Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2137

Sexuality and the system

This article is over 12 years, 11 months old
To mark the beginning of LGBT History Month, Colin Wilson explores the roots of gay oppression
Issue 2137
American women wearing men’s clothes as a way of expressing their sexuality in 1899
American women wearing men’s clothes as a way of expressing their sexuality in 1899

It seems hard to imagine that people’s personal lives were different in the past. Family, friendship and sexuality seem deep-rooted and part of our personalities.

Yet they have changed over the centuries. Back in 1600, “family” could refer to the people who lived with you, whether you were related to them or not. In richer households that included servants.

Men who were close friends – at least, wealthy men – kissed and embraced each other.

They might share a bed, swear vows of friendship or even be buried together. None of this implied a sexual relationship.

No one believed that humanity was divided between gay, lesbian, bisexual and straight people. Sex between men – sodomy – was a terrible sin. But anyone might be tempted to commit it, just as anyone might commit murder or adultery.

Sodomy was harshly punished. Sodomites were hanged in England, and burned at the stake elsewhere in Europe. But this was rare – years passed without any prosecutions.

The sodomite was conceived of as a monstrous creature, a bogey-man. Sodomy was much more than a sexual crime. It was associated with treason, Catholicism, foreign countries – a general rejection of accepted English values.

This is all very different from today. Clearly family, friendship and sexuality differ between cultures and across times, rather than being fixed by human biology. Historians sometimes describe them as “socially constructed”.

This phrase is particularly associated with the French historian and writer Michel Foucault. It’s often assumed that Foucault was the first historian to trace historical changes in sexuality.

Yet Karl Marx’s collaborator Frederick Engels reached similar conclusions over 100 years ago. His book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State was first published in 1884.

Engels’ book compared different societies – ancient Greece and Rome, and the Iroquois, a Native American people. He argued that what he called “modern individual sex love” did not exist in all historical periods.

He based his work on the earliest anthropological writings. These were cutting edge theories at the time, but they included mistakes so some details of Engels’ book are wrong.

However, his basic assertion is the same as the one made by Foucault – sexuality changes through history.

Engels goes further than this. He shows that changes in the family and sexuality are connected to the wider development of society.

For example, why are women condemned for having many sexual partners in a way that men are not?


Engels finds that monogamy is historically connected to property. A man with wealth wants his children to inherit it.

If his wife is unfaithful and has a child by another man, that “illegitimate” child will take a share of property from its rightful heirs. Sexual morality results from the wider structure of society.

As the 18th century writer Samuel Johnson put it, “Consider what importance to society the chastity of women is. Upon that all the property in the world depends.

“We hang a thief for stealing a sheep, but the unchastity of a woman transfers sheep and farm and all from the right owner.”

Marxists today follow Engels’ example in linking changing attitudes towards sexuality to wider social developments. This explains the extraordinary changes in people’s sexual lives in the last 400 years.

Consider 17th century London. This was a city in rapid transformation from the medieval, feudal order to the modern, capitalist world. Thousands of young people migrated there from the countryside, escaping the traditional social controls of their villages.

In the city they worked for wages. They had a “private life” outside the working day, which for some included sexual adventures.

We start to find evidence of love and sex between men and between women. By about 1700 a subculture existed, at least for men.

They met at “molly houses”, which existed across London. Men sung and danced, kissed and had sex. Molly houses were not like gay clubs today. Many of the men impersonated women. Ceremonies were performed in which men pretended to give birth.

Some men began to justify their sexual desires. William Brown, a 43 year old furniture maker, told a court in 1726, while on trial for sodomy, that, “I did it because I thought I knew him, and I think there’s no crime in making what use I please of my own body.”

As capitalist society developed, its leading intellectuals rejected attacks on sodomites as part of medieval superstition. The French Revolution of 1789 abolished sodomy laws in 1791. The Napoleonic legal code of 1804 completely legalised sex between men and between women.

Capitalism and the Enlightenment promised a rational and tolerant approach to sexuality. Yet the 19th century was to see quite the opposite.

In England, industrialisation drove millions into immense new cities. Men, women and children all worked in mines and factories.

Economic upheavals sometimes left men at home to mind children while women went out to work. Several families might share a room.


Middle class people valued respectability and sexual restraint. In their families men went out to work while women and children stayed at home. Some commentators looked with horror at the lives of the new industrial workers.

They associated open sexuality and a lack of respectability with social disorder in general – leading perhaps to revolution.

They also raised financial worries. The economy would suffer, for example, if many workers continued to die in their teens because of poor food and housing, or lack of care at home.

In the second half of the 19th century such arguments won over the ruling class. They imposed minimal restraints on capitalism, in the hope of ensuring the long-term survival of the system.

The family was a key part of this strategy. Women were excluded from some paid work – such as in mines – and children from most of it. The sick and the old were to be looked after in respectable, working class homes – without costing the state any money.

The Victorian promotion of the family involved attacks on any kind of sexuality outside of this norm.

Prostitution, which was common at this time, faced new legal sanctions. Doctors were obsessed with stopping children from masturbating.

Sex between men and between women also faced attacks. All sex between men was criminalised in Britain in 1885 – up until then only anal sex had been illegal.

A similar law covered all of Germany after 1871. Such laws received massive publicity when they were used to prosecute author Oscar Wilde in 1895.


But they also generated immediate opposition. As early as 1864, a German campaigner called Karl Heinrich Ulrichs opposed such laws.

He argued that men had sex with other men because they were part of a minority of human beings born that way. It was wrong, he argued, to punish them for doing something that was in their nature.

Such arguments were taken up by liberal doctors and psychiatrists. They classified many different sexual behaviours – “the homosexual” was one such category. Some doctors used this new idea in courts, giving evidence that prevented people from being jailed for their sexual behaviour.

Some doctors who wrote about homosexuality also received hundreds of letters from people who felt this idea explained their lives.

In this way the idea and the reality of homosexuality developed – first among middle class people with access to medical writings, then among workers as well. Heterosexuals and bisexuals were defined later.

How does this account relate to today’s world?

The family continues to be extremely important to capitalist society. Governments save billions of pounds each year because children, sick and elderly people are looked after for free within the family.

The family is also important ideologically – New Labour is just as keen on respectable “hard-working families” as its Victorian forebears.

But there have also been huge changes in the last 40 years. Women and LGBT people have fought for liberation, and made significant gains.

Only a few right wingers now hold the Victorian view that open sexuality always undermines the family.

Now the dominant idea is that sex should underpin the loving relationships on which families are based.

Sex, gay or straight, has become to some extent acceptable. LGBT people have gained formal legal equality, including civil partnerships.

Sex has entered the mainstream – pornography is big business, and “raunch” sells everything from magazines to cars.

But this is a limited and contradictory advance. Raunch is a money-making caricature of real sex between real human beings.

Many LGBT people don’t want to make the uphill struggle towards a “respectable” family life, which is always defined by Victorian norms.

And LGBT people continue to be oppressed – facing violence, abuse, bullying in school and under-representation in the media.

Nor is there any guarantee that things will continue to improve.

We need to continue fighting for LGBT freedom and a truly liberated sexuality.

We need a society where people can decide how they want to live – not struggle to hold a family together or else feel they are a failure.

Because LGBT oppression originates from capitalist society as a whole, it can only be eliminated by destroying capitalism. The links described by Engels over 100 years ago still exist today.

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