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Feminism Unbound: Deconstructing Structural Violence, a Global Project

samuel.terry's picture

      I read this book Economies of Desire: Sex and Tourism in Cuba and the Dominican Republic by Amalia Cabazas and I felt like was a really great example of feminism unbound. Cabazas discusses how all-inclusive leisure resorts owned by transnational corporations and placed within developing countries on the “pleasure periphery” are a product of structural adjustment policies. Structural adjustment policies are defined by deregulation, austerity measure, and the removal of trade barriers all mandated by the strings attached to loans from the IMF and the World Bank.  These policies are premised on the development ethic of the “Washington Consensus” which asserts that macroeconmic growth will redistribute or “trickle down” to the poor and thus alleviate poverty and social inequality. What has been found throughout the world is that this ethic is faulty, rather structural adjustment is a form of neocolonialism wherein the third world is further exploited for resources and labor; populations remain dependent on transnational corporations for sub-par employment and are unable to develop a local economy that can compete within the global market. These resorts while simultaneously homogenizing the leisure experience in a way that eliminates cultural specificity/ authenticity, commercialize the “otherness” and exoticism of these locations and their people. Part of this commercialization is a corporate sexualization of women-workers. Indigenous women become another object to be consumed in the commodity chain of pleasure.

      However, what I find truly provocative is the account of how women self-appropriate this manufactured exoticism for their own economic benefit through the exploitation of desire in sexual tourism. Local women position themselves at these tourist enclaves often with the intention of to seek out wealthy (white) foreigners and build strategic relationships that involve complex transactions.  It is a transaction synthesized in the title of a favorite bell hooks’ article, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” In this article hook’s articulates the vulnerability of whiteness in the cultural marketplace--how it is dependent on the consumption of those it deems other to shore up its own boundaries (. However, these marginalized women retain the ability to creatively work within a scripted system to supplement their own income. 

      Furthermore, Cabaza discusses how “tactical sex does not rely on essentialized notions of identity” (110). Women who engage in these acts do not necessarily consider themselves prostitutes—a refusal to subsume the self to fit within Westernized notions of feminine sexual purity (and therefore unworthy of patriarchal protection) that casts strategic sex as deviant or essentially different from other forms of monetary exchanges for intimate relations or labor. Cabaza writes,

“Western intellectual history and ideology traditionally separate the world of the market (a masculine-gendered domain of supposedly impersonal, rational, and self-interested behavior) from the domestic realm (associated with women and the locus of sentimental economies untainted by commerce), making it difficult to understand the mixed motivations of transcultural social relations. This worldview of antagonistic and dichotomous spheres essentially erases agency” (118).

      These relationships between tourists and local women can in fact be ephemeral, incorporating mobility, money, affect, and even pleasure. These women operate in this liminal space as pragmatists, recognizing that such acts offer a potential escape from structural violence. However, just as this acknowledgement of liminal space means that such strategies should not condemn these women as whores, it should not be so quick to dub them victim. In the human rights discourse sex work is understood as a monolithic form of violence against women regardless of context (153). In this enacting of paternalism these women are deprived of the right to ascribe social meaning to their behavior. Rather, what Cabazas argues is oppression does not completely erase agency but finds ways to renegotiate power.

       This, I think, is feminism unbound—the creation of a space where a woman who engages in tactical sex can be more than the tropes: immoral prostitute or passive victim. A feminism that moves beyond androcentric western, classist, racialized ideologies fighting for liberal-democratic rights characteristic of European Enlightenment that are far removed from the lived experiences of women around the world. A feminism that acknowledges global apartheid—“the racialized division and stratification of resources, wealth and power that separates Europe, North America and Japan from the billions of mostly black, brown, indigenous and poor people across the planet” (Manning,3 ). One that realizes that women are the shock absorbers of such apartheid/ structural adjustment policies. Wherein poverty itself is gendered; labor market discrimination combined with geographic and occupational constraints as a result of child rearing mean women have less access to land, credit, capital, and social mobility. One that recognizes that while globalization has exacerbated economic and social inequalities it offers feminism an opportunity to combat this through the widening of communication, information networks, and authentic cultural exchange. Thus, feminism unbound, far from casting off the importance of sex and gender altogether, realizes its project to dismantle sexism is intrinsically connected-- even mutually constitutive-- to deconstructing racism, classism, neoliberalism, colonialism, hegemonic capitalism and all forms of oppression. 



Cabezas, Amalia L. Economies of Desire: Sex and Tourism in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2009. Print.

hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Author. bell hooks. Black Looks:  Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992. 21-3

Marable, Manning. "Global Apartheid and America’s New Racial Domain." The Free Press. N.p., 13 Aug. 2004. Web.


Anne Dalke's picture

unbinding academic discourse?


This is (as expected) very sharp and to-to-point; I think Cabazas’ analysis, not only of the neocolonialism of structural adjustment, but even more astutely of the commercialization of otherness in leisure resorts on the “pleasure periphery” (new term for me: great! –and awful…), and even more astutely than that, of the agency of women who self-appropriate this manufactured exoticism for their own economic benefit through the exploitation of white dependents on the consumption of otherness (bell hooks is perfect to bring this idea home) is all…

Superb. Well written, well argued.

We can go on talking about these ideas; you say that, in human rights discourse, sex work is understood as a monolithic form of violence against women; I’d say that the topic has long been more controversial in feminist studies, reaching @ least back to a debate about whether “feminists should oppose prostitution” in the 99, 2 (Jan. 1989) volume of Ethics.
If you want to trace the debate, you might see also
Martha Nussbaum Sex and Social Justice, Oxford, 1999
Kamala Kempadoo, "Women of Color and the Global Sex Trade: Traditional Feminist Perspectives." Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 1, 2 (Spring 2001): 28-51;
Ana Lopes, "Sex Workers of the World Unite!" Feminist Review 67 (Spring, 2001): 151-53.

I well remember a conference I attended @ Smith 10 years ago where a panel on sex work blew up, in an argument between those who framed it as exploitation (particularly of the most vulnerable) and refused to consider any other analysis, and those who framed it as a form of labor, conducted by agents, and….ditto.

But you know what I’d really rather talk about? …is your own agency in relationship to this (and other) finely constructed papers. You begin “I read this book,” and midway through mention “a favorite article”—whose favorite? Yours? Strange elision…In an essay on women’s agency your own positionality is strangely elided throughout, papered over by the astute analyses of Cabaza, hooks and Manning, on whom you report. You are the agent (in the way the word is used in legal language—as acting for, carrying for), but not agent in the way you here use the term.

Guess what I’m gesturing towards is unbinding some presumptions about academic discourse, and your relation to the genre…? How neocolonialist are the presumptions here? Either in your modality, or my questioning it…?)