Playing with Categories

Day 16: Erotic Labor--and the Rules of Play

Tonight: Bryn Mawr Peace Coalition is holding a community vigil,
in front of Luddington Library, 6:30-?,
to mark the death of the 2000th soldier in Iraq.
(Cf. Joan Scott re: legitimizing war w/ appeals to manhood...)

Also tonight:
Eating Problems (7:30, TGH) AND Evaluating Stories (8:00, MCC)

Thurs, 4-6 p.m., Carpenter 21, Women's Leadership Forum: Being Female in a Male-Dominated World

NYork Times, 10/25/05: "As Feminism Ages, Uncertainty Still Wins": "It's the certainty of uncertainty in life that makes [Wendy Wasserstein's new play] 'Third' affecting....Ms. Wasserstein is politely asking audiences who have grown older with her to acknowledge their fears, their limitations and the possibility that they might be wrong on subjects they were once sure about. In taking her uncommon women through the decades, she sweetly but shrewdly suggests that life is an unending identity crisis."

To begin (as Flora said in her paper) "Why we need rules to play with gender":
It is especially difficult to create rules for human gender and sexuality discussions definition, we are discussing may be impossible to discuss theory without encroaching on identity. And since identities are so diverse, safety rules may have to be abandoned in favor of trust in the other members of the discussion: trust that everyone acts in pursuit of the goal of the game. But what is that?.... I would venture to assume Barrie Thorne describes the general goal best: "As adults, we can help kids, as well as ourselves, imagine and realize different futures, alter institutions, craft new life stories. A more complex understanding of the dynamics of gender, of tensions and contradictions, and of the hopeful moments that lie within present arrangements, can help broaden our sense of the possible." How can one "broaden our sense of the possible?".... What can we rely on? ...I've only been able to find three rules.
1. Gender is hard to study.
2. Remain aware of your bias, "the technology of repression" inside of you as much as possible.
It pervades theory, science and your discussions.
3. Trust that your colleagues want to help despite how much
their experiences or thoughts may hurt or disagree with your own.

Now let's play!

What happened during Monday's "inning"...

Joan Scott argued for the use of "gender" as a category of historical analysis,
a focus on interacting relations rather than permanent, timeless polarities--
--the point of new historical investigation is to disrupt the notion of fixity--
that will enable historians to participate in changing the world.

Sherry Ortner added a turn to the screw, in her claim that
over-emphasizing gender as a category of analysis
can "mystify what's really happening here."

Better to maintain an "as if" posture,
viewing "woman" and "man" not as natural classes of objects,
but as constructions that are alterable
(ex: the "big man bias"--
applying the privileges of elites to male actors in general,
most of whom are excluded from leadership and public initiative).

What these ideas mean, regarding "I Am My Own Wife"
(aside from a play being the classic example of "as if")?
--to insist that the play is "about" (though not only "about") questions of sex and gender is
to make the exceptional typical, the unique universal, the personal political
--to "deny" that it is "about" these matters is to accomplish the reverse:
to make the typical exceptional, the universal unique, the political personal.

Each "move" is certainly valid; each can--
given our particular aims and investments--"broaden our sense of the possible."

As examples: want to bring in a conversation between Judith Butler and Gayle Rubin
...and now for a brief account of what we DIDN'T make you read for today:
"Against Proper Objects" and "Sexual Traffic," differences (1994).

Butler says that Gayle Rubin's two essays, "Traffic in Women" (1973) and "Thinking Sex" (1984)
laid out, respectively, the methodologies for women's studies and queer studies,
though neither Butler or Rubin accepts any "great methodological distinction"
between theories of gender and those of sexuality;
both see the political costs of choosing between feminism and radical sexual theory as being too great,
and argue for the need to incorporate a critique of gender into a radical theory of sex.
"The most important alliance gay people can make is between queers and feminists."

In her interview w/ Butler, Rubin situates her first essay, "The Traffic in Women,"
in the context of contemporary Marxist work, which "couldn't grasp issues of gender difference."
As corrective, Rubin relied on the classic anthropological work of Claude Levi-Strauss
to argue that gender identities derived from kinship relations:
The incest prohibition is...the fundamental step which, the transition from nature to culture is accomplished. "Bride as the most 'supreme gift'"....In the exchange of women ...the awareness of reciprocity...assumes the character of an institution." Rubin sees this as a shorthand for saying that the social relations of a kinship system specify that men have certain rights in their female kin; women do not have the same rights either to themselves or to their male kin.

In her second essay, "Thinking Sex," Rubin argues that feminism is a theory of gender oppression;
it does not follow that it will offer up an adequate theory of sexual oppression;
there is a historical necessity for a separate account.
"I wanted to add sexual practice to the grand list of social stratifications,
and to establish sexuality as a vector of persecution and oppression."

She followed Foucault in contrasting "gender," as a matter of kinship,
with "sex," a matter of body sensation. They are separable:
it is "heterosexist hegemony" to assume that to "be a sex" implies "having sex in a given way."

Rubin calls in this essay for better scholarship on sexuality, and
a sexual politics that isn't confined to the "edifice of feminist orthodoxy."
She asserts that 2nd wave feminists actually assimilated the
usual stigmas/common hatreds of non-normative sexual practice:
they targeted minor, powerless sexual practices as the primary enemy of women's freedom/well-being.
Very little gay male behavior was "granted the feminist seal of approval": every sexual variation --
transsexuality, male homosexuality, promiscuity, public sex, transvestism, fetishism, sadomasochism--
was vilified and attributed causal primacy in the creation/maintenance of female subordination.

Butler actually traces two different feminist traditions dealing w/ sexuality:
Catherine MacKinnon's anti-pornography paradigm
(in which all heterosex is rape, and women are eternally victimized),
against which Rubin articulates her argument that feminism
has not dealt adequately with sexual practice, sexual difference, sexual variety:
"On the grand chessboard of life, I wanted to block this move."

To do so, she studied the work of sexologists like Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld,
who catalogued sexual variety, normalizing/ destigmatizing
homosexuality and other "variations" on "normal" sexual practices.
She also critiqued the use of "19th c. romantic friendship as the ideal standard for lesbianism,"
the "master narrative in lesbian historiography,"
claiming that this "woman-identified-woman" approach "evacuates lesbianism of sexual context"
(ex: Adrienne Rich, for whom close supportive relationships between women=lesbianism).

Rubin claims that, until the late 19th c, there is no significant evidence of
self-conscious, self-identified lesbian communities or politics,
but individual consciousness changed in course of industrialization.
Her later work explores how sexual communities formed and were organized as urban populations,
the "territorial" building of subcultural systems designed to facilitate non-normative sexuality.

Rubin's done a lot of more recent work with the gay male leather community,
which she describes as a "textbook case of "sexual ethnogenesis,"
a "particular unity of the kinky and the masculine" which
codes both desiring/desired subject and desired/desiring objects as masculine:
man can be overpowered, yet retain his masculinity.
Gay men articulated an indigenous political theory of their sexual culture in their own terms.

If kinship systems, in her first analysis, are social structures, institutional apparatus,
gay kinship is "fictive, informal, less institutionalized, structurally less stable";
there has been a shift in the social role that kinship plays;
"the deployment of sexuality laid atop the deployment of alliance."

Rubin also begins thinking, in this later essay,
about prostitution as a labor (rather than as a moral) question.
(Her Marxist convictions are still very much in evidence.)
She corrects her earlier habit of comparing the lives of married women
to the similar sexual/economic arrangements of prostitutes,
realizing that the rhetorical effectiveness of this argument
relies on the stigma of prostitution as a technique of persuasion,
a stigma she doesn't want to re-inforce.

Finally, Butler's work is useful for its questioning of the usual
opposition between theoretical and empirical research:
"The naive tendency (or "grandiosity"?) of making universal statements is no longer possible."
"I find galloping idealism as disturbing as mindless positivism."
Empirical work is treated as a low-status, stigmatized activity inferior to theory,
but "often data come in by the back door."
"All data are dirty," not just things "out there waiting to be harvested," but social constructions.

"I have the quaint social science attitude that statements about living populations
should be based on some knowledge of such populations."

By the early 1980s, gender was seen as the "primary contradiction from which all social problems flowed";
"many people approached the next grand theory of all human misery...
I am skeptical of all universal tools..."
(cf. "treating Capital as if it were a lemon:
by squeezing it hard enough all the categories of social life would come dripping out.")

There's lots of other great stuff in this interview

But it's most important to remember that the
Marxism and structuralist anthropology underlying Rubin's work are
both important contributions to the contemporary study of sex as labor,
which Chapkis engages in (and which Jen will elucidate for us now...)

We have one question already on the table, from Amy Phillips: why??
i don't know if this is the right place for this, but i just had to vent about this. i just finished ch 1 of live sex acts. i generally liked the article and appreciated a more in depth overview of varying feminist positions on sex.
but the very last bit by Ariane Amsberg got me violently upset. i disagree with everything that she had to say. it makes me so angry and sad that she wrote this and had it published. i feel like she is perpetuating every stereotype about prostitutes possible. i can't wrap my mind around it.

So, Jen--
can you help us wrap our minds around....?


Recap the 4 types of feminists (re: sex) Chapkis highlights.

"Radical feminists" include:


--pro-"positive" sex feminism (where prostitution and porn are the negative foils)


sometimes here the problem seems to be with commercialization itself; "When love, relationship, and mutual pleasure are the only appropriate context for sex, cash and contract cannot substitute as evidence of reciprocity" (14).


--anti-sex feminism (McKinnon, Dworkin, etc.) 


here sex is seen as not contaminated, but constituted, by male domination (17); "the prostitute becomes the symbol of women's abject powerlessness under conditions of male objectification and domination; they are simply objects in a marketplace" (19).  Male supremacy is seamless here, ignoring negotiation, subversion.



"Sex Radical feminists" include:


--sexual libertarianism


e.g., Paglia: sex as source of women's power. "The money is a confession of weakness" (22).


More generally, emphasis on individualism and contracts "if it's consensual, it's OK."



--sexual subversion perspective


not about purification or abolition, but emphasis on political struggle, subversion within sexual practice (26); commitment to locating sex in a cultural and political context (28).


"Women are still disproportionately poor, overworked, and underpaid; women are still the deliberate targets of male sexual violence; women's bodies are still heavily regulated by state policies criminalizing subcultural sexual practices and restricting access to birth control and abortion; and women are still stigmatized and punished for sexual activity beyond the confines of monogamous heterosexual marriage. These realities co-determine women's experience of sex" (29).



Where do you see yourself in this range of feminists presented by Chapkis?



Are you comfortable with the idea that commercial trade in sex is definitely wrong? 

Or maybe you are comfortable with the idea that it is definitely OK? 

On what do you base this judgment? 

(A moral code on which [some] people have agreed?  The larger structural or ideological context in which she acts? What the prostitute herself says? Other?)




What is the role of "choice" in prostitution?   

(see Chapkis chapter on "Sexual Slavery")


What is your definition of a meaningful choice?

One without physical coercion?  What about structural coercion, i.e., political economy?



Cf. Chapkis 49:  "the reality remains that many thousands of women and children are involved in commercial sex against their will.  Many more have 'chosen' prostitution from a desperately limited range of options, and most prostitutes work under exploitative labor conditions. This, however, is a different set of claims than the argument that commercial sex is inevitably a form of slavery."


52  activist Jo Doezema:  "The idea that there are two distinct poles 'forced' and 'free' is a false dichotomy.  I mean who really freely chooses to work at any kind of job?"



Later in the book, Chapkis talks about sex work as "emotional labor." 

Is the commodification of one's emotional labor dehumanizing? 

Does it happen outside of prostitution?  (Chapkis argues yes.) 

Why then does sex work seem to be more upsetting/transgressive/etc. than other service work?



For Monday's class, will continue discussion of "labor"--
in the social construction of men.
Read 116 pp. of Paul Willis's Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs.

Be thinking/reading, too, in preparation for next Friday's assignment,
posting a 100-work prospectus on-line for your next paper:
What aspect of the current politics of sex and gender most interests you?
What is your understanding of its current state?
How do you imagine an alternative to what now exists?
What categories are salient for this issue?
Which need re-thinking?
What reading might be useful for you to do, in light of what you know, want to know and do?
How might you act, or encourage others to act, to alter the current state of things?

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