The Moral Economy of Sexual Exchange in an Anti-Monetary Market

Thursday, 19 July 2018: 17:30
Oral Presentation
Skyler WANG, University of California, Berkeley, USA
In advancing Hirschman’s (1982) theses on the moral implications of market society, Fourcade & Healy (2007) charge a new paradigm that prompts us to steer away from asking how morals affect market, and vice versa. They propose that we examine markets as “explicitly moral projects, saturated with normativity.” That is to say, markets are themselves culture—not only do they emerge as products of human behaviors and meaning-making, they contain beliefs and practices that constitute their very own logics. Heeding their call, this study draws on interview data with 40 Couchsurfers to interrogate the moral economy of an anti-monetary market. Couchsurfing.com, my empirical case and an exemplar of such a market, is a nonpayable hospitality-exchange network that offers an analytical window into a market system designed to oppose commercial ideals. Because monetary transactions are altogether shunned in Couchsurfing, members engage in social or cultural exchanges to keep the market afloat. Using sex, a form of exchange that exudes moral ambiguity, I argue that Couchsurfers’ actions are deeply structured by, and at times contradictory to, the platform’s moral and cultural logics. I conceptualize a typology of sex—sex as bona fide exchange, transaction, leverage and assault—to illustrate that while processes of sexual meaning-making can differ between individuals, actors are fundamentally guided by a moral imperative to engage in reciprocal exchange as a means to alleviate emotional and material ‘debt.’