Debt and Sex in Domestic Economies: The Ambiguous Impact of Financialisation on Gender

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 4:00 PM-5:30 PM
TW2.2.03 (Tower Two)
Isabelle Guérin, Cessma (Institute of Research for Development/University Paris 7 Diderot/Inalco), Paris, France
Various theories and concepts have been put forward to engage with the ambiguous relations between sexual relations, money and power. Marxist feminism has approached the control and abuse of women’s bodies and sexuality as a specific form of appropriation and exploitation by men. Looking far beyond prostitution, it has argued that sex within marriage can also be viewed as a form of exploitation and domination, the body being one of the only resources women have at their disposal. The anthropologist Paula Tabet has championed “sexual-economic exchange” as a term for the full continuum of relations wherein a man gives any kind of compensation for a woman’s sexual services. Rather than opposing or subsuming sexual relations within prostitution and marriage, she argues that women in reality negotiate various resources through such a continuum of sexual transactions. Women’s bargaining power depends on many different structural and contingent factors. These include the statuses of women and men’s sexuality, the sexual division of labour and unequal access to resources and assets.

Viviana Zelizer has adopted a contrasting, economic sociological approach to look at the complexity of how sentiments, emotions and monetary transactions converge. She is not interested in power relations, but in how social and intimate relations persist alongside monetary transactions.

Our paper brings together such materialist feminism and economic sociology. It draws on an ethnography we conducted over 10 years with rural South Indian women to shed light on the ambiguity of debt transactions and their complex articulation with sexual, affective and emotional relationships. Given this study’s backdrop of the rising commoditization and financialisation of everyday life, we also looked at these dynamics over time.

In line with Taber, we found that many women were engaged in a continuum of sexual-economic exchanges. These spanned a wide range of sexual services (from sexual intercourse to charm) and material compensation (labour, credit, social benefits, etc.). The men involved had many different statuses, be these husband, employer, lender, local politician, NGO field worker, microcredit field officer or neighbor. The quality of such social relationships also varied. We found clear cases of coercion, which were mostly based in patriarchy, but also in class and caste hierarchy. Also in evidence were ambiguous relations based in affection, love and possibly some sort of reciprocity. For such cases, the insights of economic sociology prove helpful.  We meanwhile observed two trends. Extreme coercion, such as the sexual oppression of low caste women by upper caste men, was fading away over time. But on the other hand, the growing financialisation of domestic economies was making households increasingly dependent on debt to meet their daily needs, be these based in daily survival, social and ritual events, or consumerism. This all pushes women to engage in a multiplicity of sexual-economic exchanges. Going far beyond the immediate scope of such an ethnography, our findings critically address the impact of financialisation on gender. This topic has received very little attention to date. In terms of the specific focus of our ethnography, the fact that women have both increasing financial needs and access to a widening range of financial options has had a dual effect. While the worst forms of sexual domination have are fading away, women are still engaging in multiple transactions where their body remains a resource. Sexual domination is becoming more diluted, yet diffuse and multiplied but it also has the potential to include affection, or sometimes love.