The Heterodox Liberal

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Sex, Economics, and Equality

[Note to all future political bloggers: do not start on sex. You'll never leave.]

Lets talk about interlocking oppressions for a moment. I can think of three groups of people off the top of my head who might be interested in the notion of sex as a "resource," as well as a critical look at who gets sex and who does not.

1. The disabled.

[Edit: and Interlude: Peggy Munson, a disabled writer, in an interview with Suzie Bright (who is one of my heroes), has the following to say on this subject:
Disability theorists talk about the limited portrayals of disabled folks in the media, and how they often tend to fall into a finite set of stereotypes, such as the "supercrip" and "heartstring-yanker."

Every disabled person I know is super-horny and talks constantly about sex. Yet disabled writers bitch about how nobody will publish their stories about disabled people fucking, as if there is no "market" for this work— or, as one publisher told me, it's too "serious" and "issue-oriented." Do I still have to point out why this is offensive?

Our culture believes that disabled members of society should accept subhuman conditions: poverty-level government disability benefits, horrible institutional conditions, etc.

Some disabled folks need adaptive equipment to have sex, but can't afford new shoes.

Some disabled folks need personal care attendants to help them have sex.

These are such taboo ideas: that a disabled person should not only be allowed to survive, but should be provided the means to pleasure.

She is wise. End.]]

2. The "fat."
3. Certain race-gender combinations widely perceived to be at a sexual "market" disadvantage. (Black women, Asian men.) (Although it is difficult to judge this category: I can't say whether or not this is true, because of e.g. eurocentric notions of masculinity and femininity excluding these groups, or untrue and simply a racist cultural myth.)

Why is this? Because each of those groups, regardless of gender, is deprived of sex in a significant way relative to the rest of the population. If they were (well, "are," in some cases) deprived of food or housing or some other resource to a similar extent, we'd have fits. People would get sued.

Compare the following statements.

1. "I don't want to sleep with some fat-ass/skanky black ghetto woman/guy without an arm. That's disgusting."

2. "I don't want to hire/rent to some fat-ass/skanky black ghetto woman/guy without an arm. That's disgusting."

The tenor of each of those statements (bigoted scumbag) is the same, yet the first is somewhat socially acceptable,* while the second will, in two of the three cases, result in immediate and ruinous litigation (and ought to in the third).

I was struck by several comments in the ongoing Hugo-discussion. This excerpted (anon) comment in particular caught me:

Using the language of "resources" incorporates the notion that sex is a product or service; essentially a commodity. That's just wrong. You can't buy pussy futures on the NYMEX. Sex is not a commodity, and talking about it like it is a commodity is just short of saying that women ore objects useful primarily because the commodity can be extracted from them. (Hint: that's what the rape culture tells us. That's not the feminist position. That's no any feminist's position.)

Sex is not a resource or commodity, or even a service. It's an interaction, like dancing or music. One dances with a dance _partner_.

If you're really wedded to the language of business, then sex is a joint venture, not a transaction. All the participants ought to get their needs met out of the deal, and if one partner ends up feeling used then the whole thing threatens the other partner's prospects for other partnerships.

The way you said, "how would we distribute the resource?" was perhaps an attempt to be funny, but it went over for me like a lead zeppelin (yes, that expression is where the band's name comes from). Literally, what you wrote implies that it would be fine to distribute access to sex as a commodity if it were practicable, and we merely have a practical problem that prevents us from doing that. Bad approach.

Now, I agree that everyone has the right to sex, and to be a sexual being. Most of us are able-bodies and we can have non-partnered sex any time we want. We can fantasize and masturbate, and we can talk with others about our sexuality. But nobody has a right to a sex partner.

Well, perhaps. But might using the language of "resources" also underscore the fact that just as imposition of sexuality (rape, harassment, objectification) is an oppression, so is deprivation of sexuality?

This no longer ties into the original series of posts, incidentally. I am explicitly not arguing that Older Man is oppressed if he doesn't get to boink Younger Woman. That argument would be absurd. I am arguing more abstractly that we ought to think of sex as a resource, so that we can understand things like:
- How people behave, sometimes instrumentally rationally, in order to acquire sex. (Compliments, flowers, fancy restaurants, spandex, laughing at jokes, artificial scents, sports cars, cooking, going to the gym, etc. etc. etc.)
- How people who, because of race/class/disability discrimination, are oppressed by the denial of sex (the subject of this post).
- How certain attempts to regulate (either internally or externally) the sex marketplace are doomed to fail because of the incentives placed on the players toward sex-acquisitive behavior. (This was the widely missed point behind the example two posts ago of Good Older Man and Bad Older Man competing for Younger Woman.)

We can't understand any of these things unless we understand sex in one sense as a commodity that people (a) try and get more of, all else being equal, up to an optimum level, and (b) can be unjustly denied in the aggregate.**

I say "in one sense," and I mean it. Of course sex is an emotional, mutual/collaborative, and even in some senses a mystical activity. It is also constrained by a whole host of factors, including (ideally) the ethical***, socialization, and biology. But does that mean we should pass up the understanding that we get from bracketing that and looking at sex as a resource?

To put this whole post in a slightly more concise and less precise/clear way:

P1: The personal is the political. (Feminism.)
P2: The political is the economic. (Marxism.)
.: C: The personal is the economic. Q.E.D.

One final note: "Sex is not a commodity, and talking about it like it is a commodity is just short of saying that women ore objects useful primarily because the commodity can be extracted from them." Again, this denies women's sexual agency, because it assumes that only men are doing the extracting and women are being extracted-from. There are women who get less sex than they want. Sometimes because of one of the various oppressions I discuss above. Those women, assuming they are heterosexually inclined, would do well to extract more sex from men, and would do well with a critical analysis of sex-as-commodity.

* Even purported liberals regularly declare things of that sort. Look at a few online personals ads, for example. The number of self-described "democrats" who put explicit racial criteria on their dating profiles is astonishing, as is the number (often self-described "hippies" who hate Bush) who explicitly say "don't bother e-mailing if you're overweight." Disability is less explicit, but ask anyone who is disabled if it's there. It makes me cringe, it really does. Pretty much the only group that's immune from this is the bi/poly/kinky/pagan/geek/gamer/etc. crowd.

** Please note that I said "in the aggregate." It would be highly oppressive for person A to demand sex from person B on the theory of any entitlement, for all values of A and B. However, if class A is deprived in the aggregate of sex, we simply must understand that as an oppression if we want class A to have a quality of life approaching that of all the other classes, if, in short, we give a damn about equality of overall life-happiness.

*** I never argued (or never intended to argue) that "no social rules [should] ever impinge on the likelihood of somebody getting laid." Merely that getting laid is a good thing, and social rules that do impinge on it require some additional justification to counterbalance that social harm.


  • Thank you very much for your point to my blog-- however, it is Peggy Munson who said the wise words you quoted, not I. She is a disabled writer who has a lot to say about sex, and I was interviewing her.


    By Blogger Susie Bright, at 11:03 AM  

  • Whoops -- thanks. (Corrected.)

    By Blogger Iconoclastic Democrat, at 11:05 AM  

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