Let’s Talk about Sex (and Race and Colonialism)

As Western societies continue to experience social, environmental and economic crises, our ideas and beliefs on what constitutes work and what kinds of work are valued are ever changing: whether it be the ways care and sexual labour are regarded, the role of exploitation and criminalisation, or imagining what a post-work terrain could look like. Combined with an ever-increasing awareness the impact automation technology like artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will have on jobs, skills, and wages, the future of work continues to be one of the most debatable topics of 2019.

The future of work was debated at both Leith’s May Day Book Fair and Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement’s (SWARM), A Decriminalised Future: Sex Workers’ Festival of Resistance, two events which I was invited to speak at recently.

Seldom do these discussions offer opportunities for women to express their agency and experiences, however, this was encouraged at SWARM’s A Decriminalised Future, as well as a commitment to addressing the core issues such as poverty, the enforcement of ideological and physical borders or child care costs that cause some women to take up sex work .

As we currently live in a patriarchal world, it is impossible to know if sex work would still exist if we lived in an equitable world, or even a world that wasn’t so hung up on shame, fear and secrecy.

Why don’t we talk about sex?

Scottish Enlightenment

The roots of the ideology of civilisation that informed Victorian colonial policy and practice lie in Edinburgh. In eighteenth-century Scotland a theory of historical development was elaborated by a number of thinkers and writers, most notably Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Ferguson and John Millar.

Scotland had joined with the Act of Union in 1707 and the civil strife centred on conflict over religion in the previous century would have been difficult to forget. The establishment of the Kingdom of Great Britain, would have represented an opportunity to construct an identity of civilisation and project an illusion of political stability, particularly with the ever-increasing threat of the Jacobites.

The construction of an identity of civilisation crucially necessitated the construction of savagery and the savage ‘Other’. New societies across the world, encountered by Victorians were to be found right across the savagery and civilisation spectrum, affirming the notion of those most advanced in civilisation had a moral responsibility to civilise savage nations which displayed progressive tendencies.

The view of savagery and civilisation was a clever theoretical construct and its many empirical failings were ignored or overlooked, not due to an inconvenience to British colonisers to recognise pre-existing societal structures but owing to the binary of civilisation and savagery being able to define who colonisers were – as a civilised peoples.

Millar, expanded Smith’s theory of economics to include sexuality as a marker of ethnic identity, by which ideologically constructed races of the world were determined as more or less advanced based on European standards of sexuality.

In Europe, during the entire colonial period, Europeans understood sexuality very differently from most of the people they colonised. The European understanding was based on patriarchal hierarchies of gender, class, and race that placed men superior to women; aristocrats superior to common, indentured, and enslaved men; and white men superior to Moor, oriental, black, or savage men. In general, aristocratic white men encoded those differences of status in religious and civil laws that regulated rights, obligations, and behaviour.

The fact that African, Pacific Island, and indigenous had more sexual freedom than European women confirmed beliefs of native sexual promiscuity and on what constituted the European woman.

Whilst clothing and elaborate dress implied sexual exclusivity, nakedness was read as primitive – a symbol of promiscuity and sexual invitation. Indigenous women were often hyper-sexualised, distinguished from European women by their physical appearance. Exposed large breasts and buttocks supported colonial ideas that African women had a heightened sexuality and as such, were suited to the reproduction of children which would become a key component in the trade of Black women slaves.

In 1810, 16 year old Sara Baartman, was kidnapped from the Eastern Cape in South Africa and paraded around Europe as a sexual sideshow by Dutch slave-traders. When Sara died, her genitals were placed in jars and remained on display in Paris until 1974. Sara was kidnapped because she had large buttocks.

These narratives circulated the idea that African women’s physical attributes could be equated with an enhanced libido and heightened sexuality, as well as implying non-Europeans were bestial and could be treated as such. Remnants of this ideology can still be seen Scottish, British and Western societies today.

Sexual Control

The sexuality of non-Europeans was increasingly seen as threatening to the morality and virility of white male settlers.

The regulation of women and/or sexuality in non-Western countries can be traced back to colonial legacies rooted in penal codes. This includes the punishment of homosexual behaviour and the “grave and sudden provocation” provision of the colonial code – derived from British law – under which men could kill their wives on the mere suspicion of adultery.

So called “honour killings”, in which women are killed every year in the name of honour, has existed for many centuries, yet under the pre-colonial criminal justice system of India; perpetrators of such killings were dealt with like the other offenders of murder; without any exception or impunity from prosecution and punishment.

However, it was the Indian Penal Code drafted by the British in 1860, that brought in the tradition of treating the offenders of honour killings with leniency and latitude. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan – a Muslim-majority country – introduced its version of ‘Islamic’ criminal law in 1990, which allowed for compromise between the parties of a murder case.

In 1885, the British government introduced new penal codes that punished all homosexual behaviour. Of the more than 70 countries that criminalise homosexual acts today, over half are former British colonies.

Across Class Lines

There is a premium placed on controlling female sexuality across class lines.

In Europe, women and lesser-status men were vulnerable to the sexual demands of aristocratic men because they were politically and economically dependent on aristocratic men. Aristocratic white women were expected to remain virgins until they married, were usually only sexually available for marriage through explicit negotiations with their families, and were only sexually exploitable by members of the aristocracy. Common, indentured, and enslaved women could be exploited by both members of their own classes and the aristocracy, and were, in legal terms, available to anyone who wanted them.

The attempt of a rising class or class faction to replace another one is also about the clash between different and competing patriarchies or patriarchal arrangements.

Developed by the colonial state as part of its attempt at compromise and conciliation with indigenous peoples, various “Family Laws” made the control of women the exclusive purview of their community.

The elements of African customary law marriage that colonial courts, applying the rule in Hyde v. Hyde – the 1866 English case that defined marriage as the “voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others – found repugnant to justice and morality, included polygamy and the giving of “bride price” by the groom’s family to the bride’s family.

Polygamy violated the exclusivity requirement of English law and morality – it caused marriage to be about the community rather than about the individual exclusively.

As argued by Sylvia Wairimu Kang’Ara, marriage under African customary law was a public affair involving the giving of material things by one family to the other. Community involvement was an affront to the private and individual nature of marriage because it negated free will and the exercise of free choice by individuals. The exchange of things in marriage imputed a value to tangible goods incomprehensible in market terms and could not be allowed to prevail. Further, in place of tribal certification of marriage, the state should have been the proper certification authority to protect individuals from community control and domination as well as facilitate observance of individual morality by keeping a public marriage registry.

Moving Sex from the Private Sphere to the Public Sphere

To speak about sex requires a shifting from the private to the public sphere and confronting individual feelings of shame and secrecy, as well as the legacy of colonialism and capitalism. Discussions on human sexuality before, during and after the colonial period – including neo-colonialism – between both colonised and colonising countries and peoples should be the key

Perhaps then, we can have a healthier and deeper understanding of our sexualities and those who are marginalised and demonised as social deviants and/or criminals won’t continue to be at the whim of political agendas.



Comments (8)

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  1. Charles L. Gallagher says:

    A very compelling, informative and interesting piece that requires another much slower read. But well done to Layla for bringing this ‘touchy’ subject in some quarters to the fore again.

    1. Jim E says:

      Agreed Charles – lots to process, which requires a slow read. Enjoying Layla’s varied writing and the way she makes connections.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    It does seem illogical, with Scotland only just coming round to outlawing child beating, to present European nations as enlightened, considering their empires apparently introduced this practice around the world. What were these children, perhaps confined for a time in missionary schools, beaten for? Perhaps for exposing other abuses by the religious order?

    Was the Jesuit Le Jeune, who (according to Silvia Federici in Caliban and Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, Ch2.12) who boasted of introducing child-beating (and male dominance, private property, marriage-only sex and chiefs) to the Naskapi people, an isolated or atypical instance? My reading suggests not.

  3. Colin W says:

    Another enlightened(!) piece by Layla (Layla-Roxanne?). No-one writing quite like this in Scotland – as far as I’m aware – and I look forward to her monthly contributions.

  4. Cathy Gunn says:

    Excellent article with insights that need to be more widely shared. Thank you Layla-Roxanne – – I’ll be following your work

  5. evie says:

    ive learned a lot from this. thanks.

  6. Barney says:

    Where is Leila’s next article?

  7. John Matthews says:

    I can’t find any articles from Layla on Bella Caledonia since 2019. Is she still writing for you and if not, why not?

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