A version of this first published in BCN, 2003.

Rediscovering Rubin

Meg Barker summarises Gayle Rubin’s (1984) paper, Thinking Sex, and asks whether we still need a radical theory of the politics of sexuality

I came across this article a month ago and have been using it in virtually all of my teaching and research since. It seems to me to be an excellent way of understanding how our society views sexuality and it makes some thought-provoking suggestions for alternative ways of seeing it. I thought I’d summarise the main points of the article for readers of BCN and I invite any feedback on Rubin’s ideas and how they relate to your experiences.


Rubin presents the model of sexuality shown in the diagram, suggesting that this is reflected in the sexual values promoted by most religions, as well as by psychiatry and popular culture. According to this system, good, normal and natural sexuality is ideally heterosexual, monogamous, reproductive, non-commercial and occurs within the context of a married relationship. It doesn’t involve pornography, fetish objects, sex toys or any roles other than active male and passive female. Any sex that violates these rules is seen as bad, abnormal or unnatural.

Rubin acknowledges that some alternative sexualities may be becoming more acceptable, for example, unmarried heterosexual couples, single heterosexuals and long-term, stable gay and lesbian couples. However, many of the extreme outer limits are still pathologised or demonised in our culture. Fetishism, sadism, masochism, transsexuality, exhibitionism and voyeurism are still classed as psychological disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association, which is used by psychiatrists and psychologists worldwide. Many accepted psychological theories state that ‘natural’ human development is the process of forging a monogamous partnership with someone of the opposite sex and starting a family.

The recent ITV series ‘The Wire in the Blood’ suggests that transsexuals and those in the SM scene are still seriously misunderstood and stigmatised. The programme depicted SM clubs as the place where serial killers were likely to hang out, and the people who frequented them were shown forcing themselves on others and getting off on the idea of ‘going the distance’ with a serial killer. There was certainly no mention of ‘safe, sane and consensual’. The serial killer turned out to be trans, echoing the representation in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ of a trans person who turns to violence, cruelty and murder. Such images demonise ‘outer circle’ groups and contribute to public confusion and fear. When I discussed sexuality with my students, several of them were concerned that people into SM could really ‘go too far’ and kill somebody. Despite the fact that SM generally results in far less severe injuries than sports such as boxing and football, boxers are seen as ‘sane’ under the law whereas masochists are not. As for bisexuality, students in my group still talked about promiscuity, confusion, ‘going through a phase’ and ‘having your cake and eating it’.

Rubin says that sex has generally been seen as a ‘natural force’ in humans, and so it has made sense to suggest that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ versions of sex, the good being those that are natural. However, historical and cultural variation suggests that there is no natural or inbuilt sexuality. For example, at certain places and times, such as Ancient Greece or some modern New Guinean societies, sex between men and across generations was seen as perfectly acceptable, if not ideal. There are also many cultures in which people are expected to have more than one sexual partner.

Rubin makes a very interesting analogy between sex and food to explain the interaction between biology and social/cultural forces. Humans naturally become hungry when they need to eat, but a biological level of understanding of this process does not give any clues to the complexities of cuisine: the wide variations in what is acceptable/unacceptable to eat in different cultures, personal preferences for different kinds of food, vast differences in preparation and presentation, etc. Similarly, we need a body, a brain, genitalia and the capacity for communication in order to have sex, but an understanding of these biological factors does not explain the wide range of different sexual practices, experiences and forms.

To extend this analogy I would point out that we never think of being vegetarian/non-vegetarian as being something biological in the way we think of being gay, bi or straight. We assume that aspects of sex are ‘natural’ in ways that we do not when it comes to other human preferences like food. We also place a great deal more significance on sex than we do on any other motivations or desires. Small differences in sexual values and preferences are seen as extremely important and threatening, in a way that is not true for variations in diet or menu. As Rubin points out (p310): ‘a person is not considered immoral, is not sent to prison, and is not expelled from her or his family, for enjoying spicy cuisine.’  The same cannot be said for enjoying spicy sex!

Rubin argues that one of the most tenacious ideas about sex is that there is one best way of doing it and everyone should do it that way. She says that ‘most people find it difficult to grasp that whatever they like to do sexually will be thoroughly repulsive to someone else, and that whatever repels them sexually will be the most treasured delight of someone, somewhere…Most people mistake their sexual preferences for a universal system that will or should work for everyone’ (p283). Rubin states that people may differ in where they draw the line between the inner and outer circle, but most systems of sexual judgement, whether religious, psychological, feminist, or socialist, attempt to draw a line somewhere and to determine which acts fall on which side of it. People worry that crossing the boundary between the inner and outer circle will be the first step on a slippery slope. If we cross the line at all it is feared that ‘the barrier against scary sex will crumble and something unspeakable will skitter across’ (p282).

Rubin’s aim was to create an ‘accurate, humane and genuinely liberatory body of thought about sexuality’ (p275). To this end, she suggests that instead of judging sexual acts according to some arbitrary line between ‘good, normal, natural sex’ and ‘bad, abnormal, unnatural sex’, we should judge sexualities by the way people treat one another, the level of mutual consideration, the presence or absence of coercion and the quantity and quality of the pleasures they provide. My experience of the bi, poly and SM communities so far suggests that emphasis is clearly placed on such aspects. This is highlighted in books like The Ethical Slut and Screw the Roses Send me the Thorns.

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