Reification and the commodification of sex

Excerpts from Being and Being Bought, by Kajsa Ekis Ekman, Spinifex Press, 2013. Part 4

Ekman, a Swedish journalist and critic, brings together a Marxist and feminist analysis of prostitution and surrogacy in this groundbreaking book. This is the fourth part of a synopsis and brief commentary of the book by Daphna Whitmore. Part 1 was published here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

In the previous excerpt we looked at how the sex lobby argues that the commodification sex is no different to that of water and food. However, this formulation implies that sex is a thing, a material good like food and water, something that can be produced, delivered and walked away from.

If we are made to believe that the sex sold in prostitution is something completely separate from the person herself, something that has wrenched free and walks around on its own two feet – what do we then become? We people of flesh and blood who, no matter what we may say, have to be present in our bodies for there to be sex in the first place. How do we see ourselves? How do we relate to what we are doing?

Ekman answers this question by turning to the work of Hungarian Marxist who developed the concept of reification. He discusses the psychological effects of capitalism on the human being. The word reification comes from res, Latin for ‘thing’, and literally means ‘thing-i-fication’. Reification is a condition of disengagement and distance from the world so that we look at the economy as if it is not at all impacted by our behaviour; objects seem to have agency and lives of their own, and people regard themselves as powerless. Reification occurs when a human creation or action is transformed into a commodity, a thing. This has already happened with work, housing, health care, education and culture. Ever since its inception, capitalism has survived on the transformation of human needs, activities, and relationships into goods for the marketplace. This is in the DNA of capitalism: in order to continue it must constantly seek new areas for commodification.

Humans have always cultivated, built, created or invented, and these activities have become integral parts of our organic lives. But capitalism transforms our work into objects to be sold. We begin to see our ability to lift, carry, make, sew, think, convince, sing, write, or care for others as functions separate from ourselves.

Reification, Lukacs writes, is a phenomenon particular to late capitalist society. A slave is not reified. Slavery is something else. It is the owning of another person and even if the methods of pressing out more work are “more obviously brutal than we see later” (Lukacs, 1923/1972, .91), the manpower of the slave is not a commodity he owns – the slave himself is the commodity. Reification takes place only when the free worker ascends to the free marketplace. When he can sell his manpower to the employer, it becomes a commodity. This process is reification. On the one hand we have the ‘free’ individual, on the other hand, his manpower that gains the form of “a commodity belonging to him, a thing that he possesses” (p. 91). This relationship means that he comes to see his functions – which can mean his abilities, his strength, his intelligence, and his quickness – as possessions. He becomes alienated: not only from society, but also from himself as a Self.

In prostitution, sexuality is made into a commodity, which is why Hilary Kinnell compares it to food: we can exchange our kisses and caresses for food on the marketplace – and they must therefore be treated in the same way in language. We must be able to exchange the word ‘sex’ for ‘a box of bananas’ and no one should think: “How awful!” Because of reification, sexuality has come to look as if it were wandering around the marketplace completely independently, without corporeal human companionship. This is an illusion of course as sex cannot be sold without being a living human being of flesh and blood. Thus what the story of the sex worker does rhetorically, the real-life prostitute has to do in reality: She must be present but try to convince herself that she isn’t.

One woman says: “I can only work it from below the neck. If I have to think of a service or involve my mind even slightly, I feel dirty. I avoid fantasies. I don’t want to participate in their filth”. Instead of a human encounter, sexuality becomes something she doesn’t want to take part in. The expression ‘from the neck down’ is significant: the body must be sectioned off from the mind.

The same thing is said over and over, irrespective of whether the person being interviewed feels positively or negatively about prostitution. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that prostitution researchers understood it. The technique of ‘turning off’, attempting to separate prostitution from the Self led researchers such as Hanna Olsson in Sweden and Cecilie Hoigard and Liv Finstad in Norway to characterise the split Self/body as the core of prostitution. Olsson wrote that prostitution, for the person doing the ‘selling’, is about raising a boundary between the private and public Self. Thus the woman attempts to defend the most important thing: her ability to feel. Olsson describes two defence mechanisms: avoiding physical contact for as long as possible, and avoiding active participation – being passive during the act. In a reflective essay, she describes how her knowledge took shape:

I understood that the most important question was not what was agreed to in the contract with the man, but what wasn’t agreed to. That the woman by all means possible attempted to protect herself from the man’s use of her by not being mentally present, not allowing kissing or other intimate touching (Olsson, 1987).

Hoigard and Finstad (1992) developed Olsson’s observations by describing six main defense mechanisms used by prostitutes: turning off (by thinking about something else or taking drugs/alcohol), establishing physical boundaries (certain body parts may not be touched, for example), limiting time, hiding one’s real self (false names, using different clothing and not talking about one’s private life), tricking the client, and avoiding buyers one might begin to care about (pp. 74-75).

These defence strategies are universal.  Later international research found the same thing. All over the world, women in prostitution, without communicating with each other, instinctively use these defence mechanisms. The same tactic – separating the Self from the body – returns time and again.

Above is from the NZProstitutes Collective book Stepping Forward. It gives clear evidence of the dissociation that is universal for prostitutes

This is what is so tragic about turning sex into a job. For the seller it becomes impossible to have a whole indivisible sexual relationship. In order to survive in prostitution, one must reify one’s own sexuality, see it as a function separate from the Self, and maintain the distinction between ‘the sold’ and the Self.

Reification is, at its core, a defense mechanism. The individual reifies her/himself so that s/he can say: I don’t sell my Self, I sell something else. What is sold must always be something else.

Andreas Malm (2003), who has written about pornography as reification, explains: “When a relationship between people is transformed into a relation between things, the authenticity, mutuality and, above all, the stark intimacy between the self and the world all disappear”.

Ekman suggests that living in a world where everything is for sale, our sexuality may be a way of experiencing the intimate link between the Self and the world. Prostitution, in contrast, erects a razor-sharp boundary between the two.

The names that prostitutes take on are a protective barrier that helps project away the unpleasantness that happened to ‘Antoinette’, ‘Valentine’, ‘Esmeralda’, not to me. The names are often fluffy, sugar-sweet and unrealistic in order to appeal to a male fantasy world, removed from the real person. In many countries in the Middle East, prostituted women from Eastern Europe are routinely called ‘Natashas’.  These ‘Natashas’ are women who went to the Middle East in search of a better life after the collapse of the Soviet Union or who were forced there by human traffickers. They make up a separate class of prostituted women, a universal sex fantasy of the blond, available woman.

Prostitutes who defend ‘sex work’ often appear on TV, at conferences, and on the internet. They say that ‘sex work’ is just like any other job. At the same time, they make a clear distinction between these appearances and the ‘sex work’ itself. It’s not possible to book an appointment on these websites, nor can one approach these women after the conference and ask about prices. Prostitution happens somewhere else. When we look at the big picture we see the clear suggestion that, actually, prostitution might not be like any other job.

Prostitution is often accompanied by boundaries. These boundaries save the Self, provide it with breathing room from the threat posed by prostitution. Ekman says when she discussed with friends who have experience with prostitution whether the boundaries are a healthy sign  one told her she didn’t have any boundaries, because at that time, she was too far gone that she didn’t care what happened to her.

Today’s researchers no longer call the attempt to dissociate a ‘defense mechanism’ but instead Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The next excerpt will examine this further.

 

3 comments

  1. Good article. Of course a little bravado and a quest for some basic dignity has in recent decades seen prostitution portrayed as “sex work” a job like any other. Would participants really choose it if there was a more palatable alternative for an income?

    Medicine, Caring and nursing are extremely “hands on” professions also and take a significant toll on the workers involved. A friend of mine did “parlour” work for a bit and spent most of her considerable income on substances to go into denial about her work life.

    I am not negating people that might genuinely choose such activity, but really it is part of the Marxist analysis where women are subjugated and everything that moves is subject to commodity fetishism.

    • You are absolutely right, the majority of people in prostitution are coerced through economic desperation. And as you say it’s not really much of a choice if there are not other viable options.

      Also, if it was a job like any other why does the prostitute have to act as if the sex is wanted? A chef doesn’t have to act hungry and sit and eat the food she’s cooked. If it is just a job then surely brothels could be staffed by men to provide hands and orifices? Get the job done without all the role playing. That’s not what is happening, it’s about society providing women for men to have sex with on-demand.

      The sex trade lobby and their postmodern propagandists have twisted the brutal reality into its opposite with their claim that being paid for unwanted sex is exercising bodily autonomy. A whole lot of the left have been take in with that line.

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