Always Worth Something: A Feminist Critique of Neo-Capitalism
Because I’m one of those fence sitting millennial elite types
“I’m your private dancer, a dancer for money, I’ll do what you want me to do. I’m your private dancer, a dancer for money, and any old music will do…”
— Tina Turner
I have a question for you.
How much are you worth? Eight dollars an hour? £7.40? $400? Do you know it to the cent, or does the question make you uncomfortable? Do you reel off a price list, or gratefully accept whatever comes your way? How much would I have to pay you to do what I wanted?
And how much would it cost for you to say yes?
Capital in exchange for labour is nothing new. I’m not here to warn against the moral evils of sex work, or denounce women who stay on in work they hate to feed their families as splitters or bad feminists. That’s a whole other essay for a better woman who knows an awful lot more on that than I do. But I am here to draw the question mark over the problems we have from the following:
- An economy where capital is unfairly weighted to one gender, race or identity
- An economy where anything can be bought, not just by the highest bidder, but from the desperate.
To quote Ann Bishop, and a whole menagerie of movie villains, ‘Everything has a price.’ And I’m not just talking about unsatisfying sex in exchange for a raise. This could be any number of scandalous or largely monotonous things: staying silent about a murder, begrudgingly accepting a homophobic remark from a boss, or smiling at a screaming toddler in front of a client. There’s always an amount to make an action, inaction or activity worth it, as Machiavellian as that may sound.
Naturally, paying an employee a high salary to put up with and stay silent about your rampant bullying or crazily high workload, while immoral, is legal. We’ve all worked for a paycheck under people who we consider to be tyrants, villains or thieves. We’ve all come home screaming to our spouses about the latest ethical outrage, only to go into work the next day and carry on as usual. We just don’t think of pay as a bribe.
But that’s what it is, unless, like myself, you are lucky enough to be gainfully employed by someone you like. Whether I’m giving you access to my badly cooked mammoth at the end of a long hunt or paying you fifty grand to put up with my sociopathic boardroom tantrums, ultimately you engage in cooperative behaviour almost entirely for some form of return. And that’s all systems, not just capitalism, before you jump down my throat with Das Kapital.
But, as I’m sure you guessed at the title, it causes problems for women when sex, or sexual behaviour, comes onto the market. (We could go on for another 50,000 words on whether the woman was the ‘goods’ or the ‘labourer’ in this transaction, but let’s all just agree that it’s a lengthy and hotly debated topic.)
Now, there are many women who, it should be said, are very willing and happy to engage in sex work, and do so with very little pressure, force or violence.
And then there are the women for whom that is not the case.
We live in a consumerist age where there are monthly bills and rents and costs to staying alive. I can’t just shrug at my wicked lecherous mill owner and go munch on the potatoes I’ve grown in my field for three months while wondering what to do next. There’s many pressing economic factors that lead women to avoid reporting abuse, fleeing it, or even just acknowledging that it is abusive. Up until fairly recently, strippers and sex workers were widely expected to endure appalling (non-consensual) physical abuse by society because ‘well, they are being paid for it’.
Overwhelmingly, men have access to capital at levels women do not. Women earn, on average, 25% less than men. Women, overwhelmingly, account for the vast majority of the part time, zero contract and temporary labour force, leading them to have very unstable financial capital and making it difficult to save. All of this skews income to an economy where men have an awful lot of consumer power. Now, I’m not saying men choose to abuse it, or are even aware of this, but the fact is that some do.
This largely presents itself through the manipulation of women in desperate or precarious positions. This could be covert (the subtle implication that you’d lose your job if you told) or overt (he’ll pay your rent if you have sex with him). Now, the woman might accept this transaction. She might even accept an amount of money that staggeringly improves her standard of living. But it’s still the price and cost for her silence, her body, and her choice. And in a world where she could be homeless, bankrupt or her children could be going hungry in one bad month (or three, which is how far most finances stretch without wages).
We tend to imagine that the days of the maniacal villain with the cape, forcing the damsel to become his mistress or whatever, belong in some fantastic feudal nightmare of long ago. That’s just not true.
Survival sex and the abuse of capital for sex is absolutely rampant. I myself have been offered accommodation in exchange for sex, and multiple friends of mine have been offered coveted jobs and roles in exchange for dates and ‘favours’. And I come from a very privileged, university educated community that largely went to private school. So if I’m aware of it, how bad is it for other women?
I am, begrudgingly, a capitalist, on the grounds that it sucks the least, when held up against feudalism, marxism and fascism. But this is a real problem. Let me know if you have any solutions! I look forward to your thoughts.