Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, Simeon Solomon 1840–1905 (Picture: Tate/Tate Images)

Sex and human sexuality has always existed in many different forms. Sex has never simply been a matter of reproduction but has also been bound up with notions of desire, joy and societal norms.

It has often been a battleground between what people want to do and what their rulers think they should do. Throughout history, there has always been a vast variation of sexuality, but each identity has not always had a name. 

For example, the idea that there was a separate category of people who were homosexual or transgender hasn’t always existed. The word lesbian is a relatively new term that has only been in use since the 1800s. And, importantly, those with varied sexualities and gender expressions weren’t always oppressed. 

In earlier class societies, gender-variant behaviour and same-sex relationships were sometimes valued and sometimes tolerated.

In ancient Greece the sexual desire of adult men for boys was considered natural, even though there were contradictory views over the age, status and intentions of those taking part. Fluid forms of marriage and parenting and equality between men and women were common. In some cultures, sex between men and boys was regarded widely as a stage of development.

Before even those class societies, there was no surplus produced beyond people’s immediate needs. So there couldn’t be an elite that separated themselves off from work or exploit others. The emergence of this divide around 10,000 years ago is the basis of classes and women’s oppression. 

Women, whose role was crucial at an earlier stage, were cut off by pregnancy and childbirth from some of the more productive economic areas. Inheritance also became important once classes had property to pass on. One way to identify legitimate heirs was to police female monogamy.

The lower status of women also influenced same-sex relationships. In some societies, like ancient Egypt, there was a double standard between the “active” and “passive” roles in sex between men.

During early medieval society in western Europe, “sodomy” was used to describe various so-called sins, including same-sex relations, bestiality, promiscuity, and adultery.

The biggest shift in attitude to same-sex relations was during the industrial revolution and the birth of capitalism, by restructuring the nuclear family and imposing a strict set of morals.

The new system ripped apart existing social bonds and the family, which was the dominant economic and social unit among peasants. Big landowners drove peasants from their land and seized areas that had been available to all for the grazing of animals.

This process of clearances and enclosures forced hundreds of thousands of people from the land.  Poverty ruled in stinking and overcrowded cities like London, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds.

Frederick Engels chronicled working class life in England in the middle of the 19th century. He described how one consequence of this surge was the destruction of the family among the working class.

Capitalism was revolut­ion­ising social relations through rapid urbanisation and new intensive work patterns in the mills, mines and factories. These employed men, women and even young children.

As late as 1840 the majority of factory workers in Britain were women. This created the possibility of freer and more varied sexual relationships and gender roles among working class people, including more potential for same-sex relationships.

But industrialisation and factory work for all also undermined the very social unit which could provide for and reproduce a new generation of workers.  Capitalists had an eye on the horrendous mortality rates of their workers even as competition drove them to pay less and make conditions worse.

The average age of death for men in Manchester was 17. It was 16 in Bethnal Green, east London, and just 15 in Liverpool, according to an 1842 report. So the dominant ideological pressure from the top, based on this economic imperative, was for the re-creation of a family unit.

This was combined with a moral panic about overcrowded facilities shared by men and women, half naked women in mines and child prostitution.

Rulers feared for their labour supply and the possibility of revolution. This led bourgeois reformers to look for social, economic and ideological means to ensure the working class nuclear family’s survival in the longer term interests of capitalism.

They made conscious attempts to encourage and enforce stable family life. They promoted legislation to control child labour, for example, and to create the “family wage”. 

This meant that a man should be paid enough to support his wife and children without them having to work. To most working class people having a space outside work and the chance of a family life seemed an obvious benefit.

But these changes went along with acceptance of the reformers’ notion of the nuclear family. It’s no coincidence that the restrictions on sexuality and the prominence of the family happened as the industrial revolution took hold. 

This introduced, for the first time, the concept of homosexuality as a deviation from the family norm that needed to be repressed and outlawed. The push from the ruling class was often at least half-shared by workers who looked for a haven from the horrors of the industrial revolution.

The family unit was also the only way working class people who couldn’t work, from children, the old and sick, could be supported. The ruling class didn’t want the responsibility or burden of caring for the new or old generation of workers.

For working class people, the threat of the poor laws and workhouses pushed them into families—with men as the supposed breadwinner and women as housekeepers. 

In reality many women still had to work to make ends meet. Capitalism and industrialisation also brought with it a separation of work from home. Family life was detached from the roots of production.

Karl Marx wrote during this period about how workers became separated from the products of their labour in a particular way under capitalism. Completely separated from ownership or control of the means of production, workers are forced to labour in fragmented and narrow forms of work.

They are cut off from cooperation with each other, societal production as a whole, and so what it means to be human. They are part of a chain, working solely for their bosses’ profits.

As a result, Marx said humans are alienated from what makes us human, and so relations with others and ourselves are distorted. Our needs and desires are subordinated to and warped by the needs of capitalism, including the family and its inherent roles.

This creates a separation between how people relate to and see each other, so even our relationships and sexuality become commodified. Sex as a personal freedom became constrained within the family structure.  Women who had lived outside of a marriage were deemed prostitutes. Homosexuality was developed as a concept of sexual degeneracy—an illness or moral weakness.

Same sex relations were clamped down on, alongside prostitution and underage sex. The Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885 aimed to raise the consent age. But rather than rescue people, it introduced harsh new restrictions into law.

Part of this was the Labouchere Amendment, which added a clause that made acts of “gross indecency” between men a crime to penalise the procurement of young boys.

This clause was used in later years, such as with the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895, to create a concept of a homosexual person. Behaviour and “unnatural acts” were associated with the category of a homosexual. In capitalist countries it meant legal repression against gay men.

However, the new criminalisation of homosexuality developed a subversive LGBT+ identity and the possibility of liberation movements. As prosecutions increased between the end of the 1930s and 1950s, so did the reform movement to decriminalise homosexuality. This movement was dominated by the middle classes who tried to prove gay people could live “respectably”.

But a political movement, and people expressing their sexuality and gender, fought back. The explosive liberation movement at the end of the 1960s sparked the gay rights movement, which became the LGBT+ movement we see today.

To unwarp sexuality means breaking apart class society and replacing it with a socialist one capable of providing sexual liberation and equality. 

We don’t know precisely what this new society will look like.

But we know that a society not bound by class and the need for profit opens the opportunity to smash oppression and alienation and create freer ways of living.

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