Archives de Tag: Elizabeth Bernstein

Paradoxes of Neoliberalism is a video by the Barnard Center for Research on Women, featuring interviews with Sealing Cheng, Lisa Duggan, Dean Spade, Elizabeth Bernstein, Miranda Joseph, Sandra K. Soto, Teresa Gowan, and Kate Bedford. As Professor Cheng describes in the video’s opening sequence, the economics and politics of neoliberalism are riddled with paradoxes and contradictions. Commentators draw on their research to focus on three central paradoxes of neoliberalism: its combination of emphasis on value-free economics and intensive moral regulation, its uneven distribution of risk and security, and its simultaneous creation of heightened social inequalities and intensified human rights discourses and humanitarian interventions. They trace these contradictions across domains ranging from war and peace to investment and trade to financial markets to prevailing understandings of empowerment and freedom. Recorded Fall 2012.

Paradoxes of Neoliberalism was published in issue 11.1-11.2 of The Scholar & Feminist Online, “Gender, Justice, and Neoliberal Transformations.” See the entire issue at for additional resources.

For modern-day abolitionists, the dichotomy between slavery and freedom poses a way of addressing the ravages of neoliberalism that effectively locates all social harm outside of the institutions of corporate capitalism and the state apparatus. In this way, the masculinist institutions of big business, the state, and the police are reconfigured as allies and saviors, rather than enemies, of unskilled migrant workers, and the responsibility for slavery is shifted from structural factors and dominant institutions onto individual, deviant men: foreign brown men (as in the White Slave trade of centuries past) or even more remarkably, African American men living in the inner city.

Elizabeth BERNSTEIN, “the sexual politics of the new abolitionnism”, in Differences : a journal of feminist cultural studies, 18/3, 2007, p. 144

The ideological convergence between contemporary evangelicals and many feminists on this point stands in stark and ironic contrast to the work of feminist activists within a rather different social justice arena where the tropes of “modern day slavery” and “abolitionism” also prevail: activism against the contemporary prison-industrial complex. Pointing to the direct historical connections between the u.s. institutions of race-based, chattel slavery, convict loan programs, and the forced labor that occurs in contemporary prisons, feminists who are engaged in the prison-abolition movement (predominantly feminists of color who link their work explicitly to an anticapitalist and anti-imperialist agenda) argue that it is the prison system, not prostitution, that is paramount to slavery.25 Yet the efforts of contemporary antitrafficking activists have relied upon strategies of incarceration as their chief tool of “justice,” ensuring that increasing numbers of men and women of color who participate in the street-based sexual economy will find themselves there, precisely under the guise of being delivered out of slavery into freedom.

Elizabeth BERNSTEIN, “the sexual politics of the new abolitionnism”, in Differences : a journal of feminist cultural studies, 18/3, 2007, p. 143

I situate these new-abolitionist politics in terms of a neoliberal (rather than a traditionalist) sexual agenda, one that locates social problems in deviant individuals rather than mainstream institutions, that seeks social remedies through criminal justice interventions rather than through a redistributive welfare state, and that advocates for the beneficence of the privileged rather than the empowerment of the oppressed.

Elizabeth BERNSTEIN, “the sexual politics of the new abolitionnism”, in Differences : a journal of feminist cultural studies, 18/3, 2007, p. 137


In origin as well as in consequence, Sweden’s landmark legislation—pushed through Parliament with great fanfare by feminist Social Democratic politicians—has had as much to do with the symbolic politics surrounding questions of Swedish national identity as with questions of sex or gender per se. In fact, the Swedish Prostitution Committee’s decision to implement the new law criminalizing clients emerged in tandem with heated social debates about whether or not Sweden should join the European Union. As the anthropologist Don Kulick has observed, “In the early 1990s … talk about prostitution had a subtext—in addition to being about the referent ‘prostitution,’ it was also about the EU and Sweden’s relationship to it.”25 In addition to confronting the blurred boundaries between public and private and licit and illicit sex that the emergence of the Internet seemed to represent, Sweden was confronting the immediate and literal blurring of national boundaries through the specters of Europeanization and globalization. The 1998 law criminalizing the purchase of sex aimed to stabilize cultural and geopolitical boundaries simultaneously.
Though the law officially prohibits the client’s behavior (a client who is uniformly depicted as white, middle-class, and computer- literate in the public relations posters), in many ways it is still the sex worker whose presence in Sweden is at issue—particularly the migrant sex worker. The national prostitution commission which ultimately recommended the new law was first established in 1993 to address a wide variety of concerns stemming from the “internationalization” of the new global order. Government officials were concerned both with an anticipated flood of migrants from the east in the wake of the recent Soviet collapse, as well as Sweden’s impending and controversial entry into the European Union.26 From its inception, one of the explicit goals of the commission was to seek a means to combat what they saw as the “free market” in sexual commerce advocated by the European “pro-prostitution lobby” and endorsed by the European Community Court. As Sven Axel Månsson, an outspoken member of the Swedish Prostitution Commission, cautioned: “A European Community member state cannot deny a foreign prostitute (from another member state) the right to work within its premises as long as prostitution is not il- legal or subject to other repressive measures in that particular state. As most member states have decriminalized prostitution, [this] … opens the way for a free movement of ‘sex workers’ within Europe.”27 In language which highlighted the fear of an incursion of foreign sex workers, the Swedish Prostitution Commission declared arguments for the decriminalization of the European sex trade to be “alien to Swedish principles.” 28
Although the new Swedish policy marks an important shift from a social-service to a criminal justice system approach (the equivalent of 1.5 million U.S. dollars were given to the police, while no additional monies were given to social service agencies to enforce the new law), it has been taken by many Western feminists to represent an instance of aggressive state intervention against the incursion of global forces of inequality.29

Elizabeth Bernstein, Temporarily Yours, Intimacy, Authenticity and the Commerce of Sex, The University of Chicago, 2007, p. 149-151

To be clear: I am not arguing that the newly emergent forms of sexual labor that COYOTE sex workers represent are unconnected to individuals’ material conditions or to their structural locations within a social world that is characterized by increasingly profound inequalities. I am suggesting, however, that contemporary sex workers are often situated in highly complex ways vis-à-vis axes of domination and subordination (both economically and sexually) and that the forms of oppression they experience within sex work may be less severe than those they experience elsewhere.
I am also suggesting that the forms and meanings with which they have endowed their labor are connected to a historically specific set of conditions of possibility. These conditions include a postindustrial economy that has rapidly driven up the cost of living in desirable urban centers, while at the same time creating a highly stratified occupational sector (one with a limited number of time-intensive, highly paid, and hard-to-acquire professional positions, but with ample quantities of poorly paid, temporary, and part-time “junk” jobs).52 These economic developments are intricately connected to some of the ways that increasing numbers of young, urban middle-class people are restructuring their intimate lives—either by delaying marriage and childbearing until these are more economically viable options, or by defying the expectations of heterosexual monogamy entirely.

Elizabeth Bernstein, Temporarily Yours, Intimacy, Authenticity and the Commerce of Sex, The University of Chicago, 2007, p. 108

Ruby gets excited when I tell her that I want to write a book about the local sex industry. “Forget wages for housework! How about wages for sex work?! That’s what we’re really valued for!” All agree that the truly feminist dimensions of sexual labor are too infrequently acknowledged. What about streetwalking? I ask. Is that feminist too? “What’s more feminist than run- ning away from an abusive father and declaring your own boundaries?” asks Anna. “As a prostitute, you learn to say no.” Eventually, everyone sits down at the small table in the kitchen to eat and drink wine and continue the conversation.

Elizabeth Bernstein, Temporarily Yours, Intimacy, Authenticity and the Commerce of Sex, The University of Chicago, 2007, p. 76