Although many people consider sex to be a private matter or a personal issue, sex and sexuality are actually some of the most public and shared spaces among humanity. From reproduction, to presentation of the self, gender roles, mating, etc, sex fuels most of what people do. But there is a dark reality surrounding sex, and this reality only affects women; the reality is that female sexual liberation is not real in the public space. Female sexual liberty can exist in a personal space; you can feel completely liberated and perform in a manner that expresses this sentiment, but to the outside world you are being promiscuous and/or you are being seen as sexual object. So despite feminist scholarship and hopes for sexual equality, in the larger societal context, a woman can’t act upon her sexual desires as she wishes without being seen as a whore or a commodity, and the reasons for this that sexuality is an affect and hyper sexual women are commodified.
To be an affect is to be affected by something or someone. In her essay Happy Objects, Sara Ahmed argues that happiness is an affect. “To be made happy by this or that is to recognize that happiness starts from somewhere other than the subject who may use the word to describe the situation” (29). And just as Sara Ahmed describes the function of happiness as an “affect”, sexuality, meaning one’s capacity for sexual activity and sexual orientation/preference, functions as an affect. In an effort to unpack this claim, it is important to have a deeper understanding of what it means for something to function as an “affect”. A basic example that helps shed light on this idea is ice-cream and its relationship to society. Ice-cream, in a larger social context, is often associated with happiness, because it is usually consumed during joyful celebrations or occasions: birthdays, graduation, weddings etc. And this tradition of having ice-cream in joyful occasions or having ice-cream being associated with joyful occasions has been repeated/followed since nearly the beginning of its creation in the 16th century (international dairy foods association). Objects become happy through repetition, “we can note here the role that habit plays in arguments about happiness… the association between objects and affects is preserved through habit” (Ahmed,35). So if it is habit that is needed to create associations between objects and affects, All that is needed for anything to become associated with an affect is repeated dialogue or expressed sentiments over an extended period of time to create a habit that will lead to an affect.
This discussion of positive and negative affect relates to sexuality, because certain acts or expressions of sex can become taboo or negative: prostitution, polyamorous relationships, sodomy, etc, through society’s discourses relating to these topics. Sex is rarely a private or completely isolated experience. So in the same way we see objects being endowed with positive or negative affect, we can see sexuality being commodified into an object and being given a particular affect in the language used to describe it in a social setting: “she is a whore” or “gross, she is a prostitute”. So what determines which sexual acts are good and which are bad?
In order for something to become a happy or sad affect there needs to be repetition and habit. “Social constructionist theories have regarded human sexual desire as shaped extensively by culture and socialization, often mediated by language as an ordering principle that is shared in common with other people. These theorists emphasize cross cultural variation to argue for the cultural relativity of sexual desire… Who does what to whom sexually is regarded as a product of cultural rules and individual, linguistically mediated decisions rather than as a biological imperative” (Baumeister, 347). Since the biblical days women who are too sexually active have been labeled as whores and shunned from society. For example, in the Bible, we see the story of Mary Magdalene who is about to be stoned to death for being a prostitute. In this story you can see two things, one the presence of an already negative attitude towards overly sexually active woman, and two what will be another origin point in the long lineage of shaming overly sexually active women. The language and history surrounding sexually active woman has been so consistently negative that it has become nearly impossible to separate the legacy of a whore from a modern day “sexually liberated woman”. And this inability to separate the negative emotions or opinions from the reality of the modern day sexually active woman is so dangerous because, “[w]hen history becomes second nature, the affect becomes literal: we assume we experience delight because “it” is delightful” (Ahmed, 37) . This sheds light on as to why extremely, or even moderately sexually active women, have become imbued with a negative affect whereas the pure and pious woman is a happy object or happy experience. History has portrayed the former as happy object and thus it has literally become so because, “[w]hen history becomes second nature, the affect becomes literal…(Ahmed, 37). Whereas the later, overly sexually active women have become demonized and imbued with a negative affect. And this negative affect is further circulated through society making it nearly impossible to remove. “The circulation on objects is thus the circulation of goods. Objects are sticky because they are attributed as being good or bad, as being the cause of happiness or unhappiness. This is why the social bond is always rather sensational. Groups Cohere around a shared orientation toward somethings as being good, treating some things and not others as the cause of delight. If the same objects make us happy” (Ahmed, 35). Taking this idea of objects being sticky and attributed with being good or bad, and this good or bad attribution coming from habit or repetition, we can see how it is plausible for the repeated positive or negative expressions towards particular sexual habit can lead to a positive or negative affect being associated with that “object”. The negative history associated with overly sexually active women and the circulation of sticky objects explains why the negative affect of overly sexually active women has become so widely spread and is nearly impossible to undo.
One may argue undoing the negative affect towards overly sexually active women is possible due to recent changes in attitudes toward sex and sexuality. But I refute this argument because I believe that overly sexually active women have become commoditized. I will use the story of a famous Brazilian Prostitute by the alias of Bruna Surfhistina to prove my point.
Bruna Surfisitinha, born as Raquel Pacheco, was born in Sorocaba, Sao Paulo Brazil on October 28th 1984. Soon after her birth she was adopted into an upper middle class family. At the age of 17, she ran away from home to escape the overly traditional beliefs that her adoptive family held. And as a 17 year old girl with no money and no source of income, she began her trip down the rabbit hole that is prostitution in Brazil. However, little did Bruna know that she would soon become one of the most famous call girls/ sex symbols of 1990’s Brazilian culture. Bruna did not gain notoriety as a call girl until she published her blog, Bruna Surfhistina. On her blog, Bruna chronicled her experiences with each one of her clients in graphic detail. Her blog was an instant success and received over 50,000 reader a day. Her online success also led to her appearing in many television shows, magazines, and pornographic films in Brazil. But poor management of funds and drug addictions led to Bruna’s fall from fame and the spotlight, until 2005 when she wrote her book O Doce Veneno Do Escorpiao ( The Scorpion’s Sweet Venom). The book was an instant success selling over 30,00 copies within the first month and then being translated and published by Bloomsbury Publishing in English in 2006. And once again in 2011, Bruna and her story surged forth once more into the spotlight with the production and release of her film, Confessions of a Brazilian Call Girl. The film, produced by Rio De Janeiro’s Tv Zero and distributed by Imagen Films, was a success grossing over 12.4 million in the box office, making it the second highest local grossing film in Brazil.
Since Bruna was so successful as a prostitute, an argument could be made that her success was due to a more progressive and accepting world that believed in embracing your sexuality as you please. But I counter this argument by attributing her success to the commodification of women; Bruna was and is not sexually liberated, at least in a social context, because her sexuality became a commodity.
Bruna became part of a genealogy of objectification of women. On a daily basis people are objectified and objectify women. It is an epidemic that plagues our everyday lives. And it harms us more than we can comprehend. It has hindered our ability to see women as people and differentiate between females and objects. Research, done by Sarah Gervais and published by the European Journal of Social Psychology , states “both men and women process a woman’s body using local cognitive processing” (Gervais et al. 2012). Local cognitive processing is method we use to think about objects, and now women. In other words, we think about women and objects in the same way. But what is worse than being seen as an object? It is being seen as specific aspects of an object. Women are reduced down to their sexual body parts. A recent study proved that a “ [woman’s] sexual body parts were more easily recognized when presented in isolation than when they were presented in the context of their entire bodies”(Gervais et al. 2012). So, not only are women being objectified by the media, and society, but they are being equated to objects, and then broken down in specific aspect such as: eyes, lips, or breast. And this objectification can be linked to a theory first described my Marx as commodity fetishim.
Commodity fetishim, in short, is the distortion of actual value of an object or person by the value it is given by its exchange rate. Purdue University’s page on Marx’s theory of commodity fetishim explains this idea with an example of a carpenter and his table. “The connection to the actual hands of the laborer is severed as soon as the table is connected to money as the universal equivalent for exchange. People in a capitalist society thus begin to treat commodities as if value inhered in the objects themselves, rather than in the amount of real labor expended to produce the object” (purdue.edu). In this example we see that even if the carpenter put in thousands of hours into creating table, that labor could be diminished by giving the table a low exchange price on the market, thus taking away the natural value of the table and the work put by the carpenter. Now if we apply this same concept to the story of Bruna Surfisthina, we see that she is commotizied in the most literal and figurative senses. As a sex worker, she puts a literal price on herself when she exchanges sexual acts for money. And as a woman and prostitute, she is given a societal value, which for the average prostitute, would be a negative one equivalent to that of a whore, diminishing her value as a person in larger societal context. But it just so happens that in the case of Bruna, she was valued at a higher market value, an upper-class call girl, and therefore gets treated as an upperclass commodity, which enables her to be more palatable in larger societal context and allows her to perform as a sexually liberated woman in a social setting even though she is not. On top of this, Bruna’s race plays a role in her success, because she is able to take advantage of white privilege. According to Dr. Frances E. Kendall, a nationally acclaimed consultant who has spent over 35 years working on diversity and white privilege, white privilege is, “… an institutional (rather than personal) set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who dominate the powerful positions in our institutions” (1). Bruna’s white privilege further set her apart from the average prostitute, and once again made it easier for her to be valued at a higher market price in the larger social context.
It is important to distinguish between the myth of Bruna’s sexual performance as a liberated woman from the reality of her sexuality being commoditized. It may have appeared that people loved Bruna, because she was a sexually liberated woman, but what really was going on was a celebration of a highly commodified white woman. And in my opinion, this commodification is dangerous, because it gives woman a false hope in the belief that one day they can truly be sexually liberated, when the reality is that their sexual liberation will be entangled with the commoditization of their hyper sexuality.