Written by Alicia G. Moll, edited by Tommaso Filippini
The aggressive rise of neoliberalism in the past decades has had devastating effects on our views on the body and its commodification.
The ideological centrepiece of neoliberalism is rooted in the ideas of self-reliance, individualism, and autonomy. Far from reality, these ideas create the false impression of free choice. Both liberalism and neoliberalism emphasise the positive aspects of free markets, deregulation, privatisation, and individual liberty. However, as opposed to its predecessor, neoliberalism also encompasses other areas of human life, such as morality, spirituality, and politics. It seems therefore that the traditional differentiation between the public and the private realm is no longer applicable to a neoliberal context. As Modhumita Roy and Mary Thompson argue in their book The Politics of Reproduction: Adoption, Abortion, and Surrogacy in the Age of Neoliberalism (2019), “neoliberalism establishes a fearful symmetry among governments, corporations and individuals”.
Another characteristic feature of neoliberalism is the expansion of the means of production, which create goods and services. Traditionally, means of production were limited to machinery and mechanical systems. Nowadays, the mind and the human body are also included. When it comes to the latter, two examples come to mind: prostitution and surrogacy (reproductive exploitation). The following paper aims to analyse the relationship between the state, the economy, and bodily autonomy, and whether individuals actually have a “choice” within a context of global economic disparities.
One of the main faults of neoliberalism is the false illusion of self-sufficiency, and consequently, a never-ending system. The victory of neoliberalism over socialism accentuated this idea. The needs of Western democracies are constantly being met, regardless of the consequences that it might have on the environment, the collective imaginary, people’s health, culture, and institutions. Consumption is prioritised over well-being.
Evidently, neoliberalism is neither gender nor race-blind, as it is possible to identify certain patterns when analysing the new international division of labour. This concept is strongly linked to the idea that the world is divided between the Global North (“developed” countries) and the Global South (“developing” countries). The latter are countries which at some point – or currently – were subjects of colonialism. Although the levels of wealth might differ from one country to another in the Global South, they are mostly perceived as low-income and non-democratic. As these are states rich in natural resources and cheap labour, countries belonging to the Global South are used as spaces for production processes to take place.
As previously mentioned, neoliberalism no longer solely affects technological means and machinery. The predatory behaviour of this socioeconomic system has pushed the limits of what we perceive as means of production. In her book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, Wendy Brown (2015) explains the following: “Neoliberalism is a broader phenomenon of governing rationality through which forms of human activity, even those thought to be outside the market logic and exchange, are brought into its orbit and reconstructed in market terms”. When mentioning “those thought to be outside the market logic”, Brown namely refers to giving birth and maintaining sexual relations, actions that used to be perceived to be intimate and non-monetary. Even though prostitution has existed since ancient times, neoliberalism has shaped the way we view this practice. Up until the 60s and 70s, there had been a consensus amongst feminists on viewing prostitutes as victims of a failed system that did not protect women from human trafficking or poverty. Simultaneously, it was during these decades that neoliberalism started to permeate political ideologies, including feminism. The emergence of liberal feminism had positive effects on counterarguing purity culture and women’s right to sexual freedom. Nonetheless, it is arguable that, similarly to neoliberalism, liberal feminism failed to consider women’s characteristics, aside from their gender, such as class, race and age; factors which play a determining role in good-choice making. A similar train of thought can be observed when discussing reproductive exploitation, commonly referred to as surrogacy. On many occasions, defenders of surrogacy have appealed to “solidarity”, when referring to cases of women carrying a relative’s or friend’s child. These cases are not only very particular but also morally and legally ambiguous. Both study cases, prostitution and surrogacy, discuss the condition of the distinct female bodies within the different contexts from which neoliberalism originates.
Firstly, it is important to define what constitutes bodily autonomy. Broadly speaking, female bodily autonomy encompasses the right to spacial mobility, self-expression, information on and provision of sexual and reproductive health, freedom from torture or violence, etc. Nonetheless, it is possible to analyse more nuanced definitions. In her essay “Bodily Integrity and Conceptions of Subjectivity” (2009), Mervi Patosalmi analyses two different ways of understanding bodily integrity, the first theory proposed by Martha Nussbaum, and the second one by Drucilla Cornell. On the one hand, Nussbaum perceives bodily autonomy as a “feature of basic human capabilities”. She states that “human capabilities are meant to define characteristics of the human being, and bodily integrity is understood to include, among others, freedom of movement, respect for bodily boundaries, and opportunities for sexual satisfaction and reproductive choice” (Nussbaum, 1995). The capability of making choices that will allow us to enjoy bodily autonomy are an integral part of our human rights. Hence, the capability for choice-making must be ensured as a process that is not influenced by economic conditions. On the other hand, Cornell offers a broader yet more specific definition of bodily autonomy through the linkage of the body with the psyche. She goes on to say that “the personality is a process that is never finished, and bodily integrity means not just the idea of physical inviolability but refers to the person’s imagining and understanding of her or his body, its limits and characteristics” (Cornell, 2003). By using the words “imagining” and “understanding”, the author defends the subjective element of bodily autonomy.
It is not only oneself who might have an understanding of one’s body, but also the State and the legal system. In other words, bodily integrity must be recognised by higher institutions in order to ensure its protection. The quid of the matter is, as mentioned, the component of subjectivity that arises as integral to bodily autonomy. Patosalmi (2009) explains, “in Cornell’s theorising, the subject is constituted, among other things, by the legal system and the state, which affect how the person can imagine and re-imagine her or himself”. In the case of reproductive rights, a state’s provision of women’s abortion/contraceptive services will likely influence women’s idea of their right to individuation, and whether they will experience their sexuality more or less freely. Following Cornell’s idea of bodily autonomy, a state should not only protect individuals from abusive spaces, but also nourish their self-perception.
The idea of subjectivity as a characteristic of bodily autonomy is strongly linked to the question of free choice. “The female body is a contested terrain the world over. Constructed differently in different contexts, it remains a site where power is played out” (Mathur, 2008). Taking the case of India, Kanchan Mathur examines the influences that gender, ethnicity, class and age have on an individual’s idea of oneself. “Most often, women’s identification with their bodies and its physical manifestations results in suppression and denial of rights to emotional, mental, psychological and physical spaces” (idem). When it comes to the female body, there is a collective idea of what its main purpose constitutes: reproduction and male sexual satisfaction. Retrieving Cornell’s idea of the body and the psyche as inseparable entities, an individual’s use of their body will likely make up a significant portion, if not all, of their identity. Women’s identities are consequently tied to their responsibilities as mothers, wives, or even daughters. A loss of personhood and autonomy is perceived; “the female body, therefore, becomes the edifice on which gender inequality is built and legitimised” (idem).
In contexts in which, for example, a nation’s natality rates are low, women’s pressure to dedicate their lives to child-bearing will exponentially grow. This will be accompanied by restricted reproductive services, such as limited freedom of information or even illegalising abortion. Such a phenomenon can also be observed in traditional and conservative societies, such as India, where 7.9% of 15-19 year olds experienced early marriages and pregnancies in 2011, according to the National Family Health Survey (Ministry of Health and Family, 2021). Evidently, this is not a situation that takes place all around the world. Therefore, it is key to define the importance of local context when discussing feminist policies, as they “shape both the opportunities that men and women have access to and, simultaneously, the constraints that they face” (Kabeer, 2019).
Having presented this context, the following paragraphs will address the existence or non-existence of neoliberalism’s moral background, as well as its role in the configuration of bodily autonomy.
Neoliberalism is often criticised for lacking morals. Davies (2014) argues that “neoliberalism has sought to eliminate normative judgement from public life to the greatest possible extent”, as ethical concerns are subordinate to economic gains. There is no common good, as neoliberalism emphasises personal responsibility and self-reliance. It promotes the idea that individuals should take responsibility for their own well-being and that of their families, rather than relying on the state or collective action. Likewise, neoliberalism places a high value on individual freedom and personal choice. It emphasises the importance of free markets and limited government intervention to allow individuals to pursue their economic interests and make choices based on their preferences. These are principles that were strongly endorsed by political leaders such as former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher or US President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. “Moral commitments are encoded in an individualistic conception of the social, incorporating both a prescriptive vision of how people should act, alongside a suspicion of collectivist moral objectives” (Salter and Phelan, 2017). The engulfing presence of neoliberalism in our life leads us to question if this framework allows for the existence of a non-economic-driven “good.”
In their essay “Neoliberalism, higher education and the knowledge economy,” Olssen and Peters (2005) outline the arrival of a new homo: the homo oeconomicus. This being is defined as individualistic and self-interested. Understanding the appearance of this characterization allows us to tackle the question of choice, and to what extent it is applicable and compatible with bodily autonomy. Good-choice making concerns freedom of choice in exchange for individual responsibility. These are notions that completely obliterate the idea of the public. “For such a subject, social structures are no longer the source of private troubles: it is the individual him or herself who fails to exercise the proper rational and efficient conduct (…) When social problems are incorporated into the economic calculus, they are no longer social; there are simply failing individuals who have misused their freedom” (Pollack & Rossiter, 2010). Gender, race, age, class, as well as other features, are completely dismissed. Neoliberalism fails to acknowledge the presence of a power imbalance between individuals as it benefits from it (e.g. new international division of labour, as explained in the introduction). In essence, while neoliberalism champions the idea of individual choice within market contexts, the extent to which meaningful and equitable choice is available to individuals is questionable. For example, a poor Black woman living in the United States – where 18 out of 10,000 people experience homelessness (EndHomelessness, 2023) – will not have the same capacity for “good-choice making” as a white man living in the United Kingdom. Inequality of conditions does not leave room for equal choice, leading us to the next point.
An area in which this inequality can be analysed is prostitution. “The right of men to purchase women’s bodies is justified by free-market principles, as is women’s choice to offer their bodies for sale” (Phipps, 2014). Late-capitalist language has modified the way in which we view this practice. There is a growing tendency of not referring to prostitutes and punters as such, but labelling them as “service providers” and “clients” (idem), using economic terminology or the language of late capitalism; women offer a product (their body) and men purchase it. “Prostitution, as an industry, is definitely driven by economics” (Robinson, 2007). It is an industry motivated by the economic and social inequality between the prostituting population and the demanding one. Introducing and understanding prostitution means taking account of the following: firstly, the present neoliberal patriarchy has worsened gender violence through means of commodification and dehumanisation. Authors such as Hilario Sáez (2015) talk about “porn-capitalism” in order to emphasise the dominant mainstream hypersexualised culture within the capitalist context. Secondly, a great number of prostitutes are from lower to lower-middle class families headed by single parents with little education or economic viability (Seng, 1989; Weisberg, 1985; Doezema, 2018). Thirdly, when we talk about prostitution, we must also refer to those who consume this service. Several academic sources (Gómez-Suárez, Pérez-Freire and Verdugo-Matés, 2016) prove that neither the cultural background, nor the ideology, age, source of income, etc. are determining factors when defining a profile. Gender (male) is the characteristic that stands out the most. This underlines the notion that prostitution has expanded and diversified to the extent that it has become a legitimised activity within the present neoliberal and postcapitalist context.
The debate surrounding prostitution has been approached by feminists from different perspectives, namely liberal and radical. Both ideologies agree on labelling prostitution as a form of labour. Liberal feminists defend the normalisation of the sex industry, arguing that prostitution and pornography are part of women’s rights. The origin of this ideology dates back to the US-led “anti-puritanism” movement and the “feminist sex wars” from the 1970s and the 1980s. Virginie Despentes, a prominent liberal feminist author, criticises the moral relativism surrounding prostitution in her work King Kong Theory. She goes on to establish a parallel between traditional heterosexual marriage and prostitution, claiming that a marital contract is “a market in which the woman has to provide the man a certain level of (sexual) comfort”.
Radical feminists perceive sexuality as the backbone of gender inequality, and pornography and prostitution as representations thereof. They reject the notion of prostitution as a means for liberalising one’s body due to the never-ending dependence that women suffer on the sexual satisfaction that they provide, and the money that they gain. The premise of this perspective is the examination of prostitution as a result of capitalism, retrieving Marxism (Robinson, 2007). The parallel between Marxist and radical theories goes as follows: the traditional commodified good is now the body/sex (instead of labour), and the traditional ruling class is the patriarchy. In addition, it is believed that the widespread economic, social, ethnic and gender-related differences prevent a global consensus on the lawfulness and morality of prostitution; thus radical feminism’s position is ultimately abolition. There are many ways one can define prostitution. Nonetheless, the question whether or not to liberalise this form of labour is not entirely founded on academics but based on real life experiences. As Andrea Dworkin expresses in “Prostitution and Male Supremacy” (1993): “The assumptions of academia can barely begin to imagine the reality of life for women in prostitution (…) Prostitution: what is it? It is the use of a woman’s body for sex by a man, he pays money, he does what he wants. The minute you move away from what it really is, you move away prostitution into the world of ideas. You will then be discussing ideas, not prostitution.”
The diversification of prostitution and pornography through technological means has favoured the liberalisation and popularisation of these services. Websites such as OnlyFans represent the neoliberal individualistic character surrounding prostitution. OnlyFans is a streaming platform for explicit content where people can pay monthly to subscribe to someone’s channel. The author of Pornland (2010), Gail Dines, defines it as an extension of sex webcamming: “It combines the sexual exploitation of mainstream porn with economic exploitation of the gig economy”. OnlyFans was initially promoted by people who were already famous (e.g. Bella Thorne), who received millions of dollars in a matter of days.
It has been wrongfully assumed that this kind of new pornography eliminates the figure of the “pimp”, as it is women from their home who are in apparent charge of the content that they upload. Nonetheless, this is not entirely true, as many women are in fact managed by a third-person (Marcus, 2022). The so-called e-pimp has emerged because of the extension and popularisation of the platform itself. In an article, Marcus explains the case of Expansion, a growing marketing agency: “They market them (women) on social media; they write all of their daily posts; they even handle direct messaging sales, impersonating the women in conversation with their subscribers in order to sell erotic videos”. Expansion is not the only agency representing workers who offer digital intimacy. There are companies who benefit largely from these interactions, up to 70% of the gross. “The key to this business model is the ready availability of cheap English-speaking labour around the globe. Job postings for OnlyFans chatters are widespread on freelance sites like Upwork, many offering as little as $3 an hour. Agency heads told me they’ve hired workers from Eastern Europe, Africa, and all across Southeast Asia” (idem).
The global North-South division is apparent not only when discussing OnlyFans, but also traditional forms of prostitution and pornography. There is a continued gender and ethnic stratification of labour markets. This unprecedented rise in sexual consumption is the result of the expansion of a free-market rhetoric that advocates for a symbiosis between commerce and a “sexed up” culture. The principles of freedom and choice encompass neoliberal morality. However, it is doubtful to what extent one is able to “choose” if there are no other viable options available.
This overwhelming neoliberal narrative overshadows most women’s reality on these platforms. A former OnlyFans content creator explained that she was unable to masturbate for five months, as she felt that it had been ruined for her: “I monetised something that I’d always done for fun” (Lawless, 2021). Another creator explains that “my biggest fan managed to trace me to my place of work and actually waited outside for me one day. I was appalled and terrified” (Bindel, 2020). Thus, there are real-life effects to taking part in such sexual practices. As one turns off their camera and computer, and proceeds to carry on with other daily tasks, the digital barrier creates a false illusion of safety and impenetrability. Far from this being the reality, it is interesting to take one step further and ponder the following: how does treating sex and our body as something non-extraordinary and used for economic compensation affect our view on bodily autonomy?
As previously mentioned, according to Cornell, bodily autonomy is the result of our views on the body. These views can be influenced by our spacial conditions, as well as our age, gender, race, etc. Sex and sexuality are integral parts of your persona. Cornell states that “sexual acts cannot be defined as a purely physical activity, because the body and the mind cannot be separated”. This is perhaps why, in his book Belle de Jour, author Joseph Kessel (2005) introduced his main character by saying “the first thing you should know is that I’m a whore”.
Essentially, one of the many arguments that liberal feminism presents to defend prostitution is that it is just another type of job. One can be a prostitute as one can be a teacher, a doctor, or a post person. Arguably, there is no shame in being a prostitute or porn actor. Nonetheless, Kessel’s “I’m a whore” presents the idea of ‘sex worker’ as an identity, not merely a job. The idea of sexual expression as an identity conveys a limited perspective that disregards how other structures, such as the capitalist system, influence sexual discourses. “Sex worker identity politics often does not take into account that identities are social, produced within a matrix of discourses which may have both positive and negative aspects and which are inextricable from the operation of power” (Phipps, 2014). Similarly, the idea of sex work as “just a job” neglects the existence of power imbalance and inequality. It promotes the neoliberal value of the “individualistic self” and “good-choice making”, which is not available for a vast majority of women that resort to prostitution or pornography as a source of income. “The emphasis on the sex worker’s choice to sell rather than the client’s choice to buy masks the gendered constructions of demand for sexual services, as well as the profit motive and financial relationships which structures the industry as a whole” (idem).
All in all, the commodification of the body entitles a series of consequences that have severe effects on individual bodily autonomy. First and foremost, the liberalisation of any form of prostitution reinforces the idea that sex can be considered as a way of escaping economic hardship. This would increase the pressure that women suffer in resorting to it. According to neoliberalism, prostitutes are “service providers,” and men are “clients.” Prostitutes’ capacity for choice-making is inherently reduced, as according to basic market principles, as they serve the “buyer” or, in this case, the “client” needs and wishes. Consequently, it is safe to say that a lot of prostitutes engage in sexual practices that they might not feel comfortable with, but must. It is difficult to discuss the presence of consent in a sexual act if the incentives’ behind one party are purely economic. Lastly, there exists a relationship between one’s values and understanding of sex and the sexual libido. The consideration of sex as an ordinary social aspect, or even as a currency, is likely to influence one’s sexual attitudes.
In conclusion, the examination of bodily autonomy within the context of neoliberalism reveals a complex interplay between individual rights, market forces, and social dynamics. This research paper has explored the way in which neoliberalism constrains bodily autonomy. On paper, neoliberal policies align with the principles of freedom, limited state-intervention and self-regulation. Nonetheless, I argue that these conditions are not available for everyone, and that to some extent, neoliberalism accentuates this inequality. Under the scope of neoliberalism, individuals are encouraged to exercise agency over their bodies and make choices that align with their own desires and interests. However, it is difficult for one to exercise those rights if their conception of bodily integrity is influenced by market values. In a neoliberal framework, bodies and bodily experience become subject to market forces and profit-driven interests. This has led to the exploitation and commodification of human bodies, as seen in prostitution and reproductive exploitation (surrogacy). Ultimately, these processes are essentially gendered and racialized, seeing that the international division of labour is applicable to these practices. For example, a great number of surrogate mothers in Europe are located in Ukraine. Likewise, Romania is an extensive exporter of prostitutes and human trafficking.
In navigating the complexities of bodily autonomy within neoliberalism, it is essential to critically examine and challenge the power structures that shape our understanding of the body, individual agency vis-à-vis the common good, societal obligations, etc. It is imperative to engage in inclusive dialogues that take into account the experience of marginalised groups, such as prostitutes and victims of human trafficking. Bodily autonomy must be empowered by an ideological system that supports individual’s right to live freely and not use their body as a means for labour.
Bindel, J (2020, September 11). OnlyFans is sex work and pornography – stop calling it ‘empowering.’ Evening Standard.
Brown, W. (2015). Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. New York: Zone Books. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt17kk9p8
Cornell, D. (2003). Autonomy re-imagined. Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society, 8(1), 144-149.
Davies, W. (2014). The limits of neoliberalism: Authority, sovereignty and the logic of competition. London, UK: SAGE Publications.
Despentes, V (2007). King Kong Theory. Paris: Le Livre de Poche
Dines, G (2010). Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality. Boston: Beacon Press
Dworkin, A. (1993). Prostitution and Male Supremacy. Michigan Journal of Gender & Law, 1, 2-20.
Falk, R. (2002). Revisiting Westphalia, Discovering Post-Westphalia. The Journal of Ethics, 6(4), 311–352. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25115737
Gómez-Suárez, Á., Pérez-Freire, S., & Verdugo-Matés, S. (2016). Dominación, sexualidad masculina y prostitución en España: ¿por qué los hombres españoles consumen sexo de pago? Ciencias Sociales, 71, 149-174. Autonomic University of Mexico.
Kessel, J (1929). Belle de Jour. New York: Overlook Press.
Lawless, T. (2021, August 2). OnlyFans isn’t revolutionizing sex work, and using it ruined things I once did for personal pleasure. The Guardian.
Marcus, E (2022, May 16). The ‘e-pimps’ of OnlyFans. New York Times Magazine.
Mathur, K. (2008). Body as Space, Body as Site: Bodily Integrity and Women’s Empowerment in India. Economic and Political Weekly, 43(17), 54-63.
Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. (2019-2021). National Family Health Survey, 2019-2021: Compendium of Fact Sheets. Government of India.
National Alliance to End Homelessness (2023). Homelessness statistics. Available at: https://endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/homelessness-statistics/
Nussbaum, M. C. (1995). Human capabilities: Female human beings and development. In M. Jonathan Glover (Ed.), Human capabilities (pp.61-109). Oxford: Clare.
Olssen, M., & Peters, M. (2005). Neoliberalism, higher education and the knowledge economy: From the free market to knowledge capitalism. Journal of Education Policy, 20(3), 313.
Patosalmi, M. (2009). Bodily Integrity and Conceptions of Subjectivity. Hypatia, 24(2), 125–141. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20618150
Phipps, A. (2014). The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age. Boston: Polity.
Pollack, S., & Rossiter, A. (2010). NEOLIBERALISM AND THE ENTREPRENEURIAL SUBJECT: Implications for Feminism and Social Work. Canadian Social Work Review / Revue Canadienne de Service Social, 27(2), 155–169. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41669933
Robinson, C. C. (2007). Feminist Theory & Prostitution. Counterpoints, 302, 21-36.
Roy, M., & Thompson, M. (2019). The Politics of Reproduction: Adoption, Abortion, and Surrogacy in the Age of Neoliberalism. Ohio: The Ohio State University Press
Sáez, H (2015) Cómo somos los hombres. Masculinidades y prostitución en Andalucía. Sevilla: Fundación Iniciativa Social.Salter, L. A., & Phelan, S. (2017). The Morality and Political Antagonisms of Neoliberal Discourse: Campbell Brown and the Corporatization of Educational Justice. International Journal of Communication, 11, 3030-3050. doi:1932-8036/20170005