Gayle Rubin, “Blood Under the Bridge: Reflections on ‘Thinking Sex'”
Anti-pornography feminists protesting at the gates of Barnard College during the 1982 Sex Conference

“I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan speaking at an academic conference, so I listed my academic affiliation, as was appropriate. Evidently, I should have had the decency to wear a black leather triangle or perhaps a scarlet letter.”

Gayle Rubin, “Blood Under the Bridge,” 24

In module 1, you read a canonical essay from the feminist sex wars, Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex,” which she originally presented at the 1982 Barnard Sex Conference that was aggressively protested by anti-pornography feminists. In the first assigned resource for this module, Rubin’s “Blood Under the Bridge,” published in 2010 in GLQ, she reflects back on the feminist trauma of this time. Rubin describes how her research and practice in BDSM stigmatized her and made her “radioactive” within feminist activist and academic spheres.

In “Blood Under the Bridge,” Rubin also looks back on “Thinking Sex” with the hindsight of 25 years of further learning, acknowledging that “there are certainly some things I would have done differently, had I known then what I know now. My remarks about transsexuality, sex work, and the sexuality of the young were far too sketchy for such complex topics. ” (35 – 6) In particular, Rubin regrets treating transgender as a type of eroticism or sexuality rather than an expression of gender. Rubin explains that in “Thinking Sex” she had been trying to articulate a theory in defense of transgender against the transphobia of sex negative feminists, but was doing so with few resources on and limited knowledge about transgender, and thus folded it inappropriately into an argument about transgressive sexualities.

“Then there are the children. I clearly underestimated the size of the impending tsunami about the sexuality of the young. When I finished writing ‘Thinking Sex’ in 1983, the outlines of the panics over children were clear, but their scale and duration were not.”

Gayle Rubin, “Blood Under the Bridge,” 37

Concerning what has proven to be the most controversial aspect of “Thinking Sex,” Rubin’s defense of sex with minors, in 2010 Rubin does not so much reject any of her earlier arguments as provide historical context. Rubin acknowledges that concerns about the sexual welfare of the young are legitimate, however she insists that political discourses about “protecting the children” have functioned overwhelmingly, not to keep children safe from harm, but as weapons against women and queer people and against young people themselves, mobilizing conservative political agendas by reinforcing traditional family structures and values. Terrible but rare crimes such as abductions and rape-murders of minors have been exploited to ratchet up prison sentences for far more mundane sexual offenses, and thereby to expand the racist, colonial, homophobic, transphobic, sexually violent prison industrial complex with no effect in terms of keeping children safe from harm. As Rubin writes,

“Laws and policies that are supposed to protect children have been used to deprive young people of age-appropriate and eagerly desired sexual information and services. Laws intended to protect children and young people, such as very broadly drawn child pornography statutes, have been used to prosecute them (such as the cases where minors have been charged with breaking the law by texting nude images of themselves). Almost anything, from promoting abstinence to banning gay marriage and adoption, can be and has been framed as promoting children’s safety and welfare.”

Gayle Rubin, “Blood Under the Bridge,” 37

Rubin laments that there are many pressing questions and concerns related to children’s sexuality, however, in today’s political climate, these topics can scarcely be broached as children’s sexuality has become so taboo and so entirely equated with pedophilia. (38) In defending children’s right to sex in “Thinking Sex,” Rubin moreover observes that she had not been making a case for pedophilia so much as drawing on her own experiences as a female teenager who, in addition to experiencing unwanted sex, had faced barriers to the sexual information and sexual experiences that she did want, whether this was due to censorship, stigmatization, or unavailability of birth control and abortion.

As you read:

  • How do Rubin’s recollections make you think differently about the feminist sex wars?
  • How do Rubin’s arguments in “Blood Under the Bridge” make you think differently about “Thinking Sex”? Do you agree with her arguments?

Find the Rubin reading here.

Book Launch: Brenda Cossman’s The New Sex Wars: Sexual Harm in the #MeToo Era (49:23)

“The feminist sex wars are back. Well before #MeToo erupted, feminists have been embattled in renewed and contentious sexual politics.”

Brenda Cossman, “#MeToo, Sex Wars 2.0 and the Power of Law”

Brenda Cossman is a Professor of Law at the University of Toronto and was also the Director of the University of of Toronto’s Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies from 2009 – 2018. She researches and teaches in the areas of gender and law, sexuality and law, and family law. In 2021 she published The New Sex Wars: Sexual Harm in the #MeToo Era, which provides both a historical overview of the original feminist sex wars that we have learned about in this module, as well as the continuation of these feminist debates to the present day. Beyond mapping these wars, Cossman argues that it is time that they stop, and she offers some indications for how to bring about a ceasefire. The assigned resource for this module is a video of the online book launch for The New Sex Wars, where you can see Professor Cossman provide a summary of her book, a commentary on the book by another law professor, and Cossman’s response to the commentary.

University of Toronto Faculty of Law professor Brenda Cossman
Watch: the online Book Launch for Brenda Cossman’s The New Sex Wars: Sexual Harm in the #MeToo Era


Zoo (1:15:44)

This documentary is optional and, as it deals explicitly with bestiality, may be triggering to some viewers. Reviewing this documentary is one of the Challenge options for this module.