1. Sex and Anarchy

Ever since the late nineteenth century the political philosophy of anarchism has, in some strands that go to make up its manifestation in the world, been linked to what was then called “free love” and its opponents might have regarded as sexual licence. This is to say that, for some, but certainly far from all, sexual freedom has been a part of a philosophy loudly proclaiming that it was about human freedom in general. Some, perhaps those more immediately concerned with workers’ or class struggles [Lucy Parsons and Peter Kropotkin would be two examples] shied away from such emphases and, at best, thought they were secondary concerns if they were concerns at all. Others, however, particularly those who combined anarchism with what would become feminism, people like Voltairine de Cleyre and Emma Goldman, regarded sexual emancipation as just as important as any other kind if anarchism was ever going to flourish. In fact, they believed that there couldn’t be such a thing as “anarchism” if women weren’t just as free as men – and particularly free from a sexual bondage which, in one way and another, refused women agency in the matters of their own bodies and their own sexual expression. Sexuality in the time of de Cleyre and Goldman was heterosexual and largely marriage- based and, if it was not these things, was under the table and prone to exploitation, as in the case of prostitution or of homosexuality which dare not openly speak its name and which was often criminalised. [Emma Goldman was one of the few who would openly lecture on this latter subject.]

Someone who wasn’t – as far as I know – an anarchist [although she was, for a time, married to a Dutch abuser who claimed to be one] but was a feminist was Andrea Dworkin. Amongst other things, this lesbian, who subsequently lived with and loved a man who said he was gay [John Stoltenberg] and railed against enculturated misogyny and prostitution, regarded pornography as terrorism against women. I’d like to reproduce her first ever speech on the subject from 1977 below in full as a demonstration of this belief:

All through human history, there have been terrible, cruel wrongs. These wrongs were not committed on a small scale. These wrongs were not rarities or oddities. These wrongs have raged over the earth like wind-swept fires, maiming, destroying, leaving humans turned to ash. Slavery, rape, torture, extermination have been the substance of life for billions of human beings since the beginning of patriarchal time. Some have battened on atrocity while others have suffered from it until they died.

In any given time, most people have accepted the cruellest wrongs as right. Whether through indifference, ignorance, or brutality, most people, oppressor and oppressed, have apologized for atrocity, defended it, justified it, excused it, laughed at it, or ignored it.

The oppressor, the one who perpetrates the wrongs for his own pleasure or profit, is the master inventor of justification. He is the magician who, out of thin air, fabricates wondrous, imposing, seemingly irrefutable intellectual reasons which explain why one group must be degraded at the hands of another. He is the conjurer who takes the smoking ash of real death and turns it into stories, poems, pictures, which celebrate degradation as life’s central truth. He is the illusionist who paints mutilated bodies in chains on the interior canvas of the imagination so that, asleep or awake, we can only hallucinate indignity and outrage. He is the manipulator of psychological reality, the framer of law, the engineer of social necessity, the architect of perception and being.

The oppressed are encapsulated by the culture, laws, and values of the oppressor. Their behaviors are controlled by laws and traditions based on their presumed inferiority. They are, as a matter of course, called abusive names, presumed to have low or disgusting personal and collective traits. They are always subject to sanctioned assault. They are surrounded on every side by images and echoes of their own worthlessness. Involuntarily, unconsciously, not knowing anything else, they have branded into them, burned into their brains, a festering self-hatred, a virulent self-contempt. They have burned out of them the militant dignity on which all self-respect is based.

Oppressed people are not subjugated or controlled by dim warnings or vague threats of harm. Their chains are not made of shadows. Oppressed people are terrorized— by raw violence, real violence, unspeakable and pervasive violence. Their bodies are assaulted and despoiled, according to the will of the oppressor.

This violence is always accompanied by cultural assault — propaganda disguised as principle or knowledge. The purity of the “Aryan” or Caucasian race is a favorite principle. Genetic inferiority is a favorite field of knowledge. Libraries are full of erudite texts that prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jews, the Irish, Mexicans, blacks, homosexuals, women are slime. These eloquent and resourceful proofs are classified as psychology, theology, economics, philosophy, history, sociology, the so-called science of biology. Sometimes, often, they are made into stories or poems and called art. Degradation is dignified as biological, economic, or historical necessity; or as the logical consequence of the repulsive traits or inherent limitations of the ones degraded. Out on the streets, the propaganda takes a more vulgar form. Signs read “Whites Only” or “Jews and Dogs Not Allowed.” Hisses of kike, nigger, queer, and pussy fill the air. In this propaganda, the victim is marked. In this propaganda, the victim is targeted. This propaganda is the glove that covers the fist in any reign of terror.

This propaganda does not only sanction violence against the designated group; it incites it. This propaganda does not only threaten assault; it promises it.

These are the dreaded images of terror.

— A Jew, emaciated, behind barbed wire, nearly naked, mutilated by the knife of a Nazi doctor: the atrocity is acknowledged.

— A Vietnamese, in a tiger cage, nearly naked, bones twisted and broken, flesh black and blue: the atrocity is acknowledged.

— A black slave on an Amerikan plantation, nearly naked, chained, flesh ripped up from the whip: the atrocity is acknowledged.

— A woman, nearly naked, in a cell, chained, flesh ripped up from the whip, breasts mutilated by a knife: she is entertainment, the boy-next-door’s favorite fantasy, every man’s precious right, every woman’s potential fate.

The woman tortured is sexual entertainment.

The woman tortured is sexually arousing.

The anguish of the woman tortured is sexually exciting.

The degradation of the woman tortured is sexually entrancing.

The humiliation of the woman tortured is sexually pleasing, sexually thrilling, sexually gratifying.

Women are a degraded and terrorized people. Women are degraded and terrorized by men. Rape is terrorism. Wife-beating is terrorism. Medical butchering is terrorism. Sexual abuse in its hundred million forms is terrorism.

Women’s bodies are possessed by men. Women are forced into involuntary childbearing because men, not women, control women’s reproductive functions. Women are an enslaved population— the crop we harvest is children, the fields we work are houses. Women are forced into committing sexual acts with men that violate integrity because the universal religion — contempt for women — has as its first commandment that women exist purely as sexual fodder for men.

Women are an occupied people. Our very bodies are possessed, taken by others who have an inherent right to take, used or abused by others who have an inherent right to use or abuse. The ideology that energizes and justifies this systematic degradation is a fascist ideology— the ideology of biological inferiority. No matter how it is disguised, no matter what refinements pretty it up, this ideology, reduced to its essence, postulates that women are biologically suited to function only as breeders, pieces of ass, and servants. This fascist ideology of female inferiority is the pre-eminent ideology on this planet. As Shulamith Firestone put it in The Dialectic of Sex, “Sex class is so deep as to be invisible.” That women exist to be used by men is, quite simply, the common point of view, and the concomitant of this point of view, inexorably linked to it, is that violence used against women to force us to fulfill our so-called natural functions is not really violence at all. Every act of terror or crime committed against women is justified as sexual necessity and/or is dismissed as utterly unimportant. This extreme callousness passes as normalcy, so that when women, after years or decades or centuries of unspeakable abuse, do raise our voices in outrage at the crimes committed against us, we are accused of stupidity or lunacy, or are ignored as if we were flecks of dust instead of flesh and blood.

We women are raising our voices now because all over this country a new campaign of terror and vilification is being waged against us. Fascist propaganda celebrating sexual violence against women is sweeping this land. Fascist propaganda celebrating the sexual degradation of women is inundating cities, college campuses, small towns. Pornography is the propaganda of sexual fascism. Pornography is the propaganda of sexual terrorism. Images of women bound, bruised, and maimed on virtually every street corner, on every magazine rack, in every drugstore, in movie house after movie house, on billboards, on posters pasted on walls, are death threats to a female population in rebellion. Female rebellion against male sexual despotism, female rebellion against male sexual authority, is now a reality throughout this country. The men, meeting rebellion with an escalation of terror, hang pictures of maimed female bodies in every public place.

We are forced either to capitulate, to be beaten back by those images of abuse into silent acceptance of female degradation as a fact of life, or to develop strategies of resistance derived from a fully conscious will to resist. If we capitulate— smile, be good, pretend that the woman in chains has nothing to do with us, avert our eyes as we pass her image a hundred times a day— we have lost everything. What, after all, does all our work against rape or wife-beating amount to when one of their pictures is worth a thousand of our words?

Strategies of resistance are developing. Women are increasingly refusing to accept the pernicious, debilitating lie that the sexual humiliation of women for fun, pleasure, and profit is the inalienable right of every man. Petitions, leafleting, picketing, boycotts, organized vandalism, speak-outs, teach-ins, letter writing campaigns, intense and militant harassment of distributors and exhibitors of woman-hating films, and an unyielding refusal to give aid and comfort to the politically self-righteous fellow- travellers of the pornographers are increasing, as feminists refuse to cower in the face of this new campaign of annihilation. These are beginning actions. Some are rude and some are civil. Some are short-term actions, spontaneously ignited by outrage, others are long-term strategies that require extensive organization and commitment. Some disregard male law, break it with militancy and pride, others dare to demand that the law must protect women — even women — from brazen terrorization. All of these actions arise out of the true perception that pornography actively promotes violent contempt for the integrity and rightful freedom of women. And, despite male claims to the contrary, feminists, not pornographers, are being arrested and prosecuted by male law enforcers, all suddenly “civil libertarians” when male privilege is confronted on the streets by angry and uppity women. The concept of “civil liberties” in this country has not ever, and does not now, embody principles and behaviors that respect the sexual rights of women. Therefore, when pornographers are challenged by women, police, district attorneys, and judges punish the women, all the while ritualistically claiming to be the legal guardians of “free speech.” In fact, they are the legal guardians of male profit, male property, and phallic power.

Feminist actions against pornography must blanket the country, so that no pornographer can hide from, ignore, ridicule, or find refuge from the outrage of women who will not be degraded, who will not submit to terror. Wherever women claim any dignity or want any possibility of freedom, we must confront the fascist propaganda that celebrates atrocity against us head on — expose it for what it is, expose those who make it, those who show it, those who defend it, those who consent to it, those who enjoy it.

In the course of this difficult and dangerous struggle, we will be forced, as we experience the intransigence of those who commit and support these crimes against us, to ask the hardest and deepest questions, the ones we so dread:

— what is this male sexuality that requires our humiliation, that literally swells with pride at our anguish;

— what does it mean that yet again— and after years of feminist analysis and activism — the men (gay, leftist, whatever) who proclaim a commitment to social justice are resolute in their refusal to face up to the meaning and significance of their enthusiastic advocacy of yet another woman-hating plague;

— what does it mean that the pornographers, the consumers of pornography, and the apologists for pornography are the men we grew up with, the men we talk with, live with, the men who are familiar to us and often cherished by us as friends, fathers, brothers, sons, and lovers;

— how , surrounded by this flesh of our flesh that despises us, will we defend the worth of our lives, establish our own authentic integrity, and, at last, achieve our freedom?”

Now this speech, first presented in 1977 under the title “Pornography: The New Terrorism”, isn’t presented as anarchist thought – but I would absolutely 100% argue that it is. I don’t see any reason why the aforementioned Ur-anarchafeminists, de Cleyre and Goldman, wouldn’t agree with the thrust [no pun intended] of its message if not on a sentence by sentence basis. Both of those former writers and activists, initially active in traditional Victorian times, write about “sex slavery” where women are bound to either seek marriage for social protection [where they become babymakers] or are forced to sell their bodies to the lowest bidder in sex acts which, as Emma Goldman pointed out, exposed them to exploitation and manipulation by men in general and police officers in particular [who would skim their earnings]. Pornography today, overwhelmingly the sale of the depiction of women’s exploitation, is much more ubiquitous than when Dworkin originally delivered this speech and, thanks to the Internet, is potentially available to anyone with access to it. You would find women exploited [even if only in roleplay terms] on the front page of any popular porn site that you could find. Why aren’t people in general outraged by such a situation? Why is it being ignored and excused?

One obvious reason is that society has individualised its members to such an extent that pornography, as an activity, is now regarded to be a matter of the individual’s choices and action. No “social” position – much less a political one – is taken on it. If individuals consent to its activities [which extends from performing to viewing] then the view is taken that this is purely a matter for them as if no social consequences or effects accrued as a result. However, the approach of the anarchists de Cleyre and Goldman –and the feminist Dworkin – is not so individualised. Holistically appraising women as a class, they ask what such control and exploitation of women means for women as women in social and political contexts. Whether talking about women as “sex objects”, inside and outside of marriage, or as the objects of exploited fascination they are in pornography, these women are for conclusions that don’t regard human beings as privatised and individualised such that we can almost imagine they each live in their own hermetically sealed vacuums, unaffecting, and unable to affect, anybody else by their choices. This is obviously completely ridiculous but that won’t stop exploiters of female sexuality, and the women it belongs to, from using it as an argument nevertheless. Such people never look at the phenomenon socially and holistically and so never draw the conclusions of these three women that women are dominated slaves, a matter of a purposeful political action that is consistently patriarchal. And the first task of any patriarch is to control and possess women.

This essay is about sex AND ANARCHISM. So the obvious question to ask is “What light does anarchism shed on sex?” In quoting Dworkin in full from one of her speeches I believe that I have started to make my anarchist point and to relate sex to anarchism. Anarchism, as of first importance, is about human liberty; liberty from the coercion of others in body and in mind — and particularly from those things as perpetrated by institutions of one kind and another. This is where the critiques of de Cleyre, Goldman and Dworkin come from: women, who must be married to survive, who have no economic independence, who are objects of abuse, exploitation and domination, have no liberty, are not free and cannot decide the course of their own lives explicitly because of the control patriarchal society imposes upon them. The very fact, in fact, that a woman’s primary asset in the world is regarded as her sexuality [in a way that is simply not true for a man and in which she must either refrain from it as the virgin or revel in it as the whore] is itself here evidence of a basic problem. In researching the life of Emma Goldman, as one example, for a future project I hope to undertake, I note how, in newspaper interviews, her appearance is remarked upon in sometimes shockingly straightforward terms. As every woman knows, no man is ever subjected to such unrequested commentary on their appearance. But women, for some reason, are. Its because how they look, if they can attract sexual partners, is what this sick society thinks women are there for. Its bad enough to even be a woman in the first place but if you look like one who couldn’t get a shag then how much worse must you be?

It has, so it seems, always been this way. But that should not commit us to the view that it always will be – much less that it always should be. In her essay “Twenty-First Century Sex” the writer on anarchism and feminism, Judy Greenway, makes a number of points relevant to those imagining sex in the future from an anarchist perspective. They begin as basically as to ask the question of what “sexual freedom” is even imagined to be [for you cannot instantiate a freedom if you cannot even describe what it would look like if it existed]. She notes how, in her own past, at an anarchist gathering, a man had presumed

that sexual freedom meant he could now fuck all the women who called themselves anarchists. Does “sexual freedom” mean “women on demand for all the anarchist men”? Greenway points out that, in fact, “sexual freedom” means different things to different people [as we might reasonably expect it would. A back issue of the Anarchist Federation’s “Organise!” magazine reminds us that “Anarchist views on sex can range from the idea that ‘anything goes’ between consenting adults, to the more traditional approaches of what constitutes free love between individuals”] and many anarchists, in fact, live entirely conventional sex lives that are barely distinguishable from non- anarchist ones. Yet the anarchist is [or should be] one who asks “how best to structure personal relationships” and they should be concerned about relationships regulated by either a church or a state [both of which most of them would regard as invalid entities]. Yet, as Greenway points out, many anarchists have thought that “sexual freedom” was about much more than freedom from institutional intervention in their relationships: it is about a freedom of their own self-expression.

So one thing, as Greenway references in her essay, that anarchism should be about is “trying to transform the power relationships involved” or “making those visible” in matters of sexual interaction. Dworkin does a fantastic job of this in her writing about pornography, in the process demonstrating that pornography, besides largely being the fetishization of the sexual domination of women by men, is also a propaganda for its own harmlessness [for instance, by arguing it is a matter of free speech – and so personal choice — rather than the ethical treatment of women and other not-men]. Unless you look at things like pornography in terms of what is actually going on in it then you might just be lulled to sleep with the narcotic notion that it is a matter of taste rather than of ethics. But I would argue that for the anarchist – something which, in my view, is a matter of ethics in itself – EVERYTHING is a matter of ethics — for anarchism is a matter of human relationships in their widest and most holistic conception as well as a critique of, and proposed remedy for, the operations of power and authority in the world. So the anarchist must ask ethical questions of sex and sexuality for these things are so basic to human relations to begin with.

Yet anarchism, as the practice of an ethical orientation towards human beings and the world that decentralises power, is not about falling in with dominant – and dominating – ideologies such as the patriarchal ones which control women’s bodies and result in phenomena such as pornography [which is why the Mujeres Libres ever existed in Spanish anarchism in the 1930s]. Anarchism explicitly asks, in ethical context, about power and control, exploitation and domination, coercion and authority. In general, it wishes to annul the possibilities and opportunities for any of these things. It wants to respect sex and sexuality as natural, life-affirming activities without turning them into further ways to dominate and control. So, as Judy Greenway reports of anarchist feminist activists like Nikki Craft and the Outlaws for Social Responsibility, we should argue that:

“Sex is not obscene. The real obscenity is the marketing of women as products ... We

are in favour of nudity and sensuality ... There is a difference between a genuine

love, acceptance and empowerment of the body, and the marketing of women and

exploitation of women that is the trademark of pornography.”

Anarchists do not have, or need, to be censors. Indeed, as even the non-anarchist Dworkin argued, the issue with pornography [for example] is not even censorship to begin with: its equality, its the reality of domination and combatting that, its allowing all

sexes and genders the same “freedoms to” and “freedoms from” that MEN would expect to enjoy themselves.

But sex and sexuality are not only matters of how the straight dudes love to control everybody else [in this sense we can speak of men and not-men] – and pre-eminently the straight women who exist for their consumption and control. You may have noticed how, in the last several decades, the visibility of those who are not straight nor even, in some cases, con-cis-tently the same thing in their gendered identity has increased exponentially in terms of their public visibility. I am reliably informed that 50 years ago everything that is today said, in derogatory tone, of trans and non-binary people was then said of homosexual people [that they are out to corrupt, and possibly even fuck, your children being primary among them]. But today being gay or lesbian [or even bisexual] is, in all but the most fundamentalist of places, accepted within the spectrum of sociosexual normality. We can only hope that trans and non-binary people will come to achieve the same acceptance even if, right now, the very same people who control women’s bodies and who, in former times, wanted to outlaw and make illegal a practising homosexuality, see trans people as those who must be erased from existence. This erasure is a common tactic of the socially and politically dominant and, as in cases of

racial supremacy, can often be a matter of actual physical erasure [i.e. violence aimed to make your existence as a particular gender or sexuality physically impossible]. Even if your continued existence is allowed it is bound to become mired in ideological struggle for how it shall be allowed to exist and inserted into a pecking order in which “men and not-men” becomes a controlling ideology and designation.

It should go without saying that an anarchist is in favour and fully pro whatever sex, gender or sexuality anyone identifies themselves as. [And “self-identification” is also a perfectly acceptable means of identification.] The anarchist issue, as already noted in relation to that particular form of gendered ideological violence called pornography, is equality, mitigation of domination, opposition to control, and not censorship. Anarchism, if we may put it in such terms, is a matter of how people get along all together in their glorious rainbow spectrum of differences, without recoursing to dominating and exploiting each other. To the anarchist, then, it does not, and should not, matter if you are gay or straight, pan or bi, cis or trans, binary or non-binary, static or fluid. What matters is that all these people can get along. What matters is that one group does not decide, and practice, the exploitation or attempted erasure, of another group.

But in our current world context this means that many of these gender or sexual expressions are regarded as rebellious, outlaw expressions of existence by a dominating power that wants to impose “legitimate” expressions of sex and/or gender upon you. This is seen most heinously in the existence of those King Canutes known as the “gender critical” who want to hold back the tide of personal experience and expression of self as if it could be imposed from above by a dominating cabal of authoritative people. As an anarchist, on such grounds alone we would be duty bound to fight against such a freedom-constricting idea. That such people work socially and politically to actively destroy and disrupt human lives by denying their existence only adds impetus to the idea that the gender critical are no friends of an anarchy which is about the cops in your head as much as it is about the uniformed ones in the street carrying out their masters’ freedom-hating dictats. Gender and sexuality are anarchist issues exactly because anarchism is about how you think as much as it is about how people relate to each other in our lived experience of the world. In fact, it must be about both because one always relates to, and directly affects, the other.

The answer, of course, comes back to the central anarchist “agenda” — the dissolution of power in the world, the destruction of networks of domination and structures of coercion, the institution of relationships of free expression and free association that are direct and unmediated by authoritative institutions. If these central anarchist aims were achieved only to this extent then sex and sexuality would be transformed. Yet it is not simply [or, for some, even] about working politically to create such a political reality; it is about prefiguration and living in such ways right now – in effect, regarding anarchism as an ethic to live by, one which does not proceed by the domination of some over others but in exactly all the anarchist ways you would imagine a future anarchist society, or decentralised conglomeration of communities of free association and mutual aid, so to do. This must imply that a person’s sexuality and gender, which are individual things socially negotiated [for no one is an island and so no one, all by themselves, comes up with their gender or sexuality in isolation], are things worthy of respect and public recognition [which also means all people are due the same respect and legal protections under the law – at least as long as “the law” still exists]. Such prefiguration, which is “the end is the means and the means are the end” thinking, establishes that, in order to change society, people with different values who live to educate people at large to different values live out their lives by practising them.

I have, for myself, never been one for the “armed revolution” notion of anarchist progress. I am much more on the side of those who have seen anarchism as “progress through education” [although this is not to suggest this is a binary opposition in which one can do one or the other but never mixtures of both]. This is revolution through evolution which recognises that changed societies and revolutionary communities grow out of the changed individuals that make them up and only from the changed individuals that make them up. This is something every anarchist can do right now, both in supporting and standing in solidarity with oppressed genders and sexualities and also by educating those not so inclined to our common humanity of which sexuality and gender are just expressions. Sex AND ANARCHISM is a matter of such education and the wider acceptance of the spectrum of expression of which human beings are capable, subject to the idea of freedom from domination [and so of uncoerced consent] which anarchists in general proudly, and rightly, hold dear. We might not engage in a fully anarchist existence in our world context at the moment, but we have the ever-present opportunity to spread anarchist conceptions of a liberated sexuality and gender expression as far and wide as we dare. This will be a necessity if we are ever to significantly break the chains of patriarchy and banish the foul spectres of domination, exploitation and control through which sex and gender have habitually been mediated.

2. Sex, Love and Agency

Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were an anarchist couple who had a relationship, sexually intimate and not, which extended over almost half a century from the late 1880s to the mid 1930s and Berkman’s death by his own hand. When they first met, upon Goldman’s banishment from her family in Rochester, New York, to New York City, Berkman was one of the first people she met in a cafe patronised by political radicals. Berkman was, at that time, working for Johann Most’s Freiheit newspaper and he soon brought Goldman into Most’s orbit as well. Most took a personal and sexually intimate interest in Emma Goldman even though she was then only just 20 and Most was around 24 years older [i.e. more than twice her age]. Berkman and Goldman [who were similarly aged] would themselves embark upon a sexual relationship too and both committed themselves openly to the notion of “free love”, the idea that no one had an exclusive sexual call on, or title over, another and so that people were free to pursue or engage in sexual fulfilment with whomsoever they wished, having given their consent to such relationships.

In 1892 Berkman would commit to an act of propaganda by attempting to kill the industrialist and union-buster, Henry Clay Frick. He shot and stabbed him but failed to kill him and was captured, subsequently being imprisoned for 14 years. When he emerged, he bore all the scars, visible and invisible, of his time inside in which he had attempted escape both via a tunnel that was dug but also by hanging himself. It is unsurprising that the now thoroughly changed Berkman found it difficult to take up his life where he had left off almost a decade and a half before. Notably, relations with Emma Goldman modulated from sexual intimacy to a deep, supportive, mutual friendship which would continue for the rest of their lives. But this is not where I leave this matter for, in 1907, when Goldman helped assist Berkman’s transition back into productive life by handing him the editorship of her magazine, Mother Earth, a magazine which would become the most popular anarchist magazine in the USA under his editorship, Berkman took the opportunity of Goldman being abroad on a lecture tour and attending anarchist conferences, to begin a relationship with the anarchist activist, Becky Edelsohn, who, at least according to Goldman and Berkman in their various writings, was about 15 years old. Berkman was, at this time, 37 years of age.

This example of Berkman and Edelsohn, as with the earlier similar example of Goldman and Most, would, for many today [and even those of anarchist self-description], be a challenging revelation. The spectre of “pedophiles” stalks public discourse as the ultimate slur everyone is keen to avoid and many are eager to dish out, so they think, to suspect others. Even where the participants are of legal age [as with Goldman and Most], age difference is often wielded as a weapon by some commentators eager to find “creepy” or “stalkerish” men who are “preying” on much younger women. Notably [for me, at least] the question of the agency of the females in these situations is barely ever raised. It is assumed [often consequent on, and in relationship with, the age of the females concerned] that the women in these situations have no agency. Yet in the cases I have raised here neither Goldman nor Berkman ever seem to make reference to the illegitimacy of either of these relationships. Goldman, for example, feels upset that Berkman can no longer be intimate with her but, in her comments on it in her own writing, she never remarks how young Becky Edelsohn is. The age difference, similarly, does not elicit any remarks from her. She considers it only as a seemingly consensual relationship in which Berkman and Edelsohn themselves can decide if it is right for them or not. It is worth noting here that Goldman came to know Becky Edelsohn quite well as Edelsohn became a member of her circle [and was previously arrested as a 14 year old at a meeting at which Goldman had spoken] and helped out with Mother Earth, moving into Goldman and Berkman’s communal apartment [which was also the Mother Earth offices] by the time her relationship with Berkman became active. She would be associated with their circle of friends for several years thereafter, Goldman’s lover, Dr Ben Reitman, even performing a then illegal abortion for her in 1911 when she would’ve been 18 or 19 years old.

In a contemporary context of near ubiquitous pedophile scares, examples such as this serve to raise numerous questions. Here are a few that I can think of [you may be able to think of more of your own and I encourage you to do so]:

  1. Does a female have agency in sexual encounters or relationships and, if so, under what circumstances?

  2. Of what significance are debates about “the age of consent”?

  3. Can consent ever simply be a matter of age?

  4. What constitutes “consent”?

  5. Of what significance or importance are age differences in sexual relationships?

  6. If a girl of controversial age consents to sex to the best of her ability, and with a partner who gives her every opportunity to consent without coercion, is it for third parties to tell her she should not engage in sexual behaviour or to censure any potential partner?

  7. What, besides consent, is of relevance to sexual relationships from a public perspective?

  8. Whose business are sexual relationships?

Of course, it is not only in matters of age that women and girls have had their agency removed from them by protective [or perhaps simply controlling] others. In the area of sex work there are those who argue that female sex workers are a coerced workforce who are unable to articulate their own best interests, so pervasive is the coercion they suffer [financial and sometimes physical] imagined to be. This applies not just to girls of teen age but also women of legal adult age. Such complainants are often revealed to be anti-sex work activists who argue that women should not offer sex for money to begin with as they regard such work as giving women in general a bad reputation and encouraging men, predatory or otherwise, into viewing women in general as sexually available. We also see in other areas, such as the furore some generate about trans people undergoing transition, that both teenagers and even those into their early twenties are argued by some, possibly bad faith, actors to be incapable of agency in their own lives. In fact, we may say that it is a strategically used tactic of some to argue that, in certain moral spheres, people should be regarded as not having agency. This, I suggest, applies to sexual relationships regarding teenagers [and especially teenage girls] as well. As anarchists, this should concern us.

Put simply – but, in contemporary context, requiring a lot of explanation that the reactionarily quick of thought will not engage in – my argument here is to be that simply because someone is a certain age – say the 15 years of age that Becky Edelsohn was in the example given above – that is, in itself, not enough to entirely preclude sexual activity on their part. But I must make it clear straightaway that this essay is, consequently, not to be a piece that argues for an unethical licentiousness and a free for all where sex is concerned. I do not believe that adults should, in general, be having sex with children nor even that children should be having sex with each other. The point of this essay is, in fact, that uncoerced consent is the primary deciding factor in sexual engagement with another person and that teenagers, as human beings, have agency and that this should be encouraged, educated and recognised in an ideal world. Of course, we do not live in an ideal world. But this does not mean we cannot educate each other and encourage educated engagement with each other nevertheless. This is, in fact, what I hope this essay will contribute to in a necessarily nuanced way.

Sexual activity in general today is carried out – unbelievably so – in an atmosphere to a large degree characterised by ignorance. On the one hand, we have those who are sex- obsessed, who see everything in terms of a largely [so they think] inconsequential ubiquitousness of sexual activity. Such people never seem interested in anything but sex and having an unending stream of orgasms seems their pre-eminent interest in life, something which is consequently full to the brim of sexual imagery of an often dubious or coercive nature. On the other hand, we have those, perhaps of religious persuasion, who vilify sex and the body [supremely the female body] as dirty and evil and to be avoided at all costs. It is something to be ashamed of and hidden away in the dark as if it doesn’t exist and its not how each one of us got here to begin with. Somewhere between these two the rest of the population are, somehow, supposed to develop healthy attitudes towards sex and sexual behaviour but, in such circumstances, its hard to see how they ever could.

This is unfortunate for perhaps the most helpful and advantageous thing contributing towards a healthy sex life is education, an education most people simply don’t get, either held in the sway, as they are, of those who don’t want you to know about sex at all or those who don’t want you to think about anything else. But it is this lack of education about sex and, yes, love, which leads to broken or ill-considered encounters and relationships, sexually-transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancy and traumatic consequences. What’s more, its education about sex, love and relationships which reduces the possibility for coercion of others in sex and so education which is, in many respects, the cure for ills which are easily diagnosed. Human beings, in a situation where

their offspring may become sexually capable by their early teenage years, leave these same people bereft of education or context in regard to their very own bodies and the feelings they may quite naturally encounter as a result of their natural maturation. It is entirely negligent behaviour on our [society’s] part.

It is my view that people with a mature and appropriate attitude towards sex would be teaching their children about it BEFORE their bodies became capable of it and their bodies start to respond to sexual stimuli. I see no reason why 10, 11 and 12 year olds could not be taught fully about sex, the development of the human body and sexual relationships before such things naturally begin to occur. For some backward, emotionally-stunted people this is seemingly only to encourage such things. But education is not encouragement: it is education; and, as anarchists, we should be all in favour of such education for it gives its recipients agency. Agency, or the ability to choose for oneself honestly and responsibly, is one of the pillars upon which anarchism rests. We should not be in the business of denying it to people but of encouraging it in everyone such that everyone – adult and teen – becomes the “self-thinking people” that the anarchist Lucy Parsons eulogised in an essay written in 1905. I believe it is fundamentally dishonest to say that people cannot decide things for themselves when it is often we, as a society, who have kept them in the ignorance which so disables them. Put simply, education increases agency and ignorance decreases it. Perhaps people are kept stupid so that they can be better controlled. As anarchists, however, that’s just one more reason why people should be educated all the more about their bodies in a sexual context.

That this education is lacking, and that people are often not “self-thinking people”, is clear to see on social media as I shall now demonstrate in a genuine example that I am aware of. Recently a 19 year old woman posted a photo of her bottom in booty shorts on Twitter. She apparently did this of her own free will and there’s no reason she shouldn’t have. The woman then apparently received a direct message in which a 42 year old man expressed his approval of the woman’s photo, something the woman apparently received with distaste. What followed was the woman outing the man for his, at best, bland approval of her photo, as if it was something both outrageous and shameful, and a pile on resulted in which the vast majority of people accused the man concerned of being a predator, a sex pest, a pedophile [for, of course, so they reasoned, he would’ve gone after a younger female if he could have], a creep, a stalker, etc., in a massive and unthought out example of overreaction and immaturity. Perhaps, we may say, the man should have kept his thoughts to himself. But is an honest and measured expression of another’s beauty now to be justifiably met with character assassination for the crime of saying someone looked nice? Is every older man necessarily a pedophile, every teen [or even just woman] necessarily a victim? This whole incident smacks of immaturity all round and an inability to appropriately and reasonably contextualise sexual interactions, things which subsequently become matters of predators and victims, male creeps and always innocent women.

When I became aware of this situation – and the focus, in some, on the age difference which, somehow in their minds, made the thought of any sexual interaction between them inconceivable [although, I stress, it was never even raised] – I immediately thought of Goldman and Most and Berkman and Edelsohn, which are tolerably similar examples of age differences and which, in both cases, led to actual bodily sexual interactions. I wondered how the commentators on this relatively inconsequential online case would have received such real world facts had they been aware of them. But then I also wonder how those reading about them now in this essay perceive and receive them too. The historical actors in these relationships seemingly had no concept, and so make no comment about, an imagined inappropriateness. It seems – in absence of evidence to the contrary – as if all four simply regard these relationships as matters of free choice, of agency, and of their own consent and self-responsibility. Free people may choose to enter into whatever voluntary associations they choose, we may imagine. This, after all, is an anarchist verity.

So it is not inconsequential that all four people here are, of course, anarchists and anarchists, as we know pre-eminently from Emma Goldman of these four, are those opposed not only to cops in the streets constraining our behaviour by fiat and by force but also against the cops in our head which would impose moralities of control upon us too. [Goldman often seems to have regarded the Church in this way and that is extremely appropriate where sex is concerned since its often the religious who want to control sexuality and especially female bodies.] Goldman’s ideal was educated men AND women who could freely choose to express their sexuality in ways uncoerced by others, ways that had been educated to be able to be uncoerced by others. She carried out such education herself personally over many years and to numerous audiences. We must assume, with Goldman’s explicit comments upon the case of Berkman and Edelsohn, by which she was personally affected, that this agency and freedom to choose voluntary associations was something she even extended to 15 year old females too. It would seem she regarded this relationship as a case of exactly such a thing, Becky Edelsohn’s age notwithstanding.

But should she have – and what follows from this? Let me make it clear that as an anarchist I am one who believes in the principles of an educated human agency and free association. I do not believe it right simply to say that Edelsohn and Berkman’s relationship was wrong simply based on their ages and some uneducated notion of its inappropriateness. This is not least the case when neither of those involved seemingly ever voiced any regret about the relationship – and neither did those close to it. I do not regard it as self-evidently obvious that those concerned could not have found sexual satisfaction from such a relationship and neither do I hold to moral interpretations which would seek to impugn one or other of the participants here for some imagined [and it would be a purely imagined] fault.

In fact, this essay has largely been dismissive of any public moral context in regard to the matters I have discussed at all. I am not even sure that such cases are public matters in an anarchist context or that it is for moralistic and controlling third parties to be interfering in the lives and choices of others. Anarchism is about educated freedom and responsibility and so this must extend to everyone possible, even 15 year olds if we can make it so. Anarchism is the doing away with the old philosophy of ignorance and coercion, of force and control, and its replacing with agency and association which is educated, free and unconstrained. This applies to love and sex as it does to politics. This is not a licentious free for all but a taking seriously of human interactions in a way that neither the sex-obsessed nor the sexually controlling ever will. So it is time to stop being sex police and to start educating ourselves about sex so that we may engage in it responsibly in as many cases as possible. We have nothing to fear from this except free people making free and educated choices. But that is exactly what the opponents of such thought will always be afraid of. Sex is an anarchist issue.

So, taking this on board, let us now try to close this essay by seeking to provide some anarchist answers to the questions that came to mind earlier:

  1. Does a female have agency in sexual encounters or relationships and, if so, under what circumstances?

    Yes, of course a female has agency in sexual encounters and over the use of her body – and she does so every bit as much as a man. Ideally, this would be in the educated way I have been describing in order that she may make educated free associations as she so chooses but, regardless, a woman’s body is hers to use as she wants, be that in sexual relationships or in selling it for sexual gratification on terms she openly agrees to.

  2. Of what significance are debates about “the age of consent”?

    Such debates naturally occur as people are concerned about predators [who do exist] and the protection of those too young in their emotional development to handle sexual contact. However, they also appear to be both lazy and clumsy devices to deal with necessarily individual and personal matters. Having an “age of consent” is what a society does when it is disconnected from the education of its citizens and its children and just wants a relatively easy [yet very coercive] fix.

  3. Can consent ever simply be a matter of age?

    No, it can’t. It is utterly ridiculous to imagine that a single day in the life of a person determines whether they may engage in sexual activity or not. It is equally ridiculous, if characteristic of the controlling mind which cares more about control than logical consistency, that in some places [such as the UK] teens may legally engage in sex but photos or video of them doing so constitutes child pornography, the sharing of which, even with friends or other lovers, may criminalise them for the rest of their lives.

  4. What constitutes “consent”?

    “Consent” we should conceive of as a positive affirmation of activity proposed or undertaken by each participant. We cannot second guess what is in people’s heads or ask what reasons people may have for doing something. We can only go by their outward signals regarding it.

  5. Of what significance or importance are age differences in sexual relationships?

    I tend to the view that they are of no importance at all. It is no more “creepy” of people of 20 or 30 years age difference to engage in uncoerced and consensual sexual activity than it is for people of 4 or 5 years age difference or no age difference at all.

  6. If a girl of controversial age consents to sex to the best of her ability, and with a partner who gives her every opportunity to consent without coercion, is it for third parties to tell her she should not engage in sexual behaviour or to censure any potential partner?

    Taking the example in good faith, I do not believe it is a matter for third parties at all. Whilst it is natural [and right] that people would want to protect the vulnerable from exploitation, this is not carte blanche to control the lives of others. This is exactly why I prescribed full and frank education of everyone above. Informed people make informed decisions and the anarchist is not then in the business of controlling behaviour regardless. With education comes self-responsibility [which we may assume Becky Edelsohn displayed herself].

  7. What, besides consent, is of relevance to sexual relationships from a public perspective?

    If people are freely consenting to sex, the public should largely be minding their own business and hoping they enjoy it.

  8. Whose business are sexual relationships?

    In the vast majority of cases, merely those participating in them.

This essay has been written to promote the anarchist idea of human agency and especially in the context of the anarchist values of [self-]education and [self-]responsibility. It is written in the belief that coercive control of people is damaging, wrong and so undesirable and that that society is best in which people make educated choices and engage in free and voluntary associations. It is a model for the whole of human society but, that being so, it must apply to those most intimate of human relationships and interactions too. It is not, as I am sure my critics would claim, a predator’s charter for it is my belief that educated people are also safer people and so that the ignorance people are currently kept in in order to control them also keeps them in danger [from predators and the exploitative] that they need not be in to begin with. So my argument here is not only that educated people may make better choices for their own lives and can be trusted to freely associate with who they will for whatever common purposes they share, but that the resulting society would also be safer as well as people become more aware of the dangers and more active in their negation. Educated freedom is, thus, not something to fear but something to embrace for all our sakes and life’s better [sexual] enjoyment.