Michael D. Amey
I’m back with yet another post on 1984. In this post I’m focussing on a major recurring theme in dystopian fiction: the power of sexual acts to liberate and enslave individuals. This theme is also evident, of course, in We, Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale.
Controlling Sex, Controlling Citizens
When we think of sex, many of us envision an activity that occurs fairly much the same way among people everywhere. We generally do not imagine, unless we’re thinking very carefully about sex, that sex is somehow a culturally mediated activity. Put more simply, we often think that sex is natural—stripped of culture and simply a response to biologic urges and hormones. As various scholars have shown, however, this is a misconception. In her essay, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex”, Gayle Rubin uses an analogy to question the idea that sex is devoid of cultural content:
Hunger is hunger, but what counts as food is culturally determined and obtained. Every society has some form of organized economic activity. Sex is sex, but what counts as sex is equally culturally determined and obtained. Every society also has a sex/gender system – a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention and satisfied in a conventional manner, no matter how bizarre some of the conventions may be. (538)
The point that Rubin is making is absolutely relevant to the depictions of sex that we have seen in 1984 and in We. The sexual activities in both of these novels are sharply delineated into licit and illicit behavior, acceptable relationships and unacceptable relationships. These divisions undoubtedly seem alien to many of you, and this partially because behind these divisions are not grounded on a simple distinction between the natural and the unnatural, but rather upon the will of society determining what citizens should “accept” as natural or unnatural. In the case of these novels, the will of society is, in many respects, distinct from the will(s) of our own society.
But why, we might ask, do Zamyatin and Orwell spend time discussing sexual relationships, and why do the States in both of their novels place such a premium on controlling sexual behavior? Part of the answer to this question can be found in another of Gayle Rubin’s essays, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality”. She argues in the introduction to this essay that:
The time has come to think about sex. To some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic, a frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, disease, racism, famine or nuclear annihilation. But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality. Contemporary conflicts over sexual values and erotic conduct have much in common with the religious disputes of earlier centuries. They acquire immense symbolic weight. Disputes over sexual behavior often become the vehicles for displacing social anxieties, and discharging their attendant emotional intensity. Consequently, sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress.
The realm of sexuality also has its own internal politics, inequities, and modes of oppression. As with other aspects of human behavior, the concrete institutional forms of sexuality at any given time and place are products of human activity. They are imbued with conflicts of interest and political maneuvering, both deliberate and incidental. In that sense, sex is always political. But there are also historical periods in which sexuality is more sharply contested and more overtly politicized. In such periods, the domain of erotic life is, in effect, renegotiated. (4-5)
Dystopian fiction, by nature of its fundamental character, tends to depict historical periods when sexuality is contested and sexual codes are redrawn to enhance the state’s control over individuals. The amount of control that the One State exercises in We, for example, is evidenced by the Lex Sexualis: “Each number has a right to any other number, as to a sexual commodity” (Zamyatin 1972, 21). This law functions on a two-fold level: first, it serves as an express reminder to the citizens that they are commodities to be consumed both by each other and by the state, and secondly, it serves to remind them that in this absolute Communist society, the state owns everything, including bodies, reproduction and sexual enjoyment.
Lest we be too quick to criticize this control of sexuality in the One State, it might be wise to consider the control of sexuality in our own society. First, while, in most states in the United States the traffic in sex is illegal, “sexiness” is a hot commodity that both sells all manner of goods and is itself sold in a wide array of forms. The fact that sexuality and sexiness are marketed and consumed in our society is evidenced by pornography’s status as one of the largest online industries. Perhaps the primary difference between us and the numbers of the One State is that while we and the citizens of the One State both agree, for the most part, that sex is a desirable commodity, the citizens of the One State, in accordance with their standards of equality, are unable to profit from the exchange of sexual favors. By contrast, many Americans make a great deal of money from sexual activity. What is interesting, however, is the fact that while many of the states legalize the sale of sexuality and sexiness in the form of pornography, most states have outlawed prostitution, thus denying, as it were, many women and some men the right to earn money by using and selling what is theirs—their bodies. In a sense then, our government has determined who can profit from sex, perhaps to the detriment of the majority of sex workers, who work illegally.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, another effect of the Lex Sexualis is to end marriage and families. This is desirable because it allows the state to create absolute bonds of loyalty with its citizenry. No longer does a woman think about her husband, or a man think about his wife. Instead they focus on the relationship with the state. This substitution of the state for a loved one occurs in both We and 1984. For example, as I noted in the previous post, the woman who works next to Winston is involved in “tracking down and deleting from the press the names of people who had been vaporized and were therefore never considered to have existed. There was a certain fitness in this, since her own husband had been vaporized a couple of years ago” (42). She can do this both because she has developed the capacity for doublethink and because her relationship to Oceania takes precedence over her relationship to her husband or any other individual.
The fact that the woman working next to Winston is single best suits the needs of the Party. Her loyalty, however, is suspect because she may not have willingly chosen to be single. By contrast, Comrade Ogilvy, represents the untainted devotion desired by the state because he “had taken a vow of celibacy, believing marriage and the care of a family to be incompatible with a twenty-four-hour-a-day devotion to duty” (47). Yet surpassing even Ogilvy in his loyalty, is Winston’s estranged wife, Katharine, who has sex with Winston, but only as part of “our duty to the Party” (67). Katharine, perhaps as a consequence of conditioning, perhaps through the will of doublethink, has invested the symbolism of sex, not with lust, certainly not with love, but with patriotism. Her reconstruction of the meaning of sex is evidenced by how she experiences it: “She would lie there with shut eyes, neither resisting nor co-operating, but submitting” (67). This description of how she experiences sex significantly aligns, as we shall see, with the experiences of Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale.
In addition to having sex with Katharine, Winston also has sex with an older prole prostitute and with Julia. These sexual encounters are distinctly different in nature. For Winston, the prostitute represents nothing more than simple sexual release—I choose not to use the word “satisfaction” because it scarcely seems satisfactory. This encounter is not particularly dangerous either, for, as Orwell explains,
Tacitly the Party was even inclined to encourage prostitution, as an outlet for instincts which could not be altogether suppressed. Mere debauchery did not matter very much, so long as it was furtive and joyless, and only involved the women of a submerged and despised class. (65)
Furthermore, while the act of sleeping with a prostitute is certainly punishable in Oceania, it is generally not a capital offense.
Significantly, while debauchery is tolerated when it involves Proles, debauchery with Party members is punished much more severely. Orwell goes on to clarify why the Party opposes relationships within the Party:
The aim of the Party was not merely to prevent men and women from forming loyalties which it might not be able to control. Its real, undeclared purpose was to remove all pleasure from the sexual act. Not love so much as eroticism was the enemy, inside marriage as well as outside it.… The only recognized purpose of marriage was to beget children for the service of the Party. Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema.… The Party was trying to kill the sex instinct, or, if it could not be killed, then to distort it and dirty it. (65-66)
Later Orwell, notes that the “sex impulse was dangerous to the Party, and the Party had turned it to account” (133). The Party’s success in distorting sex is evidenced both in Katharine’s submission during sex and in Winston’s revulsion with the sexual experience he has with the prostitute. This revulsion prevents Winston from regularly frequenting prostitutes. As a consequence, his own sexual desires remain constantly thwarted. This sexual repression is “turned… to account” by creating “sexual privation [that] induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war fever and leader worship” (133). Orwell illustrates the relationship between frustrated sexuality and the attitudes of citizens by describing a Party rally in sexual terms: the mob’s mood is like a “great orgasm […] quivering to its climax” (180).
While Winston’s sexual liaisons with the prostitute cannot be counted an act of rebellion—after all “the Party was even inclined to encourage prostitution”—his relationship with Julia is, in his and her minds, an entirely different matter. A number of differences seem to exist between the relationship Winston has with the prostitute and the one he has with Julia. Unlike Winston’s low risk encounter with the prostitute, Julia’s and Winston’s liaison risks their freedom and their very lives. This risk severs any ties they have to the Party and creates a situation where their loyalties, by necessity, are redirected towards each other. For a comparable modern example, we might consider the relationships of homosexuals during much of the 19th and 20th centuries. Because homosexuality was illegal in America and most European countries, homosexuals found themselves, by the very nature of their desires and activities, outside the law and, to a certain extent, alienated from society. Given these facts, we should expect that homosexuals, like Winston and Julia, would formulate ties that largely ignored the claims of their societies. That social commentators are aware of the subversive nature of sexuality becomes apparent when one examines modern conservative commentators, like Maggie Gallagher, who argue that homosexuality threatens society by undermining the institution of marriage. Marriage (and having children), in other words, becomes a “duty to society” in a way that is not dissimilar to Katharine’s conception of sex as doing one’s duty for the Party. This permits those in power to cast the offenders as sexual traitors.
Winston’s relationship with Julia also differs from this relationship with the prostitute in that it permits them together to create a reality separate from the Party. As Orwell explains, “the sex instinct created a world of its own which was outside the Party’s control” (133). By contrast, Winston’s furtive, and unsatisfactory sexual involvement with the prostitute merely confirms the control that the Party exercises over all aspects of life.
Winston’s sexual encounter with the prostitute also acts to dehumanize and degrade both the prostitute and Winston. She, after all, is a shoddy, forbidden commodity for which he pays two dollars. He is a desperate man who pays for something that has been labeled perverted by his society. By contrast, Orwell emphasizes the fact that Julia and Winston freely engage in sex. To ensure that this is not a transaction, Winston specifically asks Julia if she enjoys sex, to which she responds, “I adore it” (126). Her response stands in contrast to Katharine’s philosophy of sex as social duty and the prostitute’s philosophy of sex as commodity. Julia is having sex in part simply because she enjoys sex. This free exchange of sex helps humanize Julia and Winston and perhaps even ennobles them.
While their sexual encounter is a free one, it is not an uncontaminated one. After all, as Orwell points out “you could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays. No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred” (126) Beyond being about desire, then, their sexual activity becomes a denial of the Party’s power. Winston’s revels in her sexuality because, “the animal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire: …was the force that would tear the Party to pieces” (126). As Orwell explains, “Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act” (126). In light of the Party’s determined effort at either wiping out or subverting the sexuality of the citizens of Oceania, it is indeed difficult to interpret this act as anything other than an assault on the Party’s control.