February 01, 2010

The Sexual Contract

Reading about marriage and contracts, whether they be marriage as contracts or otherwise, I came across an interesting analysis of the social contract: that it was preceded by rape, and that it finds its genesis in the Sexual Contract which Carole Pateman expounded.

The Social Contract, which Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau dealt with, speaks of political obligation, obedience and legitimacy, and is, remarkably, by and large, silent about women. True, Locke talked about the "person" but a close reading of his work reveals that his individual person was in fact, the individual man. He spoke of wives being subject to their husbands although he had nothing but the Bible and contemporary social norms to support his assertion. In marriage, women were assumed to exchange obedience for protection, they therefore could not have truly entered into a contact with free will and autonomy given that they effectively lost that autonomy when they married. His Social Contract also contained a separate sphere in which women effectively remained --- the private sphere.

Women are not, however, simply missing from the Social Contract though -- they are co-opted into it by being included in the regime established by the Social Contract although they are not parties to the contract itself. It might be possible to think of them as beneficiaries to the contract although just how much women benefited is debatable. The political rights granted in the Social Contract find their roots in the Sexual Right granted by the Sexual Contract which must have been contemporaneous to, if not antecedent to, the Social Contract. And it is only through and after the exercise of the Sexual Right, specifically, men's rights to women's bodies, that the social and civil rights established by the Social Contract can be exercised.

And it is also through the performance of the Sexual Contract that the Natural Right which men enjoyed over women in the State of Nature is transformed into a legitimate, patriarchal, civil right. While the exact story of the Social Contract differs depending on who narrates it, what is common to all 17th and 18th century versions of the contract is that it is a contact entered into by men of their own free will to establish a legitimate structure, and to negate the chaos and anarchy prevalent in the State of Nature. The story of the contract is invariably presented as a story in which free will, rational thought, and individualism prevail, a story in which men give up some of the rights they "enjoyed" in the State of Nature in exchange for social structure and, so to speak, the greater good.

The patriarchy established by the Social Contract comprises a number of different facets including the paternal right and the political right. (Some theorists claimed that the paternal and political right were the same, others claimed that they were different.) In any case, women's rights are not mentioned in the Social Contract, although women must participate in the social regime for the patriarchal right to arise at all. The paternal right cannot arise without a woman becoming a mother, and for this to happen, there must be an incidental and accessory unmentioned right which men enjoy: the Sex Right --- a right incorporated in the Sexual Contract which grants men dominion over women and their bodies.

17th and 18th-century theorists, having no desire to question the paternal right, simply incorporated the Sex Right into the political right. The Sex Right was a right which presumably existed in the state of nature. All that the Social Contract did was to assume the existence of a Sexual Contract, and incorporate it into its own body, thereby providing a legal and orderly manner in which men could exercise a right which they enjoyed in the State of Nature.

As far as the political right is concerned, it is a right which, under the Social Contract, men enjoyed and women did not although women's exclusion from the enjoyment of this right was not explicitly stated -- the philosophers spoke of the "nature of women", their "role in the family" and confined women to the "private sphere", a sphere in which they had already exchanged obedience for protection, and thus a sphere in which they had no autonomy in any case. The political right was a right which manifest itself in the public sphere, a sphere to which women did not, until recently, have any access at all.

The existence of a society based on the performance of the Social Contract must necessarily also be based on the performance of the Sexual Contract. The latter is a contract which is rarely highlighted although its terms and conditions are implicit in the Social Contract as Carole Patemen has argued.