Sex Roles

, Volume 73, Issue 7–8, pp 319–331 | Cite as

Sexual Agency is not a Problem of Neoliberalism: Feminism, Sexual Justice, & the Carceral Turn

  • Kari Lerum
  • Shari L. Dworkin
Feminist Forum Commentary


We examine the promises and limitations of Laina Y. Bay-Cheng’s model of the Agency Line in terms of its contribution to interdisciplinary feminist discussions of young women’s sexuality in the U.S. Bay-Cheng offers a welcome critique of neoliberal assumptions embedded in contemporary sexual discourses and her new Agency Line model contributes to complicating the virgin/whore dichotomy. While we find the model interesting and compelling, we critique the argument along three dimensions: conceptual tools, evidence offered, and theoretical scope. First, the model’s central concepts - neoliberalism and agency - are awkwardly conjoined. We point to additional conceptual tools from commodity and third wave feminisms and carceral studies of sexuality in order to further an understanding of agency and constraint. Second, the claim that agentic sexual scripts produce harm for young women is speculative and we provide empirical evidence to the contrary. Third, we argue that the article’s theoretical claims both over-generalize about (all) young women and under-generalize non-agents or victims. We explain how Bay-Cheng’s tendency to scrutinize the neoliberal demand for agency without also interrogating the neoliberal demand for victims runs the risk of reinscribing gendered nodes of morality and under analyzes the relationship between state surveillance, scrutiny, and policing of women’s sexuality. We conclude by calling on progressive feminists to think through sexual agency more carefully by resisting carceral feminist cooptation and supporting sexual justice principles. In so doing, the promise of sexual agency might be more fully realized by a broader range of girls and women across lines of privilege and oppression.


Neoliberalism Agency Choice Victimhood Carceral state Feminist theory Sexual justice 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Interdisciplinary Arts & SciencesUniversity of Washington BothellBothellUSA
  2. 2.School of Nursing, Department of Social and Behavioral SciencesUniversity of California San FranciscoSan FranciscoUSA

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