Is Capitalism Ruining Women’s Sex Lives?

Capitalism fucks women — and not in a good way. You might think that statement obvious. Afterall, it’s 2018 — you’ve heard of Weinstein, you were shaken by Ansari, you know about men acting like creeps in a system that constantly relegates women to second-class citizens. But that’s not what I mean.

It’s true: Capitalism and its favourite artefact, the patriarchy, condition men to be bad lovers to women. It encourages them to see any woman in sight as unquestionably accessible and up  too serving their sexual needs. But when I talk about capitalism fucking women’s sexualities I am talking about something perhaps far more tragic, for it affects us women all alike, every day, with every partner (certainly, any self-defining male one), if we decide to be sexually active.

Among all the ludicrous and contradictory realities of late capitalism lives the pernicious binary allocated to women’s sexuality: The binary summarised by Sigmund Freud as the Madonna vs Whore complex. While Freud ascribed this neurosis to individuals, it is more accurate to understand it as a social malaise. Women are too-often seen as saintly or motherly figures whose sexual desire is close to non-existent,or as carnivorous nymphs. As Germaine Greer would have it in The Female Eunuch, within the patriarchal fantasy, “the patterns of gratification are simple”. On the one hand there’s a ‘Poison Maiden’, a virginal, passive being worthy of adoration. On the other the ‘Great Bitch’, a “desirous, greedy, clever, dishonest” type of woman, “a worthy opponent”.

While this dichotomy has largely been spurned by modern women, there are still far too many people who advise that to “keep a man” or “find a serious relationship” (not to give other, all the more preposterous examples) a girl should keep her sexual encounters to a minimum. Perhaps confusingly, the 21st century Madonna can no longer be a virgin, but she is also warned not to philander with more than a couple of Josephs in her lifetime. We all know the threats and aspersions cast on those that disobey these social rules. From that badly-concealed side-eye, to slut-shaming, to assault. The “good woman” is told to have discreet, nearly passive (but never frigid!) sex. And if we go by second-rate Hollywood rom-coms like What’s Your Number, then never with more than 19 guys. Because 20 would be “ugh! Totally gross!” — or so says society.

The rationale behind this archaic form of oppression under patriarchal-capitalism has been identified by women, feminist wave, after feminist wave: In an age where women have greater financial independence, it is more important than ever to guarantee women’s bondage to men through social conditioning. The variables at stake in this castration of women’s desire have changed across the centuries. Where once there was women’s suffrage or riding a bike, there now stands equal sexual proclivity. In other words, the trope of the Poison Maiden has survived into the 21st century because monogamy in straight relationships is a sure way to ensure some sweet, cost-free social reproduction. Just take the Office of National Statistics word for it, which concluded last year that: “When not in leisure, women were more likely to be performing unpaid work.“ Indeed, we are 1.5 times more likely to be doing house and caring work than the average British bloke.

And so, capitalism fucks women over by drip-feeding them a minimal amount of dicking, and guaranteeing society continues to run smoothly with the help of their free labour.

But what happens to the rebelling harpies? Are they liberated from the shackles of capitalist oppression when having sex with whoever they want, whenever they want? It’s my sad job to inform you that this isn’t quite the case either.

One could, and should, argue that women who freely fuck are less encumbered by society’s prudish mores, and that can only be a good thing. But like all things nice in this world of ours, so has free sex been co-opted by capitalism too — and if that isn’t argument enough to make you want to dismantle it, I don’t know what is.

Think about some of pop-culture’s most sexually prolific women. Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana probably come to mind. Maybe Tiffany Haddish’s character in Girls Trip. But the uncontested fictional Queen of Fucks is Sex and the City’s condom-toting, Martini-tossing, Samantha Jones.

If you look at Samantha’s sexual habits alone she probably appears relatively woke (at least until that cringey second movie): She’s kinky, she’s unashamed and anti-shaming, she’s ferally honest. But to my teenage-self’s great chagrin, if we look closely, Jones’ sexual urges mirror the show’s liberal-capitalist ethos.

Sex and the City is as much about a woman’s freedom to pursue her sexual calling, as it is about the capitalist trifecta: commodification, accumulation and commodity fetishism.

As Ariel Levy points out in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: “Sex and the City romanticised the weather in Manhattan, the offices of Vogue magazine, the disposable income of the average journalist, but what it romanticised the most was accumulation. There was as much focus on Manolo Blahniks and Birkin bags as there was on blow jobs”. Indeed, Sex and the City could never have been a product of any other country, for it is the pinnacle of the American Dream, a world where, as Levy argues, “acquisition was the ultimate act of independence.”

Unfortunately for women who like to have sex, this is the only dynamic through which capitalism will allow us to visibly engage with our own sexualities, other than from within the constraints of (serial-or otherwise) monogamy.

Capitalist free fucking, the kind many Western women enjoy, is deeply seeped in what Herbert Marcuse described as “repressive desublimation” — a process by which pleasure as a radical force is appropriated and turned into a tool for the reproduction of the oppressive (read, capitalist) system itself. Indeed, it would be unfathomable for capitalism to accept any kind of human interaction as a liberating one.

While having as much sex — and with as many people — as we want is certainly a step forward from the restrictive mores of paternalistic capitalism, our intrepid forays into hedonistic pleasure end up mirroring the same patriarchal-capitalist understandings of sexuality we were attempting to escape. We are often simply accumulating dick.

So where does it leave us daughters of late capitalism, when free sex is no longer subversive and has indeed been subverted? Where do we go if we don’t want to return to a Vestal existence?

Perhaps the most obvious answer is that we need to abolish the system that created these dichotomies and that has enslaved our sexualities one way or another. Let’s finish capitalism. Burn it with fire!

But if you’re looking at your lady parts and thinking they need the kind of attention even your trusted Rampant Rabbit can’t provide, perhaps the following words, by Marxist foremother Alexandra Kollontai, can provide some relief: “All the experience of history teaches us that a social group works out its ideology, and consequently its sexual morality, in the process of its struggle with hostile social forces.”

Or, put simply: Go out, fight the patriarchy, fight capitalism, fight all systems that tell us — women and men alike — what we should and shouldn’t do with our bodies. Call out any organisation, individual, or any kind of structure that impinges on your sex life . For every victory you help achieve will undoubtedly help unfuck the mess that capitalism has made of women’s sexualities

Published 14th February 2018

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