Featured Fem: Gayle Rubin at the University of Michigan

I know it isn’t Thursday (and this isn’t Instagram), but I still think it’s the perfect time for a #throwback. One of the most amazing women who attended the University of Michigan did so in the late 1960’s. But wait! This isn’t purely a throwback! She still teaches here in the Anthropology, Women’s Studies and Comparative Literature departments.  Who is this mystery Michigan woman, and why is she this week’s Featured Fem?

Gayle Rubin attended the University of Michigan in the late 1960’s and early 70’s – in the heat of the American Feminist movement. Rubin wrote feminist articles for the Ann Arbor Argus in 1968, and co-founded an early Lesbian Feminnist group, the Radicalesbians in 1970.

Well what else did she do?

In 1975, Rubin published an essay called “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex“, and it really put her name on the map. This paper is one of the most quoted essays in contemporary Feminist history. In 1984, Rubin wrote another groundbreaking essay, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality“.

What do these revolutionary essays say??

“The Traffic In Women”

[33] Rubin, G. (1975). The traffic in women: notes on the ‘political economy’ of sex. In R. R. Reiter (ed.). Toward an anthropology of women.

In this essay, Rubin investigates the origins of female oppression. Is capitalism to blame? This was a hugely popular idea of the day, but Rubin notes that it’s important not to forget that women are oppressed in societies that are not capitalist as well. As she searches for the source of a “political economy” in sexual systems, she also examines Lévi-Strauss’s writings about kinship. The idea of kinship notes the distinction between the roles of “gift” and “giver”, such as how women are given as “gifts” by their fathers, the “givers”, to their husbands in marriage. The kinship system turns biological males and females into the roles of “men” and “women”, and allocates a different set of rights to each, directly contributing to the oppression of women. Kinship helped Rubin come up with her innovative thesis on the distinction between sex and gender.

Gayle Rubin talks about this in her now classic theoretical essay, Thinking Sex. In fact, she has a whole graph designed that shows what is deemed “good” and “bad” types of sex. Heterosexual vanilla monogamists—are good. Not being married, doing it for non-reproductive reasons is like middle ground but not bad. Via http://krystalfawn.com/

“Thinking Sex”

The thesis of this essay is that the sexual is political.

Basically this means that a person is treated differently and inferiorly solely based on his or her gender or sexual orientation. Rubin defines a few specific terms that build up her argument. The first is “sex negativity”, the idea that if marriage, reproduction or love are not involved, sexual behavior is considered bad. Stemming from the Christian hold on Western culture, sexual activity is seen by the public as sinful. The second term is the “misplaced scale”, which is the idea that anything considered sexual is given an excessive amount of significance. For example, sentencing a man who engaged in child pornography to 50 years in jail and giving a man who murdered a woman 10 years jail time. Not to say that both crimes are not worthy of lengthy punishment, but looking at an example of the “misplaced scale” means that our society sees actions with sex involved as more intense than any other action. Both legally and culturally, a person cannot express sexuality without being scrutinized, while that same person can talk about religion or politics as much as he or she would like.

What else did this brilliant woman do?

In 1978, Rubin was living in San Francisco and she helped found the first known Lesbian SadoMasachism group, Samois. She became a sex activist and spoke at the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality. In 1994 Rubin completed her PhD in anthropology at the University of Michigan.

Rubin recently published a book, Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader, on lesbian history, the feminist sex wars, sadomasochism, prostitution and pornography; it’s the next thing on my reading list and should definitely be on yours.


Tori Wilbur
University of Michigan

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