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Gayle Rubin Analysis

Gayle Rubin’s writing “The Traffic in Woman: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex” seems to be totally absurd. The idea that sex/gender are defined by the trade of woman in farfetched.

Rubin starts with a Marxist approach to the oppression of woman as a capitalist production device. Rubin claims that men are workers of the world and woman reproduce “the laborer from whom [the] surplus value is taken.

Next Rubin takes an Engels approach to explaining the oppression of women. With this explanation the claim is made that sexuality and reproduction are separate. “Gender identity, sexual desire and fantasy” concepts are products of a society. And within these concepts women learn to be of less value then men and men learn to value women less.

These ideas give the idea that women can be seen as farm animals that are used to produce the workers that the world needs. Also that their place in the world is learned and imbedded in society and culture.

Lastly through the Oedipus Hex concept the male penis is of the greatest value. The penis signifies strength, which equated to being a phallus. Women want this phallus and strive for it after seeing the power that male children are awarded for having a penis. After realizing that they (woman) will never have a penis or the power of the phallus give into the idea of being less than a man.

This is my understanding of the writing and none of which I agree with.

The Traffic in Women

The reading The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Polictical Economy” of Sex by Gayle Rubin is trying to understand the definition of the sex gender system. He uses some excerpts and theories of Freud to further develop his ideas. He uses the diffrent theories made by diffrent thoughts from the past. Examples include Marx theory and his ideas on capitalism and its effects on everyone from what they eat to the clothes they wear. Then he uses Engels ideas as well and ties that into how capitalism is a parf of sex oppresion.

Rubin realizes that in Freud’s theory women are oppresed he feels that Marx’s views women and the equalizaton of men and women to create and negative effect on society. Rubin feels all these theories are just creating a bigger seperation between genders. Genders should be together and wants the same things without being competitive. The theories made in a such a analytical way must have more proof to be evident.

Gayle views all of these theories as ways to maintains gender and the division of the sexes. The main concern is the hope of one day having not just the oppresion of women eliminated but to have these “sex roles” and certain ways of viewing each gender and sex eliminated for good.

Obligatory Heterosexuality (per Lévi-Strauss)

If one is taking a course called “Feminist Theory,” then one would expect the focus to be fairly obvious (if not obligatory). However, what draws me to feminist theory and literature is not specifically the plight of women. Instead, I find the the study of the minority to be most fascinating; if that is true, then what greater minority can one find if not half the human species? At face value, studying one gender could be deemed repetitious. But time and again, one gender is linked with the other, and from there is linked with subdivisions such as race and, in Rubin’s The Traffic of Women: Notes of the “Political Economy” of Sex, sexuality. Rubin analyzes Lévi-Strauss’ text, concluding that gender is not influenced by biology so much as it is a produced of “socially imposed division.” (236)

To start this line of argument, Rubin starts by differentiating the biological terms “male” and “female” into the more social/anthropological  “men” and “women.” From there, she questions the assumption that men and women are so different, and each are “an incomplete half which can only find wholeness when united with the other.” Truly, in perpetuating this social stereotype, it assumes that heterosexuality is the norm. Yet according to Rubin, “exclusive gender identity is the suppression of natural similarities.”  Clearly, feminist text exposes not only the deficiencies women experience in gender castes, but also the deficiencies men experience. For one to be completely male, Rubin claims he must repress “whatever is the local version of ‘feminine’ traits,” as women are required to do the same. The ultimate conclusion is one I feel that I have grappled with as a man for years: “The same social system that oppresses women in its relations of exchange, oppresses everyone in its insistence upon a rigid division of personality.” (236) Social rigidity crosses the sexes, and men sacrifice as women do; what makes the situation tougher for women is the idea of sacrifice on top of the apparent female devaluation.

From Karen Horney’s shocking attitude towards homosexuality (and other perversions), it was equally shocking to read Rubin describe Lévi-Strauss as one who “comes dangerously close to saying that heterosexuality is an instituted process.” In a world where nature is deemed to have much greater sway than nurture, it gives one pause when one considers that “if biological and hormonal imperatives were as overwhelming as popular mythology would have them, it would hardly be necessary to insure heterosexual unions by means of economic interdependency.” In some ways, it rings true and puts the “institution” of marriage into further question. Is it a religious union, a social contract, an economic contract, or according to Rubin, a combination of the latter two?

When it comes to gender, Rubin declares, “it also entails that sexual desire by directed toward the other sex.” Indeed, from birth, a boy is as expected to eventually desire a girl as it is expected the other way around, which reveals an inherent link between sexuality and gender. The conclusion here is another link I have often drawn: “The suppression of the homosexual component of human sexuality, and by corollary, the oppression of homosexuals, is therefore a product of the same system whose rules and relations oppress women.” (236) If fortune favors the brave, social rigidity favors the majority, and minorities like women and homosexuals are left to struggle within a gender caste they didn’t create.

Finally, Rubin analyzes marriage from the socioeconomic standpoint she introduced earlier in the context of the arranged marriage. If a woman is promised to a family (and by extension, a man to be her husband),a rejection of the arrangement “would disrupt the flow of debts and promises.” To assure no disruption, it is in the interest of the family giving the woman not to give her “too many ideas of her own about whom she might want to sleep with,” and that “the preferred female sexuality” is not heterosexuality outright, but “one which responded to the desire of others, rather than the one which actively desired and sought a response.”(237)

To conclude, it seems apparent that sexuality, according to Rubin, is less about biology and even less about love and mutual attraction. Instead, sexuality is dictated on the socioeconomic environment in which we live.

The Awakening: An Early Introduction to Traditional Masculine Norms

By Frank Miller

Mr. Pontellier is the first (human) character introduced in The Awakening, fittingly, his traditional masculine persona is “forces itself” into the text with his introduction. After a parrot (or a mockingbird) hanging in a cage blurts out “Allez vous-en! Allez vous-en! Sapristi!” (1), Mr. Pontellier is “unable to read his newspaper with any degree of comfort [and] arose with an expression and an exclamation of disgust” (1). This is an act of dominance. He “arose (a word that contains a sense of regality and elegance to it) with an expression and an exclamation of disgust” as if to perceive that the noise an animal makes is intentionally directed toward him or as if his decision (as the human who can recognize the animals) to sit in that location was not made consciously, thus portraying his “out-of-touch” persona.

Before he “arose” from his place, it mentions that “he had been seated before the door of the main house,” an emphasis on the phrase, “main house” hints at centrality, and being seated before it may be synonymous with a king being seated at the head of the court in a kingdom,  a clear assertion of male dominance. As the passage continues, it mentions that the parrot (or mockingbird) making the noise belonged to Madame Lebrun and that the two had “the right to make the noise all the noise they wished” (2). The following sentence reads “Mr. Pontellier had the privilege of quitting their society when they ceased to be entertaining” (2). Based on the narrator’s tone, it seems as the noise of the birds must be justified, suggesting that if their noise doesn’t serve a purpose, it is definitively wrong. However, does this have anything to do with noise in the presence of Mr. Pontellier? The language in the next sentences appears to indirectly answers this question. “Mr. Pontellier had the privilege of quitting their society when they ceased to be entertaining.” The word “privilege” is used mockingly, while the phrase “quitting their society when they ceased to be entertaining” or perhaps simply just “ceased to be entertaining” alludes to Pontellier’s dominance, reducing the roles of the animals as tools of his amusement.

Pontellier’s physical description is appropriately “concise” (readers later learn he is a businessman), and interestingly enough, so is the literal language used to describe his physical features. “Mr. Pontellier wore eye-glasses. He was a man of forty, of medium height and rather slender build; he stooped a little. His hair was brown and straight, parted on one side. His beard was neatly and closely trimmed” (2).

This description of Pontellier sets The Awakening up to unsurprisingly be dictated by a male figure, and one who is suitably unresponsive to anything outside of his gender role. If Pontellier struggles to keep up with news, “he once more applied himself to the task of reading the newspaper. The day was Sunday; the paper was a day old. The Sunday papers had not yet reached Grand Isle” (2), an activity that one would assume fits his gender role, what can we expect of his relationship with his wife? Or with anyone for that matter?

Rubin and the Question of How to Apply Feminist Theory to Society

In “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex”, Gayle Rubin attempts to answer two key feminist questions: what causes the oppression of women, but also how this would help to assess necessary changes to “achieve a society without gender hierarchy”(230).  I found Rubin’s philosophies on the applications of the reasoning behind female oppression to be very interesting, especially, since her tone is much less confident and serious in the passages where she explores how her theories could translate into actions.

In many ways, this thread on achieving a society without gender hierarchy stood out to me simply because of the tone Rubin took in addressing this idea. She refers to the logical “extermination of the offending sex or else a eugenics project to modify it’s character” (230) or a socialist revolution to counteract the capitalist roots of female oppression. These suggestions are clearly not serious and the abrasive sarcasm shows that in many ways Rubin views resolving gender inequality to be futile.

An aggressive start to an academic essay and a perspective of the potential futility of Rubin’s scholarship was shocking to me. It was especially surprising since her insecurity and intensity was consistent even through her incredibly intricate academic arguments. Though a logical, clear academic with eloquent insight, she still is angry and insecure about the prospects of changing culture based on her findings. She states that Levi-Strauss established that the defeat of women in history is not only the origin of culture, that it is also the prerequisite of it, then contemplates how this translates to how to change from this type of society. “ If his analysis is adopted in its pure form, the feminist program must include a task even more onerous than the extermination of men; it must attempt to get rid of the culture and substitute some entirely new phenomena on the face of the earth.” (234). Here, Rubin makes a more extreme claim, and even the phrasing of “new phenomena” seems elevated, exaggerated, and from my perspective, a little sarcastic. Accepting that we wipe out culture as we know it, is so radical and grates against the heavily textually based and rational argument of the essay. I was bothered by this passage because though it reveals some self-awareness in admitting that she does not know how to resolve this issue, her suggestions a little too extreme, simple, and underdeveloped.

I was not fully satisfied with Rubin’s resolution on how she believed the application of these ideas should manifest themselves. Even toward the end of her essay, she refers to “feminist utopia” and frames her vision for society as a dream, maintaining extreme and idealistic language that does not work with the generally serious tone of the essay. “The dream I find most compelling is one of an androgynous and genderless (though not sexless) society, in which one’s sexual anatomy is irrelevant to who one is, what one does, and with whom one makes love, “(244). This conclusion lacked practical, concrete and objectively supported ideas. Since Rubin proposed she would tackle this question and proposes a theoretical daydream at the end of a dense, academic essay bothered me.

This essay prompted me to consider two issues of my own with feminist theory. Primarily, there is a true issue of practical application. Feminist theory tends to be very academic and assertive however, these authoritative and likely masculine traits of scholarly thinking do not prevent me from finding it difficult to see the concrete applications of these theories. Also, I think the fluctuations in tone are not unique to Rubin, but are consistent in feminist thinking. On one hand, this is a very blunt, serious, and assertive essay, but on the other there is a sense of unresolved idealism. The mix of the two made it difficult for me to consider these ideas in a way that was more concrete and less theoretical. I think this is an example of some of the frustrations that many people have with accepting “feminist” as a term that they apply to themselves and their lives.

Like Rubin, I would like to see these theories take action and turn into concrete steps towards a less oppressive society, but this disconnect in tone between extreme serious academia and idealism and sarcasm, leads to a seeming inconsistency in philosophy which consequently causes an inconsistency and shaky foundation for feminist progressive actions to rest upon.



Laura Rizzo

Gender Differences, Biological or Societal?- Kaitlyn

There is no question that there are biological differences between males and females, but how do the genes that we are born with determine the roles we should play in society? According to our Rubin reading, the answer is not a great deal. In fact, the gender a person eventually assumes is an aspect of the society in which that person lives and socializes, not whether he or she is male or female. Therefore, it is less a question of who and more an issue of where.

Rubin points out that in some societies, agriculture is a responsibility of men and in others, women.(279) If the same duties can be proven to be successfully preformed by both sexes, then the ability to preform “gender-specific” roles is not dependent on male or female genes. Why then, do societies perpetuate the division of the sexes when labor is not a major concern? The answer lies in the political and economic organization of the society and the reliance on marriage as “the smallest and viable economic unit.”(278) In marriage, two persons unite their resources and produce children. Spouses become a unit of identification as well as consumers. In order to create a seemingly natural inclination toward this type of family unit and marriage, society mimics the economic market and creates the two genders to be opposite and thereby creating demand. By encouraging the idea of the differences between the sexes, men and women become “an incomplete half which can only find wholeness when united with the other.”(279) This is similar to the role advertisers perform in the economy by establishing standards and generating demand in consumers. A person experiences this concept of incompleteness and seeks completion in the opposite sex in the form of marriage. Therefore, marriage is not necessarily natural or predetermined by our genetics.

Rubin points out that this role assignment and synthetic focus on the differences between the sexes  also suppresses the natural similarities between males and females(279). It would seem that the damage done to both men and women in society is equal, except, as Rubin notes, only women are reduced to exchangeable goods in the transaction of marriage. Even if in the marriage agreement the woman is not being explicitly objectified, there is an implied distinction between the gift and the giver. There are many reasons for this paradigm to have taken hold in many early societies. Marriage was the strongest form of kinship and social relations between groups. “Gifts” of women from one nation to another could stop wars and end aggression for generations. It is interesting to compare this historical practice to the idea of woman being more akin to nature than culture as discussed in the Ortner essay. Women have been seen as less culturally inclined then men, though it is through women that society and kinship has held together.

Woman as a Commodity

Rubin incorporates multiple theories in investigating the origins of women’s oppression, but particularly relies on the work of Freud and Levi-Strauss in finding a “… fully developed definition of the sex/gender system” (273). Levi-Strauss’ theories on the exchange of women within a kinship system were much more interesting because they seemed to be the most developed and inclusive of the theories discussed.

Levi-Strauss’ theory of sex oppression, underlines the idea that “the essence of kinship systems… lie in the exchange of women between men.” A kinship system is a set of “categories and statuses” that define a group of people according to their relationships and interactions. According to Rubin, another theorist, Mauss, “… proposed that gifts were the threads of social discourse, the means by which such societies were held together in the absence  of specialized governmental institutions.” From this idea comes “the theory of primitive reciprocity the idea that marriages are the most basic form of gift exchange, in which it is women who are the most precious gifts.”  The concept behind this theory ties in the idea of an incest taboo, which aims to prevent marriages and therfore intercourse between members of the same family, this guarantees that a family will give their daughter into another family and take a daughter from another, thereby joining these families in a bond of kinship. (276)

However, another idea that stems from the concept  of the kinship system is the exclusive benefits of men from the exchange of women. Since only men have the right to give their daughters away, then they are essentially forming an agreement of partnership with each other, and “it is men who are the beneficiaries of… social organization” (277). Additionally, since only men have the right to exchange women, then women have lost the ability to give themselves as a “gift”; therefore, women have no bargaining chip in society and therefore no power. Though Rubin does not believe there is an issue of ownership of women, but rather a right of bestowal associated with the concept of exchange, the fact that a woman can be given to someone against her will means she has lost the major qualifications to call herself a free entity. She must follow the roles laid out for her, the path chosen for her, and the life that is planned for her; additionally, she can only enjoy the rights allowed to her.

The concept of the exchange of women in neither outdated nor obsolete, because there are still forms of exchange in todays society, despite the changes in the way this exchange is manifested. According to Rubin, “Women are given in marriage, taken in battle, exchanged for favors , sent as tribute, traded, bought, and sold. Far from being confined to the  “primitive” world, these practices seem only to become more pronounced and commercialized in more “civilized” societies” (277). In an article from my Women’s Studies text book, there was a depiction of the sexual services established for male soldiers in third world countries where there are military bases. In 2009 , a NY Times article described a similar system established in South Korea.