Sex and Political Economy

by Dennis Altman

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Sexuality is enormously influenced by global forces, both economic and cultural, but it is also rarely discussed by theorists of globalization. In most western countries there is persuasive evidence for a rising rate of heterosexual intercourse outside marriage and a move for women’s patterns of behavior to become more like men’s. The impetus of globalization is almost certainly to both break down existing taboos (eg. the high premium on premarital virginity for women) and lead to a gradual convergence of sexual behavior across different societies.

Sexual mores and values have constantly changed as societies have come in contact with outside influences and new technologies. It is not clear that the changes in sexuality in, say, post-communist Russia or rapidly industrializing China are any greater than those wrought by the Atlantic slave trade of the eighteenth century or the massive urbanization of nineteenth century Europe. What is different however is a far denser and faster system of diffusing ideas, values and perceptions, so that a certain self-consciousness about and understanding of sexuality is arguably being universalized in a completely new way.

Equally it is difficult to fully grasp the ways in which the emotional and ‘inner life’ are altered by the larger changes wrought by political economy. The emphasis on foregrounding ‘the personal’, most obvious in American television and magazines, is disseminated through a global media, which carries The Oprah Winfrey Show or Who Magazine to anywhere which has television and newsstands. With this comes a particular way of understanding identity and relationships as culturally specific to early twenty first century consumerist capitalism as Freud’s analyses were to early twentieth century bourgeois Vienna, and is reflected in the rejection of arranged marriages or women claiming the right to sexual pleasure.

The narrator in Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha claims of the man she loved that: “Nothing in life mattered more to me than pleasing him”. Contemporary Japanese women reject arranged marriages, are more likely than men to initiate divorce and have become increasingly willing to pursue cases of sexual harassment and rape. Yet this does not mean that sexual life in Japan is simply becoming westernized. The hypocrisies of Japanese sex remain rather different, meaning that the gap between what can be said and what is in practice accepted would seem shocking to most westerners. Nicholas Bornoff gives the example of “moppet cheesecake”, or the effective acceptance of child pornography despite official injunctions curtailing them.

For most women in the world sex and reproduction carry considerable dangers – disease, unwanted pregnancy, infertility and severe obstetric complications – which may well outweigh the possible pleasures, and again underline the extent to which the experience of sex is gendered. It is not surprising that women’s movements have often been associated with campaigns for greater sexual morality, often equated with forcing men to accept more responsibility for their actions. At the same time many feminists themselves have warned against divorcing reproduction from sex, of assuming that all sex is about pleasuring men at the expense of women.

Gender and sexuality come together through the family, and family structures themselves, far from being fixed or ‘natural’ as moral conservatives insist, are ultimately dependent on social and economic structures. Perhaps the most significant change for millions of people caused by greater affluence, urbanization and media influences is the replacement of marriage based on social and economic arrangements with far more individualist assumptions about marriage as ways of achieving love and personal fulfilment. With these changes in marriage comes a decline in the extended family, which is causing huge problems in the majority of countries which do not have state welfare systems and depend on families to care for the young, the old and the sick. Even as wealthy a state as Singapore legally requires children to take responsibility for their aging parents as part of “traditional” (or “Asian”) values.

Certainly one of the themes of fundamentalist movements opposed to modernity (the Taliban; the Amish; the Lubbitschers) is their rigid patriarchal attitudes to women and children. At the same time the male “flight from commitment” which Barbara Ehrenreich noted for the United States some time ago is taking place across the globe, as neo-liberal economics lead to the collapse of more and more families under the pressures of economic hardship and movement from country to city. One report from Chile claims: “Nationally, 25 per cent of households are headed by a woman, but they are concentrated in poor areas like Reneca where the figure rises as high as 50 per cent.” Such figures underline the double jeopardy of globalization: once economic booms slow down millions are left without jobs, but also without the informal security nets provided in the past by extended family and village communities.

As in nineteenth century Europe and North America, ‘traditional’ family forms break down with urbanization, industrialization and affluence, but the pace of change means that many people may move in one generation from the extended family of pre-capitalism to the post-nuclear family of consumer capitalism. A few years ago I was on Bataam Island, an Indonesian outpost a short ferry ride away from Singapore. Going into town in the evening, I was struck by the large numbers of teenagers flocking to discos, teenagers who had moved away from their villages and families because of the opportunity for work in new factories. The club scene, complete with its designer drugs, is by no means confined to western countries; there has been considerable controversy over the use of ecstasy in Asian countries over the past few years.

The more affluent travel abroad to find sexual freedom, or at least its illusion, which fuels the boom in sex tourism in places as far apart as Phuket and the Gambia. Some western countries have begun to accept persecution of homosexuality as a reason to grant refugee status. There is another sort of travel in search of sexual freedom, as is the case for thousands of European women who go to Amsterdam for abortions. In recent years some women have fled China, fearing compulsory abortions because of the “one child” policy: in a widely reported case in Australia in 1997 an eight and a half month pregnant woman was deported to China and apparently underwent an abortion ten days later.

Economic ‘development’ pushes hundreds of thousands into sex work. This is evident in China where official figures in 1991 suggested 200,000 people were arrested for prostitution, with the actual number working clearly far higher. Such figures reflect a general collapse of the puritanism of Mao’s China, with growing affluence creating new opportunities and interest in sex, mild perhaps by western standards but revolutionary beside the mores of even fifteen years ago. Similarly Vietnam by the late 1990s was estimated to have 60,000 prostitutes, and the women who offer quick handjobs in the parks late at night in Ho Chi Minh City are there as a direct consequence of the economic+but not political – liberalization of the past few years.

Changes in family structures and values are reflected the unease of certain Asian leaders about globalization: it is not accidental that Dr. Mathathir attacked Anwar, who was associated with pro-globalization economic policies, for alleged sexual misconduct. New social pressures are required to maintain ‘traditional’ forms of behavior as the environments in which they developed change – thus the concern of fundamentalists of all stripes to maintain such traditions, often through quite draconian social controls. Such controls create new victims, usually women and children who are punished because they have already been violated. In Jordan a quarter of all homicides are ‘honor killings’, punishments of women for allegedly defiling their family’s honor through sexual misbehavior, though there is currently a campaign to repeal the laws which protect such killers. In many countries governments provide no services for single mothers or illegitimate children, and in a few, particularly in Latin America, it is not unknown for police to regard such children as fit only for extermination.

In western countries not marrying is becoming the norm, alongside recognition of a wide range of family structures including single-parenting, communal households and homosexual couples. This range is reflected both in the popularity of television programs which reflect new forms of relationships (eg. the largely unattached singles of Seinfeld or Friends) and in the anxiety around the family which is reflected in the politics of “family values”. In the same way reports that more women are contemplating the possibility of life without marriage or children are coming from at least the more affluent parts of Asia, although the acceptance of single mothers and couples living together without marrying remains far less than in most western countries.

While debates around the post-nuclear family are most obvious in the United States the first national recognition of same-sex partnerships came in Denmark in 1989 and arguments about state recognition of homosexual relationships have now extended to almost all of Europe. The idea of ‘gay marriage’ became a major issue in the United States in 1996, when it appeared as if Hawaii would allow them, following which Congress passed+and President Clinton signed+the Defense of Marriage Act, which refused recognition of such marriages in other states. (The Hawaiian decision was pre-empted by a referendum, though Vermont has now recognised same sex unions.) In bizarre agreement with American fundamentalists, the Vietnamese National Assembly outlawed gay marriage in 1996 after reports of a couple of ceremonies, without any legal standing.

Globalization makes it harder and harder to see societies as self-sufficient, or to ignore the ways in which we are all products of exogenous influences, like the Coke bottle which falls from heaven in the South African film The Gods Must be Crazy and affects everyone in the film. The collapse of the distinction between ‘the public’ and ‘the private’, central to 1970s feminism, is itself being rapidly globalized.


Dennis Altman is Professor of Politics at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Dennis Altman’s Global Sex was published by Allen & Unwin in August, 2001. This excerpt is reproduced with the author’s permission from Chapter Three: “Sex and Political Economy”.

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