The reality of patriarchal bargain

Deniz Kandiyoti coined the term “patriarchal bargain” in her 1988 article, “Bargaining with Patriarchy.” The term refers to a woman’s decision to conform to the demands of patriarchy in order to gain some benefit, be that financial, psychological/emotional, or social. Patriarchal bargains can take different forms, given that women’s experiences vary significantly due to differences in race, socioeconomic class, religion, etc. However, no matter her life circumstances or structural location, every woman is expected to be any combination of three things: 1) sweet/childlike, 2) sexy, and/or 3) motherly. Adherence to these potentially contradictory expectations is compulsory under patriarchy, and because of the realities of double-binds (damned if you do, damned if you don’t) for members of oppressed groups, conformity to one or all of these standards can bring both patriarchal sanction and reward for women. In fact, the rewards that individual women may reap from patriarchal bargains function as sanctions for women as a class. One problem with patriarchal bargains is that they pressure women into internalizing patriarchal ideologies and, thus, either knowingly or unknowingly recreating patriarchy every day. Even if some of these bargains are “easy” for women to make- even if they do not bring immediate harm to women’s own lives or if they make an individual woman’s life easier in the short term- it reinforces a system of oppression for all women. There is an individual gain, but a collective loss.

At this point it is worth noting that there is always the option not to engage in patriarchal bargains, but the consequences for this can be severe. Depending on a woman’s situation, her refusal to bargain could result in being ignored, being harassed, or even being physically assaulted. Girls learn quickly that to not “play the game” means that they will be overlooked or ostracized. The decision to conform is not always a strategic “bargain,” but rather it can be a reaction to the misconception that patriarchy is natural and inevitable.

For women who are in an unfavorable socioeconomic situation, the stakes of a patriarchal bargain can be extreme. For these women, patriarchal bargains are less about “getting by” and more about survival. It is no coincidence that so many women in the sex industry – prostitution, stripping, pornography, etc – cite financial need as a primary reason for their “choice” to enter the industry. These industries consider a woman to be just another commodity to be bought and sold in our patriarchal and capitalistic society. The industry disregards her humanity and puts a price tag on her body. It is telling that although women who enter the sex industry often express a sense of initial (personal) empowerment, over time their experience often changes. As sociologist Bernadette Barton found in her study of exotic dancers, “As dancers accumulated months, and sometimes years, working in topless bars and peep shows, they began to experience ill effects from their time in the clubs. Their original feelings of elation transformed into anger, disappointment, and disgust.” i As Beatrice, one dancer in the study, remarked:

“Men are such takers of sexual energy. When I’m there, I expect that; that’s what the job is about. I’m giving a side of my sexuality to these men. That’s what they are paying me to do is to dance with them, and be naked with them. They get some sort of fix or gratification, and I’m constantly giving that. Sometimes it’s sexual, sometimes it’s more motherly, but I always feel like I’m giving, giving, giving. I’m receiving money for it, but I wonder if it’s worth the trade-off. I think I’m worth more than what I make there.” ii

The bargain can offer rewards, but it comes at a price. As a society we often place blame on the women in the industry for their decision without looking critically at the larger structure in which this emerges an option for them in the first place.

Many of us buy into the sugarcoated version of the sex industry- that strippers, prostituted women, and porn stars are simply sexually empowered women who happily sell sex (and sexual access to their bodies) to (mostly male) clients. This is their marketing, not the reality. Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, made this explicit in an interview with the Mars Society: “Empowerment is not about working in an industry that demands that you are anally, vaginally and orally penetrated by men who scream in your face that you are a dirty slut.” Women who enter the sex industry are not the ones we should be criticizing; we should be criticizing the people (mostly men) who purchase their bodies and create the demand for sexually available, dehumanized sexual objects. A society in which there is a thriving clientele for an entire class of people who are dehumanized as sexual commodities is morally bankrupt.

As a culture we too often “other” the women in the sex industry and, as a result, the “everyday” woman may seem very different from a woman in the sex industry. But every woman is confronted with the pressures to engage in patriarchal bargains on a daily basis. Her financial survival may not depend on selling access to her body, but her life will be easier if she conforms to patriarchy’s standards of beauty, dress, and behavior. Societal expectations for women are regularly enforced, and even the most fervent of feminists find it difficult to escape them. In her article “Imagine My Surprise,” Ellen Neuborne describes her disbelief when her male editor tried to intimidate her into shutting up, and she did. She backed down and apologized. Neuborne, raised by feminist parents and a strong feminist herself, realized in that moment that even she had not escaped the “programming” of society. The everyday woman might not believe herself to be bargaining with patriarchy, but the truth is, any time she feels she has to wear makeup, has to be polite to rude men, has to keep her partner sexually satiated at all times, has to downplay her strengths, or has to be generally “ladylike,” that is patriarchal pressure, and no woman is immune.

For women who are either born with or achieve vast amounts of wealth and status, patriarchal bargaining may look different. Their relative financial privilege may shield them from the some of the most brutal consequences of patriarchy, but it cannot shield them from its critical eye. Actresses, politicians, and other culturally prominent women are relentlessly picked apart by the masses on the basis of their appearance and their behavior. As a society, we applaud women who embody the features of patriarchy’s ideal woman, so for a woman to mold herself to those standards can be a strategic move to advance her own career.

We can see this in how female celebrities present themselves, especially as they “age out” out of Hollywood. While there is pressure on all people in the public eye to look good, for women it is imperative and many times their salary depends on it. The prevalence of plastic surgery shows that woman, especially in the public eye, feel pressure to be eternally youthful in order to remain relevant. They can amp up their sexuality/femininity in order to boost their career. The consequences of their bargain are not the same as women in a more precarious situation, but they still exist. Even if a woman perfectly conforms to patriarchal standards and is rewarded for it, it comes at the cost of never being taken as seriously as we take men. She is a sex object first, and her achievements will always come second.

When looking at the ways that women bargain with patriarchy, it’s easy to start to blame the women for their “choices.” It is true that patriarchal bargaining is a choice, but it’s important to place those choices in the larger context of patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism. To describe them as “choices” partially distorts the meaning in this context because it suggests that women have full freedom from patriarchal pressures. As Meagan Tyler explains in her article “No, feminism is not about choice,” “Yes, we make choices, but these are shaped and constrained by the unequal conditions in which we live.” So while it is important to discuss the ways in which women conform to work within patriarchy instead of challenging it, it is equally important to remember that women wouldn’t even be in the position to make these bargains were it not for our socially constructed world. We can’t just tell the sex worker to stop being sold, or the “average” woman to stop caring about patriarchal beauty standards, or celebrities to stop posing nude. We need to critically examine the culture that celebrates and rewards these choices so that we can change our belief systems rather than expect women in these positions to do all the legwork of dismantling patriarchy at their own personal expense. And we need to hold men, who reap the collective benefit of the oppression of woman as a class, accountable for their own acts of commission and omission that reproduce patriarchal inequality.

i pps. 595-596. Barton, Bernadette. 2002. Dancing on the Mobius Strip: Challenging the Sex War Paradigm. Gender & Society, Vol. 16: 585-602. ii p. 597, ibid.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Join the Conversation