Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader

December 15, 2011

Gayle Rubin is an American feminist anthropologist whose seminal essays The Traffic in Women (1975) and Thinking Sex (1984) changed the way we think about sex and gender. This book brings together a canonical collection of her writing, but it is more than a reader: she rewrites the genealogy of sexuality studies, giving us a precise intellectual history of sexuality studies that recognises the pivotal role played by academic homosexuals other than the now-feted and individuated Michel Foucault. She reminds us that British sociologists such as Mary McIntosh, Jeffrey Weeks and Ken Plummer, as well as American gay historians including Esther Newton, Jeffrey Escoffier, Martha Vicinus, John D'Emilio and Jonathan Ned Katz and many more besides, ploughed this new field.

After the 1960s there emerged new social realities around sex. Within urban homophile communities surfaced new "structures of feeling" that produced organic and radical critiques of sex and sexuality. These became mind-bending prisms for understanding sociality as a whole. Rubin's central point is that to read society through the lens of sexuality is to comprehend, challenge and therefore liberate. While feminism currently clears her throat to become pertinent once again, Rubin's work needs revisiting, as it provides the intellectual scaffold.

Two or three decades ago I was a youthfully self-righteous, anti-pornography feminist who went off to the University of Sussex principally because I'd heard there were lots of dykes in Brighton. I discovered the speculative delights of lesbian sadomasochism as I got stuck into Rubin's groundbreaking articles; she was the ur-Bad Girl. Swinging from one end of lesbian feminism to the other almost earned me a punch from Sheila Jeffreys in a bar. However, as we got older and preferred a Twix and Coronation Street to an all-nighter at a sex club, revisiting these landmark texts provides an opportunity for fiftysomething lounge feminists like me to remember how and why we were inspired in the first place.

Rereading articles that changed you fundamentally is quite stirring. Several of these pieces were written before the internet crawled through all aspects of our existence, and queer theory caused our existences to come into question. Nevertheless, it's not just a nostalgic exercise: it is clarifying to read Rubin's analyses, still germane, direct and sharp after all these years. She is alert to nuances in the social field, keen to represent the intersectionality of issues around sex, and judiciously observant of any nexus of inequality. She communicates the necessity of understanding how rhetorical sex is, and how its parameters are so naturalised. The maturity of her critique comes from being an outsider, and she is careful to delineate ownership of ideas and to accord recognition to activists and community intellectuals. Her writing is ethical and sensitive to the sliding aspects of voice and entitlement, trend and authority: as she poignantly notes: "the more I explore these queer knowledges, the more I find out how much we have already forgotten, rediscovered, and promptly forgotten again."

I often feel when I am teaching that students don't understand where we academics are coming from because their basics are missing. We jump in with our complex assumptions carved out over decades of reading and critical thought, and they cannot follow us. We need to start with some sense of an intellectual journey. They are young, as we once were, and need inspiring. So don't just give your students some Lee Edelman and tell them that there's "No Future" - explain to them that theorists such as Rubin carved out the territory and underpin where we are now, and that as an anthropologist, her carefully enunciated empirical work gave clear evidence for understanding the restrictions of sex/gender possibilities.

Rubin describes how in queer geologies, certain strata are "fossil rich", explaining how specific social conditions can produce fertile, lush sexual diversities - such as the flowering of sexology in the late 19th century that "could still launch a thousand dissertations". She ends with a more recent meditation on the necessity for an institutional memory. Rather endearingly, she constructs a paean to librarians and archivists, arguing that "we must build better bureaucracies". Like many of us, she looks less like a radical sex activist and more like a benevolent librarian these days; we may mellow, but we also don't want to forget. To preserve queer knowledge, an infrastructure is needed. Because, as Rubin rightly argues, marginality and charisma - although glittery - are inherently unstable: "queer life is full of examples of fabulous explosions that left little or no detectable trace ... those who fail to secure the transmission of their histories are doomed to forget them."

Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader

By Gayle S. Rubin. Duke University Press, 504pp, £17.99. ISBN 9780822349860. Published 7 November 2011

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