Rubin’s Focus on the West

Hello, I’m Crystal! I’m a 3rd year Economics major.

When I read Rubin’s work, I was extremely taken to it because I feel that I am exactly the type of individual whose thinking she seeks to indict. I do view sex negatively, and I do subscribe (albeit unknowingly) to the hierarchical system of sexual value. So I found myself thinking, “Wow Gayle! Tell me more. Tell me exactly what society has done to produce the way in which I view sex.” The manner in which Rubin unveiled and dissected society’s current opinion towards sex made her argument especially coherent and convincing, I think.

Rubin begins with a historical examination of what she calls “the sex wars”, which are a series of political or moral conflicts in which the domain of acceptable erotic life has been shaped and reshaped. These historical events have helped to create society and law’s current view of sexuality. She starts with late nineteenth century morality, describing the morality crusaders whose methods of social, legal, and medical enforcement began a long period of struggle. She goes so far as to state that the repercussions of “these great nineteenth-century moral paroxysms are still with us” (268).

Learning about all these events chronologically really helped to see the progression of viewpoints as society changed. They also make clearer the sorts of residue that these instances have left on today’s thoughts about sex.

The key residue, which society is not even aware that it subscribes to, is sexual essentialism, which is the idea that sex is eternal and resistant to social and historical changes. Rubin asserts that it is science (a combination of medicine, psychology, psychiatry, and the academic study of sex) that have produced and embedded sexual essentialism in Western societies. Because science has taught us about X and Y chromosomes, about our own bodies, we begin to view sexuality as something that is biologically ordained and not a social construct. (At this point, I was especially engrossed in the reading. As someone who is fiercely scientific in personality and methodology, learning that it was my in fact devout faith in science that produced my current mindset was, well, mind-blowing.)

In addition to sexual essentialism, Rubin describes five other ideological formations that are intertwined with current sexual thought. The most important, sex negativity, she attributes to Christian tradition. She states that Western cultures consider sex to be destructive because of the assumption that the genitalia are inferior to other parts of the body, such as the heart or mind, and that these notions have now separated themselves from their religious roots and entrenched themselves in Western society, persevering nonetheless. Rubin also attributes the stigma of certain sexual behaviors, which makes up the hierarchical system of sexual value, to Western religious traditions. Now, these stigmas persist because of medical and psychological reproach: although originally concerned with incest and genetic weakening, the emphasis has shifted to taboos in the erotic experience.

However, although I follow Rubin’s logic entirely, I am somewhat skeptical at her uniquely Western-oriented claims. On the one hand, she often prefaces her statements with, “In Western cultures” (italics mine), but on the other hand, she must recognize that the realm of sexuality is not limited to the Western world. In fact, in section 3, she references New Guinean societies to make a specific point.

And I myself certainly believe that the East is not exempt from embedded sexual essentialism. In fact, the East may even be more mired negative sexual ideologies. In much of Asia, sexuality is viewed much more negatively than in the US, and heteronormative values are even stronger. While people in the US may struggle with the decision of whether or not to come out, many people in Asia do not even view coming out as an option because of the guaranteed backlash. The punitive stigma of sexual behaviors that Rubin describes are even more prevalent and even more intense than in the West. As someone raised in an Asian household and also Asia for a period of time, I feel that I am not far from the truth when I say that the East has an even less progressive view towards sexuality than the West.

However, if all of Rubin’s arguments are predicated on the assumption of a Western culture, then what explains the Eastern phenomenon? Although several Eastern countries now subscribe to Christianity and Islam, these countries were not religious for most of their history. Additionally, although these notions were at one point founded on religious ideals, Rubin claims these notions have “acquired a life of their own” and no longer need religion to persist. Thus, perhaps the same thing that is allowing these notions to survive independent of religion is present in the East as well.

Rubin attributes the stigma of some sexual behaviors to medical opprobrium. Perhaps the recent rise and reliance on science, as Rubin has described for Western cultures, can indeed be to blame, because science is certainly heavily valued in the East, arguably more so than in the West.

But historically, prior to science’s rise, what caused and allowed these sexual views to persist? Do the “great nineteenth-century moral paroxysms” still apply? What kind of laws or practices have historically shaped the East’s views towards sexuality, and why is it that the West has become more progressive more quickly? I have lots of questions, and really no answers, and I’m interested in whether anybody has written something about sexual thought specific to the East.

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One thought on “Rubin’s Focus on the West

  1. In regards to the praise at the beginning for Butler’s incorporation of a chronological historical context, I too found that incredibly helpful and informative. Her entire argument was strengthened by providing this background knowledge in a way that explained the effects each event had on the next, as well as the overall effects this sequence has had on how we think and talk about sex, gender, and sexuality today. I’m grateful this article was assigned so early in the quarter because I think this background is essential to understand as we pursue these topics and classifications further.

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