Today’s neoliberal age has instituted a new kind of sexual “freedom”, characterized by highly controlled and commodified modes of sexual stimulation and release. A major characteristic of this administration of libido is the emphasis on “a mere consumerist pursuit of orgasms”. Human sexuality has both affective and instinctual components, defined by the engagement of the consciousness in “one’s physical and sexual desire for another human being by way of acting upon that desire.” Insofar that sexuality is an “intangible affective compound that is based in…bodily needs and desires,” it represents our human capacity for sensation and affect i.e. sex-affective energy, or Eros. According to Rosemary Hennessy, it “has no natural objects or bodily functions; it is a social product that is variously organized into social relations and identities — into friendship, maternal and paternal bonds, affective community ties, reproductive-sex relations, romantic love, and multiple forms of sexual desire”.
Sex-affective potential is part of what Karl Marx means by labor — “that is, the capacity to satisfy and freely develop vital human needs, a capacity that is always socially exercised.” Under capitalism, sensation and affect get separated from the fulfilment of human needs. In Hennessy’s words: “Alienation from sensation and affect underpins the organization of commodity production and consumption and the logic of exchange value. In capitalist divisions of labor, the extraction of surplus value requires that workers alienate themselves from their human potentials, including their sex-affective potentials. It is only by severing her human potential to labor from her needs that the worker can present herself as “owner” of her labor power. It is only in this way that she can commodify her capacities and even her personality into a thing that she can sell.” The alienation of Eros necessitates the restriction of its inherently creative and life-giving impetus, its features of love and solidarity. This structural circumscription of sex-affective energy is enacted through the genitalization of the potentially multidimensional and polymorphous sensuality of the human being. The broad field of sensuality is reduced to normative genital sexuality through a repressive process of control and commodification.
Genital organization de-eroticizes the body so that the energy of Eros can be utilized to perform labor. In this way, our bodies are transformed from potential vessels of pleasure to instruments of labor. Capitalist society demands that “our sexuality be reduced to monogamous relationships and makes the additional demand that (rather than merely quantitative) our pleasure zones be reduced to our genitalia (that is, actual acts of coitus). There is also a societal demand that sexuality is most appropriate when in the service of reproduction.” Robert Grimwade comments that “genital organization is a de-erotization that channels and concentrates sensuality to turn the body into an effective instrument of labour: genitalization is a deadening that transforms the human being into a machine who feels her sexuality as a mere biological function.” This process comprises both a reduction and a rechanneling of Eros. As per Grimwade:
The erotic bodily field – which extends beyond the confines of the skin – is de-sensualized and re-temporalized: not only is the amount of erotized sensually charged time reduced by alienated labour, but the sensual activity of the body itself is conditioned to the proper monotonous rhythm and flow of a de-erotized, fatigued and wasted body engaged in sensually deadening performances. In this process, the diverse and multiple flows of polymorphous sensuality are reduced to the single beat of monotonous and banal repetition instilled by the labour process that distorts life’s vital activities. Sexual expressions that deviate from societally imposed norms are tabooed by social institutions and labelled ‘perversions’…The component drives connected with these non-genital erotogenic zones are repressed.
The contemporary neoliberal world – with its culture of pervasive pornography – has preserved a genitalized form of sexuality; the goal of socially structured sexual gratification (encompassing wider forms of solidaristic bonds) has been replaced with immediate libidinal satisfaction. Continuous erosion of communities and life-worlds through the colonizing logic of market values has led to the destruction of emotional, and even physical proximity. As a result, late capitalism has led to a deficit of intimacy and affectionate attention. To fill the void left by the weakening of real proximity, and real human connection, neoliberal subjects have resorted to technological solutions of pornographic satisfaction, in which the body continues to remain de-eroticized and suited for the productive tasks of capitalism. This widespread alienation needs to be combated by an erotic vision in which people would infuse their various activities and relationships with tenderness and caring.
Herbert Marcuse argued that the liberation of Eros would “first manifest itself in a reactivation of all erotogenic zones and, consequently, in a resurgence of pregenital polymorphous supremacy and in a decline in genital supremacy. The body in its entirety would become an object of cathexis, a thing to be enjoyed – an instrument of pleasure.” Such an “instinctual liberation” would not lead to “a society of sex maniacs,” but to “a transformation of the libido: from sexuality under genital supremacy to erotization of the entire personality.” Eros would be rescued from its genital constriction, becoming a profoundly social sex-affective energy. This transformation of sexuality would lead to “a self-sublimation of sexuality rather than an explosion of acts of coitus, precisely because we would get erotic pleasure elsewhere…sexuality would take forms other than sexual intercourse.” In the words of Marcuse, “the free development of transformed libido within transformed institutions, while eroticizing previously tabooed zones, time, and relations, would minimize the manifestations of mere sexuality by integrating them into a far larger order, including the order of work. In this context, sexuality tends to its own sublimation”. In the current conjuncture, we need to struggle for such a socialist vision of sexual liberation so that we can create a world in which – to use Alexandra Kollontai’s words – people are united not “by the momentary satisfaction of the sex instinct” but by a form of love which “is woven of delicate strands of… “warm emotions” – sensitivity, compassion, sympathy and responsiveness”.
Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at email@example.com. His articles have been published in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries of Latin America.