Sexual violence and capitalism

«Break the silence on sexual violence!» was a slogan often heard on Victorian campuses at the end of 1991 as students organised campaigns to force university administrations to provide a safer environment. The annual Reclaim the Night demonstration in Melbourne is one of the largest and liveliest rallies of the year. Whether it be a rape at a club or a sexist judge pronouncing that prostitute

s suffer less from rape than «chaste» women, hundreds immediately protest with letters to the papers and street demonstrations. At Queensland University a campaign for improved parking took up the question of safety. Governments have been forced to at least appear to take the issue of violence against women seriously, running TV ads against sexual violence and even providing some funding for refuges. During the eighties governments, police forces and official bodies held an unprecedented number of enquiries and conferences into violence against women, increasingly concentrating on domestic violence.

This reflects the importance of violence against women as a recurring political issue. There are three main reasons for this. Firstly, the sexism all women endure in their everyday lives, and the violence and rape suffered by a minority. Secondly, the increasing emphasis placed on the issue of violence by feminists. And thirdly, changes in attitudes to sexuality and women’s lives under twentieth century capitalism. As they have been drawn into waged work in increasing numbers this century, women have come to see themselves more as persons in their own right with their own needs and demands. This contradicts the continuing pressure to be the loving wife and mother with few rights in marriage. In Australia the Second World War had an important impact on women’s sexuality and identity which was never completely eliminated. Their entry into previously male jobs in large numbers brought unheard of economic independence. The dislocation caused by war, along with the presence of large numbers of US servicemen alongside Australian soldiers either on leave or waiting to be sent into battle, loosened the traditional ties by which sexuality was controlled. The «sexual revolution» of the sixties brought the contradictions of women’s new position in society into stark relief. On the one hand, the impact of waged work, the availability of contraception and limited, but increasing access to abortion meant that women began to be seen as sexual beings with real needs and desires. This was a step forward on the image of them as simply passive housewives.

On the other hand, this emergence of women as sexual beings made it easier for their bodies to be exploited even more blatantly as sex objects. Increasingly society measures good relationships in terms of sex, yet the use of women’s bodies to sell commodities or in pornography reinforces the old idea that women do not have equal rights and needs with men.

In this article I examine the themes, analysis and solutions raised by feminists over the last decade or so, with particular reference to recent Australian work, and outline a Marxist analysis of violence against women.

Fundamental changes in women’s lives were made possible by capitalist development. The industrial revolution and the rise of capitalist production disrupted the old feudal family. The new industry drew people from the countryside into new cities where men, women and children were exploited in the factories, mines and mills. This brought about the separation of work and family life. For workers in the industrial slums, the family ceased to exist as an economic unit (though it partially existed as a social unit). But for the ruling class the family remained an important institution for organising their class power and wealth. When they looked for a way to reduce the mortality rates among workers, they naturally turned to the family as a way of having each generation cared for and reared ready for exploitation. Marx and Engels thought the family would die away in the working class, but their prognosis proved to be wrong.

The reality is that women’s and men’s lives are structured by the family. And the family structures and maintains the oppression of women. While relations are entered «freely» by both partners, they are not equal. Women do most of the housework and child care, even when they work outside the home. Women are expected to provide nurturing, love and support. Men, who provide the greater part of family income, are seen as the «bread winners». This is backed up by unequal wages which make it difficult for any individual family to redress this inequality even if they wanted to. This division of labour in the family is often seen as simply the result of male dominance, and benefiting individual men. Actually, it benefits the ruling class because the present and future generations of workers are cared for out of workers’ wages and by women’s double burden of waged work and home responsibilities. Women experience inequality with their husbands in the family, and at work they suffer both sexual oppression and exploitation as workers. Men suffer exploitation, but not sexual inequality.

The gender roles associated with the capitalist family – strong, aggressive male and nurturing, passive female – pervade all of society through the education system, the mass media, entertainment and so on. No individual can escape them, even if they do not live in the so-called nuclear family, whether they marry and have children or not. It is the inequality between men and women, the contradiction between the ideal life of happiness and bliss the family seems to hold out and the reality of long hours of work, the struggle to make ends meet, the constraints on social life because of the lack of decent child care facilities and so on which make the family a site of frustration and oppression. The use of women’s bodies as sex objects reinforces old ideas of women’s responsibility to satisfy men’s needs. And it is not just men who view women this way. All studies of attitudes show how women internalise this view of their role, causing feelings of guilt and inadequacy if they do not come up to their husbands’ demands.

Throughout the history of class society, women have suffered violence at the hands of men. Capitalism completely re-ordered women and men’s lives, but it maintained women’s oppression as well as class oppression. While the family is separate from production, it is not unaffected by changes in the workplace. That is why the changes this century have given rise to contradictions which affect women’s lives in the family. The rise of the women’s liberation movement in the sixties was underpinned by the increasing numbers of women in waged work, giving rise to the demand for control over our sexuality, improved contraception and abortion rights. This made it possible for sexual activity to be separated from marriage and procreation. In spite of the ideology of family life, in most industrialised countries today, only about one third of households consist of a man and woman with their children. Attitudes to motherhood have changed dramatically. In the eighties fewer than half the women surveyed in Australia thought motherhood was a career. The number of children born outside marriage was up to 18 per cent by 1997. The number of people living alone in 1986–87 was 20 per cent of households. It is the continuing contradiction between the promise of these developments and the reality of life under capitalism and women’s continuing oppression which gave rise to concerns first about violence against women generally and then about domestic violence and rape in marriage.

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