Sexual Socialism in the
Glorious Nineteenth Century

Objectivists and Libertarians are people who value the traditional work of men—producing wealth—more than the traditional work of women—bearing and rearing children, as well as taking care of the sick, injured, disabled, and elderly. No doubt such free marketers will argue that those who produce things support those who produce people, and in fact make it possible for people producers, meaning mothers, to exist. But that logic leads to the “Who came first the chicken or egg?” debate. Without the production of people you have no one to produce the wealth, and if women stopped bearing children, the economy would collapse in a few short decades, if not sooner. Advocates of laissez-faire capitalism so overvalue and overemphasize the production of wealth that they imagine the nineteenth century, the century of near laissez-faire capitalism, as a glorious golden age of freedom, when in fact it was free for only a small percentage of people and even the freedom of those people was highly restricted outside of the economic sphere.

What is especially amusing is that the ethics of capitalism, the idea that one has the right to possess and control the fruits of one’s labor, is not conceived to apply to non-economic aspects of life by many of these so-called capitalists. If anything, the dedication to capitalism narrowly applies only to money and all things that money can buy. The philosophical underpinnings of capitalism that Ayn Rand claimed were necessary to justify the system are not understood, much less applied. If they were, Objectivists and Libertarians would understand the nineteenth century as one of economic capitalism but sexual socialism.

What do I mean by sexual socialism? Sexual socialism refers to a system that operates according to Karl Marx’s dictum: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Only instead of applying to economic matters, this dictum is applied to sex and reproduction. Women have the ability to engage in sex. Women have the ability to produce children. Men have sexual and reproductive needs. In the sexual socialist society, the abilities of women exist to serve the needs of men. And this is accomplished by denying women the right to exist apart from men so that they must exercise their abilities in service of male needs in order to survive.

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, women had no right to control their own reproduction and, once married, no right to custody of their own children. This dual denial, along with the near impossibility of successfully competing with men in the marketplace, meant that most women were under the total control of a man or men their entire lives.

The purpose of men having custody of children was to prevent women from initiating divorce, since a woman who divorced a man was usually denied all rights to her children. Custody of children was rarely a problem for the male who could simply dump his kids on his own mother or on any unmarried or widowed female in his extended family who depended on him for support. Men were the ones who produced and held wealth, so women lived and died on their whims. The production and care of people, which was the realm of women, paid nothing and therefore purchased nothing, neither food nor shelter and certainly not one’s freedom, not even the right to the children one gave birth to.

If a woman were able to escape marriage and find a way to live in the “outside” world, working for a living as men worked, she had to be both very careful and very lucky. If she got pregnant whether through a rape or through a consensual act and gave birth to a child, she and her child would both be stigmatized for life. She would be regarded as a “loose” woman and subject to predatory behavior by the worst of men, men who could rape and torture her at will, since according to the sexual double standard a “loose” woman could not be raped or abused.

Her child would also be stigmatized as a “bastard” and scorned for his or her entire life. In the old days, one’s “illegitimacy” was even on one’s birth certificate. Such shaming of women and stigmatizing of children was a powerful incentive for women to hook up with virtually any male who would have them since marriage would at least save them from ruining their reputations and giving birth to bastards.

However, once married, a girl or woman lost virtually any legal rights she had been allowed as a single person. A married woman or girl was the legal property of her husband who owned her body, almost literally. He was free to sexually abuse and torture her every day of her life (although he was never free to kill her) and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it short of murder, suicide, or castration. If she ran away he could go fetch her because she was as much his property as any black slave was the property of his master. And as I pointed out above, if divorce were possible to her, she normally lost custody of her children, a lovely law designed to make sure women rarely divorced their husbands even when they had the right to do so. (Such laws still exist in the Third World.)

And, as in other types of oppression, female servitude tended to be perpetuate itself in a vicious circle. When women could not vote, for instance, they did not determine laws regarding age of consent, leaving men free to engage in sex with children by making the age of consent for sex as young as ten. In the state of Delaware in the nineteenth century, the age of consent was as low as seven. Imagine, a girl could legally “consent” to sexual intercourse a full seven years before she even started puberty! (The average age of puberty was two years later than the average age today.)

The problem with low age of consent laws, beyond the obvious legalization of rape that such laws entailed, is that girls who were victims of male sexual predation were likely to be impregnated at an early age and give birth to children before they could obtain an education or marketable skills. This almost guaranteed them a lifetime of dependency on men. Such girls grew up to be women as much enthralled to their husbands as their own mothers.

Imagine the “social justice” of allowing the sex that invests the least in children to safeguard those children’s rights, while the sex that invests the most, has no say whatsoever in protecting that investment. What would you call a system where those who invest little and risk nothing control the product of those who invest a great deal and risk their very lives, if not socialism?

If anything, the precious “free market” so valued by Libertarians and Objectivists was built by the bodies of women (and children as well). Child labor apologists love to point out that if not for the Industrial Revolution putting children to work, such children might have otherwise starved, forgetting that if not for the enslavement of women, many of those children wouldn’t have been born in the first place. Forced reproduction fueled the Industrial Revolution just like it has fueled every form of wealth production.

It is also very easy to go out and devote one’s life to the production of wealth when all the social “scut work” of society is done by others. If one were a male in the nineteenth century one didn’t have to worry about taking care of one’s kids or the helpless members of one’s own family, such as the mentally retarded, mentally ill, physically disabled, or infirm elderly. That was the unpaid work of women, and women did it whether they wanted to or not, because they had little to no choice in the matter.

“Scut work” is in quotes because I do not believe such work is low and demeaning if it’s freely chosen and justly compensated. Motherhood is a wonderful thing when one wants it, slavery when it’s imposed. The other forms of social work are commonly experienced as especially difficult and stressful, but obviously unless we are going to send the sick, disabled, etc., to their deaths someone has to do the work.

In any case, the social welfare state exists today in the form it does partly because women refuse to be slaves anymore and do that work for nothing—something which apparently never occurred to Ayn Rand. She thought you could combine nineteenth century free market policies with a high level of freedom for women, and assumed, apparently, that women would still reproduce at replacement levels under those conditions as well as volunteer for all the other forms of social work. I’m still waiting for the proof in the form of a single example of a country where that happens. When that proof comes, I’ll be very happy to publicly eat my words.

Until then, I will continue to point out the irony of claiming to believe in capitalism while glorifying a century that practiced the most ancient form of socialism known to this species.

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