Rubin’s Account of Sexuality as Social Contruction

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?

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4 thoughts on “Rubin’s Account of Sexuality as Social Contruction

  1. Andrea, I think your last question is really interesting. It appears that Rubin’s essay is the first we’ve read that actually justifies linking race and sexuality as analytical categories through actual historical examples. The detail she uses in describing the migration of persecuted groups, especially homosexuals in parallel to African Americans, was particularly convincing for me. So perhaps the lag in discourse on sexuality reflects today’s ongoing oppression in sex politics?

    • Although I was going to respond to the first question, your comment ties into my response. Although the migration of African Americans and homosexuals to cities may be comparable, there is a sharp distinction between racial and deviant sexual groups in their hypothetical pre-migration lives. Rubin does touch on this, noting that a large part of the appeal of cities for queer individuals is the centralization of a population that was previously dispersed. African Americans, however, have none of the ability to “blend in” to the non-black population (with some exceptions). Thus, they were historically segregated prior to their move to the city. Perhaps this would serve as a useful point of divergence?

  2. Well, I’m not sure if I’m entirely right, but I think that the position of women started changing when the rest of society started changing (world war I&II, industrial revolution). The position of African Americans changed also because of economical reasons (Northern economy, civil war). So without undermining the fight towards progress that these groups fought, it is safe to say that their position shifted and society was forced to accept that fact. In the meantime, there has not been such a distinct moment for sexual minorities, whereas the fight for their rights has been going on for a while. So maybe it needs a push. You guys are welcome to comment on this, so I can get a clearer picture of my idea.

    • Thanks for the insights, all! I am particularly compelled by the idea that Mallory put forth, that race and gender are categories that do not necessarily allow one to “blend in” or “pass: for something that they are not by appearance. I would be interested in hearing a historian’s perspective on this, such as Scott’s.

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