In this excerpt from This Sex, Irigaray draws on the work of Karl Marx and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss to explain the commodification of women in “our” society. Irigaray begins with the statement that “The society we know, our own culture, is based upon the exchange of women” (799). According to Levi-Strauss, the importance of this exchange is due to the fact that women are “scare [commodities]… essential to the survival of the group,” scarce in spite of their numbers because of the “polygamous tendencies” of men and the fact that not all women are equally desirable (799). However, Irigaray questions this judgment, asking why men could not be exchanged by women based on the same criteria. In answer to this, she writes that all “productive work… recognized, valued, and rewarded” in a patriarchal society is regarded as men’s business—including the “production” and exchange of women, which is perpetrated by men and used to benefit relations between them (799-800). Thus “hom(m)o-sexuality is played out through the bodies of women… and heterosexuality has been up to now just an alibi for the smooth workings of man’s relations with himself, of relations among men” (800). In other words, men are an endogamous group, each remaining within his own “family, tribe, or clan” and forming alliances through the exchange of women, who as exogamous “other[s]… foreign to the social order,” cannot participate in these exchanges, but instead are exchanged (800).
Continuing, Irigaray analyzes the position of women in male-dominated societies through a Marxist lens, writing that the system of organizing society by (fathers’) proper names is a basic form of the subordination of “nature” to “labor” and translation of “nature” into use value and exchange value that Marx believed characterized capitalism (800-1). In this system, men exploit the women without providing compensation, because such compensation would “shatter” the male monopoly over the proper name and the power it symbolizes (801). In Marx’s words, men are therefore “producer-subjects” who determine the value of women and exchange them, and women are “commodity-objects” relegated to a passive role in the exchange process (801). Additionally, since capitalist “wealth” favors accumulation of objects over their intrinsic usefulness, a woman’s value is determined by something extrinsic to herself—an exchange value in “gold or phalluses” applied to her because she is “a product of man’s ‘labor’” (801-2). “[W]omen are thus two things at once: utilitarian objects and bearers of value,” split into a “matter-body” and an intangible “envelope” of “value” (802). Because the “value” of a woman has nothing to do with anything intrinsic to herself, she becomes “a mirror of value of and for man,” alienated from her own body, and becomes “the material alibi” used to facilitate relations between men. Without at least two men to “invest (in) her,” a woman can have no value. In short, women are fetish-objects (802-6).
From here, Irigaray discusses the three roles available to women in this system of value: mother, virgin, and prostitute (807-8). Defining male sexuality as the desire to appropriate nature and “make it (re)produce,” Irigaray compares man’s relations with women to his relations with the “natural” (807). It is the need to “transcend” nature and subordinate it to technology that therefore governs man’s relationship with women. It follows that the mother, representative of “productive nature,” is subject to the control of the father, “marked” with his name and “enclosed in his house,” excluded from exchange among men (807). In contrast, the virginal woman is “pure exchange value,” having no existence of her own beyond that “envelope” of intangible possibility determined by men. Once defloration destroys that envelope, she enters into the realm of the mother and is thus associated with the natural. She is “removed from exchange,” converted into pure use value (807-8). Finally, the prostitute has both exchange value and use value. It is her use that is exchanged. According to Irigaray, her “nature” is seen as “used up,” therefore rendering her an appropriate object of exchange among men (808). In all of these roles, women are the objects of men’s pleasure and have no right to their own (808).
In conclusion, Irigaray suggests that the division of women into “natural” bodies and intangible bodies of male-imposed “value” leaves them no voice of their own. They are “objects” who “mimic” the language of men that defines them (809). Sacrificing access both “to speech and even to animality” to be part of a society that commodifies them, they are compensated only through oppression and “branding” with the proper name of the father (810). Even men, the seeming beneficiaries of this system, are reduced to “the average productivity of their labor” by it (810). Therefore, she suggests women construct a new system, contrary to the current “phallocratic” one, “socializing in a different way the relation to nature, matter, the body, language, and desire” (811).