By Codie Distratis

Despite frequent attempts to dismiss sexuality as a topic for private consideration, its significance for human bodies becomes increasingly public (and political) as we appeal to its implications for women, nature and inter-subjectivity. The Western-European intertwining of sexuality with our existence seems tainted by cultural conceptions of possession and commodification—sexualised bodies are often used as a means to a monetary end. Where does the notion of desire (of the non-objectifying kind) figure into our idea of sexuality? Following the path of Luce Irigaray’s early to recent work, I ask how we can rethink desire in, and beyond, patriarchal-capitalist society. To situate this discussion, I firstly discuss the historical context and aims of the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF). Both Irigaray and the MLF place “gender squarely in the centre of their analysis,” recognising the oppression inflicted not only by capitalism, but the patriarchy also.[1] I posit that Irigaray’s linkage of the patriarchy and capitalism is effective for theorising the lack of women’s sexual autonomy, and thereby, exposing the importance for the concept of desire in the cultivation of woman’s subjectivity. This will be articulated by an analysis of what woman as a commodity means, where it is most prominent for Irigaray—in the use and exchange value of women: the mother, virgin and prostitute. And finally, in the last section of this paper, I consider desire through Irigaray’s proposal for relational subjectivity, between two sets: woman and woman; and man and woman.

The Movement de Libération des Femmes and Irigaray

After the events of May 1968, the MLF emerged with a primary concern for women’s liberation from oppression, signalling the beginning of so-called second-wave feminism.[2] As a whole, the May Movement in France was characterised by its radical and active criticism of the capitalist ideology underpinning French culture, academic institutions and politics.[3] The evaluation of their everyday “metro-work-sleep” routine led to a deep dissatisfaction with their own lives, and thus a critique of capitalist systems and thought.[4] It was a life of order, compliance, and it hindered autonomous thinking. Students (and many academics), for instance, became major advocates for change—they maintained that the university should provide the tools for critical thinking, and thus, a possibility for self-reflexive individuals. The university should be a place for culture, and not—as one prominent figure of the May Movement, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, criticised—the mechanistic task of producing and pumping out people as a means for accumulating profit.[5] In this sense, then, the participants defied hierarchies, and embraced disorder; namely, what the system was and what it condemned.[6] While this was the underlying stance of the May Movement, it did not prevent the formation of a masculine hegemony within its various parties. Women themselves had become excluded from this process of resistance; they worked in the background of party meetings, without a voice in the decision-making, for example.[7] The notion that “power lies at the tip of the phallus,” put forward by one man at a woman-only meeting at the University of Paris, 1970, underscores the kind of sexism apparent within these movements.[8] It signals that which the MLF came to criticise for its ignorance to the root of oppression (in the home), as well as Luce Irigaray’s recognition of the phallogocentrism that defines society. This male-domination—the logic of sameness—neglected the worth of the recognition of, and respect for, woman’s subjectivity.

The early motivations of the MLF cast the attainment of women’s reproductive rights and sexual autonomy at the foreground of its movement. Before the establishment of the MLF, France in the 1960s saw many women dissatisfied due to the legal disregard for their independent subjectivity.[9] Under the law, the man was considered the “head of the family,” which not only entailed an ownership of all the family’s property—to claim it as his own—but also posed problems for the married woman, and represented a wider social control over women’s fertility.[10] Susan K. Foley notes that many met the concept of motherhood with constant anxiety, as their lack of choice in taking on this role seemed a reduction to their “‘animal’ function.” [11] This concern for a lack of women’s sexual rights, according to Foley, permeated the May Movement:

Male radicals condemned ‘bourgeois’ prejudices supporting celibacy and monogamy (although they did not question heterosexuality). From women’s perspective, however, the implications of having sex needed consideration, and some women felt the pressure to be sexually ‘available’ rather than fulfilled.[12]

The question of sexual ‘availability’ underscores the objectification of women. It also alludes to how sexual fulfilment is intertwined with the recognition of women’s subjectivity and bodily autonomy. Despite the idea that the 1970s marked “year zero” [13] for feminist advocates at the time, I hold that the prior struggles for equal recognition to men, and concerns regarding contraception, were what became heightened in the early 1970s with the MLF’s campaign to legalise abortion. As a signatory to the abortion manifesto [14] in the Le Nouvel Observateur, Simone de Beauvoir, who was regarded by the MLF as a prominent theorist on woman’s condition, claimed that it was “one of the most outrageous issues facing France.”[15] This sentiment expresses the fact that women’s lack of sexual rights was a social crisis. Thus the events of the MLF in the early 1970s signalled a radical departure from the May Movement in contesting that reproduction ought not to be held as the sole purpose of desire. This speaks to what Irigaray identifies as the commodification of women.

Irigaray’s “Woman as Commodity”

In undergoing a philosophical investigation of the experience of women, Luce Irigaray theorises a link between the patriarchy and capitalism. This corresponds to the trajectory of the MLF as a whole—liberation, for the MLF, was not achievable in an exclusively socialist movement. It called for a prioritisation of sexual rights.[16] Though, this was not the prominent view—some claimed they were ‘socialists before they were feminists.’[17] This is important to note when approaching Irigaray, as there were many fractures within the movement itself, as well as an ambivalence towards sexual difference. Irigaray’s notion of sexual difference, not equality, grounds her understanding of the relation between women and men.[18] As Claire Duchen notes, it maintains that “the notion of femininity that exists in phallogocentrism is one created in the terms of the patriarchy, serving a patriarchal purpose for men who cannot conceive of a non-phallic feminine.”[19] According to Irigaray, our task is, then, to rethink femininity; what is woman’s subjectivity beyond this masculine sameness?[20] The Marxist theorisation of the Subject remains in this masculine logic. Irigaray critiques Marx for his failure to account for the oppression of women despite his definition of “the origin of man’s exploitation of man as man’s exploitation of woman.”[21] This exploitation is contained in the way women are commodified, objectified, and therefore circulated as property between men.[22] Under the social contract, the woman herself has been reduced to a good, or a product—for instance, she is not considered an agent in decision-making, as reflected in the events of the May Movement. It would seem that the male militants were, in fact, part of the very exploitation they were opposing. The exchange of women solidifies the capitalist order.[23] As a result, it would be ignorant, particularly for the identity of women, to view the patriarchy and capitalism as separate issues.

In her two essays, “Women on the Market” and “Commodities among Themselves”, Irigaray posits that, within the patriarchal social contract, women have three social roles: as a mother, a virgin, and a prostitute. The economy (which Irigaray terms the “masculine homosexual” economy),[24] is comprised of the relations between men, and is supported by the duality of woman’s existence.[25] On the one hand, she has “her ‘natural’ body” and on the other, “her socially valued, exchangeable body, which is a particularly mimetic expression of masculine values.”[26] Thus, her worth hinges on the extent to which she presents as use and exchange value.[27]Foremost, the mother is a reproductive instrument.[28] Such makes the relation between nature and man explicit, though; man’s becoming is cultivated in culture. While he depends on the mother to sustain the cultural order, her very existence threatens to disrupt it because of how close she is to nature.[29] In I Love to You, Irigaray comments on this point further—the mother has no singular desire. Built on an Absolute model of the human, this is “the labour of love,” where her desire is to love every man and every child.[30] It is a duty to her family, performed in the private sphere to serve the public. Comparatively, the virgin “is pure exchange value.”[31] Irigaray describes her identity as signified by an envelope (the hymen), which is to be penetrated by man; once this is accomplished, she becomes use value.[32] Whilst these categories for the mother and the virgin are clear, the prostitute’s is less so. She has already been used, though her existence entails a certain exchange.[33] Interestingly, in the Western world today, the virgin does not only enter the realm of use value, she still becomes exchanged—perhaps she is not by definition a prostitute, but by virtue of not being a virgin, her lack of “purity” seems to render her promiscuous. Moreover, given their use and exchange values, these women’s defining qualities are based on their “usefulness”; on the materiality of their bodies; and not their subjective identity.[34] The implications for this leave the latter as a problem that requires urgent questioning.

Woman representing merely a measure of her use and exchange value presents her with two challenges: a lack of desire; and an alienation from others and herself. For Irigaray, both are intertwined—they figure into her notion of sexual difference, where different subjectivities are nurtured, and become, between two.[35] The subject who does the desiring does so in a relation. Hence the masculine economy is in no way comprised of an exchange with women.[36] And this is the very issue. It entails that “commodities among themselves are… not equal, nor alike, nor different. They only become so when they are compared by and for man.”[37] In other words, women do not do the valuing. They gain value through the commodifying gaze. Accordingly, their only task is to persist as commodities in relation to the “paternal authority”.[38] And this is a consequence of remaining in the logic of sameness; namely, looking to him as a representative for how one should conduct oneself.[39] They have a lack of their own reflection—their own myths—which leads to an inevitable loss of the self. In “Commodities among Themselves”, Irigaray asks us to consider how this is intertwined with their relationship (or lack thereof) with the other. This raises the question of how commodities relate to other commodities. Can the mother, the virgin and the prostitute enter into a relationship where their identity does not depend on their mediation between men?[40] Can they have rights to pleasure when their sexuality has been defined to ensure that they are the objects of, not subjects with, desire?[41] To this end, Irigaray asks a final (and powerful) question: “what if these ‘commodities’ refused to go to market?[42]

Inter-subjectivity: beyond commodification

The ‘woman as commodity’ leads to the alienation of women from other women—something Irigaray deems essential to address. Woman’s sociality is the site for patching the divisions and antagonisms between them, because it is the very site at which their separation occurs. The patriarchal culture asks that woman love the universal, Man, but, for Irigaray, this is not love when there is no recognition for, or cultivation of, her subjectivity.[43] It is only logical that women ought to love themselves and each other as women, before they can begin to form a relationship with men.[44] To theorise inter-subjective relations between women, Irigaray points toward that between mothers and daughters. The mother-daughter relationship has been sacrificed for the sake of the patriarchal preservation, and accumulation, of property.[45]

Considered as use value, the mother can be viewed by the little boy as object, causing himself to dissociate from her. But this is an impossible task for the daughter who is of the same gender.[46] Thus, Irigaray advocates for support of this relation, where the mother-daughter bond is not fractured, but recognised for its “inter-subject economy.”[47] Achieving woman-to-woman sociality is the primary means for rupturing the patriarchal possession of women, however, this process does not neglect what can be accomplished between a woman and a man.

For Irigaray, the sexual encounter with the other sex captures the possibility for developing a desire which does not possess the other. As previously discussed, desire in the social contract means different things for different genders. For women, it places reproduction as the sole purpose of their desire. And for men, it entails an investment in, and accumulation of, women—to view them as his conquests.[48] The preoccupations of the MLF evidenced how problematic these two notions of sexuality are, and even recently—in light of Queensland finally decriminalising abortion in October, 2018—the struggle for women to gain abortion rights still remains. Additionally, rape culture today is symptomatic of man’s pleasure being “an essentially economic pleasure.”[49] The capitalist underpinnings of these issues are theorised in Irigaray’s philosophical analyses. How can we resolve and dissolve the conflicts that the homosexual masculine economy presents? In I Love to You, Irigaray proposes a way of relating to the other sex by championing sexual difference. Thinking about a non-possessive sexual desire seems difficult, but that is in the patriarchal context, which is underscored by binary pairs of opposites: culture/nature, heaven/earth, subject/object.[50] Such suggests that the kind of desire Irigaray discusses in “Women on the Market” saw its object (of desire) as a means to an end. Desire plays part in the project Irigaray terms the “love between us.”[51]She advocates for a different kind of sexual desire which “must be cultivated for its own development. It has an end in itself. Sexual desire is not to be sacrificed to the labour of the community.”[52] It has the potential to function in an economy which does not see people (women in particular) as a reflection of their use and exchange value. However, this requires the cultivation of (heterosexual) love in a respectful, reciprocal, inter-subjective relation between a man and woman.[53]

Thinking about women’s desire alongside the cultivation of their subjectivity is an ethical task. Irigaray’s philosophical analysis of the commodification of women, and the MLF’s activism for woman’s autonomous sexuality in the early 70s highlights this. However, both projects are not to be confused; they are not the same. They are not separate. They are in conversation with one another, addressing the question of woman’s sexuality. Woman’s sexuality has been in crisis due to the cultural failure to prioritise woman’s desire—and to instead repress it, or to reduce it to mere procreation. Irigaray, I have argued, effectively theorises how this is the result of the way in which the patriarchy and capitalism are intertwined. The mother, the virgin and the prostitute figure into her account as clear examples—their existence is characterised by their usefulness, their production and exchange value. However, this for Irigaray is her diagnosis; in her recent work, she advises us to rethink this with the question of sexual difference. A future way forward entails a sociality beyond commodification or possession of the other, accounting for women as subjects with desire.

Codie Distratis is in her third year of study at the University of Queensland. During her studies in philosophy, she has developed particular interest in feminist theory, environmental philosophy, and phenomenology and existentialism. She hopes to write more on how we can rethink our future relations with each other, and with nature.


[1] Claire Duchen, Feminism in France: From May ’68 to Mitterand, (London & New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), 8.

[2] Françoise Picq, “The History of the Feminist Movement in France,” in Thinking Differently: A reader in European Women’s Studies, eds. Gabriele Griffin and Rosi Braidotti, (London & New York: Zed Books, 2002), 313.

[3] Claire Duchen, Feminism in France, 5-6.

[4] Ibid., 5-6.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 7; Susan K. Foley, Women in France Since 1780, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 258-259.

[8] See Claire Duchen, Feminism in France, 8.

[9] Susan K. Foley, Women in France Since 1780, 255.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Susan K. Foley, Women in France Since 1780, 256.

[12] Ibid., 259.

[13] Françoise Picq, “The History of the Feminist Movement in France,” 314.

[14] This manifesto was signed on April 5th, 1971, by 343 women who had illegal abortions; see Claire Duchen, Feminism in France, 12.

[15] Simone De Beauvoir, “The Rebellious Woman – An Interview by Alice Schwartzer.” in Feminist Writings, eds. Margaret A. Simons and Marybeth Timmerman, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 193; Susan K. Foley, Women in France Since 1780, 262.

[16] Claire Duchen, Feminism in France, 8.

[17] Ibid., 27-28.

[18] Luce Irigaray, “Equal or Different?” in The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 32.

[19] Claire Duchen, Feminism in France, 87.

[20] Luce Irigaray, I Love to You: A Sketch for Possible Felicity in History,trans. Alison Martin, (New York: Routledge, 1996), 19; Alison Martin, “A European Initiative: Irigaray, Marx, and Citizenship,” Hypatia 19, no. 3 (2004): 22.

[21] Irigaray, I Love to You, 18.

[22] Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter & Carolyn Burke, (New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), 170.

[23] Ibid., 170.

[24] Alison Martin, “A European Initiative: Irigaray, Marx, and Citizenship,” 22. Termed ‘Homosexual’ because in this economy all economic exchange takes place between men (the producer subjects and agents of exchange), with women representing mere commodities.

[25] Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, 180.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Martin, “A European Initiative: Irigaray, Marx, and Citizenship,” 25.

[28]  Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, 185.

[29] Ibid., 185.

[30] Irigaray, I Love to You, 19-20.

[31]Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, 186.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., 174-175.

[35] Irigaray, I Love to You, 74.

[36] Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, 172.

[37] Ibid., 177.

[38] Ibid., 178.

[39] Ibid., 178.

[40] Ibid., 196.

[41] Ibid., 187.

[42] Ibid., 196.

[43] Irigaray Luce, “Women-Amongst-Themselves: Creating a Woman-to-Woman Sociality,” in The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 192.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Margaret Whitford, “Chapter 8: Women and/in the social contract,” in Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine, (London & New York: Routledge, 1991), 182; Irigaray Luce, Thinking the Difference, trans. Karin Montin, (New York: Routledge, 1994), 13.

[46] Irigaray, Thinking Differently, 18-19.

[47] Ibid., 19-20.

[48] Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, 174.

[49] Ibid., 184.

[50] Luce Irigaray, I Love to You, 19-21.

[51] Ibid., 18.

[52] Ibid., 25.

[53] Ibid., 26.

Works Cited

de Beauvoir, Simone. “The Rebellious Woman – An Interview by Alice Schwartzer.” In Feminist Writings, edited by Margaret A. Simons & Marybeth Timmerman, 192-208. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015.

Duchen, Claire. Feminism in France: From May ’68 to Mitterand. London & New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.

Foley, Susan K. Women in France Since 1789. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Irigaray, Luce. “Equal or Different?” In The Irigaray Reader, edited by Margaret Whitford, 30-33. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991.

———. I Love to You: A Sketch for Possible Felicity in History. Translated by Alison Martin. New York: Routledge, 1996. ProQuest Ebook Central.

———. Thinking the Difference. Translated by Karin Montin. New York: Routledge, 1994.

———. This Sex Which is Not One. Translated by Catherine Porter & Carolyn Burke. New York: Cornell University Press, 1977.

———. “Women-Amongst-Themselves: Creating a Woman-to-Woman Sociality.” In The Irigaray Reader, edited by Margaret Whitford, 190-197. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991.

Martin, Alison. “A European Initiative: Irigaray, Marx, and Citizenship.” Hypatia 19, no. 3 (2004): 20-37.

Picq, Françoise. “The History of the Feminist Movement in France.” In Thinking Differently: A reader in European Women’s Studies, edited by Gabriele Griffin and Rosi Braidotti, 313-320. London & New York: Zed Books, 2002.  

Whitford, Margaret. “Chapter 8: Women and/in the social contract.” In Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine, 169-191. London & New York: Routledge, 1991.

Featured image by Martin Beek via flickr