This post continues the series that started here and has got here. I’ll be honest; I don’t know how long this series of posts will go on for, it’s taken on something of a life of its own in my head. The topic of this post is about attempting a ‘materialist’, i.e. “class-based” analysis of sexual oppression on its own terms.
In a patriarchal society, ideological men have ideological sex with ideological women. This relationship has the character of a trade, a voluntary (well, somewhat) interaction which nevertheless exhibits opposed interests. This trade, the most distinctive feature of which is that one of the traders is themselves also the commodity traded (they ‘give themselves’ to the other), allows us to analyse patriarchal society in class terms – in terms of the shared interests based on groups with similar endowments of ‘sexual resources’.
The picture of society that emerges will inevitably look bleak and heartless, leaving out all the joy and intimacy of sex. This is for two reasons: first of all, in such analysis it is the institutionalised, reified facts, the facts that resolves conflicts, which ‘stack up’ and dominate the analysis, while everything personal, humanising, and co-operative ‘cancels out’, and evaporates when society is looked at overall; secondly, the analysis in focused on the alienated and dehumanising process of ideological sex, between ‘men’ and ‘women’, which is overlaid upon, and simultaneous with, the realities of two humans, their bodies, and their emotions.
But it should not be thought that these ‘sexual resources’ are merely a metaphor – of course they are a social construction, but so are all resources. I tap at a computer screen, and someone in Bangkok taps at a computer screen – nothing immediately happens in Bahrain, but nevertheless I may have ‘given’ a Bahrainian oil field to a Thai businessman, because that real object enters the economy only by becoming a social construction. Sex in a patriarchal society is constructed as, therefore experienced as, and therefore genuinely is in practice this ideological trade.
What then are the sex classes? The greatest division is obvious: it is between those who both are and (to some extent) own the resource of ‘sexual access to women’, and those who seek that resource (because to acquire it is to fulfil their identity as ‘men’, i.e. possessors of women). But the sex classes ‘women’ and ‘men’ are not the only ones.
What do men ‘exchange’ for sexual access (whether visual, verbal, tactile, etc.)? This varies a lot. Money, power, emotional support, financial support, charm, good looks, or other forms of ‘social capital’ – for example, in an aristocratic society, men may use ‘noble blood’ to purchase sexual access to certain women, and in most societies sexual access becomes solidified as the enduring resource of ‘being married to her’, bought at the price of the responsibilities and restrictions involved in marriage. Different societies will show different ‘economies’, different family structures and sexual mores.
But certain conflicts can be seen as robust and widespread. Since my goal is not to describe the whole of human history but to convey the approach involved, I will confine myself to a few examples, which I think probably represent the most fundamental class divisions after the man/woman one (though I might be overlooking things here).
Some men are ‘sex-rich’: they possess in abundance the social capital that guarantees them sexual access to certain women. Others are ‘sex-poor’: they lack this, and so even if they can have sex occasionally (or often) they do not to the same extent ‘own’ that resource. These two groups have opposed interests: the former wants the ‘price’ of sexual access to be high, i.e. to restrict sexual access to women and defend their existing rights, while the latter wants the ‘price’ to be low, i.e. to make sexual access easier.
This division could be captured in the somewhat unacademic terms ‘prudes and dudes’, or perhaps better ‘husbands and lovers’. The sex-rich, ‘husbands’ and the like, want modesty and decency and a generally ‘anti-sex’ public culture, so as to drive up the value of the sex they already own (even if they don’t actually have sex with their wives, they nevertheless own sexual access to them). The sex-poor, young horny bachelors, want raunch and titillation and promiscuity, so that they can get laid without having to pay the price of getting married.
There is a slightly different division between women. Because ideological sex is a ‘conquest’ (i.e. an unqualified good) for the man but a ‘giving up’ by the woman, men compete with each other for a single sexual resource, while women try to balance two: having sex, and not having sex. By having sex, they can win approval, perhaps money, perhaps love, or just have fun.
The problem is that they are an object, and the more easily an object can be possessed, the less valuable it is. So by ‘spending’ their sexuality, they reduce their own ‘value’: they risk being considered ‘sluts’, or ‘easy’. The alternative is to not have sex, to restrict access to yourself, and thus hope to drive up your own ‘price’, in the hope that doing so will gain you those same resources that men offer – social approval, financial support, emotional intimacy, etc. – but in a more lasting and profitable way (e.g. by remaining a virgin you make yourself ‘marriagable’).
Different women invest in one or the other of these strategies to different degrees, and generate classes that could be called ‘mistresses’ and ‘wives’ to this degree. They thus come to have opposed interests based on their competition for male resources. Whatever makes having sex more beneficial and less costly will be in the interests of sluts relative to virgins, while whatever makes not-having-sex more beneficial and less costly will be in the interests of virgins relative to sluts.
Since my goal is not to comprehensively discuss as sex classes in all societies, I will focus on these four, but before continuing will note a couple of further class divisions based on social variables.
One variable is the transferability of resources – how easily can money, or political power, or other not-specifically-sexual resources be exchanged for sexual access? Men who are rich in money but poor in specificially sexual resources (e.g. a wealthy but low-caste bachelor) have an interest in low transferability, while men who are poor in money but rich in specifically-sexual resources (e.g. a working-class husband) have the opposite.
Another variable is parental control – to what extent is sexual access to a woman a resource traded away by the woman herself, or by her parents? This obviously connects with the age dimension of the base four classes, and depending on what the parents vs. the woman will accept as ‘payment’ interacts with the transferability issue.
But back to those basic four sex classes: ‘prudes’, ‘dudes’, ‘virgins’ and ‘sluts’ – or ‘husbands’, ‘lovers’, ‘wives’, and ‘mistresses’. We can observe a few things:
1) The social mobility differs between classes. There is almost no social mobility between male and female classes, but substantial social mobility within those two sides;
2) There are ruling classes – ‘men’ are a ruling class relative to ‘women’, and different sections of ‘men’ are ruling class in different societies;
3) There is class-ideology, for example, the ideology of the ‘husband’ class is typically anti-sex, prudish, ascetic, associated with religion. Interesting topic, but I won’t go into it here.
4) Finally, there are ambivalent relations of interests – for example, a woman invested in the ‘virgin’ strategy is benefited relative to women invested in the ‘slut’ strategy, either by a) raising the rewards to women of not-having-sex, or b) by raising the costs to women of having-sex (or c, d – reducing the corresponding costs/rewards).
However, these two measures are quite different, in that because of the ‘social mobility’ between sluts and virgins (all women don’t-have-sex sometimes, and most have-sex sometimes), what raises the rewards of not-having-sex benefits both classes relative to men, while what raises the costs of having-sex harms both classes relative to men.
At the same time, what benefits the slut/mistress class relative to the virgin/wife class encourages the have-sex strategy and hence makes sexual access to women more available – thus it connect with the interests of the dude/lover class, as against the prude/husband class.
So there are two alternative ‘cleavages’: that of the established husbands and wives against lovers and sluts, and that of all male classes against all female classes. This is, perhaps, the central political issue of sex-class analysis.
As a final comment – within this sex-class system, just as in an economic system, there are classes whose interests are objectively revolutionary. In particular, the interests of the female sex class as a whole cannot be adequately satisfied without overthrow of the sex-class system.
This is because the more they are satisfied, the more advantageous becomes the basic sexual trade between ‘men’ and ‘women’. The more advantageous to women are the terms of that trade, the more in control are women. But the essence of the sexual trade in patriarchy is that the man is in control, is active and dominant. If this is not the case then what is happening is not the ideological sex of patriarchy, but simply two humans beings bumping their bits together (or looking at each other’s hair, or whatever is constructed as ‘sexual’).
The conclusions to draw from this are not novel or suprising.
They are simply this: that just as the political role of communists should be to encourage different sections of the working class to ally with each other, and to discourage them from allying against each other with sections of the ruling class, with the ultimate goal that by increasing the class power of the working class, the class system itself will be overturned — in just the same way, the political role of feminists (or womanists) should be to encourage different sections of the female sex-class to ally with each other, and to discourage them from allying against each other with sections of the ruling sex-class, with the ultimate goal that be increasing the class power of women, the sex-class system itself will be overturned.