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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Anarchism and sex (2002)

Organise #59
Within the broader anarchist movement,
attitudes to sex and sexuality tend to be pretty varied.

Anarchist views on sex can range from the
idea that `anything goes' between
consenting adults, to the more traditional
approaches of what constitutes free
love between individuals. One thing these
diverse opinions do have in common,
however, is the idea of sexual freedom and
the opposition to sexual exploitation.
Nevertheless, being pro sexual freedom
and anti sexual exploitation is open to
wide interpretation and can encompass
diverse, and sometimes conflicting,
analyses from one anarchist to the next.
Within certain historic anarchist traditions
(as well as within the left), there
has often been a significant strand of
`puritanism' towards sex and any activities
deemed generally frivolous.
We all know the story about Emma
Goldman dancing all night with the blokes
at an anarchist social event, then being
chastised for behaviour not befitting a
revolutionary (we know about her
subsequent outrage too). We also know
that
some sections of the anarchist movement
in the Spanish revolution have been
accused of similar puritanism, and the idea
that anarchist and communist
revolutionaries should somehow live their
lives like ascetic monks or nuns still, in
some quarters, continues to this day.
The novels of 19th century anarchist
writers like Octave Mirbeau were classed
as pornography by the literary
establishment of the time. The
Diary of a Chambermaid portrayed the
sexual habits of the
bourgeoisie in such a way that Jean Grave
commented, "What
filth and decay there is under the pretty
surface of our society".
To be fair, Mirbeau's proletarian
anti-heroine, Celestine, was
certainly no sexual saint either, but the
emphasis on the so-
called sexual `perversity' and `depravity' of
the rich at play
clearly implies the notion that sexual
waywardness is in some
way bourgeois. This is really not that
dissimilar from the old
Militant Tendency (now the Socialist
Party) telling us a few
years back that homosexuality was
nothing but a bourgeois
disease.

Victorian values

Added to this, is the enduring effect of
certain elements within
the women's liberation movement, which
led many feminists
and their male supporters to adopt
`puritanical' attitudes
towards sex and sexuality, and to embrace
censorship against
pornography and all kinds of erotica.
Without doubt, many positive things came
out of feminism
and the women's movement in general,
yet a major downside
was the growth in the belief that men in
general are inherently
exploitative towards women (admittedly
based on the very real
fact that many men do actually behave in
this way for much or
at least some of the time), whereas
women were always seen as
victims of male domination and
oppression. For some feminists
there followed from this view a
giant leap of faith, in which it
was alleged that all men were
either actual or at least potential
sexual abusers of women, while
women, on the other hand,
were seen as fundamentally saintly
and almost asexual beings open
to corruption by men; and those
women who, by doing things like
actively going out, picking up and
fucking blokes (or even entering into
relationships with `the enemy'), were
in fact merely living as the dupes of
men and their patriarchal system.
Subsequently, this `asexual exploitee'
view of women holds much in
common with the bog standard
religious `woman as madonna or
whore' mythology and contains more
than a hint of good old `Victorian
values'. Sadly, even the occasional
anarchist still clings to some of this
patronising moral baggage.

Under capitalism, everything and
everyone is a commodity, we all have
our market price. And whether by
selling our labour power as workers,
or by buying things necessary (and
some things not so necessary) as
consumers, we all exist as part and
parcel of the commodity system, of
world capitalism.

Sex then, is no different and is
something that is not only marketable
but aggressively marketed under
capitalism (as we all know, sex sells).
However, when sex is bought and sold
­ whether via pornography,
prostitution, etc ­ the left, pro-
censorship feminists and some
anarchists have a tendency to see this
trade as somehow worse than many
other forms of capitalist exploitation.

Lapping it up

As an example, a lap-dancing club
recently opened up in Nottingham
and a campaign was promptly
organised to shut it down. Now, I
don't know whether anarchists
were actually involved in this
campaign, but I do know that
some anarchists see such a
campaign as a worthy cause.

I understand the arguments of
the pro-censorship feminists.
However, the view that pornography
(and in this case lap-dancing) in some
way incites men to commit violence or
rape against women is very dubious.
Also, the simplistic overview of
pornography and the sex industry in
general ­ which is seen as a place
where the women involved are super-
exploited victims ­ seems to me to be
one built on a form of conservatism or
liberalism, crypto-religious moralism,
with a large helping of sensationalisti
media mythology thrown in for good
measure. But only a smattering of this
view is based on the actual reality of
sex work or the sex industry, which, i
truth, is extremely broad and multi-
faceted. Yes, sections of it are
horrendously exploitative, sometimes
tantamount to real (non-wage) slavery
and being little more than a means fo
commercial interests big and small,
legitimate and illegal, to coin it in.
But I'd say that (certainly in this
country) many sections of the sex
industry are no more, no less
exploitative than any other capitalist
concern and other sections still are
about as unexploitative as you can get
under capitalism.

So to generalise about the sex
industry too much leads to a very
limited and naive understanding of it
and says nothing about actual
conditions there.

Now I tend to think of lap-dancing
clubs as, well... crap. But in the socio-
economic scheme of things, within
capitalism, I'd put them in the above
`no more, no less' category of the
system's exploitative industries. In
lap-dancing clubs, there are usually
strict safety rules of `no physical contact'
between dancers and spectators and if
you don't mind being gawped at by
some bloke or blokes, then the money
isn't that bad and pays a lot better
than most other working class jobs. It's
also the kind of job where you can
come and go as you please and the
hours can often be quite flexible. True,
employers usually discriminate by only
employing women deemed
stereotypically `attractive' or `sexy' and
by having an upper age limit ­ on the
basis of that being what brings in the
paying punters.

So as anarchist communists, our
attitude to a lap-dancing club should
be pretty much on a similar basis to
our attitude to a cinema or a foundry
or a supermarket ­ in other words, it's
about business as usual. But, of course,
it isn't that simple, is it? Why do
people get so up in arms about these
clubs that they want to campaign to
shut them down more than they do the
local rag trade sweat shop that pays
`illegal' workers a quid fifty an hour for
a 12 hour day? Is it because in the
former a woman has the audacity to
dance naked or semi-naked for a few
hours for a half-decent wage? Or is it
because the campaigners don't want to
have (admittedly not very) naughty
goings on behind closed doors in their
neighbourhood?

And why are people much less
inclined to bother about campaigning
against the local rag trade sweat shop?
Is it because it's `just a bunch of
foreigners' working there and they
actually don't give a shit about
refugees working long hours, in
awful conditions with little or
no health and safety regulation,
and getting paid piss poor
money? Is it because working in
the rag trade is at least `honest
toil' where no one has to get their
kit off? Or are people just OK about
having those kinds of seedy things
going on behind closed doors in their
neighbourhood?

Now when talking about what I call
this middle bracket of `no more no
less' exploitative sections of the sex
industry (e.g. lap-dancing clubs), I get
the sneaking suspicion that what it all
comes down to is morality. What's
really at issue here is that people use
their bodies in a sexual manner for
money. "And only a really, really
exploited person would do that,
wouldn't they? Or someone
psychologically damaged... sexually
abused as a child... a helpless dupe...
someone on the side of the enemy...
Well, how can any self-respecting
woman allow herself to be objectified
in such a way?"

Well I'm sorry to say this, but it's as
if some of us haven't really moved on
from Queen Victoria's day and sex is
still the big taboo it always was. Sex
for sale, sex as a commodity, sex in
public, sex in print and on film, off-
beat, bizarre, kinky, fetishistic,
wayward sex, missionary style sex, in
fact any kind of sex at all in a public
arena is the issue.

People who choose to attack the
local lap-dancing club but not their
local petrol station do so because of
personal morality/moralism about sex.
Sex makes it a moral issue because if
we were just talking about a simple
economic relationship, then it really is
as humdrum as the next industry. But
we're not, are we? So, when certain
anarchists single out the lap-dancing
club or the adult bookshop, they're not
basing their actions on a class analysis,
but on what they think is morally good
or bad for the rest of us (which
actually brings into question their
interpretation of anarchism). This
elevation of their opposition to the sex
industry is a personal moral choice,
but it's got absolutely nothing to do
with either a revolutionary class
analysis or with anarchism itself.

Revolutionary skin flicks

Another disturbing thing about pro-
censorship ideology is its (possibly
wilful) ignorance of sexual openness as
a liberating even revolutionary force.
It's no coincidence that during many
revolutionary episodes, pornography
and erotica have played a significant
role in popular revolutionary culture.
Sexual images created for pleasure
have of course been around for
millennia but usually they were only
accessible to the well-off, the
educated, and the high clergy. But
during the French revolution, greater
free sexual expression and the
distribution of pornography really
came to the fore. In other words, it
became freely available to us plebs as
well. I remember reading about the
early days of the Portuguese revolution
of 1974, when the fascist dictatorship
had just fallen and all the forbidden
literature was suddenly becoming
freely available, so one could find
works by Bakunin, Kropotkin, Marx
and Lenin sitting alongside an
assortment of porno mags!
And historically, it's also no
coincidence, that when the reaction
begins to reassert itself, both Bakunin
and the sex magazines are the first to
go under the proverbial counter.
Neither is it a coincidence, that
pornography and so called `illicit sex'
is illegal and severely punished under
some of the most repressive (and
incidentally anti-women) regimes in
the world.

...if pornography
were the food of
love, this would be
a Big Mac...

That's not to say pornography is a
wonderful liberating thing in itself. It
isn't. The vast majority of pornography
(particularly the soft-core variety
produced by the big corporate media
empires) is absolutely dreadful,
reflecting very sexist capitalistic
values and only seems geared to
appeal to the dreariest most sexually-
repressed conformist male. Hence, if
pornography were the food of love,
this would be a Big Mac.

It's interesting to note that such
soft-core trash is quite freely available
in any newsagent or high street WH
Smiths; it is actively promoted by
mainstream media and distribution
networks and is seen by the
establishment as acceptable and
pandered to by some of the most
conservative of institutions. On the
other hand, hard-core pornography is
seen as dangerous, subversive and is
usually a police matter to be dealt
with under the Obscene Publications
Act. While some of the material
classed as hard-core can be decidedly
dodgy, and even dangerous, it's also no
surprise that some of the more
interesting, non-mainstream, least
stereotypical and sexually diverse
erotic material finds itself put neatly
under this heading.

Anarcho-sex with bread and butter!

Having said all this, pornography (good
and bad) is of course just more
spectacle; something to be used by the
passive (usually) observer. Sex and
sexuality, however, are not passive, but
things we do, things we actively
participate in. Which leads me to the
question, can there be such a thing as
an anarchist view of sex or even an
anarchist sexuality?

The fact that certain readers may
profoundly disagree with some of the
points raised in this article means it's
very tempting to answer no.
Also some comrades may argue that
it's all just a diversion from the real
struggles against capitalism and the
bread and butter class issues.
Yet I don't think that an anarchist
view of sex and sexuality is in any way
a diversion.

Moreover, I believe it's not that far
away from the so called `bread and
butter' class issues as some comrades
might think.

Food, drink, a roof over our heads
and sex are all basic human needs.
OK, the lack of sex doesn't generally
kill you (as is the case with
starvation), but being sex-starved can
seriously fuck you up mentally. Having
said this, many adults do participate in
fairly regular sexual activity and of
course sometimes it's all very good,
while at other times it's not at all
enjoyable. Added to this, the fact that
more open and diverse sexualities are
vigorously repressed not only by the
family, church, state, the education
system, peer group pressure, the mass
media and of course capitalism in
general, but also by some of those
who adhere to apparently more
progressive ideologies; rebels, radicals,
leftists, anarchists and communists.
Consequently, although not exactly
starving, I'd guess that much of the
world's adult population is at least
sexually malnourished or
undernourished (which can lead to
problems such as lack of self
confidence, depression and other
mental illnesses, alcoholism, drug
addiction, suicide). So I'd say this
situation is something definitely worth
addressing by revolutionaries.

Deviancy

There's also the problematic view
which I mentioned earlier, that any
sexual waywardness (usually labelled
`deviance', `depravity' or `perversion')
is in some way a product of capitalism,
a bourgeois trait. If this is the case,
will sex in an anarchist society only be
the kind which is firmly rooted in
anarcho-communist social reality? Or
more bluntly, does this mean that any
possible future anarchist communist
society would be relatively `kink free'?
I, for one, sincerely hope not. A sexual
future like that, sort of reminds me of
the childhood view of the Christian
`Heaven', where you have to sit on a
cloud all day playing a harp. And,
quite rightly, Hell always seemed
much more appealing to me. Hmmm...
unless you're into sexual fantasies
based on the socially just and
egalitarian cummings and goings
between the workers' assembly
member and the mandated local
delegate... or maybe a little `mass
action' would appeal?
Sex, of course, can often reflect
social realities, but it doesn't have to
and can be totally unrelated to
anything we know or have
experienced. Anyway, let's face it, sex
doesn't always work too well on the
rational and philosophical level (except
in articles such as this). And people do
all sorts of inexplicable, weird and
wacky things when they're in their
purely sexual mode. This may involve
things like playing out sexual power
exchange fantasies, fetishism,
transgendered activities, etc. Often,
the reasons we like doing the things
that we do cannot actually be
explained, nor would we necessarily
want to explain them either (just in
case it makes something we find really
exciting, suddenly seem mundane).
Nor does that mean it's unhealthy
sexual tastes or activities we are
indulging in (or want to indulge in).
Unfortunately, psychiatry has
traditionally offered medication and
the asylum for any wayward and
`bizarre' sexual tendencies in people
(particularly in working class people),
and bourgeois society at large and its
media likes to label such divergent
people as `perverts'.

It's important that we never fall
into this line of thinking. If
revolutionary anarchists were ever to
start denouncing anyone with a `non-
mainstream' sexual orientation or
preference, it would be a total disaster
not only for anarchism as a philosophy,
but also for our class and for future
humanity. For me, the revolutionary
anarchist attitude to sex and sexuality
has to encompass the belief that
sexual activities and relations should
be safe, free, diverse and consensual;
acknowledging that people are queer,
bi or hetero, ranging from the
monogamous to the polyamourous,
from the disinterested asexual to the
rampant polysexual, and from the
softest vanilla to the hardest edge
playing SM-er. At the end of the day, if
it's a safe and mutually consensual
activity (however weird it may seem)
and all parties involved enjoy
themselves, then what's the big deal?

Hopefully anarchism is about sexual
freedom, openness, honesty and
equality. And when I say this, I'm not
talking about everyone devising rota
systems to see whose turn it is to go
on top. The honesty is when people
are truly and non-judgementally in a
position to sexually express
themselves without fear of being
labelled a pervert, a deviant or a poof.
And when people are really being
sexually honest, some weird shit can
start to happen. And that, in its own
way, can be quite revolutionary.

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