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Sex and Capitalism: Part Two

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Simon CoplandEdinburgh
Sex and Capitalism: Part Two
Part two of my essay on the connections between sex and capitalism.

Welcome to part two of my essay on the connection between capitalism and sexual relations. 

In part one of my essay we looked at prehistoric families and the rise of agriculture. It was this major change, I argued, that led to the development of much of the social stratification we still see today — the patriarchy and the class system. 

This week we’re going to jump ahead 10,000 years and to the rise of global industrial capitalism in the 1800s.


Let's start by looking at sexual relations before the rise of global capitalism.  

This is of course a generalisation, but in the 18th and 19th Century, prior and during the industrial revolution, families were largely formed around the ‘Sex Contract’ we talked about in part one of this essay. At this time the majority of people lived in rural areas and survival was as constant struggle. In doing so, marriage was not about love, but instead about ensuring the economic stability. Families — primarily parents — entered into contracts with each other; ones that provided resources for a woman and fidelity, and ideally good genes, for a man. 

Industrial capitalism fundamentally changed this. Following the birth of the factory, people flooded to cities, disconnecting themselves from previous economic and social ties. People, including women, were able to create their own identities away from their families. In particular industrial capitalism allowed women to work, giving them significant economic independence. 

This had a major impact on our sexual selves. For women it meant they were able to disconnect themselves from the economic traditions of marriage, in turn deciding to marry men they loved. In this time we also see the development of homosexuality as a distinct identity. Gays and lesbians were able to come together in clubs and meeting places and assert their sexuality as being part of their self. 

It is important to note here this has often been the argument made by many pro-capitalist theorists. Thinkers like John Stuart Mill and Friedrich Hayek both argue that capitalism gives us the greatest space to create our true identities, whether economically, or sexually. In a debate I had with libertarian Julie Novak last year she made this exact point, stating:

“markets help economically emancipate LGBT people, and could even play a part in eliminating antiqueer prejudice. Greater economic freedom makes it even more costly to discriminate.”

Yet, despite these arguments the rise in industrial capitalism was actually followed by a great period of sexual puritanism. The Victorian era was also the time of the desexualisation of women in public debate and the great trials of queer pioneers such as Fanny and Stella and the writer Oscar Wilde. Despite the theory, the great time of sexual freedom did not eventuate. What happened? 

We can boil this answer down to the needs of capitalism for an ever-growing workforce. Capitalism relies on a growing economy, in turn requiring an ever-increasing workforce. Industrial capitalism needed a huge population to work the factories to create the wealth for the capitalist class. 

It was this need that first put women into factories, but soon a contradiction was found. While women were needed in the factory, capitalists were unwilling to provide any support while they were childrearing. In their essay “Rethinking Women’s Oppression”, Johanna Brenner and Maria Ramas explain: 

“Biological facts of reproduction — pregnancy, childbirth, lactation — are not readily compatible with capitalist production, and to make them so would require capital outlays on maternity leave, nursing facilities, childcare, and so on. Capitalists are not willing to make such expenditures, as they increase the costs of variable capital without comparable increases in labour productivity and thus cut into rates of profit. In the absence of such expenditures, however, the reproduction of labour power becomes problematic for the working class as a whole and for women in particular.”

With the unwillingness of capitalists to pay for child care or maternity leave parents were forced to either neglect their kids or looking after them the unsanitary space of the factory. With this the infant mortality rate shot through the roof. In Manchester, for example, there were a recorded 26,125 deaths per 100,000 thousand children under the age of one, three times the rate of mortality of non-industrial areas. This, as Tad Tietze argues, “created severe problems for the system’s ability to ensure the reproduction of the working class.” Capitalists were literally watching as their next swathe of workers died in front of their eyes.

For Brenner and Ramas it was this that lead to the creation of the “family-household system”, an idea introduced by Michèle Barrett, described as a system “in which a number of people, usually biologically related, depend on the wages of a few adult members, primarily those of the husband/father, and in which all depend primarily on the unpaid labour of the wife/ mother for cleaning, food preparation, child care, and so forth.” This is the nuclear family we still see today. 

One question you may want to ask is why would women put up with this? With their new economic independence, why would they dare enter into the “family-household system”. First, capitalists, the ruling political class, and some parts of the male workforce changed the rules — from banning women from working after they married to introducing a ‘family wage’ — wages available to men to look after the whole family. Doctrines such ‘coverture’ remained in tact — a legal precedent that meant married couples were seen as one person, a person controlled by the man. Men maintained all of their power, making economic independence much more difficult for women. 

But we also saw cultural changes as well. As noted above the rise of capitalism led to a shift to love-based marriage. While this gave women much more independence, it also made things very difficult. Instead of having marriages, and in turn economic stability arranged, women had to ‘fight’ for it. Hunter Oatman Stanford argues women did this by becoming the perfect homemaker. The “cult of the domestic” was developed, “centering on a stereotype that desexualized women and made child-rearing their primary goal. In her role as a domestic angel, the perfect wife was completely pure in body and mind, submitting to her husband’s erotic advances, but never desiring or initiating sex herself.” This standard was developed and pushed heavily by the ruling class. Queen Victoria for example was an advocate both for love-based unions, and female puritanism. A new culture of de-sexualised women was created, one that fitted perfectly within the family-household system.

The family-household system also had a major impact on our other majorly oppressed sexual minority — gays and lesbians. As noted above industrial capitalism allowed gays and lesbians to come together to form their own identity. The ruling class however quickly saw this as a major threat as it discouraged people from having children . The homosexual identity needed to be squashed. 

Here again we see a contradiction. Capitalism created the homosexual identity but in turn could not survive if the identity flourished. With the underlying basis of individualism unable to change however capitalists worked to defeat homosexuality in another manner — through pathologising the homosexual identity.

We can see how the ruling class did this through the application of Michel Foucault’s theory of the Scientia Sexualis — or the creation of a scientific approach to sexuality. ‘Abnormal’ sexualities were controlled and cured through the modern magic of science — whether it was shock treatment or imprisonment in asylums. The new homosexual identity was treated as a medical abnormality, one that needed curing in order to bring people back into the familial fold.


It is here how we see the connection between modern capitalism and our modern sexual oppression. The relationship between capitalism and sex remains to this day. 

The “family-household system”, or as most of us call it, the nuclear family, is still our dominant form of relationships. This is not just expressed through the rejection of polyamorous unions and the stigmatisation of the promiscuous. The economic, gender and sexual roles of this system remain dominant until this day. 

Women, for example, still conduct the vast majority of the housework, and are in turn expected to spend more time in the home. When children are born it is women who take on the vast majority of care duties, with mothers still taking the vast majority of family leave. The intransigent wage-gap ensures men continue to have greater economic independence than women, meaning women rely more on men for their economic survival. When divorce does occur (as it often does) it has greater economic impact on women than men

But it goes beyond that. Much of the early nature of the patriarchy revolved around men directly owning women. With the growth of agriculture women fell into the realm the property of men. While that legally no longer occurs men are still engrained with the belief they have the right to control female bodies. This occurs through the restriction of abortion laws or through constant sexual violence of abuse

While gays and lesbians have had major wins over the past few decades, these need to be questioned as well. The acceptance into marriage, while seen by some as a major victory, in many ways represents a welcoming in to the family-household system, bringing with it many of the expectations the system holds. This is why gays are now increasingly expected to live in monogamous unions, have children and scorn promiscuous sex. We are increasingly expected to enter the family and all the requirements of it. 


It is in this way that we can see the connection between sex and capitalism, and it is these relationships my book will explore in depth. Starting from our prehistoric society I will explore the history of the family through the rise of capitalism to how the relationships look today. Sex and capitalism are inherently connected and we cannot discuss one without the other. 

#sex, #capitalism, #sexuality, #gender, #gay, #lesbian, #women, #feminism