Rubin vs. Butler on Sexual Identity

Hey all, I’m Maria, a third-year Math major/Polish minor.  I realized I didn’t include my first name in my username (sorry) so if anybody ends up calling me Decker, I’ll understand.

Though Gayle Rubin mainly explores historical examples of sexual oppression through various social movements and the resulting legislation, she employs a very precise and purposeful diction.  Just as Joan Scott believed that the definition of ‘gender’ implied an organization of social relations and representations of power, Rubin recognizes, “sexuality is political.  It is organized into systems of power, which reward and encourage some individuals and activities, while punishing and suppressing others” (Rubin, 309), often through the very language that describes erotic groups.  She acknowledges the implications of the words ‘pervert’ and ‘deviant’ (312) and actively employs them in her writing to consistently remind the reader of the inherent disapproval behind the terms.

Even more interesting, Rubin explores how these terms evolved into an identity, a process she calls “erotic speciation” (285).  She cites the example of a sixteenth-century sodomite, who engaged in the same activities as the modern gay man, but lacks the self-awareness as belonging to any particular sexuality.  The development of homosexuality as an identifier, a source of group commonality, and perhaps even an ethnic group (286) allowed gay men to create unique sexually constituted communities.  However, it also left homosexuals in general vulnerable to scapegoating and oppression.  Moral judgments were attached to the very term ‘gay.’

Rubin’s commentary on language and its effect on identity may provide a second perspective on Judith Butler’s discourse on sexual identity.  Butler too explores the stigmas attached to the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’, dwelling on the “regulatory imperative” inherent in identity (Butler, 16).  Both authors go on to recognize that like words, identities change over time and acquire new connotations.  Butler states that identities may “take on a future set of significations that those of us who use it now may not be able to foresee” (19).  Meanwhile, Rubin hypothesizes how anti-pornography ideology would further stigmatize sadomasochists, and how the AIDS panic would isolate the homosexual community (Rubin, 299).

However, Butler comes to a unique conclusion.  That is, Butler recognizes that not so long ago, homosexuality was not considered a possibility.  Before the ‘erotic speciation’ (to borrow Rubin’s terminology), these sexual acts were in no way connected to a sexual identity, and the very fact that there now exists an identity is a triumph, no matter the connotations attached to it (Butler 19).  In many ways, identities are restrictive, however they also allow people to assemble under one flag, which Rubin and Butler seem to agree is the only opportunity for social progress.  Where do these authors’ accounts of identity differ?  How can we alter the connotations of identifiers?

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