Fifty years of the pill: capitalism and the politics of sex

Submitted by Matthew on 26 September, 2012 - 2:01

It’s just over 50 years since the Pill became generally available on the NHS.

The ability to control conception reliably was one of the most significant material changes in women’s lives in modern history. The last five decades have seen dramatic changes in attitudes towards sex and sexuality and to women’s role in society more broadly. But have they brought the “sexual revolution” promised?

Socialist feminists understand women’s oppression in relationship to both class and gender.

In capitalist societies, the work of reproducing the labour force — bringing up children, caring for extended families — has primarily been done by women. That remains the case, even though women’s participation in waged work has increased substantially in recent decades.

Capitalist societies have developed and refined ideological frameworks to justify particular roles for women.

The extensive unpaid work done by women to bring up children, for example, is portrayed as our “natural” role, an extension of our really rather more limited natural role in giving birth.

The most obvious impact of the Pill is that women are having fewer children — or none at all.

Only one in nine women born in 1938 never had children; for women born in 1965 that figure is one in five. The shift is most apparent among highly-educated women: some studies put the number of graduate women without children at one in three. This immediately flags up the issue of class: it’s those women with the highest earning power and biggest choice of careers who are opting not to have children. The “total fertility rate” fell from 2.9 children per woman in the mid-60s to just 1.64 in 2000, though it’s risen a bit since then, to 1.97 in 2008.

Alongside the fall in child-bearing, marriage rates have slumped.

More than 90% of men born in 1930 had married by the age of 40 whereas only 63% of men born in 1970 had married by the same age.

For women born in 1930, 94% had married by the age of 40 compared with 71% of those born in 1970. The percentage of the population cohabiting rose from 9.6% in 1990 to 17.3% in 2000.

In England and Wales 46% of babies were born outside marriage in 2009, up from 38% in 1999. Seventy-four per cent of babies born to 20-24 year-old women, and 95% of babies born to under-20s were born outside marriage. These are overwhelmingly the children of working-class women, who are more likely to have children than their middle-class counterparts, and who do so earlier.

Patterns of marriage have also shifted, and the shift has reinforced social inequality. According to a 2011 OECD report, “more people are marrying in the same earnings class”.

There is little research on the relationship between class and attitudes towards sex, relationships and marriage in the UK, but a big recent survey in the US identified significant differences. Middle-class people who lived together were more likely to see this as a step towards marriage, but “less-educated women disproportionately expressed doubts about marriage as a ‘trap’, fearing it would be hard to exit if things went wrong or that it would lead to additional domestic responsibilities but few benefits.

“Working-class cohabitors were more apt to view marriage as ‘just a piece of paper’.”

Rather paradoxically, the survey also showed that college-educated people were both more likely to be married and more willing to break away from traditional ideas about what constitutes a “family” (for example, in relation to same-sex relationships).

Though it might sound unromantic to describe marriage as a property relationship, property rights lie at the heart of marriage and are key to understanding its role in capitalist society.

Historically, for the property-owning classes, arranged marriages were all about making money.

Though in most western societies today marriage is perceived to be primarily about love and romance (and despite Tory wishes to reintroduce them no longer attracts tax incentives), it still has an important economic dimension.

Marriage is advantageous for the lower-earning partner in a relationship — usually the woman — because divorce law assumes that wealth acquired during the marriage is the equal property of both partners. Getting married is a particularly rational choice for bourgeois women who intend to leave lucrative careers in order to bring up a family: it guarantees a level of financial protection. This perhaps explains why the American college-educated women were more likely to tie the knot.

But if for many middle-class women marriage is a lifestyle choice, some working-class women find themselves forced into a marriage-type relationship whether they like it or not.

The benefits system forces (mainly) women to become financially reliant on men the minute they begin a live-in sexual relationship. Better-off unmarried people can make their own choices about the extent to which they share their finances with live-in lovers, but for large numbers of working-class people there is no such option.

About 17% of working-age households (3.3 million in total) receive means-tested tax credits — and that doesn’t include the percentage of households reliant on Jobseeker’s Allowance.

Feminists have long argued for the abolition of the cohabitation rule, but Tory policies are about to make the situation even worse. Whereas currently benefits can be paid to both partners, the new Universal Credit will go into the bank account of only one family member — likely to be the main wage-earner, so likely to be a man — exacerbating an already pernicious system.

The state thus enforces one particular model of relationship, the two-parent nuclear family, whether or not that family model would be the choice of the individuals involved. In doing so it contributes to a general ideological climate that says this is the best, most “natural” form for human relationships.

A huge commercial “wedding industry”, perpetuated by the media, backs up this ideology. It is central to popular culture: think of the number of soap opera storylines or popular movies that tell stories of romance and marriage, with the message that a woman needs to find Mr Right and ensure he stays faithful to her. Couples are urged to spend a fortune on wedding ceremonies, with industry-run surveys of the “average wedding cost” putting this at £15,000.

The acceptance of gay marriage by many conservatives makes the point that marriage is a conservative institution in its enshrinement of a one-to-one sexual relationship, with the intention of permanency.

The reason why marriage is so important to capitalism is that it’s a central mechanism through which capitalism privatises its reproductive labour. The job of raising children is done “for free” within the family, rather than the costs being borne by society collectively. People who want to organise their families differently quickly run into resistance — unless they’re wealthy enough to avoid any contact with the state.

The biggest shift in women’s lives in the past 50 years has been in our participation in the labour market.

In 1971, 47% of working-age women were not in paid work, compared to 35% of women in 2010. The corresponding figures for men are 9% and 25%. There is still a gender pay gap, of about 15% for full-time wages, more for part-time.

Some of the decline in the pay gap is a product of falling wages for lower-paid men, as well as increasing numbers of women doing higher-paid work. Access to reliable contraception has been central to women’s ability to remain in waged work.

But the high cost of childcare is a big disincentive for women to work.

A report by insurance firm Aviva in 2011, based on a study of 6,000 families, estimated that 32,000 women had left the workforce over the past year.

Allowing for the cost of travel to work and childcare, the report suggested that “the average woman with two children (one-year and seven-years-old) would be out of pocket by £98 per month if she worked part-time, and better off by just £120 per month if she worked full-time.”

The assumption that it’s the woman who’s better/worse off is of course problematic, but given that statistically she’s likely to be the lower-paid partner this is the reality for many couples.

These overall figures, however, mask significant class differences. Having children has far less impact on graduate women’s pay than on the pay of lower-qualified women. Figures from a 2009 Equality and Human Rights Commission report suggest that a graduate woman with two children can expect to be paid 4% less than her child-free female equivalent, whereas for women with no qualifications and two children the impact on pay is 58%.

In other words, it is working-class women who are most likely to be pushed out of the waged workforce and into financial reliance on a partner and/or benefits.

Notwithstanding the substantial effort on the part of government to enforce a particular model of sexual relationship, the trend seems to be away from it.

The NATSAL survey is carried out every 10 years and is a major source of information about sexual behaviour in the UK. A new survey is being completed now, so the figures available are somewhat dated. Even so, they give an idea of the trends.

The ideal of monogamous marriage is a reality for very few people.

The mean number of sexual partners in a lifetime is 12.7 for men and 6.5 for women; the median is 6 for men and 4 for women. These figures rose between 1990 and 2000 — and the rise was proportionally bigger for women.

Almost 35% of men and 20% of women have more than 10 sexual partners in a lifetime; the number of women declaring 10+ partners doubled between 1990 and 2000 while the change for men was much smaller.

Obviously there are discrepancies in these figures: some of this is a product of over-reporting by men and under-reporting by women; some may be an effect of the sex industry (a small proportion of women with large numbers of partners not properly reflected in the survey); some is an effect of the fact that women tend to form long-term relationships at an earlier age, and with somewhat older men.

But even if the increased figures are mainly a product of willingness to be honest in the survey, that suggests a significant change in attitudes about women and sex. (Unfortunately, the NATSAL stats aren’t broken down by social class.)

The number of people reporting concurrent relationships with more than one partner also rose markedly: for men this figure was up from 11.4% in 1990 to 15% in 2000; for women the percentage rose from 5.4% to 9%.

Increasing numbers also reported that they had had a same-sex partner: 4.9% of women (1.8% in 1990) and 5.4% of men (3.6% in 1990). In the past five years, 2.6% of both men and women had had a same-sex partner.

There was also increased reporting of practising anal sex by both men and women.

Again, even if the increased figures are mainly a product of greater honesty, that itself reflects shifting attitudes. But, of course, many of these are precisely the relationships that officially can’t exist in the legal framework of the benefits system, which recognises only one partner at a time.

There is also evidence of generational change.

For example, attitudes towards same-sex relationships vary with age. Younger people are far more likely to support gay marriage (71% of 18–34-year-olds, compared to 31% of over-65s).

These shifts in attitude predated legislative changes: civil partnerships were introduced in 2004, and discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation became illegal in 2007.

More recent surveys show a rise in same-sex parenting: the Labour Force Survey (2011) estimated that there were 8,000 families in the UK including a same-sex couple and children, and this figure does not include lone parents who are lesbian, gay or bisexual. The estimates are not reliable because of the sample size (and seem on the low side), but it is notable that in 2001 they were so small as not to be reported at all.

Same-sex couples’ parenting arrangements are interesting because they show the variety of family types that people choose when the link between biological parenthood and sexual relationships is broken.

Some children are brought up by their biological parents, even though these individuals are not in a sexual relationship with one another. Others are brought up by one biological parent and his/her sexual partner.

Some couples have an arrangement with the biological parent of their child similar to the typical arrangements of divorced heterosexual parents. These families show that it is perfectly possible to raise children outside the norms of a traditional marriage-type relationship.

But, once again, class divides are very apparent, for example, in access to IVF treatment and legal advicefor same-sex couples wishing to have a child. Discrimination, though now illegal, is still experienced by same-sex couples trying to adopt children or get access to IVF services on the NHS.

The greater openness about unconventional sexual relationships evident in the NATSAL survey has had some reflections in culture more widely.

The TV series “Sex and the City” was one prominent example; there are Anne Summers shops on many high streets and their high-end equivalents are patronised and endorsed by celebrity purchasers.

The internet has made it substantially easier for sexual sub-cultures to flourish. All this has prompted significant moral panic about the “pornification” of culture and “sexualisation” of girls. But the real agenda of those complaining is revealed by their opposition to the kind of sex education in schools that would better equip young people to interpret and respond to that culture.

We should be careful not to overestimate the impact of these cultural changes. The dominant narratives of TV and film drama remain those of romantic relationships ideally leading to marriage. True, more of these relationships are same-sex than they used to be, and that’s a big step forward. But positive portrayals of alternative relationships and family structures are rare.

There is a class divide in relation to sexual cultures too. Though I don’t agree with all their critique, as some feminists pointed out in relation to “Slutwalk”, highly-educated women can dress up as “sluts” at the weekend then go back to a different identity when they’re finished. Their sexual behaviour does not define them; they have words such as “heteronormativity” and “polyamory” to play with. For a working-class single mother whose children have different fathers, “slut” is not something you play at being: it’s what you’re labelled for transgressing the expected rules.

There is no doubt that the past 50 years have seen substantial shifts both in attitudes towards sex and sexuality and in the material position of women.

The two are related: as women enjoy greater financial independence they are more able to assert their own interests in their private lives. But the fact remains that for many women — and most sharply for working-class women — that financial independence disappears as soon as they decide to have children.

For a substantial part of their life, they become financially reliant on a partner. There is a great deal of pressure — whether subtly through media manipulation or overtly through a coercive benefits system — to comply with the shape of family that’s most convenient for capitalism.

Though 50 years on from the Pill much has changed in women’s lives, the benefits have been far from equally shared.

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