Sexuality in pre-class society: A response to Sheila McGregor

Issue: 139

Colin Wilson

I want to respond to a claim Sheila McGregor has made in two recent articles concerning the history of sexuality.1 Since the 19th century Marxists have argued that the development of human society began with a long period of “primitive communism”, characterised by the absence of classes and by equality between men and women. McGregor takes this assertion further, claiming that primitive communism is also characterised by benign attitudes and practices regarding sexuality. The earliest human beings, she claims, lived in a society where violence and alienation were absent from sexuality, which was lived out in a natural way consistent with human biology. In fact, there is no evidence for such claims, nor are they compatible with a Marxist account of the world or with the best work on the history of sexuality since the 1980s.

What exactly is McGregor arguing? Her claims concern the earliest part of human history, for which very little archaeological evidence is available—and in any case, archaeological evidence is unlikely to tell us much about social practices around gender and sexuality. So since the 19th century Marxists have also based their understanding of early humanity on people who still live today in the way that all human beings did for thousands of years, in what are called “hunter-gatherer” or “band” societies. Many Marxists—most famously Engels, in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State—claim that in such societies women have far more equality with men than in more recent or “developed” cultures: their work is accepted as important, for example, and account is taken of their views when decisions are made. This absence of women’s oppression from hunter-gatherer societies is now accepted by many anthropologists.2 This is enormously important to the politics of women’s liberation. Very many books now claim that women’s position in society is the inevitable result of their biology: the existence of more egalitarian societies shows that the oppression of women is not rooted in biology, but in society and culture.

McGregor argues that we can make certain assumptions about sexuality in pre-class societies based on their generally egalitarian nature. Her key claim is that “human sexual behaviour developed in an egalitarian and cooperative environment. It would most likely have been consensual in nature.”

She goes on to depict pre-class sexuality as typified by pleasure and relaxation:

Since human beings are not restricted to “mating” at only certain times of the year, human sexuality appears to have evolved with a pleasurable aspect to it… Early human societies were not subordinated to the discipline of the clock. Men and women would have had a degree of leisure time that would permit more relaxed relationships to develop between all members of the group.3

I demonstrate below that no evidence exists for these assumptions, either in prehistoric times or among hunter gatherers today. But it’s important to note a second aspect of McGregor’s account, that it roots sex firmly in biology. She comments that “I take the fact of sexual behaviour as a given, since the evolution of humanity would not have been possible without it. The evolutionary process that gave rise to modern humans also shaped and gave rise to human sexuality”.4

We have evolved our sexuality, then, as part of our biology, as we have evolved opposable thumbs. McGregor makes even stronger links between our biology and certain human sexual practices. She argues, for example, that features of human beings such as walking upright, regularly consuming meat and a long period of childhood “are strong indicators of human beings having evolved both as social beings and with a tendency towards forming couples”.5

Finally, McGregor combines her accounts of non-oppressive, relaxed, pleasurable sex in pre-class societies, and of sex as determined by biology by reference to the sexual habits of other ape species. McGregor refers to Chris Harman’s extremely valuable assessment of Engels’s Origin of the Family, for example, which points out that among pygmy chimps females initiate many sexual contacts. She also discusses the sexual behaviour of orang-utans—as she admits, more distantly related to humans—quoting from a source which states that “orang-utans practise face to face copulation, and…amuse themselves with a variety of preliminaries: caresses, touching, reciprocal masturbation, oral sex, kissing of the genital areas and all that at tens of metres above the ground”.6

Taking all this together, McGregor’s claim is that in pre-class society sex was good—consensual, involving a range of practices, taking place between couples in extended leisure time—and that it was good because it was in conformity with our essential biological nature as creatures who evolved from apes.

Monkey business

What do we make of these claims? First, we need to be extremely sceptical about the relevance of animal behaviour to human sexuality. The sexual behaviour of even our closest relations, the pygmy or bonobo chimps, is very different from any known human society. Pygmy chimps will have sex as a group when they come across a new food source, such as a tree loaded with ripe fruit or a captured prey animal. Constant brief sex acts—one researcher calculated the average duration at 13 seconds—occur between male and female, male and male, and female and female chimps, and are thought to play a role in managing social conflict. We need to be even more careful about making comparisons with animals, such as orang-utans, which are not closely related to humans.7

Marxists have always understood that animal and human sexual behaviours cannot really be compared. Harman is not arguing that much of pygmy chimps’ sexual behaviour is the same as that of humans—that a similar biology leads directly to a similar sexuality, as McGregor claims. He refers to:

suggestions that “pygmy chimps may offer clues to the nature of the ‘missing link’ between apes and humans”. Be that as it may, the evidence from apes in the wild, and from pygmy chimps in particular, challenges the usual image of innately aggressive and competitive behaviour. It also shows how in certain conditions elements of what we usually think of as uniquely human forms of behaviour arise among humanity’s nearest relatives—and so could also have begun to arise among our common ancestors.8

These careful suggestions that certain similarities between chimps and early humans are possible are quite different from McGregor’s straightforward assertion that there is a direct continuity between chimps and early humans, particularly regarding sexuality.

Engels himself highlights in The Origin of the Family the fact that many comparisons with animals’ sexual habits are irrelevant to human beings. He points out that “examples of faithful monogamy among birds prove nothing about man for the simple reason that men are not descended from birds”. He acknowledges that chimpanzees and gorillas, some of our closest relatives, form couples. For Engels, however, this does not make them similar to humans, but different, because human society is based on larger social groupings than couples—at this early stage of development, the “herd”. Couples he assumes to be a “lower social form”, the result of the male’s desire for exclusive possession of the female:

The jealousy of the male, which both consolidates and isolates the family, sets the animal family in opposition to the herd. The jealousy of the males prevents the herd, the higher social form, from coming into existence… This alone is sufficient proof that animal families and primitive human society are incompatible.9

More generally, Marxists have always stressed that human beings are fundamentally different from other animals, in a way crucial to any discussion of sexuality. Marx famously comments on this difference in Capital:

A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax. At the end of every labour process, a result emerges which had already been conceived by the worker at the beginning.10

A striking fact about human beings is the fact that we live in an enormous variety of different ways. Human societies exist, for example, in climates as different as the Arctic and the tropical rainforest, and we can do this because humans have different cultures in a way that other animals do not. Marx’s bee will always build hexagonal cells from wax: humans construct tents from animal skins, temples and cathedrals from wood and stone, semi-detached houses from brick and office buildings from steel and glass. If we are to discuss human nature, the most important point is that our biology as big brained, sociable and communicative creatures enables us to live in all manner of ways. For humans, culture is far more significant than biology.

Sex in hunter-gatherer societies

What evidence is there for McGregor’s claims about pre-class sexuality? Gaining any reliable understanding of the earliest human societies is enormously difficult: as Chris Harman put it, our knowledge “rests on findings of odd fragments of bone, occasional teeth, and small bits of rock which may or may not once have been tools”.11 Such evidence cannot tell us anything about sexuality, so an account of pre-class sexuality must rely on evidence about the cultures of hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists, who still live today in ways comparable to the earliest humans.

Hunter-gatherer societies are typically characterised by equality between men and women: one study comments on the !Kung people, who live in the Kalahari desert in southern Africa, that: “!Kung society may be the least sexist of any we have experienced”.12 Other authors—such
as anthropologist Eleanor Burke Leacock in her book Myths of Male Dominance—make the same assessment.

Leacock makes elsewhere, however, another important point about these societies: despite their equality in terms of class and gender, we are not looking at societies populated by noble savages, which can provide a model for us today:

The fact that communism preceded the emergence of classes in human history should not be taken to mean, in some Rousseauesque fashion, that man has lost a utopia. The limited technology available to hunter-gatherers… meant that life was rigorous and relatively restricted.13

For example, the !Kung practice infanticide of newborn babies with visible impairments, and hunter-gatherer societies have until recently gone to war. Leacock comments of the Naskapi people of northern Canada that: “Naskapi women joined in the protracted torture of Iroquois prisoners with even more fury than the men”.14

Generalising about gender in hunter-gatherer societies is problematic. Leacock argues that such societies have frequently been affected by contact with capitalist society: she points out that, while among the Naskapi the men still hunt and the women still gather, the men are hunting for furs to sell on the market, as they have now for hundreds of years, and the fact that men can earn this income may well have changed Naskapi attitudes to gender. She points out, further, that many surviving hunter-gatherer and horticulturalist societies existed in parts of the world colonised by European powers, changing these people’s lives and making the objective study of their societies difficult. Finally, anthropologists brought with them their own preconceptions, which led them to see the oppression of women in “primitive” societies when it was not in fact there.15

The anthropological study of sexuality involves even greater difficulties. Often many of the first Europeans to have contact with other societies were missionaries, who were keen to criticise the sexual practices of people they worked with, who in turn quickly learned either to modify or to conceal aspects of their lives. Some anthropologists felt empathy for the people they studied, and so failed to mention behaviours—such as same-sex behaviours—which they knew would lower those people in Europeans’ estimation. Some people from colonised societies—African anthropologists, for example—strove to appear respectable by colonial standards. Other anthropologists misunderstood what they saw because they assumed that aspects of their own societies were universally valid—so they looked in Africa for “homosexuality”, failed to find it and concluded that all Africans are “heterosexual”.16

All these factors affect the fragmented accounts we have of hunter-gatherer and horticulturalist societies. Leacock says little in Myths of Male Dominance specifically about sexuality, and the data we do have is ambiguous. One author claims that “some Australian Aboriginal men use threats of gang-rape to keep women away from their secret ceremonies”, while another claims that rape is an aspect of Aboriginal life only since colonisation. Even Leacock, who generally stresses the absence of women’s oppression before contact with European culture and comments that colonial brutality has without doubt affected Aboriginal men, also states that “not all violence can be blamed on European colonialism”.17

The men of the horticulturalist Mehinaku people of Amazonian central Brazil, meanwhile, also use the threat of gang-rape to deter women from seeing rituals. In particular, the women are forbidden from seeing particular flutes used in certain ceremonies, and the oldest men claim that they can recall an incident when a woman was indeed gang-raped after seeing the flutes by accident. Mehinaku men disparage women sexually, describing their genitals as unpleasant to look at and foul smelling, ideas both associated with menstruation, while even the most assertive women say that women are inferior to men. Yet, despite the remote place where they live, some Mehinaku have radios and some speak Portuguese, the language of the radio broadcasts, so we cannot be sure that we are seeing their culture as it was before contact with Europeans.18

Finally, it’s worth noting that Engels himself did not make any claims about benign pre-class sexuality: he acknowledged in The Origin of the Family that sexual practices in hunter-gatherer and horticulturalist societies include parents having sex with their children, and the capture and gang-rape of women by groups of young men, one of whom she is then forced to marry—unless she escapes and is caught by another man, in which case she must marry him instead.19

The social construction of sexuality

McGregor’s claims, then, are not supported by animal studies or anthropology. They also fly in the face of most recent research into sexuality, a field which has undergone a dramatic change in the last forty years. The editors of a recent anthology of articles sum up the change by arguing that “in the last few decades, there has been a revolution in the study of sexuality. Sex is today understood as fundamentally social.” They contrast this understanding with the approach taken previously, which “viewed sexuality as natural” and “believed that sex was built into the body, into human genetics, hormones, into the very physiology of individuals”. They associate this shift with political changes: that is, the development of the women’s and LGBT movements.20

This approach has been repeatedly vindicated by studies of our own and past societies. Most of us would acknowledge that the dominant idea about sex in our own culture—that humans can be simply categorised as heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual—is an extremely crude way of describing human sexuality. But research has shown that in other cultures, both now and in the past, such distinctions are not merely crude: they do not exist at all. In ancient Greek culture, for example, all men of the ruling class were assumed to desire both women and teenage boys: a marriage contract stipulates that the prospective husband must not “bring home another wife in addition to Apollonia or to have a concubine or boy-lover…” A separation is not made in this culture between homosexual and heterosexual people: a man’s desire for females does not necessarily imply a lack of desire for males.21

The irrelevance of such concepts as homosexuality and heterosexuality in more recent history is shown by the example of Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler, two ruling class women who eloped together in 1778 and lived together for over 50 years, the rest of their lives, in Llangollen. Georgian society was not accepting of same-sex desire—the death penalty was available throughout the period as a punishment for anal sex between men, though a ten-year jail sentence was the punishment applied in practice. Yet the “Ladies of Llangollen” were not ostracised, but granted a pension from the king and befriended by reactionaries such as the Duke of Wellington and Edmund Burke. Their contemporaries recognised their deep love and commitment to one another, but assumed it to be asexual—a claim more credible in that society, where it was assumed that respectable women felt little sexual desire, than in our own. It seems likely that Sarah and Eleanor, deeply reactionary themselves, accepted those ideas, and that, while their diaries record them embracing and lying beside each other in bed, they did not have what we would define as sex. By modern standards they hardly fit into the “heterosexual” category, but two women who lived “as Protestant nuns” as one historian puts it, hardly qualify as “lesbians” either.22

The categories “homosexual” and “heterosexual”, then, are not rooted in biology, but are “socially constructed”. Evidence suggests that the same is true of “sexuality” as a whole. We put certain acts (genital acts but also kisses and embraces), pleasures, desires and body parts into a category called “sexuality”. Other cultures think of these things differently. Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th-century abbot revered as a saint, described spiritual friendship between men in the following way:

you alone will confer with him alone, and as the bustle of the world is silenced, in the sleep of peace, in the embrace of love, in the kiss of unity, with the Holy Spirit flowing between you, you alone will rest with him alone; thus you will join and unite yourself to him, and mix your soul with his, so that one being is created from several.23

To us this sounds clearly sexual, but Aelred, as was typical in the Middle Ages, distinguishes between genital acts on the one hand—a grave sin between two men—and embraces, kisses and profound emotional commitment on the other. For him they are two different things, not varying aspects of “sexuality”. Our assumptions about what is and is not sexual, again, do not apply to Tsarist Russia, where peasant mothers calmed a baby boy by sucking his penis. Or again, anthropologists have found that the Sambian people of New Guinea believe that a male child can only grow up and achieve success as a man if, as an adolescent, he consumes semen obtained by sucking the penis of an older male. The relationship between the two is compared to that between mother and child, one historian notes: “The Sambians make this identification explicit by comparing the penis to a breast, and semen to mother’s milk”.24

Such behaviours may seem profoundly alien to us. Yet they illustrate how concepts of sexuality vary between human societies. Ideas and practices around sex that dominate our own society are historically recent, and reflect influences such as Freud and other theorists of the early 20th century, and the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s. None of this is the direct result of biology.

Foucault, Marx, Human Nature and Sexual Liberation

The belief that sexuality is socially constructed was initially articulated in the 1980s by the French historian and public intellectual Michel Foucault. Foucault’s work remains enormously influential, not least as one of the main inspirations for queer theory. Much of his work is based on an approach that is, in general, incompatible with Marxism, and at times he is explicitly hostile to Marxist ideas. If we accept that sexuality is socially constructed, are we attempting to find a place within Marxism for ideas that are fundamentally hostile to it? 25

In fact, in arguing that sexuality is socially constructed, we are continuing with Engels’s project in The Origin of the Family, where he demonstrates that the state “has not existed from all eternity” and that the family also, far from being the direct expression of human biology, has changed form in different societies. Engels even argues that romantic love, “modern individual sex love”, far from being a natural human trait, originated under feudalism in Germany. Thus not only the family but sexuality changes in history—they are not fixed but, in the modern idiom, socially constructed.26

A wide range of historical and anthropological analysis now also supports the view that sexuality is socially constructed: to reject this approach is simply to ignore the facts of the matter. But it’s also the case that the social construction of sexuality—no matter how anti-Marxist Foucault may be in general—fits well with the overall account Marx gives of human nature, as Heather Brown’s recent book Marx on Gender and the Family makes clear.

Marx starts his analysis from the material reality of human beings. But this material reality is about more than our biological nature—the fact that we can walk upright but not fly, or give birth to babies rather than lay eggs. As we have seen already in Marx’s comparison of human beings and bees, humans are constantly trying to change the world so as to meet their needs—but unlike the bee, they do this consciously, by means of labour. Through labour, Marx argues in Capital, human beings interact with nature and so change themselves:

Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature… He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature.27

This process—labour as a creative and dialectical interaction between the human being and nature, which transforms nature and thus transforms the human being as part of nature—is central to Marx’s conception of humanity. The nature of human beings is that we do not have a fixed nature, but create ourselves.

Under capitalism human beings are unable to carry through this process of self-creation through labour. For workers, our labour is not a voluntary source of self-fulfilment: we have no choice but to work, and rather than allowing us to fulfil ourselves, our experience of work confirms our lack of control over the world:

the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is not working he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.

This process, which Marx calls alienation, is thus central to the division under capitalism between the public world of work and the private world of the home, of which sexuality is a part. Workers feel that, if they cannot fulfil themselves at work, at least they can do so in their “private” lives. But the fact that they cannot gain fulfilment from the “human functions” of labour poisons the world outside work as well:

the man (the worker) feels that he is acting freely only in his animal functions—eating, drinking and procreating, or at most in his dwelling and adornment—while in his human functions he is nothing more than an animal.

It is true that eating, drinking, procreating etc, are also genuine human functions. However, when abstracted from other aspects of human activity and turned into final and exclusive ends, they are animal. 28

Sexuality under capitalism is not integrated into the potential human experience of collective self-creation through labour. It is thus alienated, both in that it forms part of a “private” life where workers have the illusion of control, and in that it is reduced to the animal, to nothing more than biology. The creation of a liberated sexuality is thus inseparable from the working class gaining control over their working lives and over society in general. But it also inevitably implies the rejection of any account of sexuality that separates it from society and assigns to it a fixed, biological essence—such ideas are themselves the result of alienation.

If Marx’s account of human nature and Foucault’s account of the social construction of sexuality have this much in common, Foucault’s attitude to sexual liberation is more problematic. He is sceptical regarding the claim that we should oppose sexual oppression: “Something that smacks of revolt, of promised freedom, of the coming age of a different law, slips easily into this discourse on sexual oppression… Tomorrow sex will be good again.” He mocks the idea of rejecting the repression of sexuality, describing it as an opportunity:

to speak out against the powers that be, to utter truths and promise bliss, to link together enlightenment, liberation and manifold pleasures; to pronounce a discourse that combines the fervour of knowledge, the determination to change the laws, and the longing for the garden of earthly delights.29

Foucault does not claim that there is nothing wrong with our society’s attitudes to sex, but he does reject the concept of fundamental social change leading to sexual liberation. He denies the assertion that sex is repressed in favour of the claim that “power” exists everywhere in society, always contested, shifting and creating new structures of power—for example, whole new categories of “pervert”, including “the homosexual”, developed in the context of 19th century psychiatry. But this leaves unanswered a key political question—to what extent was this a good or bad thing? Does the fact that sexuality is socially constructed mean we can no longer justify struggles for sexual liberation, that everything is relative, that we have no firm basis on which to condemn forms of sexuality such as prostitution or rape? After all, McGregor initially made her argument about sexuality in pre-class societies as part of a discussion about whether sex work is fundamentally different from other work under capitalism. What is most appealing about her account is that pre-class sexuality acts as a normative standard for human sexual behaviour: we should assess sex work against this standard, McGregor argues, and as such find it wanting.

Now, I agree with McGregor that we can liberate sexuality, that we can and should discuss different forms of sexuality from the perspective of our belief in the possibility of sexual liberation, and I agree with her assessment that sex work cannot be thought of as just another job. But we can do all this without the benchmark of pre-class sexuality. Instead we can start from Marx’s understanding of human beings as creatures who labour to shape the world. Traits in our biology such as long human infancy and our ability to use language mean that we labour collectively, as part of societies, not as individuals. Sexual practices that are abstracted from the complexity of human social relationships and are structured primarily by the exchange of money—as with prostitution and pornography—are therefore necessarily impoverished, alienated. Rape, which involves treating the victim as less than fully human, is likewise an alienated form of sexuality. Accepting that sexuality is socially constructed does not mean, as Foucault implies, that we must abandon attempts to liberate sexuality.


We have then little evidence about sexuality in the earliest societies, and what we have is ambiguous: we cannot make it the cornerstone of a Marxist account of human sexuality.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to relying on a dubious account of a prehistoric epoch. There is plentiful evidence from recorded history of the links between sexuality and class society. To choose only a few examples, for hundreds of years local ruling classes in England were keen to police sexuality because illegitimate children were the responsibility of the local state—which is to say a few local rich people—who had to pay for their upbringing. Pregnant women were moved on from parishes—even during labour—so that authorities did not have to take responsibility for their child. The sexuality of women from the property-owning classes, meanwhile, had to be controlled in case they got pregnant by men other than their husbands and so disrupted rightful inheritance—in the words of the 18th century writer Samuel Johnson: “Consider of what importance to society the chastity of women is. Upon that all the property in the world depends.” And revolutions against the established order typically involved rejection of the controls on sexuality that formed part of that order—as when the Ranters, one of the most radical groups in the English Revolution, argued that to the pure all things were pure, including adultery.30

It is through such an approach—engaging with the evidence, in the light of Marxist theory, and responding to ideas from outside our tradition—that we best defend the claim that Marxism can theorise gender and sexuality. We do not do so by making indefensible claims about a return to a lost golden age.


1: McGregor, 2011, and McGregor, 2013.

2: Lee and Daly, 2004, p5.

3: McGregor, 2011, p180.

4: McGregor, 2011, p179.

5: McGregor, 2013, p100.

6: McGregor, 2011, p179; McGregor, 2013, pp99-100.

7: De Waal, 1995, pp84-85.

8: Harman, 1994, p90, emphasis added.

9: Engels, 2010, pp62-64.

10: Marx, 1976, p284.

11: Harman, 1994.

12: Endicott, 2004, p411.

13: Leacock, 1972, p25.

14: Lee, 1982, pp41-42; Leacock, 1981, p22.

15: Leacock, 1981, p5.

16: Epprecht, 2008, pp15, 40, 50.

17: Endicott, 2004, p416; Leacock, 1981, p143.

18: Gregor, 1985, pp100, 112, 139.

19: Engels, 2010, pp65, 75-76.

20: Seidman, Fischer and Meeks, 2011, pxv.

21: Halperin, 1990, chapter 1.

22: Upchurch, 2009, p94; Faderman, 1985, pp121-123.

23: Karras, 2005, p16.

24: Engelstein, 1992, p180; Greenberg, 1988, p39.

25: For a general response to Foucault see Wilson, 2011; for Foucault and queer theory, see Wilson, 2008

26: Engels, 2010, pp100, 212.

27: Marx, 1976, p283, emphasis added.

28: Marx, 1975, pp326-327.

29: Foucault, 1998, p7.

30: Porter, 1990, p128; Boswell, 1834, p219; Hill, 1991, pp306-323.


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