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Sex under capitalism

“Nothing is what it seems”. So goes the Zen Buddhist saying. Karl Marx echoed it with his famous statement: “Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must rather be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social forces of production and the relations of production.”


Steve Latham


The same sentiment applies to our current socio-sexual transformations. In the West today, it is commonly believed that there is no settled essence of individual identity.

We are all, it is claimed, in process of transformation, of becoming; and furthermore, we can participate in this process, through our own deliberate, conscious, creativity.

Sexuality and sexual identity are fluid. Our gender identity is also considered malleable. We are encouraged to explore our sexuality and gender, in an activity of self-discovery and self-creation.

This stance is therefore conceived as a posture of freedom and rebellion, and sometimes social and cultural revolution.

We are encouraged to join this great refusal, to break out of the strictures of conformity, which we have inherited from the past.

However, as Slavoj Žižek notes, and he is no Puritan prude, this sexual ethic is far from undermining the current capitalist system.

Rather it is a symptom of its governing ideology.

Early capitalism required an ascetic ethos, in order to promote simple accumulation.

Sexual morality, family structures, and emotional expression were all curtailed to promote social order and stability.

Today, however, capitalism has expanded to fill the entire world; not merely geographically in extent, but psychologically, in depth, as ever-new areas of the lifeworld have been colonised by it.

Thus commodification has produced fresh markets, forcing all of life into a process of reification. Moreover, it has even created new wants and needs, and constructed new products to meet them.

To encourage consumption, a new expressive ethos has emerged, therefore, in late or advanced capitalism, to ensure the continued purchase of its goods

This longterm cultural development has also penetrated the sensual and sexual realm. Not merely material objects, but services and experiences are created and sold.

These include parachute jumps for birthday celebrations, pop festivals, massage parlours, and prostitution, which although the oldest profession has expanded through human trafficking.

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari theorised that capitalism manufactures new multiplicities, subjectivities, and identities.

While they saw this as potentially revolutionary, it also corresponds to niche marketing. Our contemporary explosion of sexual practices and identities, constitute marketing opportunities.

Technological discoveries make possible today’s technologically-enabled increase in gender-transition.

Techno-capitalism thus supplies trans-gender body modifications as pathways to personal happiness.

As Mark Fisher commented, capitalism believes nothing. It is compatible with any cultural system. Indeed, it is constantly creative, spawning ever-new cultural configurations for its profiteering.

This analysis doesn’t make these new forms bad, or good. It does, however, set our innermost desires in context, as manifestations of a hedonistic civilisation.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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