The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2012

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JUNE 2012 Issue

Deviant Reflections: A Voice for Sexual Freedom

Deviations, a Gayle Rubin Reader
(Duke University Press, 2011)

Finally: a collection of Gayle Rubin’s writings. It is long overdue and sorely needed.

For those who don’t know Rubin, she is a professor of anthropology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan. More significantly, she is one of America’s most original thinkers about sexuality, especially radical lesbian sexuality. For those who’ve followed her intellectual journey over the last few decades, it’s good to see many of her published articles collected in a single (though hefty) volume.

Rubin is an anthropologist exploring the margins of American sexual culture. Whether involving S-and-M lesbians, fisting leathermen, or pornography, she reveals how the boundaries of sexuality have been transformed over the last quarter-century. Rubin is a rigorous scholar, but doesn’t hesitate to bring her selfhood (i.e., lesbian) and politics (i.e., radical feminist) into her academic writings.

The great weakness of Rubin’s writings is that so few people know them. Her works are academic, but she writes with a self-confidence grounded in a solid mastery of her subject matter and recognition that there is a bigger world—made up of real people—beyond the walls of the academy. For decades, her works appeared in scholarly journals and small-press publications. This collection includes a dozen of her already published pieces, some updated with thoughtful afterwords.

She truly has something to say, not only about women and lesbian culture, but (from her unique and insightful perspective) about the sexual crisis America now faces. One would hope that in a follow-up publication she would take a deep breath and expand her scope of analysis.

It would be good, for example, if she wrote a more “popular” article, one that would, for example, assess the mainstreaming of what she calls “unconventional sex” like S-and-M and consider what it means as the U.S. faces an economic crisis and social restructuring. Rachel Maddow should invite Rubin to appear on her show.

The ’60s sexual revolution reached its zenith on March 21, 1980, when San Francisco’s Catacombs hosted what Rubin found to be “the first time significant numbers of kinky gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and heterosexuals partied together in the Bay Area.”

The Catacombs was principally a private S-and-M, male, gay, leather sex club that gained an international reputation for fisting or “handballing.” The club was founded by Steve McEachern and opened in May 1975; it closed in August 1981 following McEachern’s sudden death due to a heart attack. It signified a unique moment in American sexual history, especially among certain gay men: an unprecedented moment of ecstatic hedonism before the great terror of HIV/AIDS descended on the world, changing the nation’s sexual culture.

As Rubin makes clear, “The Catacombs was exclusive. To be invited to the parties, you had to be on Steve’s list.” It drew a diverse group of participants:

The Catacombs was always primarily a place for gay male fisting parties. It was also a place for S-and-M, and over time, the Catacombs was shared with other groups—kinky lesbians, heterosexuals, and bisexuals. While it never lost its identity as a fister’s paradise, over the years it increasingly took on a community center for the local S-and-M population.

The club did more than provide a space for “intimate connection, male fellowship, and having a good time,” which are values on their own. “It facilitated,” concludes Rubin, “explorations of the body’s sensate capabilities that are rarely available in modern, western societies.” We live in corporatist-Puritan society that is genitally fixated; the Catacombs represented a very different sexuality.

Conventional heterosexual sexuality involves two complementary elements: (i) the classic missionary position with a man on top of a woman during intercourse, and (ii) intercourse for procreation and not pleasure. In the decades following World War II, sex changed in America.

Alfred Kinsey revealed the nation’s deepest, darkest secret: America was not a Puritan paradise, but a land where lots of people had lots of sex, lots of different sex. During that half-century, people lived longer lives; the pill separated pleasure from procreation; the birth rate fell. This was a historically new social condition, one defined by rock-n-roll, the women’s movement, gay liberation, and a more egalitarian, polymorphic eroticism. Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler represented the mainstreaming of this new sexuality.

The 20th century fostered a new sexuality and the Catacombs celebrated its most exaggerated erotic sensibility: it was gay, the anus replaced the vagina as the sexual organ of choice, and the fist replaced the penis as the testament of masculinity.

Rubin draws upon the work of Jacques Lacan to situate Sigmund Freud’s analysis of sexuality, especially perversion. It’s unfortunate that she seems unaware of the Frankfurt School, especially Herbert Marcuse’s classic rethinking of Freud, Eros & Civilization.

Published in 1955, it is one of the most utopian works of the post-World War II era. It celebrates eros’s inherent radicality, of free libido within a humane society based on trusted personal relations. It remains the most visionary work of the postwar era. A quarter-century later, the Catacombs acted out Marcuse’s challenge to conventional morality. It represented what psychologists today call “deviance without pathology.”

The essays in Deviations fall into three broad categories: (i) analyses of radical sexuality like the ethnographic study of the Catacombs or reflections on lesbian S-and-M; (ii) contributions to a general theory of sex and politics; and (iii) commentaries on professional anthropological issues. They are all interesting studies and little saturated in academic jargon, thus eminently readable by non-academics.

One of the most controversial articles in the collection is “Misguided, Dangerous, and Wrong: An Analysis of Antipornography Policies.” It takes on the right-wing feminists, principally Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, and Women Against Porn (WAP), who sought to suppress what they characterized as pornography. The article stirred up quite a debate when it first appeared in the early ’90s and resonates today.

Rubin is a staunch civil libertarian and the article is an unflinching defense of both First Amendment rights and the rights of sex workers. In this piece, she systematically pulls apart the false logic, factual errors, and intellectual dishonesty at the heart of rightwing feminism. She was on point when she warned two decades ago, “Antiporn feminists are playing into the hands of the right-wing and its reactionary agenda.”

Rubin is not a moralist but a feminist Marxist. The difference between a moralist and a Marxist is profound, expressed in a simple question: Is there is a difference between a sex slave and a sex worker? Moralists like Dworkin would argue that when sexual exploitation is involved, the differences are meaningless; women and girls suffer; all porn is exploitation. The feminist-Marxists like Rubin would argue that, yes, exploitation is rampant, but women in a capitalist society have a right (let alone a need) to sell their sexual labor power to stay alive. More so, why not? Sexual pleasure is no longer shameful. What is the moral imperative that commands erotic expression not be shared, let alone profited from?

Rubin follows through on the unstated challenge posed by Michel Foucault in his groundbreaking scholarship on sexuality, madness, prisons, and other subjects. Foucault revealed the universal truths hidden in societal extremes; Rubin furthers this scholarship in her studies of unconventional sex.

Foucault spent parts of the late ’70s and early ’80s teaching philosophy at Berkeley during the day and visiting San Francisco’s SoMa derelict leather bars at night. (One can only wonder whether he was ever at the Catacombs, let alone on the night of March 21, 1980?) It was in San Francisco that he apparently contracted HIV/AIDS from which he died in 1984. Rubin walks in Foucault’s footsteps, literally.

As an anthropologist, Rubin seems as much a participant as an observer. More so, she is a champion of sexual freedom. In the early ’90s she wrote prophetically: “These are times of great danger. We are in a period in which social attitudes and legal regulations of sexuality are undergoing massive transformation. The laws, politics, and beliefs that are established in this era will haunt feminism, women, sex workers, lesbians, gay men, and other sexual minorities for decades.” They still do, two decades later.


David Rosen

DAVID ROSEN is author of Sex Scandal America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming; writes the Media Current blog for Filmmaker; and regularly contributes to AlterNet and CounterPunch. Check out He can be reached at [email protected].


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2012

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