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The Sexual Gift Economy

It’s interesting but apt that the prostitute, the stripper, and the porn actor—the real professionals!—are sometimes embraced and emulated as role models in this sexual rat race of ours. You’d think that our sexual idols, those we think lead truly rocking erotic lives, would come from the ranks of people who neither pay nor get paid to have sex.

The New York Times ran a piece this weekend (I love it, not, when The New York Times tries to write about sex) that recounts a talk about Spitzer’s political resurrection in which the toughest questions, from women, were reserved for speakers who had claimed that prostitution was “exploitative.” How could they say that these escorts were “exploited,” they apparently questioned? After all, they were so well paid.

Some feminists advocate that we decriminalize sex work, and call it as such, so that it can be a less dangerous occupation, which makes sense, whether or not you agree with that policy.

Others, in an act of almost comical naiveté or deeply-engrained deference and obedience to the perspective of the sexual capitalist, view sexual commerce almost as an apotheosis of sexual freedom. They would probably never apply the same logic—an illusion of free choice, and free contract as freedom writ large– to a Bangledeshi garment worker or to others in the grips of an exploitative, race to the bottom economy at Target or a Smithfield Ham slaughterhouse but, when it comes to sex work, it’s all about individual agency, in its imagined omnipotence and gleeful, freewheeling liberty.

If you think this way, that sexual commerce is the epitome of sexual freedom and agency, then that makes you, basically, a Rand Paul libertarian, albeit with sex jobs instead of low-paying jobs at Wal-Mart.

All the same, at some gloomy juncture, back in the 1980s, being a “pro sex” feminist got tied to an anti-censorship stance and support of the largely male sexual capitalist’s ventures in porn. Read Gail Dines’ Pornland for an invigorating critique of the pornification of our libidos.  It also got tied to the notion that places of sexual commodification, designed to please the heterosexual male gaze, such as strip clubs, were spaces of sexual freedom for women, an oddity that Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs nicely retorts.

Today, free market feminists react as if critiques of sex labor or worries about sexual slavery are a latter-day, bourgeois bogeyman, a revival of “white slavery” hysteria from the early 1900s, perpetrated by prudery and blinding us to the choice and agency of the sex worker.

It’s true that cases of sex slavery only constitute a percentage of the sex worker population worldwide, but they are common and tragic enough to cause alarm, as are the personal crises that drive women to sex work in the first place—as are cases of slave labor generally, whether or not it is sexual.

Indeed, much of the problem with sex work is generic to the problem of work work, and some of the same critiques of the illusions and limits of free choice and free contract apply universally, whether we’re talking about Spitzer’s escort, or the hotel maid who cleaned his room.

In any case, show me one, just one, girl who would say, “When I grow up I’d like to be a sex worker.”  I don’t see it on the top of many bucket lists, and I don’t believe that its absence there is owing to hidebound, moralistic prejudice.

My problem with the glamorization of sex commodification and the sexual capitalist isn’t that I think sex in some prissy, bourgeois fashion should be “private.” The private sphere is and has been a space of violence and degradation for women sexually, as well, so I don’t idealize the superiority of that world. My problem is that sexual capitalism, especially when touted as an epitome of freedom, or subversion, misses the middle ground between the commercial capitalist sphere and the proprietary private sphere. And it’s in this middle ground that’s more promising for something closer to sexual freedom.

The middle ground is what critic Lewis Hyde might call a “gift economy.” I was thinking about Hyde’s gem of a book, The Gift, while contemplating sexual capitalism.

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In a gift economy, as Hyde describes it, things circulate. The gift is a “class of property whose value lies only in their use,” and their circulation. Gifts aren’t commodified, sold once, bought, or owned, and the more they circulate the more they replenish.

So the logic of the gift economy differs from both the private sphere (a space of containment, with residually proprietary claims to exclusivity or possession) and the capitalist sphere (a space of commodification, with the circulation of sex as a commodity). “A commodity is truly ‘used up’ when it is sold,” in contrast, “because nothing about the exchange assures its return.” But gifts survive their use. The gift economy shares something with erotic life, Hyde notes, precisely for this reason: because “libido is not lost when it is given away,” or used up like a commodified sex act.

Some relationships and act best belong in a gift economy, and not a capitalist one. These relationships are ideally not sold or bought.

Friendship is one of those gifts, in my mind. We don’t want to pay people to be our friends. Others that might make the list: Affection. Love. Creative enterprises. The art of parenting. Caregiving. And sex.


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