‘Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader’ by Gayle S. Rubin

Gayle S. Rubin has had an incalculable impact on the study of gender and sexuality over the past 35 years. Rubin’s work changed the very language and vocabulary with which we discuss sexuality and gender. She coined the terms “sex/gender system” to describe “the set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity”  and the “Charmed Circle,” which describes the normative sexual behaviors our society privileges over the marginalized practices of the queer minority. Rubin’s pioneering research on gay leather communities legitimized the anthropological study of sexual subcultures and her participation in the first known lesbian S/M group, Samois, and pro-sex activism helped to de-stigmatize pornography and S/M practices in the 80s when the anti-pornography movement was at its height. In short, Gayle S. Rubin is a living legend whose writing, research, and activism both chronicled and inspired LGBT culture as we know it today.

It is fitting that a scholar of Gayle S. Rubin’s stature has finally been rewarded with a comprehensive collection of her most influential essays. While Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader will please seasoned scholars of queer theory and gay and lesbian studies with its first ever assemblage of Rubin’s most significant work, I believe that the collection will most benefit those who are just making their first steps into the study of queer culture. The collection not only contains some of the most influential works of gender and sexuality studies written in the past four decades, such as “The Traffic in Women” and “Thinking Sex,” but it also constructs a history of LGBT culture and politics from the 70s to the present via the wide scope of Rubin’s career. Through Rubin’s essays, readers will also gain insight into the tenuous transition from 2nd to 3rd wave feminism, the pre-history and birth of queer theory, and the emergence of LGBT cultural studies from the margins of society to a legitimate field of academic and institutional research. The history of Gayle S. Rubin’s life and work is the history of the LGBT community in all its crises, controversies, and triumphs.

What distinguishes Rubin’s reader from typical single-scholar collections are her introduction and commentaries on her older essays in which she gives insight about the process of her research, the political climate that inspired the work, and her personal life at the time. In her introduction, Rubin provides us with a portrait of the anthropologist as a young woman. Rubin details how her personal biography, including growing up Jewish in the segregated south, participating in second wave feminism as a undergrad in Michigan, and her first engagements with the blossoming San Francisco gay counterculture of the late 70s, shaped her work. To a young queer scholar like myself, Rubin’s personal narrative reads like a “how to” book on becoming a queer intellectual and merging personal engagement in the queer community and activism with the academic rigors of scholarship.

Equally insightful are her afterword essays on “The Traffic in Women” and “Thinking Sex.” Revisiting these groundbreaking works decades after their original publication, Rubin reminds us of the cultural and personal politics that informed their initial composition and provides her take on how their subject matters have evolved since their first publication. In her afterthoughts on “The Traffic in Women,” a brand new essay debuting in this reader, Rubin takes the time to explore a connotation of “trafficking” different from the symbolic exchange of women in patriarchal society that she had originally explored; the literal buying and selling of women. Rubin comments on how the idea of “trafficking women” has historically used misinformation about white slavery and prostitution to create a moral panic about women’s sexuality and has inspired some of the most repressive legislation and social movements of the 20th century, thus connecting the term back to her sex-positive advocacy. In her reflections on “Thinking Sex,” Rubin tells the story of how the article emerged in the context of having her work on S/M culture distorted and condemned by anti-pornography groups and the contentious climate it created in Gender Studies conferences in the 80s. Rubin also comments on what she would change in her essay in retrospect, such as emphasizing a more clear separation between the gender identity and sexual identity of Transgender individuals given recent developments in Transgender Studies.

I found Rubin’s openness, both as a private individual revealing the personal context of her research and as a scholar taking stock of her life’s work to be a rare and valuable look inside the life of an intellectual of her magnitude. Coming from a discipline like anthropology that stresses objectivity and the erasure of the observer, Gayle S. Rubin’s reader re-inscribes the personal and the human into academic study and portrays a comprehensive history of the LGBT community through the life and words of one of its most original thinkers and meticulous chroniclers.


Deviations:  A Gayle Rubin Reader
By Gayle S. Rubin
Duke University Press
Paperback, 9780822349860, 504pp
July 2011