- Corporeal Entrepreneurialism and Neoliberal Agency in the Sex Trade at the US-Mexican Border
In this essay I will discuss corporeal entrepreneurialism in the context of commercial sex and neoliberal agency at the United States–Mexico border. I want to situate the sex trade in a larger neoliberal context of economic need, mobility, and commercialization. The essay addresses how bodily entrepreneurialism can function as a gateway to upward social mobility and how erotic capital can level existing social and economic inequalities and thus act as a catalyst to exit marginalized communities. I am drawing on Wacquant's (1995) work on corporeal entrepreneurs and also on the notion of bodily capital that he has developed therein. Using bodily capital in the context of sex work, it makes sense to talk more specifically about erotic capital, which is the primary currency in the sex trade. Thus, I will integrate Isaiah Green's (2008) definition of erotic capital and elaborate how women make use of their bodies to enhance their erotic capital and explain what their strategies and perceptions are. Inspired by Alexander Edmonds' (2007) work on beauty and race in Brazil, I will elaborate how corporeal entrepreneurs strategically use their bodily and erotic capital to counteract their socioeconomic marginalization and challenge traditional hierarchies. As will become clear, corporeal entrepreneurialism ties together women's agency, market demand, and monetary value, and, to succeed, this endeavor requires enormous levels of discipline, emotional resilience, management skills, stamina, and purposefulness. [End Page 233]
Theoretically, this essay is framed within the literature that has addressed entrepreneurial selves in late capitalism (Tyler 2004; Rose 1999; Salecl 2004; Bührmann 2005; Freeman 2007). Demystifying sex work requires an understanding of sex workers as aspiring corporeal entrepreneurs who make use of their bodily and erotic capital, responding to neoliberal structural demands while creating opportunities for themselves. Looking at sex work at the US-Mexican border, we find the complicated entanglement of submission to the entrepreneurial imperative of the neoliberal present combined with the individual's positive advancement and the improvement of her socioeconomic position.
Andrea Bührmann ascribes the appearance of an "enterprising self" to the last third of the twentieth century. She affirms that the enterprising self is "defined by the steering of action, feeling, thinking and willing on the basis of an orientation on the criteria of economic efficiency and entrepreneurial calculation" (2005, 2). Analogically, Ulrich Bröckling (2007) points out that the principle "Act entrepreneurial!" has become the categorical imperative of the present, and Melissa Tyler speaks of the "managerial colonization of everyday life" (2004, 82). Managerial ways of thinking about our selves and our bodies have become dominant in late capitalism. Individuals are incited to become engaged in an ongoing process of self-optimization, constantly aspiring to change themselves, and finding more effective ways of managing their own resources. Individuals are incited to be entrepreneurial, yet in a self-responsible way, conscious of possible risks, and autonomously engaged in techniques of self-care. The enterprising self is expected to be aspiring, purposeful, and willing to be competitive. An entrepreneurial imperative, exceeding beyond the economic sphere, interlaces all levels of life whereby marketability becomes a primary focus of the individual's organization of everyday life. Simultaneously, every individual is considered an autonomous agent who is capable of creating a successful project of the self. Nikolas Rose (1999) has highlighted that individuals in late capitalism are encouraged to become entrepreneurs who shape their lives through the choices they make from among the options available to them. Historically, the enterprising self has been a male subject who was incited to take risks and exploit his bodily resources in order to become a self-made man. Renata Salecl points out that in late capitalism the totality of a person has become a commodity (2004, 1152). [End Page 234] The entrepreneur of late capitalism is encouraged to sell everything available to her or him, including affect, intimacy, sex, body parts, and bodily services of various kinds. This invitation to alienate one's own resources functions in a highly gendered way. While men of disadvantaged social backgrounds become soldiers, security guards, bouncers, or casually contracted factory workers, women...