International Women's Day

Hofmann and Moreno on Intimate Economies

Susanne Hofmann and Adi Moreno, editors of Intimate Economies: Bodies, Sexualities, and Emotions on the Global Market, discuss intimate economies in the context of sexism, racism and xenophobia.

In the past months we have seen intensifying trends towards an acceptance of sexism, racism, and xenophobia in the United States and Europe. Movements and organizations that promote “family values,” pro-natalism, and hetero-normativity receive extensive media attention, official approval, and governmental financial resources. Within this social climate of hostility toward women’s rights, sexual difference, and diversity, it is more important than ever to talk back and support the struggles of intimate laborers, who utilize their sexuality, bodies, and emotions to generate income.

In the face of limited access to well-paid work opportunities, women all over the world resort to intimate labor as one option to get ahead in life and improve their livelihoods. Often, women combine their search for more and better-paid work opportunities with migration to rich countries where they can access higher wages. However, rigid border enforcement and immigration regimes have in recent years complicated women’s international mobility considerably, exposing many to dangerous journeys and reliance on migration facilitators. While public debates focus on the vulnerability of women who migrate, the responsibilities of the state and the role of capitalist practices are often obscured.

Despite trajectories of political mobilization, intimate workers have repeatedly been ignored by governments and received little societal support. This year, for instance, sex workers were included for the first time in the International Women’s Day demonstration in Argentina. They joined the women’s strike on the 8th of March in Buenos Aires to denounce and protest their continuous criminalization, stigmatization, and prosecution. The women refused to work on that day in order to demand labor rights from the state. They wanted to put an end to working in secrecy and request a legal framework that would allow them to access rights.

In light of current debates around the banning of reproductive commerce in many countries across the Global South, intimate laborers who provide reproductive services have had difficulties making their demands for the protection of their rights heard. The experiences and reasoning of women involved in reproductive commerce continue to be excluded from public debate, and therefore the meaning and values of trade in gestation, gametes, and reproductive means remain uncontested. The needs and rights of reproductive workers are currently not seriously being addressed; and, as a result, exploitation, harm, and perilous practices are common.

With many political measures currently directed toward stopping support for feminist organizations worldwide (organizations that provide women with access to effective and affordable birth control among other services), it is clear that women’s reproductive rights are currently being fiercely contested again. Just like the rights to contraception and safe abortions, reproductive services should be viewed from the vantage point of women who provide such services. Therefore, an agenda that resists stigmatizing intimate laborers, while paying attention to the harm and risk that are often involved in intimate markets, seems more relevant than ever.

Our edited collection Intimate Economies: Bodies, Emotions and Sexualities on the Global Market provides examples of gendered ways of using sexual, affective, and bodily capacities to achieve personal socio-economic advancement. In conjunction with persisting economic inequalities between the Global North and South, intimate economies have expanded throughout the globe, but especially in contact zones, in which actors from economically unequal backgrounds meet (such as international borders, tourism locations, or biomedical laboratories).

The contributions to this book exhibit the ambivalences of placing one’s intimate capacities on the market. Whilst the intimate economy has become a major economic niche for workers from the Global South, the bodies and affective qualities of intimate workers become resources for the self-actualization of affluent elites, be it through the enjoyment of sexual services or the provision of babies for purchase.

Our collection is not about deciding or arguing over whether or not to commercialize intimate aspects of oneself is right or wrong. Rather, our book seeks to foreground the perspectives of people who take part in markets for intimate and embodied trade. From their accounts we can learn in what ways technologies, legal regulations, and social contexts matter to the lived experiences of people involved in intimate work. We can also learn about what we can do to help improve their labor conditions. Instead of focusing on combatting intimate economies, it matters that we respect intimate laborers, value their work, contribute to end societal stigma against them, and be reliable long-term allies in their fight to secure rights to safety at work, bodily integrity, and secure migration routes.

Susanne Hofmann is currently guest professor at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies (IMIS) at the University of Osnabrück. Her research explores training schemes on human trafficking prevention in Brazil and Mexico.

Adi Moreno is a research fellow at the Haifa Feminist Institute. Her research interests involve family practices, assisted reproduction markets and non-normative forms of parenting in the Israeli LGBT community.