Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sexuality and social constructionism: a reply to Colin Wilson

Sexuality and social constructionism: A reply to Colin Wilson

Issue: 140
Posted: 2 December 13

John Molyneux

The mere mention of “nature”—in this case principally biology—in relation to human history and the development of women’s oppression—in my International Socialism article1 has produced a frenzy of accusations from certain quarters: John Molyneux’s argument is gender essentialist, transphobic, homophobic, not to speak of intellectually dishonest, ignorant, disgusting and so on. I will try not to respond in kind but would politely suggest that nothing I actually wrote bears such interpretation or has such implications. In my reply I will focus on Colin Wilson’s response2 while sometimes referring to other comments that have been made.
In my article I wrote: “Put simply, women are able to bear children and men are not”, and this has generated much heat. This, it has been said, “falls into the trap of crude transphobia” because “with one crude stroke of the pen he has erased the existence of trans people from the world”. The first thing to say here is that this sentence was part of an argument about the origins of women’s oppression. I was contesting the view, advanced by Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale (L&N) that the roots of women’s oppression were not linked to the social role of the family as it developed with the emergence of class society (Engels’s view):3
This matters here because L&N go on to say: “Continua lie behind the ways we characterise all aspects of our bodies, including reproduction, sexuality and desire.” Now, however true this may be for sexuality and desire, it is not true for reproduction. Put simply, women are able to bear children and men are not. And for most of human history the majority of women have needed to bear several children for the clan, tribe, people and species to survive. Moreover, when it comes to suckling babies, a biological necessity for most of history, there is also not a continuum. Women (again, most women) can do it and men cannot. And this, of course, is where “the family” comes in.4
Now let’s look at what Colin makes of this:
...social and technological changes are undermining common sense assumptions about sex and reproduction. In some jurisdictions two men can be recognised as parents of a child born to a surrogate mother. In the UK a lesbian couple can be recognised as parents of a child born following donor insemination. Transgender men have given birth in Germany, Israel, the UK and the United States.
These developments mean it’s untrue to say that “women are able to bear children and men are not”. John shows no understanding here of the politicisation of trans oppression, and the importance of avoiding statements about men and women which ignore trans people’s existence.5
Clearly the statements about men being recognised as parents of children born to surrogate mothers and lesbian couples recognised as parents have no relevance here—parenthood in this social sense was not being discussed. All that remains is the bald statement that “transgender men have given birth”. This refers to an extremely few recent cases of transgender men who were born with female reproductive organs and retained them after gender affirmation and went on to have children. These cases have no bearing whatsoever on what was being debated, namely whether the biological facts of reproduction, and therefore the different social forms through which reproduction is organised (ie the family), had any bearing on the origins of women’s oppression (thousands of years ago). Nor was any moral, social or other kind of evaluative judgement being made so the notion that some kind of crude transphobia was involved seems a bit much.
A second passage that has caused “offence” among people looking to be offended was as follows:
All Wilson’s examples of the rich variety of human sexual practices and attitudes, important as they are for other purposes, are irrelevant to this argument. It is as if someone were to claim that the immense variety of food eaten by human beings in different parts of the world showed that eating was a social construction and not a natural necessity. Indeed the variety of human sexual practices is more constrained by biology than is our diet. For example, attitudes to—and the practice of—oral and anal sex may and do vary enormously from society to society. But for the most obvious and compelling reasons all societies without exception have practised heterosexual vaginal intercourse on a large scale. No society has attempted to prohibit this except for specific groups (priests, the unmarried, children, etc). As we have said, nothing is forever and it is conceivable that in some “brave new world” this may change, but we are discussing the past and present, not the future, here.6
What Colin makes of this is quite remarkable:
John writes that no society has forbidden heterosexual vaginal sex and I certainly don’t know of one. But heterosexual vaginal sex is in many cultures surrounded by social restrictions. To refer again to the Middle Ages, sexual acts were forbidden before a couple married, which typically took place when the man reached his late 20s and the woman her mid-20s—so both went through a long fertile period without reproducing. Once they were married, sex was forbidden on more than half of the days in the year—Sundays, saints’ days and so forth. Cultural controls on vaginal intercourse play an important social role, which is often far more complicated that simply encouraging conception…
John’s attitude to non-reproductive sexualities is equally offensive. His conflation of sex and reproduction means that he makes reproductive acts (heterosexual vaginal intercourse) into a normative standard, while non-procreative acts, such as those performed by same-sex couples, are implicitly categorised as peripheral. This is certainly what LGBT activists call heteronormative, if not actually homophobic.7
In other words, Colin begins by acknowledging that I am right on the substantive point, then gives lots of examples of the rich variety of human sexual practices, codes of behaviour, etc which I had already acknowledged and which in no way contradict my point, and then says my attitude to non-reproductive sexualities is “offensive”. But I had not taken any attitude to non-reproductive acts except to say that they are not necessary to reproduction—which if I may say so is kind of obvious. I had most certainly not “conflated sex and reproduction”.
I am—of course—positively in favour of non-reproductive sex between consenting adults for reasons that are both personal and political just as I am in favour of contraception, IVF, a woman’s right to choose (were all those abortion rights demos we went on transphobic because they failed to demand trans men’s right to choose?), LGBT rights, oral sex, anal sex, masturbation and all other forms of consensual sexual pleasure. I have held this view for about 45 years but I must confess that I never felt obliged to spell it out so fully before. All I was saying in the article was that human sexual practices and societal norms and laws have been—necessarily—influenced by biology. This is a simple statement of fact and does not justify any kind of oppression, discrimination or prejudice whatsoever.
On the question of “the social construction of sexuality” Colin’s “construction” of his argument is, to say the least, strange. He says, twice, that “John points out…the social construction of sexuality is associated with the ideas of Michel Foucault”, but actually it was Colin in his original article who pointed this out. I criticised the “social construction” formulation not on the grounds of its association with the anti-Marxist Foucault, who does indeed have some useful insights, but because I think it is misleading. It is misleading precisely because it suggests, as I argued, that sexuality can be seen as “purely social or cultural, with no connection to the biological human body”. Colin “refutes” this by quoting Jeffrey Weeks to the effect that:
Sexuality builds on biological potentials… But we must also recognise that sexuality, like everything else, attains meaning only in culture. We just cannot understand the subtleties and complexities of the sexual world if we try to reduce everything to the imperatives of Nature…8
Then he says this formulation echoes mine that sexuality is “biologically based but then profoundly socially conditioned” so this shows that I am engaged in “combat with a straw man” of my own creation. But I was not arguing with Weeks’s formulation, which I agree with, but with Foucault’s and Colin’s formulation, which I don’t. And if it is a misinterpretation and a straw man to think that “social construction” suggests that sexuality can be seen as “purely social or cultural, with no connection to the biological human body”, why has my saying that it does have certain biological foundations caused such a furore?
Another objection made by Colin (and others) to my comments is that they are “factional”. In the sense that they were made in the context of current debates in the SWP this is true but then it is also true of his original response to Sheila McGregor and his response to me (and Sheila’s article and Nancy and Jonathan’s, etc). That is unavoidable in the present situation. But if the implication is that outside of the current context I would not have disagreed with Colin or Nancy and Jonathan on the disputed questions, it is false. As it happens a related dispute occurred in relation to my statement that “sex is a basic human need” in the pamphlet Is Human Nature a Barrier to Socialism?9 and the matter, along with the claim that sexuality was all a social construction, came up in my meeting on the subject at Marxism in the early 1990s.10 It is also the case that I debated in person and for several hours with Nancy about her theory of women’s oppression many, perhaps 15, years ago. So the disagreements are not invented.
Also of interest is the fact, as I noted in my article, that Nancy and Jonathan are at odds with Colin on the main substantive point in his whole argument in that they maintain:
Scholars now know a great deal about the past. What information we now have suggests that for at least 100,000 years people managed their access to food, water, shelter, love, sex and nurture in more or less egalitarian ways.11
Whereas, Colin believes, “there is no evidence for such claims”. Colin, however, has registered no disagreement with Nancy and Jonathan nor they with him. Could this possibly be “factional”?
Colin closes his article with what he seems to think is a smart debating point.
John begins by stating that “I lack the knowledge…needed to offer a comprehensive response” to the articles he criticises. That being so, it’s hard to understand why he has written on this topic, and why the editor of International Socialism has published his writing.
This line of argument is neither original nor logical. Lacking the knowledge to deal comprehensively with every aspect of a book or two articles does not preclude taking issue with certain parts of them, which is what I have done. For example, I lack the knowledge to offer a comprehensive response to E P Thompson’s famous The Making of the English Working Class but I disagree with the theory of class outlined in its preface—is it intellectually dishonest or reprehensible for me to say so? Some people disagree with Cliff’s interpretation of Lenin with regard to “bending the stick”. Do they have to be able to deal with all four volumes of Cliff’s Lenin in order to be allowed to comment on the matter? As it happens I wish I had the anthropological knowledge to respond to the claim that Engels “is wrong on more than a hundred topics”, and that “the abolitionist Frederick Douglass…the labour organiser Mother Jones [etc]...were all careful not to make such mistakes”.12 Unfortunately I have never read the latter’s anthropological writings.
One final point. I was quite surprised by Colin’s comment suggesting that my article should not have been published. He is not alone in saying this. A number of people seem to be demanding all sorts of things should be debated but then get very indignant when anyone actually debates with them.


1: Molyneux, 2013
2: Wilson, 2013.
3: Lindisfarne and Neale, 2013.
4: Molyneux, 2013, p202.
5: Wilson, 2013.
6: Molyneux, 2013, pp204-205.
7: Wilson, 2013, my emphasis.
8: Weeks, 2011, p18.
9: Molyneux, 1993.
10: Interestingly, Sheila McGregor participated in the debate on my side.
11: Lindisfarne and Neale, 2013, p145.
12: Lindisfarne and Neale, 2013, pp144-145.


Lindisfarne, Nancy, and Jonathan Neale, 2013, “What Gender Does”, International Socialism 139 (summer), www.isj.org.uk/?id=900
Molyneux, John, 1993, Is Human Nature a Barrier to Socialism? (Socialist Worker).
Molyneux, John, 2013, “History Without Nature? A Response to Nancy Lindisfarne, Jonathan Neale and Colin Wilson”, International Socialism 140 (autumn), www.isj.org.uk/?id=920
Weeks, Jeffrey, 2011, “The Social Construction of Sexuality”, in Steven Seidman, Nancy Fischer and Chet Meeks (eds), Introducing the New Sexuality Studies (Routledge).
Wilson, Colin, 2013, “A Response to John Molyneux on Sexuality”, International Socialism 140 (autumn), online only, www.isj.org.uk/?id=934