“Watching and Enjoying. The Political Anthropology of Sex”, by Gayle Rubin: Gayle Rubin and radical sex

Here is, in French, Gayle Rubin’s first book. Not the first translated, but the only one ever published: even in English, there is no collection of texts by the woman who was a pioneer not only of feminist studies, but also of gay and lesbian studies.

A lesbian feminist, she will have worked on sex as an anthropologist, through participant observation, a bit like the “sexual subcultures”that it studies, such as sadomasochism, themselves work the American society – all the more deeply that they are underground: it is about counter-culture, rather than sub-culture. One of the articles is thus devoted to the history of the “Catacombs” of San Francisco, refuge of the “sexual heretics of the XXand century”

While Rubin is a key figure in academic feminism, her career is no less atypical. At the University of Michigan, in 1969, she was the first student to compose a program of Women’s Studies – or feminist studies that don’t really exist yet. Her founding article, which she published at age 25 in 1974, developed into a pre-doctoral dissertation. However, it was only in 1994 that she defended her thesis, still at the University of Michigan, where she teaches today. In the meantime, she will have been a crucial actor in the political fight for a radical sexual utopia.

“The Women’s Market” inaugurates the anthropology of gender in the United States. This ambitious text proposes a “political economy of sex”, based on a critical re-reading of Lévi-Strauss, but also of Marx and Engels, of Freud and Lacan. According to her, “the exchange of women” that kinship establishes makes it possible to understand their oppression without naturalizing it – better still: by denaturalizing it. “Men and women are of course different. But they are not as different as day and night”, she wrote. With this text, translated in 1998 by the anthropologist Nicole-Claude Mathieu, we are far from “differential valence of the sexes” according to Françoise Héritier: “far from being the expression of natural differences”for Rubin, the differentiation of the sexes requires social work, either “the removal of natural similarities” like the femininity of men and the masculinity of women.

Thereby, “sex as we know it is itself a social product” : in the wake of Beauvoir, Rubin brings the concept of gender, which feminism then appropriates to apprehend the social construction of sex, into anthropology. She speaks of a “sex/gender system”, which transforms the (biological) “female” into an (oppressed) “woman” – as slavery transforms the “Negro” into a “slave”. The analysis comes from Marx; but the detour via kinship makes it possible not to reduce feminism to Marxism, nor patriarchy to capitalism, by distinguishing “trafficking in women” from that in goods.

In 1984, Rubin published a second article, no less decisive: “Thinking about sex”. This text, already translated in 2001 in a dialogue with the philosopher Judith Butler, contributes to making a field autonomous: the analysis of sexuality, distinct from gender. Gay and lesbian studies will then take off. After the election of Ronald Reagan, Rubin revised his previous formulations: no longer “thinking about gender”, but proposing “a radical theory of the politics of sexuality”.

At first glance, nothing new. Admittedly, the liberal feminism of the 1960s, by refusing to assign women to the domestic space in order to open up the public space to them, renewed a division between the public and private spheres, not conducive to the politicization of sexuality. However, as early as 1970, radical feminism challenged these boundaries: it erected sexuality as a central issue, taking as its object not only contraception and abortion, but also orgasm, rape, lesbianism, etc. With relatives, Rubin was inscribed there.

The “sex wars”

However, a new radicality was gaining ground within feminism, constituting pornography and prostitution as emblems of male domination. It was in 1982, at Barnard College (New York), that the sex wars. Not the “war of the sexes” that French conservatism would impute ten years later to the America of “political correctness”, but the “wars of sex” which then tore feminism between two irreconcilable radical logics. If sex is political in both cases, for the feminism of domination, oppression passes through sexuality, while for the feminism of desire, it is liberation that passes through sexuality.

Admittedly, Barnard’s colloquium aims to think together “pleasure and danger”, ie the tension between enjoyment and violence. However, in the face of virulent attacks from their adversaries, who see them as collaborators of domination, the participants deal above all with liberation. Some do not hesitate to make an alliance, like the jurist Catharine MacKinnon and the activist Andrea Dworkin, with the conservatives of the Moral Majority and the “anti-sex” repression. The others end up saying they are “pro-sex”, in a common front of sexual minorities where radical feminism would give way to a liberalism respectful of the diversity of practices and orientations. It is in this context that Rubin theorizes the distinction between gender and sexuality. But, failing to articulate them afterwards, isn’t this exposing oneself to endorsing a Yalta of feminism: to heterosexuality gender domination, to homosexuality sexual liberation?

In Watch and Enjoy, Rubin tells us about an exotic culture (the United States), and a distant past (the birth of AIDS). But it challenges our present and our society. The politics of sex has indeed been working in France since the end of the 1990s, echoing the controversies in the United States. Should we choose between sexual freedom and equality between the sexes – for desire, or against violence? The discourse of sexual liberation is usually heard from a pre-feminist (Philippe Sollers), anti-feminist (Michel Houellebecq) or post-feminist (Marcela Iacub) point of view. It remains to be seen whether, in the manner of the writer Virginie Despentes, a “pro-sex” feminism, which is not a contradiction in terms, can resonate in France. It would be a way to learn lessons from the history embodied by Gayle Rubin across the Atlantic.


by Gayle Rubin. Texts collected and edited by Rostom Mesli. Epel, “The great classics of modern erotology”, 486 p., 28 €.

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“Watching and Enjoying. The Political Anthropology of Sex”, by Gayle Rubin: Gayle Rubin and radical sex

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