Maybe It's Just Me, But...

Musings of a mildly mad multi-disciplinarian

Are Wives Who Are Supported by Their Husbands "Prostitutes"?

Why true equality in relationships is not a matter of income.

Feminist icon Elizabeth Wurtzel's recent reflections on the previous year in New York magazine stirred up a hornet's next of responses, but I want to focus on one which echoes a recent theme explored here: thinking of relationships as exchange.

In her piece, Wurtzel writes, "I am committed to feminism and don’t understand why anyone would agree to be party to a relationship that is not absolutely equal. I believe women who are supported by men are prostitutes, that is that."

On the website Role/Reboot, Lynn Beisner responds in forceful opposition to Wurtzel's characterization:

It was distressing to see a woman claiming to be a feminist turn all heterosexual relationships in which a woman does not earn a salary at least close to that of her partner into a simple sex-for-cash transaction, one in which a man has the reasonable quid pro quo expectation of sex. And even if we had all agreed that being a stay-at-home mom or a wife being supported by her husband in graduate school was another form of sex-work, since when is it OK to slut-shame?

Beisner hits the nail on the head: it's about how we conceive of equality of relationships, and Wurtzel seems to narrow the concept down to money, pure and simple.

As Beisner continues (emphasis mine):

My husband has never demanded anything from me in return for his support, least of all sex. He certainly has never made me feel like a prostitute or even like a kept woman. But other women, most of them claiming to be feminists, have made me feel that way. Some have suggested that I take measures to create a marriage that they would see as more equal. I find that offensive since our marriage is more a relationship of true equality than most that I have witnessed.

To interpret equality in a relationship in terms of money alone is to frame relationships as exchange, on which I commented in a recent post. The assumption is that if a wife does not earn "her share" of the household income, she "must owe" her husband something in return: in Wurtzel's understanding, that something is sex. In a typical family economist's understanding, that would be household services, including childrearing.

No matter what the wife is presumed to "give back" to the husband, the mistake is the same: thinking of a relationship between husband and wife (or generally, between partners of any gender or marital status) in terms of exchange, a set of quid pro quos that must balance out in the ledger in order to be proclaimed "equal" by those who would presume to judge such things. This is grounded not only in a reductively market-oriented view of relationships but also in the contract law concept of consideration, in which two things of "value" must be exchanged in any valid contractual agreement. (I wrote of other applications of contract law to relationships here and here.) And neither of these concepts is appropriate for understanding—much less having—a longterm committed relationship.

As Beisner rightly asserts, her relationship is truly equal, and while she doesn't elaborate, I would guess that she means equal in status, dignity, and respect. There can be tremendous inequality between two partners who make identical incomes but in which one does not treat the other with respect and care. Beisner is in a relationship in which her husband makes more income than she does, and "he has financially supported me through undergraduate school, grad school, and even now as I work for virtually no pay. He has done this not only out of love for me, but also because he believes in me." Yes, he makes more money, but he does not hold this over her head while demanding something in exchang; instead, he shares his income with her, taking a "we" approach to the relationship rather than an "I" approach.

And that is what equality in relationships truly means, even though no balance sheet can capture it.

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A categorized list of some of my other PT posts can be found at my personal website here.

You can follow me on Twitter and my homepage/blog, as well as the blogs Economics and Ethics and The Comics Professor.

Mark D. White is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.

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