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Sexual and Economic Justice

The link between sexual justice and economic justice can be overlooked easily. For the most part, people think about sexuality as a private issue, and economics as a public one. Unsurprisingly scholars have treated the two movements separately, rarely pointing out where and how they intersect. A new report from the Barnard Center for Research on Women is trying to change that. Sexual and Economic Justice written by Kate Bedford and Janet Jakobsen, the center’s director, is part of the series New Feminist Solutions, which began in 2002. Each report is intended to inform and inspire activists and policy-makers to think in new ways, based on ideas that emerge from conferences held at the College.

Sexual and Economic Justice helps people think differently about how power, money, and sexual relationships shape our lives. The authors attempt to create a vision for sexual justice that challenges economic injustice and the denial of sexual rights. But the report is just the beginning. “It’s the spark to get the conversation going,” Jakobsen says.

The report is an outgrowth of the College’s Virginia C. Gildersleeve Lecture and colloquium at Barnard College, which featured keynote speakers Josephine Ho, founder of the Center for the Study of Sexualities at National Central University in Taiwan, and Naomi Klein, an author and syndicated columnist who writes about economic issues. Barnard also brought together 25 other scholars from points throughout world to take part in the daylong conversation.

Many scholars agree that women often make decisions about intimacy that are strongly influenced by their economic situation. They may marry so they can immigrate to a new country in search of a better life. Or they may marry to have access to health insurance. “But it doesn’t have to be that way,” maintains Jakobsen. “We can have other ways of getting access to health care.”

In the report, health care is one area where the connection between economic and sexual justice is most clear in the report. For example, women may want to make choices about safe sex to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS. But if they don’t have the economic resources to support themselves, they may not have the power to negotiate for safe sex in a relationship; so they may not be able to control whether their husbands practice safe sex.

Economics and sexuality shape women’s everyday lives in less obvious ways, too. Much of the work they do in the home, such as raising children, cooking, or cleaning, is unpaid. That lack of economic power leaves women more dependent on sexual relationships for survival, and more vulnerable to abuse. During difficult financial times like these, the economic situation for many women can become even more precarious.

The report doesn’t simply want to illustrate where these issues of economic and sexual justice meet. Its authors encourage people to take action to make the world a better place, and they point out some models for activists.

For example, Pride at Work, a constituency group of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor & Congress of Industrial Organizations), advocates for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers within unions, and builds alliances between labor leaders and the LGBT community. Activists involved in the Beyond Marriage campaign in the United States demand legal recognition for a wide range of relationships, regardless of kinship or conjugal status. “Our hope is that if people pick up the report and think about these two issues together, they might build new organizations,” Jakobsen says.

To that end, the report is being distributed at international conferences sponsored by organizations such as the United Nations, and it’s making the rounds in the legal community, too. Readers will find a list of activist organizations with their Web addresses, along with a source list and a bibliography at the report’s conclusion. “It’s a little early to assess the impact,” Jakobsen says. “But so far the response has been very positive.”

-by Amy Miller, photograph by Polly Becker

To download this or any other report in the New Feminist Solution series, visit www.barnard.edu/bcrw or call 212.854.2067 to request a printed copy.