Capitalism is the ultimate turn off -- a series on sex & intimacy
Let's talk about sex & intimacy baby... thru a political lens -- Part I: The MACRO
Sex. Intimacy. Lovemaking. Let’s talk about the ‘birds & bees’… but thru a political lens. We (my partner Ciro & I) have been struggling extra hard lately with intimacy. The roots of this struggle go far deeper than any of us have been led to believe. We’re definitely not the only traumatized people trying to figure out what love, sex or intimacy even mean outside the scripts we’ve been told to follow. We’re not alone in our quest for genuine, deep connection considering we live in a society that is designed to deprive us all of it. So we decided to dig deep & write about it. This series is a vulnerable, unfiltered dive that explores how oppressive systems impact relationships/ sex/ love, exposes the Intimacy Industrial Complex and reimagines intimacy outside the cages of these systems.
It has been very difficult for us to to carve out the time & space on a somewhat regular basis for intimacy in any form including sex. When we met & lived in Chile for the first few months of our relationship- we had a tad bit more time to practice being vulnerable, grounded & present with each other without letting capitalism fully consume us. When we moved to the U.S. in July 2022, we anticipated that our dynamics would shift living in the heart of the hustle & grind empire. Now that we’re HERE, this struggle itself has taught us many powerful lessons and pushed us to unpack more of our childhood trauma. This struggle to intentionally connect with each other physically, emotionally & spiritually has pushed us each to reckon with more of our subconscious behaviors, patterns & unhealthy coping mechanisms that we were unaware of. Now that we think about it- even before we met, we as individuals faced MANY intimacy-related hurdles as adult-children that didn’t receive the love & care we deserved in our childhoods.
In today’s newsletter, we’ll discuss the big picture- the MACRO political & cultural factors that shape intimacy. The next newsletter in the series will dive into the MICRO- our personal experiences & journey navigating intimacy issues (as individuals & within our partnership). We’re hoping that us sharing unfiltered, messy & vulnerable reflections on our intimacy issues will catalyze more reflections in some folks out there and help us all feel less alone.
For paid subscribers: 1) Emotions, love, intimacy, sex— what do these words even mean in practice? — 2) Reimagining Intimacy reflection exercise — 3) Personal notes from Ayesha on what issues in our relationship inspired this series.
Side note: You can now sign-up for the first Heal in Community session of 2023! The theme is inspired by & paired with this newsletter on the “work/ life balance”.
Introducing the Intimacy Industrial Complex — It’s not you or me, it’s the capitalism.
Our relationships don’t exist in a vacuum just like we (as “individuals”) don’t exist in a vacuum. Our environment & sociopolitical conditions shape every aspect of who we are- actions, behaviors, our perception of the world & our relational dynamics including intimacy. In a world where we don’t have the right to live, we’re deprived of agency/ time/ free will and prevented from building liberating, life-giving, intimate, authentic, reciprocal, joyful relationships.
What is the Intimacy Industrial Complex? Capitalism tries to sell us “cures” to profit off of our relationships & intimacy issues. Capitalist/ colonial systems blame all societal problems on bad, broken, defective individuals while the bad systems killing us all slowly are shielded from accountability. Capitalist medicine reduces our pain, distress, health issues, relationship problems (including “sexual dysfunction”) to individual biological disorders while conveniently never addressing the root causes of our suffering- the sociopolitical conditions that hurt us in the first place. To capitalism, ‘sickness’ is always more profitable than health.
Medicine divides sexual dysfunction into 4 types of “diseases”: Desire disorders, Arousal disorders, Orgasm disorders and Pain disorders. Examples of some medical diagnoses under the sexual dysfunction umbrella: Erectile Dysfunction — Female Sexual Dysfunction — Premature Ejaculation — Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD) — Hypersexuality Disorder — Vulvodynia — Anorgasmia — Post-coital Distress — Dyspareunia — Vaginismus — Post-SSRI Sexual Dysfunction… etc.
Why does capitalism pathologize our distress? To profit off of it. For example: Psychiatry (Big Pharma/ Medical Industrial Complex) uses the “diagnose & drug” model to peddle psychotropics as “cures” to profit off of logical human suffering & distress caused by oppressive systems. In Part III of this series, we will breakdown the emerging “Intimacy Industry” which came about as a horrific byproduct of the sexual dysfunction industry (eg: Viagra) merging with the mental health industry (psych meds). These are companies with minimalist pastel aesthetics that may pop up on your social media or streaming services bearing seemingly “progressive” messages about self-care, self-love, addressing your mental health, etc but they have far more insidious agendas.
Individualism breeds loneliness & crushes intimacy
We’re innately collectivist beings living in a society designed for isolation. Lonely workers are easier to exploit. Despite an abundance of resources, the 1% hoard them & fabricate scarcity for the 99%. We’re told to compete & fight over crumbs as we spend majority of our days at school or work earning the right to live. Under capitalism/ colonialism, the planet and everything on it including living beings have no inherent worth or value unless they can be extracted from or exploited for profit. A dollar sign is attached to every human & non-human being & the land.
The infrastructure of our society prevents us from creating strong communities or forging deep, reciprocal collectivist bonds. “I don’t have the time or space” we say breaking our backs to garner approval of oppressive systems. Connection requires time & safety. Intimacy is built, not stumbled upon. But when we don’t have full agency to choose what we do with our time on this Earth, our ability to connect is hindered. I like to think about what capitalism/ colonialism prevent us from doing because it helps me realize that those are probably the things that will liberate us.
Me vs. you, us vs. them— competition is a barrier to connection
We spend our childhoods being assessed, measured, quantified, rigorously tested & judged by oppressive systems. We’re pit against each other and taught to mistrust our own peers or strategically use them as a means to a selfish end. Capitalism determines our value by our “net worth”- an arbitrary number based on how much money and other material possessions we “own”. We’re told to aspire to positions of power and & to climb the ladder. We’re urged to dominate & leverage power over our peers rather than build, collaborate, cooperate or connect with them. We’re not told to pursue meaningful connection or do things that feel joyful. Simultaneously, we’re manipulated with state propaganda to think that this is a “dog-eat-dog world” which exacerbates our suffering and primes us with a lingering, ever-present, all-consuming fear of rejection and abandonment. A capitalist society raises us all to be terrified & afraid of dying alone, unappreciated, unworthy, unvalued, & unwanted.
The capitalist myth of ‘happiness= success’
We’re raised to believe that our happiness hinges on “success”. What is success? How is it defined in our society? Winning as someone else loses, being superior to, dominating, accumulating wealth to leverage power & control over others, achieving at the expense of someone else. A win is only framed as a desirable, satisfying outcome because someone else loses. The “top” of any ladder is only framed as success because others are below you. Without you being positioned against your peers, kin, working class people, these concepts wouldn’t mean anything. We’re rewarded and praised for being hyper-focused, unfettered and ruthless in arbitrary, self-centered pursuits of “career” milestones which are glorified as “ambition”, aspiration or drive.
Relationships are also reduced to “life milestones” that we’re told to achieve in order to be perceived as worthy individuals even though we’re never taught HOW to build, forge and cultivate reciprocal relationships. Instead, we’re trained to be transactional & self-centered even in relationships. Capitalism convinces us that contentment comes from conforming & assimilating to norms based on made-up constructs like gender, sex & sexuality. We’re primed to think in extremely reductive binaries of good/ bad, normal/ abnormal, superior/ inferior, top/ bottom and thus, we find nuance & complexity terrifying or unfathomable.
The lack of agency, time, free will & support to explore
We’ve never been allowed to explore the world. We haven’t been allowed to learn as much as we want, experiment as much as we want & traverse millions of options to figure out who we are. We are who we are because it is who were told to become. We are who we are because our sociopolitical conditions shaped us— and this isn’t solely a bad thing. We’re also shaped by many beautiful things in our community, by traditions passed down to us, by collectivist values— but so much of this has been desecrated by capitalism including relationships & sex. In order to be free, to truly BECOME who we are intentionally (not because we were manipulated with norms, state propaganda, coerced, disciplined, punished etc), we need to have our basic needs met. We explore when we feel safe & safety means unconditional food, water, shelter, community, care & connection to our land. Without these conditions, we’ve tried to make sense of our world within the confines of the cages we were forced to grow up in & continue to live in. This means we’ve reduced each other to binaries, generalizations & stereotypes.
Capitalism objectifies us and so we objectify each other
Capitalism/ the state objectify us, the planet and everything in it. As in we are turned into products or commodities to be bought, exchanged and sold on the market. We’ve been taught in school to embellish our resume/ CV, do “extracurricular activities” not for the sake of exploring things that may give us joy but so we can create the illusion of well-roundedness. We’re told to curate our persona, build a brand & hyper-focus on how we’re being perceived. When we spend so much of our lives chasing trophies, feeling inadequate for existing & obliged to embellish ourselves to be sold on the “job market” to the highest bidder. When we’re objectified since birth by exploitative systems, we default to objectifying each other in our daily lives. Having a romantic/ sexual partner means you’re “off the market”. But it’s not just sexual objectification. We are objectifying people when we “network” strategically to use them as a means to a selfish end (e.g. to get a job). We are objectifying people when we size each other up and assess or quantify someone’s worth based on capitalist metrics like money, social status, job, education & material possessions. We’re objectifying people when we’re transactional in relationships- I do X if you do Y.
In a society where survival resources like food are turned into products, relationships are also turned into trophies or objects that should be possessed & owned
We’re socialized to see sex as a transaction and relationships as milestones to possess or own. Sex is framed as a trophy or achievement. Colonialism created social categories like race, gender, sex & sexuality to build hierarchies that can divide & oppress people. For centuries & even today, these fabricated social constructs are framed as “real” biological differences. Even in the pursuit of liberation, people default to bioessentialism or biological pre-determinism, turning to genes to validate their existence- the gay genes, male chromosomes, autism genes, chemical imbalances etc. Sex is also reduced to biology and shaped by dominant gender/ sexual norms. It is perceived generally as a physical exchange or interaction that is separate from emotional connection.
“Sure, emotions can make sex better” they say. But ultimately, sex itself is perceived purely as a biological, physical interaction that can produce pleasure and/or be used for reproduction. Sex education is at worst reduced to abstinence and at best reduced to naming body parts & birth control with no mention of intentional active communication, connection or consent in the grand sense (beyond binaries of yes/ no). Just like we’re never taught how to build relationships & create community, we’re never allowed nor taught or encouraged to explore, play & seek pleasure through relational experimentation. How do you know what you like or what makes you feel good if you’ve never intentionally had the safety to explore a plethora of possibilities & experiment? How do you know who you are if you’ve never been allowed to intentionally explore & instead been forced to fit arbitrary societal expectations?
What does sex mean in a capitalist/ colonial society?
Penetration, ejaculation, limitation: Given that sex is defined by oppressive norms & reduced to biology- it is defined by dominant norms like penis-in-vagina or penetration of some sort with a hyper-focus on genitals. What do you define as sex & why? What do you consider to be “real sex” & how did you arrive at that definition? The mainstream definitions of sex & relationships don’t address the complexities of intimacy. The mainstream social construction of “love” is mostly lust based on stereotypes & “sex” is reduced to physical arousal also based on stereotypes about attraction.
Sin, shame, punishment: The things that liberate us are framed as useless, dangerous or unimportant & meaningless things are framed as critical. Sex is often framed as selfish or unproductive in collectivist cultures that have been desecrated by colonialism. Sex is reduced to a biological obligation to the ultimate boss- a ruthless, judgmental, controlling, punitive, carceral god who will damn people eternally to hell if they disobey (sounds less like a spiritual transcendent entity & more like classic oppression/ oppressors). Our worth under capitalism is measured by our re—productivity. Sex simply for the sake of practicing connection & intimacy is often framed as sinful which breeds shame & guilt. This shame can morph into toxic power dynamics in relationships & lead to self-repulsion.
P.S. we’re both very spiritual people, so this is specifically about religion in the context of oppressive institutions that have been defined by hierarchies, power dynamics & domination.
Sexual performance, scripts & faking it: We’ve normalized jokes about faking orgasms but have we thought as much about what it takes for us to truly experience mutual pleasure & collaborate in creating authentic, non-performative intimacy? Just like we’ve been told to follow scripts in terms of what we should say, how we should act, what we should do in order to be perceived as a worthy individual, we’ve been socialized with scripts about what sex SHOULD be like- from power-dynamic based porn glorifying domination to unrealistic norms displayed in popular media. Again, we’re not given the basic social conditions necessary to enable exploration, we’re just told to replicate, imitate & mimic toxic scripts in pursuit of some form of self-centered “release”. The term “sexual performance” tells us a lot about how capitalist metrics of productivity & worker performance desecrate sex.
We’re primed to see sex as a performance where we “act” according to the scripts we’ve been raised with while generalizing what other people like or want. We try to fit reductive roles- not ones with nuance or complexity but binaries like top/ bottom. Self-centeredness can look like “I am better & therefore I will tell you what to do” or it can look like people-pleasing which is the pursuit of approval or validation by fulfilling someone else’s wishes without communicating our own wants & needs. Neither of these approaches creates connection or equitable intimacy.
Sex is a power struggle: In a severely inequitable society, power dynamics define norms. Even in sex, people may seek to dominate, control or take rather than share, collaborate or give for the sake of caring. We’re not taught to cooperate or sustain each other because that would free us. Sex is still framed as a selfish, self-centered encounter in a society where we’ve gradually been severed from our innate altruism.
Note: We will address kink later in the series. But it is important to note that not all of kink is defined by power dynamics- a lot can be rooted in trust, collaboration & safe consensual exploration. However, just like anything in our society, kink doesn’t exist in a vacuum unaffected by capitalism/ colonialism, oppression & trauma resulting from these systems (including the trickle down relational harm they cause). Just like everything else, concepts like ENM/ polyamory (that by definition step out of dominant norms or scripts) can also be co-opted or appropriated to further perpetuate oppressive power dynamics. Everything is complex & must be evaluated on a case-by-case nuanced basis. We won’t make blanket generalizations. Engaging in certain sexual/ intimacy practices or relationship frameworks by name is not enough by itself— it takes daily intentional political praxis to engage in relationships without just repackaging non-normative practices into dominant norms.
Fragmenting our whole being into parts: The emotional/ mental, physical & spiritual parts of us are only segmented & separated into distinct parts under colonial logic. We are complex whole beings & how we show up physically in the world cannot be dissected or compartmentalized away from who we are emotionally. When we engage in a physical interactions, our emotional & spiritual body must be integrated or else we are not fully present in the moment & grounded. We’ve practiced dissociating from our emotions when our physical mind/ body is extracted from & exploited or made to do things by the state that we never consented to. We are fragmented beings under capitalism. But the struggle for non-binary, genuine intimacy can help us intentionally integrate these severed parts into our whole.
The empire will burn down when we realize we’re not alone, were never alone & could never survive alone. We’re inter-dependent, collectivist beings. The end of capitalism will be brought about by us reaching for connection, abolishing our egos or the illusion of individuality & sustaining each other. When we’re loved/ supported/ cared for by community, we’re less likely to passively accept exploitation & more likely to pushback on oppression. Capitalism prevents us from engaging in meaningful intimacy because it will liberate us. This should also make us critically question all dominant societal norms around intimacy & how we’ve been raised to think of love & sex. Don’t just follow, react, chase- think, feel, reflect, connect.