How might we envision a future without the sex industry? It is a future that more and more feminists are actively pursuing. To the many more who – though they might fancy the idea of sex industry free society – say that it is so firmly embedded in human history and culture as to render such a vision little more than a pipe dream, I can only say what feminism itself says: that what is constructed in history can be de-constructed in history. And we are not the first generation to say so; there have been many documented attempts to construct and to actually live in sexual utopias.
That the communities who ‘lived the dream’ drew their authority from the Bible might not, on the face of it, appear to be very promising – particularly given the fact that the first and most sustained efforts arose within that contingent of Bible-bashers we are most inclined to despise and distrust: the Puritans.
I should explain that the Puritans from whom I (along with the late great Tony Benn) draw inspiration are the early Puritans – the Levellers and Diggers who stood out against Cromwell’s attempts to restore the very worst aspects of the old patriarchal order after the Civil War in 1649. Their roots lay in the dissenting sects sometimes termed ‘holiness movements’ of the previous century, whose adherents either found themselves (by being poor and illiterate) or had consciously placed themselves as outsiders in the established religious and social structures of their times. Believing that, as promised in Scripture, God’s spirit of prophecy would in future times be poured out on all flesh, rich and poor, “menservants and maidservants”, they and their successors saw themselves as heralds of the new heaven and new earth which was, they believed, coming to birth in their own time.
It would be pushing it to claim direct continuity between the utopian radicalism of the early Puritan’s pre-industrial world and the political movements which have arisen within the modern, secularised West. That said, they offer some useful pointers to those struggling to envision a new order of sexual equality today – all of which spring from the fact that, as countless documents reveal, they put a high value on sex as one of the Creator’s greatest gifts.
My guess is that had they known about it at all, the early Puritans would have opposed the sex industry not because it was immoral but because it was joyless. And for joy to abound there has to be mutual affection between the parties involved… Or as we would say today, they would have to really fancy each other!
The crucial thing about the early Puritans’ sexual idealism was that it was inseparable from their Biblically-derived social egalitarianism. If the nation’s land and resources were “every man and maid’s portion”, as the Diggers proclaimed, then there could be no reason for either “birth nor portion” to “hinder” a match. Thus they resisted the dynastic and/or commercial considerations upon which bourgeois parents were wont to arrange their children’s marriages.
The ideals and ideas embodied in the early Puritan movement have resurfaced again and again over the last 400 years, albeit in different forms and in different language (the words ’socialist’ and ‘feminist’ were not ‘invented’ until the 19th century), but are they alive and well in feminism today?
The Owenite Movement, whose name derives from the Utopian Socialist Robert Owen (1771-1858), had strong roots in the holiness movements of the 17th Century, and the language of their socialist pamphlets drew heavily upon the populist rhetoric of 17th Century dissidence. The movement attracted thousands of followers in the 1820s who, for the next 25 years, attempted to put theory into practice by forming “communities of mutual association” based on collective family life and the sharing of property .
By the middle of the 19th Century, social utopian ends could be more effectively pursued through parliamentary reform. Of all the great feminist reformers of the period it was Josephine Butler, famous for her campaigns on behalf of street prostitutes and her exposure of the growing international trade in underage girls, who was the among the first feminists to see prostitution as a cause and consequence of women’s inequality. Sex for cash was not, in Butler’s terms, an offence against morality but a desecration of women’s bodies and hence an offence against love itself.
Which brings me back to the present and the question of how we might usefully draw upon Butler’s and others’ work to build our own sex-industry free utopia. I think we can safely start from the assumption that the high-hearted men and women I’ve referred to were far less interested in denouncing ‘vice’ or cleaning up the streets than in making a world in which supply and demand would wither away. A tall order, but one which more and more people are pursuing now that the “old Immoral world” of capitalism, as the Owenites termed it, does not appear to serving any of us very well. Least of all the overwhelming majority of those who service today’s sex industry.
So what would a sex trade free world look like?
It’s now clearer than ever that we can’t have good sex in an unequal society; only when we have an equal society can we hope the world will be a sexier place.
Susan Dowell is a freelance journalist, grandmother of 11 and peace activist, who worked in Africa for five years during the 1960s. She is a theologian and co-author, with Linda Hurcombe, of Dispossessed Daughters of Eve (1981).
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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