Care, consent and coercion under capitalism

The #metoo movement and the Brett Kavanaugh case in the US have highlighted the pervasiveness of sexual violence in capitalist society. In the run-up to the conference The Revenge of Everyday Life: Marxism and Social Reproduction Theory on Saturday 3 November, Alan Sears, a socialist activist based in Toronto in Canada, spoke to Hazel Croft about sexuality, sexual coercion and consent, and the possibilities for sexual liberation today.

Louise Bourgeois. À l’Infini. 2008.

You begin your chapter on sexuality in the book Social Reproduction Theory, edited by Tithi Bhattacharya, by highlighting a situation today where we have made gains which many of us would not have believed possible 30 years ago, such as gay marriage, and yet we have not achieved genuine sexual liberation. Can you describe where you think we are today in terms of the struggle for sexual liberation?

I think we need to be able to talk about the complex mixture of gains and losses in sexual politics over the last 30 years. It is important to recognise that we have made gains, much greater than I might have dared to hope for in my early years after coming out. It does matter that legal discrimination against lesbians and gay men has been eliminated in Canada where I live, and some other places in the Global North. Our relationships are recognised, including legal marriage. The legal right to raise and adopt children in queer families has been won. I can be open about my sexuality at work, with my family and my partner’s family, and with strangers at a bank or other office.

The #metoo moment of widespread recognition of the pervasiveness and toll of sexual harassment and violence on the lives of women and trans people is built on the foundation of women’s struggles around sexual assault dating back to the 1960s. It is important to see this level of discussion and debate, as well as actions such as the legislation that forces campuses in Ontario (where I teach) to do consent education and have strong policies to curtail sexual harassment and violence.

But these gains are limited. Legal equality, for example, does not prevent street violence or harassment, and I think pretty much every queer person I know feels the threat of bashing or threats. Indeed, many have experienced it. The threat of violence for simply being queer in public is dramatically greater for trans people and those who are racialised. Women commonly face harassment, threat and assault in public spaces, workplaces and at home.

Amongst LGBTQ people, these gains have disproportionately benefitted better-off layers of white lesbians and gay men the Global North. It was wonderful to see the Supreme Court in India strike down Section 377 of the Penal Code dating back to British Colonial law, though there is still a long road to go from decriminalisation to full rights to live an openly non-conforming life in gender and sexuality. And the model of lesbian and gay rights the Global North is trying to export does not offer a complete map of the way forward.

In general, the model of lesbian and gay rights fits badly with the life experiences of many people who are racialised or Indigenous, who face the everyday racism of lesbian and gay communities along with complex relations with their communities of origin which are often both lifelines and sources of pain about non-conformity in gender and sexuality.

While trans people have gained certain legal rights in the recent past, the level of violence, harassment and exclusion is high. One clear marker of this is the murder of racialised trans women in North America which is an ongoing brutal truth.

There is much more to be said about this, but to put it simply – sexual liberation must mean having the time, space, knowledge and power to enthusiastically engage in sexual activity with full access to abortion, contraception and the means of safer sex without any form of coercion or compulsion including forced sterilisation and gendered, racialised, sexualised and class organised dehumanisation. I think if we use that as our standard, it is pretty clear we have a ways to go.

Despite the immense legal and cultural changes of recent years, you argue that heteronormativity continues to shape what are seen as acceptable sexual practices and relations. How would you define and explain heteronormativity? 

Heteronormativity is the widespread social presumption that specific heterosexual practices of sexual activity and relationship formation are the baseline against which all erotic and intimate expression is assessed. This is not simply an idea in people’s heads, but a reality organised through laws, basic relations of the workplace and social institutions such as schools. Non-conformity with sex and gender normativity demands at very least an explanation of a deserving case for exemption.

LGBTQ people must “come out” because everyone presumes we are heterosexual until we identify ourselves as something else and do the work of reconfiguring our self-concept from broken normal to something else. The history of “pride” as a concept is not an advertising slogan but a refutation of the claim that there is something wrong with those who do not meet the standards of sexual and gender normativity.

The gains for lesbian and gay rights over the last 30 years also mean it is possible to talk about homonormativity, the presumption that same-gender relationships should be simply a variant of the dominant heterosexual model.  This has not ended heteronormativity, but somewhat modified it. This new homonormativity has been tied to the incorporation of certain legitimated forms of lesbian and gay life in to the dominant power relations of some regimes in the Global North, what some people call homonationalism. Governments in many countries in the Global North (and Canada is certainly a good example of this) now use the recognition of lesbian and gay rights to justify imperialist aggression abroad and Islamophobic racism at home.

Social reproduction theory has been immensely useful in helping us to understand the capitalist system as an integrated whole, and not just about exploitation at the point of production but also about ways workers live and reproduce their lives. How can SRT help in understanding our personal and sexual relationships under capitalism? 

Social reproduction theory starts with a very simple focus on life-making, how we sustain ourselves and raise the next generation. Class societies are based on the exploitation of living labour, and that has taken different forms over history. The exploitation of someone else’s capacity to work requires, fairly obviously, that they be alive. In capitalist society, little of the activity that keeps workers alive is done at the workplace (the site of paid labour) itself. At work we exhaust ourselves, expend energy, get hungry, bang up our bodies and minds and soil our clothes. But the next morning we are supposed to show up all ready to labour.

If we look at life-making as a complete cycle, then the whole labour process of preparing workers for the paid workplace is a crucial part of the system, relying mostly on the unpaid or low paid labour of women – disproportionately women who are racialised or migrant. In the household, women shop, cook, launder or kiss a wound better. This work of sustaining life is either unpaid or poorly paid in the household or in hospitals, day care centres and schools.

Our sexual lives are located within these broader relations of life-making. The normative model for life-making in the Global North at the present time is through the formation of lasting couple relationships that are supposed to be built around romance and sexual attraction but on a practical level are at the core of keeping ourselves alive, caring for each other, and raising the next generation. Sexuality, intimacy, caregiving, leisure, economic planning, housing and feeding are all pushed into a single package. Does it make any sense to imagine that our erotic lives are completely limited to a single relationship that is often built around the practical work of keeping ourselves and our children going? What does this do for people who do not fit this model, including single people and people who parent without partners?

Even though sexual attraction is supposed to be at the heart of the romantic love that sustains these relationships, sex is actually pretty marginalised by the way life-making is organised under capitalism. Our sexual lives are commonly confined to times when we have already poured our life energy into paid labour, child care, commuting, shopping, laundry and dishes. Why don’t we have sex (if we choose to) at the peak of our alertness and energy cycle? Further, there are many including youth, people who are homeless or people who are institutionalized have no accepted time or space for sex. Others are forced to have sexual activity to gain access to the means of life.

Sex is not simply a natural drive or a cool hobby, but is grounded in the core relations of life-making that in capitalist society are built around exploitation and oppression. Social reproduction theory provide crucial tools for seeing how that works.

In your chapter you write about how sexual violence is systemic and normalised. You provide a really interesting analysis of how our attitudes towards our own, and others, bodies, are in part based on our experiences of work and the gendered division of labour. Could you expand on what you mean by this, and give any concrete examples of how this operates in practice?

The gendered division of labour is so pervasive in capitalist societies that we take it for granted. Women do a disproportionate amount of unpaid household labour and much of the caregiving and personal service work for pay. Even lesbian and gay households often take on this kind of division of labour when there are very young children in the home, as the organisation of paid work and the undersupply of quality and accessible child care make it difficult to keep things going without one person mainly engaged in paid labour and another focussed on unpaid labour.

I don’t think we have thought enough about the way this division of labour shapes the femininity and masculinity we take for granted. It is difficult, for example, for women engaged in heavy physical work such as farming or construction, to maintain a full-on “feminine” appearance which is based on ways of dressing and making up (e.g. higher heels) that are incompatible with the requirements of that kind of labour. The work of taking care of children requires that you use your body and voice in very different ways than on a construction site. The pain, skills and rewards associated with certain kinds of work get imprinted into our bodies and minds through daily repetition.

The lives of children are in many ways organised around the kind of labour they will be expected to do through their lives. It is more likely that girls will be asked to care for younger children and boys asked to help on a household construction project. The toys that girls and boys are given in many households take for granted a division of labour. Gender is not just a set of ideas about appropriate behaviour and expectations, but a set of practices deeply internalised in our bodies and minds through work and play.

I thought one of the most fascinating aspects of your account was the way you began to explore the concept of consent more deeply than I’ve seen before, using a social reproduction frame, and which has direct relevance to the debates that have emerged in the #metoo movement. Can you expand a little on notions of consent, male entitlement and coercion?

It is an incredibly important moment to see women standing up to the pervasive sexual harassment and coercion that is present in workplaces, schools, social events and indeed throughout society. The campaigns at Ontario universities, mandated by the government, to educate students about enthusiastic and ongoing consent in sexual relations are really inspiring. It is important to support these campaigns, and also to understand how we need to go further to meet the standards for genuine sexual liberation.

The conception of consent we are using is based on the contract model of human interactions. Supposedly equal and autonomous individuals work out the conditions and make a deal that prescribes the conduct of the exchange. But we know from the basic labour contract that covers employment under capitalism that the lines between consent and coercion are not clean when deep inequalities shape the engagement even between formally equal parties. Workers may freely consent to the conditions of employment, but they need the job to sustain themselves, and have often have to put up with a lot including sexual harassment and coercion.

We can also go further. Sexual coercion is not simply the result of those in more powerful positions (such as bosses) taking advantage of inequality, but it actually contributes to shaping inequality in fundamental ways. Angela Davis wrote importantly about the pervasiveness of sexual assault under conditions of slavery in the United States. In those conditions, sexual assault is part of a programme of racialised and gendered dehumanisation along with routine violence, erasure of language and culture practices, and the destruction of families that contributes to subordination. This program of dehumanisation was not eliminated by formal equality following employment.

The everyday experience of sexual harassment and coercion as a reality and a threat helps shape women’s experiences of work, play and household, and this is intensified through racialised and colonial dehumanisation. Sexual coercion is not just a product of gendered and racialised inequality, but it helps shape inequality and drive it into people’s bodies and minds.

Could you give your thoughts as to how issues of gender identity, and questions of transphobia and trans liberation might fit into this social reproduction framework?

The relations of life-making at the core of social reproduction theory are organised around racialised, sexualised and gendered class relations. Gender is constituted through these relations, and operates as a set of coercive relationships in this society. Those who do not conform to gender and sexual normativity are singled out and punished, through abuse, exclusion, poverty and violence.

Despite this, trans communities have reproduced the possibility of living differently and challenging gender coercion. Nat Raha has done powerful work on the social reproduction of trans communities as a fundamental means for sustaining trans lives in the face of this ongoing oppression and erasure. This is particularly vital for trans people of colour, who have faced the most brutal violence and exclusion.

Trans liberation means destroying gender coercion and that requires a transformation in the relations of life-making, in the workplace, the community and the household. I think our social reproduction theories have often taken gender for granted and simply sought a different configuration of gendered relations, for example through socialising housework to free women from the disproportionate burden of unpaid labour. It is exciting to push this further and imagine how vibrant democracy from below, socialised housework and workers’ control of workplaces can also contribute to the elimination of gender coercion and an opening up of life trajectories.

What implications does an SRT framework for understanding sexuality and sexual and gender violence have for the ways we organise and resist?

I think the SRT framework is an important tool-chest for a shift in socialist thinking towards the politics required to build the next new left, opening us up to conceptions of gendered, racialised and sexualised class relations that are made and play out in the household, the community and the workplace. I also think that developing our conception of social reproduction must push us to learn more through engagements with anti-racist, feminist, anti-colonial, queer and trans perspectives. There is a lot more work to be done to capture the ways racial formation and settler colonialism is at the core of capitalist social reproduction in Canada, for example. And I have not even mentioned ecology here, but any full discussion of life-making in capitalist societies must cover the destruction of mutuality in human relations with other humans, other species and the world around us.

  • Alan Sears is a member of the Toronto New Socialists who has written about education, radical organizing, sexuality and labour. He teaches Sociology at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. His most recent book is The Next New Left: A History of the Future and he is working on the topic of envisioning sexual liberation. His essay, ‘Body Politics: The Social Reproduction of Sexualities’ is published in Tithi Bhattacharya (ed.), Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression (London: Pluto Press, 2017).
  • The Revenge of Everyday Life is a one-day conference on social reproduction theory organised by rs21, which is taking place in London on 3 November 2018. The event will address a range of issues including transphobia and global feminist movements.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here