Social and Sexual Contract Theory
In Carole Pateman’s piece, The Sexual Contract, she argues that social contract theory is interlinked with what she terms the “sexual contract”, but is a facet of contract theory that has generally been ignored or erased. If the social contract is the initial contract that is the basis for the society in which we live, the sexual contract is the contract that cemented gender hierarchies within patriarchal society. While patriarchal society is formed into two “spheres”, the public and the private, social contract theory pays attention only to the public sphere of civil freedom and deems the private sphere irrelevant. In the formation of the social contract, the public sphere was given priority over the private as a form of gender segregation, and allowed for the ability to keep women away from the freedoms allowed in the public sphere. The importance and attention given to the public sphere over the private in social contract theory exaggerates patriarchal gender dynamics; the private sphere is considered irrelevant because women’s contributions to the formation of society are considered so next to those of men. The private sphere is easily ignored - and as a result, so are women. While men are the leaders of the public, civic sphere, the female leaders the private sphere - who contribute hugely in domestic and emotional labor - are ignored in order to maintain patriarchal systems of oppression. While women are seen as bound to the private sphere, men’s authority over the public sphere also translates to that of the private when he seems necessary - the freedom that men are given within the public sphere extends to the private sphere, but the same is not true for women within the private sphere.
In order to understand the dynamics of gender in the public and private spheres, one could look all the way back to Greek mythology. The story of Antigone, which was adapted into a tragic play by Sophocles, explores the boundaries between the public and private spheres. Antigone, a woman bound to the restraints of the private sphere, breaks the boundaries and enters into the public, civic sphere in order to fight for a proper burial for her brother Polynices, who is considered a traitor to the city of Thebes and is therefore not allowed to be mourned or given a burial. The boundary breaking of Antigone does not come without the irony that the express purpose of her civil disobedience within the public sphere is to reclaim her leadership of the private - the burial of her family is her responsibility within the private sphere, which is being taken away by the king’s leadership of the civic sphere. Antigone’s inability to bury her brother due to the king’s orders illustrates well the idea that the public sphere has overarching authority over the private, due the sexual contract that allows for the suppression of women and prevents them from accessing the freedom of “individuals” that is afforded within the public sphere. In a more contemporary context, boundary bending between the public and private spheres are also expressed through Wycherley’s The Country Wife, in which every male figure exerts dominance over their wives, while Horner masquerades as impotent to gain their trust and become a suitable chaperone for their wives - infiltrating the domestic sphere in order to take advantage of women and their inability to access the sexual and social freedom afforded to him as a man, while simultaneously giving up some of his patriarchal power in the public sphere by identifying himself as a eunuch.
According to Pateman, “the two spheres of society are at once separate and inseparable”, where social contract theory ignores the existence of the private sphere and of the sexual contract, deeming it irrelevant to civil society. The reality is that in a patriarchal society, those who deem the private sphere irrelevant are men who benefit from the freedoms afforded to them within patriarchy, despite the fact that public and private spheres have been completely intertwined from the beginning of the social contract.