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The Complicated Politics of Self-Exploitation | The Nation

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Diary of a Mad Law Professor

The Complicated Politics of Self-Exploitation

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(AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

Years ago, at the height of what in the Western world was known as “women’s lib,” I remember a defector from the Iron Curtain scoffing at the Soviet Union’s claim that it had achieved complete sexual equality: “When a woman advances in the factory, it’s only after they hold a beauty contest.”

About the Author

Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from...

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Perhaps the story was apocryphal, but it made me think about Invisible Man, in which the black narrator is awarded a college scholarship for his oratorical skills, but is first required to come to a white men’s club, strip and engage in a boxing match styled as a “battle royal,” and then scamper across an electrified rug chasing tossed gold-foil tokens. When he is finally presented with the scholarship scroll, he reflects on the text and imagines that it really reads “To Whom It May Concern, Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.”

The brute survival economy of booty or boxing competitions came to mind recently when I read about rapper Juicy J’s offer of a $50,000 college scholarship to “the best chick that can twerk.” Despite 
Mr. J’s lasciviously descriptive flair, it struck me as not all that different from Miss USA contestants parading their bikini’d bodies in hopes of a similar prize. Which is more ludicrous, having the exchange rate of one’s assets fixed by Juicy J or by Donald Trump?

I cite these examples not to debate the propriety of selling one’s body—an open question—but to consider its perceived necessity. Amid a squeezed labor market and stratospherically rising tuition costs, new flesh markets are burgeoning among the middle class, particularly upwardly aspiring young women. 
I have written before about how many of my students “donate” their “Ivy League” eggs to wealthy women who pay upward of, yes, $50,000 per “harvest” if they can meet certain metrics of height, weight, eye color, athleticism and SAT scores. Egg 
extraction is risky and invasive, but it is, I am told, an easier way of putting oneself through school than a job at McDonald’s.

Consider a poll by the website SeekingArrangement.com, which pairs older, wealthy men and young women—or “sugar babies”—for “mutually beneficial relationships.” The site claims that the average sugar baby receives $3,000 a month and that 
44 percent of its US clientele are college students, with a significant minority of them single mothers. Of the 900 female students at Arizona State University polled, 68 percent said they would use such a service. Indeed, one YouTube video shows a procession of students holding signs reading I Need a Sugar Daddy for…. The litany includes books, tuition and law school. Some seek more frivolous things, like designer clothes or “boobs,” but despite their giggly demeanor, they recall the images of cardboard placards in Hoovervilles reading Will Work for Food.

The number of such sites is exploding; while the companies deny that they are engaged in pimping, there’s a wink-wink element to the coy policy of leaving it up to each couple to define what is being sponsored. Sex is never mentioned, but it’s hard to make a clear distinction between the playful come-hither posture of the young women and the overly practiced smiles of prostitutes in the windows of any given red-light district.

Dr. Phil hosted a panel of sugar babies who described themselves as free agents, whose “arrangements” did not “necessarily” involve sex, and who said that sex work is something that happens on street corners. Again, my goal here is not to decide whether this is a wholesome expression of sexual freedom or a new low in prostration before the dollar. But even if upheld as a purely “rational economic choice,” I wonder if most women wouldn’t honestly prefer to get their education or earn their livelihood without having to satisfy the “companionship” whims of strangers. In this sense, the dilemma is not just about prostitution or mutually assumed contracts, but also about the nature of a range of exchanges—even marriage—that are broadly gendered, classed and raced (particularly if we include those who actually do work on street corners).

The story of former model Sara Ziff, founder of the Model Alliance, is instructive. Recruited by a top agency when she was 14, she has described the dark side of a job that most people imagine as glamorous: long hours, sexual exploitation, being treated like a piece of meat. Ziff’s activism centers partly on the fact that models earn, on average, just $27,000 a year, but she’s at her fiercest when it comes to the indignities for which no sum of money is enough: the encounters with men in the business whose harassment, or worse, makes you want to jump out of your skin. Ziff worries about the ways the degradation that models experience is cloaked in denial about free choice, rationalized as fair—even lucky. After all, isn’t it ingratitude to gripe if a woman has sufficient “hotness” (as one described it to Dr. Phil) to sell?

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Back in the 1970s, Marabel Morgan published her evangelical marriage manual, The Total Woman. It advocated the complete submission of wives to their husbands, with tips for ensuring that he won’t leave you destitute. (Greeting your hubby at the door with a tray of martinis and dressed only in Saran Wrap was one of her more famous ideas.) That women still often look to men to lift them out of destitution is part of a larger American picture: it costs over $240,000 to raise a child to 18; 27 percent of 19- to 25-year-olds have no health insurance; federal and state subsidies to colleges and universities have been slashed as tuition rises.

We could simply shrug all this off and conclude that “Self-Exploitation 101” is the chief skill set to fall back on as the wealth gap grows and the social safety net is shredded. But what of the educational, moral and citizenship costs in a world of invisible women—and not a few invisible minorities, immigrants and indigents—flashing their bodies and leaping at the scrip tossed out at the private clubs of wealthier, mostly male plutocrats?

Last month, Elizabeth Cline wrote about the lack of labor laws in the fashion industry, and how the Model Alliance is trying to change that.

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