In this unit we will be reading two scholars that exemplify each pole of the Sex Wars: Gayle Rubin and Catharine Mackinnon. Both of these pieces were written in the 1980s during the height of the Sex Wars, and one can feel the intensity of the debate through the passionate prose of both authors. It is also worth noting that both of these scholars continue to write and be influential today. As you read, note the way that each scholar uses the concept of ‘ideology’. 

Gayle Rubin,
“Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality”

A radical theory of sex must identify, describe, explain, and denounce erotic injustice and sexual oppression. Such a theory needs refined conceptual tools which can grasp the subject and hold it in view. It must build rich descriptions of sexuality as it exists in society and history. It requires a convincing critical language that can convey the barbarity of sexual persecution.

Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Culture, Society, and Sexuality: A Reader, eds. Richard Parker and Peter Aggleton (New York: Routledge, 2007), 156.

“Thinking Sex” was written in 1984, and it is a classic feminist text that continues to be widely read today. Like a great film, it is one of those pieces that each time you read it, something new stands out. I would imagine that it was an incredibly provocative piece in its time, and I would argue that it is still provocative today.

So, broadly, what is she talking about? Rubin emphasizes a historical approach to sexuality and makes an argument for a radical theory of sex. She understands not only sexual identities (e.g. homosexuality, heterosexuality) as historically constructed, but also our attitudes and feelings about sexuality. Rubin ultimately argues for a radical theory of sex as analytically distinct from a theory of gender oppression. What this means is that a theory that takes sex as its analytical object needs to be separated from feminism, which takes gender as its object of analysis.

As you read:

  • Think about the limits and possibilities of Rubin’s radical theory of sex? What can be gained? What may be lost?
  • Familiarize yourself with the two different figures (the circle and the wall) that Rubin uses to describe sex hierarchy
  • Look for definitions of the following concepts that Rubin introduces in her essay: sex negativity, the fallacy of misplaced scale, the hierarchical valuation of sex acts, the domino theory of sexual peril, and the lack of a concept of benign sexual variation
  • Rubin published her essay in 1984. Can you think about the ways in which some of her concerns raised in the article still speak to contemporary culture and society and some seem less applicable from our current perspective?

Find the Rubin reading in the supplementary resources block on eClass.

Catharine MacKinnon, “On Coercion and Consent” in Towards a Feminist Theory of the State

Pornography is not imagery in some relation to a reality elsewhere constructed. It is not a distortion, reflection, projection, expression, fantasy, representation, or symbol either. It is a sexual reality.… It is not that life and art imitate each other; in this sexuality, they are each other.

Catharine MacKinnon, “On Coercion and Consent” in Towards a Feminist Theory of the State (1989), 302.

MacKinnon is a renowned feminist legal scholar, which means that she understands law as a potential site for feminist change. In 1983, Andrea Dworkin, another feminist who MacKinnon often worked with, drafted a civil ordinance which was an amendment to a civil rights law that argued that pornography violated women’s right to equality. Essentially, the purpose of these ordinances was to enable women to make a legal claim (against pornographers) that pornography violated their civil equality rights. The ordinance passed in several U.S. cities, only to later be struck down.

As you read:

  • Consider how MacKinnon understands pornography in relation to women’s oppression.
  • Try to find a definition of the eroticization of domination.
  • Consider Mackinnon’s argument about how pornography shapes ideas and practices regarding what women are and what men are. To what extent is women’s definition rooted in submission in general and sexual submission specifically?

Find the MacKinnon reading in the supplementary resources block on eClass.