The state as a key actor in social reproduction strategies and the construction of sexualities: the example of nineteenth century Britain (MSPEN)

Colin Wilson


What role does the state play in the social construction of sexuality? Authors including Jeffrey Weeks and more recently Peter Drucker have pointed out that this is a question to which the Foucault of The Will to Knowledge barely responds. Indeed, Foucault’s assertion in that text that “power is everywhere” suggests that he would consider the question invalid. I want to argue that the state is, however, a crucial agency in the social construction of sexuality, and to respond also to Drucker’s claim in Warped, which extends Poulantzas’ assertion that no general Marxist theory of the state is possible to the assertion that no general Marxist theory of sexuality is possible either – in which case a Marxist account of the state’s influence on sexuality becomes doubly invalid.

An examination of the history of 19th century Britain, however, suggests that we can make assertions about the role of the state as regards sexuality which go beyond the “concrete analysis of concrete social formations” to which Drucker argues we must limit ourselves. The capitalist state, seeking to respond to the often contradictory demands of short term profitability, long term economic sustainability and the ideological defence of capitalism, intervened repeatedly in this period in the construction of sexualities. Such interventions included legislation explicitly focused on sexual behaviour such as the Contagious Diseases Acts and the Criminal Law Amendment Act, but also a wide range of other legislation including the Poor Law and the Vagrancy Acts, the establishment of the police and the regulation of workplaces and education.

Such interventions highlight some of the key functions of the state as regards sexuality. The state is the body which takes responsibility for the social reproduction of the workforce at a physical, intellectual and ideological level; it seeks to ensure that social order is maintained on capitalist terms; it seeks to generalise the norms of bourgeois behaviour throughout society. In nineteenth century Britain these three themes interacted in various ways, and different elements of the ruling class supported varying strategies. The state’s role in the construction of sexuality is therefore complex, but it remains of crucial importance.

Social Reproduction - Sexuality - The State