More than a century ago, Oscar Wilde stated what may seem an eternal truth. “Everything is about sex except for sex. Sex is about power,” he wrote. But what power could this be? As Marx posits, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” and “the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it” (Marx, 1845). A society ruled by capitalists will not only have its economic system shaped by capitalism. As a self-reproducing whole, capitalism becomes more than a tool for market organization— it spreads as a mindset and becomes an invisible guiding force in every aspect of the societal life, including the most intimate. Applying Marxist concepts such as commodification, the market economy and alienation, one can see how capitalist ideology profoundly influences our sexual practices, preferences and choices.
Capitalism depends on the production of goods and their exchange for profit. Simultaneously, in order to remain in business, the capitalist constantly competes with others, improving his production by exploiting the labor of others, as well as other available resources. Our sexual lives mirror the marketplace in several fascinating ways. First, to find a sexual partner, one needs to subject herself to various practices aimed at gaining the interest of potential intimates. In the process of doing that, the person commodificates her body and/or self in order to sell it for the desired exchange value—in this case, sex. At a typical party, for example, women dress in revealing clothes and wear make up to emphasize their attractiveness. Both men and women to varying degrees attempt to bolster or hide different aspects of their selves, in order to meet each other’s expectations and go forward in the transaction of sex. Online dating profiles almost entirely focus on the display of photos and descriptions of physical appearance. These tools for self-promotion closely resemble the marketing techniques used to sell objects in trade of more traditional commodities.
Consequently, the person simultaneously plays the role of a worker, commodity and capitalist. When one performs or manipulates her social image during an interaction, this requires effort and at least a certain sense of awareness of one’s actions which can be seen as constituting labor. Since the person decides to offer herself (including her body, time and consciousness) to another, she takes on the role of a “capitalist.” Yet, what has really been sold? Since neither the person’s body nor spirit changes its beholder (even though still commodificated to make the transaction of sex occur), then it must be sex itself. Sex, therefore, turns into a fetish, a commodity that is sought of itself and which people fail to see as anything more than a physical act.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx claims that: “The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations” (Marx, 1848). In saying that capitalism has stripped social relationships from emotionality, he believes: “It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation” (Marx, 1848). Indeed, the corporate mentality born by capitalism shapes how sex is viewed and practiced. When personal profit is its sole motivation, sex becomes a consumer item you purchase to be aroused and orgasm- a statement which rings true for many, yet breeds dissatisfaction and isolation. The more you consume, the better at the marketplace. The more sex you have, the better in the bedroom— or so it seems.
Having adopted the market value system, one takes its measures of value for his own, thus, prioritizing instrumental relationships as most significant. The US college student perfectly illustrates this philosophy. The majority of students seemingly find satisfaction for their sexual frustration in meaningless weekend hookups they usually do not even repeat. Why waste time and effort, after all, if you can get what you want at minimum price? The cost-and-benefit analysis, however, is the deathbed of affectional action where emotion reigns and inner feelings find expression.
The commodification of self, body and sex, together with the deprecation of non-instrumental relationships, inevitably leads to what Marx termed “alienation”. Just as with labor, in the realm of sex, alienation occurs on multiple levels. When having sex for the sake of sex, the human becomes both objectified and “a servant to his object”. Not only is his being reduced to his body, but his sweat, his moans, his movement and actions do not belong to him but are seen as pertaining to sex. His emotion is invisible. Alienation is experienced not only as an estrangement from the self, whereby the individual loses his human traits and becomes an interchangeable pawn in the sexual spectacle. It also occurs on an interpersonal level. When you see others as commodities instead of as living human beings with emotions and feelings, you cannot connect with them on a personal level and do not accept responsibility for harming them. Irresponsibility becomes a symptom of emotional numbness directly caused by the estrangement from feelings.
Sex also mimics labor in that those who carry it out become estranged from it. When during sex the individual “does not affirm himself but denies himself,” (Marx, 1844) he, thus, attends only to his primal desires, and not his spiritual ones. This reduction is, indeed, catastrophic for “he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal” (Marx, 1844). By the virtue of possessing consciousness, however, once he becomes aware of his treatment as a sexual object, the human grows incapable of accepting this perversity. Sex, then, becomes an activity one does not do voluntarily, but is forced to engage in. This coercion he feels, at the very least, stems from the biological urges of the human being which he needs to attend to every so often. The worker has to remain a worker in order to make a living despite his alienation from the labor. Likewise, when an individual feels exploited in the sexual act, yet is forced to engage in it (whether to satisfy a biological need, to procreate or receive other reinforcement), sex is committed as an act of self-sacrifice and mortification.
Capitalistic ideology profoundly affects the sexual relations in society as illuminated by the examples provided. Evidently, Capitalistic sex, as well as the system it stems from, does not allow both parties to win. When you have adopted the capitalistic mindset, you expect to either exploit or be exploited. In the way Marx sees the only solution to the alienation of labor to be the overthrowing of capitalism, the only way to liberate sex from its capitalistic influence, is to replace the capitalistic ideas that govern it with a set of values that will inspire people to treat each other with respect and dignity. This requires our society to place a value on relationships, regardless of their usefulness, in order to create solidarity- in and out of the bedroom.
- Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” Manifesto of the Communist Party. N.p., n.d. Web. Retrieved March, 17, 2015 from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm
- MARX, KARL. 1844. “Estranged Labour.” N.p., n.d. Web. Retrieved March, 17, 2015 from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.html