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Sex, Censorship and Women’s Rights

by Barbara Duke

I submitted the following resolution to the North London women’s section in the lead up to the national women’s section conference in late August. Unfortunately it did not gain enough support there for it to be further discussed at the national meeting or at our forthcoming congress. Below I argue why I believe this is an essential discussion on an issue which is important not only for the women’s section but for the party as a whole and the development of our policies.

Sexual Freedom

  • Socialist Labour is opposed to restrictions on sexual expression and sexual choices among all those capable of informed consent. We fight all legislation which denies these freedoms.
  • We are opposed to all state censorship, including of sexual material – capitalism only uses such laws to strengthen its oppression of women, gays and lesbians, and others.
  • We call for the repeal of all age of consent laws, whether for heterosexual or homosexual youth – such legislation is used by the state to oppress young people and their developing sexuality, often restricting their access to vital contraception, abortion and pre-natal services.
  • Neither censorship nor age of consent laws provide any real protection against sexual abuse, which is perpetuated by the domestic and social pressures of capitalist society, and restrictions on the lives of women, children and young people.
  • We campaign for the rights of people of any sexual orientation, age, gender, health and abilities to express their sexuality without interference, provided they respect the same rights of others and that all parties are capable of giving their informed consent.

The issues in this resolution are not covered by our existing policies, yet are of crucial importance to women, youth, gay men and lesbians and, in fact, all oppressed sections of society. They are also a class question. Who should determine how we express our sexuality? Can we be trusted to do it ourselves, or should the state determine sexual rules and ideologies, in the interests of furthering its own class rule?

To a socialist the answer should be obvious. Yet the questions of whether the state should censor sexual material or determine the age we are allowed to have sex are highly contested, within the wider socialist movement, and in our own party.

Those who argue in favour of state censorship usually make a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ pornography, contrasting ‘erotica’ showing loving mutual relationships with ‘pornography’ which illustrates sexual attitudes stemming directly from the oppressive nature of our society and its chauvinist attitude towards women. In fact, no such binary distinction can be made. All sexual publications (not to mention all other publications) are deeply influenced by the prevailing ideologies of capitalist society. We cannot escape them, any more than we can escape capitalist relations of production, until we have achieved our aim of destroying this type of society for good.

In a socialist society, run by the working class in the interests of all, sexual expression will begin to reflect the freedoms that will be gained. In the meantime, the restrictions on our lives will restrict our sexuality – both in terms of what we believe we are capable of and in terms of practical considerations such as wage labour, family and contraception. Women, in particular, are limited by our role as child-bearers in a society which does not allow mothers a full role in production. It is hardly surprising that popular literature, from pornography to the tabloids, portrays women as almost exclusively creatures of the kitchen and the bedroom.

But this material is a product of the nature of our society. It is not a cause of the oppression of women. Censorship of material depicting oppression (however distasteful one may consider it) will not change that oppression. And who should censor it? In whose interests would they do so?

As a product of society, pornography also perpetuates the nature of society. Socialists see every day how capitalist control of the media furthers the cause of capitalism; state control of pornography would further the cause of the sexual relations which exist under capitalism – norms based on women trapped within the structure of the bourgeois family, with access only to low-wage and intermittent employment.

Sexuality and the state

The British state encourages the suppression of homosexuality, for instance by blatant differentiation in the age of consent (16 for heterosexuals, 18 for homosexuals). Placing the power to censor in the hands of this state can only support and extend these oppressive policies. Any sexuality which goes beyond the norms of the family and labour relations supported by capitalism is seen as a threat to capitalism itself. Insofar as alternative expressions of sexuality find a voice in this society, that will be held back by strengthened censorship powers for the state.

Socialist Labour policy calls for the equalisation of the age of consent. We should go further than this and oppose any state interference in the developing sexuality of young people. Age of consent laws impose arbitrary limits on sexual expression. They are widely ignored, and pay no attention whatsoever to the real ability of teenagers to give informed consent. Worse, they encourage a dangerous ignorance about sexual health and contraception among those deemed too young to know. And prosecution (or threatened prosecution) of teenagers for having informed consensual sex with often only slightly younger teenagers can only disguise and alibi real sexual abuse and rape, which are of course criminal acts that must be prosecuted. We are opposed to all non-consensual sex, whatever the age of the victim.

Legislation allowing the state any control over sexuality will do nothing to protect the oppressed. The essential function of the state is to protect capitalism, the system that oppresses millions of women and children every day. To expect a few benevolent judges or legislators to contradict this function is to live in a utopian fantasy.

Sexual abuse and rape of children and forced participation of children in the making of pornography are extreme expressions of the increasing ills of capitalist society. They are perpetuated not only in grossly deformed perceptions about sexuality, but in the material world in which children grow up. To provide a real end to this oppression we need to radically change that world.

Fighting the causes of oppression

Socialist Labour recognises this through our policies – the right to free contraception and abortion for all, at any age; financial independence for women through a decent minimum wage and equal levels of benefit, equal pay and maternity leave on full pay; free quality childcare at all times, free healthcare and decent housing for all. These measures will ensure that children are born to parents who want them and have the economic means to give them opportunities denied to millions of children today, in Britain and around the world.

We must also fight to take real measures against sexual abuse, not against images of that abuse. We should support the legalisation of prostitution, combined with free health care and the unionisation of sex workers to allow them to fight, with other workers, to improve their conditions. Associated with this is the legalisation of all drugs, which will allow proper health care and treatment for addicts instead of a situation where many feel they have little choice but to turn to prostitution.

Protecting children involves comprehensive childcare and after-school care, free leisure activities in their communities, and sex education at all levels of schooling.

We need to recognise that most sexual abuse occurs in the family, a structure which provides some solace from the rawer edges of capitalism, but which can also be an economic trap for women and children suffering violence and abuse. As a temporary measure we need more refuges for women and children; on an on-going basis we need to build the above policies into real financial independence for all.

Our fight for these policies will illustrate one thing above all – that capitalist society cannot sustain and will not tolerate such a system. By demanding these basic rights we will be challenging the very foundations of capitalism and making it clear to all that only a socialist society can provide a safe, caring and stimulating environment for future generations.

Women and Socialist Labour

Socialist Labour has an unfortunately low ratio of women members, and the development of women’s sections is only in its infancy. Women’s sections, at all levels from local to national, can provide a valuable opportunity for women comrades to share ideas with other women across the party, and, crucially, to focus on bringing more women into the party. But we cannot leave the women’s section with either the mandate or the responsibility to formulate our policy on women – to do so would be to condemn these issues to the sidelines. The fight for women’s liberation is integrally linked with our fight for the liberation of all – if our male comrades do not participate then that fight is doomed to failure.

Unlike feminists, socialist women recognise that our oppression is a product of class oppression. Working class women have far less in common with bourgeois women than with our male workmates and family. Our chances of success are far greater if we fight alongside them, as struggles of recent years in the mines and on the Liverpool docks have graphically shown.

Feminism, an ideology which (in various forms) presents sexual oppression as the fundamental division in society, poses real dangers for our movement. Feminism and socialism are different things. Feminism cannot simply be equated with the fight for women’s rights. It puts forward the damaging ideology that women of different classes can fight oppression on the same basis – thereby automatically confining the fight within the boundaries of capitalism.

The feminist movement of today is a direct descendent of the early British feminists, such as the suffragists under Emmeline Pankhurst, who fought long and bravely for the vote – but focused on the interests of bourgeois women, using arguments about the conservative nature of women and their stabilising effect on capitalist society. The extension of suffrage to women (first from the age of 30 then moving gradually down to 18) is an important gain within capitalist society. From the time of the Chartists, British socialists have fought to extend democratic rights. We recognise and defend these gains, but we must understand the limited value of gains made under the present system in changing the lives of working class women.

While we share some of the aims of the suffragists, this is not our tradition. Instead our sympathies lie with Sylvia Pankhurst, who rejected her mother’s bourgeois feminism and fought, not only for the vote, but to improve the living conditions of poverty-stricken women in the East End, and aligned herself with the Russian Bolsheviks in the interests of finding an international, working-class solution to ending all oppression.