Heart of a Heartless World

By Maya Andrea Gonzalez and Cassandra Troyan |

Of the political-economy of romance under capitalism, Eva Illouz describes the “paradox of the romantic bond” — that “although it can be motivated by self-interest, it is fully convincing only if at a certain point the individual proves his or her disinterestedness.” As Illouz adds, “Once the choice has been made and the romantic bond established, what people view as the most loving acts are those that are ostensibly indifferent to their ‘market value.’” [1] We ask: what then becomes of the romantic pact once the perceived “beloved” is paid for her services? Today, a savvy career woman gone professional-girlfriend exploits the socialization of her gender by deploying her “inherent” skills learned through a lifetime of compulsory heterosexuality in order to procure a handsome living. What is known by those in the trade as “Girlfriend Experience” (or online as GFE) has established the real “market value” of romantic bonding. Essential to this form of work, unlike that of the generalized prostitution of wage-labor, is the fact that the relations of exploitation are consciously and deliberately disavowed in order to produce and consume the experience of hooking-up, dating and falling in love.

In Illouz’s work, as well as in more recent theorizations of postmodern dating, we have seen the experience of love, romance and coupledom revealed in its naked splendor: as unpaid labor, or complicit mutual-exploitation, inscribed within the capitalist unconscious and libidinal economy of reproduction. [2] However, the romance industry has now expanded to include in its repertoire the ready-made companion —  and in doing, has objectified her affective activities in the transmogrification of “love” into wages. The romance of homo economicus has now been fully realized in the reification of the Girlfriend Experience as the consumption of feminine labor-power in the guise of a love object, “the beloved” commodity is circulated, exchanged, and at last consumed.

As a form of socially validated labor, “a young woman” or in other cases “a mature woman” can harness the craft that she long nurtured in her by social conventions as girlfriending has now become, objectively,  a skill.  Although it is still gendering and naturalizing, it can also be exchanged for wages. However, the “natural” performance of the girlfriend is redoubled in its consumption as that which still appears as if it is uncommodifiable, authentic and extra-economic. Though, as Illouz correctly observes, “true love” is always already foreclosed under capitalism — and its apparent immediacy situates it transhistorically a priori, in contrast to modern life. However, the particular history of romantic attachment under capitalism, in fact emerged alongside the rise of modern relations of property and exploitation.

Romantic love — that which is historically specific to modern property relations — appears as extra-economic affective attachment organized by pre-capitalist forms of bondage. At the heart of true love is a pseudo-refuge from the heartlessness of modern competition, separation and generalized dispossession. This imagined preservation of transhistorical bonding, with its moralizing lover’s discourse, is in fact high-modern and aristocratic. Yet in its one-dimensional mass appeal it was first democratized in the 20th century, and is now privatized under Neoliberalism. Most importantly, however, the naturalized banality and apparently transhistorical “authenticity” of courtly love, was necessarily fabricated through the violent destruction of all other forms of non-capitalist and communal experience.

This phenomenon extends to the totality of social relations. As Giorgio Agamben argues in “An Essay on the Destruction of Experience,” modernity sounds the death knell of authentic experience. Agamben’s proposition that “the question of experience can be approached nowadays only with an acknowledgement that it is no longer accessible to us” is the point of entry into our exploration of the Girlfriend Experience. [4] If experience in and of itself is impossible, then it is only within the context of its impossibility that “experience” as a commodity can exist. Girlfriending as a form of commodified pseudo-experience entails a discreet work relation between a “provider” of romantic experience — or “sugar baby” — and its/their consumer, the “hobbyist” or “sugar daddy.” Over the duration of an individual encounter or throughout an ongoing engagement, this work-relation appears as the non-consumption of  an experiential commodity, whilst taking place in an actual labor process of providing intimate services.The product (the use-value in question) is the consumer experience of authentic consumption itself (a contradiction par excellence), outside of the direct domination of market forces.

For a professional girlfriend, the workplace is both nowhere and everywhere — everywhere, that is, that her smart-phone can get reception. The boundary as to where her work ends and her actual life begins is altogether blurred. The true particularity of her “pop-up” boudoir is what goes on inside– whether in plain sight or on the down-low. This particularity is the productive-consumption of an apparently un-commodifiable commodity: love. Hence, the door to her heart can and must reside on the fringes of direct domination while simultaneously folding into the patterns and circuits of everyday reproduction and her own self-maintenance as feminine labor-power.


However, this relation of buyer to seller, and the provider/consumer relationship it elicits, could not appear authentic if it was not in fact already subsumed under market logics and structured by a political-economy of libidinal reproduction. The dis-appearance of commodified girlfriending disavows its supra-sensuous social determination (i.e. suppresses the mediation of money and class behind the backsides of lovers and beloveds), and it immediately obtains the character of authenticity in traversal, unlocking “passion” at the threshold between constitutive domains: the workplace and the bedroom/kitchen; the hidden abode of production and its reproductive reciprocal; and the realm of necessity and (for some) of freedom. The girlfriend as experience emerges in the nexus of an increasingly permeable, dissociating, and abject-oriented division between directly and indirectly market-mediated spheres. [5]

It is precisely the socialized destruction of experience that forms the condition of possibility for “the experience” of girlfriending — remunerated or otherwise. The necessary precondition of simulated authentic experience is grounded within the impossibility of authentic or unmediated relationships. This ground of inauthenticity is historically specific to the modern political and capitalist economic forms, insofar as it requires first that two individuals encounter one another as “free” subjects within a generalized condition of “free” exchange.

Such equality then sets into motion unequal power relations between subjects at work, and indeed is the very cause of equality’s invocation. The exchange of equivalents between abstractly equal and abstractly ungendered subjects — embodied in the objectivity and transferability of money between property owners — must be swiftly disavowed the moment it appears. Subjects return immediately as unequal, gendered individuals in order for the work to commence, that is, to experience production. Equally, authenticity is the product of generalized inauthenticity or “universal freedom”–which is to say, inversely, unequal conditions of market dependency, wage-labor and asymmetrical wealth distribution–socially (and thus synthetically) organizing the perimeters in which experience as a commodity can be purchased. The context of generalized (in)equality provides a playground for the performance of “authentic immediate social bonding” predicated on the exchange of time, labor, and money.

Since the exchange of money and time must immediately be disavowed, it is tucked away the very moment it appears. Or, more likely than not, the informal paycheck remains hidden from view entirely. The use of PayPal and other monetary forms of mediation characterize the specificity of the Girlfriend Experience, and marks the difference between often racialized divisions within the realm of prostitution and escorting. Although the tactfulness in this form of payment might grant discretion for populations not deemed criminally suspect — such as with a sugar baby who does not identify as a sex worker and receives payment under her birth name — for those within the sex trade, criminality in personhood bars access to numerous platforms, regardless if the labor itself is criminalized.

In this sense, the hallmark of a sugar baby’s “sugar” is the disguise of cash money and the transfer of more personalized means of exchange as remuneration. Baby’s sugar is clean and institutionally laundered. For this reason the sugar baby must use her own name and reveal her personal identity absolutely if she is to collect her sugar outside of the point of exchange. This often requires that she is a legal citizen and has obtained a de-criminalized status. Likewise, those who “daddy” must also remain “who they really are in real life” in order to write checks (often with their wives’ names and addresses inscripted), or through direct bank deposits and other immaterial forms of personalized money which circulate between equally “legal” individuals.

This revealing of real identity however, only further disavows and veils the essential transactional nature of the exchange of money for sex. The already existing conditions of commodity and wage fetishism, as well as identity and naturalized gender assignment, are fundamental to maintaining the obliviousness of the consumer to his criminality and his “unsavory” character. If anything, “cheating” is imagined to be more hazardous to suspected sugar daddies than is their potential arrest or conviction — since prosecution remains practically precluded by their actual class belonging and often evasive accounting practices. Sugar daddying is therefore a hobby best reserved for CEOs, lawyers, tech wizards and venture capitalists who are already in the habit of purchasing labor-power on the free-market and disguising its ethical ambiguity — thus freeing them (at least for now) from extra-marital repercussions. Although their bourgeois status gives some protection to the girlfriends they hire, this also opens up avenues of risk and exploitation which would not otherwise exist for proper “call girls.”

In order for sugar babies to fully capitalize on their financial relationships, they must reproduce all of the intimate details of one’s self so daddy can see his money is going to good use. It is understood that he is making an investment and he wants to see a return. Even without the actual scene of negotiation, reciprocity must be imagined. For Brandon Wade the founder of seekingarrangement.com, “every successful relationship is an arrangement between two parties. In business, partners sign business agreements that outline their objectives and expectations. Likewise, romantic relationships can only work if two people agree on what they expect, and what they can give and receive from each other.” Here the comparison between business and romance draws the correlation for generalized prostitution — if it could be a business transaction, then it could not also be romance. If it is romance managed by the will of the heart, then there is no negotiation.

Those within the sugar trade who want to protect their access to wealth do so by reinforcing the transactional disavowal while distancing themselves from criminal behavior. These “Sugar Sisters” on the sugar blog, “Let’s Talk Sugar,” have developed a clear set of guidelines for “SUGAR BABIES WHO DO NOT BELONG IN THE BOWL”: those who lack goals, are entitled, gold-diggers, and of course, escorts. While “real babies” claim to not trade sex for money, the resemblance of sugaring to productive labor is a necessary component of her performance. From his bourgeois standpoint, the sugar baby adds necessary value to his life (and vice versa): “we are his cheerleader when he needs one, his therapist when he needs a safe place and for some, we become their sexy little minx. In return, we are spoiled and taken care of.” The sugar daddy is financially assisting his baby so that she may achieve her life goals and dreams for the pleasure of watching her succeed.

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Although this pleasure is naturally not without motivation, or at least visible incentives, as it must be predicated on another disavowed contractional condition — the sugar baby is an investment with the fetishized notion that she will aid in some form of value creation, or the expectation of increasing the value of her “human capital.” What is at stake in this transaction? Once her needs are established, it is important that this monthly allowance goes towards a career motivated, or preferably, entrepreneurial goal. If she is just going shopping and consuming for the sake of consuming, playing the role of the denigrated bimbo, she provides a particular allure for those seeking a “No Strings Attached” arrangement. Yet an extended relationship requires the sugar baby to be in debt to her sugar daddy. A debt that she can never repay but must constantly be repaying, while he hopes to be alleviated of his shame caused by the underlying exchange-relation through his sense of his own self-gratifying generosity.

As Maurizio Lazzarato has shown, debt creation and debt reduction forms the strategic heart of neoliberal policy by forging a dynamic of unequal power between the debtor and creditor. Wherein, debt creation and debt reduction are not antithetical categories, as debt is necessary to extend political systems of control, like austerity measures, which intervene and wrest back the services gained through social struggle. To reclaim the Welfare State for private profit requires the absorption of public services into the private sector for capitalist accumulation, a process simultaneously fueled by a reliance on guilt to produce processes of subjectivization, or the view that “the neoliberal economy is a subjective economy.” [6] Here the economy of subjectivization relies on naturalized physical female pleasure as an extension of those characteristics which allow her to have an ample income from the highly orchestrated labor of femininity. This labor is hidden and disavowed due to its naturalization, rendering the reproduction of gender as unremunerated labor. In a role where there is already an intense expectation to perform vigorously and on command, often the invocation to enjoy is tacked on as an added bonus on her behalf rather than considered a portion of her accumulative labor process.

In the case of working-class consumption of illicit sex, the means of exchange often comes in the form of cash payment. Although cash-money avoids the messiness of personal liability, it nevertheless criminalizes those subjects amassing it in large quantities, and can be potentially used as evidence in cases of tax evasion, or for the greater part still remains suspicious. In the cash form, the entire history of monetary acquisition is hidden behind the veil of its universality (cash has no indication of its origin and the labors associated with them) and for that reason circulates in the informal and shadowy economy. By the same token, it can be used by police to signal the presence of criminal labor.

Cash is therefore criminalizing of those holding it and notoriously relieves certain public servants from legal reprimand — allowing them free access to sexual labors in exchange for immunity, and potentially sanctioning an array of abuses, likely rape and too often murder. The rise of immaterial forms of cash, namely bitcoin, has helped de-criminalize this mode of exchange. However, in relation to the generalizing social practice of paying with plastic, debit and non-monetary forms, cash is increasingly criminalized and criminalizing for those without access to banking. [i]

In the case of the whore who acts as girlfriend whilst in actuality she is an amalgam of daughter-mother-mistress-mentee- “upwardly-mobile”-professional and therapist, often the ambiguous form of payment renders her without a monetary wage, or at least with less in money-terms than the market value of her labor-time. However, in relation to the de facto unpaid girlfriend, the sugar-baby (sometimes an unpaid girlfriends herself in real life) is made privy to the unpaid labors of “natural” girlfriends in its illuminating, de-naturalized objectivity.

It is in this way the payment of immaterial value–whatever sugar might manifest itself as– reveals the drawback of the Girlfriend Experience as “paid” labor, namely the potential abjection and re-housewifization of sex-work–insofar as the means of payment for a baby’s time fluctuates constantly between payment in money and payment in kind (i.e. in use-values and means of subsistence). Although, payment in kind can include anything from food to clothing to shelter, it also includes things which are shared mutually between the baby and daddy in the course of their engagement — as a relationship, we must be reminded, that includes a performance of hidden labor. A wealthy daddy may spend money on their “adventures” (sometimes totaling more than her yearly income) to buy things she would never, in her buck-wildest dreams purchase and which she imagines as would-be-income could afford her instead tuition or healthcare. His income is determined by his property, his status and his access to a phantasmagoric idealization of romantic companionship; hers is dependent upon the only property she owns — her skin.

Often, the performance of the Girlfriend Experience in its productive-consumption, necessarily includes the gendered and racialized exploitation of lesser paid service workers: cooks, maids, nannies, waitresses, and drivers, who provide the foundation of her own exploitation, and the production of his class-experience. Sugar babies, much like house workers who employ “help” — use their own privileged wage to purchase the work of lesser paid working-class women — even if it is unavoidable and always concomitant with their own exploitation. By the same coin, her labor is that of affective authenticity and therefore requires that she perform, over the duration of her work, the appearance of class belonging as if she were in her own life actually the esteemed friends and family of the bourgeoisie.

Yet once the monetary transaction has been made or at least pledged, immediately these bourgeois subjects return to their original status, as unequally classed and gendered individuals, in order for the work of girlfriending to commence. The notion of equality must be sustained, however, insofar as the coupling remains “consensual” and the outcome of free choices. Although as any good Marxist knows the exchange of money for labor-power is precisely the consensual suspension of agency so that capital can command laboring bodies at will. That she produces “authenticity” — and not sex — extinguishes the appearance of equality through the preservation and performance of a radical singularity, but preserves agency only to the extent that her work requires it in order for him to disavow his economic domination over her. And in that sense it can be similar to romance without payment. Thus, the dialectic between universality and particularity, between authenticity and generic exchangeability, choreographs the pas de deux in which the amorous commodity-experience can appear as interpretive dance.

As someone interested in her own self-preservation but at the same time potentially dedicated to revolutionary praxis, however, what the sugar baby offers (and perhaps no different than any feminist who is well paid and more legally statused, socially “humanized,” and more employed than her sisters) is an analytical and subjectivating category — a standpoint on the contemporary predicament of abject subjects. And perhaps incidentally, she offers insight into the conditions of unpaid and naturalized labor performed by girlfriends (and boyfriends) which itself upholds all aspects of capitalist social-relations one might wish to abolish. Like the critique of housework, what girlfriend-work illuminates is the fact that labor for some can become the playtime of others, depending upon the income and gendered comportment of each. The work of experience is performed at the site of leisure for a client or daddy: a long weekday lunch followed by a shopping spree, expensive dinners, a night out on the town drinking and dancing, intimate unrushed time shared alone “exploring each other’s bodies” at five-star hotels. Hence in the spirit of fun, routinized labor for one individual who only wants/needs a monetary income is necessarily the spontaneous playtime of another, depending upon the profoundly unequal access one has to the commodity market in relation to the other.

The modern subject seeking experience is not the bourgeois man, as Agamben suggests, but rather his own phantasm. Even more “a subject” is his playmate — a canny sorceress who controls and becomes the agent of his fantasy. She evokes the seductive powers of imagination, in order to conjure the ghosts of experience to return ecstatically. She as medium holds open “these gates of dreams,” by cultivating various zones of fantasmic enjoyment. Thus she is well attuned to the multiple requisites of desire: she makes him eternally return, makes him fall in love, gives “the two” quote-unquote chemistry whilst meticulously re-aligning the imaginary stars.

Love becomes for her an act of sorcery; sex its séance. In this sense, she fucks for money, never for love, as “love for the prostitute is the apotheosis of empathy with the commodity.” [7] To be loved against her actual will, she understands her immateriality is concretized through a perceived sexual relation that locates radical otherness in its pure objectivity, but yet phantasmically. As Lukacs famously wrote of such impending reification: a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity’, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people…What is at issue here, however, is the question: how far is commodity exchange…able to influence the total outer and inner life of society?” [8] Perhaps we have arrived at the answer, since the (im)materiality of experience reveals that the imperative to enjoy authentic sexual enjoyment is to desire authenticity more than the sex itself. It is only through a magical force of transcendence, that love in the form of labor is alienated in its product, through the erasure of its basis in exchange. This is the contradictory desire driving the bourgeois unconscious: to burst through the boundaries of its absolute limits in the quest for self-realization in the farthest recesses and innermost sanctities of social being.

From the standpoint of the girlfriend, she is more a subject than he, because only she consciously recognizes the truer subject is neither him, nor herself, but in fact value. Her labor is the means through which he wields power through the command of his wallet. And therefore he is nothing more than a wallet. The exchange-relation between a seller of experience and the income stream she seeks to control through her “hustle,” is the underlying force guiding his experience of “real intimacy.” In the particular case of the “actual” worker performing the Girlfriend Experience (the subject behind the subject she performs), her labor entails the disguising of herself as his employee. In short, his phantasmic experience is the experience of commodity fetishism itself, performed back upon himself as reified capital. The inversion of life is twice inverted: social relations of production as relations between things — and in this particular case between the “girlfriend” and a wallet — appear inverted as the material relations between “real” “authentic” “people” who consent (in the form of an informal contract) to share a really “good time.” The Girlfriend Experience reveals contemporary romance as the nearest epitome of what Situationists call spectacular life. “In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood.” [9]

SUBJECT: Inquiry into an exploration

“I’ve been thinking about what we’re embarking on and I’ve wanted to make it a game worth playing. On the surface: you need financial support and I need sex, but that seems awfully simplified. However, it’s fine if it’s just that. Yet, if it’s only that, it’s not sustainable for very long and that may be okay, too. On the other hand, if I really need sex I can hire the services of a professional from time-to-time, but that’s not interesting to me.

Whatever happened two nights ago was unusual for me. And, maybe that’s because the other women I’ve been with, in my life, have held back for their various reasons or I have withheld parts of myself. As I get older I find that I’m more impatient with shallow relationships where there’s nothing at stake, so I’m putting the exploration of passion at stake in my relationship with you.

I don’t yet feel connected to you in the way that I think I’d like to. I mentioned falling in love, which even by my standards is pretty weird on the first date, I’ll admit.

I don’t know if it’s love that I seek, but almost certainly what I want is a deep connection and the experience of being known: real intimacy.”

For the sugar baby who performs the Girlfriend Experience the above email is yawningly typical. Here we see affects such as “deep connection,” “real intimacy,” “passion” with “real stakes involved,” coalesce into “the experience of being known.” On the other hand, the baby knows (and banks on the fact) that what becomes known to her daddy is rarely self-knowledge. To the contrary, phantasmagoric self-denial is the most defining characteristic of every sugar baby’s daddy. For any baby worth her sugar only succeeds when perpetuating her daddy’s ignorance — not of his ontological status — but of his own ignorance with respect to truth, that is, his quest for commodity-empathy from a professional girlfriend. In order to fully appreciate the inverted logic of a sugar daddy or client, the sort of cognitive dissonance evinced in the above email, concludes that the purpose of engaging with a prostitute in the guise of a love object could potentially lead to the attainment of some better understanding of reality. To comprehend this fallacy we must make an inquiry into what it would mean to produce or consume — in the form of commodity — the experience of being in a relationship and attainment of true intimacy.

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Thus, producing the experience of intimacy by a provider or sugar baby becomes an essential part of the Girlfriend Experience. What marks the difference between the labor of prostitution and the Girlfriend Experience, (no less the girlfriend) is the fact that, for a sex worker who performs the enactment of the Girlfriend Experience, the physical protocol of intimacy verges (and can be equated) with the potentiality of proportionate risk (indexed by her increased value). The more she risks her health, well-being, or personal privacy, the closer she is to being an “authentic” girlfriend. This includes performing services like “bare backed blowjobs” (BBBJ), that is, for those who don’t think they know, the everyday performance of oral sex without a condom. Deep French kissing (DFK), receiving oral sex without any protection, swallowing, and multiple orgasms are often also part of the equation. However, what really delineates an escort who performs the Girlfriend Experience is her performances of emotional labor as services which only become quantifiable in their execution. These can include showing up and being present, engaging conversation, flirtation, cuddling after sex, tenderness, the expression of one’s “own” sexual desires. But more importantly she must not “rush,” not visibly watch the clock, use the full hour, make eye contact — in short, she must make the client feel she is a companion and not a “professional.”

This last detail is the conceit on which the Girlfriend Experience relies: the call girl you are paying for must pretend that the exact reason she is there does not exist. The entire financial exchange is predicated on her ability to make invisible all of her labor, as if it were in fact not labor at all. The consumer of the sexual relation is purchasing services afforded through a libidinal-labor contract necessary for the transaction to unfold in which the desire for remuneration is temporarily suspended so that spontaneous desire can be produced and consumed. Like other waged sex encounters, certain erotic services need to be performed in order for the Girlfriend Experience to be enacted, along with an existing range of other labors which expand beyond a singular execution. A client can ask an escort to perform a blowjob or anal sex, but a request for tenderness or recognition is not a finite and limitable task. Like the real girlfriend, her presence is fetishized as a voluntary consensual labor of intimacy, a labor of love invoked from “the depth of physical sensation and from emotionally bounded erotic exchange” — or what sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein refers to as bounded intimacy. [10]

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“Bounded intimacy” accounts for the emotional and erotic labor contained within the market transaction. Unfortunately, this concept does not fully examine the sensorial and cognitive residues felt after an intimate encounter. Here “boundedness” refers to the limitations made possible with the attachment of a monetary fee and the “significance of which is illustrated by the consequences that ensue when boundaries are violated.” [11] The violations Bernstein addresses are less common, as they focus on situations where the financial contract is broken — such as an escort offering a lower rate for clients they like who never return — often treating the financial exchange as a singular event, even if it is repeated numerous times with the same client. However, the labor of GFE is part of an accumulative material labor process that is not completed in the singularity of a session. What determines the adequacy of an escort’s ability to perform the Girlfriend Experience — what one might say is the burden of intimacy’s promise — is her capacity to build upon each encounter and cull affective behaviors from an evocative archive of feeling. Intimacy is fulfilled through the capacity of attachment and sustained by the assurance of its repetition.

Rather than using the term “bounded intimacy,” therefore, we use “disavowed intimacy” to designate the psychological split necessitated in both of the subjects implicated, in order for the financial transaction to occur. As an amendment to Bernstein’s term, “disavowed intimacy” takes into account the multivalency warranted to negotiate many levels of performative attachment, especially as it must signify not only the work performed in the directly market-mediated sphere but that which goes on in the indirectly market-mediated libidinal economy. What Bernstein doesn’t account for is the crucial fact that escorts are also girlfriends, wives, and mothers when they are “off the clock.” Conversely, sugar daddies — who might have actual daughters approximately the age of the escorts they see — should be understood to be conducting their family affairs (as it were), mirroring the world outside of service. At the same time this mirroring organizes the shadowy libidinal economy as a hidden sphere of capitalist social-economic relations governed by economic forms that nevertheless appear non-economic. Instead of being mediated by the social forms of value, libidinal commodities circulate through concrete relations disguised by the immediacy of emotional reciprocity. However, the fact that a pricing mechanism functions within this seemingly unmediated realm is proof that economic logics presuppose independent encounters. Sex, gender and economy are intertwined with the circuits of production, distribution and most obviously, reproduction.

What we hope to demonstrate is the necessity for anyone theorizing the Girlfriend Experience to consider the ways in which these types of empathic gestures are deeply embroiled in the institutions of love, marriage and family, extending psychically into the unwaged emotional lives of both the sex worker and the client, beyond the parameters of a given paid encounter. In this way, the boundaries between work on and “off the clock” bleed into one another, securing the ongoing reproduction of relationships in general. At the same time a particular sex worker is reproducing herself outside of the market, that is, in the constitutive economy of libidinal organization indirectly mediated by the market, and within those very spaces she must also prepare herself for future girlfriend labor. Viewing this affective labor as a mode of social reproduction, we aim to historicize the Girlfriend Experience in relation to the demand for authenticity, intimacy, singularity and emotionality inherent to service economies and as an integral part of neoliberal capitalism’s commodification of naturalized enjoyment and its corresponding extension of the working-day.


Who Is the Girlfriend?

At this point, we ask how does a prostitute differ from a sex worker providing the Girlfriend Experience or a girlfriend? Who is a prostitute or whom is being targeted or marked by that term? And who will be targeted or marked by that term? The prostitute imaginary is inherently racialized and polarized by means of societal stigma often reducing the profession into two stereotypical roles: a high-class (white) call-girl in a 5-star hotel and a poor women of color (often trans) who works on the street. Even trans women (or those outside the gender binary) who work within the frame of the Girlfriend Experience are chosen for their momentary fetishistic fulfillment. Queerness and the otherness of desire becomes a fantasy that can be experienced by the client vicariously without their insertion or dedication to its practice, and therefore reinforces hierarchy at both poles. The fantasy is real because the threat is not. It is only constructed and held by a wager that would require one to change their life and self concurrently. The experience cited in the above email by an anonymous daddy-to-be, describes his quest for experience as being that of being known; in actuality, the character of this self-knowledge is recognition, from an expert, of his social potency: his class, gender and race belonging. She acts as mirror to his class belonging — a fluid semblance of necessary power and submission — re-naturalized through the seemingly biological response of his spontaneous orgasm and “ability” to awaken her inner spirits.

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To be a prostitute is to be desperate; to be a sugar baby, to perform the Girlfriend Experience, is luxurious and supplementary. She’s not starving, she wants to be spoiled. An upscale companion’s continued upward mobility is guaranteed by raced, classed, and gendered fantasies. Being white, cisgender, and educated are prioritized categories for facilitating the aspirational and affirmative fantasies provided by the Girlfriend Experience.

However, despite her apparent privilege of the “girlfriend,” much is not known. Where is the girlfriend? Who is she? How is it that she becomes “known” but her labor is not? What does the labor of the Girlfriend Experience reveal about the naturalized labor of the girlfriend? And, can the labor of the girlfriend continue as before (for free) once the real price of her labor is general knowledge?

The sugar baby’s job is to conduct fantasies of enjoyment. These fantasies pass through her, as neither a wife nor a mistress, but a playmate, a good girl, a mentee, a daddy’s girl. Categorically, she is marked by what she is not. For example, she can have a daddy’s desire to leave his wife cathected onto her, but without the dedication of having a mistress or an “affair” as that requires too much surplus emotional attachment. There is little at stake emotionally in the Girlfriend Experience, hence a baby’s labor is at the same time extremely precarious and eventually disposable. Since she can never be an actual girlfriend or a wife by definition, the sugar babe is the antithesis of the home. To be of the home would be vulgar or nearly incestuous as it would fail to maintain the necessary decency of distance. Instead she is relegated to luxury hotels, classy restaurants, travel resorts, cultural events. She is paraded around places wherein all recreation is mediated through the market in relation to her big Daddy and the entire showcase of commodities he opens up for her. This is the language of intimacy between a sugar daddy and his sugar babe—a language negotiated through the terms of care, passion, and spoiling in order to develop a “mutually beneficial relationship” for both parties involved. The sugar babe is neither owned nor full owner of her own labor-power within this dynamic. Thus the sugar daddy, as was formerly the case of the traditional breadwinner, acts as mediator between capital and his babe through the personal and informal shadow economy.

“Victims of the illusion that anyone could “blossom” in communications work, women put their skills in relationships at the service of Capital, skills they acquired over thousands of years of submission during which time they had an interest in making themselves likeable. Advertising, fashion, night clubs, cafes, and even the ground floor of the sad edifice of “immaterial labor” whose bars and sidewalks are crawling with whores, all operate as female added value. Having become inevitably over-conscious of their price, women have become the living currency with which ONE buys men. And so the circle of the prostitution economy loops closed on itself, leaving nothing outside it, with the exception of a lumpen-proletariat of undesirables, the disabled, or the unsellable, the out-of-work men and women of the libidinal economy.

Coitus—and this is all the more true the higher the relational added value of the subjects involved is—thus becomes the space for building reputation-capital, a labor of self-promotion, one which, even if it fails to hit upon an opportunity, should all the same never fuck up your “game.” That’s how “rebounds” and unsafe (safety-refusing) sexual practices should be interpreted: as little transgressions that allow the total worker to go back on the job a little high off it and full of a feeling of having “splurged” in a pretty dangerous way. We put our health-capital in danger like in other times the bourgeoisie would put their marriages in danger by picking up a mistress.

Don Juan was a choir boy compared to today’s techie-hipster.”

Tiqqun, The Sonogram of Potentiality [12]


Who Is A Prostitute?

Beyond certain unprotected erotic acts, violence from law enforcement, or rape, the most vulnerable position a sex worker, can put herself in is one without monetary exchange. If the labor of the Girlfriend Experience moves into the realm of a sugar daddy/sugar babe relationship, her ability to sell her labor-power has been blocked off in the realm of the libidinal economy. That is, even though she might be awarded a weekly or monthly allowance, have her rent and other amenities covered, there is still a range of commodities she might want or need but are usually only given within the realm of “spoiling.” Gifts received in this fashion take on an almost talismanic power wherein the exchange value of the sugar babe is determined by giving her gifts that are imagined to be commensurable with her value.

In the gift there is an extension of the sexual act, “the exuberance of giving.” [13] The basis of this exchange is predicated on the structures of kinship and the incest prohibition, which provides the socio-historical context for the exchangeability of women as commodities, their value ultimately measured in “their fecundity and their labor.” Claude Lévi-Strauss understood “the rules ensuring the sharing out of women as coveted objects did in fact ensure the sharing out of women as labor power” even though it was not discussed as such. Historically, within the space of the clan or familial unit sexuality was a primordial threat, expropriated by the symbolic and physical removal of the daughter or sister as a gift to be delivered to another man. [14] The exchange of women developed to ward off the threat of incest, while simultaneously women’s commodification was essential for their ability to be given as sacrificial gifts, to transform into objects of desire, and to expand social relations outside the familial unit. Here, desirability as a dimension of illicit or forbidden sexuality enables the libidinal commerce in women, despite the supposedly inalienable quality of erotic capacity by virtue of their feminization.

As Marx noted, there is a distinct enslavement congruent with “femaleness” as, “commodities are things, and therefore lack the power to resist man. If they are unwilling, he can use force; in other words he can take possession of them.” [15] In this situation at the beginning of “Chapter 2: The Process of Exchange” in Vol. 1 of Capital, Marx is explicitly referring to delicate items of the market, including “femmes folles de leur corps” or “wanton women,” women who can’t control their bodies and are most likely to fall victims to vice and prostitution. Appropriation of these commodities is permitted with consent. However there must be a frailty inherent to the commodity form, or vulnerability for those who can be more easily placed within a process of objectification. Since the prostitute’s libidinal labour-power is legally market-inalienable, (that which should not be socially redeemable) the prostitute’s value takes on a mystical quality where it is presumed to be both intrinsic to her constituted self — what makes her “susceptible” to shadow sector and the “sexual difference” produced by capitalist social relations — facilitated by exterior conditions. If the “prostitutability” of any woman were a characteristic believed to be innate to gender, then the fantasy surrounding her enigmatic intimacy would crumble. Rather, it must be believed that the intimacy produced in a sexual encounter by the prostitute is totally unique and made possible through the genuine chemistry both parties simultaneously create and share.

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The spectacle of the experience is what transforms the substance of money into the substance of fantasy life, entailing the reification of both the consumer of fantasy and provider of his experience. As fetishistic relations, commodity relations must appear as personal relations, through a process which spirits away the commodity market in the private sphere of the libidinal economy. This is accomplished through the denial of money’s presence which leads to a disavowal of general commensurability and infinite substitution. Money must pass through the exchange relation silently, as incest and money-talk are still taboo, a distinction exercised by what can or cannot be revealed in the everyday realm of social relations and the vulgarity of too much reality.

In The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin raises the question of eroticism’s limit: “How far can a respectable woman go without losing herself?” In this expansive text Benjamin focuses on Parisian life in the 19th century and social activity occurring in the “arcades” — an early form of covered passages lined with shops and traversed by foot traffic that existed on the limits between private and public space. As a new social sphere, games of decorum were played inside and outside this libidinal economy — along with the boundary of the arcades itself. Women who existed in this liminal space often skirted the line of respectability, performing scenes of appearance where prostitutes played “good girls from good families,” attended dance halls in masquerade, and exhibited illicit pregnancies. They publically performed their abjectness, playing with and exploiting taboo boundaries. What differentiates a whore from a respectable woman? If a woman becomes a prostitute, it is because she understands what her partner gives her is not enough and not guaranteed. In this we know, “Certainly the whore’s love is for sale. But not her client’s shame,” a cheap pleasure to be bought like a new black market gadget is a disavowal he will endlessly pay to keep his private collection a secret first and foremost through the (dis)appearance of payment. [16] Money, especially when it is abstracted in the form of credit and bank deposits, is protected from disclosing the reality of what it implies: work, property and the state.

What is being purchased from the prostitute? Debates surrounding this question are long-standing in the history of sex worker’s rights. Figures in the anti-trafficking and anti-pornography movement directly link the act of one woman selling sex, or the act of making pornography, to enabling commerce. They argue that these lead to a general devaluation of women, thus making virtually anyone “prostitutable.” This logic not only strips away agency and the construction of a self outside of labour, but moreover  ignores the fact that women exist first as subjects within social systems by instead positing the system as subject. [17] In this arbitrary construction, all women can potentially be utilized by the threat of prostitution. A more careful and complex analysis, such as Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women,” locates the commerce in women by their exchangeability in social systems, but their exchangeability as such does not make them women, it only leads us to the locus of this oppression. [18] Without the context of material relations this oppression could not exist.

Addressing Marx’s question of what makes the slave, Rubin outlines a comparable situation showing the conditions under which woman can be domesticated. “A woman is a woman. She only becomes a domestic, a wife, a chattel, a playboy bunny, a prostitute, or a human Dictaphone in certain relations. Torn from these relationships, she is no more the helpmate of man than gold in itself is money.” [19]  To return to the figure of the prostitute, if there is a loss of freedom it begins with the financial contract. Every monetary wager presented as a reifying mediator — here hypothetically by Gorz as “pay your money and you can do what you like with me” — is a false assertion. What is actually being promised is “pay your money and you can have more than you could if you weren’t paying.” [20] Here the fantasy of a pure subject-less subject is presented with the promise of a transaction, which imagines that consent and payment are one and the same gesture. What is the limit of this gesture? What is the relationship between sovereignty and agency? Is sovereignty an act that can be chosen or committed to upon choice?

The prostitute’s service is to skillfully present herself as a liminal sovereign subject. For André Gorz this means, “She must be both subject and freedom, but a freedom which can do no other than to make itself the instrument of another person’s will.” [21] To be a prostitute is to be both subject and sovereign, when this sovereignty is to make oneself into a slave. This is comparable to the requirement of double-freedom: free to labor or free to not: free to be a whore, or free not to be a whore. On what is this promise of freedom built? If the freedom is only to fulfill another’s wish, on what does the position of the subject depend? What relationship to power is assumed? The prostitutional exchange requires her to assert her sovereignty in order to engage a transaction, but to quickly forfeit herself as a sovereign subject so that the intimate exchange might take place. “She thus asserts herself as a free subject who is going to play the role of a slave.” [22] This explains why every time a prostitute is bought her body still remains with her after, as her gestures only simulate an act of non-sovereignty. Her freedom is momentary slavery.

“Experience” demonstrates the Foucaultian notion that “power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free,” and that “there is no face-to-face confrontation of power and freedom, which are mutually exclusive…[since] freedom disappears everywhere power is exercised.” Thus, the freedom to be free is determined by the presence of available possibilities, configurations, choices, or behaviors conceivable for the subject. This freedom is contingent;, it is a double-bind through which subjects become implicated and it cannot be self-realized as an act of calling recognition onto oneself. The girlfriend cannot be free by saying she is free. The freedom to be free is only conceivable when the exercise of power extends over a subject with a realm of possibilities, not a totalizing stand off condensing the forms of freedom and power into discrete immutable figures. The mutual exclusivity of the two terms makes their confrontation impossible as “freedom disappears everywhere power is exercised,” creating a dynamic unifying interplay based in refusal. A refusal to separate freedom and power highlights an antagonism at the core of the power relation due to the “recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom.” [23] This is the freedom to be pleasured.

In the contemporary moment, the production of an “experience” — especially that which includes forms of intimate libidinal attachment and intimacy — requires that class and gender equality be universal or is at least presumed integral to the experience of relationships in their singularity. However, because experience as something commodified necessitates the enactment of power relations between producer and consumer — where power is utilized by the consumer (in the form of income) to engage the productive body of another — this means that the latter be suspended.


Will I Get Wet?

Commodifying experience requires an imaginary re-enactment of mutual freedom at the site of asymmetrical power and drudgery. By erasing all traces of fraud, the sugar baby must bury money as time’s carcass in order to maintain an atmosphere in which one’s whole sense of time is lost in the display of immediate presence and spontaneous affect. The creation of another’s freedom requires that the provider of lived experience forego their own, and therefore define their working day in relation to the free time of the consumer, who is constantly “losing track of time.” Concrete labor time, as the uninterrupted real time of an experience, becomes the paramount concern for the provider of experiences. In time she measures the absolute limit of contracted exploitation in her effort to quantify the value of her work and maintain its appropriate price. Any second beyond the perimeters set out in the contract she deems stolen labor. Her free time becomes all the more a property she owns and protects precisely because she has had the experience of her labor time as his freedom. This is the servitude he purchased by virtue of her relative poverty.

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The commodified semblance of experience is not simply twice removed, in this sense. In fact, what it seeks to replicate is not a form of experience but rather what it would be like to have an authentic experience, not simply one which seems mutually beneficial, but rather an actual experience beyond direct (or indirect) market and state mediation. The simulation of such an imaginary scenario is in short the “experience” of experience itself. Thus the authenticity of a commodified sex act for the Girlfriend Experience is not based in the sexual relation so much as the sex act is the conduit for recognition.

To track this concern historically, it is crucial to take into consideration how the demand for these forms of attention developed in society through a transformation of the pastoral power of the church re-articulated as a condition for the creation of subjects by the state. As Foucault puts it, “the state [acts] as a modern matrix of individualization or a new form of pastoral power.” At the onset of this epoch in the 18th century, humanist thinkers bemoaned the fact that the demands of society came at the cost of true human nature. The freedom to be free here again manifests under the assumption that a free society could insist on the protection of all freedoms without existing as a function of power. This form of freedom would not be separate from life or the production of truth, but would be linked with “the truth of the individual himself.” [24] For experience on its own terms to take place would require the abolition of equality as such — that is, emancipation from juridical and economic freedom.

The commodity of experience in its concrete manifestation is the staging of a liberal dramaturgy of a mutual freedom and reciprocity, performed and experienced in concert between equals, despite their numerous differences. It is precisely because this is a drama, a performance of liberal equality and not equality itself, that genuine experience is eclipsed, not only because it is purchased but indeed because what it seeks to replicate, i.e. authentic experience, is also embroiled in freedom and its contradictions. More abstractly speaking, ‘“Experience’” is a living contradiction, defined by production and consumption occurring simultaneously within the space of time, concretely bound by the structures of labor time but affectively boundless. Work as play — as unmediated experience beyond the space of work — becomes, in the negation of leisure, the very content and standard of leisure’s affective authenticity. The more authentic the experience is, the higher the quality of her attentiveness and oftentimes her preparation. Here, authentic experience is aligned with an innate relationship to truth of the self, although once operating within spheres of commercial emotional labor, work must be separated from one’s subjectivity since it is not a natural endeavor. Work that appears in the form of pure enjoyment suggests that payment is supplementary or indifferent to desire, when in fact it is the cause.

Thus the nature of authenticity is highly contradictory, as the sex worker must perform erotic acts of sexual commerce that she would not do otherwise in this particular situation without compensation. Unless one can develop a physical attraction to the money form, emotional labor needs to produce psychological responses in the body of a prostitute. In an account comparing the work of nannying, prostitution, and nursing from the perspective of sex worker Robin Hustle, she notes how before turning her first trick, “I had no idea if and how I was going to get wet.” [25] Those concerns quickly passed as she discovered liking sex, meeting new people, while throwing a pair of heels in the mix was often enough to create an almost Pavlovian effect in summoning a desirous response.

For the client, bodily signifiers of pleasure hold a certain currency of authenticity, as when coupled with performative affectations they support a fantasy of reciprocity. After a session at a commercial sex club a client describes his interpersonal connection as authentic and highly satisfying. “We began with the usual touchy-feely…I could feel she was just soaking, an indication her moans were not faked…The most unusual aspect of this encounter is that Luscious didn’t ask for money up front which is a first for a place of this type. I tipped her $60.” [26] Due to Luscious’s palpable satisfaction and delay in initially asking for her tribute, she has briefly suspended the artificiality of the encounter in order to engage herself beyond the monetary exchange. Although claiming to be held within the transactional margins of sexual commerce, relational intimacy is often kept in place by precisely testing if the limits of its efficacy could go beyond the purchase. This process of disavowal requires a certain level of elasticity in order to be believable on both ends. For attractive or desirable customers, they rely on the promise of the wage in order to leave the realm of emotional responsibility within the confines of the libidinal economy. For less attractive or less desirable customers, they know they rely on payment in order to receive the affection or care they so desperately desire. Yet since they rely on this, the entirety of the contract depends on its denial. Offering a client a freebie might make him never return, but the present demand for intimate GFE providers exemplifies a need for full-embodied labors of enjoyment.

Zoë, a New York escort, describes the difficulties of her profession and the exhaustion she experiences from emotional labor rather than physical fatigue. “If I start to burn out, it’s not from too much sex. It’s from empathizing with too many people who are unhappy—unhappy enough to spend $600 baseline on sex with someone they don’t know that will probably be unsatisfying on some level…I just wish they’d stop needing me to make them feel deeply desired. It’s hard to make a 55-year-old you think is gross feel deeply desired.” What makes deeply desiring someone you find repulsive so unbearable? More unbearable than sex itself? To continue here with Agamben’s insights we see in other terms that, “desire (tied to imagination, insatiable and boundless) and need (tied to corporeal reality, measurable and theoretically able to be satisfied), [sunders Eros] in such a way that they can never coincide in the same subject…for [her] need is nothing but the inverse form of his own desire and the sum of its essential otherness.” [27] This relationship between desire and need, in a world in which experience is already foreclosed, is ”the removal of imagination from the realm of experience” transformed into the “shadow of desire.” What remains, or what manifests in its stead, is the “true source of desire”: the phantasm, “as mediator between man and object — the condition for the attainability of the object of desire and therefore, ultimately, for desire’s satisfaction.” [28] In the case of the provider, the object is of course money, but for the client the object of desire is much more ambiguous; it is neither the provider herself, nor sexual intercourse, but rather the experience of experience.

Extrapolating from Agamben, the experience of experience is the unification of the individual with his fantasy or phantasmic ideal through work of a particular provider under conditions of need disguised as love. “Love takes as its subject not the immediate sensory thing, but the phantasm…But given the mediating nature of imagination, this means that the phantasm is also the subject, not just the object…In fact, since love has its only site in imagination, desire never directly encounters the object in its corporeality.” The phantasm is the site of complete union between the individual and his imagination that can transform love into an experience. [29] The provider of experience therefore is a conduit of this unification, punctuated by the corporeal, that is, “the sex act,” finding as its medium the fantasy of an active sexual consumer-imagination. The content of desire is the self-affirmation (often of class belonging, education, racial or social status) of a john and his phantasmic self-same ideal girl–granted through the recognition of the desire of his “girlfriend” and the unique lust he can inspire. His recognition, however, is always already a moment summoned within the structure of his own fantasy, the authenticity or authority of which is predicated upon financial credibility. He must put his wallet where his desire is. The continued sponsoring of his “girlfriend” means precisely ongoing transactions with a verified provider who can grant the recognition of his extraordinary power precisely because she is “experienced” in her art, can compare him to that of other johns, and is therefore only ever inauthentically his.

Regardless of experience, the task of producing or reproducing desire in or for another is more difficult to delaminate from other personal forms of recognition, sexual or not, thus complicating the notion of authenticity. As Lauren Berlant notes, this is no small endeavor “since performing and being recognized as emotionally authentic is just as important to the modern sense of being someone as understanding one’s sexual identity is.” [30] People’s attachment to the legitimacy of feeling in labors of care is central to the work of Arlie Hochschild, as in her seminal book The Managed Heart (1983) she uses Freud’s “signal function” as a template for understanding emotional recognition in service economies. Expanded beyond the original definition to include the hopes, fears and expectations we carry, which receive and process the occurrences in life, the signal function is impaired when this typically private management of feeling is suddenly relegated to a waged sphere. Through this process she continues on to define the term emotional labor “to mean the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display…this kind of labor calls for a coordination of mind and feeling, and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honor as deep and integral to our individuality.” [31]

As Hochschild sat at a Delta Airlines Stewardess Training Center in 1980 with 122 inducted trainees, she began to track the burgeoning discourse of the professionalization of the personal in service industries. The smile is referred to as a flight attendant’s asset and is a reflection and extension of the company’s disposition, reaffirming the stability of the product being sold: “its confidence that its planes will not crash, its reassurance that departures and arrivals will be on time, its welcome and its invitation to return.” Echoing the complaints of the New York escort, Zoë, the greatest stressors suffered by this labor is exhaustion produced through excessive elation and then the ability to shut it off after going home. “Sometimes I come off a long trip in a state of utter exhaustion, but I find I can’t relax. I giggle a lot, I chatter, I call friends. It’s as if I can’t release myself from an artificially created elation that kept me ‘up’ on the trip. I hope to be able to come down from it better as I get better at the job.” [32] For this beginning flight attendant, getting better at the job means having greater control over her feelings by gaining ownership of this new self, externalized and commodified through an emotional labor process. Employees in the service industry often talk of this experience by remarking how their smiles are “on them” not “of them,” and even once “off the clock” their faces can be frozen in a mechanized performance of affability.

Returning to the labor of the prostitute, what designates her process of disavowal from other service economies is the burden of total enjoyment. A barista or a flight attendant may owe a customer their care and attention but it is assumed to be a surface nicety performed as one of many requisite components for their overall wage. Escorts who specialize or offer the Girlfriend Experience often navigate the demands of pleasured intimacy expected in a performance of gendered authenticity. For example, in a text message sent from a client to Chicago-area provider, Cathryn — “I want you to enjoy this, the more you enjoy it, the more I’ll enjoy it…I don’t want to be like any other client, I want to be special. Even if it’s for being irritatingly frustrating and you really enjoy taking it out on me. I want you to enjoy it more, and be more emotional about me than other ‘clients.’” In this instance of disavowal the client organizes the reproduction of a fantasy not predicated distinctly on intimacy but singularity. Singular, in that the labor the girlfriend produces is naturalized and fetishized because it is productive of the same oppressive social relations equating her voluntary labor with authenticity, as a labor of love that can only be performed for one man in a given period of time. It follows that this form of “love is not the opposition between a desiring subject and object of desire, but has in the phantasm, so to speak, its subject-object…its character (in contrast with a fol amour which can only consume its object without ever being truly united with it, without ever experiencing it) as a fulfilled love [fin’amours], whose delights never end.” [33] In the disavowed exchange the client makes a pact with the phantasm of desire with money disclosing the reality of what it implies. It must be tucked away discretely, so that the experience of immediacy and absolute singularity can emerge through the production of desire and its enjoyment– as the preposterous girlfriend having not only her individualized cake but really eating it too, despite the obvious fact that this one-and-only boyfriend is for her one-of-many wallets.

This labor of care can also be expressed self-reflexively, such as on a business trip to the Bay Area, a client describes his exciting perusal of the local clubs and how unfortunately most of his time was dedicated to business rather than pleasure. “After the two long dances she offered me a blowjob for another $120. I said that would be heavenly and handed her the money…It was an absolutely fabulous experience. I spent $30 on cover charges, $10 on tips, $240 with Jenny, and $300 with another girl named Tanya for a total of $580. Not bad for just over 2 hours of illicit fun. I’m used to paying that for decent outcall so this was a nice change of pace.” [34] For the male client, in the new stylized arenas of sexual enjoyment popularized throughout the country, prostitution is an act of self-care — a relaxing afternoon at the spa where he can both luxuriate and rejuvenate his libidinal resources through indulgence. Yet for the provider he is purchasing a service from, he is one in a line of various clients she will need to strip, smile, tease, suck, fuck and generally perform her desirability for in the entirety of her shift.

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Bartleby doesn’t play the game; he lives his life as an employee and conducts himself at his post as if he could calmly just live there. Surely he has no home, no family, no love, no wife. So? In this desolate universe, peopled by tasks to accomplish and abstract relationships between worker-men, Bartleby prefers not to. Bartleby goes on a totally new kind of strike…“Indeed,” affirms his boss, resigned, “it was his wonderful mildness chiefly, which not only disarmed me, but unmanned me, as it were.” Bartleby is surprised hanging around at the office on Wall Street on a Sunday, half undressed, but no one finds the firmness of mind to kick him out: everyone just assumes that that must be where he belongs. “For I consider that one, for the time, is sort of unmanned,” continues his boss, “when he tranquilly permits his hired clerk to dictate to him, and order him away from his own premises.” The master’s authority is here deposed by a generic act of refusal: it’s not violence, just the pale solitude of someone who “prefers not to,” who haunts the consciousness of the office boss, just like it has haunted the lives of so many husbands pushed away with the same firm, unjustified determination of a negative preference, harder than any unappealable refusal. The bad conscience of classical virility, personified by the Master in Chancery, Bartleby’s superior, prevents it from freeing itself of this mute specter that doesn’t demand anything anymore, refuses everything, and by its simple obstinate presence alludes to a different kind of world, where the offices would no longer be places where accountants undergo their tiresome slavery, and where the bosses would take orders. “I seldom lose my temper; much more seldom indulge in dangerous indignation at wrongs and outrages,” clarifies his boss. This gentleman is a calm, balanced person, and nonetheless he loses all agency faced with Bartleby. His mild-mannered non-submission seduces him; his strike action contaminates him; he wants to let go and abandon an authority that becomes suddenly burdensome to him, and at the height of his unexplainable sympathy for his do-nothing employee, he resolves to opt for the least logical of solutions: Bartleby’s strike, which in this sense is similar to that of the feminists, is a human strike, a strike of gestures, dialogue, a radical skepticism in the face of all forms of oppression that are taken for granted, including the most unquestioned of emotional blackmail or social conventions, such as the need to get up and go to work and then come home from the office once it’s closed. But it’s a strike that doesn’t extend itself out, that doesn’t contaminate the other workers with its negative preference syndrome, because Bartleby explains nothing (that’s his great strength), and has no legitimacy; he’s not threatening to not do anything anymore, so he’s still upholding his contractual relationship with the boss, he simply reminds him that he has no more duty than he has desire, and that his preference happens to be for the abolition of work. “But thus it often is,” continues the boss of the office, “that the constant friction of illiberal minds wears out at last the best resolves of the more generous.” A human strike without a communization of morals ends up as a private tragedy, and is considered a personal problem, a mental illness. His colleagues, circulating in the office during the day, demand obedience from Bartleby, that employee that walks along with his hands in his pockets; they give him orders, and faced with his categorical refusal to carry them out and his absolute impunity, they are perplexed and feel that they have somehow become the victims of some sort of unspeakable injustice. 



This reclamation of labor power aligns her struggle with that of the human strike, as she understands the call for enjoyment is not just a perfunctory nicety, but a threat of subjugation disguised as recognition because it ventriloquizes her pleasure. The human strike rather than the gender(ed) strike facilities the whatever-singularity of those who labor within the realm of affective girlfriend labor by re-including those excluded or erased through a lack of mobility or ability to fulfill raced, classed, or gendered fantasies. The human strike is a conceptualized reconstruction which de-naturalizes the act of girlfriend or all of those who girlfriend regardless of gender or biological determination. Therefore, the human strikes seeks to continue the act of revealing the hidden value of girlfriending by making visible multiple labors produced within the space of intimate exchange whether it is premised on remuneration or not. The act of girlfriending is gendered by nature of the exclusionary demands to which it seeks to attend, making the human strike a collectivizing struggle towards the abolishment of gender by realigning against the normativities it mandates. The tactics of the human strike are not inherent to the human strike itself, the human strike is not a call to action, a readymade to be placed on any situation of dissent. The human strike comes into recognition according to the necessities cultivated through its action; it is drawn to the abject. It is always specific and non-totalizing in the infinite possibilities produced. Stoicism, too much intensity, affectlessness, refusing labor, rejecting a “conservative longing for the past,” can be taken up within the realm of power contingent upon this freedom. The abject is not a moral position of romantic attachment to traditional forms of coupling or recognition. Nor is abject positivity nihilistic, a self-reflexive cancellation, sacrificed and dejected because it is specifically formulated in relation to reproduction of the subject. The abject operates as a sphere of power under which potentialities are revealed in the forms of different modes of agency.

Instead to use her body’s pleasure as a form of self-revealing knowledge by not faking the non-reproducible — or not faking it for free — rehabilitates the concept of desire: what is included in its sacrifice. What if the whore revolts against her powers of healing in order to resist a violence she cannot select herself as distinct from? For Claire Fontaine the struggle is against a part of ourselves, “because we are always partly complicit with the things that oppress us.” [35] A movement against ourselves in the bodies we hold but do not fully keep in intimate refusals of collusion. “The struggle-force, like the love-force, must be protected and regenerated,” and to do so will require a total restructuring of all libidinal engagement. [36] To remove the corrupted form of love called romanticism that reinforces the sex class system through eroticism, privatization and beauty. As Shulamith Firestone expressed, “[r]omanticism develops in proportion to the liberation of women from their biology.” [37] When love and care are exploited under the conditions of erasure, to continue to labor is to continue to struggle, with agency challenged by the pre-existing perimeters. To be sex positive would be cruel, to be abject positive is to be conscious — to reclaim. It is specifically formulated in relation to the reproduction of the subject, socially reproduced in accordance with what she can assert for herself. To assert payment for that which is assumed to be free is to say that her body belongs to no one but herself — or to nobody but herself and the body of struggle.[ii]



[i] Thank you for your invaluable help Jackson Smith and your unpublished article “Hazardous Homes and Dirty Money: Civil Forfeiture and the Politics of Dispossession in Philadelphia.” 2015.

[ii] We would to thank Madeline Lane McKinley for her help publishing this under pressure and for being such a champ as our excellent primary editor on this piece. We would also like to thank Johanna Isaacson and Kenan Sharpe for their excellent editorial work and support as well. Thanks to Justin Hogg for working late to finalize this article. We would also like to give extra appreciation to Beth Peller for prompting us to publish swiftly and to understand that our important and difficult work deserves recognition and the credit it deserves.


Works Cited

[1] Illouz, Eva. Consuming the romantic utopia: love and the cultural contradictions of capitalism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. p. 240

[2] Sophie Lewis, “On the Future Genealogy of the Date.” Blind Field Journal, 3 May 2016.

[3] Illouz, p. 66

[4] Agamben, Giorgio. “An Essay on the Destruction of Experience,” Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, New York: Verso, 2007, p.15.

[5] Endnotes. “The Logic of Gender.” Endnotes 3, 2013.

[6] Lazzarato, M., and Joshua David Jordan. The making of the indebted man: an essay on the neoliberal condition, 2012, p. 27, 37.

[7] Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 511.

[8] Lukács, György. History and class consciousness: studies in Marxist dialectics. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1971, p. 83.

[9] Debord, Guy, and Donald Nicholson-Smith. The society of the spectacle. New York: Zone Books, 2012, p. 14.

[10] Bernstein, Elizabeth. Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007, p. 7.

[11] Bernstein, Elizabeth. “Chapter 9: Buying and Selling the Girlfriend Experience: The Social and Subjective Contours of Market Intimacy,” Love and Globalization: Transformations of Intimacy in the Contemporary World. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2007, p. 194.

[12] Tiqqun. “Sonogram of a Potential”, Tiqqun #2, 2001, https://caringlabor.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/sonogram.pdf

[13] Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share, Volumes II & III. New York: Zone Books, 1993, p. 56.

[14] Ibid., p.  49.

[15] Marx, Karl. Capital: Volume 1, London: Penguin Classics, 1990, p. 178.

[16] Benjamin, p. 492, 493.

[17] Gorz, Andre. Critique of Economic Reason. New York: Verso, 1989. p. 137

[18] Rubin, Gayle. The traffic in women: notes on the “political economy” of sex. Toward an Anthropology of Women, p. 175

[19] Ibid, p. 158

[20] Gorz, p. 148.

[21] Ibid, p. 147

[22] Ibid, p. 148

[23] Foucault, Michel. “The Subject and Power.” The University of Chicago Press, 1982,. p. 790.

[24] Ibid, p. 783.

[25] Hustle, Robin. What Prostitutes, Nurses and Nannies Have in Common”


[26] Bernstein, Elizabeth. “Desire, Demand, and the Commerce of Sex.” Regulating sex: the politics of intimacy and identity. Ed. Elizabeth Bernstein and Laurie Schaffner. New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 114.

[27] Agamben, p. 30.

[28] Ibid, p. 28.

[29] Ibid., p. 29.

[30] Berlant, Lauren. “Starved.” After sex?: on writing since queer theory. Ed. Janet E. Halley and Andrew Parker. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2011 p. 82.

[31] Hochschild, Arlie Russell. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983, p. 7.

[32] Ibid, p. 4.

[33] Agamben, p. 26

[34] Bernstein. “Desire, Demand, and the Commerce of Sex.” p. 112

[35] Tiqqun. “Sonogram of a Potential.”

[36] Fontaine, Claire. Human strike has already begun & other writings. 2013, p. 45.

[37] Ibid, p. 48.

[38] Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialectic of Sex. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003, p. 131.


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