The Unbearable Triteness of Being Bohemian; or, What the Fuck Does ‘Sexual Conservative’ Even Mean?

I was going to start doing this blog properly and write some actual philosophy about actual philosophers. Unfortunately, I’m in the process of moving house and don’t have all the books I need for that in one place right now…and then I got really angry.

Sorry, folks; you’re stuck with angry me until I sort out my library

What’s gotten me this angry is the use of the term ‘sexual conservative’ as an insult in debates around gender issues and the kind of views it is used to attack. It’s mostly used against female commentators but I and some of my male friends have been accused of this supposed ‘conservatism’ as well. It’s implications are clear; it is merely the pseudo-intellectual way of accusing a woman of being ‘frigid’ or a man of lacking ‘man points’ because they refuse to accept as valid a certain form of leering, pluralistic sexual desire. The term, simply, insinuates that the person arguing an opposite point must be shit in bed.

But what hideous political or theoretical positions must we be defending to be rebuked so harshly? Are we holding that socially conservative positions that deal with sexuality are correct? Are we opposing equal rights for LGBTA people, affirming the nuclear family or claiming that monogamy is an iron moral law? No, we are definitely not.

The position that we oppose is the one that normalises the universal objectification of women through arguing that conceiving women primarily as sexual objects is somehow an escape from Idealist and religious dogma and a return to ‘naturalism’. Of course, if one disagrees then one is un-natural.

It only seems fair to label this position – which posits ‘sexual conservatism’ as its avowed opposite – ‘sexual liberalism’. It’s attitude is bound up, fundamentally, with political and social liberalism; the belief that the individual must be free to follow their own inclinations until it impacts on the running of bourgeois society; that the dominant mode of desire (which is always defined by the dominant class and stratas) must be seen as the primary one. By liberal logic, as we shall see, anything which opposes this mode of desire is already a threat to it and an assertion of a different kind of subjectivity. As Mao Zedong points out:

‘Liberalism stems from petty-bourgeois selfishness, it places personal interests first (…) and this gives rise to ideological, political and organizational liberalism.’

This form of liberalism demands that the body of the other be open to the liberal’s enjoyment at every moment; either in actuality through some kind of re-creation of the ‘free love’ principle or vicariously through its being passive to objectification; both of these modes of sexual liberalism are concerned with manufacturing consent. It is well documented now that the during the western ‘free love’ period of the 60s, women felt pressured to have sexual partners that they did not want for fear of being ostracised from the prevalent youth culture and becoming a ‘persona non grata’ in the groups of friends that constituted their social network. Similarly, the body is objectified without the consent of the gaze’s recipient. By positing objectification as a natural right, the liberal encourages the other to not object to the gaze in the false belief that it cannot be averted. Sexual liberalism exists to stop liberals being told to fuck off when their desire contravenes consent.

The attempt to manufacture consent is not new; though these arguments and the modes of their dissemination are relatively historically recent. It has existed as long as the patriarchy; it has been implemented through beatings, starvations, sexual violence, banishments and torture. It has been open or surreptitious, ideologically sanctioned or merely ignored. It is a tool of political control carried out in the domestic sphere; as long as political control is held by an oppressive class power, the domestic social and sexual relationship will tend towards recreating the necessary conditions and practices of this class power. As such, we could call the project of sexual liberalism an attempt to re-justify the essential social relations of the sexual act.

We are not conservatives in that there is none of this self-indulgent bourgeois nonsense that we wish to conserve. We don’t give a fuck about how many consensual lovers anybody has, whether they prefer men or women, what gender’s clothes they feel more comfortable in or what they want to do with informed adults in the privacy of their own bedrooms. We refuse to accept, however, that they have a right to demand any form of sexual consent from the other.

This is not, as the liberal will insist ‘anti-sex’; it is anti-oppression. The supposed ‘anti-sex’ leftist and feminist lobby simply does not exist. It is poetic that the modern pinnacle of Western virility spends his time howling at people who aren’t there.

Introduction: Why I bother and why I think you should care that I do

Research blogs are, as a rule, deeply narcissistic. Research blogs in philosophy are only exceptional in how unbelievably turgid they are. I have no illusions about my ability as a writer or as a philosopher – I am deeply ordinary in both regards. The question, then, is why I feel in anyway justified to begin blogging my thoughts on my research in the vague expectation that someone might read them.

Firstly, I have always believed that working academically in the field of desire is inherently a political endeavour. The ‘problematic’ of desire – the questions ‘what is desire?’, ‘how does it relate to other structures and rules of the world?’, ‘what is its cause?’ etc – forces the researcher into allowing that what I want and my attitude to the object of my desire are not natural, unquestionable or obvious. The attitude I take to these questions always puts forward a ‘world-view’ and a structural logic where questions of power cannot be avoided. The process is best described as uncomfortable; by allowing desire to become a problem, the lucidity of each of our own desires become suddenly fuzzy and subject to influences that we recognise as oppressive and alienating.
It is clear to me that the question ‘Why do I want what I want?’ raises immediate contextual political problems. From the standpoint of Marxism-Leninism; my first concern was the fact that capitalism was still desired – and not just passively tolerated – in modern industrial western countries. In Spinozist terms, I wondered how it was that people could be induced to will their own oppression. In Marxist terms, I asked how the ruling class recreates the means of its mode of production in the sphere of human desire. That it does this, and does a bloody good job of it, is evidenced by the public fervour that the ruling class manages to raise against its most immediate victims – one need only note that physical attacks on people with disabilities, derided as ‘scroungers’, have been rising at an alarming rate since the assault on benefit claimants began in earnest in the mid-2000s – and by the fact that propaganda pieces for the ruling class and the capitalist dream are major box office and chart smashes. The relevance of a pop song about the joys of a lavish lifestyle or a film about fast cars to its target audience is effectively zero; nor does it offer – in the way of the old propaganda stories of the ‘hard working family made good’ – a practically minded (if objectively false) ‘how-to-guide’ to achieve a similar life for oneself. The benefits of capitalism in it are enjoyed not a possibility for the consumer but vicariously as an absent quantity that is willed to exist even at the cost of the existence of the oppressive other.
These considerations are what make up the ‘external’ element of my research from a Marxist standpoint; the question that follows from them is ‘How does capitalism prevent meaningful resistance?’

Recent developments in the British left, however, have raised an even more pressing and alarming element to the question. The treatment of incidences and accusations of sexual and domestic assault within the two largest left parties in Great Britain and the labour movement itself have revealed a burning under-current of machoism, misogyny and cabalistic rank closing of the kind that these perpetrators themselves have, in the past, rightfully decried. I have no interest in raking over the details of these cases: they are well known and it certainly won’t be of any benefit to the women involved to have the minutiae of their traumatic experiences pored over by the likes of me. It suffices to say that it has been revealed to us that many members, both male and female, of the organised working class are comfortable with a victim of sexual violence being interrogated over her consensual sex life in an investigation and see the publication of the mental health history of a victim of alleged domestic violence as proof of the man’s innocence and not as a reinforcement of Victorian myths about the ‘hysterical woman’.
How do we explain these phenomena? Stalin’s claim that elements of bourgeois oppression will always find a home in the backwards elements of workers’ organisation rings as true today as it did in the former USSR but we must question more closely what these elements are and how this infiltration takes place. Are these elements economic? To some degree, yes; those who make their living out of being ‘full time revolutionaries’ or workers’ organisers will undoubtedly have difficulty finding jobs outside the movement and maintaining the stability of their organisation – and their own control over its policy – is perhaps the only way of making safe their financial situation. This does not, however, explain the rank and file support for these individual’s decisions or the fact that the perpetrators of sexual violence within the left and labour movement can campaign on workers’ and women’s issues and yet contravene these in their actions; is this simply weakness? Certainly, the inability to be politically consistent is weakness to a contrary political force; but what is this force? Put simply, it is the bourgeois relationship between subject and object, what the individual wants and how to get it, how the other appears to us; namely, the bourgeois model of desire.

Under this new aspect we have to do away with simple answers to the question of how our desires are controlled and subject to modes of production. Typical go-to answers – the media, the attractiveness of the luxury we see alienated from us, the ‘anything for a quiet life’ mentality – are shown to be underdeveloped solutions when we see that this model of desire influences even those who suspect or reject these particular phenomena. We must look deeper at how our interactions with each other and the minutiae of day-to-day life reinforce power relations that we may not be aware of and certainly are not comfortable with. It is this pressing task of self-criticism that makes me believe that what I do might have some relevance for folk.

I am unlikely to get things totally right. I’m bound to be fairly clumsy sometimes and I’m sure that my own privilege can’t just be theorised away. Please point out my screw ups.