The Social Reproduction of Sexuality: An Interview

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View­point: Why use a social repro­duc­tion frame to under­stand sex­u­al­ity?

Alan Sears: For me, the use­ful­ness of the social repro­duc­tion frame to under­stand­ing sex­u­al­ity grows out of the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion of queer pol­i­tics. On the one hand, we have won rights that I never could have imag­ined when I first came out in the 1970s. In Canada, we have basi­cally won full legal equal­ity, rang­ing from non-dis­crim­i­na­tion on the basis of sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion to mar­riage and adop­tion rights. This is the out­come of pow­er­ful mobi­liz­ing. Some of the most excit­ing and defi­ant demon­stra­tions I have ever been in were about queer strug­gles.

Yet, we have fal­len far short of the vision of sex­ual lib­er­a­tion. The polic­ing of sex­u­al­ity con­tin­ues, we have only shifted the bounds a bit. Just look at the recent raid of the offices in New York, which seems to be a crack­down on sex work­ers and queer sex. Gen­der nor­ma­tiv­ity con­tin­ues to per­vade every area of our lives, even if the per­mis­si­ble ideas of mas­culin­ity and fem­i­nin­ity have expanded a bit and the idea of gen­der tran­si­tion is more rec­og­nized. Queer­ness has become a brand, one that peo­ple with lim­ited incomes can’t afford to buy. It is not only Pride marches, but queer spaces and vis­i­bil­ity that are defined by com­merce. These spaces also tend to be defined by white­ness, as the expe­ri­ences, his­to­ries, and activism of peo­ple of color and Indige­nous peo­ple has often been mar­gin­al­ized by a dom­i­nant ver­sion of les­bian and gay iden­tity rooted in par­tic­u­lar social loca­tions in the Global North.

I think the social repro­duc­tion frame helps us make sense of the con­tra­dic­tory gains that have been made, and there­fore con­tributes to fig­ur­ing out the next steps in sex­ual lib­er­a­tion. The cru­cial con­tri­bu­tion is to show how sex­u­al­ity and gen­der are nested in a whole set of rela­tions of “life-mak­ing” orga­nized around speci­fic divi­sions of labor and hier­ar­chies of dis­pos­ses­sion. We can’t have real sex­ual lib­er­a­tion with­out address­ing the ways our bod­ies and our lives are enmeshed in rela­tions of work, house­hold, and mar­ket, and reg­u­lated by the state.

VP: Could you be a bit more speci­fic and tell us what you mean when you say our sex­u­al­ity is enmeshed in other social rela­tions?

AS: Sex­u­al­ity is not sep­a­rate from the rest of our lives. It is nei­ther sim­ply a bio­log­i­cal drive nor a pro­duct of our minds. It is grounded in what we have to do to get by, the ways we use our bod­ies every day, the power rela­tions that are present in every aspect of our lives. I think the social repro­duc­tion frame pro­vides key tools to under­stand the ways sex­u­al­ity is grounded in our every­day prac­tices, and what that means for sex­ual lib­er­a­tion.

Cap­i­tal­ism is the only form of class soci­ety where the sub­or­di­nated class is free in the sense of own­ing their own bod­ies. Yet that free­dom is com­pletely con­strained by lack of own­er­ship and con­trol over the key pro­duc­tive resources of soci­ety. To live, we need to sell our capac­ity to work, be in a rela­tion­ship with some­one who is employed, or attain a wage equiv­a­lent, for exam­ple, through social assis­tance, pen­sions, or some other com­mer­cial activ­ity.

Strug­gles around sex­u­al­ity in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties are about nav­i­gat­ing that con­tra­dic­tion between free­dom and sub­or­di­na­tion, while sex­ual lib­er­a­tion requires actu­ally over­com­ing that sub­or­di­na­tion. Let me give an exam­ple. Angela Davis argues that the sex-pos­i­tiv­ity in the music of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and other African Amer­i­can women blues singers in the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury was con­nected to the fact that some sort of free­dom in the realm of sex­u­al­ity and per­sonal rela­tion­ships was one of the few real gains of eman­ci­pa­tion from slav­ery. If you look at slav­ery in the Amer­i­cas you see an ongo­ing his­tory of sex­ual vio­lence and the delib­er­ate destruc­tion of per­sonal rela­tion­ships built in to the regime of bru­tal coer­cion. It is not just that the sys­tem put slave own­ers in a posi­tion to rape, but that sex­ual coer­cion was part of the way they main­tained their power.

African Amer­i­cans did not win real eco­nomic jus­tice or free­dom from racist assault or abuse by gain­ing eman­ci­pa­tion from slav­ery in cap­i­tal­ist Amer­ica. Black Lives Mat­ter reminds us of how present racist vio­lence is today, and the role that polic­ing and pris­ons, along with a whole host of other insti­tu­tions, play in that racism. Eman­ci­pa­tion from slav­ery did bring sig­nif­i­cant and tan­gi­ble changes in the area of sex­u­al­ity and per­sonal rela­tion­ships – though of course lim­ited by racist vio­lence, eco­nomic injus­tice, and the regime of male dom­i­nance built into cap­i­tal­ist gen­der rela­tions.

I think a social repro­duc­tion approach helps us under­stand that con­tra­dic­tion. As mem­bers of the work­ing class in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties, we own our own bod­ies, but are dis­pos­sessed of con­trol over them. Rather than work­ing directly to meet our wants and needs, we are forced to seek employ­ment and/or engage in unpaid house­hold care­giv­ing labor to attain access to a wage. We do not con­trol the work process or the pro­duct of our labor. A whole host of processes is loosed upon us to ensure sub­or­di­na­tion, rang­ing from school­ing to pris­ons. We are thus alien­ated from our selves and each other. And that has a huge impact on our sex­ual being.

VP: But aren’t you run­ning the risk of turn­ing social repro­duc­tion into a kind of the­ory of every­thing?

AS: The social repro­duc­tion frame emerged specif­i­cally as a cor­rec­tion devel­oped by Marx­ist-Fem­i­nists to the lim­ited per­spec­tive on class and work advanced by the dom­i­nant streams of Marx­ism. Basi­cally, this lim­ited per­spec­tive meant that most Marx­ists located class for­ma­tion in the realm of pro­duc­tion, that is, wage labor in the paid work­place. Those hold­ing this per­spec­tive basi­cally ignored the role of the unpaid labor, mainly done by women in the house­hold, to sus­tain the exist­ing work­ing class and raise the next gen­er­a­tion.

The social repro­duc­tion frame opens up our idea of class for­ma­tion, to include a range of paid and unpaid labor processes orga­nized through divi­sions of labor that are gen­dered, racial­ized, and sex­u­al­ized. The weight of unpaid labor is dis­pro­por­tion­ately freighted onto the shoul­ders of women, but the pre­cise con­fig­u­ra­tion of paid and unpaid labor through which peo­ple sus­tain them­selves varies tremen­dously over time and in dif­fer­ent social loca­tions.

VP: You’re talk­ing about gen­der and divi­sion of labor here, but it’s not clear how all this con­nects with sex­u­al­ity.

AS: To start with, I think a social repro­duc­tion focus on divi­sions of labor casts a new light on ideas of “het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­ity” and “homo­nor­ma­tiv­ity.” “Het­ero­nor­ma­tive” is a term used to describe the dom­i­nant expec­ta­tions for het­ero­sex­ual lifestyles that set the tone for accept­able sex­u­al­ity for all of soci­ety. Het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­ity is a pack­age that includes divi­sions of labor, gen­dered aspi­ra­tions, leisure pat­terns, and prac­tices of sex­u­al­ity. Het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­ity is not sim­ply ide­o­log­i­cal, a set of cul­tural expec­ta­tions, but is grounded in work prac­tices orga­nized through power rela­tions. Het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­ity changes over time, and in dif­fer­ent social loca­tions.

Rod­er­ick Fer­gu­son pointed out that het­ero­sex­ual African Amer­i­cans often lived in ways that did not fit with the dom­i­nant het­ero­nor­ma­tive pat­terns in the United States. For exam­ple, African Amer­i­can women tended to par­tic­i­pate in wage labor at much higher rates than white women, often includ­ing bur­den­some phys­i­cal labor that was oth­er­wise not seen as “women’s work.” This has a huge impact on gen­dered expec­ta­tions and house­hold prac­tices. We might add, the regime of mass impris­on­ment, espe­cially dis­pro­por­tion­ate for African Amer­i­can and Indige­nous men, cre­ates non-het­ero­nor­ma­tive pat­terns as males are forcibly removed from their com­mu­ni­ties and detained in sit­u­a­tions in which the ful­fill­ment of het­ero­nor­ma­tive roles - as work­ers, part­ners, fathers - is sim­ply impos­si­ble. So does the geo­graphic dis­per­sion that means a par­tic­u­lar fam­ily may include very dif­fer­ent house­holds in a vari­ety of coun­tries, for exam­ple chil­dren raised by grand­par­ents in the coun­try of origin while the father is employed as a tem­po­rary migrant in another coun­try and the mother as a paid domes­tic worker in a third coun­try.

Het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­ity is not sim­ply about con­formism, but about social power, dis­lo­ca­tion, racism, divi­sions of paid and unpaid labor, and the spa­tial orga­ni­za­tion of the global labor mar­ket. When we say, then, that win­ning equal­ity rights have meant that les­bians and gays have imi­tated het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­ity to cre­ate “homo­nor­ma­tiv­ity,” this is not sim­ply a deci­sion to assim­i­late rather than trans­gress. It is about what Johanna Bren­ner calls “sur­vival strate­gies” in a set of social rela­tions orga­nized around dis­pos­ses­sion, exploita­tion, and oppres­sion.

Homo­nor­ma­tiv­ity is not sim­ply a choice, at the indi­vid­ual or polit­i­cal level. On the one hand, it is not even an option for some peo­ple – includ­ing many who are poor, racial­ized or trans, just as het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­ity is not even an option for many who are racial­ized, Indige­nous, or migrants as dis­cussed above. On the other hand, many who might prefer to chal­lenge homo­nor­ma­tiv­ity or het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­ity may essen­tially be forced to con­form by regimes of paid labor, unpaid labor, and state reg­u­la­tion. For exam­ple, the mate­rial pres­sures to marry in order to obtain migra­tion sta­tus or access to ben­e­fits required for the well-being of house­hold mem­bers (adults and/or chil­dren) might trump ide­o­log­i­cal con­cerns about invit­ing the state into our house­holds.

If we want to go beyond het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­ity and homo­nor­ma­tiv­ity, then, it is not only about assert­ing queer­ness but about cre­at­ing the social con­di­tions in which peo­ple can thrive while pur­su­ing the ways they really want to live in terms of gen­der and sex­u­al­ity. Not get­ting fired, not being stripped of ben­e­fits or sta­tus, not get­ting raped, not get­ting beaten up on the streets, not being impris­oned or shot by cops. The social repro­duc­tion frame reminds us that the orga­ni­za­tion of paid and unpaid labor in work­places, house­holds, and through state reg­u­la­tion has a huge impact on what options we may have to pur­sue sex­u­al­ity. Of course, we have agency and can make his­tory in the realm of sex­u­al­ity, but our abil­ity to do so will nec­es­sar­ily be con­strained by what is hap­pen­ing in these other realms of life.

VP: Ear­lier you said that divi­sions of labor are not only gen­dered and racial­ized, but also sex­u­al­ized. Could you explain what you mean by that? 

AS: Divi­sions of labor ori­ent our lives around par­tic­u­lar embod­ied prac­tices. The labor processes that are most cen­tral to our daily rou­ti­nes are bound to have an impact on our expe­ri­ence of our bod­ies and our desires. A pro foot­ball line­backer, an assem­bly line worker in an auto plant, a depart­ment store make-up seller, and a day care worker use their bod­ies very dif­fer­ently on a daily basis. Car­olyn Steed­man wrote pow­er­fully about a kind of erotic death she felt as an ele­men­tary school teacher touch­ing and being touched by kids all day to the extent that she closed down other forms of con­tact.1

If you look at the kind of work you are expected to do in paid and unpaid labor, in the house­hold and in the place of employ­ment, it cre­ates a sense of your body that con­tributes to your own map­ping of desire and the erotic. If you spend a lot of time using your body to soothe dis­tressed infants, that is bound to cre­ate a dif­fer­ent sense of touch, for exam­ple, than if you use it to flat­ten run­ning backs from the oppos­ing team. I am not sug­gest­ing for a sec­ond that this is the only fac­tor shap­ing desire, but these prac­tices nec­es­sar­ily play an impor­tant role.

About 10 years ago there was a show called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in which a team of gay men did aes­thetic retro­fits for straight men. So what does a queer eye in this sense have to do with same-sex desire? I think a social repro­duc­tion frame encour­ages us to think about why we might expect queer guys to know aes­thet­ics and straight guys to be hope­less in that area. There are cer­tainly speci­fic areas of aes­thetic and emo­tional labor that are dis­pro­por­tion­ately pop­u­lated by gay men. Then there is the utter com­pul­sory het­ero­sex­u­al­ity of the pro sports team. I think that real sex­ual lib­er­a­tion means tak­ing on the coer­cive and hier­ar­chi­cal nature of divi­sions of labor in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties and under­stand­ing the impact the orga­ni­za­tion of work has on our sex­ual being.

VP: Could you expand on that, the idea that sex­ual lib­er­a­tion requires a chal­lenge to divi­sions of labor?

AS: I guess what I am say­ing is that our abil­i­ties to expe­ri­ence sex­ual plea­sure, to resist sex­ual coer­cion, to feel ful­filled and engage lov­ingly with oth­ers, are con­strained and shaped by the ways we have to fit into speci­fic roles deter­mined by paid and unpaid work. At a most basic level, our work sched­ules, paid and unpaid, have a very direct impact on our sex lives sim­ply by cre­at­ing or lim­it­ing avail­abil­ity and by exhaust­ing us or leav­ing us with a sense of accom­plish­ment. At a more com­plex level, our sense of our­selves, includ­ing our bod­ies, is grounded in the work we do which hyper­de­vel­ops cer­tain capac­i­ties and shuts down oth­ers.

A doc­tor, a fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher, a teacher, and a mother are likely to see very dif­fer­ent things when we stand before them, given the focus they have learned to develop through their expe­ri­ences of school­ing, train­ing and work inside or out­side the home. They will touch dif­fer­ently and have dif­fer­ent expec­ta­tions for being touched. Yes, delib­er­ate acts of queer­ing can chal­lenge the nor­ma­tive, but unless we get at the prac­tices and power rela­tions in which the nor­ma­tive is embed­ded we are going to be lim­ited in how far our lib­er­a­tion project goes.

I also think our sex­u­al­i­ties are messed up by the way power works in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties. Con­sent and coer­cion are mud­dled by the con­tra­dic­tion between own­er­ship of our bod­ies and the com­pul­sion to sell our capac­ity to work (or do unpaid labor for some­one who does so). Tech­ni­cally, work­ers con­sent to work at a cap­i­tal­ist enter­prise, but the coer­cive power of the boss is mas­sive. So do we really know what gen­uine con­sent grounded in con­trol over our bod­ies and our lives actu­ally looks like?

In the legal sense, you can never con­sent if you are coerced. But in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties we nat­u­ral­ize the key coer­cive forces and take them for granted. You have to work because oth­er­wise you won’t be able to eat – all of us find our­selves in this sit­u­a­tion, so we freely sign the con­tract and do the job for how­ever many hours a day. And in some cases that means show­ing up to work look­ing sex­u­ally attrac­tive, even if that might not be said out loud. Is that con­sen­sual?

It is so excit­ing and impor­tant to see some seri­ous work chal­leng­ing sex­ual vio­lence, vio­lence against women, and gen­dered harass­ment on cam­puses right now. I think a social repro­duc­tion frame might push us to ask ques­tions about the way con­sent is under­stood in some of these cam­paigns. What are the coer­cive fac­tors and power rela­tions under­ly­ing con­sent that we are sim­ply tak­ing for granted, just as we accept the employ­ment con­tract as con­sen­sual? The basic empha­sis on full con­sent is cru­cial, but the model we tend to use is based on the autonomous ratio­nal actor who is free and informed. Actu­ally, we are deeply enmeshed in power rela­tions of gen­der, race, class, age, and bod­ily capac­ity in a soci­ety that is pro­foundly sex-neg­a­tive. Those power rela­tions have a huge influ­ence on our sex­ual being and desires, and on our abil­ity to voice con­sent or refusal.

VP: You just said that this is a sex-neg­a­tive soci­ety, but does that match the every­day real­ity of a soci­ety where sex is every­where?

AS: Yes, another inter­est­ing con­tra­dic­tion. The soci­ety where every­thing is sex­u­al­ized, yet actual sex­ual activ­ity is silenced and made invis­i­ble. Sex­u­al­ized images are omnipresent, but part­ners often can­not even com­mu­ni­cate their sex­ual desires to each other.

The neolib­eral phase of cap­i­tal­ism has inten­si­fied the sex­u­al­iza­tion of things, as rela­tions of com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion enter into every aspect of our every­day lives. So we try to turn our­selves into things to be hot. We try to live up to the images – they set the stan­dards. We process our bod­ies and turn them into prod­ucts – train­ing, shav­ing, dying, tat­too­ing, sur­gi­cally alter­ing, diet­ing, wear­ing the right stuff. The raw unprocessed body – the one that smells like a human being – is seen as con­temptible.

So yes – we are nego­ti­at­ing sex-neg­a­tiv­ity paired with sex­u­al­iza­tion. Abor­tion rights, birth con­trol, safety in social spaces and on the streets, places for young peo­ple to be sex­u­ally active – the things required for pos­i­tive sex­ual expe­ri­ence, espe­cially for women, are still walled off.

VP: So what can we look for­ward to in the use of the social repro­duc­tion frame to under­stand sex­u­al­ity?

AS: I think this is an excit­ing moment where social repro­duc­tion the­ory is get­ting a whole lot of atten­tion and being taken in new direc­tions. This issue of View­point is a valu­able part of that. This has been dri­ven in part by a frank recog­ni­tion of the lim­i­ta­tions of ver­sions of Marx­ism that under­stood class too nar­rowly in terms of paid labor at the place of employ­ment. It is also an impor­tant moment in sex­ual pol­i­tics, as we grope towards a new vision of sex­ual lib­er­a­tion to take us beyond the polar­iza­tion between equal­ity rights and trans­gres­sion.

I think a social repro­duc­tion approach to sex­u­al­ity can com­bine a broader sense of class for­ma­tion and life-mak­ing in cap­i­tal­ist soci­eties with a trans­for­ma­tive queer pol­i­tics. At the same time, there is a lot of work to be done, for exam­ple in think­ing through the rela­tion­ship between divi­sions of labor and sex­u­al­i­ties. To develop this work will need a lot of dis­cus­sion and debate, good his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary research and activist engage­ment.

  1. Car­olyn Steed­man, “Pris­on­houses,” Fem­i­nist Review 20 (July 1985): 7-21. 

Author of the article

teaches sociology at Ryerson University. His academic research is connected to his activist engagements in movements for social justice. He is currently working on a book on democracy in the age of neo-liberalism with James Cairns and another on rebuilding radical activism in the age of austerity.