Sex and the socialists


The other day I wrote about Catherine Townsend’s sex diary in the Belfast Telegraph, and my surprise that the Tele would run a feature like that. On reflection, it maybe isn’t so surprising. You see, Catherine is American and based in Britain, where she writes this column for the Independent, which is then syndicated out to other papers in the O’Reilly stable. It does though demonstrate something about Ulster prurience – if she had been local, I’m certain people would be outraged by the column and calling for her to be silenced, but as an outsider we can accept her, and even enjoy reading the saucy minx.

This sort of thing happens all the time. Take the theatre – lots of plays feature sex and nudity, but the outrage factor depends on their provenance. If the play was locally written, produced and cast, the Belfast populace would go buck mad and Iris Robinson would be asking questions in the Assembly. If it was imported from London, nobody would bat an eyelid.

Which brings me to another hotbed of sexual hypocrisy, the left. I’ve often said that the real differences between left organisations are to be found not in their formal ideology but in their cultures and behaviours. This area is no different. Militant used to be straight-down-the-line puritans, based on their idealisation of a supposed working-class culture dating from the days of the Jarrow marches, although today’s SP has loosened up a bit. The Healy movement had an extremely puritan regime – featuring, for instance, strict segregation of the sexes at summer camp – that somehow did not apply to the priapic Leader.

I hesitate to write about the SWP again, but its approach to sexual politics is especially fascinating. I’m not at this point going to go into the campaigns against “New Laddism” or “Raunch Culture”, although those are interesting in their own right, but into members’ behaviour. This is a minefield of etiquette that many inexperienced comrades, especially those from working-class backgrounds, have fallen foul of. In particular, certain buzzwords have specialised meanings you may not be aware of. Therefore the Sunrise will be waxing Emily Post (suits you, sir!) and laying out eight simple rules that could keep the new recruit from getting into trouble. You can play Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax” while reading this, if it makes you feel better.

1. The first thing you have to know is that the rules are flexible depending on your standing in the party. If you are a leading cadre, you may choose to live a boring monogamous life – indeed many do – but, with a bit of initiative, you can have a swinging bohemian lifestyle that would cause your new Muslim friends to have conniptions, were they only aware of it. If you are, or are suspected of being, an oppositionist, you can take a solemn vow of celibacy and it still won’t save you from your inevitable defenestration. If you are a rank and filer, you style will be cramped more than a little – just be careful and take your jollies where you can find them.

2. It follows that puritanism is not a matter of your own lifestyle choices but of rhetoric. Never miss a chance to give out about porn, lad mags, blue comedians, Page Three or working-class women who dress like slappers. Remember that you must be seen to argue from a position of empirical ignorance – if you’re denouncing Loaded, do not give the impression that you’ve ever read it, even for research purposes. In this situation your knowledge derives entirely from party pronouncements on the matter. You can never really overegg the pudding when it comes to puritanism, but if your lifestyle is even slightly unconventional you may want to be especially loud on the subject.

3. As well as being puritanical, the party is also libertarian. No matter how socially harmful you think porn is, you are opposed to any legal restrictions on it. Mention this occasionally to young people who might otherwise think you a bit square, but not too often in case anybody thinks you’re defending porn’s right to exist. If someone draws attention to the inconsistency, just blow some smoke about postmodern irony.

4. Your behaviour will be circumscribed by your gender and sexuality. If you are gay, try not to be too swishy, lest you fall into the trap of lifestyle politics. If you are a straight man, on no account give the impression that you actually fancy women. You may think this will make it nearly impossible to pull female comrades, and you’d be right, but don’t worry about it. There aren’t many of them and they probably aren’t interested in you. If you have the good fortune to be a reasonably attractive woman, be happy, because you’re in a seller’s market.

5. You will occasionally hear about sexual harassment, and you may jump to the false conclusion that this bears more than a tangential relationship to actual sexual harassment. In the party it is a catch-all charge used to expel oppositionists, whether or not they have sexually harassed anybody. The advantage of this is that, if you expel somebody on political grounds, other people may want to hear their arguments, but you can get around that by simply painting the oppositionist as a depraved pervert, which also has the bonus factor of making him a less attractive catch for rival sects. There is a disadvantage in that, if you take the disciplinary records seriously, the party would appear to be full of sex pests, but it’s best not to think about that.

6. Following on from that, if you are talking to an attractive woman – or any woman – never allow your eyes to stray below her neck. In fact, it’s best not to look at her at all. Like all the rules, this can be loosened or tightened according to status. A leading cadre can get away with some mild leching. On the other hand, the oppositionist runs the constant risk of an ambitious young woman trying to earn brownie points by accusing him of looking at her boobs. He may never have met the woman, but in the case of a sexual harassment charge the accuser is always believed.

7. You will notice that there is a lot of gossip about comrades’ sex lives. If the comrades concerned are in good standing, do not express any judgement, as this is moralism. On the other hand, gossip about an oppositionist can be invaluable proof of his monstrous character. Since comrades can fall from grace at a moment’s notice, it might prove useful to save up whatever gossip comes your way.

8. An especially delicate situation comes when you notice a middle-aged leading cadre with an attractive young female comrade, or even a whole bevy of them. Even if the cadre is supposed to be in a long-term relationship, your best bet is to say nothing. Do not remark on the age difference. Do not hold forth on ambitious young women shagging their way up the hierarchy. Do not speculate on the cadre’s pulling power outside the small world of the party. Do not draw any contrast with your own monastic existence. Just remember that these estimable young women are performing a valuable service to the revolution by letting ageing cadres get their leg over. Peter Stringfellow, how are you.

These rules of etiquette are of course far from exhaustive, and readers are welcome to add their own in the comments. But if the young comrade sticks to these, he can’t go far wrong. Just remember, though, that the rules can be arbitrarily changed at any time, and you can very easily find yourself on the wrong side of them out of no fault of your own.


  1. WorldbyStorm said,

    August 25, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    While such shennanigans weren’t unknown inside the WP or indeed DL which was a much more entertaining sort of party in some ways, the thought of actually going out with someone in it… shudder… Too much hassle.

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 25, 2007 at 2:52 pm

    Yes, your best bet was always to look outside the ranks. But the way a small organisation can build up a really elaborate system of etiquette and taboo… it’s really anthropology on the micro scale.

  3. ejh said,

    August 25, 2007 at 4:42 pm

    Mmmmm, but the observations of some anthropologists don’t always match with those of others.

  4. ejh said,

    August 26, 2007 at 11:54 am

    Alexander Cockburn’s piece this weekend includes the phrase bed is a pretty good place in which to cement revolutionary solidarity which strikes me as an unwise thing to have written…

  5. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 26, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    Good old Alex!

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 26, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    Rule 9: If you are a female comrade, don’t even think about putting on a short skirt or push-up bra when you go out at night. This is the way the slappers on the estates dress, and we all know they are victims of alienation. The proper dress for a liberated socialist woman is that of a radical feminist circa 1983. You may worry that this will cramp your pulling power, but women are in short supply in the party, so it hardly matters.

  7. ejh said,

    August 26, 2007 at 3:54 pm

    We are all in our forties here, aren’t we?

  8. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 26, 2007 at 4:12 pm

    If not older… but that doesn’t mean I want to see the dafter parts of the 70s and 80s replayed. Then again, I suppose there’s an argument to be had about exactly what was daft. 😉

  9. Idris of Dungiven said,

    August 26, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    I’m 36. It just *feels* like I’m in my 40s.

  10. Wednesday said,

    August 26, 2007 at 7:20 pm

    There must be something wrong with me so – I can’t even remember the last time a party colleague tried to chat me up (apart from one who I won’t count as he was old enough to have been interned in the Curragh).

    I’m not 40 yet either, btw.

  11. Ryan said,

    August 26, 2007 at 11:01 pm

    Best. Post. Ever.

    One of the more interesting things on the left (at least in Canada) is that, irregardless of your gender and theirs, one’s boy/girlfriend is always referred to as “my partner.” If they could drop that possessive article, they surely would.

    You should add rules about the minefield of shagging comrades from other “communities” (i.e. brown sugar).

  12. Idris of Dungiven said,

    August 27, 2007 at 9:02 am

    I once saw a website from some North American far left group which included the telling phrase ‘no, becoming a socialist won’t get you a girlfriend’.

    All that was missing was ‘stick to Trek fandom, son’.

  13. ejh said,

    August 27, 2007 at 9:42 am

    Also see

  14. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 27, 2007 at 10:09 am

    Rule 10: The loudest, most politically correct puritan in your branch will inevitably be the most energetic shagger, and will almost certainly hold a leadership position. Which came first is a more interesting question. See also rules 1 and 2.

  15. September 1, 2007 at 10:21 am

    […] Posted by WorldbyStorm in The Left, Sex. trackback Reading Splintered Sunrise and the entertaining post about sex and the socialists I was reminded of something I noticed recently about that intriguing […]

  16. neprimerimye said,

    September 9, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    It is fascinating how many Trotskyist groups have sufferedsplits that, in part, can be attributed to marriage breakups. The divorce of the Frasers for example was a major factor in the split of the Seattle based Freedom Socialist Party.

    As for Lutte Ouvriere its sexual ethics led to a major split some years back.

    By the way there are some considerable numbers of young female comrades amongst the left groups here in London.

    My feeling is that celibacy is a virtue on the left.

  17. Anonymous Swappie said,

    June 15, 2011 at 6:58 am


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