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Sexuality, class and control

This article is over 7 years, 11 months old
As part of LGBT History Month, Sue Caldwell looks at how ideas of what is an acceptable expression of desire have changed as class society developed
Issue 2389
Two men caress in a picture from a Greek tomb painted in about 470BC
Two men caress in a picture from a Greek tomb painted in about 470BC

The first same sex marriages will take place in England and Wales next month, with Scotland expected to follow shortly. 

This might seem to herald a new era of equality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people.  

But some 44 percent of young LGBT people have considered suicide, according to a report from the charity Metro. Almost all school children report that they hear the word “gay” used in a derogatory way. 

Last year saw the suicide of transgender teacher Lucy Meadows following a vitriolic campaign against her in the Daily Mail. 

LGBT oppression remains a feature of the society we live in, but resistance to that oppression can also have an impact. 

Throughout history the way that sexuality has been viewed has been shaped both by the way that society is organised and the way that people have fought for their right to love and have sex with who they choose.

Before the late 19th century no one in Britain was defined as a “homosexual” person. Certain sexual acts may have been outlawed, but the labelling of people as gay, straight or bisexual and discrimination based on those divisions is a fairly recent development.

As human society has developed the way sexual desire is understood and expressed has changed. Since class divisions emerged in society some 5,000 years ago rulers have wanted to control people’s desire. 

The main institution that has shaped the way that sexuality is controlled is the family. The family is the way class societies have organised the rearing of the next generation. 

In many societies this has not meant a unit of a mother, father and their children as is the current common sense. 

For instance in ancient Rome a citizen’s family would include both blood relatives and slaves. How a family is organised has always been dependant on a person’s class.

In Europe major changes in attitude and social structure emerged following the collapse of the Roman Empire, and later with the development of capitalism.

These two major changes in the function of the family have in turn altered which sexual practices were considered acceptable.

In Ancient Greece and Rome sex between men, often including young boys, was accepted as normal, though what was acceptable changed over time. 

Slavery was crucial to production in Greek society, and the existence of a ready supply of slaves meant that reproduction within the family was not given a high status. 

There was a separation of sexuality from procreation that allowed the acceptance of sex between men—and between women, although this is less well documented. 


At the same time the political disparity between citizens and non-citizens meant that these relationships were often oppressive. 

In Rome the use of male and female slaves as sex objects was common. What was frowned on was to be the passive partner in sex between two men. 

Artemidorus, a slave owner in the second century, explained that “to let oneself be buggered by one’s own slave…is an assault on one’s person and leads to one being despised by one’s slave”.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire and the drying up of the supply of slaves, a new system of exploitation emerged.

This was feudalism based on serfdom, with peasants working on the land and forced to pay their landlord with labour and taxes. The family unit now became an important centre of production.

Christianity was entrenching itself as the state religion and it adapted to justify a new system of oppression and exploitation. 

But even earlier Christian writers like Clement of Alexandria declared in 198AD, “To have sex for any other purpose than to produce children is to violate nature”. 

People were obliged to marry and have children, and any sexual act that did not involve procreation was outlawed. 

This blanket condemnation was aimed not just at same sex relations, but against everything from sex with animals and incest to anal and oral sex, contraception and abortion.

Laws against “unnatural” acts persisted for many centuries in various forms, but they were directed at particular acts, not against a particular type of person. At times they were strictly enforced, especially when the ruling class felt under threat. 

At other times, the atmosphere was more relaxed. There is evidence of same sex relations between monks and between nuns, and of a “gay subculture” in many European cities by the 12th century. 

By this time feudal society was starting to break down and the church was struggling to maintain its control over sexual behaviour. 

The rising capitalist class was ushering in notions of individual liberty. In the revolts that brought it to power from the English Revolution onwards it often promoted ideas of individual liberty and personal and sexual freedom. 

Molly houses in London became established as places where men could drink and dance together in the 18th century—although they were subject to raids with resulting trials and executions. 

One young labourer caught up in such a raid, William Brown, is recorded as saying “I think there is no crime in making what use I please of my own body”. 

These political challenges heralded the second major change in the way that production was organised—the emergence of industrial capitalism—and with it a new role for the family. 

Production became centred in large factories and mines as people were pulled off the land and into emerging cities. 


Women and children laboured alongside men in unsanitary conditions. Life expectancy was short and the existing family was collapsing.

Some in the ruling class began to fear that the workforce might not be able to reproduce itself in these circumstances. There was also social unrest and agitation around the condition of the new working class. The ruling class moved to assert its authority and imposed a new pattern of family life on the working class. 

This involved a separation of work from the home, and was modelled on the ruling class family where women stayed at home and men were the breadwinners. 

Along with this new type of “nuclear” family there grew up the gender stereotypes with which we are familiar to this day. The new institution required a raft of legislation to enforce it and was not always submitted to willingly. 

It is from this time that the category of a particular type of person known as a “homosexual” emerges, representing a threat to the nuclear family. 

Britain’s 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act outlawed acts of “gross indecency” between men, and although this was a vague description it was used widely against the new category of homosexual men, most famously in the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895.

The socialist Edward Carpenter in Britain and Magnus Hirschfeld in Germany were among those who campaigned for legal reform in the early 20th century. 

But once the revolutionary wave following the Russian Revolution of 1917 receded the struggle went underground. 

It did not emerge again until the 1960s when a more radical movement emerged in the US alongside movements for Black Power and against the Vietnam War. 

The trigger for this was a police raid on the Stonewall bar in New York. Gays, lesbians and transgender people fought with the police, and the ensuing riots gave birth to the modern gay liberation movement.

Some campaigners see their LGBT identity as a focus for organisation, either separately or acknowledging that their oppression “intersects” with others such as race, gender or class. 

Marxists see class as the fundamental division in society, not because it is the centre of people’s experience, but because class society is the root of oppression. 

The ruling class uses the family to exert control over many aspects of our lives including our sexuality. Where the rich and powerful seek to divide and weaken our class, we should seek to unite it and oppose all forms of oppression together. 

It is the class structure of society that is key to maintaining that oppression and the fight against class society that shows the way to end it.

Our sexuality has been shaped by the way the ruling class has organised production to protect their wealth and privilege. 

A truly free sexuality will only emerge when working class people take hold of society for themselves and reject the divisions that have been imposed upon us.

Further reading:

  • The Red in the Rainbow: sexuality, socialism and LGBT liberation by Hannah Dee (£7)
  • Gay Life and Culture: a world history by Robert Aldrich (£16.95)
  • Stonewall by David Carter (£10.99)

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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