This article could begin pretty much anywhere, describing any number of contemporary fads that work to reproduce and reinforce our deeply (hetero)sexist Western norms and behaviours. Girls Gone Wild videos. Toddlers in Tiaras. Playboy bunny-stamped snowboards and cellphone covers. Sex bracelets that signal which sex acts the (inevitably female) wearer is willing to perform. Kiddie-thongs. Thongs.
Never has the personal — the intimately personal, that is — been so public. And yet it remains stubbornly non-political, despite the age-old feminist urging to the contrary.
In some ways, the Western world is a female-friendlier place than it was half a century ago, when second wave feminists began fighting for everything from access to abortion and women's shelters, to maternity leave, daycares and pay equity. But today, at the very same time that young girls are encouraged to play hockey and soccer, take science and math classes, and become doctors and engineers, the scope of their more intimate lives appears to be narrowing, catapulting us all backwards to an era when men were men, and women were…? Well, women were feminized, sexualized bodies, manners and charm.
Consider, for example, Glamour magazine's "30 things every woman should have and should know by the time she's 30" recently republished by the Huffington Post. Number 11 in the "have" column reads "A set of screwdrivers, a cordless drill and a black lace bra," while listed fifth in the "know" column is "How to kiss in a way that communicates perfectly what you would and wouldn't like to happen next." And then there's Toronto's Globe and Mail, which in March devoted 1600 words to a middle-aged white guy defending the pleasure he takes in ogling women on the streets, and describing how the 20-something objects of his desire in fact get off on his leering too!
Of course such moronic and offensive commentaries rarely go unchallenged. There are still some important marginal spaces in the media-sphere for feminists and others to object, and to offer alternative visions. And sometimes unglamorous, sympathetic accounts of the personal lives of young women can even attract a substantial audience. (I'm thinking here of HBO's Girls, a much vaunted antidote to Sex In the City – although it too is about white, affluent urbanites). But these spaces can't truly compete with the gender-traditionalist, sexist imaginings and practices which – despite the highly complex, varied and often contradictory impulses characterizing actual gender relations – seem to so powerfully speak to the popular imagination.
Explaining the current forcefield of gender relations is no easy task, and well beyond the capacity of a single article on the subject. It would involve looking at evolving family structures, workplace dynamics, communication and political landscapes to name a few. It would mean seriously assessing the political retreat since the 1960s of once vibrant mass-based social movements, explaining how and why this has either isolated feminists or led to them narrowing their horizons to work within — rather than challenge — prevailing institutions. Leaving all these important areas aside, this article focuses instead on the social forces underlying our practices as consumers. In what follows, I simply float a few ideas about how and why the market itself was, is and continues to be a hothouse of regressive (hetero)sexism.
Living in contemporary society is an intensely private and commodified experience — a condition that originated historically with the initial stages of capitalism. One of the things that distinguishes capitalism from earlier societies is the development and refinement of a private, domestic space — a space in which human needs that cannot be met directly by the market are attended to either individually or through (gendered and sexist) interpersonal interactions. That is, rather than a community organizing together to feed, clothe and educate its members, under capitalism much of that work falls to isolated families. In this sense, the care for our bodies and our selves — for what some scholars call our "social reproduction" — is thus essentially privatized.
Bodies of course are also an abiding public concern. They are disciplined and educated at schools, in prisons, at work, and elsewhere. They can be physically trained in community sports centres, or ordered by the government to die in times of war. And public health care, welfare and education systems assume that people's well-being is at least partially a social (as opposed to individual) responsibility, although ongoing funding cuts to these services prove how precarious this actually is. But this public attention to social reproduction has developed to complement and compensate for the failures of the more fundamental principle: responsibility for one's life under capitalism rests with the private individual or household.
While it is a basically private undertaking, social reproduction requires access to the means of living (food, shelter, clothing, etc.). The market — the space where such things are bought and sold — has only gradually been incorporated into our personal social reproductive activities. But in the process, it has become ever more central to our lives, its tentacles reaching into increasingly personal and intimate aspects of life.
In early capitalism, household members largely furnished both their own basic necessities such as food, soap, clothing and lighting, and essential experiences (or "services") such as love, sex, child-rearing, leisure and sleep – all things that were not then so easily purchasable in the marketplace. With industrialization and urbanization came a flood of consumer goods and services, higher wages and thus greater buying power for workers, and an increasing involvement of women (mothers in particular) working in the paid workforce. All this prompted a growing reliance on store-bought items. As a result, households today produce far fewer of the goods they consume, although they remain a space where, overwhelmingly if not exclusively through the labour of women, human needs continue to be met: wives and mothers clean clothes and linens, buy and prepare food, love and care for others, pursue and fulfill sexual and other pleasures.
Still, our ability to reproduce ourselves on a daily basis now centrally revolves around commodities (things or experiences we buy). Working ever longer hours, people in the US and Canada regularly pay others to prepare their food, clean their house, mind their children, and cut their hair. Relaxing and pleasuring their bodies is now also a deeply commodified event, as the current popularity of spas, brothels, movie theatres and theme parks attests. And increasingly, we turn to the market to supplement or access what were once basic public services such as education and health care.
None of this has been inevitable, nor uncontested. There are significant and on-going moments when people struggle to preserve non-market experiences and spaces (struggles to establish and, like the Quebec student movement today, preserve and defend access to public education is one). But capitalism has an in-built tendency to constantly expand the realm of commodities — to turn things and activities that were once free into things and activities that are bought and sold. This transfer of control over the conditions of our social reproduction from the household to the market has tremendous repercussions for the conditions under which we strive to meet our social reproductive needs.
One consequence is the intensification of poverty. Those who can't afford these goods and services have no secure right to them or to the sustenance they provide. Although the world produces far more food and other necessities than its population could ever use, the poor struggle to get by, many of them dying daily due to poor nutrition, lack of shelter and health care.
Another is the commodification of our personal lives. The more we give over the means and processes of social reproduction to the market, which produces things not to meet human needs, but to sell and make a profit, the more the care for our bodies and selves comes under distinct market-based influences. For instance, eating prepackaged food and dining out has dramatically altered our very physical beings: due in part to high-salt, high-carb diets, this generation of Canadians and Americans is heavier, more prone to diabetes and, some scientists predict, a shorter life span than earlier generations in which family members (usually wives and mothers) produced or prepared food in the home.
As the examples at the beginning of this article make clear, this creeping commodification extends to our most intimate experiences. There is, in fact, a tidy symmetry between the logic of the market and the nature of personal intimacy. They share a common currency: desire. The advertising industry spends billions of dollars researching and playing to consumers' deep-seated wishes and urges — the very impulses that define and govern our erotic fantasies and lives. Thus, what more fitting experience to market to people than desire itself, and sexual desire in particular?
Yet, in promoting goods and services intended to fulfill sexual needs and desires, the market depersonalizes — indeed dehumanizes — some of the most intimate aspects of our lives. These experiences become objects of an impersonal circulation of goods and services on a profit-driven market. On one level, such commodities have no necessary attachment to individual bodies and selves, that is to human needs. As a result, they can be considered frivolous and harmless. On another level, because people buy and use them in an effort to meet their highly personal needs, they help structure and condition our understanding of our intimate selves. Just as diamond rings came to shape our understanding of romance due in part to De Beers' late-1930s marketing campaigns, today bunny logos, Brazilian waxes and Cosmo TV all contribute to shaping our expectations and experiences of sex and sexuality.
It's not hard to see how this state of affairs can provoke a nostalgic defense of the family, and calls to shield children in particular from the aggressive, corrupting, influence of the market (with more "family dinners," for example). While I'm all for pushing back against market encroachment, it's important to be clear that the commodification of our lives does not signal the sort of social or moral regression that such a pro-family position usually implies. There is nothing inherently progressive about organizing the care of our social reproduction in families, as opposed to organizing it increasingly through the market. The former takes place in a context inflected with all kinds of unacknowledged, seemingly natural, political — usually patriarchal — power. To escape those confines, to be able to meet our needs outside of familial relations, can be incredibly important to individuals.
Indeed, sex sells in part because the market validates and celebrates something that not only families, but society more generally, otherwise demands we repress or degrade. Our desires, our bodies, our sexualities are routinely obscured and ground down by the demands of providing for and taking care of ourselves and the next generation, as well as by the sheer effort of earning a wage and getting by in a world that values profit over need. The market-based celebration of sexuality cuts against those oppressive forces, inviting us to be playful, desiring bodies – speaking powerfully, in other words, to crucial aspects of our humanity. Commodities can thereby generate an aura of liberation, a casting-off of society's erstwhile repressive restrictions.
For this reason, some feminists embrace the hyper-sexually explicit nature of contemporary pop culture, seeing it as evidence of a burgeoning and welcomed "sex-positivity." Women finally have the space, they suggest, to acknowledge themselves as sexual beings, to affirm and define their sexuality for themselves. But this perspective seems naïve in the extreme. However important it is for people to have a space in which sex and sexuality is acknowledged and validated, the market offers an inherently limited strategy for liberation.
First, so long as a confident, positive experience of sexuality is premised on purchasing the appropriate (trendy) goods or services, those who cannot afford to pay will be excluded. In this way the market offers, at best, an individual "freedom" of self-expression (narrowly defined by what goods and services are deemed profitable at any given time). But this comes at the cost of equality and democracy.
Second, markets are indifferent to human needs. Commodities exist in order to generate profits. Comfort, fulfillment and sustenance will always be secondary (if a consideration at all). And equality, human rights and justice? Well, those things simply don't sell. Instead, markets bank on human anxiety and longing.
Finally, however sexually explicit and provocative popular culture may be, it promotes a remarkably static and limited image of intimacy and sexuality, one that draws upon and re-asserts traditional gender-typed, (hetero)sexist conventions. That's because the business strategies at work are surprisingly conservative. In stoking our desires, marketers are experts at stylizing their goods and services as risqué. But their success depends on enticing buyers without alienating them by moving too far beyond what they already know. And what consumers know is a deeply gender-divided, patriarchal culture.
Thus, while selling sex bracelets to pre-teens pushes up against certain comfort zones about promiscuity and age, it leaves other presumptions and norms — those undergirding a (hetero)sexist sexuality — intact. The image of nubile sexuality that the bracelets suggest doesn't challenge patriarchal conventions one iota. As a result, what appears, for better or worse, as a risky, boundary-crossing expression of sexuality, recuperates and reasserts age-old, conservative conceptions of gender, sex and sexuality. In a brilliant article skewering this sexual "counter-revolution," feminist blogger Laura Penney reminds readers that "female submission has never really been shocking." (She goes on to list various "non-standard sexual trends" that, because they cross class, age, racial and other barriers, would.)
If markets won't change things for the better, what will? To answer that, we need to ask how we might organize society so that we are not dependent upon the market or the private household for our social reproduction. For some this has meant trying to opt out of consumer society, and living in democratically organized communes. But such a strategy fails to challenge the capitalist class structure and its state, the forces that propel people toward the private families and markets in the first place.
Socialists suggest full women's liberation can only happen when all working and poor women — and the men in their lives — fight to win control not only of their reproductive processes, but also the way that society is organized to produce goods and services. That is, it can only happen if we get rid of capitalism and institute a system in which we collectively and democratically decide what goods and services to produce on the basis of meeting human need not profit — even those goods and services intended to meet our most intimate needs and desires — and what sorts of social relationships we aspire to create. While we work toward that broader goal, however, it'd be a good idea to also work together to make the personal not just public, but unapologetically political too.
Susan Ferguson is an editorial associate of New Socialist Webzine.