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Sexuality and Socialism: Book Review

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Sexuality and Socialism by Sherry Wolf was candy.  I devoured the book in less than 24 hours.  I didn’t expect the book to be as good as it was.  Judging by the title, I thought that it would be a little dry.  Instead, it was engaging, accessible, and humorous.  The book was good in that it was a fast read that approached sexuality from a Marxist perspective.  Grounding sexuality with materialism is something that I don’t often encounter as the dominant discourses around sexuality tend towards matters of biology and identity.   The book offers a fascinating history with a critique of popular paradigms of sexuality.

One highlight of the book is a chapter on the Russian revolution and Marxist thought regarding sexuality.  I was previously unaware that following the Russian revolution, there are some medical records of rather primitive attempts at sex changes as well as instances of same sex marriages.  This is quite astonishing how a relatively backwards, peasant based, monarchy could in the advent of revolution come to frame sexuality as a matter of public health, privacy, and scientific inquiry, rather than morality and crime.  So, Wolf’s chapter “The Myth of Marxist Homophobia” was refreshing.  Wolf very clearly elucidated the idea that Marxists do not view sexuality as secondary to social class, but rather that solidarity between workers hinges upon ending sexual oppression as well.  In this perspective, homophobia is not vastly separated from class oppression, but a means by which workers are divided.  It is itself an outcome of the material conditions of capitalism which require a nuclear family and rigid gender roles for the reproduction of workers, division of laborers, gender based unpaid labor, and privatized responsibility for children.  This materialist perspective shows the connection between oppressions.  The same chapter is also useful as it speaks about the specific failures of various communist countries and movements.  For example, while Cuba has moved towards more just treatment of sexual minorities, it has a dark history of putting homosexuals into work camps and denying LGBT activists entry into the country.   I visited Cuba in 2008 and was impressed that the country offered sex changes for free and was very pleased with my visit to the CENESEX (the national center for sex education).  In fact, the year I visited was the first year that sex changes were offered for free and the first year that there was a Pride Festival.  I was not aware that the Pride Festival was shut down due to the participants asking for an acknowledgement of past wrongs.  Nevertheless, the book is a bit hard on Cuba, as Fidel Castro has called this history a terrible injustice and most people supportive of LGBT rights would view Cuba’s reforms over the last decade or so encouraging (even if there is debate or cynicism regarding the purpose of these reforms.)  Yet, it is important to acknowledge an entire history rather than some hopeful reforms.

Another highlight of the book was a chapter on how the Democratic Party has been an enemy at worst and fair weather friend at best, when it comes to LGBT rights.  High lights, or low lights, of this history include Clinton’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, Howard Dean promoting civil unions over marriage, Obama being pro-state rights on the question of same sex marriage, Dukakis advocating against a gay caucus within the democratic party, and other instances in a long history of betrayals.  These tidbits appealed to me out due to my deep and terrible disdain for democrats that comes from watching flames of social movements or the sparks of social movements burn out in the stifling, airless environment that is electoral politics.  Another interesting part of this chapter was about the marketization of gay identity, or how the media portrays the LGBT community as wealthy, leisurely, and white.  This creates an identity based upon consumerism (for people to aspire towards through buying), but also ignores the experiences of LGBT individuals who are working class or people of color.

The working class is something that the book pays special attention to.  Despite media myths, gay men actually have a lower annual income than straight men (though lesbians make more than straight females-perhaps because they may not leave the labor market to raise children).  The book also mentioned that some early LGBT rights activists were also involved in the labor movement, such as Harry Hay, the founder of the Mattachine Society and IWW organizer.  The connections between labor and LGBT history is important in building solidarity but also viewing sexuality based oppression as built into our economic system.  There is perhaps a stereotype that the average blue collar worker is a homophobic white man. Many workers may very well be homophobic.  Yet, the stereotype that workers are particularly homophobic blames workers for sexual oppression rather than grounding it in capitalism and ideologies that benefit the ruling class.  The liberation of working people hinges upon their ability to unite.  I liked reading about examples wherein workers saw the connection between oppressions, such as the book’s example of Teamster’s uniting with San Francisco’s LGBT community in a boycott against Coors. In a similar vein, African Americans are often stereotyped as being more homophobic than white people.  I appreciate that the book addresses this as a racist myth that ignores that most conservatives are white and that the majority of African Americans have voted in favor of same sex marriage and expanding rights to LGBT people.  Finally, I enjoyed the insight about same sex marriage.  Many leftist activists pointed out that same sex marriage was not really an accomplishment to celebrate, as it reinforces monogamy and marriage, which are cornerstones of capitalist patriarchy.  Another critique is that there is a conservativism in the demand to marry, as it is an attempt to be just like normal, heterosexual people.  However, a person can be against monogamy and marriage and still for the extension of rights to oppressed groups.  There is nothing to lose by extending these rights as it challenges discrimination and can be a springboard to more radical demands.  In this same way, a person should support voting rights for women even if a person doesn’t necessarily believe in the electoral system or the right to serve in the military for LGBT people even if they don’t believe in imperialist war.   A person can remain principled against monogamy, marriage, war, the two party system, etc. but also believe in extending basic democratic rights to oppressed groups.

The book spends some time picking apart Queer Theory, identity politics, and Postmodernism.  I feel that the attention given to this critique was a little bit overzealous.  While postmodernism can certainly be critiqued for its lack of solutions, academic jargon, pessimism, and over emphasis on language, I think it is also useful to see what can be salvaged from some of the insights offered by postmodernist thinkers.  Since social movements do use language to frame arguments and slogans, language should be viewed tactically and anything postmodernism offers on this front, a possible weapon for social change.  Likewise, discourse is distilled reality, so I find nothing wrong with trying to determine how to most powerfully express material conditions. But, language can be a tar pit.  Focusing too much on it or over emphasizing its power just leaves a movement stuck in the muck…left to slow, fossilization.  As for Queer Theory and identity politics, I think that these theories are meaningful to LGBT people and that it is wise to tread lightly when critiquing ideas that oppressed groups find valuable, meaningful, or important.  Identity is a pretty important part of the lives of people, even if identity is shaped by consumerism and capitalism.  But, the book’s critique is not so much about focusing on identity as it is the tactics of certain groups (which shunned mass movements).  Honestly, a group should have the autonomy to chose its own tactics.  While some tactics may not be traditionally as effective, they might be coupled with mass movements or used creatively to attract people to more massive actions.  As for queer theory, I cannot weigh in on the book’s criticisms as I am simply not knowledgeable enough.  I had a positive view of queer theory as an attempt to unite at LGBTQIAH…people under an umbrella of queerness and for trying to dismantle false dichotomies between gay and straight or queer and not queer.  Although the theory is not a class based analysis, in my limited understanding, I appreciate attempts to deconstruct what is taken for granted as truth about sexuality.

A more satisfying section on the book is about the dominance of biological determinism in the discussion of LGBT people.  This has been a personal pet peeve of my own.  Biological determinism has been useful to activists, since it legitimizes LGBT identities and experiences through the notion that people are born that way.  From my own experiences, I don’t feel that I was born bi, female, male, heterosexual, asexual, or any sexual/gender identity really.  I don’t view my life as a long narrative of unchanging desires or orientations.  In high school, I was uncertain about my sexual orientation and even at this moment, I am uncertain of my gender identity. To others, this might seem inauthentic.  Somehow biology makes something authentic, whereas choice does not.   The book emphasizes the social aspects of identity/desire/orientation and the interplay between biology and environment.  Even if some choice is involved in gender and sexuality and that the meaning of these things changes with changes in material conditions, this does not justify oppression.

As a whole, I enjoyed the book.  There are some things I didn’t agree with, but I largely enjoyed the book for its attempt to root LGBT issues and history within capitalism.  I can’t imagine a work on this topic, from a materialist perspective, that is more accessible and fascinating.  My review is far from comprehensive, but documents my impression of the book and some of the arguments therein.
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