive lines of communication as well. Though, they are hardly as critical of its existence, instead lauding it too as potentially liberating for some while oppressing for others. Why is it the case that Sex Positivity and liberal feminism has succeeded in nailing down a consistent message for us? They have no political program but telling us that our feelings ARE the political program, unless those feelings tell us that the sex we are having is fundamentally tied to the system it is occuring in and that our feelings of anxiety are linked to a generalized anxiety of women from the perspective of their oppressed position, and not just some self-loathing we got from victorian-era moral codes.

        Put simply, the sex positive arguments fail to put forth any consistent message on how we should develop ANY political platform, or political understanding of ourselves outside the postmodern and neoliberal conceptions of “identity” and the deconstructed narrative. There is a grand narrative of womanhood, and there is something going on with all of us that must be motioned against by every women and non-man, along with all the comrades we can muster. The sex we are having IS connected to the system under which we are living, and therefore it must be thoroughly critiqued and analyzed. We must develop a political praxis of collective liberation, not just feeling our way into a better future through reimagining our own oppression.

  2. To be honest I find the problem with this is that it doesn’t really present any kind of solution. If its not old sexuality that fetishizes monogamy and romance, or new sexuality that fetishizes polyamory/hookup and sex without strings attached, then what kind of sexual practice are cadres allowed to have? Especially from the perspective of trans womyn who are already super exploited and told by patriarchal society to feel deeply ashamed about sexuality, it often can be confusing.

    So what kind of sexuality should we be encouraging? Because I don’t think we can focus on trying to develop an alternative sexual praxis to the current two patriarchal blocs if no cadres even know what such a alternate sexual praxis should even be

    Reply
    • I think that you raise a few important points here and that although I think you misunderstood where the author is coming from, your criticisms come consistently.

      The unfortunately frank answer I have for you is that there is no real individual sexual praxis which should be approached as genuinely revolutionary sexual praxis in my view. It is not about what is “moral” given the circumstances of capital’s influence on sexuality but rather an analysis of what is actually being done and the issue of how misplaced objectives have steered much of sex positivity in the direction of reformism and outright misogynist pandering in some cases. Our focus should be primarily on building a strong opposition to male supremacy over the lives of women with sex and sexuality being the fundamental tool wielded as a way to exact our subjugation. In the end of the day we are not so concerned with what people enjoy doing in consensual sex, though there is clearly a point where these relationships affect our subjective consciousness and work generally. So we should take up the impossible task of transforming our lives in a holistic manner, and building a collective movement which provides for the material liberation of women from the confines of patriarchal oppression–all women. Transgender women are just as much affected by the sexualization of our bodies as cisgender women are, and therefore it goes without saying that this does not contradict the struggle for transgender liberation.

      Though slightly digressing there, to move back to the point, I think that what you are asking is more thoroughly discussed in another article written on this website that I will link here for you to check out. This deals particularly with the deeper questions of how these systems affect us, and how the current language of sex and sexuality falls short of really providing the answer in a way that is easily sold to us at the moment. This should not discourage the greater movement from going on, but to limit our options to what “personally liberates us all” as the liberal sex positive feminists have stated we should, is a mistake because it takes the eyes off of the experience of womanhood as a whole and throws it into an anti-universal perspective which defines each individual experience as disjointed from the whole. Their overall argument is that we must pursue what makes us “feel liberated” though I would question to the capacity this feeling can be achieved, and furthermore I challenge directly the assumption that “feeling liberated” truly puts us any closer to collective liberation when the individual actions are still born within and conform to the conventions of patriarchal society.

      If you would like to talk in more depth about this, I’d encourage you to email me at the email listed on the contact page. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on what I’ve given.

      Reply

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Feminism, Theory