Political theory is a discipline with a relatively well-defined canon. Among its most established works are those of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the subject of the social contract; these 17th and 18th century writers, and others of their time, imagined that society had begun with a contract among men. The details of their stories varied: Hobbes held that the contract provided for a sovereign to relieve the men of the constant war of all against all, in which life was famously “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” while others depicted more equitable contracts drafted under less coercion. In each case, the “conjectural history” of the original contract helps explain and justify the current social order. We have government, according to the contract theorists, because our forefathers came together and agreed to form it. Furthermore, the everyday contracts of citizenship, employment, and marriage are given the weight of social consensus by the original contract; the structure of society is one of “contracts all the way down.”

This standard account of the social contract is, according to Carole Pateman’s 1988 book The Sexual Contract, only half (or, as she finally concludes, a third of) the story originally told by contract theorists. The story also involved another contract which has been forgotten, an earlier contract establishing male dominance over women and access by men to women’s bodies. This contract has been ignored in part because contract theory has been read as a liberatory replacement for an earlier, explicitly patriarchal justification of government which attributed the ruler’s authority to his social position, which was analogous to the “natural”/God-given role of a father. Indeed, Locke wrote his treatises on government in response to Sir Robert Filmer’s version of this argument. It has thus become possible and indeed standard to read passages on the dominance of men in classic works as products of misogyny separate—or at least separable—from the political insights of their authors.

In amending this error, Pateman constructs a work of political theory that incorporates two histories. The first is an intellectual—and to some degree political—history of contract theory. The second is a reconstruction of the conjectural history first developed by the classic contract theorists. It’s worth pointing out that, despite working in the genre herself, Pateman conceives of the social contract as mythical, as a “political story.” As she writes, though, “the invention of the story was also a momentous intervention into the political world” that continues to have repercussions. The social contract has remained one of the standard bases for liberal political theory, and Pateman documents some of its influence on jurists and legislators as well as later political, economic, feminist, and psychoanalytic thinkers. As Pateman writes in her preface, it seemed particularly influential during the Reagan and Thatcher years when she was writing.

Pateman argues that the sexual contract is in fact integral to the social one, for it is the sexual contract that draws a distinction between the private and civil spheres. The private sphere, social but not political, is the realm granted to women in contract theory. Women are not only left out of the social contract, they are first subjugated by the sexual contract. The consequences of this conception of public and private are real: marital rape and wife-beating are apolitical acts rather than crimes within the discourse of contract. The historical and present reality of political indifference toward such attacks on women serves as one source of evidence for Pateman’s thesis. (Hobbes offers a notable exception, treating sexual relationships as political like any other, but Hobbes also offers a vision of the social contract that liberates its subjects from warfare into slavery. Pateman, like other scholars, seems to often read him as an honest contract theorist who makes the injustices of contract theory apparent.)

Pateman is adamant, though, that exploitation is not the only source of injustice. Subordination is also unjust, and yet lies at the core of contract. Although contracts are ostensibly between equals, each perfectly free, “contract always generates political right in the form of relations of domination and subordination.” This attack on hierarchal relationships is a central component of Pateman’s critiques of marriage and prostitution, and indeed of all forms of slavery and employment. Marriage is not truly a contract in the ideal of contract theory, but is much like other actual contracts for servitude in that it assigns to one party control over another.

The other central component of these critiques is Pateman’s argument that a worker does not sell labor power, but rather sells himself. Labor power cannot be alienated physically from a worker; he must be present to do his work, and thus makes himself available to his employer for a fee. Marriage is more objectionable because, like civil slavery, it is (or at least is premised upon) total and perpetual servitude. (Pateman’s work on marriage left me with the distinct impression that conservatives are right that gay marriage will change the institution, but that this is the best hope for the salvation of heterosexual marriage from its history as a form of slavery.) No form of work should be conceived of strictly as a service, but prostitution is still a special case for Pateman because sex plays a unique role in the construction of identity, and because prostitution reminds men of the sexual contract and sex-right.

In her conclusion, Pateman is critical of the shift in feminist discourse from sex to gender. Biological differences matter, she argues: the subordination of women is based on their sexual organs and ability to bear children. To some extent Pateman applies her critique to the institutions of science and medicine herself with her analysis of surrogate mothering, but she raises broader questions for science studies, my own field. For example, does the sexual contract allow male scientists access to female bodies for experiment as well as sex and reproduction?

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