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It is possible to win real sexual freedom

This article is over 17 years, 2 months old
The second in our series on women’s oppression in the modern world, by Elane Heffernan
Issue 1925

When Frederick Engels wrote about women’s liberation, he didn’t only speak of equality. He also spoke of a world in which sexual relations would not governed by economic necessity or stifling morality, but would be really free.

He was one of a tiny minority in Victorian Britain who understood that sexuality could take many forms.

Today the changes in the way women live have led to a seismic shift in attitudes towards sex and family relationships.

Globally the number of single mothers rises year on year – 40 percent of all British households will be headed by women by 2020.

But single mothers remain the world’s poorest people. A recent World Food Programme report stated that the percentage of female-headed families in the “very poor” category was double that of male-headed households. This is typical not just of the global South but also the rich North.

Neo-liberal policies have led to cuts in state provision for care for children and the elderly.

Middle class families have coped by employing women, mainly from the global South who have been forced to abandon their own children.

The percentage of migrant domestics in the European Union rose from 6 percent in 1984 to 52 percent in 1987.

In the US, 40 percent of nannies legally in the country are migrants – the real percentage is much higher.

Without them “post-feminist” academics and managers would be forced to fight for the state care that the women’s movement demanded in the 1960s, or to stay at home as their mothers did.

In working class families men do more housework and childcare than 30 years ago and women do less.

But the rise in working hours and the lack of resources increase stress in relationships.


In terms of sexuality, the family-based gender stereotypes of the “it’s not natural for men to iron” or “women shouldn’t be cleverer than a man” variety persist.

This, along with the commoditisation of our bodies, destroys any notion of real liberation.

The open expression of sexuality is far better than the shame and misery of the old days.

But we remain objects stripped of all personality in advertising and porn.

The Jordan principle – the bigger our breasts the more attractive we are – remains dominant.

Cool Kate Moss frequents lapdancing clubs when she has finished selling us the modern female ideal of emaciated flesh. And “post-feminist” writers tell us that’s liberating.

So young women trying to achieve the ideal starve themselves, save up for breast operations, and don’t know how to complain when they are date raped.

Sex education remains prudish and based on family norms while teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease rates soar.

For many millions of women the opening of sexuality combines with economic compulsion in horrific ways.

According to the 1995 Bejing women’s conference one in ten urban women across the globe are engaged in prostitution at some point in their lives.


The economic collapse of countries like Albania means that 100,000 young women from the country have been trafficked to brothels abroad.

Other countries rely on sex tourism. In Thailand an estimated 500,000 girls work in the sex industry.

Women continue to suffer appalling violence. Every week two women are killed by their partners or ex-partners in Britain.

In many societies where women are relatively new to paid work outside the home, beating women is still considered to be “a man’s right”.

This oppression is not just foisted upon us. Much of the time women tend to accept their role.

Today, just as in the 1950s, tens of thousands buy the magazines that abound with advice on how to get and keep your man.

These days there’s just less cooking and a lot more sexual acrobatics and plastic surgery involved.

There is nothing natural about any of this.

Engels pointed out that human beings had lived in societies without false gender divisions and the oppression of women. Those societies were also ones without class divisions.

During the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks abolished all church and state regulation of personal relationships. Stalin undid all that. But it is to such a society we must return if we want open, free and truly expressive sexual relationships.

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