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For the past couple of months I’ve been making my way through Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader (Duke University Press, 2011), an anthology of writings by anthropologist and feminist theorist Gayle S. Rubin whom I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t actually know anything about before I stumbled upon the advance review galleys of this book. Rubin is a cultural anthropologist whose research delves into the history and culture of urban sexual subcultures, particularly BDSM communities. As a newly-out lesbian in the 1970s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she designed her own Women’s Studies major at the University of Michigan and became active in the Women’s Movement and also the Gay Liberation Movement. In the late 70s and early 80s — in part because of her academic research into BDSM — she drew the ire of anti-porn feminist activists for her insistence that (wait for it) not all pornographic materials are inherently degrading to women. Yeah, I know. The more I read about it, the more it seems like the early 80s must have been a really weird time to be a self-identified feminist. Not to mention one who was also a lesbian and open about her s/M desires and practices.
Deviations is arranged in chronological order, beginning with Rubin’s first attempt to construct a theory of gender relations rooted in anthropological methodology — “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” written and revised between the late 60s and early 70s and first published in 1975. It is very much an artifact of its time and to be honest I bogged in this piece for the better part of a month after joyfully burning my way through the eminently readable introduction. Perhaps recognizing the opacity of “Traffic,” Rubin includes a piece reflecting back on the writing and reception of the original piece and includes it in the anthology — something she does several times throughout the book to great effect. After “Traffic” and its contextual essay comes a much more accessible piece on the English author Renee Vivien, originally written as an introduction and afterward to a new edition of Vivien’s A Woman Appeared Before Me, which is a fictionalized account of her tumultuous relationship with fellow author and outspoken lesbian-feminist Natalie Barney.
By the late 70s, Rubin was deep into the ethnographic research for her dissertation on the gay male leather bars of San Francisco, for which she received her PhD in 1994 from the University of Michigan. The majority of pieces in Deviations, therefore, wrestle not with the politics of gender or specifically lesbian-feminist history, but the politics of sexual practices, sexual subcultures, and the relationship between feminist theory and practice and human sexuality. As someone who is, like Rubin, committed to understanding the world through both a feminist and queer lens, I really appreciate her determination to remain engaged in feminist thinking and activism even as she was reviled by certain segments of the feminist movement for her “deviations” in sexual practice, and her openness to thinking about sexual subcultures that — for many in our culture, even many self-identified feminists — elicit feelings of disgust and generate sex panics. While the “porn wars” of the 1980s are largely a thing of the past, feminists continue to find sexuality, sexual desires, sexual practices, and sexual fantasy (whether private or shared via erotica/porn of whatever medium) incredibly difficult to speak about. Rubin calls upon us to think with greater clarity about the politics of sex, and how we police other peoples’ sexual activities, many of them consensual, simply because we find them distasteful.
Particularly controversial, I imagine, are Rubin’s writings on cross-generational sexual activities and children’s sexuality. Coming out of the BDSM framework, Rubin foregrounds the basic ethic of consent and argues that children have just as much right to consent to sexual activities as adults. Furthermore, within the framework of 1980s anti-pornography legislation, she emphasizes the difference between fantasy/desire and reality/action (that is: depiction of non-consensual sex in the context of a fantasy does not equal non-consensual sex and shouldn’t be treated in the same fashion). This leads her to speak up in defense of adults who express sexual desire for young people (but don’t act on that desire), and also to suggest that not all instances of underage/overage sexual intimacy should be treated as sexual abuse or assault. Read in tandem with Rubin’s insistence that we take children seriously as human beings with the right to sexual knowledge, this advocacy is clearly not a call to minimize the trauma of sexual violence (at whatever age) or a glossing over of age-related power dynamics. ”The notion that sex per se is harmful to the young has been chiseled into extensive social and legal structures,” she writes, “designed to insulate minors from sexual knowledge and experience” (159). Like Judith Levine in Harmful to Minors (2002), Rubin argues that our cultural insistence on keeping young people separated from sexuality and sensuality — with a vigilance that often spills over into panic and hysteria — does little to protect them from sexual violence and exploitation while cutting them off from the means to conduct their own (safe, consensual) sexual explorations or name and resist the violence and exploitation that may come their way. Sexting panics anyone? The Purity Myth?
Overall, I highly recommend Deviations to anyone interested in the development of feminist and sexual political theory and practice over the last forty years — if nothing else, Rubin’s bibliography has already given me a handful of other thinkers whose books and articles I wish to pursue.