39 Years Later: Personal Reflections on Gayle Rubin’s ‘Thinking Sex’ Essay
Prior to my course in Law, Gender and Sexualities, I had not been exposed to any foundational education of Queer theory despite being a Gender Studies Major student. This lack of exposure is primarily due to both course cutbacks within the university and the depressing reality that courses are rotated on what seems to be a triannual basis — making it difficult to map out a degree which is fully inclusive of all areas of study. Therefore, I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to delve into Rubin’s pivotal and movement-launching essay Thinking Sex, as I feel I would not have been exposed to this essay or any other form of Queer theory scholarship through any other course at my university. This essay was the missing puzzle piece of my education. Because I have only been exposed to a branch of feminism that is wholly intersectional and inclusive of Queer and non-heteronormative people, I had never thoroughly understood the separation that exists between Queer and feminist scholarship. My understanding of Queer theory was that it was uniquely for the gay community. This myopic belief is what I believe led me to carry perhaps an unconscious narrative of my relationship with the Queer community, which is that Queer spaces are uniquely ‘other’ and subsequently was not a space where I belonged.
Validation Through Understanding Rubin’s Perspectives on Sexuality
Thinking Sex provoked a profoundly personal response that intertwined two issues. The first, is that my identity is a product of the dominant ideas of gender and sexuality that existed in the 1990s. Second, is an absence of knowledge of Queer principles which resulted in a form of hermeneutical injustice. For context, I was a child who was raised in the 90s and enjoyed playing with toys that were primarily marketed towards boys, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers, over those that were deemed more ‘appropriate for my assigned gender, like Barbie and Baby Born. As an early adolescent, my first attraction was to gender-bending characters like David Bowie’s whip-carrying persona in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (Figure 1) and Tim Curry’s eyeliner-heavy performance in Muppet Treasure Island. But while feminism validated my inherently masculine interests as a child and an adult, it nonetheless failed to offer an explanation or the necessary knowledge to comprehend and embrace the latent element of queerness within my undeveloped sexuality. Rubin’s deconstruction of the relationship between gender and sexuality offered a long-overdue insight into understanding that my non-heteronormative inclinations can be regarded as Queer.
Additionally, Rubin’s Sexual Value System (Figure 2) provides a map for analysing and evaluating my sexual identity in relation to what may be still be considered social norms. While societal values of sexuality have evolved since 1984, analysing the dichotomy of ‘blessed’ and ‘unnatural’ forms of sexuality reveals aspects of my identity that undeniably align with perspectives and principles advocated by Queer theorists. Therefore, Rubin’s essay sparked not only a sense of clarity and validation around my sexual identity but allowed a sense of belonging that was previously overlooked or omitted by feminist theory.
Reflecting on the shortcomings of Rubin’s Exploration of Sexuality — Sexual Violence within Marriage and Black Sexuality
While Rubin offers a space for individuals who exist on the outskirts of the conventional Sexual Value System, her belief that sex within heteronormative systems like marriage as being representative of the ‘correct’ form of sex overlooks a crucial aspect — which is, that sex within marriage has historically been associated with violence and rape. Christian values of sex and marriage are founded on principles of sexual essentialism and gendered roles of procreation and subservience. When consideration is given to this primitive view of sexuality, numerous issues arise within the arena of marriage — such as sexual coercion, unequal power dynamics, and rape. These issues have been present in marriage and disregarded throughout history and were not addressed until the no-cause divorce was introduced in 1975 and rape within marriage was criminalised as late as the 1990s.
Furthermore, I would like to highlight the exclusion of black sexuality in Rubin’s discussion on sexual conservatism. As an Indigenous woman who has recently studied the topic of African and Afro-descendants, I have developed a keen interest in exploring the impact of colonial perspectives on Black sexuality. This topic holds personal significance for me as I explore my own historical roots and reflect upon the experiences of Black women within my family.
Rubin’s premise of sexual conservatism is rooted in 19th-century conceptions that were influenced by colonial ideologies. However, it is essential to recognise that conservative sexuality was restricted only to white members of society. Conversely, Black women and men experienced a different reality shaped by colonial beliefs of hyper-sexualisation, which perpetuated racial stereotypes of Black masculinity and femininity. A similar vein can be seen when examining the treatment of Indigenous women within a colonial framework. These injustices encompassed various forms of exploitation of Black women and men, including objectification and sexualisation through anthropological pornography during early colonisation and subjugation through sexual enslavement — for the US, this resulted in a boom of Black sex workers following the abolition of slavery. Black history is crucial for understanding enduring colonial perspectives on Black sexuality in contemporary society. So while Thinking Sex effectively challenges normative sexual discourse, it falls short of adequately interrogating the racist discourse that exists alongside white concepts of sexuality.
A final note on hermeneutical injustice
Nevertheless, while Rubin has dismantled systemic forms of oppression, it is essential to note that the racial limitations of Thinking Sex may not be attributed to any bias on her part but rather a consequence of the era in which she wrote. During the early 1980s, there was a distinct absence of terminology that now exists in contemporary language to describe the very theories that Rubin describes. For example, terms like ‘Intersectional Feminism’ and ‘Critical Race Theory’ were not coined until 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw. In this context, hermeneutical injustice significantly prevented individuals, like Rubin, from accurately describing their own experiences. When considering the role that hermeneutical injustice played in the 1980s, I believe it is more likely that Rubin experienced the unique challenge of advocating for Queer experiences at a time when the language to describe the social injustices of mixed Queer communities simply did not exist.
Benard, Akeia, ‘Colonizing Black Female Bodies Within Patriarchal Capitalism: Feminist and Human Rights Perspectives’ (2016) 2(4) Sexualization, Media & Society
Gayle, Rubin, ‘Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality’ in Carole S. Vance (ed), Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality (Routledge, 1984)
Levine, Phillipa, ‘Naked Truths: Bodies, Knowledge, and the Erotics of Colonial Power’ (2013) 52 (1) Journal of British Studies 5–25
Laura Fox, ‘Colnial Anthropological Eroticism and the Sexualisation of Black Women’ (2022)