“Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of Sexual Politics” is Gayle Rubin’s germinal statement about the politics and history of sex in the United States. It was published in 1984, two years after Rubin had given a famous “pro-sex” statement at the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality in New York. The conference is often credited as kick-starting the feminist sex wars, which debated the role of sex and pornography in the emancipation of women. Rubin was against the censorship of pornography, advocating for the liberation of all sexual activity. “Thinking Sex” collects some of her thoughts on this matter, in addition to providing an argument for why anti-pornography feminists contribute to, rather than end, sexual oppression.
The essay proved vastly influential in shaping discussions of sex and sexuality in the succeeding decades. In particular, early queer theorists of the late 1980s and early 1990s found inspiration in Rubin’s differentiation of gender from sexuality. Queer theorists, like Rubin, argued that gender oppression could not fully account for the oppression of sex and sexuality. It was necessary to have a new “radical theory of sexual politics.” Rubin provided much of the language and framework for advancing this line of thought, before it even had a name. Rubin has remarked that “[o]ne aspect of the essay of which I am most proud is its ‘protoqueerness.’ I wanted to move the discussion of sexual politics beyond single issues and single constituencies, from women and lesbians and gay men to analyses that could incorporate and address with more intricacy the cross-identifications and multiple subject positions that most of us occupy” (“Blood under the Bridge” 40).
In 2011, on the 25th anniversary of the original essay, the influential academic journal GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies published a special issue titled “Rethinking Sex.” The issue began with Rubin’s reflections on the essay and presented articles from a number of leading theorists of gender and sexuality who have learned from and advanced Rubin’s thoughts. The special issue attests to the continued vitality of the essay a quarter century later.