Women's Erotic Consumption: Articulating the Sexual Self Under Late Capitalism

By Ella Agoos
2020, Vol. 12 No. 07 | pg. 1/1

From a very young age, women are taught to suppress their . Sex, we are told, is deeply personal; a private act that must be sequestered within the four walls of a bedroom and never see the light of day. However, as we grow up we are steeped in a of sex that permeates Western society. Gyrating hips in music videos, subtle and not-so-subtle innuendos peppered throughout song lyrics, hardcore internet pornography available at the click of a mouse, sexy fembots complete with large titanium breasts as the faces of vodka campaigns– sexual imagery of women and their bodies are ubiquitous, and yet the stigmatization of women’s sexuality on an individual level has remained constant throughout history. This is the result of the constant dialogue between individual sexual subjectivities and the larger sexual culture, the latter of which posits woman’s sexuality as acceptable only in the context of it being performed for men. Any expression or exploration of the female self as an autonomous sexual being is shamed into invisibility.

Since the 1970s, however, there has been a shift in the way women are forming and negotiating their identities as subjects of sexual desire. As the late capitalist culture of consumption continues to permeate the social, political, and economic spheres of society, the role of commodities in the production of individual identity has been that of a tangible mediator of the dialectic between the broader sexual culture and individual sexual subjectivity. That is to say, necessitates the consumption of commodities, and it is through our patterns of consumption that we come to understand our subjective selves and negotiate our identities; our sexual lives and experiences are no exception. It is from this point of departure that I will draw upon the theoretical frameworks of , social constructivism, and reproductive justice to explore the social, economic, and cultural processes by which women create their sexual subjectivities.

Theoretical Framework

Michel Foucault philosophized that the human experience of sexuality could not be adequately analyzed without first understanding desire and the desiring sexual subject (1985:5). From this social constructivist paradigm, it follows that it is the experience of the desiring subject that informs the larger understanding of sexuality, and vice versa; the two cannot be separated. Throughout this essay, I will argue that the late capitalist notion of ‘the commodity’ as a tool of identity production acts as an intermediary between the subject and the larger sexual culture. I will return to this idea presently.

Karl Marx defined a commodity as “an object outside of us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another” (1867:303). Indeed, in the context of sexual desire and practice, there are seemingly infinite variations of wants to be satisfied, and now, especially in the twenty-first century, the potential to satisfy these wants is manifested in the form of various commodities, from condoms to lingerie to rabbit vibrators.

While it is with these understandings of the sexual subject and the commodity from which I will proceed, I will do so within the larger paradigm of reproductive justice. Reproductive justice is defined on the SisterSong website as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” The notion of women freely engaging in sexual practices for the purpose of pleasure, rather than reproduction, is radical when positioned within the larger historical context wherein women, and in particular women of color, have been subject to body policing and, consequently, the deprivation of the right to explore, experience, and enjoy sexual and sensual pleasure for themselves. The following sections will explore how this radical notion of autonomous self-determination as a sexual subject is put into practice and facilitated by the commodification of sex.

The Feminist Sex Shop & Sexuality Education

Perhaps the central site of cultivation of women’s sexual subjectivities via commodities is the feminist sex shop, or erotic boutique. The term ‘sex shop’ in popular culture conjures up images of dark, seedy establishments catering towards the sexual desires of men. While this negative view of sex shops stems from the reality that many tend to be unwelcoming spaces for women, the first sex shop was actually opened by a woman for other women. In the mid-1940s, a German national by the name of Beata Uhse observed abnormally high rates of unwanted pregnancies and abortions among German housewives in her community, and began providing women with condoms and educational pamphlets on contraceptive methods. She ultimately built a successful brand of erotic products, books on ‘marital hygiene,’ and other educational literature on women’s health (Walther et al. 2015:279). As the brand grew, however, sex shops began offering male-oriented products and services, such as private masturbation booths, which ultimately alienated the female customer base and led to the masculinization of such spaces. Sex shops became taboo and thought of as dirty, and women were once again deprived of the resources that allowed them to take control over their sexual practices.

The 1970s saw the eventual revival of women-oriented sex retail, this time defined by a politicized rhetoric of women’s collective liberation through sexual autonomy. These shops often served as educational spaces where women could congregate and engage in sexuality workshops where they could learn to masturbate. Betty Dodson, a prominent feminist sex educator who taught some of these workshops, held that “Once the connection between sexual intimacy and reproduction is loosened, women would be free to….discover their ‘authentic’ sexual self” (Huff 2018:434). Indeed, these were spaces where women were encouraged to break free of the sexual scripts that cast men as sexual beings and women as passive, penetrated recipients whose purpose was to bear children. These second-wave feminist sex shops centered women’s bodies, experiences, and desires in a movement to redefine female sexuality.

The twenty-first century has seen an explosion of sex retail: in 2009, the American erotic industry generated 13 billion dollars (Walther et al. 2015:273). Sex toys for women, such as the Hitachi Magic Wand, have become widely popularized through advertising and representation in shows like Sex in the City. The rhetoric accompanying this contemporary wave of women’s sex products, however, has shifted its focus from that of its second-wave counterpart of the seventies and eighties. Rather than conceptualizing women’s sexual liberation as a collective goal, the emphasis has shifted to the politicization of the experience of the individual woman. This is, in part, due to the rise of the commercialization of activism and social justice, which, in the case of erotic retail, centers sexual as the vehicle by which women can self-liberate in a personalized, revolutionary fashion (Huff 2018:427). Employees of these erotic boutiques deploy this sentiment in one-on-one interactions in which they encourage customers to conceptualize their sexual self-discovery in relation to the larger liberatory feminist project, wherein women can experience sexual pleasure in a way that takes into consideration their own bodies, sexual desires and needs.

Commodity Fetishism and Agentic Objects

How does a dildo made of silicone become an object of desire? Nothing about it is inherently sexual, so its sexual appeal to the consumer must somehow be ascribed. According to Marx, the “enigmatical character” (1867:320) of a product arises from the collective fetishism of commodities in a capitalist economy. Commodity fetishism, Marx says, occurs when the social relations that occur in the production of a commodity are misperceived to be inherent attributes of that commodity. In a case study of two “Tupperware-style sex toy parties held for working- and middle-class women” (2004:95), Debra Curtis observes how the party leader, Jennifer, discusses and presents the featured erotic products in a way that imbues the objects with meanings that appeal to the sexual desires of the party attendees; Curtis notes how Jennifer’s professionalism and non-judgmental manner of talking about sex has a profound effect on the partygoers, who see her as “well educated,” “wholesome and natural,” and “someone [they] could be friends with” (ibid, 101). Jennifer also proclaims her love for certain products both to increase her credibility as a salesperson, and to attribute to the product an emotional aspect. A forty-year-old woman at the party, whom Curtis refers to as Jill, says of Jennifer’s effect on her perception of sex toys, “I always thought sex toys were dirty. I’ve never, ever bought anything like this in my life. Believe me! But she made them sound so fun and harmless but yet still illicit” (ibid, 102). Here, we see Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism in action as Jill ascribes Jennifer’s social character onto a sex toy as a means of reconciling her internalized stigma of masturbation. While Marx’s discussion of commodity fetishism in Capital is part of his larger project of a critique of capitalism, this example of the sex toy party suggests that the process of ascribing social characteristics upon commodities may in fact have a positive effect on the individual’s discovery and cultivation of the self.

Anthropologist Daniel Miller understands this process as a function of the agency of objects within our material culture. Rather than conceptualizing the relationship between people and things as unidirectional, wherein only the person can act upon the object, Miller holds that there exists a dialectic wherein “both people and things are subjects that act upon, shape and define each other” (Walther et al. 2015:274). In the case of erotic consumption, an individual exhibits agency in choosing to buy a new sex toy with an intended use in mind. In turn, the sex toy acts upon the user in such a way that provides her with a new sensation, thus producing a new experience, recalibrating that individual’s sexual subjectivity and understanding of herself and her capabilities as a sexual being. The following section will explore in greater depth this process of mutual agency within the context of female masturbation with sex toys.

Consumption and Masturbation

Perhaps the most radical aspect of women’s erotic consumption is that it allows for the construction of a sexuality that does not necessitate the presence of a (male) partner. The societal emphasis placed on penetrative sex deprioritizes the pleasure of the recipient, and in particular for cisgender women, the importance of clitoral stimulation. Thus, it is no secret that many women have trouble reaching orgasm during intercourse, and the stigma attached to female masturbation can often discourage women from exploring different methods of self-pleasure. Many women, when discussing their first orgasm, describe the experience as a sort of reconfiguration of their sexual self. Indeed, an orgasm facilitated by the use of a sex toy provides the body with a multitude of previously inaccessible physical sensations: a profound experience that can permanently alter one’s understanding of sexuality and sexual pleasure. In a study of women’s erotic consumption in Brazil, subjects described the transformation of their identities that they experienced after introducing erotic products into their sex lives. A 35-year-old married, heterosexual woman named Francine reported feeling like a “more powerful woman” (Walther et al. 2015:277) when she learned how to have orgasms on her own. Other erotic products, such as lingerie, supplemented her newfound sexual empowerment. Similarly, Bianca, a 36-year-old divorced, heterosexual woman, experienced her first orgasm with a vibrator after ten years of an active sex life. Having deprioritized her own pleasure in her past sexual relationships with men, Bianca came to a new understanding of her sexuality wherein clitoral stimulation was the focus, rather than penetration. In cases like these, sexual commodities act as tools through which women can subvert the compulsory androcentricity of sexual practice and pleasure in a patriarchal culture, and in doing so, reappropriate pleasure for a purpose that is solely their own.

Consumption and Partnered Sex

Erotic products may also serve the purpose of transforming the social nature of sexual subjectivities between women and their partners, rather than working only at the individual level. Many of the women in the case study by Walther et al. describe how the addition of erotic products into their partnered sex facilitated the introduction of new sexual practices into their sex lives. Ellen, a 22-year-old, married, heterosexual woman, who had previously been too shy to try new things in the bedroom, took the initiative of introducing a gel lubricant for anal sex during sex with her husband; this “silent guidance offered by a simple material object” (ibid, 276) allowed Ellen and her husband’s sexual practice to take on a new form without the necessity of an explicit request. Thus, erotic consumption for the purpose of partnered sex can have the effect of minimizing a shy partner’s self-consciousness by letting the imbued erotic meaning of the product speak for itself. Similarly, Julia, a 38-year-old, married, heterosexual woman details how she began using a vibrator for sexual self-sufficiency during a time when her marriage was long-distance. Building on the dialectic between her sexual self and the erotic product she used, Julia’s erotic consumption became a whole lifestyle as she derived sensual meanings from the products she consumed. Some of the products she mentions are not explicitly sexual, i.e., they are not produced nor sold with a sexual purpose in mind, but are transformed by the sensual context in which they are used. Even something as miniscule as a toe ring or red nail polish, Julia says, evokes a subtle image of eroticism that further enriches her and her husband’s sexual practice when they are together. In this case, erotic consumption allows for a recalibration of the sexual dynamics between sexual partners, thus reproducing new subjectivities that allow for women to exhibit greater agency in partnered sexual practice.

Shortcomings

Though Western capitalist consumer culture allows for women to form new sexual subjectivities mediated by the use of erotic commodities, my argument would be inadequate without a discussion of the groups that are left out of this dialectic. Despite the rhetoric of women’s liberation that accompanies contemporary feminist erotic retailers, sexual technologies of quality are not uniformly accessible to all women. The exclusion of poor and working-class women is perhaps the most glaring shortcoming of the movement of individual empowerment through erotic consumption. The increasing gentrification of urban areas has seen the appearance of upscale, heavily branded erotic boutiques in the heart of commercial urban areas, while traditionally windowless sex shops catering to a heterosexual male clientele are often restricted by zoning laws to less valuable commercial land (Crewe et al. 2016:584-5). Therefore, poor and working-class women are often geographically separated from woman-oriented sex shops and thus deprived of access to educational resources on sexual health provided by such establishments. This spatial barrier leaves women of low socioeconomic status with few options to participate in any type of erotic consumption, since the male-centered focus of more geographically accessible shops may leave women intimidated by, and unwilling to explore, the notion of erotic retail.

Moreover, the rhetoric of self-empowerment through erotic consumption may, in some cases, overestimate the simplicity of this process, and in doing so, ignore the experiences of many women. Although women are subjects who exhibit agency, they do so within the confines of their social contexts. Despite the fact that women’s sexuality is indeed gaining visibility in popular culture, there still exists a hierarchy wherein, as Gayle Rubin argues, “at any given moment, some sexual identities and practices are valorized and privileged while others must be oppressed” (Huff 2018:429). In other words, women whose identities exist on multiple axes of oppression may not feel quite as ‘liberated’ as the average white, middle-class, heterosexual, monogamous woman; there still exist societal stigmas attached to the sexualities of women of color, queer women, and disabled women, and for those who have internalized these stigmas, sexual empowerment may not come as easily as buying a designer dildo.

Conclusion

The fact that the majority of human beings experience sexual desire may superficially suggest that human sexuality is purely a function of biology. However, under late capitalism, the sexual practices of consumers inform the sexual marketplace, and vice versa, giving meanings to commodities that, while intangible, are undeniably real in that they facilitate an interaction between the consumer and the commodity. This dialectic is part of the larger project of achieving reproductive justice, in that it informs and is informed by women’s sexual desires, practices, and subjectivities. The way in which this contributes to women’s maintenance of bodily autonomy is twofold: it allows women to mediate their sexuality through a physical commodity, rather than through a man; and it breaks down the conflation of women’s sexuality with reproductive obligation. Despite the social, political, and economic inequalities that are perpetuated by late capitalism, the growth of women’s erotic consumption cleverly subverts the commodification of sexuality for the purpose of autonomous sexual self-determination.


References

Crewe, Louise, et al. “Sex and the city: Branding, gender and the commodification of sex consumption in contemporary retailing.” Urban Studies 54(3) 582-599 (2017). doi: 10.1177/0042098016659615.

Curtis, Debra. “Commodities and Sexual Subjectivities: A Look at Capitalism and Its Desires.” Cultural Anthropology 19(1):95-121 (2004). doi: 10.1525/can.2004.19.1.95.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, vol. 2, The Use of Pleasure. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Random House, Inc.: 1985.

Huff, April. “Liberation and Pleasure: Feminist Sex Shops and the Politics of Consumption.” Women’s Studies: An interdisciplinary journal 47(4):427-446 (2018). doi: 10.1080/00497878.2018.1454923.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, The Process of Production of Capital. Translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. Moscow: Progress Publishers: 1867.

Walther, Luciana, et al. “Next stop, Pleasure Town: Identity transformation and women’s erotic consumption.” Journal of Business Research 69(1):273-283 (2016). doi: 10.1016/j.jbusres.2015.07.040.

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