Gayle S. Rubin is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in the College of Literature, Science, & Arts. It was at that same university that in the 1970s, Rubin became the first Women’s Studies major in the school’s history.
As a graduate student in anthropology, Rubin rewrote her senior thesis, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” for the book Toward an Anthropology of Women (1975), a collection of essays edited by Rayna Rapp. For several years thereafter, that essay was the most cited text in the entire field of cultural anthropology.
The essay draws heavily on the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, as well as the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and the post-modernist Jacques Lacan. Professor Rubin’s aim in this essay is to expose and condemn what she calls the “set of arrangements” that relegate women to a subordinate position in their relations with men. She believes that gender is a social and historical construct (i.e., man-created) that is neither natural nor essential, and that one of the chief goals of feminism is to liberate both sexes from the patriarchy-created “strait-jacket of gender.”
Professor Rubin is an enthusiastic advocate of “queer theory,” which rejects the view that sexuality is a universal human impulse. It says that sexual desire does not exist apart from history and culture; that nothing is “natural,” including heterosexuality. Rubin further asserts that there are no natural differences between men and women. Her views on this topic are discussed by professors Micaela di Leonardo and Roger Lancaster in their co-written article “Gender, Sexuality, Political Economy”:
“Gayle Rubin’s 1975 ‘The Traffic in Women,’ … a tour de force of Marxism, structuralism, and Freudo-Lacanian theory, draws on analogies with political economy to hypothesize a universal ‘sex-gender system.’ Rubin associates the universal presence of gender asymmetry with a system of compulsory heterosexuality. The one implies and mandates the other: the taboo on same-sex behavior both bars women from phallic power and mandates heterosexual alliance — the traffic in women. At the same time, the system of gender inequality requires an enforced and coercive production of dichotomous gender differences — an equilibrium that can only be enforced by a strict taboo on homologous couplings. Although overstated in their universalist scope, such arguments were mainstays of lesbian feminism, and signaled early on the possibilities of collaboration between feminism and gay/lesbian studies.”
Impressed by Marx’s explanation of class oppression, Professor Rubin sees capitalism as a powerful agent of the oppression of women, though by no means the only one. She defines capitalism as “a set of social relations in which production takes the form of turning money, things, and people into capital.” “And capital is a quantity of goods or money,” she adds, “which, when exchanged for labor, reproduces and augments itself by extracting unpaid labor, or surplus value, from labor into itself.” Rubin views women’s housework as a critical component of the amount of unpaid labor that capitalists can squeeze out of the working class. An outspoken advocate of gay relationships, she writes, “Suppression of the homosexual component of human sexuality, and by corollary … oppression of homosexuals, is … a product of the same system whose rules and relations oppress women.”
According to the University of Michigan website, Professor Rubin’s research interests include “histories, theories, social constituents, and durable inequalities of sexualities and genders.” Rubin is currently working on a book on the gay male sadomasochist community in San Francisco.
Professor Rubin has made her mark both as an academic and as an activist. On the one hand, her academic works like “The Traffic in Women,” “The Leather Menace,” and “Thinking Sex” have been published in scholarly books and academic journals. Such writings are mandatory reading in universities throughout the United States, including Columbia, Harvard, MIT, and UC Santa Barbara. She will soon publish, through the University of California Press, a collection of essays entitled Deviations: Essays in Sex, Gender, and Politics.
Rubin has also written for non-academic publications such as the Cuir Underground, which published from 1994 to 1998 and is described as “a San Francisco-based magazine for the pansexual kink communities.” In her article “Old Guard, New Guard,” she wrote:
“In the 1950s there were those who eroticized and engaged in very formal interactions based on strict codes of courtesy in the military model, and others who preferred the look of dirty bikers and a more orgiastic kind of buddy sexuality. Of course, there were spit and polish bikers too, and others who looked like greasy bikers but preferred formal SM sex … In the mid-1960s, classic leather styles began to give way to a kind of ‘hippie leather.’ People grew their hair, took psychedelic drugs, became less invested in 1950s formality and created new subgroups organized around different sexual styles, for example fistfucking. At one point, dope smoking leather guys and fistfuckers were in effect a kind of ‘New Guard’ . . .”
Professor Rubin was the founder of Samois, the first ever women-on-women sadomasochism group, and its successor organization, the Outcasts. The latter takes pride in “proud and principled perversions.” In 1988 Rubin received a Woman of the Year Award from the National Leather Association, a sadomasochistic, fetish, BDSM (Bondage & Discipline/ Domination & Submission/Sadism & Masochism) organization.
Among Professor Rubin’s more controversial positions has been her support for the practice of adults engaging in sex with minor children. Her endorsement of pedophilia was evident as early as 1978, when she wrote, in “Leaping Lesbian”:
“The recent career of boy-love in the public mind should serve as an alert that the self-interests of the feminist and gay movements are linked to simple justice for stigmatized sexual minorities. … We must not reject all sexual contact between adults and young people as inherently oppressive.”
In 1984 Professor Rubin refined and repeated this position in “Thinking Sex.” One commentator wrote of that article: “Rubin pursues her apology of pornography, prostitution, sadomasochism, and all dissident sexual minorities; she concentrates especially on the defense of pedophilia by refusing to see in it a form of sexual exploitation. For her, any law aiming at governing sexuality constitutes “a sexual apartheid,” intended to strengthen the structures of power.”
Rubin’s views on pedophilia remained relatively restrained until the 2003 publication of The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, to which she contributed a chapter openly endorsing the practice. In that chapter, she defended her claim that the government’s pursuit of child molesters was “a savage and undeserved witch hunt” — reflective of a prejudice that has “more in common with ideologies of racism than with true ethics.” Rubin wrote: “Boy lovers are so stigmatized that it is difficult to find defenders for their civil liberties, let alone erotic orientation. Consequently, the police have feasted on them. Local police, the FBI and watchdog postal inspectors have joined to build a huge apparatus whose sole aim is to wipe out the community of men who love underaged youth.”
To Rubin, even pedophiles who prey on helpless children are the victims of racism, apartheid, capitalism and the terrorist American State.