I *heart* Gayle Rubin

For most of the afternoon, I've been reading Rubin's well-known 1975 essay "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex." Rubin is fabulous; she has even inspired a new item in my post taxonomy, "People I *heart*." In case you're wondering, "heart" used in this way means you like the person a lot, but you wouldn't say "I love Gayle Rubin," unless of course you and Rubin have a meaningful relationship, so you say you heart them instead. I'm going to post some initial responses to this essay--quotations mostly, like a commonplace book--while it's fresh in my mind. Here are the questions I was asked to consider for class discussion on Tuesday:

"How does Rubin in 'Traffic' articulate the relationship between sex, gender, and sexuality?"

"Gender is a socially imposed division of the sexes. It is a product of the social relations of sexuality," Rubin writes. She uses Lévi-Strauss' theories of kinship to point out trends in human sexuality: "the incest taboo, obligatory heterosexuality, and an asymmetric division between the sexes. The asymmetry of gender [...] entails the constraint of female sexuality." At this point, it is difficult for me to tell if Rubin is arguing that any one item--sex, gender, and sexuality--logically or temporally precedes the others. I did find this point useful: "Gender is not only an identification with one sex; it also entails that sexual desire be directed toward the other sex." Rubin's illumination here helps me to understand exactly why "gender studies" is thought to be more inclusive than "women's studies" when it comes to studies of sexuality, especially queer theory. Yeah, it was probably obvious to the rest of you, but I needed that sentence from Rubin for my own edification.

"How and why does she lean heavily on Lévi-Strauss and a Lacanian reading of Freud to develop her concept of the sex/gender system?"

How: Lévi-Strauss is talking a lot about kinship and marriage. He highlights the exchange of women between families to seal political deals, hold communities together, etc. Freud discusses how sexual rules and roles are "engraved" into a child's development. Freud describes women's psychological condition but does not make the connection that systematic social oppression (what Lévi-Strauss describes) might create personality traits thought to be "feminine." Freud recognizes the implications of his theory for society's code of sexual morals. He says, "We can demonstrate with ease that what the world calls its code of morals demands more sacrifices than it is worth, and that its behavior is neither dictated by honesty nor instituted with wisdom." The reason I heart Rubin is that she, with her keen eye, says that Freud does not make a similar statement about sex roles, something to the effect of, "We can demonstrate with ease that what the world calls femininity demands more sacrifices than it is worth." Rubin defines the sex/gender system as "a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention and satisfied in a conventional manner, no matter how bizarre some of the conventions may be." Structural anthropology provides the systematic aerial view, and psychoanalysis tries to account for how the sex/gender system gets reproduced at the developmental level.

Why: Hmm. Rubin says that Marx develops a good systematic account of how society works, but that he doesn't integrate sexuality into his analysis as well as he could have. Lévi-Strauss and Freud both study sexuality, so she takes their work as a point of departure into her own analysis. The work of these two theorists "enables us to isolate sex and gender from 'mode of production,' and to counter a certain tendency to explain sex oppression as a reflex of economic forces."

She says that her reading of Freud is Lacanian, and that Lacan's interpretation of Freud is "heavily influenced by Lévi-Strauss." I'm not sure why she foregrounds that Lacanian lens, because I don't know my Lacan, but Lacan could be considered a link between Lévi-Strauss and Freud, which would lend coherence to Rubin's endeavor.

"How does Rubin's notion of the sex/gender system articulate the sex/gender distinction and the relationship of that distinction to sexuality?"

Again, I come back to this point: "Gender is not only an identification with one sex; it also entails that sexual desire be directed toward the other sex." I'm still trying to wrap my mind around this question, and dang it! It's Saturday night, almost 9:00. I'm calling it a day.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

gayle rubin

That's funny. I just finished reading "The Traffic in Women" and had a very similar reaction. It's an incredible essay. Any idea what happened to Rubin?

whatever happened to Rubin

I know this comment was just left by an anonymous person visiting your blog, but in case that person visits again, I think I can answer the question. Do you mean what happened to Rubin as in what is she doing now? If so, Rubin is a prof. in the dept. of anthopology at u of michigan. I am not sure how often she teaches considering how famous/infamous she is. As far as I know she continues to publish and has written really outstanding stuff since the "The Traffic in Women". In fact, she is mentioned several times in Amber Hollibaugh's book My Dangerous Desires: A queer girl dreaming her way home, which I highly, highly recommend

I am a student at U of M in a

I am a student at U of M in anthropology, and Gayle Rubin is still here, actively teaching and mentoring.


I have an essay due TOMORROW (didn't think info would be hard to find) about Gayle and I can find NOTHING! NADA!! With the hopes that someone else has found this site who knows something about this wonderful writer, can you offer any info about her -- books, career (UofM - thanks!), private life...asap!??!! HELP!! Thank you!! ALL info is welcome!

Another Gayle Rubin fan

I too enjoyed my first reading of Gayle Rubin's article on the "traffic of women". I think this should be required reading in any course, whether it be literary theory, anthropology, linguistics, etc. I will certainly assign it. Rubin's way of explaining difficult theory is admirable. The way she combines Marx, Engels, Claude Levi-Strauss, Freud, and Lacan together was like finding Ariadne's thread.

If you have read Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's "Between Men" you will recognize that Sedgwick learned a great deal from Rubin. Sedgwick dextrously combines Rene Girard's schematization of erotic triangularity (from "Deceit, Desire, & the Novel") with Gayle Rubin's interpretation of Freud and Levi-Strauss, and comes up with "the basic paradigm of "male traffic in women" that will underlie the entire book." (16) If you have not read "Between Men" you are in for a surprise and a treat. Rubin's importance to feminism and queer theory might have come about as a response to Sedgwick's creation of "homosociality." I know that I had never read Rubin's article until I was trying to work my way through Sedgwick's work.

I was surprised when I found Rubin's article in Toward an Anthropology of Women, (an edition by Rayna Reiter that includes alot of lesser known women anthropologists) that it was just kind of stuck there in the middle of other work I probably wouldn't have taken the time to read. You can see how from her work so much of the literature on late nineteenth century British writers began to be reread with a focus on how women were so often commodified or fetishized in texts.

The female as an exchanged and mediated symbol helps us to understand the difference between different kinds of misogynies. I am a Wilde scholar, and I had great difficulty understanding Wilde's overt misogyny in "An Ideal Husband" until I read Rubin's explanation of "kinship terms." Then I began rereading Wilde "as if" he were actually grasping the structure or mechanism of Victorian oppression of women. I have combined Rubin's insight with Diana Fuss's "strategic essentialism" to come up with an explanation of the difference between what appears on the surface to be misogyny in the Wildean text, and what should instead be read (via Lacan) as a dextrous use of "kinship terms."

Some feminists will perhaps not be willing to concede that Wilde might be read as a radical. Bram Dijkstra's "Idols of Perversity" actually lashes away at Wilde for his re-creation of the Salome figure. I do not read Salome as misogynistic but again as a kind of "in your face" reworking of kinship terms. The sex/gender system that reads only binaries begins reading binaries into everything. It becomes (according to Judith Butler) a self generating system feeding off of itself and spinning off onto everything. Well if you read Salome as category: Woman, then you might see Wilde as a misogynist. If you read Wilde's creation of Salome as a radical critique of dualism, binaries, etc., then you will see how radical he is.

Well, my comments have spun off into a different direction so I'll sign off.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.