Has Modernity Afforded Women More Sexual Freedom? -2019

The perpetuation of historical myths surrounding female sexuality has transcended into the modern through a collective imaginary. Jasanoff suggests that often the line between real and imagined realities is blurred and “observed facts of nature are refracted through collective desires for logic and order, producing authoritative representations of how the world works- as well as how it should work” (Jasanoff, 2015, pg. 6). The collective imagination of citizens within a patriarchal society dominated by a threat of violence is inevitably going to internalise the expectations of their social role and perform their expected identity to the best of their ability. Female sexuality throughout time has been suppressed and far too often is accepted as biological fact, rather than understanding it through a cultural or social lens. Some scholars have argued that this suppression is “one of the most remarkable psychological interventions in Western cultural history” (Baumeister & Twenge, 2002, pg. 166). My main argument in this essay is that modernity has not brought sexual liberation to women, and from a Foucauldian perspective the fact that much of the sexism and suppression of sexuality is happening subtly makes it all the more hard to resist. This essay will interrogate some pivotal moments that are at the intersection of discourse, power and sex. I begin this essay with a discussion on the historical construction of the division of labour and what that meant for social gender roles at the beginning of modernity. Next I will focus on the dominance of science and the legacy that remains from a number of influences at the time. A discussion on some of Foucault’s ideas, specifically that of discourse and the use of some examples within that paradigm will be explored, which have helped shape our understandings of modern day sex work. Braidottis understanding of humanism is also referred to and discussed in regards to the silent dominance of such a problematic term. The final part of the essay will have a look at Foucault’s understanding of biopower and how that is employed in the modern context. The sexual revolution of the 60s as well as the recent #metoo movements will be discussed in regards to female subjectivity to argue my point that women are no more sexually free than pre-modernity.

In regards to sexuality, the female body has historically been imposed with external meaning stemming from a patriarchal gaze. The 18th century saw many social and cultural changes stemming from rising capitalism which shifted the importance of existing institutions such as marriage and the family. The rise of capitalism brought about structural changes in which production moved outside of the home and individuals were expected to sell their labour for a wage. Some scholars have suggested that new understandings of gendered roles during rising modernity were understood through the separation of paid and unpaid labour; women were responsible for the reproduction of labour while men were responsible for wage work and financially supporting the family unit (Tilly & Scott cited in Dempsey & Lindsay, 2014, pg. 19). Marriage as an institution was dramatically changed towards the end of the 18th century when the idea of romantic love made its debut within the wider society (Giddens, 1993, pg. 39). Romance within marriage was a modern phenomenon; previously marriages were based on economic development rather than passion and love. “The complex of ideas associated with romantic love for the first time associated love with freedom, both being seen as normatively desirable states” (Giddens, 1993, pg. 40). This connection between love and freedom was able to distract society from existing economic aspects of marriage, focusing more on the social and pushing the economic into the background. In early modernity, women would alternate between productive (paid) and reproductive (unpaid) labour, it was near impossible to do the both simultaneously (Dempsey & Lindsay, 2014, pg. 21). Simone de Beauvoir recognised this separation of paid and unpaid labour as a key site for the subordination of women, she argued that without economic autonomy from men; “she remains a vassal, imprisoned in her condition” (de Beauvoir, 1948, pg. 721). She was speaking at a time when women were entering into the labour force at rates higher than ever before, afforded more civil liberties than generations of women before her. Suppressing female sexuality was an important patriarchal tool that helped women understand their role in society as passive, secondary citizens. The way in which women came to embody themselves was dependent on the meaning given to them by patriarchy and men which has taken different forms over time. De Beauvoir also argued that the biological condition of women was not a handicap in itself; rather the negative meaning is imposed from the oppressive and hostile society externally. From her phenomenological perspective she also recognised that cultural and social changes happen over time, and that there was still a considerable amount of work to be done before women would lose the cultural marker of ‘other’.

There have been a number of significant influences in regards to the way we understand modern gender, sex and sexuality. It was the 19th century that saw a push towards scientific understanding to discover truths about the world, as science was coming to be accepted as the highest order of fact. Foucault suggests that it is considered a form of knowledge that is immune to different political and historical conditions, potentially considered an ahistorical platform of knowledge production. Foucault recognised this blind acceptance of ‘science’ and considered himself to be ‘anti-science’, challenging the epistemological privilege that was attached to scientific understandings within dominating discourses. While the leaders of this dominating discourse are commonly institutions such as governments, or entire industries such as the medical or legal fields, Foucault recognised that an analysis of all practices including the ordinary experiences of communication, or discourse, hold vital information to understanding sexualities over time. One of the key issues that plagued gendered understandings of early modernity was a penchant for looking back through history in an attempt at understanding the role of women, rather than looking at the possibilities afforded to women, especially in the context of new technological developments. Freud is sometimes seen as a victim of the failed recognition of historical changes, accepting the universal ‘man as default’ that society had thus far dictated. Feminist critics such as Kate Millet argued that: “the effect of Freud’s work, that of his followers, and still more of his popularizers, was to rationalize the invidious relationship between the sexes, to ratify traditional roles, and to validate temperamental differences” (Millet cited in Bullogh, 1980, pg. 68). The legacy that Freud left behind is extremely influential in the way we understand the human psyche and many of his theories were left unchallenged for much of the 20th century. Freud accepted the narrative passed down throughout history that women are “not in control of their biological processes, and this led them to be victims of penis envy” (Freud cited in Bullogh, 1980, pg. 68). The discourse surrounding the role of women for much of the newly industrialised contexts leading into the beginning of the 20th century focused on the biological lacking of women, regardless of the social context and ignorant of new technological advances. The idiom of co-production seems applicable here as a recognition for the inseparability of the way we represent and know the world and the ways in which we choose to live in it. Jasanoff argues that “knowledge and its material embodiments are at once products of social work and constitutive of forms of social life; society cannot function without knowledge any more than knowledge can exist without appropriate social supports” (Jasanoff, 2015, pg. 3). Jasanoff’s point here is that knowledge, specifically scientific knowledge, cannot be constructed as separate from the social and as a result implicates political motives, biases and basic misunderstandings within the order of knowledge. Freud’s scientific understanding of the female psyche was biased on his understandings of the role of women in society passed down through a collective imaginary. For this reason it is important to trace back through history to understand the social construction of the role of women leading into modernity. Luckily, Foucault has done that for us.

In his 3-part (unfinished) series on the history of sexuality, Foucault explores different understandings of sex and sexuality across time and in a number of contexts. Foucault himself understood the importance of context and was not afraid to change his opinions or views given new information or ideas. He recognised the lack of interrogation surrounding sexualities, specifically from a humanities perspective, and dissected different discourses to better understand the social construction of how we currently understand sexualities. Focusing on discourse, Foucault recognised that from the 17th century there were two main perspectives or ‘orders of knowledge’ surrounding sex: reproductive biology and the medicalised perspective (Foucault, 1978, pg. 54). Within the medical discourse specifically, Foucault noted that doctors began to view their patients from a medical gaze, dehumanising their patients and seeing them as a set of organs rather than a person. When looking at discourse, Foucault argues it is important to not just look at what has been said or discussed, but to look at the concepts and ideas that are silent, that exist on the margins. The continuation of particular discourses perpetuate into contemporary times as Holland et al. conducting research on adolescent girls in the 90’s discovered; “The topic of sexual activity set both the young women and the interviews limits on how they could talk about sex, since the dominant culture has no acceptable language for discussing sex in ways which are not clinical, obscene or childish” (Holland et al. 1994, pg. 24). These contrasting discourses helped to shape the understanding of monogamous, heteronormative sex as the natural and correct form of human sexuality. The basis for the push towards monogamous heterosexual sex lies in the need for reproducing labour for the capitalist system, as previously discussed. The 17th century is an important turning point in regards to sexuality as Foucault suggests the rise of regulated sexualities coincides with the rise of the capitalist system and the industrial revolution. The way in which sexuality was repressed actually made way for new sexualities and understandings of sex, and changed the dynamic of power in regards to the way that sex was talked about. Foucault proposed that the secret nature of pushing sex into the private sphere gave power to different institutions and the discourses they employed, recognising that power was not always centralised and that there were both positive and negative power dynamics. Within certain discourses, such as the legal and medical fields, a binary of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours emerged. The notion of ‘perversion’ was able to flourish outside of these discourses but owe their creation to the repression within particular institutions. The medicalisation of sex meant that the experts on sexuality were the doctors and professors who had been socialised in much the same way as Freud, and the gender bias inherent throughout history was legitimated through ‘scientific’ understandings of sex and sexuality. Another legitimating discourse that was extremely influential to our current understandings of womens labour and sexuality stems from the way in which sex trafficking was framed at the beginning of the 20th century. With more women entering into the labour force than ever before a new threat was perceived and discussed in the public sphere. In 1927 the League of Nations created a new committee in order to undertake research investigating the exploitation of women within the entertainment industry. Many girls aged 15-25 were travelling internationally for the purposes of work and the League of Nations believed that these women were at high risk of being duped or coerced into the sex industry. What the advisory committee found was that there was a direct link between the exploitative nature of women’s (licit) work and a susceptibility to the sex industry (Laite, 2017, pg. 48). Put simply, the economic inequalities between the genders was the driving factor for many women seeking a living wage turning to the sex industry (consensually) as a means of surviving. However, while the committee recognised the economic basis as the catalyst for many women turning to sex work, their report focused on the moral rather than the economic; “Though members of the Traffic Committee bemoaned the influence of women’s low wages and subsequent poverty, they emphasised the moral over the monetary” (Boris cited in Laite, 2017, pg. 48). This is one of the many examples throughout history that highlights the power that is held in discourse. As Foucault argues, we can see that the materiality of this particular discourse has been produced within a particular social order where women were not seen to hold sexual agency or autonomy of their bodies. The morality discourse surrounding female sexuality continues to persist and women today are still stigmatised for taking ownership of their bodies and sexuality. Those who hold the power within the social order are the producers of the discourse and within this discursive order they legitimate knowledge through their own definition completely discounting those who are silenced or repressed.

The concept of humanism is also important in understanding the historical construction of suppressed female sexuality. Humanism stemmed from the enlightenment and opened a new way of living through a more secular separation from God. The Enlightenment period signalled the beginning of a new modern world highlighting a number of ideas that persist into our contemporary society. Some of these ideas include: reason and rationality (as the basis for organising knowledge); empiricism (observing and collecting information through the senses); scientific understanding of the natural and social worlds; universalism and a search for general universal laws; progression of humans (improving the human condition was possible); individualism (all knowledge comes from within); tolerance of other religions or doctrines; freedom (we are born with choices); and secularisation (in conjuncture with tolerance) (Macionis & Plummer, 2012, pg. 15). Stemming from Western Europe these hegemonic understandings of what it meant to be human privileged the (white, cis) male who embodies much of the above and is understood as ‘intrinsically moral’ (Braidotti, 2013, pg. 13). The narrative of ‘male as default’ has its roots in ancient Greek scripture but the ideology of humanism was adapted in the 20th century by Europeans who saw themselves at the forefront of modern human civilisations. As Braidotti suggests; “This Eurocentric paradigm implies the dialectics of self and other, and the binary logic of identity and otherness as respectively the motor for and the cultural logic of universal Humanism” (Braidotti, 2013, pg. 15). In this respect ‘otherness’ is represented by those who fall outside that default status; sexualised (women, non-binary etc.), racialised (non-white), and naturalised (the environment and natural) others. Given that reason and rationality are afforded to the default human, the ‘others’ are inherently seen as irrational, and inferior and are “reduced to the less than human status of disposable bodies” (Braidotti, 2013, pg. 15). The humanist paradigm has always prioritised the masculine worldview ignoring the subjectivity and agency of those that fell into the category of ‘other’ and although debates around post-humanism have been circulating since the 1960s, remnants of humanism are still present in our contemporary society. For example a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine found that women were less likely than men to be resuscitated by CPR in public because women have breasts (Prasad, 2019). The way in which society has sexualised the female body as well as the use of ‘neutral’ (male) mannequins for training purposes has resulted in a 23% gendered gap in the odds of survival when needing CPR. In similar vein, Jenny Valentish’s book about substance abuse outlines the gendered bias that still persists in much academic and medical research where researchers are constantly told that (female) gender-specific research is pointless; “it [would be] a waste of time to address anything to do with women because men are in the majority and that’s where the focus should be” (Copeland cited in Valentish, 2017, pg. 271). Here we see the masculine view that only the majority is important, re-centring the idea of humanism. Valentish also discusses the fact that in many medical and physiological studies, menstruating women are seen to be an anomaly and are excluded from participating in the studies (Valentish, 2017, pg. 273). This in itself has resulted in a number of drug-related deaths in women, clarifying Braidotti’s point on disposable bodies. Humanism is so pervasive in our society, that for much of society it remains unseen, making it difficult to recognise and resist.

Women and those considered ‘other’ as disposable beings can be analysed through the tactics of suppressed sexuality. Women, and their sexualities, have been suppressed as a way of upholding patriarchal values through the threat of, or actual violence. The origins of patriarchy have been debated but for the sake of this essay I will be using the term patriarchy as defined by Christ who suggests that “patriarchy is a system of male dominance in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality with the intent of passing property to male heirs.. [It is] rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence, and in which men who are heroes of war are permitted to seize land and treasures, to exploit resources, and to own or otherwise dominate conquered people” (Christ, 2016, pg. 218-220). The legitimisation of violence stems from prehistoric times when war was common and threats to power and resources held by men resulted in an assertion of violence. Sovereign power continued the legacy of legitimated violence and it wasn’t until the Enlightenment period that Sovereign power conceded to the role of State authorities. It is the shift from Sovereign repressive power to a more normalising invisible form of power that marked a new understanding of the role of self-governance and subjectivity in modernity. Foucault differentiated between the Sovereign “right to take life or let live” and the modern State power that exercises “the right to make live and to let die” (Foucault, 1978). The publicity of such harsh punishments in pre-modern times made for an awareness of the power dynamics existent in society. With modernity came a new dynamic of State power in which the prison was born and punishment moved away from the public eye. Moving into a more subtle form of power, Foucault argues this normalising power seeks to control bodies under the guise of ‘protection of life’, in direct opposition to the previous power dynamic. Foucault’s terminology for this form of power is biopower which literally means having power over another body; “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (Foucault, 1976, p. 140). The connection between biopower and self-governance is strong and the role of self-surveillance in modern societies is confusing understandings of gendered subjectivity, especially in the virtual world and in social media. Hidden State power makes it harder for resistance and I suggest a similar thing is happening in regards to sexism in contemporary times, in part thanks to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Lewis suggests there are 3 core components of modern sexism “(1) a belief that sexism is no longer an issue in society and is a thing of the past, (2) negative attitudes towards women who fight for equity and (3) resentment toward women who advocate for affirmative action of gender conscious policies and practices” (Lewis, 2018, 383). The invisibility of contemporary sexism makes it difficult to resist, difficult but not impossible.

The normalisation of biopower has resulted in many misogynistic tendencies being accepted not just by men, but women have also unconsciously internalised many sexist ideas about the world. In a 2002 study, Baumeister and Twenge found that suppression of female sexuality was actually enforced more by other females than by men; however I propose that this suppression has been about protection rather than competition as the article suggests. They found that when women were in power they restricted sexuality more than when men were in power, who they found pushed for a more liberal sexual freedom (Baumeister & Twenge, 2002, 195-96). They argued that female suppression comes from the perspective that sex as a resource in limited supply therefore suppressing other females sexuality increases her own chances of securing the resource. My counter-argument is that the internalisation of misogyny, and the resulting suppression of female sexuality, is a result of the socialisation and conditioning of young women who see harsh consequences for their actions unlike that of the opposite gender. Constant policing of womens bodys in public spaces, (social media, breastfeeding in public, the debate around abortion etc.) have taught women that their bodies are intended to be passive, making embodiment a difficult process. Passivity as a trait of femininity stems from biological understandings as Foucault pointed out. Foucault was particular in discussing generalised sexualities and glossed over specific gender ideas, rarely speaking explicitly about female sexuality. In his essay around pleasure from the second volume of The History of Sexuality, Foucault recognised the language that has been employed in regards to what constitutes as sex: penetration. He argues that penetrative sexual relations are always a specific power dynamic in which the person who is participating in the penetration act holds the power over the submissive subject. Again this understanding stems from the humanist approach that recognises sex to involve a phallic object, therefore excluding women as active participants. Women in this paradigm are understood as biologically submissive and Foucault saw no reason to question the ‘nature’ of the role of women; “As for the woman’s passivity, it did denote an inferiority of nature and condition; but there was no reason to criticize it as a behaviour, precisely because it was in conformity with what nature intended and with what the law prescribed” (Foucault, 1984, pg. 2015). From the Foucauldian perspective suppression of female sexuality was a given due to their biological role of passive receiver. In his discussion Foucault outlines examples from the Ancient Greeks in which boys were sometimes seen as sexual objects. As a passive receiver of sexual penetration the receiver is viewed as an object; specifically an object of desire and/or pleasure, and the idea that one would enjoy the role of passive receiver contradicts the understandings of masculinity and dominance that the penetrator represents. The inferiority of the person who played the passive role was only called into question when the ‘objects’ were boys. In this example Foucault discussed the incompatibility of wanting and enjoying being the object of pleasure and the self-discovery that was necessary in order for the boy to become a man. In the context of women, this speaks to gendered understanding of subjectivity; the ideals of the feminine are in contrast to the ideals of the ‘human’, as previously discussed.

Modernity brought about many social and cultural changes and beginning towards the end of the 19th century was what is now considered the first wave of feminism in the West. This first wave movement was sparked by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, strong abolitionists fighting for the women’s right to vote, which was actually sparked through racism: black men were given the right to vote in 1870, offending these upper-class white women who believed they should have the right to vote before the former slaves (Grady, 2018). While suffrage was the main goal for these first wavers, they also recognised the lack of equality in areas such as education, property ownership and employment rights. Securing the right to vote in the early twentieth century seemed to end the first feminist wave, not because equality had been achieved, rather the goals of the feminist movement had been fractured and the movement failed to unite in their primary goals. But it wasn’t a simple shift in the public understanding of women’s role in society; many psychologists at the time including supporters of Freud suggested that “political feminism [is defined] as an evil which by encouraging women in their drives for economic independence and into denying the need for male protection were attempting to remove the beneficial ‘economic drives’ that were such a bulwark to marriage and family” (Bullogh, 1980, pg. 68). Given that sex was understood through the medicalised discourse during this time period the opinions of these ‘experts’ were minimally challenged until the second wave of feminism. The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s brought about new understandings of the existing gender order. Spurred by the release of The Feminine Mystique (Betty Friedan) as well as the re-release of de Beauvoir’s iconic The Second Sex (1948) a new wave of feminist activists began (or continued) fighting towards an end to discrimination based off perceived biological differences (Macionis & Plummer, 2012, pg. 406). It was during this period that the anti-humanist sentiment began its discourse; Braidotti argues that this occurred as a response to “the many failed political experiments of the twentieth century. Fascism and the Holocaust on the one hand, Communism and the Gulag on the other” (Braidotti, 2013, pg. 17). Both these political ideologies were a stark departure from the humanism of Europe; Fascism represented a ruthless rejection of human reason while Communism was seen as the winners of the Second World War and the ideology came to be emblematic of the defeat of fascism across Europe. Criticisms against both patriarchy and capitalism were strong during this time as the public pushed against religious, legal, medical, familial and political restrictions of the past. Hekma & Giami posits that it was at this time that “the holy triangle of marriage, reproduction and heterosexuality as foundations for sex was broke, and love and pleasure became its essential reference points” (Hekma & Giami, 2014, pg. 10). New technologies, new forms of media and rising globalisation all contributed to the sexual revolution which allowed women greater autonomy over their own bodies. During this sexual revolution the notion of equality was a driving factor with women pushing for the same sexual subjectivity afforded to men. While many changes occur, my main argument here is that the sexual liberation women believed they achieved was actually a new realm for patriarchy to conquer. We can see the impact of that through the recent #metoo movement. The #metoo movement became a global talking point in 2017; however the initial origins of the movement date back to 2006. The popularity of the movement in 2017 was sparked by a tweet shared by actress Alyssa Milano that stated: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet”. The response was overwhelming and within 24 hours there were over 11,000 retweets and 30,000 responses, continuing to grow in the weeks and months that followed (Haynes, 2017). For many modern women sexual harassment is commonplace and normal, so much so that this movement was unprecedented in its global reach emphasising the universal nature of patriarchal sexism. An article in The Times suggested that the liberation movement of the 60s was understood as an open sexual availability of all women; “The only sexual rule today is ‘consent’, and men have been taught that women are potentially always sexually available because that is what ‘liberation’ means” (Quinn cited in Badham, 2018). The images produced by the media during this time underwent a dramatic change and rode the wave of sexual liberation all the way into the 21st century. The increase of sexualised media had a gendered aspect and there were more images and cultural objects being produced that had direct impacts on the public perception of women in society (Hekma & Giami, 2014, pg. 12). Since the mid 20th century, the media has played a significant role in the socialisation process. The #metoo movement was attempting to highlight the prevalence of rape culture within our society, the silent biopower controlling the way bodies operate in the social world. Social commentator Clementine Ford suggests “Rape culture doesn’t refer to a system in which sexual violence is being overtly encouraged or taught. Rather, it characterises a society in which the impact of sexual violence is not only minimised but the definition of what constitutes ‘real’ sexual assault is considered up for public debate and scrutiny” (Ford, 2018, pg. 293). There are countless examples stemming from a number of different contexts around the world that exemplify this rape culture, and the rise of social media has allowed for a conversation to occur. Resistance is coming from both sides; those who have been marginalised are standing up and speaking out, while those who continue to hold the power are not willing to give it up without a fight.


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