Gayle Rubin, The Traffic in Women (1975)

I’ve been meaning for some time to write a post about Gayle Rubin.  She’s an interesting figure who’s managed to be influential within radical feminism, sex positive feminism and queer theory, but we hardly ever talk about her outside of academia.

Rubin is a cultural anthropologist. In her groundbreaking and theoretically audacious 1975 essay ‘The Traffic in Women’ she takes the economic theories of Marx and Engels, the structural anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss, the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, teases out the implications of their work for feminism, weaves it all together and comes up with a theory that locates the structural oppression of women in the kinship systems that create gender division and compulsory heterosexuality. The essay hails from a time when radical feminists were clearing the way for feminist theory and they don’t really write them like this anymore.

She begins the essay with the big question that second wave feminists had been trying to address in the 1970s: how do we account for women’s oppression and social subordination? How are human females taken up as raw materials and fashioned into domesticated women?  In relation to gender, the essay follows a strictly social constructionist line.

Unlike most other radical feminists of the time, though, Rubin is wary of the term ‘patriarchy.’  The term was introduced by feminists to ‘distinguish the forces for maintaining sexism from other social forces, such as capitalism’ (33).  But Rubin observes that the term ‘capitalism’ is useful precisely because it distinguishes between different systems of political economy – not all countries have capitalist economic systems: ‘The power of the term lies in its implication that, in fact, there are alternatives to capitalism’ (33). ‘Patriarchy,’ however, tends to mask the very different ways in which sexual worlds have been organised.  Rubin prefers the term ‘sex/gender’ system because while we can assume that all societies will have some kind of sex/gender system in place, this term allows for differences and indicates that oppression is not inevitable within that domain, but is rather ‘the product of the specific social relations which organise it’(33).  This will make a more sophisticated analysis possible.

Sex is sex, but what counts as sex is equally culturally determined and obtained. Every society also has a sex/gender system – a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human, social intervention and satisfied in a conventional manner, no matter how bizarre some of the conventions may be (32).

In The Dialectic of Sex (1970) Shulamith Firestone drew on Marx to locate the oppression of women in women’s economic dependence upon men.  Rubin also regards Marx and Engels as essential to understanding women’s oppression, but she turns the focus to kinship relations and the work of the anthropologist Levi-Strauss who ‘sees the essence of kinship systems to lie in an exchange of women between men’ and in so doing ‘constructs an implicit theory of sex oppression’ (35).

If it is women who are being transacted, then it is the men who give and take them who are linked, the woman being a conduit of a relationship rather than a partner to it.  In such a system women cannot have full rights to themselves.

Rubin notes the attractiveness of this concept to feminist theory because it places the oppression of women within social systems, rather than biology.  Kinship rests on a radical difference between the rights of men and women and so it must produce differences between men and women.

Take the division of labor, for example.  Rubin sees this division as a:

taboo against the sameness of men and women, a taboo dividing the sexes into two mutually exclusive categories, a taboo which exacerbates the biological differences between the sexes and thereby creates gender.  The division of labor can also be seen as a taboo against sexual arrangements other than those containing at least one man and one woman, thereby enjoining heterosexual marriage (39).

Rubin regards gender as a socially imposed division between the sexes: ‘Far from being an expression of natural differences, exclusive gender identity is the suppression of natural similarities’ (40, emphasis mine).  Furthermore, ‘individuals are engendered in order that marriage be guaranteed.’

According to Rubin the social system of kinship therefore necessitates the creation of gender division and the institution of compulsory heterosexuality.

If biological and hormonal imperatives were as overwhelming as popular mythology would have them, it would hardly be necessary to insure heterosexual unions by means of economic interdependency […] The suppression of the homosexual component of human sexuality, and by corollary, the oppression of homosexuals, is therefore a product of the same system whose rules and relations oppress women (41)

Here she forges a link between homophobia and the traffic in women necessary to maintain kinship systems.  This link forms the groundwork for Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s theory of homosocial culture, which in turn informs much queer theory.

Rubin then turns to psychoanalysis and makes a gutsy (for the time) attempt to rehabilitate Sigmund Freud stating that ‘the radical implications of Freud’s theory have been radically repressed’ (43).

Insofar as psychoanalysis rationalizes female subordination it must be critiqued, but Rubin insists that psychoanalysis ‘contains a unique set of concepts for understanding men, women, and sexuality. It is a theory of sexuality in human society. Most importantly, psychoanalysis provides a description of the mechanisms by which the sexes are divided and deformed, of how bisexual, androgynous infants are transformed into boys and girls’ (43).

Rubin argues that Freud was not the biological determinist some people would have him: ‘Freud’s theory was instead about language and the cultural meanings imposed upon anatomy’ (45).  To put the point *cough* another way, ‘penis envy’ is not really envy of an organ, but envy of the cultural meanings attached to the possession of that organ.

This discussion calls for Lacan (it’s just not a party until Lacan arrives), the French psychoanalyst who developed Freud’s work in relation to language and who made a radical distinction between the penis and the phallus, that is, between the organ and information: ‘The phallus is a set of meanings conferred upon the penis’ (46). Castration is not having the symbolic phallus.  Castration is not a real “lack,” but a meaning conferred upon the genitals of a woman.  The phallus carries a meaning of dominance over women and it may be inferred that penis envy is a recognition and resentment of that meaning.

If you’re interested in the subject, Rubin gives reasonably clear summaries of Freud and Lacan’s theories (no easy task!) which I don’t have the patience to type out here, but basically she thinks that what they really address is the way cultural stereotypes have been mapped onto the genitals.

She also notes that psychoanalysts see the creation of “femininity” in women as an act of psychic brutality based largely on pain and humiliation: ‘One can read Freud’s essays on femininity as descriptions of how a group is prepared psychologically, at a tender age, to live with its oppression’ (50).  Little wonder they return to biological determinism to explain why anyone would enjoy being a woman.

Feminism, she argues, should call for a revolution in kinship.

Human and sexual life will always be subject to convention and human intervention. It will never be completely “natural” if only because our species is social, cultural, and articulate […] but the mechanisms and evolution of this process need not be largely independent of conscious choice. Cultural evolution provides us with the opportunity to seize control of the means of sexuality, reproduction, and socialization, and to make conscious decisions to liberate human sexual life from the archaic relationships which deform it.  Ultimately, a thoroughgoing feminist revolution would liberate more than women. It would liberate forms of sexual expression, and would liberate human personality from the straight jacket of gender (52).

The essay is very much of its time in arguing that women are oppressed by having to be women:

I personally feel that the feminist movement must dream of the elimination of obligatory sexualities and sex roles. The dream I find most compelling is one of an androgynous and genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love (54).

I agree absolutely that a feminist movement should aim to eliminate obligatory sexuality and sex roles, but I think a lot of feminists would now question this dream of an androgynous, genderless society.

  • Is that really what we want?
  • How would such a thing be achieved anyway?
  • Oughtn’t we question the tendency to construct gender in entirely negative terms?
  • Perhaps most importantly, who, exactly, would be enforcing and policing this genderless utopia, eh?

Maybe we would like to retain some of the pleasures and powers of gender while trying to lose the compulsion.

Moreover, while I’m sure Rubin never intended such an interpretation (she’s since shown herself to be a staunch supporter of sexual minorities and people constructed as gender deviants), we must not be blind to the fact that this kind of theorising gave impetus to transphobia within feminism and has allowed trans women in particular to be made into the scapegoats of gender within some feminist narratives.

It’s important to be careful not to use theory to discredit the lived experiences of real live gendered people.

Gayle Rubin is an Assistant Professor of Anthropolgy at the University of Michegan.

Further reading: Gayle Rubin, ‘The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex’ in Linda Nicholson (ed) The Second Wave: A Reader in Feminist Theory (New York and London: Routledge, 1997): 27 – 62.