When you think of “capital” what comes to mind? Green? The O’Jay’s hit “For the Love of Money” that was the theme song for The Celebrity Apprentice? Or perhaps you think back to your glory board-game-playing days in which you dominated monopoly every time. When we think of capital we tend to think in terms of dollar bills and wealth. However, after finishing our global and transnational unit, it has become clear that wealth is not the only source of capital.
Merriam Webster dictionary defines capital as “a store of useful assets or advantages.” For less fortunate women, in both the United States and on a global scale, the only asset they have to offer is their body and sexuality. For these women, in both our own nation and abroad, sexuality is used as a source of capital to be traded for financial stability.
There are large amounts of women being sexually exploited in order to preserve a job and ensure their stay in the United States. First, lets look at this issue domestically with migrant laborers. The documentary, Rape in the Fields, revealed how many immigrants are sexually abused in order to keep their jobs and prevent deportation. One of the interviewee’s of the film goes as far as saying “If you are an undocumented laborer, you are a captive.” That is exactly how the bosses treat these women, most of whom don’t even speak English. There are over half a million women working in field in America, the majority of which are documented. It’s quite paradoxical that these women are abused for fear of deportation. It makes us question, as scholars, if being deported back to where they came from could actually be worse than their treatment here in “land of the free?” One of the women’s voiceover in the film explains that when her family showed up at the farm looking for work, the boss said that he could not hire her father but, instead, could provide work for his daughters. This is a clear example of sexuality serving as capital for women over men because the boss chose the female laborers who he can take advantage of in ways he couldn’t do with the father. And, sure enough, she goes on to say that from “from the minute we began working in the fields, they harassed us horribly.” These women are virtually powerless to their bosses because if they dare resist the sexual abuse they run the risk of being deported. They need these jobs.
Their atrocious treatment is unfortunately just a byproduct of being vulnerable, undocumented women. Another voiceover in the film says that if you don’t give in to them, you won’t have a job next season. These field workers don’t have much of a choice. The trade off between sexual power and wages is what provides them with a stable income and keeps them in the US. What’s more? Oftentimes, these women have children to take care of too, for example Maricruz says in the documentary that she could not afford to lose her job because she had to take care of her daughters. The burden on these women to accept this abuse is even stronger when other family members are dependent on that source of income as well. The fact that this documentary focuses on California fields, illustrates that this abuse, or even enslavement, of undocumented female laborers does not happen solely in less develop countries. The United States is just as guilty of turning a justice-system-blind-eye to the exploitation of these women. However, this is just one manifestation of sexuality being used as capital. It is a worldwide epidemic that takes many different forms depending on the country, which brings me to Mexico.
The theme of sexuality as capital stretches far beyond US borders. In Mexico, for example, Gloria Gonzalez-Lopez introduces the idea of “capital feminino” as a means of social endowment. That is, women’s potential as wives relies deeply on their virginity. Gonzalez-Lopez further investigates this by interviewing the controversial doctor who has performed hymen reconstructions for decades. This female physician explained to her that, “back in the late 1960s…a group of mothers came to her crying. She learned that these mothers were in pain because their daughters had been raped. But besides the act of violence exercised against a young daughter’s body, their main concern was that their daughters would not be able to find a good man who would eventually accept them ‘as is’…and would be willing to marry them” (539). Granted, this was a couple decades ago and I would hope that a mother’s reaction to rape has changed, but still, hymen reconstruction surgery still happens today. In fact, a 2003 article published by ABC News exposes the “Queen of Virginity,” Esmerelda Venegas, who runs the Ridgewood Health and Beauty Center in Queens, New York. In the article Lynn Sherr writes that, “Venegas says several hundred scared young women from many cultures — Latinas, Mideasterners, Chinese, Koreans — have paid her $2,500 each to have their hymens restored. Sure, it’s a business, she says, but what’s behind the practice makes Venegas angry. ‘It’s about machismo, 100 percent,’ she said.” Machismo is a concept that Gonzalez-Lopez also touched upon. Essentially, it translates to sexism. These surgeries are purporting the idea that women need their virginity to gain stability and security as a wife who depends on their husband. Also persistent is the value of virginity. Gonzalez-Lopez goes on to explain that, “a [Mexican] woman who is a virgin…can actually exchange her virginity (i.e. virginal vagina) for the possibility of having a financially stable life via marriage” (540).
Again, we see a transaction occurring between a male and a female. If the woman is a virgin, she can trade that for life as a financially secure wife. Virginity is the capital being traded between two persons, in this case. Not the most progressive beliefs, but for many cultures, virginity is an indicator of eligibility to be wedded.
Another example of sexuality functioning as capital is in Lebanon. Filipina women get a generalized bad reputation in Lebanon, which ultimately influences their employability. Hayeon Lee writes: “In many cases, a domestic worker’s sexual desires are assumed unnatural and inappropriate. The negative stereotypes associated with Filipina women’s sexuality are spread through warnings and stories told by recruitment agencies, and rumors. Filipina women, compared to their Ethiopian and Sri Lanken counterparts are seen as fairer, sexually attractive, and more promiscuous. These images of Filipina women legitimate employers’ tight control of their bodies and persons” (537). The trade off here is not as explicit, and yet we see Filipina women’s sexuality being suppressed for the security of their employment as housemaids. Lee also explained that oftentimes the Madames feel threatened by these Filipina women with regards to their husband. This also serves as another justification of their enforced sexual repression. Filipina women are forced to be asexual beings six days a week for the sake of their employment therefore it’s no wonder that on the 7th day they find it cathartic and necessary to unleash their sexuality.
Both domestically and globally, sexuality can be used as capital to ensure financial stability amongst many groups of vulnerable and less fortunate women. Their sexuality or virginity is their biggest asset and unfortunately is the ticket to gaining financial security. What are other manifestations of sexuality as a form of currency that we see, either legal or illegal? What about strippers? Do their bodies function as capital? Is this more socially acceptable than, say, sex trafficking? The idea of sexuality as capital is a rich one. What else comes to mind, for you, when you think of this transaction?