Hi all– just want to preface this post by saying that this is Andrea H. posting (I think my username is ucwyse because I already used my email to make a wordpress for a student organization I am in… which you should check out if you are interested in empowering young women through mentorship!).
In her essay, Gayle Rubin works to establish the groundwork for a radical theory of sex which can “identify, describe, explain, and denounce erotic injustice and sexual oppression” (275). To achieve this end, Rubin focuses her efforts on outlining a constructivist alternative to sexual essentialism. Rubin argues that this approach will allow us to analyze sexuality in dynamic sociocultural and historical terms rather than immutable terms of biological difference (276). With this post, I intend to trace the connection Rubin draws between the violence of sexual oppression and the social construction of sexuality.
According to Rubin, the fundamental axioms of sexual oppression are historically reproduced by assumptions pervasive in Western culture. Sexual essentialism, “the idea that sex is a natural force that exists prior to social life and shapes institutions,” is a fundamental axiom of sexual oppression that is embedded in and reproduced by “folk wisdoms of Western societies” and “medicine, psychiatry, and psychology” (275). These assumptions–regardless of whether their roots are grounded in religion or psychology– work to produce a single ideal sexuality. Such singularity is in itself oppression, as it categorically excludes, pathologizes, and punishes a wide array of diverse sexual attitudes, such as non-procreative, homosexual, sadistic, and cross-generational sex (284).
While Rubin acknowledges that the biological capacities are prerequisites for sexual capacity, she maintains that the body cannot be understood solely in biological terms (276). Building off of Foucalt’s idea that “desires are not preexisting biological entities,” Rubin posits that sexuality must be understood in terms of social analysis (277). This kind of understanding would provide sexuality with a history and social determinants, allowing us to challenge the ahistorical and immutable assumptions that reproduce sexual oppression.
Rubin’s argument is compelling because it likens the more obscure politics of sexual oppression to the familiar politics of race and gender. Honest discourse on race and gender as social constructs rather than purely biological phenomenon has become more acceptable in modern society. While the color of one’s skin or the ratio of one’s hormones may have biological underpinnings, these biological facts cannot determine the “content, experience, or institutional forms” of social attitudes surrounding race and gender (276). Such discourse on sexuality, however, is more limited– perhaps a function of our readiness as a society to openly discuss a category of identity as “taboo” as sexuality. Rubin maintains that once we are ready to analyze sexuality with the same terms of social analysis as race and gender, we will be able to think about sexual politics in more useful and morally neutral terms of “populations, neighborhoods, settlement patterns, migration”…etc. (277).
While the parallels that Rubin draws between sexuality and race and gender are argumentatively sound, I would like to continue thinking critically about this analogy. To the class, I pose the following questions: What are the differences, if any, between race and gender as analytical categories and sexuality as an analytical category? If race, gender, and sexuality are analytically similar, why has discourse on sexuality as a social construct lagged behind that of race and gender?