News & Politics

The Ties That Bind Sexual Assault, Gender, and 21st-Century Capitalism

The relationship between the three is finally exposed.

Photo Credit: 271 EAK MOTO /

Rampant sexual abuse is finally being uncovered. It’s about time. Since this is hardly something new, why is it being outed now? To answer that question, we look at three major forces that shape sex abuse in the United States and other modern societies. The first two are class structures: how the capitalist class structure organizes the work experience in enterprises and how what turns out to be a feudal class structure shapes the work experience inside households. The third force is the system of gender definitions, roles and relations that shapes many social experiences. We seek to identify and explain how capitalism, feudalism and gender interact to overdetermine sexual assault as well as women’s rebellion against sexual assault.

Capitalism organizes most enterprises’ production of goods and services into two fundamentally unequal positions: employer and employee. The former is typically positioned exclusively to decide what gets produced when in each enterprise. The employer alone decides the how of production (technology choice) and the where (geographic location). Finally, employers receive and distribute all surpluses and profits realized in and by the enterprise as a whole. Among the people comprising the socially dominant capitalist enterprises of today—corporations—employers constitute a tiny minority (major shareholders plus boards of directors), while employees constitute the vast majority.

Employers' control over production means that they prevail in shaping the conditions of employees' labor (stress, command and control hierarchy, noise, air quality, choice of co-workers, location, speed demanded, etc.). Profits provide incentives and control provides opportunities for abuses to arise. Perhaps most importantly, employers decide whether and when to hire and fire employees. Employers thus provide employees with means of consumption needed to sustain them and likewise deprive them of such means. No equivalent capability typically runs in the reverse direction from employees to employers.

The resulting dependence of employees on employers—in the production process and in its allied exchange process (hiring/firing)—has been nearly total. Such one-sided dependence invites and enables abuse. The literature of capitalism over the last three centuries exhibits many accounts of abuse by employers including sexual abuses of the sort now so much in the news. The former Soviet Union and similarly organized societies replaced capitalists with bureaucrats who then also occupied positions quite like private capitalist employers in what we thus called state capitalism. Not surprisingly, state capitalism too saw various kinds of abuse of employees there who were similarly dependent on bureaucrats sitting atop state enterprises. Even the strongest labor unions could only ever partially reduce that dependence.   

Capitalism is not alone as a production system that fosters abuses of a subordinated majority by a dominating minority. Masters abused slaves, and lords abused serfs. Moreover, fundamental inequalities within production systems have usually reinforced parallel inequalities at other social sites such as states and households. Monarchies, for example, often exhibited royalties' abuses of subjects.

The employer-employee structure of capitalist production, with its attendant hiring and firing of employees, exposes the abusive potential of all market exchanges. Buyers and sellers with different levels of dependence on the outcomes of their market exchanges can take abusive advantage of those differences. Employers typically depend far less on their capitalist profits than employees depend on their wages. Other examples include the restaurant server needing tips, the teacher or nurse seeking career advancement, the artist striving for the big break, and the retail clerk needing different work hours. They all confront actual or potential employers from their position as unequals, depending on those who are more powerful than they are.

For the structural factors contributing to abuse, a structural solution is needed. Exhortations to "just say no” to abuses of all kinds have remarkably parallel records of failure. Exhortations to refuse and reject abusive behavior did not suffice to end it within slavery or feudalism. The history of capitalism's evident inability to end its abuses suggests that the same ineffectiveness of religious, legal, or ethical exhortation afflicts capitalism.

A structural solution is available. It addresses the structural roots of abuse in capitalist systems of production by proposing a radical democratization of enterprise organization. Indeed, this structural solution applies to all class systems pitting dominant minorities against subordinated majorities: master-slave, lord-serf and employer-employee structures. That solution is a democratically run community of employees who are simultaneously their own collective employer: what may be called worker cooperatives or workers self-directed enterprises. A transition to an economy based on such enterprises would replace alike the slave, feudal and capitalist enterprises by eliminating their defining class structures.

Their elimination removes a basic structural contributor to abusive behavior and relationships. No minority any longer controls the living conditions of a majority. The dependence of all upon all and the shared identity of employer and employee within workplaces obviates one-sided dependencies and their abusive consequences.

No simplistic abolition of all abuse is argued here. An economy based on worker coops is no universal panacea. It will have its specific problems and perhaps its set of abuses. But transition to such an economy will have overcome the sets of abuses suffered by the majorities within slavery, feudalism and capitalism. That is because transition to a worker-coop-based economy is based on the recognition that those previous systems’ unequal structures of production were key obstacles to be overcome.

The current attention to sexual abuses can mature into a grasp of their structural roots in a capitalism that can and should be superseded. Or that attention can remain just another moment when a system's basic flaw are glimpsed but left unaddressed because system change seems too hard and too much to seek “realistically.” Ironically the reality is that without system change prospects are indeed poor for an end to the sorts of abuse we now see being exposed.

In addition to superseding capitalism, we also need to supersede the gender definitions and roles that contribute to men sexually assaulting women and other men. Gender roles have a particular relationship with feudal class structures. Since early colonial times, the United States, while committed officially to liberty and justice for all, subordinated most women inside households where the work was organized along the lines of a feudal class structure. The marriage relation organized the wife to perform all sorts of labor (cooking, cleaning, sexual services, medical care, etc.) not only for themselves but also for their husbands. Like medieval European serfs who swore in church ceremonies to love, honor, and obey their feudal lords, wives swore much the same to their husbands in church rituals. Like feudal lords, American husbands supported their wives and children in homes effectively owned by their husbands. The feudal lord governed and ruled over subordinated serfs much as husbands were “kings” in their domestic “castles.” Feudal class structures, in American households as in medieval European feudal manors, enabled all sorts of abuses by lords and husbands, including sexual abuses. Despite all sorts of changes over the centuries, many American households still retain major parts of their long history of feudal class structure.

The history of European feudalism includes all manner of lords’ sexual abuses of serfs. Likewise, feudal households have a long history of sexual abuse of wives. Songs, stories, folk tales, novels, and poems offer reams of evidence. Although rape was a crime even in colonial times, spousal rape was not criminalized throughout all the United States until 2005. A married women’s sexuality belonged to her husband, not to herself.

The pervasiveness of sexual assault today reflects the combined effects of households’ feudal class structures and enterprises’ capitalist class structures. It also reflects our society’s structure of gender definitions, roles and relations. These can position men in the positions of feudal lords at home and capitalist employers at work. Women are in the subordinate positions of either housewife/serf or capitalist employee or both. The majority of men are caught in between: dominant, perhaps, at home but clearly subordinate at work. The question for them is whether they will ally with their wives to overturn all hierarchical class structures, at home and at work, or with the dominant men in capitalist enterprises. In the latter case, they may well focus on becoming dominant at least at home since they cannot ascend—other than in fantasies—to employer positions within the capitalist system.

In capitalist America, men like Donald Trump, who wield the power to make a beauty contestant’s career or a career in business, can use that power to access subordinates’ sexuality. The workplace then replicates the feudally organized household where the husband who supported his wife economically felt entitled to take control of her sexuality. Such control is pursued and practiced widely from the top of our capitalist economic system to the bottom. Something more occurs than the extraction of women’s surplus labor, the value their labor adds less than the value paid to them in wages.

Whether women employees are waitresses, farm workers, maids, actresses, tech partners, assembly line workers, or junior faculty, access to their surplus product is accompanied often by a sense of entitled sexual access to women (harassment, assaults, etc.). Waitresses suffer sexual assaults by bosses, managers or potential tip-giving customers. Hotel maids worry about the men whose rooms they clean. Aspiring actresses agonize over assaults or sexual demands from producers and directors. Tech designers applying for funding for their new apps fear demands for sex from those who might fund their apps. Female lobbyists fear legislators’ demands exchanging their votes for sex. Students in need of good grades or recommendations risk assaults by their professors. Saleswomen selling computer systems suffer sexual assault by their clients. Sexual assaults in America flow in significant part from how men and women are positioned within the deeply unequal class structures of capitalist enterprises and feudal households.

Gender definitions and relations contribute to pervasive sexual assaults as they interact with class structures at home and at work. For example, child rearing practices that inculcate gender definitions are also culprits. Basic concepts of gender develop in children by three to five years of age (Lloyd, 2010). In the US, prevalent concepts designate men as primarily wage earners and women as primarily responsible for home and children. Even though the majority of women now work outside of the home as well as within it, women still do the overwhelming majority of caring for children inside the home and outside too in childcare centersnursery schools, etc.

Thus, in the U.S. today, almost all children spend their first and formative years in a virtual matriarchy. They are nurtured and also controlled by dominant females: mothers, child care teachers, baby nurses, and baby sitters. Male’s earliest sense of females is of those who preside over their helplessness, ineptitude, powerlessness, physical and psychological dependency and potential humiliation, as well as their survival. Boys may thus develop feelings of humiliation at their needs for women to care for them. They may also hold deep resentment and rage against women’s power over them. Later in their lives as men, sexual harassment and assault may become ways to overcome feelings of need, dependence, and humiliation. Assaults may function as means to shame female sexuality, thereby transforming a man’s shame at his need for women onto the women he needs. Forcible assaults may serve to reverse a man’s sense of dependence on pleasing women and humiliation and shame at his need for women. Lastly, assault can become a form of revenge taken against women as objects of need since infancy.

Matriarchal child-rearing practices can also enable sexual assaults upon women in other ways. Female children identify with the women who surround them. Because boys’ models—fathers—are often far less present, boys may identify in a negative way. That is, they may think of themselves as “not females” and express this via a repudiation of women and/or a rejection of qualities associated with women in our society: i.e. nurturance, gentleness, expression of emotion, and need for emotional connection with others. Women are allowed to need all sorts of help and support from other people, whereas men aspire to self-reliance, and so on.

Within the prevailing male stereotype, the one need men are allowed is for sex. American culture exaggerates men’s sexual needs while repressing their other and more vulnerable needs for tenderness and emotional care from others. Men’s socially acceptable need for sex substitutes for the repressed needs that men are discouraged from showing. However, such substitution can have dangerous consequences. On the one hand, men resent having to gain women’s approval as a means to access their sexuality. Yet at the same time, they need that access. One way to navigate that contradiction is through sexual assault: access gained without displaying need for approval.

A macabre manifestation of men’s sexual need linked with shame at needing women are the facts that American prostitutes’ life expectancy is 34 years and that the leading cause of their deaths is homicide (Pottera, D. et al., 2004). Men may kill their prostituted women partners to resolve the tensions between being sexual as manly and feeling deeply shamed by a need for sex. They may kill their shame by killing the women they hired to meet their sexual needs. That probably relates to the fact that one of the highest rates of death for women between 15 and 44 years old is homicide committed by husbands, lovers and aspiring boyfriends (Petrosky et al. July 21, 2017)

A related aspect of the stereotypic male sex role is the repression of most emotions except anger. Social acceptance of male anger as manly often extends to cover male rage and violence. Little boys play with toy guns: little girls with dolls. Boys’ modes of recreation are often violent: games such as cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, video games, or violent sports like football or ice hockey. Adult males follow suit with their own violent video games, violent sports, and shooting. Patterns of violence in the armed forces, professional and college sports also include disproportionate amounts of sex abuse (Morris 1996, Carter, 2017).

Sexual assault has been a fact across U.S. history. What is new is the uncovering, the public outing of sexual assault. An important question is what social changes have allowed and prompted sexual assault to be revealed and reviled?

One key change concerns the economic conditions of existence for feudal households and the gender differentiations forged there. The majority of men earn incomes that no longer suffice for them to be the sole providers for their households. Global telecommunications, computers, robots, and jet travel have enabled profit-driven US capitalists to outsource production. The poorer nations of the world are now available for super exploitation and super profits. It is no longer necessary to pay decent, no less family wages, to American male workers. To secure the family incomes required to support the American dream, women now have to do waged work outside their homes as well as continue to perform most the labor needed within them. It is exhausting and increasingly frustrating for women. With their own wage and salary incomes and the associated freedoms, women are deserting men who demand women’s continued traditional serf-like labors and their subservience inside the household.

For the first time in U.S. history the majority of women are single and the majority of men and women in the ages of fertility are unmarried. More than 4 out of 10 American children are now born outside of a marriage (Fraad, June 13, 2012). Men’s feudal household lordship is challenged on a basic economic level. Women are abandoning their former serf positions inside households with their long histories of abuse. Women increasingly live in single adult households doing just those domestic, emotional and sexual labors they choose. Sometimes they now live in communal households, sharing domestic and emotional labors with sex partners or other adults and children. Whether or not women have been able to change their class positions in enterprises from employee to employer, a majority of them have rejected household feudal class structures as well as the concomitant male command over female sexuality.

Women have become conscious of their changing positions inside households in various ways, using different concepts and terms to articulate the changes to themselves and others. Central to their evolving self-consciousness, women have increasingly declared their former subordinations to men inside their households—and especially their sexual subordination and abuse—no longer tolerable. What happened inside households is being extended now to enterprises and activities outside households as well.

Female victims of sexual assault are taking power. They reject the shame in being assaulted and shift it onto their abusers by outing them. The #Metoo hashtag used by women who were sexually assaulted is clearer in France where the hashtag translates to “out your pig.” The accusers of sexual assault have found their voices and their social power. Here is a lesson to be learned. When oppressed and exploited people come to understand and get in touch with their rage against those conditions, that rage can be an agent of transformation.

Of course, other forces also contributed to women’s revolt against sexual assault. Examples include developments in methods of birth control and declines in orthodox religions’ hold especially on the young. Our focus here, particularly on interactions among class structures and gender definitions, is meant not only to add these forces to explanations of today’s revolt against sexual assault. It is also meant to point toward solutions: practical social changes that can reduce sexual harassment and assault.

Transition from the hierarchical capitalist class structure of contemporary enterprises to an economy based instead on worker-coops would be a structural change contributing to an end to sexual abuse. In cooperatively organized enterprises, all workers, men and women equally and democratically, decide the what, how, where and when of production. Each worker is both employee and employer: the collective of employees is the employer. Where capitalist enterprises make decisions that reinforce the hierarchy inside them, worker coops’ decisions reinforce their very different class structures. The domination/subordination dichotomy that haunted slavery and feudalism as well as capitalism is finally overcome. That equality and democracy inside worker coops enables a successful struggle against sexual harassment and assault. That struggle begins with the disappearance of small sets of men in the employer position of deciding whether the mass of employees, women and men, will have jobs, incomes, career advancement opportunities, etc.

A worker-coop based economy could and likely would take further steps to end the toxic mix of unequal gender definitions and rules with hierarchical class structures in household and enterprise workplaces. For example, it could mandate maternity and paternity leaves as well as a strong campaign engaging both sex parents in child rearing. It could show the value of nurturance by financing quality early child care and after school care centers. It could transform the field of childcare from it’s current status as one of the lowest paid to a respected and well-paid field. By attracting both men and women to the field, it could end the matriarchy of early childhood in America.

Such social and economic changes can create better lives for all of us including and also going beyond stopping sexual assault in America. Whatever effects moral and legal oppositions to sexual harassment and assault may have, it will take material, structural changes to reorient social behavior in lasting ways. The exploitation intrinsic to the hierarchical workplace organizations that pit minorities (masters, lords and employers) against majorities (slaves, serfs, and employees) and the oppression of women thereby enabled have always been key supports for sexual (as well as other forms of) harassment and assault. The social transition to a non-hierarchical workplace organization, such as a worker–coop based economy, as well strong national campaigns, programs and laws fostering and supporting gender equality at home and at work will together remove the key social and economic pillars that hold capitalist and feudal exploitation and gendered oppression throughout American society.

Dr. Harriet Fraad is a licensed mental health counselor and hypnotherapist in private practice in New York City. She is a founding member of the journal Rethinking Marxism

Richard D. Wolff is professor of economics emeritus, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and is currently a visiting professor at the New School in New York City. He is the founder of Democracy at Work.
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