Monday, September 14, 2009

Week 3: Gayle Rubin: The Traffic in Women Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex (p. 27-62)


The purpose of this text is to clarify the definition of the sex/gender system. Rubin hopes to define this term by looking at the problem of women’s oppression from a different angle. Meaning, she looks to Freud and Lévi-Strauss for foundations of oppression. She also uses them to define different structures. The sex/gender system is defined in the beginning as occurring when a particular culture turns biological sex into “products of human activity” (p. 28).

Rubin begins her analysis with Marx; however, she states that Marx cannot truly explain women’s oppression because he does not address sex. Basically, Rubin explains Marx by saying that women’s domain became the home because capitalism is an institution inherited by men and women were not given the chance to lead or be in positions of authority.

Next, Rubin analyzes Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State because he “sees sex oppression as the part of capitalism’s heritage from prior social forms” and “integrates sex and sexuality into his theory of society” (p. 31). Rubin explains that the desires of sexuality and procreation must be fulfilled and that they are not usually satisfied in a natural way. Also, in terms of procreation, every society has a sex/gender system, but the system is changed based on the differing cultures. Rubin clarifies that the sex/gender system is also known as “mode of reproduction” and “patriarchy.” However, the sex/gender system is different because it is a neutral expression that “indicates that oppression is not inevitable…but is the product of the specific social relations which organize it” (p. 33).

Rubin continues her analysis by employing Engel’s method (but not the results) to analyze kinship. She defines kinship as “a system of categories and statuses which often contradict actual genetic relationships” (p. 34). She also notes that kinship varies greatly among cultures. In Mauss’ Essay on the Gift he explains gift giving as an important social interaction. Lévi-Strauss explains further that marriage is a basic form of gift giving, as women are the most precious gift and that the incest taboo is put into place to ensure marriages outside of the family occur and thus the “gifts” that come along with it. Moreover, women cannot truly benefit from this exchange because men are the “giver” and women are the “gift.” So, it is really only an exchange among men and women “do not have full rights to themselves” (p. 39). Rubin argues that this exchange of women was the foundation of each society and it became part of the structure. In terms of kinship, Rubin states: “At the most general level, the social organization of sex rests upon gender, obligatory heterosexuality, and the constraint of female sexuality” (p. 40). On the other hand, she also explains that homosexuality can be established through kinship.

Rubin subsequently examines psychoanalysis and the Freudian perspective. Her goal here is to provide evidence that the psychoanalytic unconscious exists. She explains the “Electra” complex, which is basically the opposite of the Oedipus complex for girls. Moreover, Freud represents femininity as a “consequence of the anatomical differences between the sexes” (p. 44). Meaning that women learn to be passive and feel inferior because of penis envy. Also, the two genders were created to limit the sexual rights of women. Returning to the idea of kinship, it is seen as the learning of sexuality in society where the individual is taught to “play” their biological sex. The idea of the phallus is suggested to be the recognition of the domination of men over women. Finally, Rubin explains that “the oppression of women is deep” and that Lévi-Strauss and Freud serve to outline the structure of women’s oppression (p. 51).

Rubin argues that the sex/gender system is still organized by the theories of Lévi-Strauss and that “in short, feminism must call for a revolution in kinship” (p. 52). She also presents a potential solution to this problem:

“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 it would liberate human personality from the straightjacket of gender” (p. 52).

Overall, she states that the purpose of her essay was to build a theory of women’s oppression by utilizing ideas from anthropology and psychoanalysis. She also hopes to change the sex/gender system through political action.
She concludes this piece by briefly discussing “The Political Economy of Sex” and the ways that the sex/gender system has been historically integrated into society. Again, she highlights the link between marriage and “economic and political arrangements” (p. 56). This also returns to the idea of women as the “gift” in an exchange between men.


I found this text to be particularly dense in presenting and relating a lot of different concepts. However, I found the anthropological perspective on the gift giver and the gift to be really interesting. I thought it was the perfect way to explain the idea of marriage. I also liked that it was outlined as another way that women don’t have control of their own bodies. This text really helped me understand how the oppression of women is built into the foundation of all cultures. Although the theories presented were very complex and presented quickly, I felt like the outline of this paper helped frame theory and history for me.

1 comment:

  1. is there anywhere the text you discuss can be located online do you know? it's hiding from me pretty well. thanks.