[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
This essay is an effort to look beyond the struggle to resist, critique, and understand sexist oppression, and articulate a revolutionary vision for specifically how we wish to structure a new society that nurtures and sustains healthy gender relations.
Participatory Economics (Parecon) is an excellent path to follow toward a vision for a just economy, but it must complement and be complemented by visions of many other aspects of society other than economics, including the principles, institutions, and norms of a society in which sexist oppression has ended.
Feminist and LGBT activists have constructed political programs, support groups, study circles, educational lessons and materials, and programs that provide health care and other services needed by those excluded from society’s sexual norms. They have also articulated healthy critiques of the classist, racist, heterosexist, and imperialist biases within feminist activism. However, activists have given less attention to developing an alternative vision for a society free from sexist oppression.
This essay does not pretend to offer a complete, iron-clad vision for society. Rather, I hope it will serve as a starting point and a communication tool to help us articulate what we are working toward. Also, I am not an expert on gender issues, and almost all the ideas in this essay were inspired in me by other people with whom I have crossed paths in conversations, activist work, or books in the library.
To outline a vision, we can first describe some very broad principles, and then list some specific institutions that are consistent with these principles.
First, the principle of non-domination must permeate all aspects of a society that is to be free of sexist oppression. This means that the limits of permissible behavior should be placed at the point where that behavior would begin to control the livelihood, limit the freedom of self-realization, define the role, or in any other way violate the sovereignty of another person.
However, compulsory social obligation should not be considered a violation of individual sovereignty, as it is in social contract theory, on which much of western society, at least, is based. The obligation to care for other people simply because they are people must be established as common to all. Currently, many types of caring are considered to be the responsibility of women. They are also considered private matters, and thus not the responsibility of societal institutions. In a non-sexist society, household work, health care, child care, rehabilitation of different types, birth control, child rearing, and other matters, must be considered both public and private matters. They are private in the sense that people must have the right to make sovereign decisions for their persons, and they are public in the sense that people must have the right to receive public assistance with them. Also, caring must not be disproportionately attributed to a certain sex, gender, or sexuality.
A second principle stems from the first: We must avoid defining things in either/or categories. For example, sexist oppression is not just a women’s issue, something that women must close ranks around and repudiate as a sex. It is also not just a men’s issue, something that men do to women and that can be overcome by educating and civilizing men. The same goes for heterosexual and queer people. Sexist oppression is a problem that affects all genders and sexes and sexualities (although it affects some to a much greater and more violent degree than others), and it can be eradicated only by the strength of all genders and sexes.
To illustrate this point better, we can assess the debate about whether there are “natural” behaviors of the different genders and sexes, or whether these behaviors are purely the result of “nurturing” by patriarchal, sexist institutions. Instead of choosing either of these options, I think we can acknowledge some strong, scientific correlations between some behaviors and sexes. But at the same time, we can recognize that such correlations do not mean that people should or must act in those ways, and it certainly will never justify societal institutions that force people to act in certain ways based on their sex. Behaviors may be a combination of natural biological conditions as well as nurturing. We can expect these behaviors to change over time under new, non-sexist institutions, but it is very difficult to predict how they will change. So, simply rejecting one behavior and praising another, or trying to base behavioral norms strictly upon “nature” or “nurture” will not solve the problem.
For example, if studies show that men tend to understand “autonomy” as being alone and independent, while women tend to view autonomy as engaging in personal growth as part of a mutually supportive relationship, this does not mean that in order to end patriarchal, individualist institutions we must institutionalize strictly relational autonomy and discard individualism. I think we should obviously incorporate both relational and oppositional autonomy in a principled, balanced way.
On a deeper level, as we develop a mentality oriented toward “both/and” rather than “either/or,” we should not get locked into a “both/and” mentality to the point that we reject every type of “either/or” characterization. For instance, either a woman is pregnant, or she is not. Either a person has taken on a commitment to parenting, or they have not (this point will be elaborated upon later). We should be open to “either/or” thinking when it is appropriate and accurate, and otherwise uphold a “both/and” mentality which treats differences as complementary, not mutually exclusive.
A third principle is that even though the problems and the solutions in different realms of society (class relations, gender relations, race relations, the state, the private economy, and so on) are linked, they have essential differences which must be identified and respected as well. We must avoid thinking that solving one problem (classist oppression, for instance) can automatically solve all the others. For example, discrimination in the workplace and unequal access to health care are issues that affect women, queer people, and men. Solving these problems for women will not necessarily solve them for men and queer people, because women, men, and queer people are different many ways, biologically, psychologically, and in life experience.
This leads to the fourth overarching principle: Laws, norms, and institutions must address the different sexes and genders as equal in all the ways they are equal, and address them as equally different in all the ways they are different. This means we must avoid constructions of a prototype of the human being as the basis for our institutions and norms. In patriarchal society, the experience of the heterosexual male are considered the defining human experience, and women, homosexuals, and others are considered to be different. These others are included only to the extent that they are like heterosexual men. Or, they are included as add-ons and special cases.
As we eliminate the prototype of the heterosexual (upper class, able-bodied, white, etc.) male, we must be careful not to construct a prototype of women, or of homosexuals, or other groups. This is because women and homosexuals of different races, classes, and cultures have very different and valid experiences and qualities.
To give another example, in the economic realm, we can design economic institutions and norms to assure equal access to goods, production, decision-making power, and empowering work, but we should be careful not to over-emphasize equality, or common needs, to the point that the different needs of different groups are neglected. The point is to get rid of the prototype itself, and the challenge is to create a system of equal difference, in which, for example, a heterosexual person and a homosexual person are equally different from each other and deserve equal treatment, adapted to their differences.
Stemming from this principle is the fifth principle that all different genders, sexes, and sexualities must be recognized and nurtured. Instead of calling these “categories,” which implies artificial rigid definitions, we can call them “experiences,” to show that they are real, ongoing, and changing. They are valid because they are lived experiences which, if we design our society’s norms and institutions justly, do not threaten to dominate, harm, or deprive others.
Experiences of biological sex include male, female, different degrees and types of transsexual, and those born with both male and female biological traits. Genders (the socialized and psychological manifestations of sexual identity) include people who identify with femininity or masculinity, or some combination of both, whether or not this is consistent with their biological sex. In terms of sexuality, we must recognize and nurture healthy sexuality in the form of heterosexuality, homosexuality, and different degrees of bisexuality.
As a sixth principle, sex and sexuality can no longer be considered something bad or morally wrong in themselves. Too many laws and institutions deny or disregard important aspects of sexuality with no apparent justification except that sex is considered to be bad and in need of strict punitive regulation. Knowledge about sex is considered to be an enticement to commit a bad deed. For example, “sex education” that does not teach about masturbation, female orgasms, or healthy and safe homosexual intercourse inculcate oppressive sexual values based on the notion that sex is bad, especially if it deviates from heterosexual and patriarchal norms.
This notion is incredibly pervasive. As an experiment, a theatrical group exercise, try to pair up or group up with others and then interact, with the condition that you all must “turn off” sexual moral norms, or imagine such norms do not exist. Probably one of the most challenging struggles that will arise is to know how to touch, look at, speak and listen to, think about, and relate to others without the moral norms that stem from the principle that queer sex, non-patriarchal sex, sexual attraction of any type, and just sex, are bad. Perhaps the first instinct of some people is to think the absence of punitive sexual norms permits them to touch or dominate others sexually without restraint. Changing such an instinct should be one of the objectives of the institutions we design for a non-sexist society.
I am not suggesting we throw morality out the window. I am suggesting we change sexual norms to be based on the principle of non-domination, among other principles. Instead of punitive sexual norms, we must cultivate sexual norms that are based on empowering people, giving people sexual power, to engage in sex healthily and with respect for themselves and others. This means educating people so that sex is not understood as a form of domination or conquest. It means cultivating the understanding that non-consensual sex and the use of sexuality to coerce others violate the principle of non-domination.
When designing institutions, a complicated issue presents itself. Are the institutions meant to cultivate alternative values through ongoing, perhaps never-ending, educational processes? In other words, will people always have some sexist tendencies that need to be nurtured out of them? Or, are the institutions meant to make immediate, permanent changes by imposing strictly enforced limits to behavior? In other words, do we think that people born into a society with well-designed institutions will not have any sexist tendencies and will simply never be sexist?
To deal with this issue, we can follow our principle of not getting stuck in either/or categorizations, and recognize that we should design both types of institutions at once. With this in mind, we can redesign sexual relationships, family, parenting, and work in line with our non-sexist principles.
Sexual Relationships – Intimate Partnerships
The institutions which structure our sexual relationships must respect the sovereignty of each individual. They cannot force people to sustain a certain type of sexual relationship that is not fully of their choice. They must promote healthy sexual choices for all types of sexual engagement that are not based on domination. Material or other privileges cannot be granted to a certain type of sexual relationship, and the institutions of other aspects of society, such as social services or welfare, cannot be oriented toward a certain type of sexual relationship.
Thus, marriage as we know it cannot exist, because it violates all of these institutional guidelines. It grants sexual authority to men over women. It grants privileges to heterosexuals in terms of property rights, taxes, access to credit and insurance, social security, housing, and other things. It grants privileges to sexual partnerships over non-sexual partnerships. And, welfare and other social service institutions, as well as employment contracts in many cases, are oriented toward heterosexual married couples.
This does not mean that committed, long-term, sexual relationships must be prohibited. To the contrary, those who wish to establish such relationships should be free to do so, no matter their sex, gender, or sexual orientation. But, nobody should ever be forced to do so, and those who do not wish to engage in such relationships should not be discriminated against, and should in fact be encouraged and assisted in forming the healthiest relationship of their choice, whether or not it includes sexual intercourse with their partner or partners.
People must have the option of forming legally recognized intimate partnerships. These partnerships must not be sex, gender or sexuality-specific. They must not regulate sexual intercourse in any way, for instance by mandating that partners be sexually engaged. The two people who enter an intimate partnership could be friends or even siblings. The partnership would entail a mutual commitment to the intimate type of support that life partners should offer each other, including support with medical decisions, investments, emotional needs, and the trials and travails that life brings to all of us.
In this institution, people who wish to call their partnerships “marriage” and perhaps have a religious ceremony consecrating their union are totally free to do so. But this will be their private prerogative. They will not be allowed to subordinate each other to domination-based sexual norms, and society will not grant them any special privileges based on the sexual or religious nature of their partnership.
It is important that intimate partnerships be fundamentally distinct from traditional marriage, not just an extension of traditional marriage to more people. For example, simply extending traditional marriage rights to LGBT couples still maintains privileges for sexually engaged, two-person couples and defines families based on the sexual relationship among their members. Sexual relationships should be structured on the principle of non-domination, but should not be controlled beyond this principle. This means that domination-based sex is prohibited in partnerships, but otherwise sex is not included among the essential aspects of partnerships. Instead, values such as solidarity, love, mutual support, common needs and desires, and so on are the essential aspects.
Something to think more about is whether intimate partnerships could be extended beyond two people, into groups. But there should be a reasonable number limit to ensure a healthy structure in which intimate relations can thrive.
Families are, in part, broader partnerships based on the same values mentioned above (solidarity, love, support and so on). But, compared to the intimate partnerships outlined above, families practice different, less intimate types of support, non-formal education, and love. There must be a type of family partnership that people can commit themselves to that is distinct from an intimate partnership.
The objective of such an institution is to improve family life so that it is optimally supportive and nurturing for all. The new institution of family partnerships encourages people to form harmonious, productive, nurturing co-habitation commitments by opening new possibilities for the expression and creation of love and family values, rather than forcing conformity to a particular, universal mold. The institution provides a basic, principled framework within which alternatives to the oppressive, patriarchal family may thrive in different societies and cultures.
People who are biologically related could certainly constitute families, as is the norm in most societies now. But people who are not biologically related could also commit themselves to a family partnership.
It is important that family partnerships not be structured hierarchically. No family member should have
the power to dominate the livelihood of another. Thus, the figure of the patriarch or matriarch, whether tyrannical or benevolent, must not be allowed institutionally or culturally. Also, ideally the concept of the family as a self-interested unit that defends its interests against other families would disappear as well. We should push ourselves to imagine other institutions that could help bring this about.
Intimate and family partnerships do not just encompass adult relationships, but also relationships between adults and children, or parenting. Parenting is different from adult partnership in two important ways. First, adult partners can independently consent to mutual obligations (beyond the compulsory obligation of everyone in society to care for each other), but infants and children, up to a certain age, cannot consent for themselves. This means the personal sovereignty of children has a different character with different limits, at least until the child reaches a certain maturity. Second, the sense of obligation between parents and children is heavily influenced by the intimately biological process of pregnancy and childbirth, while connection among partners is not. This raises an issue of the personal sovereignty of adults, namely the extent to which they must consent to parental obligation.
The institutions that structure parenting must have the objective of providing intimate care and support for the child’s emotional, physical, and other needs, taking responsibility for the child’s behavior, developing the child’s self-awareness and social skills, being in solidarity with and compassionate toward the child even when no one else is, and overall preparing the child to be a responsible, self-respecting, sovereign, healthy human being.
Are biological parents the only people, the most willing people, or the most able people to fulfill the role of parents? If so, if our institutions rule that the biological parents of a child are those responsible for the child, one sex cannot be obligated more than the others to care for a child. For instance, both the biological father and mother should be equally responsible.
If not, if our institutions determine that biological obligation is not the best way to assure healthy child-parent relationships, then we need to create a form of parenting that has several characteristics: 1) No sex, gender, or sexuality is more or less obligated to care for children, 2) children are optimally cared for, and 3) people have some degree of freedom to choose to be or not to be parents whether or not they are biological parents.
This does not mean parental obligation will be less deep or meaningful; rather, the intention of such an institution of parenting is to make sure that all people who become parents indeed wish to be parents, and that all children receive deeply committed, loving, and responsible parenting.
In many communities worldwide, grandparents, uncles and aunts, friends, and neighbors play very strong and positive parenting roles in children’s lives. Also, not all pregnancies are planned, even if birth control, including abortion rights, is fully accessible and legal. Not all women who become pregnant and choose to give birth want to take on parenting responsibilities. Many of them lack the ability for one reason or another. The same goes for men.
Of course, it can be predicted that a significant portion of biological parents will choose to be parents of their children. In this case, biological parents could choose to commit to parenting. But in the case that one biological parent chooses to parent and the other does not, the one who chooses to parent should have the opportunity to form a parenting partnership with a second parent. If the parent chooses to remain single, then society must provide all the support necessary to facilitate healthy parenting.
This can be done in many ways. Society can decrease the isolation among families that is so characteristic of patriarchal families, especially in middle and upper class suburbs of western societies. Participatory economic and political institutions help in this endeavor. We can also recognize that many aspects of parenting are social. We can institutionalize social parenting skills trainings for people who work in public institutions or public settings for that matter, or for anybody who wishes to be a better social parent with their neighbors, friends, clients or others. Furthermore, just as a basic education has become a public responsibility in many countries, we should also make child care, household work, health care, drug rehabilitation, birth control, and other related matters public. This would allow single parents more time for parenting and socializing.
Labor and Power
This brings us to a bridge between types of partnership (intimate, family, and parenting) and the organization of power and labor.
The principle of non-domination implies the re-definition of power and the reorganization of labor. This has significant implications for gender relations. Power and authority must no longer be defined as the ability to dominate or control others. The institutions of society must nurture a socially valued concept of power as positive, creative energy, and the strength to effectively act with others and independently. Positions of authority and the personality traits we attribute to those positions must be re-defined according to this new definition of power, and not linked to any gender or sex. There must also be plentiful outlets to resist domination, and access for all members of society to both obtain authority and respect others’ authority.
In the economic realm, the institutions of Parecon eliminate the option of asserting violent, domination-based power rooted in the ownership of the means of production. These institutions reward people who create power by bringing people together and uniting, among other things, their consumption and production proposals for allocation. In participatory institutions, the personality traits associated with authority are not those that make a person more apt to objectively implement universal, punitive laws. Instead, they emphasize the ability to subjectively communicate one’s own qualitative experiences and consumption/production needs, compassionately listen to and communicate others’ needs and experiences, and manage the relationship between both. Also, instead of authority being associated with commanding, coercive force, and anti-intellectual communication (like eliminating someone’s job if they step out of line or become unprofitable), participatory institutions emphasize persuasive communication and well-informed discourse, and rule in favor of common, win-win objectives. Moreover, in a participatory economy, empowering and disempowering job tasks are mixed into job complexes that allow an equal amount of empowerment for all workers, further reducing sexist discrimination and sexual division of labor.
Thus, Parecon changes power and authority in ways that will reduce sexist oppression, especially in a world where command authority is so strongly associated with masculinity. However, simply encouraging new types of authority does not guarantee that people of all genders and sexes will have equal access to authority. Behavioral patterns such as male domination of public discussions can reproduce themselves in new participatory institutions, with men dominating the new types of authority. To prevent this, institutions must be designed to ensure equal access to participation in public affairs, and to re-define public and private affairs as inter-related and not the responsibility of any given gender.
For instance, equal access to child care is of vital importance to guarantee participatory, accessible decision-making on economics and other public issues. Each public council in which decisions are made should offer free, local child care during every meeting. Those who carry out the child care should be well-trained and well-paid. The responsibility for the child care should be incorporated into the balanced job complexes of the participants in the council, and rotated so that nobody is taken out of the direct decision-making process for more time than anyone else.
Also, parental leave should be granted equally to all people, and the wage granted to people on parental leave should be the standard wage that Parecon proposes for people who cannot work. This may seem to violate our fourth principle of taking into account the essential differences between women and men, because women need, biologically speaking, more time to recuperate after giving birth. But in this case, granting equal parental leave to both women and men seems to equalize access to decision-making rather than make it less equal.
Other questions remain regarding work and sexism. It is more or less clear how balanced job complexes could apply to a factory or another such workplace that is traditionally associated with the productive economy. But how do sex work and housework fit into a non-sexist, participatory society?
In a non-sexist society, sex work should be legal and have all the rights that any worker in a participatory economy has. This eliminates the exploitation of sex workers at the hands of pimps, gives sex workers the legal power to defend themselves against abuse on the job, provides them with health care and other benefits necessary to carry out their work with dignity, allows for public health regulations to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and overall completely changes the labor conditions of sex work.
Simultaneously, if our institutions are consistent with our sixth principle, and they do not nurture the idea that sex is bad or a form of conquest, then we can hope that the conditions of sex work will improve. By reducing the pressure on people to fulfill sexually defined roles and repress sexual energy (especially that which does not fit a hegemonic, hetero-normative mold), and by providing society with comprehensive, positive, empowering sexual education, we can hope that clients will not seek to purchase sex as an outlet for pent up sexual rage or other such violent or domination-oriented motives.
However, the decriminalization of sex work, even in a just, participatory economy, presents a few problems that still need to be solved. First, it raises the important and difficult issue of privacy. If sex work is incorporated into balanced job complexes, then sex workers and sex consumers would be forced to reveal the nature of their production and consumption habits when submitting the relative proposals to the facilitation board. Such disclosure is less of an issue when it concerns something like bread or sweaters, but should societal institutions have the right to force people to disclose their sexual activity? If so, to what extent is sex considered a public issue (to the extent that it affects public health, for example)? If not, then this is a problem. To solve it, the option of submitting anonymous production and consumption proposals is an obvious measure that has already been proposed. However, it will have to be studied how anonymous these anonymous proposals really are in practice, to determine if their anonymity has the desired effect of protecting people’s sexual privacy.
Second, it is not clear whether sex work is empowering or disempowering, so it is unclear how exactly it would be incorporated into a balanced job complex. Currently, the conditions in which sex workers work are often terrible, and the treatment they receive from society is extremely disrespectful if not criminal, which suggests that this line of work is quite disempowering. If sex work is disempowering, would it be the shared responsibility of everyone to incorporate into their balanced job complex in order to collectively satisfy demand?
For some, sex work is a way out of poverty, a source of economic freedom to perform socially valuable labor, a source of freedom from sexual subordination, and a way to control their own bodies. So, sex work appears to be empowering. If sex work is empowering, then we must strive to fully transform the conditions of sex work to maximize the empowering parts of the work. The work could serve as an important outlet to resist the sexual domination that may arise even within our well-designed institution of familial partnership.
The same question arises about whether housework, or the domestic labor that is typically unpaid and assigned to women, is empowering or disempowering. The founder and coordinator of the homemakers union in Merida, Venezuela told me that the homemaker’s role is admirable because it integrates such a variety of essential tasks for individual and societal health, and thus has the potential to be empowering if we treat it with dignity. If this is true, then it would be satisfactory to simply offer wages for housework by incorporating housework into the balanced job complexes of those who choose to perform it. This would, in turn, make housework a public issue and house workers would have full labor rights and drastically improved labor conditions.
However, several problems arise. First, offering wages for housework on the presumption that housework is empowering would not necessarily change the cultural institution which defines housework as women’s work. It is possible that women would continue to be obligated to perform housework, even with balanced job complexes. If such a sexual division of labor persists in our new society, it arguably violates our first principle of non-domination and our fourth principle that people of different sexes should be treated as equal in all the ways they are equal (men and women are equally able to perform housework, so neither should be obligated to perform it based on their sex).
As long as housework is considered empowering, perhaps it is no problem if more women than men choose to include it in their production proposals. But many people consider housework to be inherently degrading, un-stimulating, rote and repetitive, like working on an assembly line in a factory. If housework is indeed disempowering, then there should be some measure to ensure that it is incorporated equally into everyone’s balanced job complexes.
This can be accomplished in several ways. If all members of an intimate or family partnership wish to perform the housework in their own living space, then they can divide the housework among all their balanced job complexes. In those cases where people wish to have their housework taken care of by other people for a time period, and then periodically take responsibility for doing the housework of other like-minded people, may do so, as long as they rotate the responsibility for housework in an equal way. Another option would be to create a public housework company that performs all housework for society. All people would have the responsibility to rotate in and out of housework jobs over time, and they would of course be well-trained, equipped, and paid according to the duration, intensity, and labor conditions of their work.
Conclusions and Shortcomings
I hope the vision outlined in this essay may be a helpful tool and a starting point for articulating the principles and institutions of a non-sexist society. The vision is neither a path toward limitless, undisciplined, irresponsible freedom, nor an “anything goes,” relativist mentality, as critics may assert. The vision provides a principled framework within which all people may exercise their freedom of sexuality and gender identity. I am eager to hear what others think.
This essay has left out many important institutions. For example, what would the educational system, the defense and citizen security institutions, and the judicial system look like in a society free from sexist oppression? These topics will be the matter of future essays and discussions.