Re-Thinking a Feminist Politics of Sexuality
This is an academic paper. You DO NOT have permission to reprint/reproduce this material. Copyright 2011 Megan Karius.
Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” is an insightful essay on the history of sexuality and sexual persecution. Using the moral panics of the 1880s, 1950s and 1970s as examples, Rubin explains where social anxiety concerning sex originates. Groundbreaking when first published in 1984, this article examines the hierarchies embedded in our systems of sexuality, defends the rights of sexual minorities and calls for a new, radical theory of sexuality. Rubin is concerned with moral panics that arise and result in the extreme persecution of sexual minorities. As well, she argues that the effects of these panics last long after the initial panic has ended. Using the social movements of the 1880s as an example, Rubin points out that “the consequences of these great nineteenth-century moral paroxysms . . . have left a deep imprint on attitudes about sex, medical practice, child-rearing, parental anxieties, police conduct, and sex law” (4). Rubin shows that moral panics arise in response to other social stresses and do nothing to help the people they claim to, making a compelling argument to re-conceptualize our theory of sexuality. While this article remains an important cornerstone in the academic study of sexuality, there are a few points of contention that must be addressed. One of the most provocative issues Rubin evokes is that of childhood innocence, which she implies is a myth (20). While she raises valid questions about the laws and norms regarding children and sex, Rubin’s discussion requires further analysis. As well, a major vein of her argument concerns the feminist movement and her critique of it. Again, Rubin asks some pertinent questions and makes a compelling argument, but it is necessary to evaluate the limitations of this argument in a contemporary context. The main focus of this paper will be to re-visit Rubin’s critique of the feminist movement with regard to a theory of sexuality and to determine if her evaluation is still relevant today.
Rubin is calling for a “radical theory of sex” (9) to combat the persecution of sexual minorities and to develop a healthier, more comprehensive understanding of human sexuality. Using diagrams to illustrate some of her arguments, Rubin lays out the particulars of the sexual value system. Figure 1 describes the charmed circle versus the outer limits of sexual practice (13); Figure 2 depicts the struggle over where to draw the line between ‘good’ sex and ‘bad’ sex (14). These diagrams effectively illuminate the concrete divisions between what is allowed and what is condemned within sexual practice and they are still accurate. Discussing the restrictions placed on sexual practice for teachers and parents, Rubin states “the coercive power of the law ensures the transmission of conservative sexual values with these kinds of controls over parenting and teaching” (20). We only need look to the recent uproar over proposed changes to the sex education curriculum here in Ontario to see that Rubin’s argument still holds water. There was a very real and immediate backlash to this proposal; the changes included things like teaching children about human anatomy, homosexuality and gender identity. As Rubin notes, “the only adult sexual behaviour that is legal in every state is the placement of the penis in the vagina in wedlock” (20); attempting to ensure this happens means children are only taught very narrow concepts of sexuality. Although Rubin is speaking in an American context, her arguments are obviously applicable in Canada as well. I would argue that the current discourse on sex education is a symptom of a whole climate of sex-negativity left over from the child pornography and sex offender panics of the 1970s and 1950s, respectively. While this is an issue that must be dealt with by educators and policy-makers, feminists should contribute to the discussion as well. Despite Rubin’s critiques of the feminist movement, many feminists like myself are deeply concerned with articulating a new theory of sexuality and usefully applying it to institutions of education and government.
As a result of this long-lasting sex negativity, groups that fall outside “the charmed circle” (13) of sexuality are the most persecuted in society. Rubin argues that these groups include “transsexuals, transvestites, fetishists, sadomasochists, sex workers such as prostitutes and porn models, and the lowliest of all, those whose eroticism transgresses generational boundaries” (12). It is here that I begin to develop a problem with Rubin’s argument. Since its inception, Rubin’s arguments regarding cross-generational sex have been highly controversial, so I am certainly not the first to criticize her work in this way. Nevertheless, I believe her argument lacks clarification in this regard and will benefit from further analysis. Rubin begins by questioning the boundary between childhood ‘innocence’ and ‘adult’ sexuality (20), a brave but necessary move. Denying the sexuality of youth is a symptom of the larger culture of sex-negativity and it almost never protects children from the sex that will supposedly harm them. Rubin raises a valid point in stating the absurdity of an affair between a twenty year old and a seventeen year old being defined as statutory rape (20); while this example brings to light the need to re-examine what constitutes a status offense, it cannot be defined as cross-generational, and this is where Rubin’s argument begins to show gaps. Rubin defines her discussion of sex law as not applying to “laws against sexual coercion, sexual assault, or rape” (19). She goes on to clarify: “[My discussion] does pertain to the myriad prohibition on consensual sex and the ‘status’ offences such as statutory rape” (19). Thus, we can safely assume that in all of Rubin’s examples, be it statutory rape, sadomasochism, or cross-generational sex, she is referring to consensual sex. This is a conceivable argument; as noted, sexual relations between a teenager and a twenty year old could easily be consensual, as could many forms of cross-generational sex, such those involving a twenty five year old and a seventy year old, for instance. I completely agree with Rubin that sex between two consenting individuals should be no concern of the state. Rubin loses my support, however, when she goes so far as to decry discrimination against pedophiles, stating that “an exposed pedophile would probably be stoned” (21). Perhaps we do need a legal system that reviews on a case-by-case basis and can apply the spirit, rather than the letter of the law, in certain circumstances. Conceding that point, it seems remiss of Rubin to ignore a definition of pedophilia that includes sexually exploiting children too young consent or to understand what they are consenting to if they do. Surely, this aspect of pedophilia falls under the umbrella of sexual coercion. Perhaps Rubin means to imply that this is automatically the case, but she makes a distinction between sexual coercion and her discussion, which includes pedophilia. I am tempted to strongly disagree with Rubin on this issue, but it should at least be noted that further discussion and clarification is needed from her on this point.
Another defining feature of this essay is Rubin’s critique of the feminist movement. While she does briefly recognize that her criticism is not applicable to all branches of feminism, she ultimately argues that a radical theory of sex cannot come from the feminist movement (34). Recalling that Rubin was writing during the height of the feminist sex wars, it makes sense that much of her criticism is directed towards the anti-porn feminists that condemned all pornography and sadomasochistic sex as pro-rape narratives (26). Rubin exposes the tactics of this highly political and vocal branch of feminism as manipulative and exploitative, noting that “all of the early anti-porn slide shows used a highly selective sample of S/M imagery to sell a very flimsy analysis” (25-6). Rather than presenting a thoughtful and balanced argument, the anti-porn feminists “used shock value to . . . scare audiences into accepting the anti-porn perspective” (26). Rubin makes a valid argument and indeed, whenever the religious right and a branch of the feminist movement are united in a common goal, it may be prudent to take a closer look at the issues at hand.
Does this argument still hold sway today though? I think Rubin was quite right to criticize the anti-porn feminists as she did, but it can be argued that over twenty five years later, the face of feminism has changed. While I cannot say there are no longer feminist opponents to pornography, I think the majority of the feminist movement has become much more pro-sex, a goal Rubin is promoting throughout her essay. In fact, a 2002 collection of essays entitled Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire goes a long way towards showing just how different feminism is now. A number of the essays address the issues of sadomasochism and porn in ways that, I think, Rubin would approve of. In her essay, “Of the Flesh Fancy: Spanking & the Single Girl”, Chris Daley sets about trying to make room for spanking within feminism (130), all the while defending more extreme forms of sadomasochism. Additionally, Katinka Hooijer offers a distinctly pro-porn approach in her essay, “Vulvodynia: On the Medical Purposes of Porn”, in which she states that “in using [porn] to negotiate my body’s needs and limitations, I make porn feminist” (273). Certainly, this is a departure from the ‘pornography leads to rape’ feminists of Rubin’s analysis (26). While two examples cannot be said to represent the whole feminist movement, it is worth noting that these essays appear in a collection that is taught to feminists at the university level. At least in an institutional and popular context, feminism is much more universally pro-porn and sex-positive than it was when Rubin voiced her concerns. As such, it is worth reconsidering how useful feminism can now be in creating a radical theory of sexuality.
Thus, while Rubin’s arguments remain relevant and necessary, they must be analyzed critically by feminists and academics. According to Rubin, feminism is the theory of gender oppression and it would be a mistake to think a theory of sexuality could be directly derived from it (32). While Rubin’s point is well taken, the fact is that the scope and focus of feminism has changed. With so much emphasis now being placed on concepts such as coalition politics and intersectional analyses, feminism is concerned with much more than women’s oppression. Additionally, while I agree with Rubin that it is not necessarily productive to confuse the concepts of gender, sex, and sexuality (32), these concepts have also been complicated by theorists such as Monique Wittig, Collette Guillamin, and Judith Butler (Alcoff 156). As such, feminists are overwhelmingly the ones attempting to develop a more nuanced definition and understanding of all of these concepts, sexuality included. Furthermore, while I agree with Rubin that most sexual minorities are needlessly persecuted, our discussion of sexuality and sexual practices must also include a conversation about consent. I am not claiming that we should disregard Rubin’s arguments regarding cross-generational sex, but I insist that this discussion requires closer scrutiny. Rubin ends by saying: “it is up to all of us to try to prevent more barbarism and to encourage erotic creativity” (35). My argument attempts to amend this statement only slightly: it is up to all of us, including feminists, to prevent more barbarism and encourage consensual erotic creativity.
Alcoff, Linda Martin. “The Metaphysics of Gender and Sexual Difference.” Visible Identities. United Kingdom: Oxford, 2006. 151-176. Print.
Daley, Chris. “Of the Flesh Fancy: Spanking & the Single Girl.” Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire. Ed. Merri Lisa Johnson. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002. 127-138. Print.
Hooijer, Katinka. “Vulvodynia.” Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire. Ed. Merri Lisa Johnson. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002. 259-280. Print.
Rubin, Gayle. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Ed. Carole S. Vance. Boston: Routledge & K. Paul, 1984. 3-44. Print.