Monday, April 4, 2011

"The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex" by Gayle Rubin - article summary and review (on the sex/gender system)

In her 1975 "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex" anthropologist Gayle Rubin tries to give an account of the origins of female oppression. Taking up a Marxist agenda, she asks what are the social relations which facilitate women's oppression? In order to answer this question she examines the works of Freud and Lévi-Strauss, which offer a detailed account of how systematic social mechanism shape domesticated women. Both of these thinkers, Rubin argues, offer conceptual frameworks for explaining the social structures which allow for the discrimination of women, structures which Rubin calls the "sex/gender system". Roughly speaking, the sex/gender system is the social organization of human sexuality.

Marxist explanations of women oppression have always been focused on the reproduction of labor and women's role in maintaining and reproducing the work force. But Gayle Rubin argues that explaining why women are essential for capitalism does not account for why the are oppressed by it, noting that women are oppressed in various forms of societies which are not necessarily capitalist.

In the writing of Engles Rubin finds that societies do not only have to meet their immediate material needs, but also the needs of reproducing themselves. Any satisfaction of material needs is achieved by means of a social-cultural formation which includes the sex/gender system which is different for every society.

In order to describe the working of a sex/gender system Rubin moves to examine the working of kinship systems which also serve to reproduce concrete forms of socially organized sexuality. This is where Lévi-Strauss ("The Elementary Structure of Kinship) comes in with his analysis of how kinship is the cultural organization of biological reproduction.

Two of  Lévi-Strauss's concepts are employed in order to understand how kinship is related to gender inequality: the gift and incest taboo. A gift is a basic form for establishing special relations between individuals, families, clans etc.. Marriage,  Lévi-Strauss argues, are one of the basic forms of gift exchange. He claims that the taboo on incest is the mechanism which insures that such trade relation will be performed between families or other units as a means of grounding alliances. The alliances are between men, with women serving as the means for establishing them.
Rubin notes that the concept of the exchange of women situates their oppression in the realm of society, not biology. With Lévi-Strauss asserting that culture is founded of the incest taboo, it follows that it is also founded on oppressing women. This is something that Gayle Rubin can't accept, and she therefore argues that kinship systems do not exchange just women, but also sexual access, genealogical statuses, dynasty names and those of founding fathers, rights and people – men, women and children. The kinship system, which is tied with the sex-gender system, allocate certain rights for men and others for women, thus denying women's right to choose their own destiny. Women oppression is not the source of social organization, but the product of it.

Rubin seeks the development of a "political economy" of sexuality systems, that is, to investigate the mechanism which create and preserve sexual conventions in society. Lévi-Strauss's notions about the family are an additional step, being the manifestation of an artificial division of labor aimed at insuring heterosexual marriage.

Gender for Gayle Rubin is a coerced social distinction between sexes. It is the product of sexual social relations. Kinship relations are based on marriage, and they therefore turn males and females into "men" and "women", each an incomplete half that can only be complete by uniting with the other, stressing difference and suppressing resemblance. In Rubin's view heterosexuality and oppression of women are related, for intersex marriage is imposed as the result of an asymmetry between the sexes.

The one component still missing in Rubin's analysis is the one that will account for the mechanisms through which children internalize gender conventions. And for this end she turns to psychoanalysis which gives an account of how androgynous children turn into "boys" and "girls".

Freud's explanation of gender identity formation is at first glance biological, resting on the girl's discovery of the absence of a phallus. However, the "Electra Complex" can also be understood through non-biological means: without forced heterosexuality the girl would never have felt that she is less equipped to satisfy the mother.
Psychoanalysis without biology is more in line with Lacan's work than it is with freud's. Lacan sees kinship is the mediating system through which biological sexuality is transformed in the process of entering the cultural order. Through kinship systems the child learns his place and the world and his allowed objects of desire. In the pre-oedipal stage the child is without a defined sexuality, but after resolving his Oedipal complex his gender identity is in line with his culture's conventions. Lacan offers a theory of the workings of kinship terms which serve to define the role of each agent or object in the Oedipal drama, with symbolic features assigned to objects such as the phallus (which is different from the actual penis). The phallus, with its symbolic meanings, distinguishes men from women and bears the meaning of male domination.

Here we find how psychoanalytic theory and the work of Lévi-Strauss complete each other by accounting for the deep structures that create and sustain sexual repression. Lévi-Strauss's kinship systems require sexual distinction, and it is the Oedipal process which creates it. Kinship is the "core" of the sex/gender system and it forces heterosexuality and assigns privileged rights to men. In Gayle Rubin's eyes, a feminist revolt against the current sex/gender system should be a revolt against kinship structures which would offer the possibility of an alternative outcome of the Oedipus Complex. Kinship, in fact, has already lost its importance at organizing modern society, and it is only a dubious heritage which continues to reproduce itself nowadays.  
Gayle Rubin/ The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex full text found here.

Something to read: