Book Review: Sexuality and Socialism – Sherry Wolf

Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT LiberationSexuality and Socialism by Sherry Wolf is described as the ‘History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation.’ A book like this that covers the issues of sexuality and homophobia under capitalism is a long overdue contribution to socialist politics, but especially timely given the struggles all over the world for same-sex marriage rights.

The book covers such a broad scope of different issues within the issues of LGBT oppression and liberation that I cannot possibly cover all of it in one review. It begins with the theoretical and historical origins of sexual oppression under capitalism and makes the argument that the repression of sexuality and things like homophobia are the product of the material conditions and the economic needs of capitalism. This is in stark contrast to explanations that homophobia is in our human nature or just from the religion and the bad ideas in our heads.

It goes on to cover the gay liberation movement of the 60s and 70s and the theory surrounding much of LGBT politics. It then goes on to cover contemporary struggles and debates today.

Sherry Wolf links in all of the arguments within the context of class society and the nature of capitalism. Homophobia and other forms of sexual repression are not divorced from other forms of oppression and the needs of exploiting workers to make a profit.

This is used to argue against the prevalence of ‘identity politics,’ the idea that all LGBT people have a common experience of oppression and a common interest in fighting it. In fact, LGBT workers need to organise separately from LGBT business owners who are tied to the existence of capitalism.

She argues that straight workers have more in common with LGBT workers because they both have a common interest in defending their conditions as workers and fighting their exploiters. Despite homophobia within the working class, Wolf argues that straight workers don’t benefit or gain an advantage by partaking in homophobia as it weakens the working class, divides and distracts workers from the class struggle.

Another aspect of the book that needs to be touched on is the fact that she covers issues of transgender and intersex. This is something that hasn’t really been touched on before in other Marxist literature about sexuality and it’s covered in quite an extensive way.

One point though that wasn’t touched that is sometimes controversial even within the socialist movement is that I think transgender can sometimes be seen as a product of capitalism and the gender norms that come in it. This isn’t to take away from the fact that trans people have the right to have sex changes or identify as another gender but the fact the capitalist society assigns ways of behaving to particular genders, such as women being feminine and men being masculine means that if you don’t fit into these norms then you can feel like you don’t fit into your body.

I would argue that under a socialist society that this feeling would be less prevalent because you wouldn’t need to conform to the gender norms and there wouldn’t be such a connection between gender biology and your behaviour.

Sexuality and Socialism covers a lot and does it clearly. It mixes theoretical and historical explanations with concrete and often emotive contemporary examples that make these issues feel real and connect with the reader. This book is also something that can be re-read in parts as a kind of reference book on Marxists’ attitudes to various issues of LGBT oppression and liberation.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the topics of sexuality, homophobia and LGBT politics.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: Sexuality and Socialism – Sherry Wolf

  1. Not so sure I agree with your take on transgender identity there Ben.

    From what I know of transgender individuals, the feeling they describe is very much that they don’t feel like the gender they are in a _biological_ sense, describing the feeling as having been born into the wrong body. There’s a lot of transgendered people who would take great offence at someone else trying to tell them what their condition is, Ben, so maybe this is an opinion you should keep to yourself from now on… these sorts of things can oppress more than you may realise.

  2. @thinknotread
    Benjamin: thinknotread’s comment was deleted as he is a troll but for the sake of discussion, he said: “Wrong. The oppression starts from man’s physical strength .. take a look at non-capitalist tribes .. there is more oppression there.”

    What do you mean by non-capitalist tribes? If you mean contemporary tribes…to be honest I think there are barely any tribes remaining in the world that are untouched by capitalism. Tribes clearly still exist, but they exist in the context of globalised capitalist relations and capitalist markets – the clothes on their backs and the tools in their villages are made within market trade relations to some degree or another. Also, most of them have had contact with modern capitalist society, whether in the form of colonial/imperialist invasion or otherwise, so that warps any relations that may have previously existed.

    If you’re referring to primitive tribalism, it’s just not historically correct to say men oppressed women. There was no gender hierarchy (since there was no class, in the sense that there is today or under feudalism), if hierarchy is taken to mean the forcing of power relations by one group of humans upon another. I’m not saying gender differences never existed or whatever, but the archaeological evidence shows that men did not exert coercive power upon women, and womens’ labour and roles in society were genuinely respected in a way that they were not during feudalism and are not today under capitalism. Also there’s no proof that same-sex relations were vilified in these societies.

    So because of that historical record, I think oppression doesn’t originate from man’s strength or man’s natural power over women. Sexual oppression is a structural phenomenon that flows from class relations in society, which of course only began to exist a few thousand years ago. For the majority of human history, we’ve lived under primitive communalist relations, where sexual oppression didn’t exist. Which is not to say I idealise those societies – they were brutal because of the lack of food/scientific progress – but the fact they existed in that way shows it’s possible to have a society free of oppression, and that it’s possible to stop sexual oppression altogether if the structural basis for it is swept away.

  3. I loved Wolf’s book and would agree it is a must read for anyone who seriously wants to fight against sexual oppression and more broadly to fight for Socilaism and a world free from oppression and exploitation.

    I think gender is a social construct, we must differentiate that from the biological sex we are born with. All humans are born either female, male or varying degrees of ambigious sex. As a materialist I think our gender is determined not by our biological sex but by society and social relations through our lives.

    It flows from this that the sex we are born with might not match the gender we feel we belong to but it will often determin the social treatment we recieve. It logically flows that this would manifest itself as the feeling of being born in the wrong body.

    I am really reluctant to go down the path of claiming there is biological determinants. Right wing arguments about the “gay gene” for example leading to claims that being gay, lesbian or transgendered it is a sickness and therefor can be cured. These arguments are disgusting and should be thrown in the bin.

    Being transgender should be a choice with no restrictions and no psychological requirements should have to be satisfied for sex changes etc. I know in Australia you need to be determined to be mentally ill before you can legally get a sex change.

    I love the sentiment that Wolf shares in her book saying we will never again leave our trans brothers and sisters behind in the struggle to end oppression on the basis of sexuality!

  4. I agree with Scott’s response.

    Kareem: My argument wasn’t to discount or deny how a trans person feels, and definitely not to deny that they may desire to change their body to fit with how they feel.

    Even in a society with no sexual repression, such as socialism, I think this would still happen. In fact, there a records of sex changes that happened after the Russian revolution.

    The point I was trying to make is that it is difficult to divorce how we feel ‘biologically’ with what is constructed. For example, the desire for a man to wear a dress or anything else that is considered what women do can often be seen as a man wanting to be a woman.

    People can feel that they have to change their biological sex in order to do this, in order to act in way associated with the other sex.

    In a sexually liberated society, wearing dresses would not be associated with what women do just as much as masculinity and things commonly associated with what men do today would not just be the realm of men, and women would be free to do these things without being considered to be physiologically a man.

    Why can’t men just wear dresses as men without it being considered weird or not of their gender?

    I think Scott’s comparison about the gay gene is particularly illustrative. Gay Marxists have been accused of not being gay for claiming the gay people weren’t born gay.

    Sherry Wolf does go into the myth of the gay gene and the conclusions it can lead to and I think some of those arguments can people applied to trans people as well.

  5. Though one area I think biological feelings may have a lot of truth is the example of intersex people which Sherry Wolf touches on.

    Every day, thousands of babies are born with indeterminate genitalia, either both a penis and a vagina or a penis that is “too small” or a clitoris that is “too big.” These babies are mutilated to conform to the false binary of male and female.

    These people can grow up (often without their doctor or parents telling them they were born that way!) as the gender assigned to them. A person could grow up living as a man, raised as man, but have the hormones and internal organs of a woman.

  6. There is a crime here, once again society decides we must be one gender or another so parents are forced to chose. Who gave the state or anyone for that matter the right to decide that there is something wrong with an intersex person. The pathologization of gays lesbians transgenered and intersex is disgusting and wrong and used by the state to reinforce opression! The mutilation of intersex babies is a disgusting practice. If it is not going to kill the baby and i seriously doubt ambigious genitalia could harm someone, then they should be allowed to mature and make there own decision. Either to chose a sex or to remain intersex. Anything else is barbaric!

  7. The branding of anyone and everyone trying to come to grips with different experience, oppression, and expression (and the causes thereof) with regards to trans or intersex people as being ‘oppressive’ towards intersex and/or trans people is both ridiculous and inherently reactionary. It has been the walling off of all things trans, or outside of the gender binary, from all but those who are ‘proven’ to be trans or outside of the woman/man binary that leads to intersex and trans people either actually being or, just as bad, feeling cut off from the struggle for sexual liberation. We cannot win genuine liberation without the active involvement of trans and intersex people. We also cannot win liberation without the active involvement of so called ‘cisgendered’ heterosexuals.

    The point of interrogating what leads to people needing to question their gender, and from that identifying as trans, gender neutral, or any other identity that fits best how the person in question finds themselves to be, from a revolutionary materialist perspective is not to ‘cure’ – as this is a disgusting infringement on peoples rights based on the absurd notion that there is something ‘wrong’ with trans people – rather, it is to help overcome the depressing, despairing, and a lot of the times murderous anxiety and abuse that people experience when coming to grips with their gender, should their gender dare to break with the repressive behavioural categories imposed on people by class society.

    By placing class society, and it’s confining binary of gender roles (which are utterly necessary for capitalism to function), at the centre of why trans people are put through so much abuse and anguish when coming to grips with their gender identity is to in no way whatsoever suggest that by doing away with class (and thus achieving full human and sexual liberation) humanity will do away with trans people. On the contrary, I would say we would see a fantastic spike in the number of trans or gender nonspecific people, in a great sigh of gender relief as the shackles of capitalist gender roles, and the consequences of stepping outside of them, are done away with – meaning that people will freely be able to experiment with, investigate, and alter to their preference, their gender identity.

    The only possible way you could see doing away with the gender binary imposed on people by capitalism as leading to the doing away with trans or gender nonspecific people, of the reimposition of women being ‘naturally’ womanly, and men being ‘naturally’ manly (whatever that is supposed to actually mean), is if you have a biologically determinate view of humanity, or simply a very anti-human one which means that you don’t think it’s actually possible for the world to be a better place.

  8. Thanks Holly for your comment. I really agree with you on that first point about this discussion not being oppressive.

    I think I need to grapple with my terminology and wording after reading your comment, specifically your last two paragraphs. I think I’m trying to draw a distinction between biologically changing your gender and identifying as another gender.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it was my understanding that surgical alterations to someone’s genitalia and hormones etc. isn’t the main concern of a trans person. This comes out of a pressure within capitalism to fit their behaviour within the gender binary.

    And so people would identify as other genders, or no gender at all, or act in whatever way they please without having to change their gender identity under a socialist society. And indeed people may have complete biologically transformations, but this would become less important due to the gender binary being eroded.

  9. Partly there are a lot of unknowns when talking about gender expression and identification in a classless socialist society, for the very simple reason that we haven’t seen it yet – the closest we’ve come is revolutionary Russia 1917 onwards, before the defeat of the revolution as seen in the civil war and the rise of Stalin.

The question of altering your biology to match your gender is a deeply individual one, and different people have different reasons why they do or don’t need to do so – for some people whose gender is the opposite to that of their biological sex, they may need to change their biological sex so they can live completely, have intercourse completely, as a so called ‘normal’ person of their gender. For other people, they may not need to change their biology in the same way, but still change it somewhat to match their gender – an example if this is Thomas Beatie, who was in the media recently because they were, as the media dubbed them a ‘pregnant man’ – they took hormones to change their biology to match their gender, but kept their female reproductive organs so they could still have children. And there are a myriad of other ways inbetween.

It is also on the question of altering your biology and legal documentation that the full force of the state comes crashing in on people. The case of Norrie, who is (or was, depending on whether or not the removal of their certificate of gender nonspecificity sticks) the first person in Australia to successfully be recognised as gender nonspecific, is illustrative of this – they had to prove to multiple doctors that they were, in essence to be classed as ‘mentally ill’ in order to get sex reassignment surgery and then to be certified as of nonspecific gender – it is an absolute outrage that Norrie was subjected to this barbarity, and then upon going public had their nonspecific gender recognition overturned because the certificate was ‘legally invalid’.

So while I agree that there is immense pressure for trans people to alter their bodies to match the closest of the two genders we’re supposed to fit within, and that for some it is not so important to do so outside of this pressure, for others it is immensely important for them to do so for the sake of living as happily as they can. On top of that there are the unknown numbers of people for whom it is not even a question because they are poor, working class, or in other such situations that often do not even allow them to explore their gender at all. So I think it’s wrong to blanketly state that for trans people ‘generally’ the question of altering biology isn’t important, because there isn’t just one kind of trans, genderless, bi-gendered, genderqueer or gender nonspecific person, and because capitalism restricts and represses people in so many ways.

    Because for some the altering of biology to match gender can be incredibly important, so that they can live as true and as comfortable as is possible under capitalism within their own skin, people should have free and on demand access to the procedures to do so, hormones, surgery and so on, without having to prove to the state that they have a non-existent illness, and without such bullshit moralistic checks such as making sure people aren’t deciding to change their bodies ‘on a whim’, or making sure they won’t ‘change their mind again later’ and other such disgusting roadblocks. The humiliation and abuse that trans people are forced to endure at the hands of the state is I think some of the most stark examples of state control of peoples bodies. The fact that so many people fight against the woman/man binary in whatever ways they can shows how farcical and unnatural these categories are, and when capitalism and its barbarism is done away with we will see a flourishing of people as they are and can be, free of the repressive categories, and free of the persecution that goes with them.

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