The politics of sex revisited - reply to Les Schaffer

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at
Mon Aug 18 09:25:27 MDT 2003

Les, I am at it again... the interesting thing about that article to which
you refer, is that it says very little about the real sexual situation in
Uganda, it implies that you will know this already. See e.g. for some basic
data if you don't.

The promotion of abstinence as a moral norm, rather than as one possible
tactic for personal development among others, is hypocritical in my opinion.

The root cause of prostitution is poverty (scarcity), the inability to get
money or resources in any other way, on the supply side, and the inability
to negotiate satisfactory sexual experience in an alternative way, on the
demand side. So we are not just talking about material poverty, but also
other dimensions of poverty, ranging from social or communicative
incompetence, to poverty of thought, to spirituality poverty and clear moral
degeneracy, leaving aside the damage inflicted on people in the sexual area,
and the methods they resort to, in order to get even.  This being the case,
the solution to undesirable prostitution is obvious, even if not
implemented, and Americans have pioneered some of the effective methods that
can be used for this purpose.

I formulate it specifically in this way, because of course methods are one
thing, the application of these methods in a specific social situation is
quite another. One of the characteristic features of imperialism is that
cultural forms and methods are imposed on the dominated country which are
really quite inappropriate and destructive, not just materially or socially,
but at a psychological and spiritual level, because they obliterate facets
of human experience and human meanings for the sake of an allegedly
""superior" model of human development, which turns out not to be superior,
precisely because it negates facets of the real nature of a people. This
creates misery and grievances which last for centuries, such that human
progress resulting from "development" may be more than cancelled out, by the
human destruction that accompanies it or follows it.

Prostitution is one of the most primitive forms of exchange between men and
women (the "oldest profession" - this is strictly speaking inaccurate,
because in order to be born at all, without defects, people must have enough
to eat and drink, and be healthy; infant mortality rates are a very
sensitive indicator of material progress, or lack thereof, quite apart from
the criterion of labour productivity specified by Marx) which becomes a
source of capital accumulation. It is not accidental, that Marx therefore
reflected on this, in his 1844 Paris Manuscripts, where he is considering
the meaning of humanity in the context of bourgeois industrialisation.

I discussed sex once with a mathematical statistician in 1991, and I
commented very simply my empirical observation that "if people don't have
any money, they tend to go and have sex." This was not a verity about human
nature, along the lines of Michael Camdessus's famous maxim that "the market
is in our genes (jeans?)", but an empirical observation. The tragedy I
referred to in a previous mail, is that poverty might mean that you aren't
even able to have sex as such, due to factors such as overwork, lack of
nutrition or malnutrition, clean water, diseases, congenital handicaps and
anatomical malformation. All of which tends to be ignored in the mad chase
for extra private profits.

I think that it is possible to prove a strong positive statistical
correlation between child labour, slavery and prostitution. They go hand in
hand, all resulting from poverty, which increases the porosity of humans to
exploitation and erode moral behaviour. In the end, most people will do
anything to survive; private property begets crime against private property.
Of course, general pronouncements about the morality of prostitution are
mostly ludicrous, since there are so many different varieties. Liberals will
examine this or that facet of the issue, but they usually miss the wood for
the trees; here I believe Marx's core insights still remain vastly superior,
permitting the possibility of a dialectical view of the totality of things,
rather than a fragmented picture. But as I commented before, this is not a
matter for philosophising, but for serious, sustained investigation of the
real world. Only after actually investigating something, can you discover
its dialectics and present them in a dialectical way.

The capacity to buy sex and sell sex as such, trade in it, that is really
what Marx is considering, and, ultimately, he does not regard it as human
progress, because it connotes ultimately the absence of human love and human
self-understanding, the absence of a humanisation of the animal state, an
attempt to solve that problem by means which ultimately do not solve it, at
the very least not completely. When Jesus Christ hangs on his cross, he says
"Father, why have you forsaken me ?", which sums that up rather well. But
Marx does not form a moral philosophy about it, condemn it, he does not form
a new religion, he says rather that this issue must be practically and
empirically investigated, in order to change it. In Sweden, public
prostitution is more or less against the law, but does this mean that
prostitution does not exist in Sweden ? Of course it does, and if poverty
and social inequality increases, prostitution will increase as well in

Decriminalisation of prostitution is an important step forwards in
overcoming moral stupidity and the emancipation of the prostitute, but it
means very little of itself, without a positive policy for sexual
emancipation to accompany it. Bourgeois opponents of decriminalised
prostitution wail patriarchically about the need to "protect women" (we are
not talking condoms here), but this is just a case of "problem-blindness",
the inability to recognise what the problem is about, if it is a problem. "A
positive policy for sexual emancipation" cannot be formulated in a social
vacuum, i.e. it cannot be formulated without reference to the interests and
values of social classes. Each social class and social stratum has its own
models of healthy or "good" sexual relations and how to create them, and it
is impossible ultimately to have a neutral view of it. Some prostitutes are
part of the working class, some are not.

This becomes very clear when you investigate what prostitutes themselves
actually write or say about their own experiences, as I have, on and off,
from the age of 16 (starting off with Amsterdam madam's Xaviera Hollander's
literature, on the basis that " nothing human is alien to me" as the Roman
poet Terence said) - their social outlook and perceptions of ethnic
differences are by no means neutral, and sometimes even contain racist or
sexist generalisations. The neutrality of prostitutes is more one of not
taking a position on it, or not making their position explicit, but not
taking a position is also a position, for better or worse, and doesn't mean
that you are impervious to the social effects of class society.

In "love capitalism", sex is perceived as a postmodernist social glue which
can overcome or annul class conflict - this was already noticed by Marx, who
commented on "the socialism of love" or "love socialism" (see Hal Draper,
Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, Volume 4: the critique of other
socialisms). But in reality it doesn't, at most it poses the old problems in
a new way. That is useful in itself, it destroys moral notions which no
longer apply, but it doesn't mean thereby that the problems have
disappeared, nor does it mean that it automatically inaugurs a new morality.
The realisation of morality, as Marx insists, depends on the social and
material conditions which permit the individual to be moral, rather than

Faced with the question, ""why should I be moral ?", the liberal answers,
"because individual autonomy is conditional on observing moral principles,
and without individual autonomy, morally principled behaviour is
impossible", you go to jail. The Marxist however goes one step further, and
inquires into the objective social and material conditions required for
morally principled behaviour to flourish, and comes to the conclusion, that
moral behaviour consists in activity which establishes those conditions; to
establish those conditions, opposition is necessary against all those forces
which get in the way, such as a society structured on the basis of harmful
competition rather than social co-operation. For the liberal, the market
guarantees individual autonomy. For the Marxist, however, it guarantees
individual autonomy only for people with money in their pocket (and even
then, it may not guarantee that) but more importantly, the market does not
have any morality of its own, beyond those conditions required to conclude a
successful transaction. A "successful transaction" is not the same as good
moral behaviour, and the commercial exploitation of sex proves that, in many

The French LCR eloquently stated its position on prostitution (see for
example and related
articles). But to my way of thinking, there is still an element of abstract
moralism in their position, and the radical, revolutionary potential which
may inhere in prostitution, as a form of rebellion or revolt against
poverty, domination and bourgeois society, or as an escape from moral
stupidity and stupid moral strictures inherited from a previous era which no
longer exists, is not recognised. This escape may be Luddite; even so Marx
did not condemn the Luddites, but considered their revolt and its limits
sympathetically to understand its meaning.

Of course, you should not overemphasise the radical potential of
prostitution; it may just mean the substitution of one form of exploitation
or oppression for another, which is less intense, and it often does. All the
same, most people would agree that free wage-labour is preferable to slave
labour or forced labour, from the point of view of human emancipation. Most
workers would agree that unionised labour is preferable to non-unionised
labour, at least if the trade union can actually do something to improve the
lot of the workers collectively and offer real protection or real gains, at
a reasonable cost. Why then should we not approach prostitution in the same
way, rather than pretend that politics, trade unions and radical potential
does not exist in this region ?

No doubt, some people would object to aspects of my own sexual history,
evaluate it against some standard and so on, weigh up mistakes and
achievements. But if you have been humiliated a lot, if your alleged "lack
of humanity""or alleged "lack of maturity"  has been criticised, well then
what my response is, that I investigate it practically, and think about it
for myself, in order to find the road to personal amelioration. If that
investigation is obstructed, exploited or parasitised, it just takes another
route, that is all. Maybe I will not get there, but as they say, the journey
is what is important.

If to be radical is to go to the root of the problem, then you have to take
the bull by the horns at some point, or drive a stake in it, not just wave a
red rag at it. Somehow, you have to find a way to overcome everything that
imprisons you in chains. That is the challenge anyway, to substitute a human
association of socialists, for oppressive shackles or a chain prettified
with flowers. In his critique (not rejection, as the flower metaphor
demonstrates) of religion, Marx's point of departure is that "for the human
being, the supreme being is the human being, and thus... the categorical
imperative (is) to overturn all conditions in which the human being is a
debased, enslaved, neglected and contemptible being". This is a programme
for humanisation, a programme for creating heaven on earth, a programme for
giving the highest reaches of the human spirit the place in which it
belongs, i.e. in the centre of human life, not simply in a church or temple.
It is a quest, in the final analysis, for a celebration of the human spirit,
not its denial and degradation. On that basis, the possibility of human
happiness is not denied; it is affirmed. It merely says that it can be lost,
and must be won again.

In this regard, sexuality must be viewed dialectically: it could debase,
enslave, cause neglect and contempt, yes, but it could also uplift,
liberate, socially include and dignify, and it might do this, both at the
same time, in particular cases. This is not inconsistent with a defence of
animal rights, by the way. It is saying rather, that the way we treat
animals reflects the extent of our own humanity, not the humanity of the
animal. An animal is an animal, which we can treat the animal only in a
human way, whatever the anthropomorphisms may be. If the same people who
defend animal rights are complicit in cruelty and oppression against other
humans, then we haven't gone very far on the road to humanisation. And if we
blur the distinction between humans and animals, this does not assist
humanisation, all we are saying then is, that if some humans want to be
animals, that we accept that.

Leon Trotsky expressed very well, what it is all about in the end: the
reduction and abolition of the oppression by people over other people; and
the reduction of the domination of people by "blind" forces of nature,
including animals (Their Morals and Ours). Again, this does not need to be
interpreted as some Victorian notion of "mastery over nature", the denial
that we are ourselves part of nature with our zoological characteristics, in
theory or in practice, with all its implications. It could be interpreted as
the collective human responsibility or conscious stewardship for nature, and
the natural forces we have unleashed, in developing the productive forces of
human labour and the physical world.

Nor does it mean. that we can necessarily simply cancel out social
oppression by an effort of will, or a five-year plan (Stalin announced in
the mid-1930s that socialism was now officially established in the USSR).
But it does suggest a programme for human freedom in which individual
autonomy is combined with social responsibility and collective action, and
the rejection of things that blocks that from happening. That is what Marx's
"science" is all about. And that is quite a different thing from George W.
Bush propagating moral strictures, the denial of environmental costs, and
militarisation, to contain social conflict and slow down the degeneration of
capitalist civilisation. Overall, his policies probably do not effectuate
that, but hasten it, other things remaining equal.



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