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Issue: 7.3: Summer 2009
Guest Edited by Kate Bedford and Janet R. Jakobsen
Toward a Vision of Sexual and Economic Justice

If Not Mere Metaphor . . . Sexual Economies Reconsidered

Neferti Tadiar

It may strike one as a curious fact that something like a New World Order not so long ago governed the playing field of the global economy, especially as we are now in the middle of a global economic crisis that threatens the norms of our present economic understanding. By definition, crisis dismantles the rule of order. And in the course of that dismantling, crisis may threaten and irrevocably delegitimize the rationality through which that order is predominantly understood and secured. That, at least, appears to have been the effect of the recent U.S. financial crisis: that is, to put radically into question, if not permanently undermine, the rationality of international economic norms and rules centered around the prescriptive principles of deregulation, privatization, and liberalization, also known as the "Washington Consensus."[1] While it is uncertain what the outcome of the global debt crisis will be, it is expected by many that the hegemonic models of economic understanding that have framed and guided the financial ventures of the last two decades will undergo significant transformation, likely resulting in a new order of understanding and practice for the world economy in the years to come.

Of course, there have long been numerous critiques of the neoliberalist economic model represented by the Washington Consensus. Among those who have sought to undermine the hegemony of this economic model are feminist scholars and activists, who not only vigilantly critique the social and human costs of economic globalization, but also insist on the central importance of gender, race, and sexuality to how these social and human costs are unevenly distributed across different social groups within national economies and in the world economy at large. In this essay I want to reflect on feminist theoretical conceptualizations of the links between these categories of social difference and the economy, particularly on the ways in which questions of international political economy, divisions of labor, globalization, and domestic/affective/sex work are talked about in feminist work. Rather than focusing, however, on feminist economics (as an emerging field of economic thought), I examine non-specialist feminist analyses of these interconnected issues of gender, race, sexuality, and economics to think about the theoretical premises undergirding the more general critical strategies by which the global capitalist order is delegitimated and undermined. I do so to reflect on the political claims feminists make as the basis and guiding objective of their critiques, including but not limited to the political claim for sexual and economic justice. Having contributed to these feminist analyses, I start with a reflection on my own work.


Crisis is one way in which new orders come into being or are inaugurated. That is how, in the early 1990s, I accounted for the emergence of the Asia-Pacific community as a fantasy of regional integration under the auspices of the New World Order. In an essay written in 1991, which subsequently became the first chapter of my book, Fantasy-Production: Sexual Economies and Other Philippine Consequences for the New World Order, I argued that the imperialist, first world fantasy of regional economic cooperation among Asia-Pacific nations promulgated since the end of the cold war emerged as a strategy of containment not only in response to the economic threat posed by the rising power of Japan and newly industrializing countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, but also in response to the political threat posed by the developing countries of Southeast Asia such as the Philippines, whose ongoing histories of communist and anti-imperialist revolutionary movements and developmental failure represented an ever-present potential antagonism to what I called the first world fantasy of the "free world."[2] More than these overt political and economic threats, however, crisis, in my analysis, characterized the very violent, dehumanizing, gendered conditions of feminized labor and national underdevelopment that served as the constitutive contradiction, or enabling underside, of the fantasy of this new economic network. As a global provider of feminized labor, through a national "prostitution" economy based on sex/tourism, export-oriented light manufacturing, and other female-labor-intensive commodity production and female-domestic-labor export industries, the Philippines' crisis-ridden situation and role within the Asia-Pacific community showed the gendered and sexual lineaments of a dominant international order of political and economic relations and its dire consequences for disenfranchised Filipina women.

Rather than crisis as event, structural crisis was the place from which to denaturalize this post-cold war regional order and, more, to foreground the role of gender and sexuality as the central, though hidden organizing principles of the logic of its emergence and operation. "Sexual economies," in my usage, referenced the libidinal or sexual configuration of the economic and political relations among nations that composed the Asia-Pacific community and the larger international community of the free (market) world of which it was a part. In this emergent regional fantasy of gendered and sexualized relations, the United States and Japan formed a conjugal alliance of political/military and economic/capital power and interests—in a new, post-cold war heterosexual model of regional "security"—the price of which liaison would be paid by the Philippines, as mistress-infant to the first and stepdaughter-servant to the second, in the currency of resource depletion and destruction, sexual labor exploitation, and racist dehumanization. My argument was that this regional familial fantasy, as well as the global fantasy of international relations in general on which it was predicated, is not merely metaphorical, but real, insofar as it grasps an order of political and economic practices at work among capitalist nation-states, a material-imaginary order in which gender, race, and sexuality are constitutive principles of organization as well as practical effects. Bilateral and multilateral political/military assistance and other cooperative security treaties, international trade agreements, and multinational developmental aid projects; national economic policies on foreign capital investment flows and local labor practices; and global financial institutional provisions for international loans—these concrete practices are the means by which Western hegemonic cultural, heteronormative ideals, and the meanings of masculinity and femininity, structure and codify the political and economic norms governing the actions of and relations among particular nation-states.

Nowhere are the dire consequences of the gendered, racialized, and sexual logics at work in this order more evident than in the degrading and violent treatment of Filipina women working in global commodity production, domestic service, and the sex industries. Not mere metaphor, the gendered and sexual language of politics and economics—evidenced in representations of the relations between developing and developed nations in terms of desire, security, interest, involvement, and penetration—can be seen to "translate" into the real material conditions lived and embodied by disenfranchised women. "Sexual economies" thus reconfigures and renames a seemingly objective economic order in such a way as to highlight how gender, race, and sexuality organize normative economic practices within the international capitalist world-system, and further, how such social differences naturalize the displacement of the internal contradictions of that system onto the devalued laboring bodies of Filipina women. Beyond simply emerging out of the structural crisis represented by sexualized Filipina labor, this feminist conceptual model was itself part of a collective political effort to put the ruling economic order into real crisis, and change both national economic practice and the lived conditions of women.

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© 2009 Barnard Center for Research on Women | S&F Online - Issue 7.3: Summer 2009 - Toward a Vision of Sexual and Economic Justice