Issue 19.1, February 2004

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Essay Excerpt

Commodities and Sexual Subjectivities: A Look at Capitalism and Its Desires

by Debra Curtis

Imagine Tupperware-style sex toy parties held for working- and middle-class women: bank tellers, kindergarten teachers, waitresses, and nurses.1 As guests arrive, conversations are innocuous enough: day-care issues, dessert recipes, and home decorating tips. Before the evening ends, they will have been introduced to a variety of products, from scented massage oils to anal beads and cuffs.

Much of the anthropological literature on sexuality, although ethnographically rich in its description of community building and sexual cultures, fails to attend to the complex processes by which sexual subjectivity is produced (Hostetler and Herdt 1998). This article examines the production of sexual subjectivity as it is articulated within the sex-toy industry, a specific aspect of consumer culture that appears to address it most directly. My point of departure is that the marketplace produces desires, thus encouraging sexual innovation; however, it is important to note that the proliferation of sexual difference does not arise uncontested.2 Contemporary social theorists have argued that the market economy thrives on difference and is dependent on the production of desire (Giddens 1991; Laqueur 1992; B. Turner 1984). I want to ask: How might the desire produced in the market be intricately linked to the formation and negotiation of sexual subjectivity? Does the apparent plurality of the market evident in an array of consumer choices produce a proliferation of multiple sexualities? Put simply, this article considers the relationship among commodities, consuming desires, and sexual practices.3

It is assumed here that sexuality is produced and mediated by culturally specific historical and social processes. This social constructionist framework rejects the idea that purely biological models can explain sexuality. A number of social theorists (Butler 1993; Foucault 1978; Herdt 1981, 1987; Lancaster1992; Parker 1991; Sedgwick 1990; Weeks 1977), in their effort to understand how sex is constructed across time and space, have long recognized the advantages of denaturalizing sexuality by deconstructing the links between sexual practice, desire, and sexual identity. The ethnographic record (see, for example, Herdt 1981, 1987; Lancaster 1992; Morris 1994) demonstrates how categories such as “homosexual” and “heterosexual” fail to account for the ways that different cultures make sense of sexual practices or assign meanings to them. For instance, one of the many reasons why homosexual or heterosexual categories do not work empirically and analytically is because sexual practice does not always follow sexual identity. Moreover, sexual practice is not always driven by sexual desire, and sexual desires may exceed an individual’s sexual practice. This conceptual framework raises complex questions about the relationship between sexuality, sexual practice, and sexual desire, which, I would argue can only be understood within a specific cultural context.

By invoking “subjectivity,” I am writing against the notion of sexual identity, which posits a unified and coherent sexual subject. Sexual subjectivity, to borrow from Sally Alexander, “is best understood as a process which is always in the making, is never finished or complete” (1994:278). By emphasizing the constitutive process—how sexual subjectivity is produced—we can attend to the ways individuals attempt to construct their sexual lives within dynamic and particular social structures. (95-96)

Curtis, Debra. "Commodities and Sexual Subjectivities: A Look at Capitalism and Its Desires." Cultural Anthropology 19, no. 1 (2004): 95-121