23 November 2015
Carole Pateman’s 1988 book The Sexual Contract offered a penetrating version of feminist critique aimed at one of the most treasured and canonical works of critical and political theory: the social contract. Social contract theory outlines the idea that most of our lives work and revolve around the making and following of various “contracts” whether they are formal or informal. This can be thought of in the way that America is conceived to function by a sort of “freedom contract” known as the United States Constitution. Other popular contracts include the citizenship, employment and marriage contract, which all become central in various cultures, times and ways of life. Pateman does not decline the reality of contract theory, but bites at the single sided way it can be perceived, saying, “...today, invariably, only half the story is told. We hear an enormous amount about the social contract; a deep silence is maintained about the sexual contract.” (Pateman 1)
The sexual contract illustrates the way in which the social contract is gendered and becomes a blueprint for patriarchal domination. In contrast to the false universalism classic contract theory claims, she argues it saturates contemporary society with disparate relationships of subordination and domination; the systematic exclusion of women and this exclusion being the foundation of the political fiction of property in one’s person. Charles W. Mills’s 1997 book The Racial Contract is a direct extension of Pateman’s critique, furthering the argument to the fact of racial exclusion as well as gender exclusion. I believe this argument could be furthered even more to other minorities and subcultures such as class exclusion.
Dominance and subordination is understood by Pateman on the terms of mastery and subjection. Women’s subordination is conceived mainly as the conditioning of being subjected to and a subject (or object) of the direct command of an individual man; creating a master/subject relation. The contracts in question involve the property of the person, including the wage-labor contract, marriage contract, and what Pateman calls the “surrogate motherhood” contract and the “prostitution contract.” Each of these are concerned with the commodities a woman offers whether they be sexual, gestational or elsewhere, and continues to make the female into a material of transaction. Master/subject relations in these ways function as the boss over the worker, the husband over the wife, the pimp over his prostitutes, and so on. The commodification of the woman is what makes her the object in social contract theory.