The Sexual Contract Summary

Carole Pateman

The Sexual Contract

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The Sexual Contract Summary

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One of the modem world’s leading feminist theorists, Carole Pateman’s philosophical and political work,The Sexual Contract (1988), challenges the ways in which modern society functions, questioning the basic interpretation of ideas deeply interwoven into American and British political thought: that our freedom and rights are born out of the social contract developed by Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau, and interpreted by our Founding Fathers. The main target of this book is the impossibility of turning a contractual theory into a progressively used reality.

An extensive writer on topics such as democracy, feminism, and social contracts, Pateman is the author of several books, including The Problems of Political Obligation and Participation and Democratic Theory. She was born on December 11, 1940, in Maresfield, England. Pateman attended Ruskin College in Oxford in 1963, an adult-education school that focused on working-class students. At Ruskin, she tested for the University of Oxford’s postgraduate diploma in economics and political science. She was offered a spot and received her bachelor’s degree in 1967 and her Doctorate of Philosophy in 1971. She taught throughout Europe, the United States, and Australia. Between 1980 and 1989, she taught at the University of Sydney. She took on a series of visiting teaching positions at Stanford University, and the Swedish Council for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences. She was a professor of political science at the University of California in 1990 and was eventually promoted to distinguished professor in 1993.

Pateman’s early work focused on exposing elitism in liberal theory. She promoted an inclusive vision of democracy. In The Sexual Contract, Pateman challenges the notion that the state’s power doesn’t contradict individual freedoms because it is founded with the people’s consent. She shows how this is a blatantly false notion. Since the total agreement of any one state is impossible, she points out the problem with the philosophical myths put forth by theorists’ Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau. They assert that political authority can only be derived from the consent of equal and free individuals. However, as Pateman points out, this premise entirely excludes females. She states that the social contract is actually predicated upon a sexual contract, which is a systematic subordination of the female population. Pateman believes that the two contacts are complementary, not oppositional, even though the former’s goal is to establish freedom and the latter forces inequality between genders. The exclusion of women from the social contract leads to a sexual hierarchy that serves as the foundation of such institutions as marriage. It is further reinforced by its representation as being the natural order of things. This leads to critical questioning of such cemented beliefs as the main gender-related differences and whether or not they are based in fact.

Women are not just absent from the social contract because the world of politics is defined in direct opposition to the threats and activities typically associated with being a woman. The social contract is meant to mark the end of a paternalistic model of authority, however, by excluding women and reinforcing their role as subordinate to men; patriarchy is merely reimagined. Pateman goes beyond the typical feminist arguments by questioning whether such a contract could ever be equal. She addresses the broader meaning behind institutions such as marriage and delves into the contract itself, including the wider scope of sex where men are provided access to women’s bodies both in public and private life.

When applied to sex work, Pateman asserts that no sex work as practiced in a modern world could ever be a free or equal exchange, no matter how ideal the situation. As such, sex work cannot be viewed solely as a problem of women only. This single example helps Pateman analyze the adapting of patriarchy to modern political culture. She counters the entire theory of the social contract, arguing that wherever the property of a person is involved, such as in marriage and employment contracts, including the contract between citizen and government, subjugation is inevitably created. Property of the person is a foundational presumption of social contract theory. Pateman goes on to outline the reasons why this is the case, offering examples within the separate institutions. She ultimately reveals the fraud in the ideology that a person can be contracted to hand over the use of their body and their mind. The book clearly demonstrates how inter-woven women’s subjugation is within all facets of modern society.

The Sexual Contract contributes to the whole of political thought. It is strongly recommended to students of feminist or political theory, as well as to those who study democracy. Pateman’s writing style is meticulous and not easily accessible mainly due to meandering and the use of classic Enlightenment philosophy. However, this is an acclaimed and critical work in Pateman’s extensive and prestigious academic career. It is an all-encompassing challenge to the problems of the political left and right and of the real contracts in everyday life.