Sometimes We Commodify Intimacy, and That’s Okay

Sometimes We Commodify Intimacy, and That’s Okay January 10, 2018

Is intimacy inherently better when it doesn’t have a dollar amount attached to it? I don’t necessarily think that has to be the case.

Photo in public domain. By Boram Kim from Unsplash.
Photo in public domain. By Boram Kim from Unsplash.

Based on some helpful dialogue on Twitter, I want to clarify an idea I expressed earlier, in my posts on why conceptualizing sex as commodity is problematic, and explaining why I left sex work out of that conceptual post. Special thanks go to the sex workers who took the time to point out some of the implications of my posts and educate me on their perspectives.

I did not intend to state that all intimate human interactions (acts of sex, emotion, nurturing, caring) cannot or should not be commodified. The problem, I believe, is when not all humans have communicated about and agreed to the degree, if any, of commodification influencing their interaction.

What I was trying to get at in my blog post on sex-as-commodity was that an objectified or commodified view of sex within heteronormative patriarchal courtship is problematic because it makes men into the ones pursuing The Sex from its gatekeepers, women. This dynamic leads to countless unhealthy and abusive behaviors and is one of the pillars of rape culture.

A major factor making that dynamic so toxic is that nobody’s really up front about it. We’re all just enacting the cultural scripts we were taught, believing that it’s natural for men to want more sex than women do, for men to be the pursuers, and so on. These scripts don’t leave much room for behaviors outside this heterosexual box, either, behaviors that queer gender roles and sexuality and more.

But there are models for outsourcing intimacy, and they’re not all bad ones. It’s acceptable to pay a therapist for their time, emotional presence, and training (though there’s still some stigma accompanying admitting to needing to see a mental health expert). Many people pay for childcare or elder care, which have both practical/logistical and emotional components.

Or take food. Food preparation used to be almost exclusively (in recent Western history anyway) a domestic activity. Now we outsource much of that preparation, and much of the eating of food, to restaurants and the prepared-foods-sections of gas stations and markets.

Urban legends about the Kentucky fried rat and the crunchy cockroach in the Taco Bell address the fear of unknowingly ingesting gross and even dangerous substances. Yet these legends also express an underlying critique of modern foodways, laying the blame on women for not properly performing their domestic duties, and fragmenting the collapse of the nuclear family.

I would argue that much of the implicit norm, or the “should,” around outsourcing food prep is the same as the norms surrounding outsourcing sex (from the marital bed, the heterosexual household unit, or at least the monogamously dating pair). There are ingrained expectations around whose job it is to provide the fodder for intimacy: you guessed it, the woman’s. If the woman is not providing what she “should” at home, then clearly she’s at fault when the man goes elsewhere, whether it’s for burgers or boobs. The implicit criticism of women who work outside the home and thus require childcare is similar: she’s defying a woman’s role and thus outsourcing important feminine duties.

But getting your food from outside the home isn’t inherently a bad thing. Neither is putting your kid in childcare. Nor is either buying or providing sex work. That these interactions can be commodified, and that these intimate human needs can be met outside the home, is just one more arrangement people make in their ever-inventive ways.

All of these interactions are fueled by emotional labor, which I’ve also blogged about as facets of domestic task-management and kin-keeping. Acknowledging this work as precisely that – work – is an important stop on the feminist agenda. To take a brief example, having to pay for childcare should be a massive wake-up call in the U.S., an assertion that childrearing is work and should be regarded as such…and yet we’re still not keeping up globally in terms of requiring maternity and paternity leave. Sigh.

I believe that fitting sex into this framework of intimate labor gets a little distorted because, well, our social views on sex are quite heavily distorted. Parsing sex into roles can both be beneficial – it makes it easier to seek or sell commodified sex if that’s your thing – and detrimental: when you get trapped in a role by gender and/or sexual orientation that doesn’t work for you. Viewing sex as an act done by A to B can, again, be a useful way of going about things, or it can detract from the collaborative, meandering, sensual exploration that some people crave.

I tend to think of sex in non-sex-work relationships as being akin to having a conversation with a friend. If your friend wants to talk and you want to talk, and you’re both on the same page about which topics are interesting to you, great, go to town! Sometimes a friend requests a conversation that’s going to be a bit more demanding on you, either in terms of time or in terms of the emotional labor you’ll have to put in to help them process something (I love my sex ed colleague Kate Kenfield’s “potato metaphor” for explaining how this works). If your friend’s self-aware enough to communicate this to you in advance, then you get to decide if you consent to that intimate interaction or not. Again, it’s all about communication and consent.

Al Vernacchio’s fantastic pizza metaphor TED talk conveys many of these same qualities, making sex (like eating pizza) out to be collaborative, based on hunger/desire rather than scripted role, and based on pleasure rather than conquest (since the point of his TED talk is to suggest that eating pizza might be a better/healthier metaphor for sex than playing baseball).

So, sometimes we commodify intimacy, and when we’re diligent about communication and consent, it can work out. I mean, as much as any interaction within a capitalist and patriarchal society can work out in non-exploitative ways.

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