Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality

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Rubin, Gayle. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Ed. Carole S. Vance. London: Pandora. 1992. 267-293.


In the chapter “Thinking Sex: Notes for an Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” Gayle Rubin [1]Rubin articulates how sex is used as a political agent as a means of implementing repression and creating dominance in today’s western society. She dissects modern culture’s stance on sexuality, exposing the hypocrisy and subjugation that victimizes anyone of a different orientation or sexual inclination. In her work, she focuses on homosexuals, pedophiles, children, women, sadism, transvestitism, and voyeurism.

Specific Claims

Victorian Morality and the Modern Era

Rubin argues, with the help of our friend Michel Foucault,[2] that sex is institutionalized and shapes societies not due to biological needs, but rather social norms that are formed within different time periods. This references Western Culture, and how sexuality is something that has been compartmentalized into a monogamous activity solely for the purpose of reproduction. Sexuality in this form is “a human product” (Rubin 277). A theory has been formed called “sexual essentialism” which is “the idea that sex is a natural force that exists prior to social life and shapes institutions” (Rubin 275). This theory is broken down into five subsets, which dictate how sexuality is discussed and perceived in Western culture:

-sex negativity

-the fallacy of misplaced scale

-the hierarchical valuation of sex acts

-the domino theory of sexual peril

-lack of a concept of benign sexual variation

Due to Christian traditions having a hold on Western culture, religious reasoning has dominated in suppressing sexual activity. Any sexual act is deemed as sinful, and against morality.

Caste System

Sexual repression has created an inherent caste system within our culture that has given some sexual identities more value than others. At the peak of the “erotic pyramid” (Rubin 279) are those who are married heterosexuals whose purpose is for reproduction. Below are those who are unmarried but monogamous, monogamous homosexuals, a category which includes transsexuals, transvestites, prostitutes, and porn models. However, the lowest caste is those where their erotic desires transgress generational boundaries, such as pedophiles. Medicine is used here to “cure” those individuals in the lower castes of their sexual desires, as they are believed to be the bi-product of some psychological or physiological disorder. Doctors have worked to discover methods to hetero-ize such members of society, blurring the line between humanity and artificiality. There has been some who have worked in medicine in order to explain sexuality not as a disease. Alfred Kinsey worked to eradicate the stigmas surrounding sex by forming an institute that looked at sex from an unbiased scientific stance, and researched the sexual practices and desires of humans. His work, and those of the like, questioned the morals of society, enraging many and causing immense controversy.[3]

Parallels of Racism

The oppression individuals of different sexual practices face is much like that of racism. This oppression gives power to the dominant group by eliminating common rights that are not applicable to these groups. For example, immigrants of the United States are deported or simply refused if they are homosexual or some other sexual practice that goes against the norm in Western society. Homosexuals and others are being forced to migrant to other areas in the United States to seek a form of amnesty and refuge from prejudice in certain communities. Sex laws are in place, but put into the hands of local law enforcement, thus making it a subjective aspect of the legal world. Some communities condemn while others accept, depending on the surrounding political culture. San Francisco and Greenwich Village have been forced into mock refugee camps, protecting individuals that go against small-town America.


All sexual practices are in reference to men. There is an inherent double standard in that while extraordinary sex acts are looked down upon, if a woman is the agent she is thought of as even lower in the caste system. Various feminist and sexual thinkers have called for the sexual liberation of women, allowing freedom for acting in sexual behaviors routinely preserved for men, such as pornography, masturbation, and masochism. Women face two obstacles in sex, having to overcome gender and preference.


Gayle Rubin makes various sub claims in order to prove her argument that sex is a political agent. She focuses on the repression experienced by medicine, gender, and location. What strengthens her argument is the usage of Foucault and his theory about the discourse in sex, and how it is more institutionalized as time goes on. Another tactic that Rubin uses is showing the hypocrisy that surrounds sexuality in Western culture. Law prohibits sexual activity for children, even putting sanctions on what children can see in movies and in the classroom. However, there is no punishment for bringing in pictures of mutilated bodies from war or genocide into the classroom and displaying them. Secondly, the rights that are protected under the First Amendment do not apply to sexual statements. There are anti-obscenity laws which prohibit almost any sexual commerce. Both legally and culturally, one cannot publicly express sexuality without persecution, yet the same person can talk about religion or damn politics without retribution. Conveying these double standards allows for Rubin’s argument to have a much stronger foundation, as well as connect to everyone of all sexual preferences and genders because even if one cannot relate to being oppressed, they can still see the double standards in our society from these examples.


“Like gender, sexuality is political. It is organized into systems of power, which reward and encourage some individuals and activities, while punishing and suppressing others. Like the capitalist organization of labor and its distribution of rewards and powers, the modern sexual system has been the object of political struggle since it emerged and as it has evolved. But if the disputes between labor and capital are mystified, sexual conflicts are completely camouflaged” (Rubin 309).

This essay expands one’s viewpoint about the role sexuality plays in society. It is no longer a private entity because it has been transformed and exploited as a public agent, in order to repress certain groups of people. To make this essay stronger, I would suggest Rubin to have gotten quotes from the individuals who are doing the repressing, whether it be policemen, clergy, anyone from the other side. This would prevent any counterarguments and show that she researched outside of her own sphere. Otherwise, this essay connects with the class beautifully in that it takes the morals learned from the readings and puts them into a real world context. How sexuality is actually seen in Western culture, and not in an abstract sense, but with evidence showing it being abused for other purposes.

See Also:

  • Jeffrey Weeks on the 18th-century construction of public morality that regulated sexuality primarily according to class.
  • Laura Kipnis on adultery as an enduring cultural practice that can be read for a critique of norms as they articulate to institutions associated with political economy.