Gayle Rubin

Gayle S. Rubin (born 1 January 1949 in South Carolina) is an American cultural anthropologist best known as an activist and theorist of sex and gender politics. She has written on a range of subjects including feminism, sadomasochism, prostitution, pedophilia, pornography and lesbian literature, as well as anthropological studies and histories of sexual subcultures, especially focused in urban contexts. Her article "Thinking Sex" is widely regarded as a founding text of gay and lesbian studies, sexuality studies, and queer theory.[1][2] She is an associate professor of anthropology, women's studies, and comparative literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Gayle S. Rubin
Rubin speaking at the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco, June 7, 2012
Born (1949-01-01) January 1, 1949
AwardsAssociation for Queer Anthropology Ruth Benedict Book Prize (2012)
Academic background
Alma materUniversity of Michigan
ThesisThe Valley of the Kings: Leathermen in San Francisco, 1960–1990 (1994)
Academic work
DisciplineCultural anthropology
InstitutionsUniversity of Michigan


Early life

Rubin was raised in a middle-class white Jewish home in then-segregated South Carolina. She attended segregated public schools, her classes only being desegregated when she was a senior. Rubin has written that her experiences growing up in the segregated South has given her "an abiding hatred of racism in all its forms and a healthy respect for its tenacity." As one of the few Jews in her Southern city, she resented the dominance of white Protestants over African-Americans, Catholics, and Jews. The only Jewish child in her elementary school, she was punished for refusing to recite the Lord's Prayer.[3]

College and early activism

In 1968 Gayle Rubin was part of an early feminist consciousness raising group active on the campus of the University of Michigan and also wrote on feminist topics for women's movement papers and the Ann Arbor Argus.[4] In 1970 she helped found Ann Arbor Radicalesbians, an early Lesbian Feminist group.[4]

Rubin first rose to recognition through her 1975 essay "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex",[5] in which she attempted to discover historical social mechanisms by which gender and compulsory heterosexuality are produced, and women are consigned to a secondary position in human relations.

San Francisco

In 1978 Rubin moved to San Francisco to begin studies of the gay male leather subculture, seeking to examine a minority sexual practice neither from a clinical perspective nor through the lens of individual psychology but rather as an anthropologist studying a contemporary community.[6] On June 13 of that year, Rubin, together with Patrick Califia and sixteen others, founded the first known lesbian sadomasochism group, Samois. The group disbanded in May 1983, and in 1984 Rubin was involved in founding a new organization, "The Outcasts". Rubin became a prominent sex-positive feminist in the feminist sex wars of the late 1970s and 1980s, delivering a now-classic paper at the volatile 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality in New York City.

In the field of public history, Rubin was a member of the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project, a private study group founded in 1978 whose members included Allan Berube, Estelle Freedman and Amber Hollibaugh.[7] Rubin also was a founding member of the GLBT Historical Society (originally known as the San Francisco Bay Area Gay and Lesbian Historical Society), established in 1985.[7][8] She served on the Board of Directors of the Leather Archives and Museum from 1992 to 2000. Arguing the need for well-maintained historical archives for sexual minorities, Rubin has written that "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".[9]

Academic career

In 1994, Rubin completed her Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Michigan with a dissertation entitled The Valley of the Kings: Leathermen in San Francisco, 1960–1990.

In addition to her appointment at the University of Michigan, she was the 2014 F. O. Matthiessen Visiting Professor of Gender and Sexuality at Harvard University.[10][11]

Rubin serves on the editorial board of the journal Feminist Encounters[12] and on the international advisory board of the feminist journal Signs.[13]


"The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex"[5]

In this essay, Rubin devised the phrase "sex/gender system", which she defines as "the set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity, and in which these transformed sexual needs are satisfied." She takes as a starting point writers who have previously discussed gender and sexual relations as an economic institution (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels) which serves a conventional social function (Claude Lévi-Strauss) and is reproduced in the psychology of children (Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan). She argues that these writers fail to adequately explain women's oppression, and offers a reinterpretation of their ideas. Rubin addresses Marxist thought by identifying women’s role within a capitalist society.[14] She argues that the reproduction of labor power depends upon women’s housework to transform commodities into sustenance for the worker. The system of capitalism cannot generate surplus without women, yet society does not grant women access to the resulting capital.

Rubin argues that historical patterns of female oppression have constructed this role for women in capitalist societies. She attempts to analyze these historical patterns by considering the sex/gender system. According to Rubin, "Gender is a socially imposed division of the sexes."[14] She cites the exchange of women within patriarchal societies as perpetuating the pattern of female oppression, referencing Marcel Mauss' Essay on the Gift[15] and using his idea of the "gift" to establish the notion that gender is created within this exchange of women by men in a kinship system. Women are born biologically female, but only become gendered when the distinction between male giver and female gift is made within this exchange. For men, giving the gift of a daughter or a sister to another man for the purpose of matrimony allows for the formation of kinship ties between two men and the transfer of "sexual access, genealogical statuses, lineage names and ancestors, rights and people"[14] to occur. When using a Marxist analysis of capitalism within this sex/gender system, the exclusion of women from the system of exchange establishes men as the capitalists and women as their commodities fit for exchange. She ultimately hopes for an "androgynous and genderless" society in which sexual difference has no socially constructed and hierarchical meaning.[14]

"Thinking Sex"

In her 1984 essay "Thinking Sex", Rubin interrogated the value system that social groups—whether left- or right-wing, feminist or patriarchal—attribute to sexuality which defines some behaviours as good/natural and others (such as pedophilia) as bad/unnatural. In this essay she introduced the idea of the "Charmed Circle" of sexuality, that sexuality that was privileged by society was inside of it, while all other sexually was outside of, and in opposition to it. The binaries of this "charmed circle" include couple/alone or in groups, monogamous/promiscuous, same generation/cross-generational, and bodies only/with manufactured objects. The "Charmed Circle" speaks to the idea that there is a hierarchical valuation of sex acts. In this essay, Rubin also discusses a number of ideological formations that permeate sexual views. The most important is sex negativity, in which Western cultures consider sex to be a dangerous, destructive force. If marriage, reproduction, or love are not involved, almost all sexual behavior is considered bad. Related to sex negativity is the fallacy of the misplaced scale. Rubin explains how sex acts are troubled by an excess of significance.

Rubin's discussion of all of these models assumes a domino theory of sexual peril. People feel a need to draw a line between good and bad sex as they see it standing between sexual order and chaos. There is a fear that if certain aspects of "bad" sex are allowed to move across the line, unspeakable acts will move across as well. One of the most prevalent ideas about sex is that there is one proper way to do it. Society lacks a concept of benign sexual variation. People fail to recognize that just because they do not like to do something does not make it repulsive. Rubin points out that we have learned to value other cultures as unique without seeing them as inferior, and we need to adopt a similar understanding of different sexual cultures as well.


The University of Pennsylvania hosted a "state of the field" conference in gender and sexuality studies on March 4 to 6, 2009, titled "Rethinking Sex" and held in recognition of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the essay "Thinking Sex."[16] Rubin was a featured speaker at the conference, where she presented "Blood under the Bridge: Reflections on ‘Thinking Sex,’" to an audience of nearly eight hundred people.[17] GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies later published a special issue, also title "Rethinking Sex," featuring work emerging from this conference.[18]

Awards and honors


  • Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).
  • "Samois", in Marc Stein, ed., Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History in America (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003). (PDF download.)
  • "Studying Sexual Subcultures: the Ethnography of Gay Communities in Urban North America", in Ellen Lewin and William Leap, eds., Out in Theory: The Emergence of Lesbian and Gay Anthropology. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002)
  • "Old Guard, New Guard", in Cuir Underground, Issue 4.2, Summer 1998. (Online text.)
  • "Sites, Settlements, and Urban Sex: Archaeology And The Study of Gay Leathermen in San Francisco 1955–1995", in Robert Schmidt and Barbara Voss, eds., Archaeologies of Sexuality (London: Routledge, 2000).
  • "The Miracle Mile: South of Market and Gay Male Leather in San Francisco 1962–1996", in James Brook, Chris Carlsson, and Nancy Peters, eds., Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998).
  • "From the Past: The Outcasts" from the newsletter of Leather Archives & Museum No. 4, April 1998.
  • "Music from a Bygone Era", in Cuir Underground, Issue 3.4, May 1997. (Online text.)
  • "Elegy for the Valley of the Kings: AIDS and the Leather Community in San Francisco, 1981–1996", in Martin P. Levine, Peter M. Nardi, and John H. Gagnon, eds. In Changing Times: Gay Men and Lesbians Encounter HIV/AIDS (University of Chicago Press, 1997).
  • Rubin, Gayle (1997), "The traffic in women : notes on the "political economy" of sex", in Nicholson, Linda (ed.), The second wave: a reader in feminist theory, New York: Routledge, pp. 27–62, ISBN 9780415917612.
  • The Valley of the Kings: Leathermen in San Francisco, 1960–1990. University of Michigan, 1994. (Doctoral dissertation.)
  • "Of catamites and kings: Reflections on butch, gender, and boundaries", in Joan Nestle (Ed). The Persistent Desire. A Femme-Butch-Reader. Boston: Alyson. 466 (1992).
  • Misguided, Dangerous and Wrong: An Analysis of Anti-Pornography Politics, 1992. (PDF download)
  • "The Catacombs: A temple of the butthole", in Mark Thompson, ed., Leatherfolk — Radical Sex, People, Politics, and Practice, Boston, Alyson Publications, 1991, ISBN 1555831877, pp. 119–141, reprinted in Deviations. A Gayle Rubin Reader, Duke University Press, 2011, ISBN 0822349868, pp. 224–240, pdf, retrieved September 30, 2014.
  • "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality, in Carole Vance, ed., Pleasure and Danger (Routledge & Kegan, Paul, 1984. Also reprinted in many other collections, including Abelove, H.; Barale, M. A.; Halperin, D. M.), The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 1994).
  • "The Leather Menace", Body Politic no. 82 (33–35), April 1982.
  • "Sexual Politics, the New Right, and the Sexual Fringe" in The Age Taboo, Alyson, 1981, pp. 108–115.
  • "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex", in Rayna Reiter, ed., Toward an Anthropology of Women, New York, Monthly Review Press (1975); also reprinted in Second Wave: A Feminist Reader and many other collections. (PDF download.)

See also


  1. Binhammer, Katherine (2002). "Thinking Gender with Sexuality in 1790s' Feminist Thought". Feminist Studies. 28 (3): 667–690. doi:10.2307/3178798. ISSN 0046-3663. JSTOR 3178798. Rubin's article, often referred to as a founding text of lesbian and gay studies
  2. Lochrie, Karma (2017-05-19). "Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns by Valerie Traub". Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 42 (4): 1036–1038. doi:10.1086/690960. ISSN 0097-9740. Gayle Rubin’s foundational essay for queer theory, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” first published in 1984
  3. Rubin, Gayle S. (2011). Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader. Durham & London: Duke University Press. p. 2. ISBN 9780822349716.
  4. Love, Barbara J. (2006). Feminists Who Changed America: 1963–1975. University of Illinois Press. p. 398. ISBN 9780252031892.
  5. "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex"
  6. Rubin, Gayle; Judith Butler (1994). "Sexual Traffic" (PDF). Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. 6 (2): 91. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
  7. Wakimoto, Diana Kiyo (2012). Queer Community Archives in California Since 1950 (Brisbane, Australia: Queensland University of Technology; Ph.D. dissertation in information systems), chapter 5, "'There Really Is a Sense That This Is Our Space': The History of the GLBT Historical Society." Retrieved 2012-08-18.
  8. Koskovich, Gérard (2006). "La GLBT Historical Society de San Francisco". Triangul'ère. pp. 48–63.
  9. Muntjac, Sally R. (15 December 2011). "Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader". The Times Higher Education. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
  10. "Gayle Rubin". Department of Comparative Literature, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Archived from the original on 2012-12-02. Retrieved 2013-01-30.
  11. "Women, Gender, and Sexuality". Harvard FAS Registrar's Office. Archived from the original on 2 December 2013. Retrieved 26 December 2013.
  12. "Editorial Board". Retrieved 2017-08-22.
  13. "Masthead". Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 2012-08-22. Retrieved 2017-08-22.
  14. Rubin, Gayle. "The Traffic in Women". Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. 770–794.
  15. Mauss, Marcel, and W. D. Halls. The Gift: the Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000. Print.
  16. "Rethinking Sex: Gender and Sexuality Studies - A State of The Field Conference | Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies". Retrieved 2019-02-25.
  17. Love, Heather (2011-01-01). "Introduction". GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 17 (1): 1–14. doi:10.1215/10642684-2010-014. ISSN 1064-2684. Retrieved 2019-02-25.
  18. "Volume 17 Issue 1 | GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies | Duke University Press". Retrieved 2019-02-25.
  20. Paull, Laura. "Honoring gay leather culture with art installation in SoMa alleyway – J". Retrieved 2018-06-23.
  21. "Gayle Rubin is Awarded a Ruth Benedict Book Prize". Women's Studies, University of Michigan. Archived from the original on 2012-11-02. Retrieved 1 April 2018.
Academic offices
Preceded by
Henry Abelove
F. O. Matthiessen Visiting Professorship of Gender and Sexuality at Harvard University
2014 2015
Succeeded by
Robert Reid-Pharr
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