In her book “Gender Trouble,” Judith Butler explained why both gender and sex are socially constructed:
“Gender ought not to be conceived merely as the cultural inscription of meaning on a pregiven sex…gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established. As a result, gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which “sexed nature” or “a natural sex” is produced and established as “prediscursive,” prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts…There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.”
In other words, gender is the structural force through which an anatomical difference between human beings is transformed into a principle of practical division with social implications (sex). As a result, sex, instead of remaining just another physical trait, becomes the classificatory criterion according to which hierarchies are created and roles distributed. Thus, we can say that sex is “the way a given society represents ‘biology’ to itself”. The social constructedness of both gender and sex means that the dual categories of “male” and “female” are themselves artificially created through various practices. By abstracting biological differences in a selective manner, sex determines those differences as discrete naturalized characteristics of the bodies themselves; anatomical differences are hardened into always-already sexuated bodies. An entire cultural complex of exclusionary meanings (gender) is built upon this base – the naturalization of gender’s heterosexuality finds its projection upon sexed bodies.
Capitalism’s social construction of gender and sex is geared toward the need to normatively underpin the exploitative sex-differentiated division of labor. According to Rosemary Hennessy, women’s status as a major source of cheap and submissive labor “depends on a heterosexual matrix in which woman is taken to be man’s opposite; his control over social resources, his clear thinking, strength, and sexual prowess depend on her being less able, less rational, and never virile. As a pervasive institution within other institutions (state, education, church, media), heterosexuality helps guarantee patriarchal regulation of women’s bodies, labor, and desires.” Even today, “heterosexual marriage and the gendered division of labor remain the prevailing, pervasively naturalized social arrangements whose coherence is still assured and legitimized in law and common sense by reference to an abject homosexual other.” The continued dominance of heterosexual codes is visible in the relatively conservative agendas of marriage and adoption rights that the mainstream Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) has adopted.
While rigid gender binary remains hegemonic, capitalism has allowed the superficial releasement of genderless desire by channeling sexual energies into commercialized forms of advertising and entertainment, which are isolated from broader forms of erotic life and fulfilling work environments. Instead of being liberated, sexuality has been liberalized. In the words of Theodor Adorno: “sexuality, turned on and off, channeled and exploited in countless forms by the material and cultural industry, cooperates with…[the] process of manipulation insofar as it is absorbed, institutionalized, and administered by society. As long as sexuality is bridled, it is tolerated.” Sexuality has been “desexualized” and “neutralized” even as it seems to be omnipresent. Commodification has marketized sexuality by tying sexual recognition to the emergence of new market opportunities, where inclusion is on the basis of consumption.
The mediation of sexual identities through commodities has reproduced the inequalities that are inherent to capitalist market. For example, a new gay middle class has risen which enjoys a rarefied environment of respectability, at the same time as poor queer people are subjected to economic oppression, police repression, and cultural marginalization. This is indicative of the genera; distortion of sexuality into a business asset and status symbol. The commercialization of sexuality has entailed its individualization. In “Women’s Liberation in China,” Claudia Broyelle writes: “In a society where the division of labor becomes more accentuated, where the vast majority of people are deliberately deprived of creativity, where work has no other value than its explicit monetary one, sexuality becomes a means of escaping from society through self-centered sexual consumption, rather than the full expression of interpersonal relationships”.
Capitalism formed a culture in which sexuality has been reduced to a form of capital which involves the use of the other for the creation of the self. Tara Isabella Burton talks about the “disembodiment of sex, which is to say the way in which it becomes about our own fears, our own pride, our own narratives about ourselves and our worth and our status, rather than about the union with those we love”. In opposition to the privatization of sex and love in bourgeois society, Alexandra Kollontai, a prominent Bolshevik leader, advocated the embedding of sexual love in a socialist collective:
“The bourgeois world gave its blessing to the exclusiveness and isolation of the married couple from the collective; in the atomized and individualistic bourgeois society, the family was the only protection from the storm of life, a quiet harbor in a sea of hostility and competition. The family was an independent and enclosed collective. In communist society this cannot be. Communist society presupposes such a strong sense of the collective that any possibility of the existence of the isolated, introspective family group is excluded.”
Kollontai argued for free and easy divorce, and also criticized “any formal limits on love,” any discouragement of short-term relationships, and any imposition of monogamy. She emphasized “the value of experimentation in…love relationships,” pointing out that even “fleeting passion” could be a legitimate basis for a sexual relationship. In short, “complete freedom, equality and genuine friendship,” were important elements of communist sexuality. This vision of “love-comradeship” retains relevance because present-day reality is marked by an erotomania which – to use Pier Paolo Pasolini’s words – does not bring “lightness and happiness to young people,” but makes “them unhappy, closed and as a consequence stupidly presumptuous and aggressive”. Peter Drucker comments that Kollontai’s communist conception of sexuality “implied a valorization of friendship and shared commitment over a mere consumerist pursuit of orgasms”. In today’s world, we direly need such a sexual politics so that we can fully abolish gender-sex and march forward to a communist future wherein everyone is equal.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.