Sex under capitalism.
Photo: Thurston Hopkins/Getty Images
We live in a time of unprecedented sexual freedom, in which people are rejecting boring conventions and prohibitions, and in which meeting a new sex partner is as simple as swiping around on your phone while you’re on the toilet. And yet, a lot of women are still very unsatisfied with the sex they’re having. There are several potential culprits for this fact: the deprioritization of female pleasure under patriarchy, general male incompetence, and low libidos due to antidepressents or hormonal birth control. And also, maybe, capitalism.
This last point is a focus of Kristen Ghodsee’s new book Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism, out November 20. In it, she argues that capitalism is based on exploitation, and women disproportionately suffer under it; this suffering extends to their sex lives. Because women’s labor is systematically undervalued and frequently underpaid, their survival tends to be dependent on men. Thus, women’s sexuality becomes a commodity under capitalism. This isn’t an explicit exchange, though, but rather a “set of shifting social expectations,” as Ghodsee puts it, in which women can make certain demands (emotional or financial support, for example) in exchange for access to their sexuality, usually within the confines of monogamy or marriage. Capitalism has fundamentally shaped and warped the ways we relate to each other, sexually and otherwise, she claims, leading us to view intimacy and love as things that only exist in finite quantities, and that are only worth investing in worthy relationships.
Ghodsee’s book offers an alternative to this model, looking back at the state-socialist regimes in the 20th century, under which the state liberalized divorce laws, legalized abortion, invested in collective laundries and nurseries, and enabled women to attain more economic freedom — and in turn, better sex.
“When women enjoy their own sources of income, and the state guarantees social security in old age, illness, and disability, women have no economic reason to stay in abusive, unfulfilling, or otherwise unhealthy relationships,” she writes.
Ghodsee wants American women to reconsider how they think about the neoliberal capitalist society in which we live, and rethink what a path to a better collective future in America might look like — one where women have full economic independence, and, as a result, better relationships. Below, the Cut spoke to Ghodsee about the myth of finite love, the commodification of sexuality, and why the political is personal.
At one point in the book, you write, “In societies with high levels of gender equality, with strong protections for reproductive freedom, and with large social safety nets, women almost never have to worry about the price their sex will fetch on an open market.” Could you go into how market forces affect sexuality?
We tend to think about sexuality in very narrow terms, and some of that is because of Masters and Johnson’s four-phases sexual arousal cycle, which is focused on stimulation and technique. [Ed note: In this model, William Masters and Virginia Johnson outline the four stages of physiological arousal: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution.] But one of the things that we know from alternate types of sexuality is that sexuality, especially female sexuality, is way more complex and has a lot to do with the pressure that you feel in your society.
I think that when we talk about sex, sex is something that should be an intimate act of giving and receiving, not buying and selling. I hear my students say, “I invest in a relationship,” which is a very market way of thinking. We’re starting to think of our affective resources as finite and scarce, and that we need to invest them wisely.
There is, however, a way to think of our affective and sexual and emotional resources as nonmarket things. The easiest way to do this is differentiate between value and worth. Increasingly, the things that we have in our lives that are valuable are becoming things that we put dollar signs on; they become things that have worth. When your emotions and your intimacy and relationships have value outside of the market, they’re more satisfying. That’s an empirical claim, I know, but in general there’s a distinction between something that has value and something that has worth. When women’s rights are supported, we can view things as having value.
What does it mean to you to “sell your sexuality” on the open market?
It means that the price of women’s sexuality is determined by the other opportunities women have to provide for their needs. In societies with no birth control, no reproductive freedom, and no education or professional training for women, they will have no choice but to marry in order to support themselves. In societies with high levels of women’s rights and reproductive freedoms, women will not be forced into commodifying their sexuality. It means that attacks on women’s right and freedoms are always veiled attempts to put women back into a dependent relationship to men.
How does sex work fit into your conception of commodified sexuality? Would it make sense to say that sex work is the intentional packaging of sex as a product, whereas commodified sexuality makes it so that people view their sexuality as a commodity they can trade with people — just on a more subconscious level? In other words, that sex work is just making explicit the fundamental lie at the heart of hetero relationships under capitalism?
This is a great question. Sex work is work. It is an open exchange of labor power — in this case, sexual services — for a wage denominated in money. Once the money is transferred, it can be reused in the economy for all other goods and services. Sex work, of course, existed before capitalism.
The commodification of sexuality is the intrusion of market-like thinking and exchange into a nonmarket sphere of social relations. Women can exchange access to their sexuality for nonmonetary remuneration — dinner, drinks, clothes, a wedding ring — and these things are not easily turned back into money for use in the rest of the economy. The commodification of sexuality is not an explicitly negotiated transaction, but instead a set of shifting social expectations about what things women can or should or might demand in exchange for access to their sexuality.
Since you brought up the myth that love is finite, I want to talk about women in nonmonogamous or queer relationships — ones that already threaten capitalism.
Because the labor that a woman performs in heterosexual, monogamous marriage — where she’s the dependent — is labor that she provides for free, that otherwise the state might have to pay for. When women work in the home, there’s this incredible burden that’s lifted from society. When women end up in nonmonogamous or queer relationships, it threatens the state and the society’s ability to exploit their unpaid labor. There’s a reason why conservatives are so unhappy about the breakdown of the family! Because they know it’s going to cost them money! People outside of the bourgeois, monogamous relationship — whether a monogamous queer couple or bisexuals or what have you — are already challenging capitalism.
Before we go, I want to ask you about something you said on a recent interview on the podcast Season of the Bitch that really struck me: that you’re more interested in thinking about how the political is personal — not how the personal is political, as goes the rallying cry from second-wave feminism.
I think what has happened in the feminist movement and other social movements is there’s been a lot of emphasis on agency; there has been, quite rightly so, a move away from structural analysis, because overanalyzing structures can disempower people. People can feel like, Oh there’s nothing I can do to change the system. However, I think the pendulum has now swung too close to the individual, so much that we’ve lost sight of the structural constraints under which we live. When I say the political is personal, I mean that when you come from working all day and your partner wants to fool around in bed, and you’re like, Oh my goddd, I’m so tired, all I want to do is go to sleep, don’t touch me, that’s a way in which the structural constraints of our lives are draining us of all of the emotional resources that we might otherwise have.
We all know, as research shows us, that personal relationships are so important. One of the biggest critiques I received in response to my original op-ed about this subject in the New York Times was from people who were saying that women had better sex under socialism because they didn’t have anything better to do in East Germany. They argued that women didn’t have shopping or movies or whatever, so all people could do was have sex. My response was … is that so bad? I mean, yeah, there was an economy of shortage and censorship and whatnot, and I have no interest in going back to state socialism, but if we all had a little bit more free time, some of us might actually invest in our personal relationships.
Every time you’re with your partner or a parent or child or close friend, think about how the relationship is structured by so many other factors. So yes, it’s very good to invest on the micro level in relationships between two people, but it’s also really important to understand how the capitalist superstructure wants to commodify and make money out of our relationships. It’s important — and satisfying — for individuals to to reject that.