Women as Commodities: An Examination of Violence Against Women

The Problem & Its Importance

This track seeks to address the serious societal issue of violence against women. The United Nations defines violence against women as any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty (United Nations 2007). One of the world’s most widespread human rights violations, violence against women is a global pandemic (United Nations 2011). From crimes such as rape, trafficking, and domestic violence to harmful practices such as child and forced marriage, “honor” killings, genital mutilation and dowry-related violence, violence against women affects women of all ages, races, cultures and social backgrounds occurring in public and private spheres during times of peace and conflict. Consider these statistics:

  • An estimated 4.5 million people are victims of forced sexual exploitation in human trafficking. 98% are women and girls (International Labour Organization 2012).
  • In the U.S. nearly 1 in 5 women have reported experiencing rape at some time in their life (Black et al. 2014).
  • The practice of early marriage is common worldwide, with more than 60 million girls around the globe married before the age of 18.
  • In the U.S. 81% of girls aged 12 to 16 experience some form of sexual harassment in public schools (AAUW 1993).
  • An estimated 5,000 women are victims of “Honor killings” as they are suspected of adultery, premarital sex or victims of rape (United Nations News Centre 2010).

The cost of violence against women is immeasurable with women losing their lives through homicide, suicide, AIDS and maternal causes (Garcia-Moreno and Watts 2011). It is also an important cause of multiple mental, physical, sexual and reproductive health problems (Plichta 2001). Economic costs that go towards treatment and services to victims and costs of prosecution of perpetrators are immense with an estimated $5.8 billion in direct and indirect expenses due to intimate partner violence in the U.S. alone in 1995 (Max et al. 2004).

Consumer behavior and marketing as a field has done little to examine this issue (for exceptions see Capella, Hill, Rapp and Kees 2010; Keller, Wilkinson and Otjen 2010). We contend that violence against women, particularly sexualized forms of violence, can be conceptualized using marketing exchange theory by construing women and their sexuality as commodities. Commodities in the business world are basic goods that are interchangeable with other commodities of the same type. While quality may vary, there is little differentiation between a commodity coming from one producer and the same commodity coming from another. Lay leaders acknowledge that worldwide treatment of women and girls as commodities is a serious societal issue (Ford 2014).

The idea of using economic theory to explain gender sexual disparities is not new. Baumeister and Vohs (2004) used social exchange theory to propose a theory of sexual economics (SET) which proposes that sex is a female resource where sex is something that women provide and men desire. In SET, female sexuality is endowed with value unlike male sexuality. Sexual activity by women has exchange value and therefore female virginity, chastity, and other similar indicators matter more to the formation and continuation of a relationship thus accounting for the sexual double standard that exists. Authors contend that women have a vested interest in protecting their sexual value so as to increase the “price” they can command. They make an analogy regarding a local sexual marketplace where “men and women act as individual agents seeking to find an advantageous deal (p. 343).” Herein lies the major issue we have with SET’s application of economic theory, it assumes that men and women have equal agency in the sexual marketplace. However, the above statistics clearly demonstrate that women by in large worldwide do not have control over their lives much less their bodies and sexual access.

Existing theories have some overlap with the idea of women as commodities. For example, a substantial body of literature examines the objectification of women. Objectification theory contends that when objectified, women are treated as bodies that exist for the use and pleasure of others. However, objectification theory takes as a given that women exist in a culture objectified or potentially objectified and primarily examines the consequences of sexual objectification in women’s lives (Frederickson and Roberts 1997). Sexual objectification definitively affects women and men but we propose that this is only one aspect of the process brought about by thinking of women as commodities.

We propose that a more all-encompassing representation of the dynamics that occur for women requires understanding why objectification takes place and suggest that women have historically been and still are considered the property of men and as such, are often treated as commodities. Commoditization theory contends that a human being can be transformed into a commodity when they become a unit under the control of another (Kopytoff 1986). The commoditized person is used to achieve the commoditizers’ objectives and is stripped of free will, self-determination and self-hood (Hirschman and Hill 2000). The commoditized person’s body, skills, abilities, labor and even reproductive capacity are no longer under his/her own control, but rather are controlled by the commoditizer (Hirschman and Hill 2000). Examining the (de)commoditization of women meshes well with feminist theories which generally attribute violence against women to expressions of patriarchal power. However, while we agree patriarchy and gender roles play a major part in why violence against women occurs and is accepted, feminist theories’ focus on patriarchal culture and structural gender roles makes finding solutions to violence against women, short of changing entire societal dynamics and norms, difficult and even impossible to contemplate.

Research will be developed around the idea that women have traditionally been and still are considered commodities, not people. When women are seen as commodities they are dehumanized by men and women alike (Puvia and Vaes 2015). Others’ depersonalization of women make it easier to rationalize their abuse both by perpetrators and bystanders. Whether through intimate partner violence, forced marriages or outright human trafficking, most of the women in the world are disposed of and controlled by others (Hartsock 2004). Some forms of violence against women, such as prostitution and human sex trafficking, clearly treat women as commodities as women are sexual services that are bought and sold, with prostitutes often tricked and coerced or sold to pimps and sex traffickers. Women and girls forced into marriage similarly are bought and sold commanding a bride price or dowry. Women who are raped, particularly in the case of gang rape, are seen as something to be used, traded then discarded.

We believe that the concept of “women as commodities” also carries over to less obvious forms of violence against women. For example, women themselves often see themselves through the eyes of others as the ideals of thinness and “hotness” pervade how they think of and act towards themselves sometimes to devastating consequences such as eating disorders and suicide (Brausch and Gutierrez 2009; Hartsock 2004). In the case of sexual harassment, women are subjected to sexual innuendo, cat calls and inappropriate touching because men who sexually harass believe they have the right to comment on and have access to women’s bodies. Portrayals of women as sexualized objects in media, advertisements and pornography also contribute to thinking of women as commodities.

A “Women as Commodities” framework allows us to focus our attention squarely on the mindset of men. Society often teaches “Don’t get raped” rather than “Don’t rape (Bates 2012)” blaming women for their victimization. Take for example this quote by a Darfuri woman, “After the man raped me, my family would not eat with me. They treated me like a dog and I had to eat alone (Hirschfeld 2009).” Victims of sexualized violence are victimized again by the stigma and shame forced on them by a culture that places blame by ignoring those who have brutally attacked them. This message has been reinforced most recently by the CDC in an infographic they released as a part of a social marketing campaign targeting fetal alcohol syndrome. “Though the CDC doesn’t mention rape or sexual assault anywhere in its campaign…[it is based on] the assumption that women should avoid drinking so they don’t become the subject of unwanted sexual attention…one of the many victim-blaming pieces of advice that women regularly hear about how they should avoid being raped (Zielinski 2013).” Thus, much focus in eliminating violence is on women; however, while empowering and educating women is necessary, acts of violence against women are primarily committed by men. Thus our framework focuses more on understanding men, their mindsets and cultural practices that reproduce and reinforce the perpetuation of violence against women with the ultimate goal of change.

Session Goals

Thus, the Violence Against Women track’s goals are two-fold:

1) Utilize marketing exchange theory and thought to create a unique frame of reference for understanding the entrenched and difficult issues of violence against women; and

2) Understand how marketing and its entities may contribute to as well as attenuate the perpetuation of violence against women.

Our track focus will seek to develop and conduct research that answer the following research questions:

  • How can the economic understanding of commodities in the marketplace further the recognition of women and the violence they primarily experience and of men and their role in the cultural practices allowing for its continued perpetuation?
  • What dynamics perpetuate women as commodities?
  • What processes are utilized that allow for women to become commodities?
  • In what ways does the marketplace commoditize women and can it become part of the solution?

We propose to use time before TCR to develop a research-driven action plan that will result in development of a theoretical framework regarding the commoditization of women. Then utilizing the framework, the team will meet at TCR to generate a manuscript and other research projects and plans to carry through with additional empirical research.

Pre-Conference Plans

  • Review relevant literature prior to the TCR conference by the research team: The literature review will include both theoretical and empirical arenas.
    • Theoretical arenas: feminist theory, commoditization theory, objectification theory, sexual economics theory.
    • Empirical arenas: Sexual assault/rape, prostitution, gender inequality, intimate partner violence, forced marriage, and sexual harassment.
      • Time frame: present to January 31
      • Responsible parties – each member of the team will address a topic and summarize and share a literature review with the team.
    • Development of women as commodities theoretical framework.
      • Time frame: January 31 – March 30th
      • Responsible parties: Ron Hill and Marie Yeh will develop the initial framework by the midpoint of the time frame which will then be distributed for review and refinement to the rest of the team.
    • Development of research ideas: Team members will develop potential research project ideas
    • Begin data collection from secondary and primary data sources as appropriate for research projects

Conference Plans:

  • During the conference, research will be elaborated upon for manuscript development. Secondary data sources will be analyzed and reviewed and an action plan for further development (e.g., additional data collection) will be delineated.
  • A manuscript codifying the framework for the TCR special issue will be outlined with sections assigned to research team members.
  • Additional research ideas will be brainstormed to develop a broad reaching research agenda to be pursued by track members and other interested parties post conference.

Post-Conference Plans:

  • Submission of a manuscript to the TCR special issue regarding the developed framework and insights from data collection and analysis.
  • Presentation of the work at conferences such as the Marketing and Public Policy conference, Association for Consumer Research conference and the Macromarketing conference
  • Pursuit of 2-4 additional research projects comprised of varying members of the research team leading to additional manuscripts and conference presentations
  • Identify and pursue potential grant funding for emerging research projects

Chairs

References:

  1. AAUW Educational Foundation (1993), Hostile Hallways: Bullying, Teasing, and Sexual Harassment in Schools, available from http://www.aauw.org/files/2013/02/hostile-hallways-bullying-teasing-and-sexual-harassment-in-school.pdf
  2. Bates, Laura (2012), “A Crime Upon a Crime: Rape, Victim-blaming, and Stigma,” From Women Under Siege http://www.womenundersiegeproject.org/blog/entry/a-crime-upon-a-crime-rape-victim-blaming-and-stigma (accessed February 21, 2016)
  3. Baumeister, Roy F. and Kathleen D. Vohs (2004), “Sexual Economics: Sex as Female Resource for Social Exchange in Heterosexual Interactions,” Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8(4) 339-363.
  4. Brausch, Amy M. and Peter M. Guitierrez (2011), “The Role of Body Image and Disordered Eating as Risk Factors for Depression and Suicidal Ideation in Adolescents,” Suicide and Life-threatening Behavior, 39(1) 58-71.
  5. Capella, Michael L. Ronald Paul Hill, Justine M. Rapp and Jeremy Kees (2010), “The Impact of Violence Against Women in Advertisements,” Journal of Advertising, 38(4), 37-52.
  6. Ford, Liz (2014) “Women Must be Treated as Human Beings, Not Commodities, says UN,” The Guardian, (April 24, 2014).
  7. Garcia-Moreno, Claudia and Charlotte Watts (2011), “Violence Against Women: An Urgent Public Health Priority,” Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 89(1) available at http://www.scielosp.org/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0042-96862011000100002
  8. General Assembly Resolution 61/143, Intensification of Efforts to Eliminate All Forms of Violence Against Women, (19 December 2006) available from http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/61/143&Lang=E]
  9. Hartsock, Nancy C. M. (2004), “Women and/as Commodities,” Canadian Women Studies, 23(3.4), 14-17.
  10. Hirschfeld K. et al. Nowhere to Turn: Failure to Protect, Support, and Assure Justice for Darfuri Women. Physicians for Human Rights and Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Cambridge. 2009
  11. Hirschman, Elizabeth C. and Ronald Paul Hill (2000), “On Human Commoditization and Resistance: A Model Based Upon Buchenwald Concentration Camp,” Psychology & Marketing, 17(6), 469-491.
  12. International Labour Office (2012), ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour, Switzerland.
  13. Keller, Sarah N., Timothy Wilkinson, A.J. Otjen (2010) “Unintended Effects of a Domestic Violence Campaign,” Journal of Advertising, 38(4), 53-67.
  14. Kopytoff, Igor (1986), “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process,” in A. Appadurai (Ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  15. Max, Wendy et al. (2004), “The Economic Toll of Intimate Partner Violence Against Women in the United States,” Violence and Victims, 19(3), 259-272.
  16. Plichta, Stacey B. and Marilyn Falik (2001), “Prevalence of Violence and its Implications for Women’s Health,” Women’s Health Issues, 111, 244-58.
  17. Puvia, Elisa and Jeroen Vaes (2015), “Promoters versus Victims of Objectification: Why Women Dehumanize Sexually Objectified Female Targets,” International Review of Social Psychology, 28, 63-93.
  18. United Nations Women (2012), Stand Up, Speak Out, Take Action, available from http://www.un.org/en/women/endviolence/pdf/UNiTE%20Global%20Youth%20Network_Brochure_FINAL_2012.pdf
  19. United Nations News Centre (2010), Impunity for Domestic Violence, ‘Honour Killings’ Cannot Continue, (March 4, 2010) available from http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=33971#.V5uGYbgrKUk
  20. Zielinski, Alex (2016), The CDC has some insulting advice for women who drink. http://thinkprogress.org/health/2016/02/03/3745802/cdc-victim-blaming/ (Accessed February 21, 2016)