The sexualization of social relations

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 27, 2013

From Primo Mag­gio, no. 23/24 (sum­mer 1985)1

“Should work, then, have a sex? Absurd ques­tion. Every­one knows it has existed only in the mas­cu­line [form], in sec­tors where activ­ity is car­ried out by men. No work else­where, and no women in work. What remains, of course, is to set­tle the ques­tion of a few mil­lion ‘actives’…”2 And so is intro­duced The Sex of Work (Famil­ial Struc­tures and the Sys­tem of Pro­duc­tion), pub. by PUG, 1984, by the authors them­selves: a large group of researchers who found them­selves over the course of the pre­vi­ous year in the most diverse spaces of debate: from the con­fer­ence Women and the Work­ing Class (Vin­cennes, Decem­ber 1978); to their days at the Société Française de Soci­olo­gie on The Famil­ial Insti­tu­tion and Women’s Work (Nantes, June 1980); to the con­fer­ence of the Cen­tre Lyon­nais d’Etudes Fémin­istes on Women and the Ques­tion of Work (Lyon, Decem­ber 1980); and finally to the research sem­i­nar of the Unité de Recherche et d’Etudes Soci­ologiques, Divi­sion sociale et sex­uelle du tra­vail, on Women’s Work, Paid Work, Domes­tic Work (1980-81-82), result­ing directly in the for­ma­tion of this group.

Draw­ing upon their own intel­lec­tual and exis­ten­tial resources, their own claims to both fem­i­nism and a suc­ces­sion of the most insti­tu­tional of ini­tia­tives, the group finally formed at the Tenth World Con­gress of Soci­ol­ogy (Mex­ico City, August 1982), express­ing the desire to pro­mote research cen­tered on the simul­ta­ne­ous analy­sis, for both men and women, of the sit­u­a­tion of work and fam­ily. This book rep­re­sents the bulk of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions pre­sented in Mex­ico City and con­sti­tutes a first tan­gi­ble, vis­i­ble step of the expe­ri­ence of the group, a moment in its life.

Women, researchers, fem­i­nists, in an insti­tu­tion­al­ized group with a research topic both pre­cise and iso­lated from the tra­di­tional sci­en­tific con­text, with the pal­pa­ble need to find new method­olo­gies, new avenues, of recon­struct­ing the sub­jects in their entire form, the same sub­jects that in tra­di­tional sci­ence become chopped, muti­lated, seen in quan­tity and with­out qual­ity. And this in “sci­ence,” to impose a new “sci­en­tific” point of view that con­cerns women and their work, the sex­u­al­ity of social rela­tions as an “exis­tent.” As a method, bring­ing sci­en­tists together from dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines and dif­fer­ent “schools” (although here we limit our­selves to the social sci­ences) is noth­ing new: inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research in the human­i­ties has been fruit­ful in var­i­ous fields. But the nov­elty lies in the fact that it is the woman-subject that is study­ing the woman-object. And the effect this pro­duces is that it seems the very object of the research floods the lim­its tra­di­tion­ally imposed, reach­ing into cur­rent method­ol­ogy, find­ing itself within strict def­i­n­i­tions of use. The very def­i­n­i­tion of the field research requires dif­fer­ent means of approx­i­ma­tion, as if one were to turn on dif­fer­ent lights rather than just one to iden­tify the road ahead, the con­tours of the object to be stud­ied. And some­times it is right at the inter­sec­tion of two dis­tinct fields, in the area of exist­ing soci­o­log­i­cal frame­works, that the object of exam­i­na­tion is found. As Mar­tine Chau­dron says about her research, “The object – the social tra­jec­to­ries and the famil­iar strate­gies of repro­duc­tion, the one and the other sexed – has been con­structed on the inter­sec­tion of two fields, that of social mobil­ity and that of the fam­ily; it [the object] can’t exist soci­o­log­i­cally out­side of the prob­lem attempt­ing to artic­u­late and hold together the sex­ual and social divi­sions of work with social rela­tions of sex and class.”

And this per­ma­nent pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with iden­ti­fy­ing the rela­tions between the sexes as social rela­tions is impor­tant, in order to exit the fix­ity of roles, totally deter­mined and hier­ar­chi­cal: “That which is impor­tant in the notion of social rela­tions – defined by the antag­o­nism of social groups – is the dynamic that it introduces.”

The form that attempts this mode of stat­ing, of seek­ing, of point­ing towards a sex­u­al­iza­tion of social rela­tions that does not sig­nal a mar­gin­al­ity, but is in recog­ni­tion of an exist­ing injus­tice, to be changed, requires an adjust­ment to a new vision of real­ity, and to do this demands a dif­fi­cult but nec­es­sary inno­va­tion of tools. And then the inter­est to depart from tra­di­tional method­olo­gies that have always made the study of women subordinate.

For exam­ple, as well stated in the gen­eral intro­duc­tion: “The dom­i­nant dis­course on work con­tin­ues to func­tion as an implicit model: the male worker, nei­ther too young nor too old, light-skinned, clearly. In short, the ideal type! All the rest are not spec­i­fied. And so that the fam­ily remains the essen­tial start­ing point of analy­sis for the pro­fes­sional activ­ity of women; as if their work sit­u­a­tion results solely of the oblig­a­tion (real or sym­bolic, mate­r­ial or ide­o­log­i­cal) imposed upon them to take on the bulk of fam­ily respon­si­bil­i­ties.” “Mater­nity ren­ders sus­pect the pro­fes­sional qual­i­ties of women”: and then, to remove this sus­pi­cion, they must “act like a man,” or not have chil­dren socially. And this, only for women. Because how­ever the worker con­forms to the norms of work is as a non-parent. But the non-parent as an absolute, the priv­i­leged worker, is the father with a fam­ily to pro­vide for, but with­out the respon­si­bil­i­ties of a fam­ily. This bur­den is placed on the mother, so that it becomes non-compliant to the norm and – per­fectly squar­ing the cir­cle – jus­ti­fies her pro­fes­sional stag­na­tion, her non-career with the same motives by which it pro­motes “the man of the house.”

In eco­nom­ics, soci­ol­ogy and the other human­i­ties, the social infe­ri­or­ity of women is due to the mech­a­nisms of mar­gin­al­iza­tion suf­fered by this sec­tor of the pop­u­la­tion, most unarmed for the labor mar­ket. So women would con­sti­tute, as the young or the old, as immi­grants or the hand­i­capped, a mar­ginal group, non-competitive. In other words: because of their fam­ily respon­si­bil­i­ties, women face obsta­cles, and there­fore require assis­tance in order to be able to work, given the para­me­ters of work hours, vaca­tion time, and pensions.

Con­versely, when it comes to study­ing the work of men, there is no ref­er­ence to their mar­i­tal sta­tus, nor to the size of their fam­ily (num­ber of chil­dren, etc.), nor even to the pro­fes­sional activ­i­ties of their wives. Only women are enlisted to a fam­ily, only men to their posts in the work world; women are inac­tive and men are with­out fam­ily. So, a joint approach to the famil­ial struc­ture and the pro­duc­tive sys­tem that is not the super­im­po­si­tion of one sec­tor on the other is sought.

It is by the denun­ci­a­tion of the invis­i­bil­ity of domes­tic work in soci­o­log­i­cal and eco­nomic analy­ses that fem­i­nists have intro­duced a deci­sive break. The analy­sis of domes­tic work and rela­tions between the sexes has sig­ni­fied new approaches in respect to social rela­tions and women’s work. We no longer con­sider the study of rela­tions between the sexes as con­fined to the fam­ily, but rather, merge all the inter-dependencies between house­work and pro­fes­sional work.

And all of this within a con­stant: the crit­i­cal analy­sis of sci­ence con­sti­tutes the insuf­fi­ciency of the var­i­ous dis­ci­plines, their blind spots.

So these researchers con­test research (and meth­ods) based on the dis­tinc­tion between pro­duc­tive work and repro­duc­tive work, where the par­tic­i­pa­tion of women in “pro­duc­tive” work is not ana­lyzed as such, but as a par­tic­u­lar of a gen­eral, mas­cu­line model. And the over­tak­ing occurs in the simul­ta­ne­ous analy­sis of pro­duc­tion sys­tems and fam­ily struc­tures. The rejec­tion of the production/reproduction dichotomy, and, to its con­trary, the study of their inter­re­la­tions, nec­es­sar­ily impli­cates the accep­tance of key con­cepts, which I briefly define here from the text:

    The con­cept of repro­duc­tion, used in the text in oppo­si­tion to pro­duc­tion. It’s not, then, treated in the clas­si­cal sense of social repro­duc­tion. Repro­duc­tion includes, apart from the pro­duc­tion of chil­dren and more broadly of indi­vid­u­als, a set of activ­i­ties, exclud­ing the activ­ity of the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties. From this per­spec­tive the analy­sis of the fam­ily is insep­a­ra­ble from the study of other insti­tu­tions that con­tribute to reproduction.
    The con­cept of work: a term that, in the broader sense, takes into account as much pro­fes­sional activ­ity as that which is devel­oped in the domes­tic sphere. From this per­spec­tive it becomes nec­es­sary to renew the analy­sis of production.
    The con­cept of fam­ily, as some­thing that is not a closed space con­cern­ing the pri­vate sphere. It is nec­es­sary, there­fore, to study it in terms of social rela­tions and not of the rules between the sexes, in terms of the divi­sions of work rather than the divi­sions of labor.

It is from these base con­cepts, these gen­eral agree­ments, that the itin­er­aries of each researcher become the heads of rams with which this group attempts to break down the social sci­ences build­ing, lit­tle by lit­tle, at dif­fer­ent lev­els. Already the crit­i­cal read­ing of the sta­tis­tics of social mobil­ity (gen­er­ally sexed in terms of the mas­cu­line model) is fur­ther enriched by qual­i­ta­tive meth­ods (sur­veys, inter­views, biogra­phies, genealo­gies) of iden­ti­fy­ing the social tra­jec­to­ries of men and women.

The simul­ta­ne­ous study of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion nec­es­sar­ily involves the con­struc­tion of new ter­rains, cut­ting across tra­di­tional dis­ci­plines. And again, all of the more secure con­cepts should be recon­sid­ered: from, for exam­ple, the sex­ual divi­sion of work as a given, it is obvi­ous that the con­cept of the social divi­sion of work itself should be called into ques­tion. “To state, as we do, that work has a sex and that there­fore the divi­sion of work is also sexed, has effec­tively sub­ver­sive virtues”.

And it does not end with the book, because this group con­tin­ues to work together at an annual sem­i­nar (1984-85) called Production/Reproduction Work­shop (pre­sented at PIRTTEM). They con­tinue the hard work of research­ing, defin­ing a sub­ject, woman, at full length; of remov­ing the veil of invis­i­bil­ity, of renew­ing the ties between the vis­i­ble and the hid­den, between the impor­tant and the disregarded.

A short digres­sion: already many passes have been made in an attempt to untie the Gor­dian knot of the rela­tion­ship between pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion, for exam­ple by study­ing “in con­tin­uum” the two phe­nom­ena, thus defeat­ing the acqui­es­cent accep­tance of inequal­ity, attrib­uted to the nat­ural order of things.

Is it not pos­si­ble to ven­ture fur­ther? Why not attempt to estab­lish a com­pletely new method of inves­ti­ga­tion, that has repro­duc­tion as its epi­cen­ter, its qual­ity, in which com­modi­ties and their pro­duc­tion result in some sub­or­di­nate way, objects of an exter­nal strat­egy; and inside this grid inter­pret the strug­gles, find again the real sub­jects, inter­ests, the same recent his­tory of the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal and of its insti­tu­tions? Is it too much to pro­pose a scale of val­ues, even in research, less sub­or­di­nated to the val­ues of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion (and I insist that it is already a lot to have even changed the com­po­si­tion of the field of inves­ti­ga­tion by inter­weav­ing the prob­lem of reproduction)?

A woman-science that artic­u­lates itself on (being directly from) an imposed and not cho­sen ter­rain, that is the ter­rain of repro­duc­tion – might that there­fore be a sub­or­di­nate science?

Two con­sid­er­a­tions:

    Even though it has been imposed as a mode of dom­i­na­tion, even though it sub­sists as a form of exploita­tion, even though it has been deval­ued, unpaid, “nat­u­rally” attrib­uted to our sex, repro­duc­tion, in the broader sense of the word, is in real­ity the cen­tral axis of a world of val­ues to recon­sider, plac­ing them in the sub­or­di­nate, direct­ing all work for the pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties. It may be a con­sid­er­a­tion of plain com­mon sense, but then plainly we speak of work time and free time, we speak of peace and ecol­ogy, from the old poor, we speak of the new poor, of unem­ploy­ment, of famine.
    In the sec­ond place, if it is true of the world in which we live that this is not the case, that work for the sake of work­ing seems to be the only form of social and per­sonal real­iza­tion, and the mea­sure­ment of exist­ing passes through the mea­sure­ment of exis­tence or at least of earn­ing a wage, and, sub­se­quently, the amount of that wage (“Marx was right, but that doesn’t suit me – and then, until when?”), it is not clear why, exactly, in a time in which salaries have the ten­dency to shrink and work to dis­ap­pear, for both women and men, we can’t see a glimpse of a chance to change our point of view.

But I don’t want to cast aside other bud­ding ideas that need the soil of col­lec­tive debate to grow. In every case, the very exis­tence of this group of women-feminists-researchers, of a new rig­or­ous and effec­tive style, requires the assump­tion of a new point of view, mark­ing a point of no return.

All women, researchers, teach­ers, who work on a topic con­cern­ing women, and thus on an issue that directly con­cerns them, have often seen, at some time or another, their results affected by deri­sion, or else by invis­i­bil­ity. Already the fact of “try­ing to remain in touch with our sim­i­lar­i­ties in the world” (see Sot­toso­pra [Upside Down], More Women Than Men) “by weav­ing a web of pref­er­en­tial rela­tion­ships between women, where the expe­ri­ence asso­ci­ated with being a woman becomes stronger in mutual recog­ni­tion by invent­ing ways to trans­late it into social real­ity,” is a mode of exist­ing and cre­at­ing the strength to impose their own ideas. When, then, this also serves to invent new tools with which to under­stand and ana­lyze the real­ity that sur­rounds us, and from this per­haps the strength and courage to change it, we get the impres­sion that some­thing is mov­ing in the right direc­tion, that con­crete pos­si­bil­i­ties reopen.

—Trans­lated by Anna Culbertson

Alisa Del Re is associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Padova.

  • 1I would like to thank Andrea Righi for his invalu­able advice; any errors in trans­la­tion are my sole respon­si­bil­ity. All notes are the translator’s.
  • 2The authors of The Sex of Work use “actives” in this case to refer to the four out of ten work­ers that are women, and as such, are “lost” or not accounted for out­side of the domes­tic sphere. The eco­nomic term “active pop­u­la­tion” refers to all per­sons legally able to per­form work, and cor­re­sponds to a country’s labor supply.