Judith Orr argues that ordinary people have the power to win real sexual liberation
A trashy tale of a twisted relationship has become one of Britain’s best selling books. The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy tells the story of a wide eyed virgin who falls for a controlling man and changes him.
Its success has been trumpeted as a sign of how sexually liberated women are. All it really shows is how narrow and distorted visions of women’s sexuality have become.
It’s no wonder that some conclude that real sexual liberation is impossible. But distorted ideas about sexuality don’t appear out of nowhere. They are rooted in the oppression that is part of class society.
Sex is an intrinsic part of being human. It should be a life affirming part of our lives to enjoy with whoever we choose, however we choose.
Yet under capitalism sex is misshaped and becomes alien to us. Sexuality is such a battleground because of women’s role in capitalist society.
Women play a key role in the family as a child bearer and carer. The ruling class uses the family to maintain the status quo—so anything that challenges the family is seen as a threat. That’s why LGBT people face oppression. It’s why women’s sexuality in particular has been so strictly policed.
The fight against this has led to more openness and freedom. But under capitalism this is distorted too.
So our bodies are objectified in ever more explicit ways. Girls are taught young that their greatest achievement is to be sexually attractive. And women are pushed to physically distort their bodies to fulfil idealised images.
Yet socialist and radical movements have shown that it is possible to win sexual liberation. Many women took part in the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. They rediscovered ideas that women and men had fought for before them that had been crushed under the impact of Stalinism.
Historian Sheila Rowbotham has written about the inspiring struggles of women striving for sexual freedom in the 19th century in Britain and the US.
They challenged perceptions of them as passive recipients of male desires. They had different lovers, wore “rational” clothes, and some found happiness in lesbian relationships.
Revolutionaries and Marxists organised working women as part of the socialist movements at the end of the 19th century and in to the 20th.
They included Alexandra Kollontai in Russia and Clara Zetkin in Germany. They saw that liberation for the mass of women depended on breaking the material roots of women’s oppression.
After the Russian Revolution in 1917 the priority was resisting counter-revolution and providing for the mass of the impoverished population. But the revolution also became an experiment in new ways of living, however briefly. Women’s lives changed fast.
Before the revolution peasant women could be legally whipped by their husbands. Yet after it, marriage could be agreed or dissolved in a moment. Abortion was legal.
Kollontai said, “The sex act should be seen not as something shameful and sinful but as something which is as natural as the other needs of a healthy organism, such as hunger and thirst.” Nurseries and restaurants opened to take some of the burden of individual work in the home.
The defeat of the revolution meant that women were pushed back into the privatised family. Sex once again became something seen procreation not pleasure.
Women have challenged old certainties about their sexuality throughout history, not only during revolutions.
The social upheaval of the two world wars transformed women’s lives as they took up jobs previously the preserve of men. This gave them financial independence and a sense of different possibilities.
The number of people having sex outside of marriage rocketed during both wars, never to return to pre-war rates. In 1945 a third of all children were born to single women. Pamphlets and information on sex and contraception became more openly available.
But for many married women sex meant a baby every year. Oral histories record working class women with large families talking with relief of a husband who now “doesn’t bother me too often”.
Unmarried mothers were often shunned by society. Women were forced to give up “illegitimate” children for adoption to hide the “shame” of their sexual activity.
When the mass of women gained access to reliable contraception and safe abortion in the late 1960s it was a massive breakthrough. For the first time women could enjoy sex without fear of unwanted pregnancy and it had a profound effect on the lives of millions.
The rise of the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement showed that people had new expectations. The fight for sexual freedom became part of the struggle against imperialism, poverty and racism.
Those struggles enable us to enjoy hard won rights today. But to win sexual freedom we will need to get rid of a system that rests on oppression.
In the process of mass popular revolts even the most ingrained prejudices are challenged. The revolutionary Karl Marx said that revolutionary struggle was needed because only that could overthrow the system.
But he added that it was also needed for the working class to rid itself of “all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew”. That means that the route to true liberation lies in the ability of the mass of ordinary people to take control of their lives.
Such struggles have the potential to unleash untold confidence and creativity among millions of ordinary people.
This isn’t about what people wear or read. It isn’t about personal lifestyle. Oppression is rooted in material conditions in society, not in people’s heads. That’s why Marx said, “Liberation is an historical not a mental act.”
Who knows what sort of relationships people will have in a socialist society. Socialists are not proscriptive. We don’t believe there is one ideal way to live and love. Many different sorts of relationships will develop once people have real choices.
In a socialist society all humanity will be able to express itself in all its complexity and diversity. And oppression will be buried for good.
Attitudes to rape and sexual violence reflect the worst of society’s prejudices about gender and sexuality. Men are deemed rampant beasts who can barely control their sexuality.
Meanwhile women are still told they are the custodians of morality. If a man forces himself on a woman she is asked whether she led him on by what she was wearing or by her behaviour.
These attitudes come from the top of society. A year ago women organised “Slutwalks” after a police officer told women that they “shouldn’t dress like sluts” if they didn’t want to be raped.
Just last week a police officer in Britain admitted failing to investigate rape and sexual assault allegations. Detective constable Ryan Coleman-Farrow repeatedly falsely reported that the Crown Prosecution Service had advised no further action in cases.
Judges in a number of cases have said that victims of assault were asking for it. And rape is the only crime where the victim is routinely treated as having brought the assault on themselves.
Many people, men and women, find such views abhorrent. Yet it’s no wonder that they filter down throughout society.
Today’s debate about rape has been sparked by the case of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Assange has been accused of rape and sexual assault.
Respect MP George Galloway said what Assange was accused of was merely bad sexual etiquette. He declared that it was not always necessary to ask permission before every “insertion”.
His language treats women as virtually inanimate objects and he is wrong. Any sexual encounter has to be fully consensual, and a woman has a right to say no to anyone at any time.
We should defend Assange against the US. His website exposed some of the crimes of US imperialism. But this doesn’t mean dismissing women who allege rape.
Sexism and the System by Judith Orr
The Red in the Rainbow: Sexuality, socialism and LGBT liberation by Hannah Dee
Myths of Male Dominance by Eleanor Burke Leacock
Dreamers of a New Day: women who invented the 20th century by Sheila Rowbotham
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk