Commodity Model vs. Performance Model of Sexuality (and why the Performance Model is infinitely better)


Jaclyn Friedman, author of Yes Means Yes and What You Really Really Want, gave the keynote presentation on March 18th to kick off the Carolina Women’s Center’s Gender Week. In her speech, she discussed two models of sexuality – the commodity model and the performance model.

The Commodity Model of Sexuality

In the commodity model of sexuality, sex is a commodity that women are expected to protect and men are expected to get. In her speech, Friedman used an analogy comparing “lady sex” to a water bottle. Women must guard their water bottle no matter what and not let any man take a sip until marriage. Men, on the other hand, deserve to take a sip and are expected to do anything they can to convince a women to let them. If a woman gives in to a man’s advances, she is immediately less worthy. The more men that she allows to take a sip, the less and less worthy and “impure” she becomes. If she is distracted or takes her eye off of her water and someone takes a sip, then it is her fault for not protecting her water because it is her responsibility to guard it. The man that takes the water without permission may be reprimanded, but she left it out for him to take, so can you really blame him?

This model is, for obvious reasons, very problematic. In this model, women don’t want sex (they want love). They are not agents of their own sexuality and are instead qualified by their sexuality. They are hyper-sexualized, yet expected to be “innocent.” Virginity is emphasized as the highest form of purity and thus a virgin woman is of the highest value. Words like “slut” and “whore” are used to keep women in line with the commodity model – these words tell her that she should not want sex and she should keep her sexuality private.

The model isn’t good for men either – in it, they are expected to want sex more than anything. Because sex is such a commodity, they should do everything they can to get it from as many women as possible otherwise they aren’t real men. Virginity for men is something to be embarrassed about. The model emphasizes that men want sex, and men deserve sex.

Instead of sex being a fun activity than two people can enjoy together, it is viewed as an exchange where the man receives it and the woman gives it up (this model is also completely heteronormative).

Unfortunately, we are taught these ideas from a young age and in many ways the commodity model has become ingrained in the way we think about relationships and sex. Abstinence-only education endorses it, as do movies, TV, magazines, newspapers, and other forms of media. The evidence for how prominent this model is in our society is everywhere, and it’s overwhelming.

Furthermore, this model promotes rape culture. The views that it is a woman’s responsibility to prevent being raped and that men who rape can’t be held completely accountable because “she was asking for it” by the way she was dressed  both stem from the commodity model mindset.

So, what’s our alternative? Friedman suggests that we explore a more collaborative, creative model of sexuality. “The performance model of sexuality” is one that appears in her book (co-edited with Jessica Valenti) in an essay by Thomas Macaulay Millar.

The Collaborative, Creative Model of Sexuality (The Performance Model)

In this model, sexual interaction is a collaborative partnership. It is a fun activity that involves the enthusiastic engagement of everyone involved – like in music collaborations. As Friedman mentioned in her speech, when a musician plays with multiple groups, he or she (or ze) is not considered a “music slut.” In fact, ze will probably learn a lot from playing with different people and will grow as a musician. This model emphasizes sex as an activity rather than a commodity. It also emphasizes “enthusiastic consent” as a requirement for any sexual interactions. Enthusiastic consent means that each person has the responsibility to make sure his or her partner(s) is into what’s happening. The consent must be clear and continuous, which means you must engage in conversation throughout.

The following video sums up this model well:

The performance model makes it clear that our sexuality is just that – our own. It gives agency back to women, as opposed to the commodity model that takes it away. Sex is no longer a water bottle and women are no longer the objects that are required to protect it. We are free to express our sexuality however and with whomever we want, as long as we continually respect others’ sexualities, boundaries, and agencies. If the model were practiced every time that anyone had sex, there would never be rape. Instead of an ambiguous “No Means No” policy that provides a lot of grey area, the enthusiastic (affirmative) consent policy is clear and has no room for misunderstandings or excuses.

Obviously, talking about this model is much easier than actually following through with it. It requires clear communication and it also requires that you know what you want. Neither of those things is easy – especially in a society where we’ve been told that we aren’t the agents of our sexuality. How can we know what we want sexually when we haven’t felt in control of our sexuality? Friedman suggested a few ways to overcome these difficulties, mainly: talk about sex and talk about talking about sex. Collaborative sex and communication won’t necessarily be easy, but it will get easier with practice.

I think it’s pretty clear that this model is infinitely better than the commodity model – not only does it completely undermine rape culture, it will also, undoubtedly, lead to better sex. It’s a win-win.

So, what are you waiting for? Go out and practice (in whatever way you feel comfortable).

Be safe though, and get tested for crying out loud.