Irigaray, Desirability, and Materialist (trans)Feminism

on 2020-02-20

Two things:

  1. Perhaps in no small part to those all-too-eager to drop the word “material” as shorthand for “biological” or “true”, materialist feminism has of late become associated with various forms of so-called “exclusionary” feminisms—TERFs, SWERFs, and all the rest. But (and this is quite ironic) this strikes me—given the history of materialist feminism—a rather idealist appropriation of the term. I am not interested in who is “really” a woman, but in one’s economic situation.
  2. The politics of desirability is a concept with a lot of currency in today’s feminism1, especially in accounts of bias in sexual preference. It’s also been endlessly and ruthlessly critiqued, largely on account of those who would police and moralize on individual desire and preference. Indeed, this drive to moralize is precisely what I intend to avoid here—it is not individual moral failing (nor is it reducible to “ideology”), but rather it is material relations which give rise to politics of desirability cross-cut by class, gender, race, size, etc.

In Women on the Market, Luce Irigaray re-reads Claude Levi-Strauss’s old observation—that women are commodities exchanged among men—through Marx’s account of the commodity form laid out in Capital, Vol. 1. While many Marxist-Feminists readings of Marx have sought simply to re-read the proletarian as “woman, too”, and radical feminists claim “woman, instead”, Irigaray realizes woman as not simply a proletarian economic subject but as a commodity produced through abstract human (read: male) labour.

all the systems of exchange that organize patriarchal societies and all the modalities of productive work that are recognized, valued, and rewarded in these societies are men's business. The production of women, signs, and commodities is always referred back to men (when a man buys a girl, he " pays" the father or the brother, not the mother . . . ), and they always pass from one man to another, from one group of men to another. The work force is thus always assumed to be masculine, and " products" are objects to be used, objects of transaction among men alone (Irigaray, p. 171)

Irigaray reframes capitalism as a series of “hom(m)o-sexual” exchanges and marketized social arrangements. The pun here is perhaps more obvious in French—Irigaray combines homme and homo to stress the fundamentally homosexual (read: homosocial) nature of these libidinally-charged phallo-economic exchanges. Either way, men serve as the primary agent of exchange.

When we say women are commodities, I think there is a real danger in a totalizing and homogenizing account in which differences between women are erased or unresolved. Certainly, this is the usual suspicion to which one is quite accustomed to applying to any account of sexual oppression or discrimination. And surely, it is not without some cause for concern: mainstream gender critical feminism trips over its own ‘materialist’ claims to a ‘sex-based’ account, erasing difference in service of some totally-not-idealist conception of womanhood predicated on an unqualified and totalizing worship of a homogenous female-defining biological difference. But this is far from Irigaray’s project. Irigaray hints at these differences in her account of value as it differs among women, starting with three of women’s most ubiquitous roles: mother, virgin, prostitute.

To backtrack briefly to Capital, recall that Marx distinguishes between a commodity’s use-value and its exchange value. For Marx, “[t]he usefulness of a thing makes it a use-value”, and its usefulness is “conditioned by the physical properties of the commodity, and has no existence apart from the latter…it is therefore the physical body of the commodity itself” (Marx, p. 152). Meanwhile, “[e]xchange value appears first of all as the quantitative relation, the proportion, in which use-values of one kind exchange for use-values of another kind” (Marx, p. 154). For Irigaray, women, as any other commodity, “…are thus two things at once: utilitarian objects and bearers of value” (Irigaray, p. 175). As Irigaray explains, “just as nature has to be subjected to man in order to be­ come a commodity, so, it appears, does "the development of a normal woman."” (187). The natural “properties of a woman’s body have to be suppressed and subordinated to the exigencies of its transformation into an object of circulation among men”. Her “natural utility is overridden by the exchange function” (Irigaray, p. 187).

I do not have time to rehash Irigaray’s (multiple) vivid arguments—they remain excellently stated and reasonably accessible. For now it suffices to say that variances in women’s use-value and exchange value are central to Irigaray’s tripartite role distinction, which is far more relevant in the scope of our business here. For Irigaray, “[a]s mother, woman remains on the side of (re)productive nature”, and because the incest taboo prohibits “productive nature to enter in exchanges among men”, mothers, whom Irigaray refers to as “reproductive instruments marked with the name of the father and enclosed in his house…must be private proper­ty, excluded from exchange” (Irigaray p. 185). The virginal woman, meanwhile, “is pure exchange value” (Irigaray, p. 186). Virgins are “nothing but the possibility, the plane, the sign of relations among men…envelope[s] veiling what is really at stake in social exchange” (Irigaray, p. 186). The passage from virgin to mother “is accompanied by the violation of an envelope: the hymen, which has taken on the value of taboo, the taboo of virginity”, and once “deflowered” she is “relegated to the status of use value…to her entrapment in private property; she is removed from exchange among men” (Irigaray, p. 186).

This notion of desirability employed in the liberal feminist blogosphere grafts quite cleanly onto exchange value, though their analyses seldom go beyond petty moralism. This grafting of these two concepts certainly makes a lot of sense for a subset of women to which Irigaray referred—in this case, cisgender and white women—who are guided into womanhood by their fathers, exchanged to their husbands, and ultimately used (as use-value) for sexual release, home-making, status-signaling, and, most notably, for the ho(m)mo-sexual reproduction of the species in the marriage contract2. But what about those women who have been excluded from the marriage contract altogether? For brevity, I’ll speak here specifically about trans women, although this is certainly pertinent to other women as well.

It is with trans women—treated across society as undesirable or otherwise inappropriate romantic and sexual objects—that we find an important contradiction. Despite the endless telegraphing of their undesirability and the punishment of them and those who choose them as partners, they comprise nonetheless one of the most desirable categories—commodities—in portnography and prostitution. to explain this? Surely this points to fetishization—language which is now more colloquial than specific—but how exactly does that work? Irigaray’s account of the prostitute points us in the right direction:

The prostitute remains to be considered. Explicitly condemned by the social order, she is implicitly tolerated. No doubt because the break between usage and exchange her case, clear­ cut? In her case, the qualities of woman's body are "useful." However, these qualities have "value" only because they have already been appropriated by a man, and because they serve as the locus of relations—hidden ones—between men. Prostitution amounts to usage that is exchanged. Usage that is not merely potential: it has already been realized. The woman's body is valuable because it has already been used. In the extreme case, the more it has served, the more it is worth. Not because its natural assets have been put to use this way, but, on the contrary, because its nature has been "used up," and has become once again no more than a vehicle for relations among men (Irigaray, p. 186)

Cisgender white women’s use-value (or potential thereof) pertains to their role as “productive nature” in domestic sphere (reproduction, domesticity, etc.) and their products’ role as “legal tender” in the social order (Irigaray, p. 185). For trans women, who lack the capacity to reproduce the species (to reproduce the same), there is no taboo (the incest taboo) confining them to the home—in fact, quite the opposite is true: they are disowned by the father and (all-too-often) jettisoned from the home. There is no pathway to marriage—no solidification of men’s relationships through the marriage contract—available to trans women, precisely because of this variance in use value.

But while gender critical feminists take this lack of confinement—and especially this biological difference—as somehow proof that trans women somehow escape patriarchal exploitation, this could not be further from the truth. It is not women’s role in the domestic sphere that defined her—it is her appropriation and exchange by man in these hidden social relations between men, and men alone. Trans women, both like and, especially given rates of prostitution and sex trafficking, as sex workers, are already appropriated by men among whom they exchange/are exchanged. Whereas much of the sexual excitement of the virgin centers around her potential yet unrealized use, trans women are deprived of any innocence such a virginal status might confer. The qualities of her body—here almost exclusively her sexual organs and their vitality—constitute Irigaray’s usage that is exchanged. Body modification serves to use up whatever that was previously available—she becomes a mirrored reflection of the male buyer. Unlike the virgin, and especially unlike the mother, the more men she has served, the more valuable her (in actuality, his) product becomes. She is exchanged freely and without restrictive taboo. Like Patricia Hill-Collins' notion of black women as both “insiders” and “outsiders” (Collins 1968), trans women find themselves nominally disavowed and condemned while nonetheless implicitly, and quite materially, factored into the (economic) equation.

Of course, gender critical feminists are unlikely to be moved by these (quite incomplete, maybe even problematic) arguments, but I hope what I have tried to present here invites more feminist discussion that a) is meaningfully inclusive of non-cis and non-white women and b) does not achieve this inclusion through meaningless idealist platitudes and empty and unsupported assertions that ‘trans women are women’ that, far too often, go unelaborated in ostensibly queer/trans/feminist accounts of gender/sex. Surely, there are no innocent parties in this ordeal.


Without doubt, important changes to this basic paradigm have proliferated Western culture over the past 70 years. However, a properly material analysis ought to take still-recent history into account. I would also wager that this simple structure has not changed as drastically as some would suggest.


  1. Collins, Patricia Hill. 1986. “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought.” Social Problems 33 (6): S14–32.

  2. Irigaray, Luce. 1985. This Sex Which Is Not One. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.

  3. Marx, Karl, Ben Fowkes, and David Fernbach. 1981. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. V. 1: Penguin Classics. London ; New York, N.Y: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review.