The right is ramping up attempts to restrict, repress and deny our sexuality. An emboldened Christian right in the US is going after abortion rights. Pouring sexist scorn on a woman’s right to choose, Republican politician Justin Humphrey recently said he thought of women as a “host”.
Attacking LGBT+ people’s rights such as equal marriage is a major touchstone of the right from France to Poland. Some have pointed to parallels with Channel 4’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to this modern day bigotry. In its right wing Christian regime, all women have been forced back into the home. Sex is purely for procreation with some women, known as handmaids, forced to live for no other reason.
The right are serious about their worldview. They think that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Abstinence is the best sort of sex education, and if a woman becomes pregnant god forbid she has an abortion.
Yet mainstream liberal responses also don’t get where their bigotry comes from. Just like the religious right itself, many see these oppressive ideas coming directly from ancient scriptures. But restricting women’s rights and dictating sexual morality are part of modern capitalist society. Women’s oppression is inbuilt into the inequality of capitalism, which represses and distorts everyone’s sexuality.
Religious ideas around sexuality, like all ideas, are products of material circumstances. They aren’t static, but have been shaped by how society has changed throughout history. In the Catholic Church, celibacy prohibits members of the clergy from marriage and sexual relations. Religious leaders argue this is a time-old holy rule with the previous Pope claiming he knew it came from the Bible’s book of Matthew.
But the early Christian faith allowed its preachers to have sex. One branch, known as Gnostic Christianity, allowed its followers to engage in free love. As Christianity developed from a faith of oppressed people within the Roman Empire into its official religion this changed. These rules have been shaped by class society and the needs of the ruling class. Underlying them is the idea that sex is not about having fun or intimacy, but procreation.
Of course people have done all sorts of things sexually throughout history, but what’s officially permissible has changed. As humans aren’t restricted to a “mating season”, we developed with the ability to have sex for pleasure, not just procreation. Before class society, where the majority produce for a minority at the top, people’s lives weren’t based around defined work hours. More free time meant humans could have a much larger range of relationships.
But the rise of class society led to the oppression of women and distorted and repressed sexuality. This has been shaped by how production has been organised, and the key institution within society regulating sexuality has been the family. In ancient Roman society production was based around a slave economy, which meant the family unit was less important.
But during the Middle Ages “feudal” production was based around the family so the idea of sex for procreation became more important. For the ruling class the regulation of sex was also important for defining who was a “legitimate” child and who could inherit wealth and land. Christianity was used by the ruling class to push its own ideas around sexual morality and the church took on a bigger role within marriages and society in general.
These ideas, which suited the needs of the ruling class, were driven right through society from the top. Sex outside of marriage was a sin, but a whole set of rules for married couples were also developed. They went right down to what days people were allowed to have sex and what positions were acceptable.
So oral sex, sex standing up, or women on top were all out. Sex on a religious holiday? Forget it. That’s because the church ruled that this would be less, or not at all, likely to lead to pregnancy. Some of this carries on in a section of the US Christian right’s more bizarre scaremongering about masturbation today.
Capitalism swept away many of the old feudal institutions because they got in the way of making profits. Unlike feudalism, capitalism was based on mass factory production not around the family unit. This meant it initially challenged many of the religious ideas that had been used to justify the old order.
But capital also adapted and reinvented some of these religious ideas for its own needs. Many of the rules under capitalism focused on regulating middle class sexual morality. By pushing large numbers of men, women and children into factories, the working class family began breaking apart. Capitalists still needed a new generation of workers, but it wasn’t a simple process just pushed down from the top.
This was because many working class people also wanted a refuge from the drudgery of the factory. There’s still a sense that the family and monogamy provide that security and stability. The new “nuclear family” was modelled on the capitalist family with a separation between work and the home. The capitalist press slammed factories and mines as dens of iniquity and legislation was brought in to stop women working in them.
Responsibility for looking after children was pushed into the home as women’s responsibility. This reinforced the idea that sex is for procreation not for fun, denying women sexual agency. A whole new set of rules were pushed to regulate working class sexuality.
Abortion was banned. The term “homosexuality” was first used and laws against it were brought in. That’s because same sex relationships seemed to threaten the ideas of the nuclear family and sex for procreation. Often Protestant religious doctrine took over from the old Catholic one to justify this.
Marriage and the family have undergone big changes, but remain resilient. Today Channel 4’s programme Married At First Sight is a far cry from the medieval rules about what positions were allowed. The programme brings together an array of relationship counsellors, psychologists—and a priest to boot. Through supposedly scientific methods, such as testing a person’s “nesting gene”, this team pairs two total strangers together.
These strangers only meet on their wedding day and then are encouraged to “make it work”. Marriage as a way of settling down and “making a home” is still held to be the ultimate aim and route to happiness. This also points to the much broader ideas of sexuality within society.
Mass movements for women’s and LGBT+ rights in the 1960s have forced concessions from the ruling class. Capital still needed the nuclear family, but it had to respond and adapt to these changes. As the mass movements of the 1960s ebbed, sometimes the right assaulted the gains.
In 1988 the Tories brought in Section 28 of the Local Government Act that banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools. Widespread opposition pushed it back. Then in 2013 another former Tory prime minister—David Cameron—brought in equal marriage, and spun it as “family values”.
This also shows how capital tries to repackage the gains for sexual liberation we have made. Pornography and strip clubs are marketed as a sign of women’s sexual expression. But implicit in both is that sex is something done to women, not something that they have agency or pleasure in.
Capitalism tries to make everything into a commodity to be bought and sold, including our sexuality. In relationships the other person is seen as the object of one’s desires, rather than a human equal. The right hate the notion of sex for pleasure, intimacy and fun between equal subjects. And although capital might not always want to push that hatred, a popular base has built up around these ideas.
Trump wasn’t always interested in restricting abortion rights, but he used it to win right wing support. We are for people having more fulfilling sexual relationships. For that we have to uproot the class-ridden society to bring genuine, lasting sexual freedom.
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