The last century saw probably the greatest change in attitudes towards sex and gender in history. By its end, almost every government on earth officially declared the equal right of men and women to choose their own roles in life; at its start, almost none did. The idea of equality between men and women has gone from being a fringe position to being global received wisdom. The fact that those official declarations are often insincere, or that received wisdom is often substantially ignored, shouldn’t obscure the magnitude of this change; if the 19th century (or rather, 1789-1917) was a century of economic revolution, the 20th was a century of sexual revolution.
But what was that sexual revolution? Who made it? Who benefited? What does it leave still to do?
I don’t want to suggest that the answers I’m going to give are definitely true, or anywhere near complete. They’re in a way the drawing together of material I’ve already posted at various times into a comprehensive analysis.
In summary, I would argue that this grand sexual revolution was a revolution led by the sex-class of men without established and guaranteed access to sex, against the sex-class of men with it, in which the most class-conscious layers of the female sex-classes, led by feminists, played a crucial role, but were ultimately betrayed, just as the revolting peasantry and proletariat have been betrayed by the leaderships of the revolutions they’ve made.
This revolution replaced the old system of male dominance, characterised by the rule of older, family-heading men, with a new system of male dominance, characterised by the rule of younger, unattached men.
In a word – it replaced patriarchy with fratriarchy.
(Yes, I know, inventing new words is bad form. But I couldn’t think of a better term. And certainly, by some definitions all systems of male dominance are patriarchal – but I’ve always considered the term slightly cumbersome, because of its implication that ‘fathers’ rule over younger men (‘fraters’, ‘brothers’). For what it’s worth, ‘fratriarchy’ is pronounced with a ‘frat’ like in ‘frat-boy’.)
This is based on the idea that in male-dominated society, sex(ual access to women) is constructed as a resource (indeed, as the first and paradigmatic resource) over which men compete. The conditions of this competition are set by law and social custom (e.g. regarding adultery, polygamy, prostitution, or arranged marriage) and different interests in this arena generate structural antagonisms between different ‘sex-classes’.
One of the most enduring such class divisions is that between men who have a secure stock of that resource (e.g., a wife or concubine) and who thus have an interest in restricting other men’s access (typically older married men with children – ‘patriarchs’), and those men who don’t, and thus have an interest in making access easier (typically younger unattached men – ‘fratriarchs’?).
For most of history, it would appear, patriarchs have been the dominant class. Through the sexual revolution, fratriarchs have replaced and are still replacing them in that role.
This victory is reflected in the ideological sphere by the growing hegemony of sexual liberalism over sexual conservatism. Of course there is still conservatism; of course a lot of power still belongs to patriarchs. But the trend is against them.
Sexual liberalism, that blithely insists on everyone’s right to do whatever they want sexually, ignoring the power-relations already written in to most of our sexual culture, is not an ideology of female liberation, any more than economic liberalism, insisting everyone’s right to ‘freedom’, even when that freedom means control over the lives and work of countless others, is an ideology of economic liberation (which is not to say that in either case a genuine such ideology would be ‘against freedom’).
What it is, however, is an ideology that conceals sexual inequality rather than justifying it – again paralleling economic liberalism. In previous centuries it would have been normal to say explicitly that women/serfs/slaves/whatever occupied an inferior position, and that this was right and fair. Increasingly such expressions are becoming unacceptable – rather, it must be claimed that the major inequalities that remain are not really inequalities.
Certain important social consequences flow from the basic shift in power.
The first is the devaluation of sex. The socially dominant force is now and increasingly one pushing for making sex(ual access to women) ‘cheaper’ – and having finally conquered the power to make this happen, the process takes on a life of its own. More sex, everywhere, in the media, in adverts, in magazines, and in people’s real lives, makes it less ‘valuable’, less exciting. So more must be provided to compensate – further pushing down its value. The result is a sort of ‘inflation’ where sex becomes ever more ubiquitous and ever more boring. This may in the end destabilise the fratriarchy and prompt a corrective reaction of some kind.
Secondly, the issue of sex is closely connected to the issue of age. As I noted, fratriarchs are typically younger than patriarchs (after all, for most fratriarchs, the natural sort of ‘success’ would be to ‘get the girl’ and become a patriarch). Moreover, patriarchs are often parents, and parents usually play a certain part in the sexual economy through their ‘ownership’ of their children’s sexuality, which they can allocate to different others (e.g. in return for an economically beneficial linkage with another family).
So any triumph of fratriarchy over patriarchy means also a triumph of youth over age – which is something we very much see in modern societies, where respect for the elderly have passed into a cult of youth. Of course, this interacts with the naturally inferior position of the very young, to produce a paradoxical position where ‘the youth’ are in many ways culturally dominant, but have very little wealth of political power.
Thirdly, as I argued yesterday, the family and the state are analogous in their roles as the stabilising and enforcing organs of class conflict. The family however is the primary site of adult control of children (benevolent or not, the power-relation is clearly going in one direction), and so a social movement that empowers youth over age will have to be anti-family.
Still needing to repress class conflict, it will thus try to shift power to the other organ of that – the state. Thus we have seen, in the 20th century, an enormous ceding of power from families to the state, including the state denying the right to familial violence. This is not simply an opposition of two distinct forces, but the final outcome of their separation – the growth of the state out of and away from familial forms (like feudal or tribal systems).
In all these respects, we should not see the sexual revolution as a sudden or unforeseeable event. The capitalist revolutions of the 19th century drew on centuries of preparation (e.g., the establishment of global trade links) and so did the sexual revolution.
For example, it could be argued that some of its foundations were laid by Louis XIV or Henry VII in their centralising of power – for in empowering the central state against the nobles, they pushed forward the development of the modern state. As soon as this modern state proclaimed the rights of the citizen as such, as against the specific God-given rights of some particular member of a certain bloodline relative to other specific figures, it struck a blow against the family, and thus ultimately against patriarchy and for fratriarchy. Arguably, similar things could be said about every move towards urbanisation.
As a final note, we may observe the crucial role of the media. With the family losing its primacy, socialisation of growing people had to be, well, socialised – i.e. it was now the responsibility of wider society to teach children how to be a man or a woman, through lifestyle magazines, pornography, diet advertisements, sitcoms, and sundry other means.
None of this is to deny, of course, that women benefited enormously. To be oppressed by society as a whole, and not under the thumb of a single autocrat; to be over-sexualised rather than imprisond indoors, to be cajoled into pregnancy by sanctimonious magazine articles and social pressure rather than simply raped by your husband and given no choice about the matter – this is an improvement, an increase in freedom. What is crucial is that it is not simply an increase along a single scale but a shift from one form to a qualitatively different form.
What are the practical implications if this analysis is correct?
Firstly, it means we should always try to distinguish patriarchal from fratriarchal forces, and be opposed to both, without being misled into seeing one as an ally because of its opposition to the other.
Secondly, it means that we should consider the analysis of, and criticism of, fratriarchy, as the typical sexual oppression of the present and future, the primary task of feminist analysis.
Thirdly, that is not to say that we should forget about, or not oppose, old-style patriarchy. Some remnants of it will be with us for a long time, and for a lot of the world its decisive defeat is still being fought for.
But if I’m right in arguing that it’s on its way out anyway, then there’s a risk that too much focus on it will turn feminists into the auxillaries of modern fratriarchy – and often in a racist way (e.g. bomb the Taliban for women’s rights). But equally, there’s no need to equivocate over the abhorrence of traditional patriarchy.
This might also help us to understand the ‘backlash’, the loss of popular support for ‘feminism’ as an ideology, that followed the breakthroughs of the 60s and 70s. This is analogous to the moment when the moderates who benefited the most from the revolution decide that it’s time to reign in the radicals and their ‘mob’ of the still-oppressed. Feminism outlived its usefulness to the rising fratriarchal class, and so it had to be pushed back to the margins.
What is needed is a long view, in which the increasing hegemony of fratriarchy is anticipated and the ideological weapons against it prepared.