“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...
Gayle Rubin is a renowned theorist of sex and gender in the United States. She was trained as an anthropologist, and she has been involved in queer and feminist politics for most of her life.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, which saw the resurgence of a feminist movement across the United States, Rubin was an active part of feminist organizing at the University of Michigan, where she would end up pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology. For instance, she helped found a chapter of the Radicalesbians, whose “Woman-Identified Woman” was an early feminist manifesto for lesbians separating off from patriarchal society in order to redefine gender roles. In 1975, she published her vastly influential essay “The Traffic in Women,” which considered how women are marginalized and traded within patriarchal societies in order to maintain social order. In that essay, she also theorized the difference between sex and gender, in particular how social orders transform the biological sex of individuals into a cultural system of power and social roles.
Much of Rubin’s feminist work in the 1980s was informed by her anthropological fieldwork beginning in the late 1970s. That was when Rubin moved to San Francisco to study the gay male leather subculture, which practiced activities we have come to class under BDSM: bondage, domination, and sadomasochism. She thought this community had lessons to teach American society about reorganizing sex and power. She writes extensively about sadomasochism in her classic 1984 essay “Thinking Sex,” which is more broadly about sexual activities marginalized in American society.
In studying sexual subcultures and advocating for their survival, Rubin belonged to the “pro-sex” camp of the feminist sex wars of the 1980s. Some feminists worried that an over-sexualization of American culture, including through pornography, would contribute to the subordination of women by objectifying them and treating them as pawns for the pleasure of men. In contrast, Rubin thought sex needed to be freed of censure, including feminist censure. Oppression based on sexual preferences did not, Rubin, argued, depend on gender.
Today, Rubin is a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where she teaches gender and sexuality studies, anthropology, and comparative literature. Her work has been recognized with prizes from the Association for Queer Anthropology, as well as the F. O. Matthiessen Visiting Assistant Professorship in Gender and Sexuality at Harvard University.