The role of the family and expressions of gender and sexuality seem to be deeply-rooted and part of our inherent nature as people, but these are all socially constructed and have changed over time.
For most of human history, nobody considered there to be any such distinction between people as lesbian, gay, bisexual or straight. People participated in sexual relationships without having these activities define them. In fact, even though “sodomy” was illegal in much of Europe from the sixteenth century onward, it referred to any non-procreative sex: masturbation, oral and anal sex, and bestiality. This meant that anyone could be guilty of the crime—men and women—whether they had sex with someone of the same sex or not. And while the punishments for such crimes were harsh, these laws were rarely enforced.
In his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, published in 1884, Friedrich Engels compared various societies, including ancient Greece and Rome as well as the Iroquois of North America. Based upon the earliest anthropological studies, there are some flaws in his work but his thesis—that sexuality changes over time and varies across cultures—remains true. He showed that changes in the family and sexuality were connected to the wider development of society.
The creation of the notion of monogamy is a perfect example. For most of human history, children were raised communally and therefore it didn’t matter who the father of any given child was, as all were cared for equally. But with the advent of private property a shift occurred. A man with wealth would want his children to inherit it but if his wife was unfaithful then any “illegitimate” children would take a share of the property from the rightful heirs. A result of wider structures in society was the creation of sexual morality where none existed before.
During the transition from feudal to capitalist society in England, young men and women were moving to London in droves to look for work. They found themselves free from the constraints of their families and villages, with new social opportunities available to them. Instead of working their family farms they were working for wages and for the first time they discovered they could have a private life. One product of this was sexual relationships between men and between women, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century a “gay” subculture began to emerge. Some men even began to justify their sexual desires. While on trial for sodomy in 1726, William Brown told the court, “I think there’s no crime in making what use I please of my own body.”
As capitalism developed, leading intellectuals of the day denounced attacks on people’s sexuality through sodomy charges and these repressive laws began to be stricken from the books. In France, after the French Revolution, sodomy laws were abolished in 1791 and sex between men and between women was completely legalized in 1804. Capitalism and the Enlightenment promised a rational and tolerant approach to sexuality yet the opposite was soon to be true.
In England, the Industrial Revolution saw millions of people flooding the cities looking for work in mines and factories. There was massive over-crowding, resulting in horrible living conditions. Economic upheavals sometimes left men at home to mind children while women went out to work.
In middle class families, where values of respectability and sexual restraint abounded, men went out to work while women and children stayed at home. This class associated open sexuality and a lack of respectability with social disorder in general—leading perhaps to revolution. They were also worried the economy, and thereby their own wealth, would suffer if many workers continued to die in their teens because of poor food and housing, or lack of care at home.
In the second half of the nineteenth century such arguments won over the ruling class and minimal restraints were imposed on capitalism in the hope of ensuring the long-term survival of the system. The family was a key part of this strategy. Women were excluded from some paid work—such as in mines—and children from most of it. The sick and the old were to be looked after in respectable, working class homes—without costing the state any money.
The Victorian promotion of the family involved attacks on any kind of sexuality outside of this norm. Prostitution, which was common at this time, faced new legal sanctions. Doctors were obsessed with stopping children from masturbating. Sex between men and between women also faced attacks. All sex between men was criminalized in Britain in 1885—up until then only anal sex had been illegal. A similar law covered all of Germany after 1871.
However, as early as 1864 a German campaigner called Karl Heinrich Ulrichs opposed such laws. He argued that men had sex with other men because they were part of a minority of human beings born that way and that therefore it was wrong to punish them for doing something that was in their nature.
Such arguments were taken up by liberal doctors and psychiatrists. They classified many different sexual behaviours, with “the homosexual” being one such category. Some doctors used this new idea in courts, giving evidence that prevented people from being jailed for their sexual behaviour. Some doctors who wrote about homosexuality also received hundreds of letters from people who felt this idea explained their lives. In this way the idea and the reality of homosexuality developed—first among middle class people with access to medical writings, then among workers as well. Heterosexuals and bisexuals were defined later.
The struggle today
Today, the family continues to be extremely important to capitalist society. Governments save billions of dollars each year because children, sick and elderly people are looked after for free within the family—often by women. The family is also important ideologically, with Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats all championing respectable “hard-working families” just as their Victorian forebears did.
But there have also been huge changes in the last 40 years. Women and LGBT people have fought for liberation, and made significant gains in formal legal equality when it comes to issues concerning employment, housing and health care—even marriage.
Now the dominant idea is that sex should underpin the loving relationships on which families are based. Sex, gay or straight, has become to some extent acceptable and it has entered the mainstream—pornography is big business, and sex is used to sell everything from magazines to cars. But this is a limited and contradictory advance when cultural expressions of sexuality are just a money-making caricature of real sex between real human beings.
And LGBT people continue to be oppressed—facing violence, abuse, discrimination, bullying in school and under-representation in the media—with advances for transgender people lagging far behind those for gays and lesbians. There is also no guarantee that things will continue to improve.
We need to continue fighting for LGBT freedom and a truly liberated sexuality. We need a society where people can decide how they want to live, not struggle to hold a family together or else feel they are a failure. Because LGBT oppression originates from capitalist society as a whole, it can only be eliminated by the overthrow of capitalism.
If you like this article, come to the three-day political conference Marxism 2012, May 25-27 in Toronto, which includes the talk “The red in the rainbow: socialists and queer liberation.”