The Commodification and Exploitation of Women: From the Core to the Periphery in Relation to the United States and Thailand

By Kaydee Gilson

Social

Women

Abstract


In a world where the sexual exploitation of women remains commonplace, capitalism and gender inequity perpetuate a progressively inept society. In a world system where the governments of both Thailand and the United States rely on capitalistic structures, they engage in practices that display a facade of gender equality, positivity, and promotion. On the surface, these actions attempt to confront the overt male gaze; however, these are nothing more than thinly veiled attempts to control the hegemonic narrative surrounding sexual culture. This piece will explore how the United States and Thailand engage in alienation and power tactics to commodify and exploit women to maintain sexually oppressive societies. Additionally, this piece will explore Habermas’ lifeworld to better understand how patriarchy, ethnicity, and capitalism are at the core of gender inequality domestically and globally.

“Welcome to the land of smiles” where Thai women are forced into Thailand’s rampant sex industry, objectified by the patriarchy, and used as a tourist advertisement (Lu, 2013). Similarly, in the United States, American women are sexually exploited, sold by the media, and controlled by capitalism which continues to sustain gender inequality. Thailand’s government portrays a facade that they are sex positive and comfortable with one’s sexuality through the advertisement of contraceptives, while in reality the only true beneficiary is the white, cisgender, male tourist. Alternatively, in the United States, contraceptive advertising, and sexuality in general, are met with a more adversarial approach. The United States Government does not explicitly promote contraceptives because they fear that would lead to a more sexualized society (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2010). Although both countries take a drastically different approach to contraception, both ultimately result in the oppression and unequal treatment of women. In this paper, I will examine the commodification and exploitation of women in both the United States and Thailand. The analysis will include how the patriarchy and capitalism are at the core of gender inequality in both countries. I will then connect the key critical theory concepts of alienation and power to Habermas’ idea of the lifeworld.

Argument Discussion

Case Study: Thailand (The Periphery)

In Thailand, a harsh reality of the exploitation of women is hidden beneath misleading signs of equality. According to Chia (2016a), women make up a majority of the largest export industries, have been able to own land for years, and are receiving more PhDs compared to Thai men. Thailand even elected a female prime minister, but only because she ran on the platform that her brother would make all the important decisions (Chia, 2016a). Thai women complete the beautiful and friendly face that Thailand wants to portray, but underneath the identity of “Thainess,” (Chia, 2016b) lies the commodification of millions of feminized sex workers (Lu, 2013). Women are forced to act as sex workers often due to poverty and the fact that the Thai government is more focused on bringing male tourists to the country and pleasing Thai men than they are about creating equal opportunity and improving the lives of women (Lu, 2013). It is easy to believe the facade that Thailand portrays, but the underlying truth is harmful and disturbing. For example, in Thailand, it is not uncommon to have condoms handed out freely in restaurants, hotels, traffic stops, etc., and some praise the country for their “family planning success” (Frazer, 1992). In reality, these “progressive” campaigns are not intended for mutual benefit.

What many fail to see is the true reason for the intense contraception advertising is the rising rates of HIV/AIDS affecting the nation’s sex workers (Lu, 2013). Contraceptive advertising in Thailand is not for women, positive sexual exploration, or family planning––it is to save men from contracting HIV/AIDS from the women of whom they take advantage. Thailand’s government is focused on profit, so they have to keep upper and middle-class, cisgender, white males coming to “the world’s top destination for sex tourism, where (white) men can live out their Orientalist fantasies” in order to promote “economic growth” (Lu, 2013). This entire idea embodies the power structures established by the male gaze as explained by Simpson, “The male gaze involves men gazing upon women, and the tourist gaze implies tourists gazing upon the exotic Other; within the context of sex tourism which involves Western male tourists gazing and consuming the ‘inferior’ exotic female Other (creating the male tourist gaze)” (27). The privileged male tourist gaze is powerful, and it is the reason that Thailand has spaces for male tourists to consume and commodify Thai women. The United States is similar to Thailand in the way that they exploit and commodify women and their bodies to portray an image of equality in order to mask the patriarchy and male dominance at its finest.

Case Study: From the Core to the Periphery

In the United States, capitalism is at the core of gender inequality. Like Thailand, progress has been made for women in the United States. Women are earning more higher education degrees than men, make up half of the United States workforce, and the number of women in leadership roles and that hold office is growing (Bush, 2016). Although there is progress, the capitalistic society in which we live makes sure that women stay subordinate to men. One way women remain subordinate to men is by commodifying women in advertising due to the idea that “sex sells” (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2010). This is the same reason that the pornography industry is large and rape culture is ever present, because capitalism and the male gaze make it easy to view women as only a commodity for profit, both in terms of monetary value and male egotistical and sexual fulfillment. Because of the capitalist profit motive, “When capitalism is the favored social construct, sexuality is shaped and controlled and exploited and repressed by capitalism” (MacKinnon, 1989, p. 319). Ultimately, the commodification and exploitation of women results in their inevitable suppression at the bottom of the hierarchy, which allows the capitalist power structures to continue.

An interesting paradox that exists is the fact that objectifying women through sexual exploitation is acceptable in the name of capitalism, but advertising about contraception and sexual exploration is not widely accepted in the United States. The United States has largely adopted an abstinence only approach for fear that teaching about contraception will make society “sexually active at a younger age” (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2010). This leads to a society that is uncomfortable and unwilling to engage in sexual education and the exploring of sexuality, which forces the topic to become taboo. Women are then forced into submissive inferiority to men, and this is further perpetuated by the power men have because of patriarchal constructs such as the male gaze, which leads to the feeling of internalized shame and guilt. Thus, women then internalize these constructs and comply with satisfying men’s desires (Simpson, 26). “Men grow up to desire women as objects due to media advertising, capitalism, porn, and their dominant place in society” (MacKinnon, 1989). False consciousness then leads to embracing their own oppression. When this hierarchy between men and women exists, “it is also that which maintains and defines male supremacy as a political system” (MacKinnon, 1989, p. 325).

According to Wallerstein, in world systems theory, the United States is considered part of the “core” as a world power, while Thailand is considered part of the ‘“periphery”’ because it is economically deprived of the world’s wealth. The hegemonic ideology that exists in the United States practices spreads to the periphery. As mentioned earlier, many Thai women are driven to sex work due to poverty and economic instability, because Thailand’s government does not have the resources they need to help all of their people. Instead of focusing on improving living conditions, they are focused on increasing tourism spending. This is an example of how the core has affected the periphery by reinforcing the patriarchal capitalist and racist factors of the United States societal structure. The focus has to be on monetizing off of Thailand’s natural resources, including its female population, rather than addressing the fact that tourism further exploits Thai women. In a globalized economy run through the diktat of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, the core devours the low-skilled, labor-intensive production and extraction of raw materials in the world’s periphery. These raw materials are the feminized bodies of the Thai, labor-intensive, sex industry (Wallerstein, 2004).

Critical Theory Concepts

Power

Brookfield (2005) describes power as being “omnipresent in human existence” (p. 46). We do not have an option to be part of a power structure or not because “power is already there” (Foucault, 1980, as cited in Brookfield, 2005, p. 46). Society is organized and controlled by the existing power structures, and these structures “lull people into submission to the dominant order, primarily through its organs of ideological manipulation” (p. 119). Men dominate and control society and therefore have power over women, and they use their power to keep women in the place society has constructed for them. In both countries examined throughout this piece, men control the State and assign meaning to women and decide how a woman will act, look, and navigate through life. Women are commodified and viewed only in ways that are profitable for men. It is easy to think that women have a choice––“why don’t they just say no?” This is a privileged way of thinking because women are not granted that power. They do not get to choose when the system has already chosen for them, and they do not get to be in control when the hegemonic power structures constantly commodify and exploit them. MacKinnon (1983) writes:

This defines our task not only because male dominance is perhaps the most pervasive and tenacious system of power in history, but because it is metaphysically nearly perfect. Its point of view is the standard for point-of-viewlessness, its particularity the meaning of universality. Its force is exercised as consent, its authority as participation, its supremacy as the paradigm of order, its control as the definition of legitimacy. Feminism claims the voice of women’s silence, the sexuality of our eroticized desexualization, the fullness of “lack,” the centrality of our marginality and exclusion, the public nature of privacy, the presence of our absence (p. 638-639).

MacKinnon accurately describes this frustrating power structure that exists between males and females by describing how women automatically lack power, since “power is already there,” but it is rendered invisible in a patriarchal system (MacKinnon, 1983). Because women have to try to gain equality, claim the voice of silence, explain our sexuality, overcome the concept of lacking and enough, it proves that the men have power. This idea is also explained through the definition of the male gaze in which “men look, [and] women are looked at” (Mulvey, 1975, as cited in Simpson, 2013, p. 26). Because men have the ability to gaze, the power is in their hands. This all suggests to women that they are inferior, and according to dominance theory, the only way out is to overcome the existing power dynamics.

Alienation

Alienation can be defined as the idea that people are “estranged” from themselves and no longer able to have control of their lives because of the profit-driven basis of capitalism (Brookfield, 2005, p.165). When women are commodified and exploited at the hands of the patriarchy, they are truly alienated from themselves and their true essence. Brookfield explains that “the more the worker expends himself in work, the more powerful becomes the world of objects which he creates in face of himself, the poorer he becomes in his inner life, and the less he belongs to himself” (Marx, 1961, as cited in Brookfield, 2005, p. 154). This explains the fact that women no longer belong to themselves or have full control over their self, acts, and decisions because they are forced to participate in order to survive in the globalized world. For example, sex workers in Thailand have limited options and are ultimately used as the means to an end in creating economic growth. In the United States, women are socialized to conform in order to survive and advance and theoretically build a better life for themselves, but conformity means alienating one from oneself. Women become objects in a world that only wants to sell their bodies, labor, and image, as raw materials, to a male dominant society. Fromm recognized that “women must be liberated from patriarchal domination,” but capitalism, enmeshed with patriarchy, makes sure that women are not able to gain enough power to threaten the existing system (Fromm 1976, as cited in Brookfield, 2005, p. 150).

The Lifeworld

According to Habermas as cited in Brookfield (2005), the lifeworld is “the clusters of preconscious understandings that structure how we see the world and communicate our understanding to others” (p. 220). I understand the lifeworld as a collection of all of our lived experiences and knowledge that pre-consciously decide our actions and how we navigate through life. Everyone’s lifeworld is different, and it constantly evolves and changes as people have new experiences. It is all about understanding one’s true self and essence and why we make certain decisions. Because of power and alienation, male dominance has a place in everyone’s lifeworld. Therefore, everyone is allowing a male dominant, capitalistic ethic to continue the commodification and exploitation of women, and their bodies, under the control of society. When women come to unveil their lifeworld, they begin to see how men exercise their power across society, and when women challenge this lifeworld by choosing not to be complacent, their lifeworld might finally change. “The lifeworld [is] a potentially emancipatory hedge against the swamping of life by the systems of money and power,” and because of this, we need women and feminism making their way to the core of everyone’s lifeworld (p. 317). Women then begin to realize that we are allowing men to make our choices, even in matters like contraception. Further, we realize that men should not have this power, and in the process of self-liberation, we can push back. Social transformation begins with understanding and recognizing experiences that can change and decolonize one’s lifeworld. Thus the process of self-liberation, whether en masse or as one consciousness at a time, becomes fundamental.

Conclusion

The globalized commodification and exploitation of women is ultimately caused by the patriarchal power structures that thrive off of a capitalistic world system. Since male dominance equals power, through constructs such as the patriarchy and male gaze, men get to “write the rules” and control women’s lives. Women, whether in the United States, in Thailand, or globally are forced to conform and “play by the rules” because they have no their lifeworld that already exists to oppress them.

Real and powerful change can start by engaging in conversations through the Habermasian public sphere. As Brookfield explains, “The public sphere is the civic space or “commons” in which adults come together to debate and decide their response to shared issues and problems” (p. 230). When women join the conversation, share their ideas, and participate in the public sphere, and other parties actually listen, each participants’ lifeworld begins to unveil and reflect multiple consciousness. A more female-centered lifeworld is a path to liberation and a more equal world. Without it, the future looks as bleak as the ending sentence of Freud’s seminal work on Civilization and its Discontents, “The other of the two ‘Heavenly Powers,’ eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary [Thanatos]. But who can foresee with what success and with what result?” Thanatos might as well represent toxic masculinity.

References


Kaydee

Kaydee Gilson

Author Major

Marketing & Applied Computing

Author Hometown

Price, Utah

About the Author

Outside of working in marketing at a local mortgage company, Kaydee spends the majority of her time as a freelance UI/UX and graphic designer, and is involved with student government on campus in the roles of Presidential Ambassador and ASW Vice President. She is very passionate about her volunteer position as a Steering Committee Member for Utah’s Human Rights Campaign branch. Kaydee fell in love with traveling when she took a May Term trip to Europe during her sophomore year, and besides traveling, also enjoys photography, baking, and playing golf.

As a business major, most of Kaydee’s coursework is project-based. She was excited when the opportunity arose to challenge herself by taking a Critical Theory course in the Justice Studies department, which in turn sparked this as Kaydee’s first research project.