how sexuality is constructed in “why women kill” and the discussion of age gap present in the character’s relationships

This is for a Feminism class.

I need help to discuss the age gap in romantic relationships in this series and how women’s sexuality is portrayed in the American tv series “why women kill”  

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I want to ask a few questions going into this discussion: how sexuality is constructed, and whether there are any political influences in the stories. 

The course material I would like to use in my analysis would be Gayle

Rubin’s “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” because many of

topics like the age gap in sexual relationships are shown in “Why Women Kill”. 

Please see attached course materials and use its content in the analysis. The material should have sections talking about the age gap and its effects. Please also make connections to other course materials, I need 2-3 course materials used.

Here is the assignment requirements: 

It must be 1200-1500 words, not including your Works Cited page

– Must use MLA style citations—both in-text and in Works Cited

– Must engage (not just cite, but engage) 2-3 course readings and 1 outside scholarly


– Must include a clearly identifiable thesis statement that summarizes your argument

– Must cite your piece of media (non-scholarly source) in the correct style

Please paste in google:




Pleasure a nd Da nger :
Towa rd a Po l it i cs of
Sexua l ity

Caro l e S. Van ce

The tension between sexual danger and sexual pleasure is a
powerful one in women’s lives. Sexuality is simultaneously a
domain of restriction, repression, and danger as well as a domain
of exploration, pleasure, and agency. To focus only on pleasure
and gratification ignores the patriarchal structure in which
women act, yet to speak only of sexual violence and oppression
ignores women’s experience with sexual agency and choice and
unwittingly increases the sexual terror and despair in which
women live.

The juxtaposition of pleasure and danger has engaged the
attention of feminist theorists and activists in both the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries, just as it has been an ongoing subject in
the lives of individual women who must weigh the pleasures of
sexuality against its cost in their daily calculations, choices, and
acts. For some, the dangers of sexuality – violence, brutality, and
coercion, in the form of rape, forcible incest, and exploitation, as
well as everyday cruelty and humiliation – make the pleasures
pale by comparison. For others, the positive possibilities of
sexuality – explorations of the body, curiosity, intimacy, sens­
uality, adventure, excitement, human connection, basking in the
infantile and non-rational – are not only worthwhile but provide
sustaining energy. Nor are these positions fixed, since a woman
might chose one perspective or the other at different points in
her life in response to external and internal events.

Since the nineteenth century, feminist theorists have disagreed
on how to improve women’s sexual situation and, even more
basically, on what women want sexually. Some have been
broadly protectionist, attempting to secure some measure of
safety from male lust and aggression, assuming either that
women’s sexuality is intrinsically muted or at least that it cannot
flower until greater safety is established. Others, more often in
the twentieth century than the nineteenth, have been expansionist
and exploratory, believing that women could venture to be sexual
in more visible and daring ways, especially as material changes
which favored women’s autonomy in general (wage labor,
urbanization, contraception, and abortion) also supported sexual


2 Carole S. Vance

autonomy. 1 Throughout one hundred years of intermittent but
intense dialogue among theorists, organizers, and activists run a
host of questions to which we do not fully know the answers,
despite the progress we have made:

– Are male and female sexual natures essentially different, or the
product of specific historical and cultural conditions?

– Has women’s sexuality been muted by repression, or is it
wholly different from men’s?

– Does the source of sexual danger to women lie in an
intrinsically aggressive or violent male nature, or in the
patriarchal conditions that socialize male sexuality to aggres­
sion and female sexuality to compliance and submission?

– How can male sexual violence be reduced or eliminated?
– How does the procreative possibility of sex enter into women’s

experience of sexuality?
– Should feminism be promoting maximum or minimum differ­

entiation in the sexual sphere, and what shape should either
vision take?

Behind these questions are changes in material conditions and
social organization wrought by capitalist transformations and the
women’s movement itself, most notably in the weakening of the
traditional bargain women were forced to make with men: if
women were “good” (sexually circumspect), men would protect
them; if they were not, men could violate and punish them. As
parties to this system, “good” women had an interest in
restraining male sexual impulses, a source of danger to women,
as well as their own sexuality which might incite men to act.
Nineteenth-century feminists elaborated asexuality as an option
for respectable women, using female passionlessness and male
sexual restraint to challenge male sexual prerogatives. The
second wave of feminism demanded and won increased sexual
autonomy for women and decreasing male “protection,” still
within a patriarchal framework. Amid this flux, many women have
come to feel more visible and sexually vulnerable. Despite the
breakdown in the old bargain, which placed sexual safety and
sexual freedom in opposition, women’s fear of reprisal and
punishment for sexual activity has not abated.

This sense of vulnerability has been played on by the Right.
The conservative attack on feminist gains has taken the form of a
moral crusade. In its campaign against the evils of abortion,
lesbian and gay rights, contraceptive education and services, and
women’s economic independence, the Right is attempting to
reinstate traditional sexual arrangements and the formerly

3 Pleasure and Danger

inexorable link between reproduction and sexuality. In this, the
Right offers a comprehensive plan for sexual practice which
resonates in part with women’s apprehension about immorality
and sexual danger. 2 To respond convincingly as feminists, we
cannot abandon our radical insights into sexual theory and
practice. Instead, we must deepen and expand them, so that
more women are encouraged to identify and act in their sexual

The papers, poems, and images collected in this book are a
move in this direction. They originated at the Scholar and the
Feminist IX conference, “Towards a Politics of Sexuality,” held at
Barnard College on April 24, 1982. The conference attempted to
explore the ambiguous and complex relationship between sexual
pleasure and danger in women’s lives and in feminist theory. The
intent of conference planners was not to weaken the critique of
danger. Rather, we wished to expand the analysis of pleasure,
and to draw on women’s energy to create a movement that
speaks as powerfully in favor of sexual pleasure as it does
against sexual danger. As feminists, we need to draw on women’s
experience of pleasure in imagining the textures and contours
that would unfurl and proliferate in a safer space. What we want
is not a mystery, not a blank. The clues to it are found in our daily
experience already.

One clue lies in an obvious form of danger – the sexual violence
committed by men against women: rape, sexual harassment, incest.
As women began to speak out, it became clear that these
apparently taboo acts were far from uncommon, and their damage
to women was great. Beyond the actual physical or psychological
harm done to victims of sexual violence, the threat of sexual attack
served as a powerful reminder of male privilege, constraining
women’s movement and behavior. The cultural mythology sur­
rounding sexual violence provided a unique and powerful route for
it to work its way into the heart of female desire. A rag-bag of myths
and folk knowledge that the contemporary feminist movement
opposed depicted male lust as intrinsic, uncontrollable, and
easily aroused by any show of female sexuality and desire. The
main features of this ideology have been roundly critiqued by
feminists, primarily for blaming the female victim while letting
men off the hook, but its corollaries are equally pernicious. If
female sexual desire triggers male attack, it cannot be freely or
spontaneously shown, either in public or in private.

Instead, female desire should be restricted to zones protected
and privileged in the culture: traditional marriage and the nuclear
family. Although the boundaries of the safe zone have been
somewhat renegotiated since the nineteenth century to include
relatively respectable forms of unmarried and non-procreative

4 Carole S. Vance

heterosexuality, gross and public departures from “good” woman
status, such as lesbianism, promiscuity, or non-traditional hetero­
sexuality, still invite – and are thought to justify – violation.

Many women think that this ideology is unjust, illogical, and
misogynous. Nevertheless, they believe it is widespread and
potent, although to what degree can never be known with certainty.
Better safe than sorry is still a dominant caution. Women – social­
ized by mothers to keep their dresses down, their pants up, and
their bodies away from strangers – come to experience their own
sexual impulses as dangerous, causing them to venture outside
the protected sphere. Sexual abandon and impulsiveness acquire
a high price, since women must think not only about the
consequences of their sexual actions for themselves, but also
about the consequences for men, whose sexual “natures” are
supposedly lustful, aggressive, and unpredictable. Through a
culturally dictated chain of reasoning, women become the moral
custodians of male behavior, which they are perceived as
instigating and eliciting. Women inherit a substantial task: the
management of their own sexual desire and its public expression.
Self-control and watchfulness become major and necessary
female virtues. As a result, female desire is suspect from its first
tingle, questionable until proven safe, and frequently too
expensive when evaluated within the larger cultural framework
which poses the question: is it really worth it? When unwanted
pregnancy, street harassment, stigma, unemployment, queer­
bashing, rape, and arrest are arrayed on the side of caution and
inaction, passion often doesn’t have a chance.

The second wave of feminism mounted a major critique of
male sexual violence, indicting the complicity of state institutions
and the cultural ideologies that justify it. However, feminism is
newly beginning to appreciate the intra-psychic effects of a
gender system that places pleasure and safety in opposition for
women. Sexual constriction, invisibility, timidity, and uncuriosity
are less the signs of an intrinsic and specific female sexual nature
and more the signs of thoroughgoing damage. The resulting
polarization of male and female sexuality is a likely product of the
prevailing gender system, which is used to justify women’s need
for a restricted, but supposedly safe space and highly controlled
sexual expression. The horrific effects of gender inequality may
include not only brute violence, but the internalized control of
women’s impulses, poisoning desire at its very root with self­
doubt and anxiety. The subtle connection between how patri­
archy interferes with female desire and how women experience
their own passion as dangerous is emerging as a critical issue to
be explored.

The threat of male violence is, however, not the only source of

5 Pleasure and Danger

sexual danger. Sexuality activates a host of intra-psychic
anxieties: fear of merging with another, the blurring of body
boundaries and the sense of self that occurs in the tangle of parts
and sensations, with attendant fears of dissolution and self­
annihilation. In sex, people experience earlier substrates,
irrational connections, infantile memories, and a range of rich
sensations.3 We fear dependency and possible loss of control, as
well as our own greedy aggression, our wishes to incorporate
body parts, even entire persons. Having been told that pleasure
threatens civilization, we wonder: what if there is no end to

Sexuality also raises t”le fear of competition, as we recognize
our own wishes to compete for attention and for loved objects.
Whether women are lesbian or heterosexual, the competitors are
other women, an unsisterly prospect. Finally, to the extent that
women’s experience of desire signals the giving up of vigilance
and control – the responsibility of a proper woman – it causes
profound unease about violating the bounds of traditional
femininity. 4 Trangressing gender raises the specter of separation
from other women – both the mother and literal and metaphorical
sisters – leaving one isolated and vulnerable to attack. These
subterranean pulls on women are no less powerful by remaining
unnamed. Our unspoken fears are added to the sum of sexual
terror. Without a better language to excavate and delineate these
other sources of danger, everything is attributed to men, thereby
inflating male power and impoverishing ourselves. Moreover, we
leave the irrationality and volatility of sex open to manipulation by
others, easily mobilized in campaigns against sexual deviance,
degeneration, and pollution.

The hallmark of sexuality is its complexity: its multiple
meanings, sensations, and connections. It is all too easy to cast
sexual experience as either wholly pleasurable or dangerous; our
culture encourages us to do so. Women are encouraged to assent
that all male sexuality done to them is pleasurable and liberatory:
women really enjoy being raped but can’t admit it, and the often
horrid cartoons in Hustler are just a lighthearted joke. In a
counter-move, the feminist critique emphasized the ubiquity of
sexual danger and humiliation in a patriarchal surround. Initially
useful as an ideological interruption, this critique now shares the
same undialectical and simplistic focus as its opposition.
Women’s actual sexual experience is more complicated, more
difficult to grasp, more unsettling. Just as agreeing not to mention
danger requires that one’s sexual autobiography be recast,
agreeing not to speak about pleasure requires a similar dishonest
alchemy, the transmutation of sexuality into unmitigated danger
and unremitting victimization.

6 Carole S. Vance

The truth is that the rich brew of our experience contains
elements of pleasure and oppression, happiness and humiliation.
Rather than regard this ambiguity as confusion or false
consciousness, we should use it as a source-book to examine
how women experience sexual desire, fantasy, and action. We
need to sort out individually and together what the elements of
our pleasure and displeasure are. What, for instance, is powerful,
enlivening, interesting in our experience? Our task is to identify
what is pleasurable and under what conditions, and to control
experience so that it occurs more frequently. To begin, we need
to know our sexual histories, which are surely greater than our
own individual experience, surely more diverse than we know,
both incredible and instructive. To learn these histories, we must
speak about them to each other. And for speech to flourish, there
must be tolerance for diversity and curiosity, which Joan Nestle
calls “the respect that one life pays to another.”5 Without
women’s speech, we fall back on texts and myths, prescriptive
and overgeneralized.

Even some feminist analysis runs the risk of overemphasizing
sexual danger, following the lead of the larger culture. The anti­
pornography movement in a sense restates the main premises of
the old gender system: the dominant cultural ideology elaborates
the threat of sexual danger, so the anti-pornography movement
responds by pushing for sexual safety via the control of public
expression of male sexuality.6 Although this would seem in
certain respects a decisive break with an oppressive system –
sexual danger is being directly challenged – in other respects the
focus continues unchanged in that sexual pleasure for women is
still minimized and the exploration of women’s pleasurable
experience remains slight. Feminism has succeeded in making
public previously unmentionable activities like rape and incest.
But the anti-pornography movement often interprets this as
an indicator of rising violence against women and a sign of
backlash against feminism. The net effect has been to suggest
that women are less sexually safe than ever and that discus­
sions and explorations of pleasure are better deferred to a safer

Women are vulnerable to being shamed about sex, and the
anti-pornography ideology makes new forms of shaming pos­
sible. Traditional objections that women’s concern with sex is
unimportant are restated in suggestions that sexuality is trivial,
diversionary, or not political. If sexual desire is coded as male,
women begin to wonder if they are really ever sexual. Do we
distrust our passion, thinking it perhaps not our own, but the
construction of patriarchal culture? Can women be sexual actors?
Can we act on our own behalf? Or are we purely victims, whose

7 Pleasure and Danger

efforts must be directed at resisting male depredations in a
patriarchal culture? Must our passion await expression for a safer
time? When will that time come? Will any of us remember what
her passion was? Does exceeding the bounds of femininity –
passivity, helplessness, and victimization – make us deeply
uncomfortable? Do we fear that if we act on our most deeply felt
sexual passion that we will no longer be women? Do we wish,
instead, to bind ourselves together into a sisterhood which seeks
to curb male lust but does little to promote female pleasure? Sex
is always guilty before proven innocent, an expensive under­
taking considering the negative sanctions it easily evokes.

The overemphasis on danger runs the risk of making speech
about sexual pleasure taboo. Feminists are easily intimidated by
the charge that their own pleasure is selfish, as in political
rhetoric which suggests that no woman is entitled to talk about
sexual pleasure while any woman remains in danger – that is –
never. Some also believe that sexuality is a privileged topic,
important only to affluent groups, so to talk of it betrays bad
manners and bad politics on the part of sexual betters toward the
deprived, who reputedly are only interested in issues that are
concrete, material, and life-saving, as if sexuality were not all of
these. The result is that sexual pleasure in whatever form has
become a great guilty secret among feminists.

Hiding pleasure and its sources in feminist discussion does not
make the world safe for women, any more than women’s
acceding to the system of male protection made the world safe
for them. When pleasure occupies a smaller and smaller public
space and a more guilty private space, individuals do not
become empowered; they are merely cut off from the source of
their own strength and energy. If women increasingly view
themselves entirely as victims through the lens of the oppressor
and allow themselves to be viewed that way by others, they
become enfeebled and miserable. The taboo on investigating
pleasure led to an abstract sexual theory which bears little
relationship to daily life. If theory is to have any valid relationship
to experience, we need to acknowledge that sexuality is worth
talking about seriously. We cannot create a body of knowledge
that is true to women’s lives, if sexual pleasure cannot be spoken
about safely, honestly, and completely.

Much feminist work on sexuality starts from the premise that
sex is a social construction, articulated at many points with the
economic, social, and political structures of the material world.
Sex is not simply a “natural” fact, as earlier, essentialist theories
would suggest. Although sexuality, like all human cultural activity,
is grounded in the body, the body’s structure, physiology, and
functioning do not directly or simply determine the configuration

8 Carole S. Vance

or meaning of sexuality; were this so, w·e would expect to find
great uniformity across the world’s cu.ltures. Yet the sexual
diversity we see is startling: activities COI’l.demned in one society
are encouraged in another, and ideas ab(.)ut what is attractive or
erotic or sexually satisfying or even se.xually possible vary a
great deal.

Nor is the role of culture confined to chDosing some sexual acts
(by praise, encouragement, or reward) al:1d rejecting others (by
scorn, ridicule, or condemnation), as if s-electing from a sexual
buffet. The social construction of sexualit�’ is far more thorough­
going, encompassing the very way s�x is conceptualized,
defined, labeled, and described from time to time and from
culture to culture.7 Although we can specific physical
actions like anal sex, heterosexual intercourse, kissing, fellatio, or
masturbation, it is clear that the social and personal meanings
attached to each of these acts in terms of sexual identity and
sexual community have varied historically. Without denying the
body, we note that the body and its a�tions are understood
according to prevailing codes of meaning. Recent work on the
history of male homosexuality shows, for instance, that although
sodomy occurred and was punished in earlier periods in Europe
and America, it was viewed as the result ()f carnal lust to which
any mortal could fall prey, not as an act con\mitted by a particular
type of individual, the “homosexual.” The classification of sexual
types awaited the late nineteenth century, when capitalism and
urban development made it possible for individuals to exist
beyond the sphere of the extended family as a productive and
reproductive unit.8 Historians have also traced the outlines of
changing definitions of women’s intimacy. In the nineteenth
century, two women who shared the same household and bed
were usually perceived as close friends; by the twentieth century,
such women were increasingly viewed as lesbians.9 Doubtless,
modern forms of heterosexuality have a history to be written as

One might expect that feminists would be especially receptive
to a social construction approach to sexuality, since in many ways
it is analogous to social construction theories about gender: that
the body is the agent of human activity, but the body’s
configuration does not literally determine it. Scientific “know­
ledge” or folklore suggesting that the dominant cultural arrange­
ments are the result of biology – and therefc>re intrinsic, eternal,
and unchanging – are usually ideologies st1pporting prevailing
power relations. Deeply felt personal identities – for example,
masculinity/femininity or heterosexuality/homosexuality – are not
private or solely the product of biology, but ‘lre created through
the intersection of political, social, and ecor1omic forces, which

9 Pleasure and Danger

vary over time.
Yet social construction theory remains a radical view of

sexuality which poses a range of unsettling questions for
feminists and other thinkers brought up on an essentialist view of
sexuality. What is the nature of the relationship between the
arbitrariness of social construction and the immediacy of our
bodily sensations and functions? Is sexuality not a unitary,
ongoing phenomenon with an essential core, but something
created differently at each time and place? If sexuality is not a
transhistorical, transcultural essence whose manifestations are
mildly shaped by cultural factors, must we then consider the
possibility that desire is not intrinsic but itself constituted or
constructed, and if so, by what mechanisms?

Social construction theory has run into some misguided
interpretations. Some suggest that if sexuality is constructed at
the cultural level, then it can be easily reconstructed or
deconstructed at the social or personal level. Not necessarily.
The cultural analogue is useful here, for although human cultures
are arbitrary in that behavior is learned and not intrinsic,
anthropologists do not believe that entire cultures can transform
themselves overnight, or that individuals socialized in one cultural
tradition can acculturate at whim. The mutability of sexuality in an
individual lifetime is an interesting and important question,
however. Clearly, there are examples of both persistence and
fluidity in sexual desire: for example, individuals who “knew”
they were gay at an early age and remained so despite aversion
therapy and incarceration, and others who “become” gay or
lesbian at different stages in the life cycle in a manner suggesting
internal change, rather than belated expression of “repressed”
desire. Although questions about fluidity of sexuality often focus
on sexual orientation and object choice, there are many other
areas where similar questions could be asked: fantasy, masturba­
tion, or non-monogamy. The question of the stability and flexibility
of sexual behavior within and across individuals remains
intriguing and poorly understood.

The parallels between social constructionist approaches to
gender (the cultural marking of biological sex) and sexuality
(desire and erotic pleasure) make it possible to see that although
both may be socially constructed, sexuality and gender are
separate but overlapping domains or, as Gayle Rubin calls them,
“vectors of oppression.” Of particular interest is the articulation
between specific features of each system, namely how the
configurations of the sexual system bear on the experience of
being female and, conversely, how the definitions of gender
resonate with and are reflected in sexuality. Despite the many
interrelationships of sexuality and gender, sexuality is not a

10 Carole S. Vance

residual category, a subcategory of gender; nor are theories of
gender fully adequate to account for sexuality. 11 The task is to
describe and analyze how cultural connections are made
between female bodies and what comes to be understood as
“women” and “female sexuality.”

Social construction, then, requires a more detailed investigation
of how categories acquire meaning and change over time, how
objects and acts become eroticized, how external symbols
acquire internal, psychic meaning. If sexuality is con­
structed, what is the site of the construction? Recent work has
attended not only to the larger social formations that organize
sexuality – the political economy, religion, the educational
system, the criminal code, public and mental health systems –
but also to how these forces are mediated through “private”
life: marriage, the family, child nurturing, the household, inti­
macy, and effect.

Information about sexuality comes from multiple sources, as
well as from many disciplines. A survey of the literature reveals
information, partial though it may be, on sexual behavior and acts,
along with their physiological and biological dimensions; fantasy
and inner, psychological experience; the public presentation of
our sexual selves; visual images and representations available in
the culture; sexual styles; the place of sexuality in the discourse of
the political community to which we belong; sexual ideologies,
both scientific and religious. Yet when we examine a specific
group of women, we often find that a full range of information
covering all these realms is not available. Nevertheless, rather
than restrict our comments to the domains for which we have
information, we often formulate large-scale generalizations, with
varying degrees of plausibility. Unfortunately, one of the most
interesting questions – the relationship between these sexual
domains – are they consistent, or inconsistent? – can never be
examined as long as data are lacking and, worse, we have a
dulled sense of what is missing. These informational gaps have
several consequences.

First, understudied groups are often victims of the most far­
flung generalizations, spun on the basis of some lyric, poem, or
piece of art. One cannot, for instance, assume to be knowledge­
able about lesbianism in the twentieth century simply because
one has read Colette’s The Pure and the Impure. Second, it
remains impossible to compare sexual domains among groups of
women – to ask, for example, what is the content of fantasy for
white, black, and Hispanic women? Third, attempts to gauge the
overall situation of specific groups usually end up relying on not
only incomplete but usually non-comparable domains: for
example, images of women’s sexuality in the oral literature of an

1 1 Pleasure and Danger

ethnic minority may be held up against Kinsey’s data on the
incidence of premarital sex among white, college-educated
females in the 1950s. When we compare the sexual situation
between and within groups of women, it is important to
remember that no conclusions can be drawn by looking at only
one layer of sexual information without considering the others.

The information we have – social science surveys, literary
analyses, fiction, poetry, visual art, biomedical observations,
biographies and autobiographies – raises serious questions of
interpretation. None is the straightforward report about women’s
sexual reality that we wish, and sometimes imagine, we had. If
sex is a cultural product, all the representations, descriptions, and
depictions of that sexuality are too. Just as our own bodily
experience is mediated through culture, so reports or descrip­
tions of others’ experience are mediated through cultural forms,
conventions, and codes of meaning. 12 We understand more
readily that visual representations – movies, paintings, even
photographs – are not literal or realistic; they betray a style, an
emphasis, a perspective, raising questions for the viewer about
the relationship between what is depicted and what is. The
presence of the artist destroys the illusion of objectivity. Scientific
reports, fiction, diaries, letters, social science surveys, humanistic
accounts are also, to varying degrees, cultural products. Even the
most empirically oriented form requires a cultural frame of
organization, a code of meaning, a language that classifies
feelings and the body. Since the 1890s, for example, sex
researchers’ attempts to define female pleasure and sexual
gratification have undergone dramatic shifts, from vague euphe­
misms about marital harmony to Masters and Johnson’s measure­
ment of the strength and number of vaginal contractions during
orgasm. For the viewer or reader, the question remains the same:
what is the relationship between what is written in the text or
shown in the image, and what is? We are most aware of
embedded assumptions when reading material from another time
or place, which may appear incongruous or disjunctive. Yet we
must admit that contemporary work by both men and women has
embedded meanings too. These embedded assumptions are
especially significant, because so much of the literature on female
sexuality has been written by men, suggesting the need for
critical reading.

Whether scientific, religious, or political, prescriptive texts that
aim to tell people what to do or what is normal pose a number of
questions. Are they a self-assured restatement of prevailing
norms, safely read as literal indicators of behavior? Or are they
anxious attempts to resocialize renegade readers to norms they
are flouting? To what degree do prescriptive texts reach a mass

1 2 Carole S. Vance

audience, and did they in the past, and with what effect?
Historical examination of even the most seemingly objective
“scientific” prescriptive material reveals that its messages have
not been homogeneous and static, but have changed over time.
These fluctuations are traceable to the emergence of different
scientific groups; changes in theories about workable solutions to
social problems; battles and competition for ideology, profes­
sional turf, patients, and money; and the rise and fall of particular
scientific paradigms.

Similar questions can be raised about depictions of women’s
sexuality in the dominant culture, both in the privileged forms of
high culture and in popular culture. Although different in formal
intent from the prescriptive text and so nominally differentiated
from it, mainstream representations of sexuality may perform a
similar educative or socializing function. Such representations are
complex, to varying degrees both depicting and distorting actual
behavior, as well as influencing it. Yet the material being
analyzed – for example, popular fiction in women’s magazines,
1950s movies, or radio jingles – suggests that dominant culture is
not cranked out by an unseen hand, but that each cultural product
bears a relationship to a particular genre and its conventions, as
well as to other objects of its kind, and to the creator’s purpose
and intended audience. Thus, within the dominant culture, there
is inconsistency, contradiction, and tension, especially in relation
to social change, as well as uniformity and pattern.

How do we understand such popular sexual images and
representations? Are they overt restatements of conservative
ideology; conspiratorial attempts to prevent cultural change;
efforts to smooth over cultural contradictions and tensions; or a
mixed bag containing both interruptions as well as continuities?
For example, the proliferation of information about clitoral
orgasm and oral sex in contemporary women’s magazines and
popular sex manuals can be read in a variety of ways. It can be
seen as a liberating expansion beyond the bounds of procreative
heterosexuality, enabling women to learn about and experience a
type of pleasure not connected to reproduction or even to the
penis. Male concern that their partners experience orgasm may
signal the development of more egalitarian and reciprocal sexual
standards. On the other hand, the anxious question, “Did you
come?” may demarcate a new area of women’s behavior men are
expected to master and control – female orgasm. In this light, the
marital literature may be seen as an attempt to capture and
contain the potentially radical implications of clitoral orgasm,
which challenges both the form that heterosexual practice usually
takes and the notion that heterosexuality is superior.

The dominant culture and its symbolic system reflect the class

13 Pleasure and Danger

arrangements of that society, and are not mirror reflections of
ongoing social reality. The cultural assumptions of higher-status
groups receive a privileged position, with lower status groups
consigned to varying degrees of cultural invisibility. Mainstream
culture is white, male, heterosexual, upper and middle class in its
point of view and assumptions. Appearing in mainstream culture
either rarely (literal invisibility) or inaccurately through caricature
or other distortion, members of lower-status groups become
culturally invisible. Dominant culture often does not reflect the
lived social reality of subordinate groups, although these groups
by necessity must be familiar with it. Members of dominant
groups not only participate freely and comfortably in mainstream
culture, which reflects their own world-view, but they are also
allowed the conceit that lower-status groups share their assump­
tions and that other perspectives or points of view don’t exist. 13

It is clear that non-dominant groups, to the extent that their
social lives are different from those in the mainstream, have
different sensibilities and consciousness which are expressed in
a variety of cultural forms – lyrics and music, oral tradition, humor
as well as in fiction and art. Because the printed word is often the
enclave of dominant culture, used to enforce cultural invisibility,
the voices of lower-status groups are relatively absent from
dominant texts. But these groups have not been silent; they have
created rival cultural and symbolic systems, requiring methods
which tap oral tradition in order to describe them. Thus, the
minimal appearance of black women in dominant cultural forms
is no guide to the way women’s sexuality was represented by
black people to each other. Such an investigation requires
examination of jokes, songs, and oral narratives, important as
sources of information, socialization, and transmission of know­
ledge across generations within the black community. 14 Lesbian
subcultures are similarly absent from the written record, although
they vigorously responded to a partial and distorting depiction of
lesbians in dominant culture, which found the acknowledgment of
love between women at once ridiculous and threatening.
Although mainstream culture has a vested interest in keeping
alternative cultures out of the printed record and invisible,
stigmatized groups also have their own motives for keeping their
cultural products and conventions hidden: for self-protection, to
prevent cooptation, and to create a safe cultural space, a world
over which they have some control. The description of alternative
cultures makes it possible to entertain important questions: How
powerful and vigorous are alternative cultural forms regarding
sexuality? What competition do they offer to dominant forms, or
what contradictions do they mediate or resolve?

Another interesting issue is the way in which political and

14 Carole S. Vance

social movements position sexuality in theory, discourse, and
action. For participants in social movements, whether ethnic,
racial, or religious, the conventions of sexual discourse may not
mirror literal behavior. Nevertheless, they constitute an important
arena in which topics are consigned to importance or oblivion.
The nineteenth-century feminist discourse about women’s sex­
uality and sexual reform, for instance, remained largely hetero­
sexual and marital, despite evidence of women’s actual
experience with romantic female friendships that offered
physical and emotional intensity. The public, political discussions
did not introduce “lesbians” or “lesbianism” as named categories
for women’s choices and experiences. Such a historical contrast
between lived experience and constructed social reality is
obvious to feminists now, raising questions about what other
unnamed realms lurk silently in our own discussions.

We also need to look at how sexual information, instruction,
and experience are transmitted across and between generations.
Our understanding of the development of sexuality in infancy and
childhood is only beginning. 15 The family, obviously important for
infants and children, may remain an important socializing site for
adult sexuality as well. Large social shifts often appear as
generational contrasts that are observable within families. The
shift, for example, from the nineteenth-century pattern of
separate spheres for the sexes and female passionlessness to the
modern pattern of companionate marriage with a modicum of
female sexual pleasure is reflected in generational contrasts
between mothers and daughters. Although some age cohorts
provide a sharp contrast between old and new, other transitional
ones provide clues to how, through what processes, and at what
cost large-scale social change moved through individual lives.
The notion of sexual transformation and change occurring within
an individual lifetime is a crucial one, because it forces us to give
up the static picture of an unchanging sexual order depending on
infant and child socialization that is impermeable and rigid. It
suggests that childhood experience, though perhaps not totally
mutable, may be later shaped in various directions, and raises
questions about individual perception of and reactions to sexual
change and the degree to which individuals feel that their sexual
expression is an intrinsic given or a choice. Examples include
“frigid” women who did not reach orgasm in heterosexual
penetration during the 1950s who became merely “preorgasmic”
by the 1960s or “multiply orgasmic” in the face of a modern
technological advance, the vibrator; and women whose close and
lifelong intimacy with other women might have caused them to be
labeled celibates or spinsters who are now called, or call
themselves, lesbians.

15 Pleasure and Danger

In examining these domains in which women’s sexuality is
described or represented – and these are only a few – the
observer, interpreter, or scholar is striving to understand what
the various representations mean – that is, what their relationship
is to women’s thought and experience at the time of their
creation. To answer this question, the analyst applies an
interpretive frame, through which meaning can be detected and
inferred. Do we assume that all women share this interpretive
frame? That it is universal? This assumption may be especially
risky if there is a social disjunction between the observer and the
observed, if the interpretive frame of mainstream culture is
applied to invisible groups, or if the analysis concentrates on
implicit meanings and deep structure written at the level of the
unconscious. In each case, the assumption about the universality
of sexual meaning obscures one of the other questions we should
be asking: how does the audience perceive sexual representa­
tions? The assumption of a universal meaning is economical and
efficient, but it may be mistaken.

If we want to study sexuality, we need more information about
individual responses to symbol and image. We need to know
what the viewer brings with her to make an interpretation: a
cultural frame, resonances, connections, and personal exper­
ience. The question of context is important too, since viewers
read symbols differently depending on the material they are
embedded in and the relationship they have to other symbols, as
well as individual interpretive frames which are somewhat

To assume that symbols have a unitary meaning, the one
dominant culture assigns them, is to fail to investigate the
individuals’ experience and cognition of symbols, as well as
individual ability to transform and manipulate symbols in a
complex way which draws on play, creativity, humor, and
intelligence. This assumption grants mainstream culture a hege­
mony it claims, but rarely achieves. To ignore the potential for
variation is to inadvertently place women outside of culture
except as passive recipients of official symbol systems. It
continues to deny what mainstream culture has always tried to
make invisible – the complex struggles of disenfranchised groups
to grapple with oppression using symbolic, as well as economic
and political, resistance. Mainstream symbols may be used to
both reveal and mock dominant culture.

The symbolic transformations presented by some butch/femme
couples as they manipulate gender symbols, for example, are
stunning. 16 To the dominant, heterosexual culture, the butch!
femme couple appears to be a pitiful imitation by inferiors, who
mimic the semiotics of gender distinctions while violating

16 Carole S. Vance

fundamental rules of gender: that women do not have access to
women, do not take sexual initiative, and cannot be sexual
without men. Lesbians, depending on their historical and political
positioning, may interpret the butch/femme couple as presenting
a defiant statement to dominant culture about female power,
visibility, and resistance, a refusal to be invisible and conform, or
as replicating heterosexual patterns for want of a more original
model or for lack of feminist consciousness. The relevance of
context and individual aptitude at cultural transformation and play
points to the speed and subtlety with which symbolic slippage
occurs, and calls for much more intensive attempts to describe
and understand the history and meaning of sexual symbols to
both actors and viewers.

It is no accident that recent feminist sexual controversies about
pornography, S/M, and butch/femme all demonstrate a need for a
more developed analysis of symbolic context and transformation,
especially difficult in regard to visual material where our
education, vocabulary, and sophistication are far less developed
than in regard to literary texts. Our visual illiteracy renders the
image overpowering. The emotion aroused by an image
is easily attached to rhetorical arguments, overwhelming
more subtle analysis and response, and the audience as well, by
manipulative imagery, as in polemical slide shows mounted by
Right to Life groups or some feminist anti-pornography groups. In
each case, the shock induced by the image of a fetus in a bottle
or a woman in chains is effectively used to propel viewers to the
desired conclusion.

Sexuality poses a challenge to feminist inquiry, since it is an
intersection of the political, social, economic, historical, personal,
and experiential, linking behavior and thought, fantasy and
action. That these domains intersect does not mean that they are
identical. Feminists need sophisticated methodologies and
analyses that permit the recognition of each discrete domain as
well as their multiple intersections. Recognizing these layers of
sexual information, we form and adopt generalizations about even
one apparently homogeneous group, white middle-class women,
for example, more cautiously. Popular sex manuals, content
analysis of women’s fiction magazines, vibrator sales, number of
contraceptive prescriptions registered, clothing styles – each
provides a clue, but even for well-studied groups there are many
lacunae. We recognize these lacunae only if we stop extrapolat­
ing from one domain to the other. This recognition spurs inquiry
into missing areas, and ultimately makes possible the comparison
of one domain to another.

A sophisticated analysis of sexual symbols requires that we

1 7 Pleasure and Danger

look beyond easy generalization. Feminist scholarship has
delivered a scathing critique of an androcentric and falsely
universalizing history in which the historical Everyman, like his
authors, was male, white, heterosexual, and affluent. Such
accounts omitted women as both subjects of inquiry and as self­
conscious historical actors. Corrective research indicates that
social characteristics modify the perception and experience of
historical events, with gender a significant social marker. Despite
its critique of false universals, feminist scholarship and inquiry
has not escaped the same sin. Until recently challenged, feminist
descriptions and analyses have often assumed that women are
white, middle- or upper-class, heterosexual, able-bodied, and
moderately youthful, or that the experiences and perspectives of
these women are shared by all. The term “woman” used in
feminist discourse often substituted part of women’s experience
for the whole, a “deadly metonymy” in Hortense Spillers’s words,
relegating the experience of some women to silence. 17 The
experience of those standing outside both mainstream culture
and “women’s culture” has been excluded from the feminist
canon as well. Self-criticism of feminist parochialism has
proliferated in recent years 18 and has been persuasive in
showing why feminist analysis must attempt to include the
experience of diverse groups of women, with conclusions
specific to particular groups identified as such. 19

This development, when applied to female sexuality, suggests
that sexuality may be thought about, experienced, and acted on
differently according to age, class, ethnicity, physical ability,
sexual orientation and preference, religion, and region. Confron­
tation with the complex intersection of social identities leads us
away from simple dichotomies (black/white, lesbian/heterosexual,
working-class/middle-class) toward recognizing the multiple inter­
section of categories and the resulting complexity of women’s
lived experience.20

This insight leads to a scholarship increasingly self-conscious
about omissions, gaps, and silences, which is willing to qualify
and specify findings, if they apply to particular groups only, and
to take more aggressive efforts in researching areas and topics
up to now ignored. The simple recognition that little is known
about Asian lesbians, Jewish working-class prostitutes, or
Catholic women who patronize singles bars does not in itself
produce the needed information, although it is certainly a
necessary step in its production. Additional steps include: better
use of available material, which requires more funding, freer
access to papers and diaries held in private collections, and a
willingness to ask more imaginative questions about the sexual
aspects of women’s lives; further work by scholars who . are

18 Carole S. Vance

members of the groups under study as those most attentive to
and attuned to nuances in the material; and an effort to generate
more data, especially about contemporary life. A great deal of
interesting research is being conducted outside the formal
boundaries of academe by community projects and groups that
have been imaginative and resourceful in locating and develop­
ing unusual kinds of material.2 1

But if careless overgeneralization about women’s experience is
dangerous and mystifying, so too is the avoidance of generaliza­
tion in the belief that each woman’s experience is so unique and
conditioned by multiple social intersections that larger patterns
are impossible to discern, and that to attempt generalization is to
do violence to individual experience: the anarchy of sexual
idiosyncrasy. Feminist work on sexuality must confront the
dialectic between specificity and generalization, and endure its
ongoing tension. Theory can only be developed through
reference to an ever-expanding body of information, made
possible through more intensive use of historical material and
through eliciting women’s current experience in a comfortable
climate. 22 Specific data about one group of women may then
acquire more meaning through comparison and contrast with
those for other groups. It is important to simultaneously examine
women’s similarities and differences, questioning whether the
acquisition of femininity and the conditions for its reproduction
affect all women in similar ways, cutting across sexual prefer­
ence, sexual object, and specific behavior. Since feminism, for
political even more than intellectual reasons, is unlikely to
abandon using the term “woman” until all of women’s experience
has been adequately described, its provocative overgeneraliza­
tions might be most positively viewed as an invitation to test the
hypotheses proposed: to object, qualify, and correct.

Although a portion of feminist reluctance to acknowledge
differences among women derives from arrogance on the part of
mainstream feminists, a significant part derives from another
source: the fear of difference among women. If women organize
around their oppression by and through differentiation from men,
should they not maintain a united front, stressing their shared and
unifying characteristic, femaleness? Does the admission of
women’s cross-cutting allegiances and links to groups containing
men weaken the universal sisterhood? Once differences are
admitted, what is to prevent them from becoming bitter and
divisive, fracturing the base for shared political action? In a
society that structures and maintains group antagonisms, what
model do we have for acknowledging difference and working
together? Exploration of differences has, in fact, been a painful
experience, beginning with lesbian and heterosexual differences

19 Pleasure and Danger

in the early stages of the women’s movement and continuing in
recent years to differences involving class, religion, ethnicity, and
race. Although some have retreated to doctrines which empha­
size women’s commonality on the one hand, or women’s total
separation by factors of race and class on the other, many
feminists see the importance of dealing with difference, while
they remain wary and uncertain of how to do so.

Our discomfort with difference is especially evident around
questions of sexual variation, which have expanded beyond the
topic of lesbian and heterosexual difference to include all the
ways women can obtain pleasure. Sexual orientation is not the
only, and may not be the most significant, sexual difference
among women. 23 Our ability to think about sexual difference is
limited, however, by a cultural system that organizes sexual
differences in a hierarchy in which some acts and partners are
privileged and others are punished. Privileged forms of sexuality,
for example, heterosexuality, marriage, and procreation, are
protected and rewarded by the state and subsidized through
social and economic incentives. Those engaging in privileged
acts, or pretending to do so, enjoy good name and good fortune.
Less privileged forms of sexuality are regulated and interdicted
by the state, religion, medicine, and public opinion. Those
practicing less privileged forms of sexuality – what Rubin calls
members of the sexual “lower orders” – suffer from stigma and
invisibility, although they also resist.24

The system of sexual hierarchy functions smoothly only if sexual
nonconformity is kept invisible, hence the interpersonal tension
when sexual difference surfaces. For dominant sexual groups, the
appearance of the sexual lower orders produces anxiety,
discomfort, the threat of pollution, and a challenge to their
hegemony. Sexual liberals are caught between a reluctance to
lose the privileges attendant upon being members of the majority
and a fear of losing their claims to political savvy if they do not
side with the newly vocal, emerging minorities. The women’s
movement has already experienced a similar scenario with the
“lavender menace” panic – a consequence of more visible
lesbian participation in the movement. Some feminists may still
feel that it would be easier to attain their goals without the liability
of perceived “sexual deviance” of any sort. In the current sex
debates, some fear that the women’s movement will come to be
identified with issues even more stigmatized and threatening than
female homosexuality. Thus, feminists’ fear of sexual difference
manifests itself as a concern with public relations, an attempt to
keep the women’s movement respectable and free of pollution.

The appearance of any sexual difference thus raises a question
about its positioning in the sexual hierarchy: Is it normal? Sinful?

20 Carole S. Vance

Deranged? Given this backdrop, feminists, like all members of
the culture, find it difficult to think about sexual difference with
equanimity. The concept of benign sexual variation is a relatively
new one, as Rubin suggests, and for most of us, differences in
sexual taste carry great significance, whether explained in terms
of sin, pathology, or bad politics. Our relative ignorance about the
actual range of sexual behavior and fantasy makes us into latter­
day sexual ethnocentrists; the observer is convinced that her own
sex life is normal, understandable, and tasteful, while the
observed’s preferences may be frightening, strange, and disgust­
ing. The external system of sexual hierarchy is replicated within
each of us, and herein lies its power. Internalized cultural norms
enforce the status quo. As each of us hesitates to admit deviations
from the system of sexual hierarchy, nonconformity remains
hidden, invisible, and apparently rare. The prevailing system
retains hegemony and power, appearing to be descriptive as
well as prescriptive, a statement of what is as well as what should
be. Individuals who deviate appear to themselves to be few and
isolated; they resolve anew to hide their nonconformity.

Underlying reactions of shock, disgust, and startle lurk other,
more complex reactions. Our own insecurity and sexual depriva­
tion make us wonder about what other women are doing.25 Could
I do that too? Is it better? Are they getting more pleasure? Do I
come out unfavorably in the sexual sweepstakes? Are they pathetic
and sick? Am I? Our state of sexual insecurity, fueled by
ignorance and mystification, turns any meeting with sexual
difference into an occasion for passing harsh judgment on
ourselves as well as others. Stigmatized acts or preferences are
devalued according to the rules of sexual hierarchy, yet
paradoxically we judge our own behavior second-rate and
unsatisfying, resenting those whose mere existence makes us
doubtful and deprived. Thus, the presentation of sexual differ­
ence, whether intended or not, is often interpreted as a
chauvinistic statement of superiority, if not an exhortation to
experiment or an attempt to prescribe a new sexual norm.

An enduring slogan in the women’s movement has been “the
personal is the political,” born from the initial discovery that
personal life as lived and experienced is not totally private and
individual, devoid of cultural and social shaping. Discussing
personal life in consciousness-raising groups provided a way for
women who participated to see commonalities in their lives, to
realize that they were not crazy or alone in their dissatisfaction,
and to begin to trace the economic, political, and social forces
that articulated with domains previously thought of as private: the
family, relationships, the self. Examination of women’s lives also
affirmed that they were important and instructive, in fact, in Joan

2 1 Pleasure and Danger

Nestle’s words, “our deepest text” in a society which marginal­
ized and ignored female experience.26 Not only did personal life
have social and political dimensions, but personal pain and
unhappiness often suggested possible targets for political action
and organizing.

The ubiquity of the slogan, however, led toward unintended
and problematic extremes which proved particularly damaging
for sexuality. If personal life had a political dimension, did that
mean that sexual life was singularly and entirely political? If so, it
was perhaps logical to expect that feminists who shared the same
politics should have identical or highly similar sexual lives, and
that there should be a close conformity between political goals
and personal behavior. If the personal was political, then perhaps
the political was personal, converting efforts to change and
reform sexual life and ··elations into substitutes for political action
and organizing. If so, scrutiny, criticism, and policing of peers’
sexual lives, if not fantasies, may become a necessary political
obligation. 27

The quest for politically appropriate sexual behavior has led to
what Alice Echols calls prescriptivism, the tendency to transform
broad, general principles like equality, autonomy, and self­
determination into fairly specific and rigid standards to which all
feminists are expected to conform. There is a very fine line
between talking about sex and setting norms; we err very easily
given our ignorance of diversity, our fear of difference, and our
naive expectation that all like the same sexual food as we.
Although we need open discussion to expand theory, we are
especially vulnerable to transforming statements of personal
preference that inevitably appear in honest discussion (“I like
oral sex”) into statements that may be probabalistically true
(“Women like clitoral stimulation more than penetration”) into
statements that are truly prescriptive (“Women should avoid
penetration”). Certainly, there are intentional efforts at chauvin­
ism. But even mere statements of individual, personal preference
are often heard as statements of superiority, criticisms of the
listener’s practice, or an exhortation to try something new.
Women’s insecurity, deprivation, and guilt make it difficult to hear
a description of personal practice as anything but a prescription.

All political movements, feminism included, espouse social and
ethical ideals as they articulate their vision of the good life or
more just society. Such movements attempt to analyze and
change current behavior, as well as the prevailing social
institutions that shape such behavior. Beginning as radical
renegades, visionaries, and outsiders, their political success
exposes them to the danger of becoming the orthodoxy, if only to
their own members, with their own structure of deadening

22 Carole S. Vance

conformity. The dangers of political analysis transmuted from
illuminating vision to stale dogma loom especially large in regard
to sexuality. Our vast ignorance, our reliance on overgeneraliza­
tion, and the invisibility of so many groups suggest that we are in
a particularly resourceless position to determine which sexual
paths will lead to heaven. Although declaring opposition to
patriarchal culture, some recent feminist pronouncements about
politically desirable and undesirable forms of sexuality bear a
striking resemblance to those of the dominant culture, with one
possible exception: the repositioning of certain varieties of
lesbianism. Within feminism, lesbianism has been rehabilitated,
undergoing a transition from the realm of bad sex to the realm of
good sex, and within some sectors of the movement, given
a privileged position as the most egalitarian and feminist
sexual identity. With this exception, new feminist punishments
are still meted out to the denizens of the same old sexual lower

Quite apart from our ignorance and prejudice, sexuality may
be a particularly unpromising domain for regulation. As Muriel
Dimen argues, sexuality remains fluid and everchanging, evolving
through adult life in response to internal and external vicissitudes:
flexible, anarchic, ambiguous, layered with multiple meanings,
offering doors that open to unexpected experience. The connec­
tion of both sexual behavior and fantasy to infancy, the irrational,
the unconscious is a source of both surprise and pleasure. We
impose simplistic and literal standards congruent with political
goals at our own peril, ultimately undermining the search for
pleasure and expansiveness that motivates visions of political
change and human connection. 28

A serious effort to examine the relationship between sexual
fantasy and behavior and agendas for social change is circum­
vented by the enormity of what we do not know: silences,
oppressions, repressions, invisibility, denials, omissions, lies.
Paradoxically, the effort to rein in sexual behavior and fantasy
according to political dogma guarantees that the silence will
continue and that information challenging it is unlikely to emerge.

Following the path of older political movements, the prevailing
feminist ideology has the power to punish non-conformists by
exclusion and personal attack. If adult sexuality is not so mutable
– an interesting question that remains to be answered – how do
we regard someone whose sexual practice or thought falls short
of current standards: the detritus of patriarchy whose sexual acts
are stigmata of oppression; a fossil, soon to be replaced by a
younger generation free of such taint; or a victim, entitled to
special consideration as long as she laments her unhappy state?
If patriarchal socialization makes the achievement of the sexual

23 Pleasure and Danger

ideal impossible, we may charitably continue to love the sinner,
while hating the sin.

Like religious orthodoxy, political ideology about sexual
behavior contrasts lofty goals with gritty, or fleshy, reality,
exhorting individuals to strive against the odds for perfection.
Falls from grace may be tolerated for those who continue to
believe; thus, actual practice can become quite discrepant from
theoretically desired behavior, without posing any challenge to
the empirical or logical foundations of sexual ideology. The
ideology functions to set up new social categories and maintain
strict boundaries between them: the good and the bad, believers
and infidels.

In its first stage, this wave of feminism moved women by
speaking about what lay below the surface of daily convention
and acknowledged social reality. The excitement of feminism, its
ability to propel women into extraordinary changes in their lives
which were as joyful and exhilarating as they were unexpected
and terrifying came from breaking silence and from naming the
unspoken. This revelation, along with the thought and analysis it
inspired, was radical and revolutionary: it changed women’s lives.

In the course of any social movement, the passage of time and
its very success renders the radical insight routine, as formerly
exciting discoveries become natural and familiar features of the
landscape. At this point, feminism needs to excavate new levels
of women’s experience. The fear and hesitation we feel are akin
to what we felt fifteen years ago: where will this take us? This is a
terrifying undertaking. To overcome our anxiety, we need to
remind ourselves of what excited us: pleasure in discovery, the
enjoyment of complexity, delight in each other.

What directions might a feminist politics on sex take in the
future? Above all, feminism must be a movement that speaks to
sexuality, that does not forfeit the field to reactionary groups who
are more than willing to speak. We cannot be cowardly,
pretending that feminism is not sexually radical. Being a sex
radical at this time, as at most, is less a matter of what you do,
and more a matter of what you are willing to think, entertain, and

Feminism must, of course, continue to work for material
changes that support women’s autonomy, including social justice,
economic equality, and reproductive choice. At the same time,
feminism must speak to sexuality as a site of oppression, not only
the oppression of male violence, brutality, and coercion which it
has already spoken about eloquently and effectively, but also the
repression of female desire that comes from ignorance, invisi­
bility, and fear. Feminism must put forward a politics that resists
deprivation and supports pleasure. It must understand pleasure

24 Carole S. Vance

as life-affirming, empowering, desirous of human connection and
the future, and not fear it as destructive, enfeebling, or corrupt.
Feminism must speak to sexual pleasure as a fundamental right,
which cannot be put off to a better or easier time. It must
understand that the women to whom it speaks, and those it hopes
to reach, care deeply about sexual pleasure and displeasure in
their daily lives; that sexuality is a site of struggle – visceral,
engaging, riveting – and not a domain of interest only to a
narrow, small, and privileged group.

Feminism should encourage women to resist not only coercion
and victimization, but also sexual ignorance, deprivation and fear
of difference. Feminism should support women’s experiments
and analyses, encouraging the acquisition of knowledge. We can
begin by examining our own experience, sharing it with each
other, knowing that in sexuality as in the rest of social life, our
adventures, risks, impulses, and terrors provide clues to the
future. Feminism must insist that women are sexual subjects,
sexual actors, sexual agents; that our histories are complex and
instructive; that our experience is not a blank, nor a mere
repetition of what has been said about us, and that the pleasure
we have experienced is as much a guide to future action as the

In doing so, we admit that it is not safe to be a woman, and it
never has been. Female attempts to claim pleasure are especially
dangerous, attacked not only by men, but by women as well. But
to wait until a zone of safety is established to begin to explore
and organize for pleasure is to cede it as an arena, to give it up,
and to admit that we are weaker and more frightened than our
enemies ever imagined.

Social movements, feminism included, move toward a vision;
they cannot operate solely on fear. It is not enough to move
women away from danger and oppression; it is necessary to
move toward something: toward pleasure, agency, self-definition.
Feminism must increase women’s pleasure and joy, not just
decrease our misery. It is difficult for political movements to
speak for any extended time to the ambiguities, ambivalences,
and complexities that undersccre human experience. Yet move­
ments remain vital and vigorous to the extent that they are able to
tap this wellspring of human experience. Without it, they become
dogmatic, dry, compulsive, and ineffective. To persist amid
frustrations and obstacles, feminism must reach deeply into
women’s pleasure and draw on this energy.

25 Pleasure and Danger


My thinking about sex has been very much influenced by
ongoing discussions with members of the Scholar and the
Feminist IX study group: Julie Abraham, Hannah Alderfer, Jan
Boney, Frances Doughty, Kate Ellis, Faye Ginsburg, Diane
Harriford, Beth Jaker, Barbara Kerr, Mary Clare Lennon,
Marybeth Nelson, Ann Snitow, Paula Webster, and Ellen Willis. I
know that the many refinements and insights proposed during
two years of discussion have become part of my own thinking,
but their density and number make specific acknowledgment a
daunting task. My admiration for members’ intelligence, ability,
and wit is exceeded only by gratitude for their intellectual
generosity and friendship.

I am indebted to Frances Doughty and Paula Webster who
read tender, early drafts with care, patience, and tact. Thanks to
Frances Doughty for unstinting encouragement, feisty counsel
against the demons, innumerable conversations from which I
learned much, and “suddenly possible shifts of meaning.”29
Thanks to Paula Webster for rich discussions spanning many
years, loyal and steady support, a haven in a hard time, and her
generosity and friendship.

I am also indebted to conversations with many other indi­
viduals. Though despairing of thanking all by name, I am
particularly grateful to Dorothy Allison, Pat Califia, Deborah Edel,
Amber Hollibaugh, Joan Nestle, Esther Newton, and Gayle Rubin.
Thanks also to members of my sex and history study group for
conversations, questions, and encouragement over the years:
John D’Emilio, Jonathan Katz, Ann Snitow, Paula Webster, and
Jeffrey Weinstein.

I am grateful to Julie Abraham, Meryl Altman, Jan Boney, Pat
Califia, Frances Doughty, Faye Ginsburg, Jonathan Katz, Barbara
Kerr, Ann Snitow, Paula Webster, and Jeffrey Weinstein for
reading and commenting on intermediate drafts of this essay,
though infelicities and errors remain mine.


1 Ellen Carol DuBois and Linda Gordon, “Seeking Ecstasy on the
Battlefield: Danger and Pleasure in Nineteenth-century Feminist
Sexual Thought”, in this volume.

2 Faye Ginsburg, “The Body Politic: The Defense of Sexual Restriction
by Anti-Abortion Activists”, in this volume.

3 Muriel Dimen, “Politically Correct, Politically Incorrect?”, in this

4 Lucy Gilbert and Paula Webster, Bound By Love, Boston, Beacon,

26 Carole S. Vance

5 Joan Nestle, “The Fern Question”, in this volume, p. 234.
6 Alice Echols, “The Taming of the Id: Feminist Sexual Politics, 1968-

1983″, in this volume.
7 Social construction texts include: Michel Foucault, A History of

Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley, New York,
Pantheon, 1978; Jeffrey Weeks, Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in
Britain, London, Quartet, 1977; Jonathan Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A
New Documentary, New York, Harper & Row, 1983, pp. 138-74.

8 Jonathan Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the
USA, New York, Crowell, 1976.

9 Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men, New York, Morrow,
198 1 ; Nancy Sahli, “Smashing: Women’s Relationships Before the
Fall”, Chrysalis, no. 8, 1979, pp. 1 7-27.

10 Jonathan Katz, “The Invention of Heterosexuality”, unpublished
manuscript, 1983.

1 1 See Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex”, in this volume, for a fuller
development of this argument.

12 For varied approaches to the question of representation, see: Meryl
Altman, “Everything They Always Wanted You to Know: The
Ideology of Popular Sex Literature”; Bette Gordon, “Variety : The
Pleasure in Looking”; Barbara Kruger, “No Progress in Pleasure”; and
Kaja Silverman, “Histoire d’O : The Construction of a Female Subject”,
all in this volume.

13 I am indebted to Frances Doughty for many conversations about
representation and the question of invisibility. See Francis Doughty,
“Lesbian Biography, Biography of Lesbians” in Margaret Cruikshank
(ed.), Lesbian Studies, Old Westbury, Feminist Press, 1982, pp. 1 22-7.

14 Hortense J. Spillers, “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words”, in this
volume, pp. 73- 100.

15 Mary Calderone, “Above and Beyond Politics: The Sexual Socializa­
tion of Children”; Kate Millett, “Beyond Politics? Children and
Sexuality”; and Sharon Thompson, “Search for Tomorrow: On
Feminism and the Reconstruction of Teen Romance”, all in this

16 See Joan Nestle, op. cit.; Esther Newton and Shirley Walton, “The
Misunderstanding: Toward a More Precise Sexual Vocabulary”, in
this volume.

17 Spillers, op. cit.
18 See, for example, Margaret Cruikshank (ed.), Lesbian Studies, op. cit.;

Lorraine Bethel and Barbara Smith (eds), Conditions Five: “The Black
Women’s Issue”, 1979; Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua (eds),
This Bridge Called My Back, Massachusetts, Persephone Press, 198 1 ;
Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith (eds), But Some of
Us Are Brave, New York, Feminist Press, 1982.

19 Self-consciousness about the limitations of one’s data and the specific
category of women to whom conclusions apply raise interesting
questions of style. How and when should such qualifications be
made? At the beginning of a report or article, after which one
resumes the word “women” in describing one’s subjects? Or should
the article doggedly and probably awkwardly continue to specify the
subjects, for example, “white, middle-class, heterosexual Bohemians

27 Pleasure and Danger

in the 1920s” or “urban, working-class Hispanic single mothers”?
Although the awkwardness in the second form is evident, use of the
first results in unintended illogical statements. Consider, for example,
an article noting that post-World War I feminist thinkers on sexuality
included both heterosexual and lesbian women. It then goes on, a
mere paragraph later, to characterize these women’s thought:

Even when it contradicted their own experience, they continued to accept a
male and heterosexual definition of the “sex act.” They were, so to speak,

upwardly mobile, and they wanted integration into the sexual world as defined
by men. The man’s orgasm remained the central event, although now it was
preferable if a woman had one at the same time. (Ellen Carol DuBois and

Linda Gordon, op. cit., p. 99.)

It seems unlikely, without further evidence, that lesbians of the time
defined sex in this way. Yet the problem is linguistic, as well as
conceptual and political: do we have the words or an available
apparatus that can simply and elegantly specify the subjects of study?

This essay in no way escaped a struggle with the use of words like
“women,” “feminists,” and even “we,” reminiscent of the issues
raised by Lorraine Bethel in her poem, “What Chou Mean We, White
Girl?” in Lorraine Bethel and Barbara Smith (eds), op. cit., pp. 86-92.

20 Frances Doughty, “Introduction: The Daily Life of Lesbian Sexuality”,
unpublished paper, National Women’s Studies Association,
Columbus, Ohio, June 1983; and Oliva M. Espin, “Cultural and
Historical Influences on Sexuality in Hispanic/Latin Women: Implica­
tions for Psychotherapy”; Roberta Galler, “The Myth of the Perfect
Body”; Carol Munter, “Fat and the Fantasy of Perfection”, in this

2 1 For example, the Buffalo Lesbian Oral History Project (Liz Kenneday
and Madeline Davis) and the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Men’s
History Project.

22 Frances Doughty, “Introduction”, op. cit.
23 Pat Califia, “Doing It Together: Gay Men, Lesbians, and Sex”,

Advocate, July 7, 1983, pp. 24-7.
24 Rubin, op. cit.
25 Paula Webster, “The Forbidden: Eroticism and Taboo”, in this

26 Joan Nestle, op. cit.
27 See Alice Echols, op. cit., for a fuller discussion.
28 Dimen, op. cit.
29 Olga Broumas, “Artemis”, in Beginning with 0, New Haven, Yale

University Press, 1977, p. 24.

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Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the
Politics of Sexuality

Gayle S. Rubin

The Sex Wars

‘Asked his advice, Dr. J. Guerin affirmed that, after all other treatments had failed, he had
succeeded in curing young girls affected by the vice of onanism by burning the clitoris with
a hot iron . . . I apply the hot point three times to each of the large labia and another on the
clitoris . . . After the first operation, from forty to fifty times a day, the number of voluptuous
spasms was reduced to three or four . . . We believe, then, that in cases similar to those
submitted to your consideration, one should not hesitate to resort to the hot iron, and at an
early hour, in order to combat clitoral and vaginal onanism in the little girls.’

(Zambaco, 1981, pp. 31, 36)

The time has come to think about sex. To some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic, a
frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, disease, racism, famine, or
nuclear annihilation. But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of
unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality.
Contemporary conflicts over sexual values and erotic conduct have much in common with the
religious disputes of earlier centuries. They acquire immense symbolic weight. Disputes over sexual
behaviour often become the vehicles for displacing social anxieties, and discharging their attendant
emotional intensity. Consequently, sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great
social stress.

The realm of sexuality also has its own internal politics, inequities, and modes of oppression. As
with other aspects of human behaviour, the concrete institutional forms of sexuality at any given
time and place are products of human activity. They are imbued with conflicts of interest and
political maneuver, both deliberate and incidental. In that sense, sex is always political. But there are
also historical periods in which sexuality is more sharply contested and more overtly politicized. In
such periods, the domain of erotic life is, in effect, renegotiated.

In England and the United States, the late nineteenth century was one such era. During that
time, powerful social movements focused on ‘vices’ of all sorts. There were educational and political
campaigns to encourage chastity, to eliminate prostitution, and to discourage masturbation, especially
among the young. Morality crusaders attacked obscene literature, nude paintings, music halls,
abortion, birth control information, and public dancing (see Gordon and Dubois, 1983; Marcus,
1974; Ryan, 1979; Walkowitz, 1980, 1982; Weeks, 1981). The consolidation of Victorian morality,



and its apparatus of social, medical, and legal enforcement, was the outcome of a long period of
struggle whose results have been bitterly contested ever since.

The consequences of these great nineteenth-century moral paroxysms are still with us. They have
left a deep imprint on attitudes about sex, medical practice, child-rearing, parental anxieties, police
conduct, and sex law.

The idea that masturbation is an unhealthy practice is part of that heritage. During the nineteenth
century, it was commonly thought that ‘premature’ interest in sex, sexual excitement, and, above all,
sexual release, would impair the health and maturation of a child. Theorists differed on the actual
consequences of sexual precocity. Some thought it led to insanity, while others merely predicted
stunted growth. To protect the young from premature arousal, parents tied children down at night so
they would not touch themselves; doctors excised the clitorises of onanistic little girls (see
BarkerBenfield, 1976; Marcus, 1974; Weeks, 1981; Zambaco, 1981). Although the more gruesome
techniques have been abandoned, the attitudes that produced them persist. The notion that sex per se
is harmful to the young has been chiselled into extensive social and legal structures designed to
insulate minors from sexual knowledge and experience.

Much of the sex law currently on the books also dates from the nineteenth-century morality
crusades. The first federal anti-obscenity law in the United States was passed in 1873. The Comstock
Act named for Anthony Comstock, an ancestral anti-porn activist and the founder of the New York
Society for the Suppression of Vice – made it a federal crime to make, advertise, sell, possess, send
through the mails, or import books or pictures deemed obscene. The law also banned contraceptive
or abortifacient drugs and devices and information about them (Beserra, Franklin, and Clevenger,
1977). In the wake of the federal statute, most states passed their own anti-obscenity laws.

The Supreme Court began to whittle down both federal and state Comstock laws during the 1950s.
By 1975, the prohibition of materials used for, and information about, contraception and abortion had
been ruled unconstitutional. However, although the obscenity provisions have been modified, their
fundamental constitutionality has been upheld. Thus it remains a crime to make, sell, mail, or import
material which has no purpose other than sexual arousal (Beserra, Franklin and Clevenger, 1977).

Although sodomy statutes date from older strata of the law, when elements of canon law were adopted
into civil codes, most of the laws used to arrest homosexuals and prostitutes come out of the Victorian
campaigns against ‘white slavery’. These campaigns produced the myriad prohibitions against solicitation,
lewd behaviour, loitering for immoral purposes, age offenses, and brothels and bawdy houses.

In her discussion of the British ‘white slave’ scare, historian Judith Walkowitz observes that:
‘Recent research delineates the vast discrepancy between lurid journalistic accounts and the reality
of prostitution. Evidence of widespread entrapment of British girls in London and abroad is slim’
(Walkowitz, 1980, p. 83).1 However, public furor over this ostensible problem

forced the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, a particularly nasty and
pernicious piece of omnibus legislation. The 1885 Act raised the age of consent for girls
from 13 to 16, but it also gave police far greater summary jurisdiction over poor working-
class women and children . . . it contained a clause making indecent acts between
consenting male adults a crime, thus forming the basis of legal prosecution of male
homosexuals in Britain until 1967 . . . the clauses of the new bill were mainly enforced
against working-class women, and regulated adult rather than youthful sexual behaviour.
(Walkowitz, 1982, p. 85)

In the United States, the Mann Act, also known as the White Slave Traffic Act, was passed in 1910.

Subsequently, every state in the union passed anti-prostitution legislation (Beserra, Franklin and
Clevenger, 1977).



In the 1950s, in the United States, major shifts in the organization of sexuality took place. Instead
of focusing on prostitution or masturbation, the anxieties of the 1950s condensed most specifically
around the image of the ‘homosexual menace’ and the dubious spectre of the ‘sex offender’. Just
before and after World War II, the ‘sex offender’ became an object of public fear and scrutiny. Many
states and cities, including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York State, New York
City, and Michigan, launched investigations to gather information about this menace to public safety
(Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1947; State of New Hampshire, 1949; City of New York, 1939;
State of New York, 1950; Hartwell, 1950; State of Michigan, 1951). The term ‘sex offender’ sometimes
applied to rapists, sometimes to ‘child molesters’, and eventually functioned as a code for homosexuals.
In its bureaucratic, medical, and popular versions, the sex offender discourse tended to blur distinctions
between violent sexual assault and illegal but consensual acts such as sodomy. The criminal justice
system incorporated these concepts when an epidemic of sexual psychopath laws swept through
state legislatures (Freedman, 1983). These laws gave the psychological professions increased police
powers over homosexuals and other sexual ‘deviants’.

From the late 1940s until the early 1960s, erotic communities whose activities did not fit the
postwar American dream drew intense persecution. Homosexuals were, along with communists, the
objects of federal witch hunts and purges. Congressional investigations, executive orders, and
sensational exposes in the media aimed to root out homosexuals employed by the government.
Thousands lost their jobs, and restrictions on federal employment of homosexuals persist to this day
(Bérubé, 1981a, 1981b; D’Emilio, 1983; Katz, 1976). The FBI began systematic surveillance and
harassment of homosexuals which lasted at least into the 1970s (D’Emilio, 1983; Bérubé, personal

Many states and large cities conducted their own investigations, and the federal witch hunts were
reflected in a variety of local crackdowns. In Boise, Idaho, in 1955, a schoolteacher sat down to
breakfast with his morning paper and read that the vice-president of the Idaho First National Bank
had been arrested on felony sodomy charges; the local prosecutor said that he intended to eliminate
all homosexuality from the community. The teacher never finished his breakfast. ‘He jumped up
from his seat, pulled out his suitcases, packed as fast as he could, got into his car, and drove straight
to San Francisco. . . The cold eggs, coffee, and toast remained on his table for two days before
someone from his school came by to see what had happened’ (Gerassi, 1968, p. 14).2

In San Francisco, police and media waged war on homosexuals throughout the 1950s. Police
raided bars, patrolled cruising areas, conducted street sweeps, and trumpeted their intention of
driving the queers out of San Francisco (Bérubé, personal communication; D’Emilio, 1981, 1983).
Crackdowns against gay individuals, bars, and social areas occurred throughout the country. Although
anti-homosexual crusades are the best-documented examples of erotic repression in the 1950s,
future research should reveal similar patterns of increased harassment against pornographic materials,
prostitutes, and erotic deviants of all sorts. Research is needed to determine the full scope of both
police persecution and regulatory reform.3

The current period bears some uncomfortable similarities to the 1880s and the 1950s. The 1977
campaign to repeal the Dade County, Florida, gay rights ordinance inaugurated a new wave of
violence, state persecution, and legal initiatives directed against minority sexual populations and the
commercial sex industry. For the last six years, the United States and Canada have undergone an
extensive sexual repression in the political, not the psychological, sense. In the spring of 1977, a few
weeks before the Dade County vote, the news media were suddenly full of reports of raids on gay
cruising areas, arrests for prostitution, and investigations into the manufacture and distribution of
pornographic materials. Since then, police activity against the gay community has increased
exponentially. The gay press has documented hundreds of arrests, from the libraries of Boston to the
streets of Houston and the beaches of San Francisco. Even the large, organized, and relatively



powerful urban gay communities have been unable to stop these depredations. Gay bars and bath
houses have been busted with alarming frequency, and police have gotten bolder. In one especially
dramatic incident, police in Toronto raided all four of the city’s gay baths. They broke into cubicles
with crowbars and hauled almost 300 men out into the winter streets, clad in their bath towels. Even
‘liberated’ San Francisco has not been immune. There have been proceedings against several bars,
countless arrests in the parks, and, in the fall of 1981, police arrested over 400 people in a series of
sweeps of Polk Street, one of the thoroughfares of local gay nightlife. Queerbashing has become a
significant recreational activity for young urban males. They come into gay neighbourhoods armed
with baseball bats and looking for trouble, knowing that the adults in their lives either secretly
approve or will look the other way.

The police crackdown has not been limited to homosexuals. Since 1977, enforcement of existing
laws against prostitution and obscenity has been stepped up. Moreover, states and municipalities
have been passing new and tighter regulations on commercial sex. Restrictive ordinances have been
passed, zoning laws altered, licensing and safety codes amended, sentences increased, and evidentiary
requirements relaxed. This subtle legal codification of more stringent controls over adult sexual
behaviour has gone largely unnoticed outside of the gay press.

For over a century, no tactic for stirring up erotic hysteria has been as reliable as the appeal to
protect children. The current wave of erotic terror has reached deepest into those areas bordered in
some way, if only symbolically, by the sexuality of the young. The motto of the Dade County repeal
campaign was ‘Save Our Children’ from alleged homosexual recruitment. In February 1977, shortly
before the Dade County vote, a sudden concern with ‘child pornography’ swept the national media.
In May, the Chicago Tribune ran a lurid four-day series with three-inch headlines, which claimed to
expose a national vice ring organized to lure young boys into prostitution and pornography.4

Newspapers across the country ran similar stories, most of them worthy of the National Enquirer. By
the end of May, a congressional investigation was underway. Within weeks, the federal government
had enacted a sweeping bill against ‘child pornography’ and many of the states followed with bills
of their own. These laws have reestablished restrictions on sexual materials that had been relaxed by
some of the important Supreme Court decisions. For instance, the Court ruled that neither nudity nor
sexual activity per se were obscene. But the child pornography laws define as obscene any depiction
of minors who are nude or engaged in sexual activity. This means that photographs of naked
children in anthropology textbooks and many of the ethnographic movies shown in college classes
are technically illegal in several states. In fact, the instructors are liable to an additional felony charge
for showing such images to each student under the age of 18. Although the Supreme Court has also
ruled that it is a constitutional right to possess obscene material for private use, some child pornography
laws prohibit even the private possession of any sexual material involving minors.

The laws produced by the child porn panic are ill-conceived and misdirected. They represent far-
reaching alterations in the regulation of sexual behaviour and abrogate important sexual civil liberties.
But hardly anyone noticed as they swept through Congress and state legislatures. With the exception
of the North American Man/Boy Love Association and American Civil Liberties Union, no one raised
a peep of protest.5

A new and even tougher federal child pornography bill has just reached House-Senate conference.
It removes any requirement that prosecutors must prove that alleged child pornography was distributed
for commercial sale. Once this bill becomes law, a person merely possessing a nude snapshot of a
17-year-old lover or friend may go to jail for fifteen years, and be fined $100,000. This bill passed the
House 400 to 1.6

The experiences of art photographer Jacqueline Livingston exemplify the climate created by the
child porn panic. An assistant professor of photography at Cornell University, Livingston was fired in
1978 after exhibiting pictures of male nudes which included photographs of her seven-year-old son



masturbating. Ms. Magazine, Chrysalis, and Art News all refused to run ads for Livingston’s posters
of male nudes. At one point, Kodak confiscated some of her film, and for several months, Livingston
lived with the threat of prosecution under the child pornography laws. The Tompkins Country
Department of Social Services investigated her fitness as a parent. Livingston’s posters have been
collected by the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan, and other major museums. But she has
paid a high cost in harassment and anxiety for her efforts to capture on film the uncensored male
body at different ages (Stambolian, 1980, 1983).

It is easy to see someone like Livingston as a victim of the child porn wars. It is harder for most
people to sympathize with actual boy-lovers. Like communists and homosexuals in the 1950s, boylovers
are so stigmatized that it is difficult to find defenders for their civil liberties, let alone for their erotic
orientation. Consequently, the police have feasted on them. Local police, the FBI, and watchdog
postal inspectors have joined to build a huge apparatus whose sole aim is to wipe out the community
of men who love underaged youth. In twenty years or so, when some of the smoke has cleared, it
will be much easier to show that these men have been the victims of a savage and undeserved witch
hunt. A lot of people will be embarrassed by their collaboration with this persecution, but it will be
too late to do much good for those men who have spent their lives in prison.

While the misery of boy-lovers affects very few, the other long-term legacy of the Dade County
repeal affects almost everyone. The success of the anti-gay campaign ignited long-simmering passions
of the American right, and sparked an extensive movement to compress the boundaries of acceptable
sexual behaviour.

Right-wing ideology linking non-familial sex with communism and political weakness is nothing
new. During the McCarthy period, Alfred Kinsey and his Institute for Sex Research were attacked for
weakening the moral fibre of Americans and rendering them more vulnerable to communist influence.
After congressional investigations and bad publicity, Kinsey’s Rockefeller grant was terminated in
1954 (Gebhard, 1976).

Around 1969, the extreme right discovered the Sex Information and Education Council of the
United States (SIECUS). In books and pamphlets, such as The Sex Education Racket: Pornography in
the Schools and SIECUS: Corrupter of Youth, the right attacked SIECUS and sex education as communist
plots to destroy the family and sap the national will (Courtney, 1969; Drake, 1969). Another pamphlet,
Pavlov’s Children (They May Be Yours) (n.a., 1969), claims that the United Nations Educational,
Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is in cahoots with SIECUS to undermine religious
taboos, to promote the acceptance of abnormal sexual relations, to downgrade absolute moral
standards, and to ‘destroy racial cohesion’, by exposing white people (especially white women) to
the alleged ‘lower’ sexual standards of black people.

New Right and neo-conservative ideology has updated these themes, and leans heavily on linking
‘immoral’ sexual behaviour to putative declines in American power. In 1977, Norman Podhoretz
wrote an essay blaming homosexuals for the alleged inability of the United States to stand up to the
Russians (Podhoretz, 1977). He thus neatly linked ‘the anti-gay fight in the domestic arena and the
anti-Communist battles in foreign policy’ (Wolfe and Sanders, 1979).

Right-wing opposition to sex education, homosexuality, pornography, abortion, and pre-marital sex
moved from the extreme fringes to the political centre stage after 1977, when right-wing strategists and
fundamentalist religious crusaders discovered that these issues had mass appeal. Sexual reaction played
a significant role in the right’s electoral success in 1980 (Breslin, 1981; Gordon and Hunter, 1977–8;
Gregory-Lewis, 1977a, 1977b, 1977c; Kopkind, 1977; Petchesky, 1981). Organizations like the Moral
Majority and Citizens for Decency have acquired mass followings, immense financial resources, and
unanticipated clout. The Equal Rights Amendment has been defeated, legislation has been passed that
mandates new restrictions on abortion, and funding for programs like Planned Parenthood and sex
education has been slashed. Laws and regulations making it more difficult for teenage girls to obtain



contraceptives or abortions have been promulgated. Sexual backlash was exploited in successful
attacks on the Women’s Studies Program at California State University at Long Beach.

The most ambitious right-wing legislative initiative has been the Family Protection Act (FPA),
introduced in Congress in 1979. The Family Protection Act is a broad assault on feminism, homosexuals,
non-traditional families, and teenage sexual privacy (Brown, 1981). The Family Protection Act has
not and probably will not pass, but conservative members of Congress continue to pursue its agenda
in a more piecemeal fashion. Perhaps the most glaring sign of the times is the Adolescent Family Life
Program. Also known as the Teen Chastity Program, it gets some 15 million federal dollars to
encourage teenagers to refrain from sexual intercourse, and to discourage them from using
contraceptives if they do have sex, and from having abortions if they get pregnant. In the last few
years, there have been countless local confrontations over gay rights, sex education, abortion rights,
adult bookstores, and public school curricula. It is unlikely that the anti-sex backlash is over, or that
it has even peaked. Unless something changes dramatically, it is likely that the next few years will
bring more of the same.

Periods such as the 1880s in England, and the 1950s in the United States, recodify the relations of
sexuality. The struggles that were fought leave a residue in the form of laws, social practices, and
ideologies which then affect the way in which sexuality is experienced long after the immediate
conflicts have faded. All the signs indicate that the present era is another of those watersheds in the
politics of sex. The settlements that emerge from the 1980s will have an impact far into the future. It
is therefore imperative to understand what is going on and what is at stake in order to make
informed decisions about what policies to support and oppose.

It is difficult to make such decisions in the absence of a coherent and intelligent body of radical
thought about sex. Unfortunately, progressive political analysis of sexuality is relatively
underdeveloped. Much of what is available from the feminist movement has simply added to the
mystification that shrouds the subject. There is an urgent need to develop radical perspectives on

Paradoxically, an explosion of exciting scholarship and political writing about sex has been
generated in these bleak years. In the 1950s, the early gay rights movement began and prospered
while the bars were being raided and anti-gay laws were being passed. In the last six years, new
erotic communities, political alliances, and analyses have been developed in the midst of the repression.
In this essay, I will propose elements of a descriptive and conceptual framework for thinking about
sex and its politics. I hope to contribute to the pressing task of creating an accurate, humane, and
genuinely liberatory body of thought about sexuality.

Sexual Thoughts

‘You see, Tim’, Phillip said suddenly, ‘your argument isn’t reasonable. Suppose I granted
your first point that homosexuality is justifiable in certain instances and under certain
controls. Then there is the catch: where does justification end and degeneracy begin?
Society must condemn to protect. Permit even the intellectual homosexual a place of
respect and the first bar is down. Then comes the next and the next until the sadist, the
flagellist, the criminally insane demand their places, and society ceases to exist. So I ask
again: where is the line drawn? Where does degeneracy begin if not at the beginning of
individual freedom in such matters?’

[Fragment from a discussion between two gay men trying to
decide if they may love each other (Barr, 1950, p. 310)]



A radical theory of sex must identify, describe, explain, and denounce erotic injustice and sexual
oppression. Such a theory needs refined conceptual tools which can grasp the subject and hold it in
view. It must build rich descriptions of sexuality as it exists in society and history. It requires a
convincing critical language that can convey the barbarity of sexual persecution.

Several persistent features of thought about sex inhibit the development of such a theory. These
assumptions are so pervasive in Western culture that they are rarely questioned. Thus, they tend to
reappear in different political contexts, acquiring new rhetorical expressions but reproducing
fundamental axioms.

One such axiom is sexual essentialism – the idea that sex is a natural force that exists prior to
social life and shapes institutions. Sexual essentialism is embedded in the folk wisdoms of Western
societies, which consider sex to be eternally unchanging, asocial, and transhistorical. Dominated for
over a century by medicine, psychiatry, and psychology, the academic study of sex has reproduced
essentialism. These fields classify sex as a property of individuals. It may reside in their hormones or
their psyches. It may be construed as physiological or psychological. But within these ethnoscientific
categories, sexuality has no history and no significant social determinants.

During the last five years, a sophisticated historical and theoretical scholarship has challenged
sexual essentialism both explicitly and implicitly. Gay history, particularly the work of Jeffrey Weeks,
has led this assault by showing that homosexuality as we know it is a relatively modern institutional
complex.7 Many historians have come to see the contemporary institutional forms of heterosexuality
as an even more recent development (Hansen, 1979). An important contributor to the new scholarship
is Judith Walkowitz, whose research has demonstrated the extent to which prostitution was transformed
around the turn of the century. She provides meticulous descriptions of how the interplay of social
forces such as ideology, fear, political agitation, legal reform, and medical practice can change the
structure of sexual behaviour and alter its consequences (Walkowitz, 1980, 1982).

Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality (1978) has been the most influential and emblematic
text of the new scholarship on sex. Foucault criticizes the traditional understanding of sexuality as a
natural libido yearning to break free of social constraint. He argues that desires are not pre-existing
biological entities, but rather that they are constituted in the course of historically specific social
practices. He emphasizes the generative aspects of the social organization of sex rather than its
repressive elements by pointing out that new sexualities are constantly produced. And he points to
a major discontinuity between kinship-based systems of sexuality and more modern forms.

The new scholarship on sexual behaviour has given sex a history and created a constructivist
alternative to sexual essentialism. Underlying this body of work is an assumption that sexuality is
constituted in society and history, not biologically ordained.8 This does not mean the biological capacities
are not prerequisites for human sexuality. It does mean that human sexuality is not comprehensible in
purely biological terms. Human organisms with human brains are necessary for human cultures, but
no examination of the body or its parts can explain the nature and variety of human social systems.
The belly’s hunger gives no clues as to the complexities of cuisine. The body, the brain, the genitalia,
and the capacity for language are necessary for human sexuality. But they do not determine its
content, its experiences, or its institutional forms. Moreover, we never encounter the body unmediated
by the meanings that cultures give to it. To paraphrase Lévi-Strauss, my position on the relationship
between biology and sexuality is a ‘Kantianism without a transcendental libido’.9

It is impossible to think with any clarity about the politics of race or gender as long as these are
thought of as biological entities rather than as social constructs. Similarly, sexuality is impervious to
political analysis as long as it is primarily conceived as a biological phenomenon or an aspect of individual
psychology. Sexuality is as much a human product as are diets, methods of transportation, systems of
etiquette, forms of labour, types of entertainment, processes of production, and modes of oppression.
Once sex is understood in terms of social analysis and historical understanding, a more realistic politics



of sex becomes possible. One may then think of sexual politics in terms of such phenomena as populations,
neighbourhoods, settlement patterns, migration, urban conflict, epidemiology, and police technology.
These are more fruitful categories of thought than the more traditional ones of sin, disease, neurosis,
pathology, decadence, pollution, or the decline and fall of empires.

By detailing the relationships between stigmatized erotic populations and the social forces
which regulate them, work such as that of Allan Bérubé, John D’Emilio, Jeffrey Weeks, and Judith
Walkowitz contains implicit categories of political analysis and criticism. Nevertheless, the
constructivist perspective has displayed some political weaknesses. This has been most evident in
misconstructions of Foucault’s position.

Because of his emphasis on the ways that sexuality is produced, Foucault has been vulnerable to
interpretations that deny or minimize the reality of sexual repression in the more political sense.
Foucault makes it abundantly clear that he is not denying the existence of sexual repression so much
as inscribing it within a large dynamic (Foucault, 1978, p. 11). Sexuality in western societies has
been structured within an extremely punitive social framework, and has been subjected to very real
formal and informal controls. It is necessary to recognize repressive phenomena without resorting to
the essentialist assumptions of the language of libido. It is important to hold repressive sexual
practices in focus, even while situating them within a different totality and a more refined terminology
(Weeks, 1981, p. 9).

Most radical thought about sex has been embedded within a model of the instincts and their
restraints. Concepts of sexual oppression have been lodged within that more biological understanding
of sexuality. It is often easier to fall back on the notion of a natural libido subjected to inhumane
repression than to reformulate concepts of sexual injustice within a more constructivist framework.
But it is essential that we do so. We need a radical critique of sexual arrangements that has the
conceptual elegance of Foucault and the evocative passion of Reich.

The new scholarship on sex has brought a welcome insistence that sexual terms be restricted to
their proper historical and social contexts, and a cautionary scepticism towards sweeping
generalizations. But it is important to be able to indicate groupings of erotic behaviour and general
trends within erotic discourse. In addition to sexual essentialism, there are at least five other ideological
formations whose grip on sexual thought is so strong that to fail to discuss them is to remain
enmeshed within them. These are sex negativity, the fallacy of misplaced scale, the hierarchical
valuation of sex acts, the domino theory of sexual peril, and the lack of a concept of benign sexual

Of these five, the most important is sex negativity. Western cultures generally consider sex
to be a dangerous, destructive, negative force (Weeks, 1981, p. 22). Most Christian tradition,
following Paul, holds that sex is inherently sinful. It may be redeemed if performed within
marriage for procreative purposes and if the pleasurable aspects are not enjoyed too much. In
turn, this idea rests on the assumption that the genitalia are an intrinsically inferior part of the
body, much lower and less holy than the mind, the ‘soul’, the ‘heart’, or even the upper part
of the digestive system (the status of the excretory organs is close to that of the genitalia).10

Such notions have by now acquired a life of their own and no longer depend solely on
religion for their perseverance.

This culture always treats sex with suspicion. It construes and judges almost any sexual practice
in terms of its worst possible expression. Sex is presumed guilty until proven innocent. Virtually all
erotic behaviour is considered bad unless a specific reason to exempt it has been established. The
most acceptable excuses are marriage, reproduction, and love. Sometimes scientific curiosity, aesthetic
experience, or a long-term intimate relationship may serve. But the exercise of erotic capacity,
intelligence, curiosity, or creativity all require pretexts that are unnecessary for other pleasures, such
as the enjoyment of food, fiction, or astronomy.



What I call the fallacy of misplaced scale is a corollary of sex negativity. Susan Sontag once
commented that since Christianity focused ‘on sexual behaviour as the root of virtue, everything
pertaining to sex has been a “special case” in our culture’ (Sontag, 1969, p. 46). Sex law has
incorporated the religious attitude that heretical sex is an especially heinous sin that deserves the
harshest punishments. Throughout much of European and American history, a single act of consensual
anal penetration was grounds for execution. In some states, sodomy still carries twenty-year prison
sentences. Outside the law, sex is also a marked category. Small differences in value or behaviour
are often experienced as cosmic threats. Although people can be intolerant, silly, or pushy about
what constitutes proper diet, differences in menu rarely provoke the kinds of rage, anxiety, and
sheer terror that routinely accompany differences in erotic taste. Sexual acts are burdened with an
excess of significance.

Modern Western societies appraise sex acts according to a hierarchical system of sexual value.
Marital, reproductive heterosexuals are alone at the top erotic pyramid. Clamouring below are
unmarried monogamous heterosexuals in couples, followed by most other heterosexuals. Solitary
sex floats ambiguously. The powerful nineteenth-century stigma on masturbation lingers in less
potent, modified forms, such as the idea that masturbation is an inferior substitute for partnered
encounters. Stable, long-term lesbian and gay male couples are verging on respectability, but bar
dykes and promiscuous gay men are hovering just above the groups at the very bottom of the
pyramid. The most despised sexual castes currently include transsexuals, transvestites, fetishists,
sadomasochists, sex workers such as prostitutes and porn models, and the lowliest of all, those
whose eroticism transgresses generational boundaries.

Individuals whose behaviour stands high in this hierarchy are rewarded with certified mental
health, respectability, legality, social and physical mobility, institutional support, and material benefits.
As sexual behaviours or occupations fall lower on the scale, the individuals who practice them are
subjected to a presumption of mental illness, disreputability, criminality, restricted social and physical
mobility, loss of institutional support, and economic sanctions.

Extreme and punitive stigma maintains some sexual behaviours as low status and is an effective
sanction against those who engage in them. The intensity of this stigma is rooted in Western religious
traditions. But most of its contemporary content derives from medical and psychiatric opprobrium.

The old religious taboos were primarily based on kinship forms of social organization. They were
meant to deter inappropriate unions and to provide proper kin. Sex laws derived from Biblical
pronouncements were aimed at preventing the acquisition of the wrong kinds of affinal partners:
consanguineous kin (incest), the same gender (homosexuality), or the wrong species (bestiality).
When medicine and psychiatry acquired extensive powers over sexuality, they were less concerned
with unsuitable mates than with unfit forms of desire. If taboos against incest best characterized
kinship systems of sexual organization, then the shift to an emphasis on taboos against masturbation
was more apposite to the newer systems organized around qualities of erotic experience (Foucault,
1978, pp. 106–7).

Medicine and psychiatry multiplied the categories of sexual misconduct. The section on
psychosexual disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental and Physical Disorders
(DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) is a fairly reliable map of the current moral
hierarchy of sexual activities. The APA list is much more elaborate than the traditional
condemnations of whoring, sodomy, and adultery. The most recent edition, DSM-III, removed
homosexuality from the roster of mental disorders after a long political struggle. But fetishism,
sadism, masochism, transsexuality, transvestism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, and paedophilia are
quite firmly entrenched as psychological malfunctions (American Psychiatric Association, 1980).
Books are still being written about the genesis, etiology, treatment, and cure of these assorted



Psychiatric condemnation of sexual behaviours invokes concepts of mental and emotional inferiority
rather than categories of sexual sin. Low-status sex practices are vilified as mental diseases or
symptoms of defective personality integration. In addition, psychological terms conflate difficulties
of psycho-dynamic functioning with modes of erotic conduct. They equate sexual masochism with
self-destructive personality patterns, sexual sadism with emotional aggression, and homoeroticism
with immaturity. These terminological muddles have become powerful stereotypes that are
indiscriminately applied to individuals on the basis of their sexual orientations.

Popular culture is permeated with ideas that erotic variety is dangerous, unhealthy, depraved,
and a menace to everything from small children to national security. Popular sexual ideology is a
noxious stew made up of ideas of sexual sin, concepts of psychological inferiority, anti-communism,
mob hysteria, accusations of witchcraft, and xenophobia. The mass media nourish these attitudes
with relentless propaganda. I would call this system of erotic stigma the last socially respectable
form of prejudice if the old forms did not show such obstinate vitality, and new ones did not
continually become apparent.

All these hierarchies of sexual value – religious, psychiatric, and popular – function in much the
same ways as do ideological systems of racism, ethnocentrism, and religious chauvinism. They
rationalize the well-being of the sexually privileged and the adversity of the sexual rabble.

Figure 9.1 diagrams a general version of the sexual value system. According to this system,
sexuality that is ‘good’, ‘normal’, and ‘natural’ should ideally be heterosexual, marital, monogamous,
reproductive, and non-commercial. It should be coupled, relational, within the same generation,
and occur at home. It should not involve pornography, fetish objects, sex toys of any sort, or roles
other than male and female. Any sex that violates these rules is ‘bad’, ‘abnormal’, or ‘unnatural’. Bad
sex may be homosexual, unmarried, promiscuous, non-procreative, or commercial. It may be
masturbatory or take place at orgies, may be casual, may cross generational lines, and may take
place in ‘public’, or at least in the bushes or the baths. It may involve the use of pornography, fetish
objects, sex toys, or unusual roles (see Figure 9.1).

Figure 9.2 diagrams another aspect of the sexual hierarchy: the need to draw and maintain an
imaginary line between good and bad sex. Most of the discourses on sex, be they religious, psychiatric,
popular, or political, delimit a very small portion of human sexual capacity as sanctifiable, safe,
healthy, mature, legal, or politically correct. The ‘line’ distinguishes these from all other erotic
behaviours, which are understood to be the work of the devil, dangerous, psychopathological,
infantile, or politically reprehensible. Arguments are then conducted over ‘where to draw the line’,
and to determine what other activities, if any, may be permitted to cross over into acceptability.

All these models assume a domino theory of sexual peril. The line appears to stand between
sexual order and chaos. It expresses the fear that if anything is permitted to cross this erotic DMZ,
the barrier against scary sex will crumble and something unspeakable will skitter across.

Most systems of sexual judgment – religious, psychological, feminist, or socialist – attempt to
determine on which side of the line a particular act falls. Only sex acts on the good side of the line
are accorded moral complexity. For instance, heterosexual encounters may be sublime or disgusting,
free or forced, healing or destructive, romantic or mercenary. As long as it does not violate other
rules, heterosexuality is acknowledged to exhibit the full range of human experience. In contrast, all
sex acts on the bad side of the line are considered utterly repulsive and devoid of all emotional
nuance. The further from the line a sex act is, the more it is depicted as a uniformly bad experience.

As a result of the sex conflicts of the last decade, some behaviour near the border is inching across
it. Unmarried couples living together, masturbation, and some forms of homosexuality are moving in
the direction of respectability (see Figure 9.2). Most homosexuality is still on the bad side of the line.
But if it is coupled and monogamous, the society is beginning to recognize that it includes the full
range of human interaction. Promiscuous homosexuality, sadomasochism, fetishism, transsexuality,



and cross-generational encounters are still viewed as unmodulated horrors incapable of involving
affection, love, free choice, kindness, or transcendence.

This kind of sexual morality has more in common with ideologies of racism than with true ethics.
It grants virtue to the dominant groups, and relegates vice to the underprivileged. A democratic
morality should judge sexual acts by the way partners treat one another, the level of mutual
consideration, the presence or absence of coercion, and quantity and quality of the pleasures they
provide. Whether sex acts are gay or straight, coupled or in groups, naked or in underwear, commercial
or free, with or without video, should not be ethical concerns.

It is difficult to develop a pluralistic sexual ethics without a concept of benign sexual variation.
Variation is a fundamental property of all life, from the simplest biological organisms to the most
complex human social formations. Yet sexuality is supposed to conform to a single standard. One of

Figure 9.1: The sex hierarchy: the charmed circle vs. the outer limits



the most tenacious ideas about sex is that there is one best way to do it, and that everyone should
do it that way.

Most people find it difficult to grasp that whatever they like to do sexually will be thoroughly
repulsive to someone else, and that whatever repels them sexually will be the most treasured delight
of someone, somewhere. One need not like or perform a particular sex act in order to recognize that
someone else will, and that this difference does not indicate a lack of good taste, mental health, or
intelligence in either party. Most people mistake their sexual preferences for a universal system that
will or should work for everyone.

This notion of a single ideal sexuality characterizes most systems of thought about sex. For
religion, the ideal is procreative marriage. For psychology, it is mature heterosexuality. Although its
content varies, the format of a single sexual standard is continually reconstituted within other rhetorical
frameworks, including feminism and socialism. It is just as objectionable to insist that everyone
should be lesbian, non-monogamous, or kinky, as to believe that everyone should be heterosexual,
married, or vanilla – though the latter set of opinions are backed by considerably more coercive
power than the former.

Progressives who would be ashamed to display cultural chauvinism in other areas routinely
exhibit it towards sexual differences. We have learned to cherish different cultures as unique
expressions of human inventiveness rather than as the inferior or disgusting habits of savages. We
need a similarly anthropological understanding of different sexual cultures.

Empirical sex research is the one field that does incorporate a positive concept of sexual variation.
Alfred Kinsey approached the study of sex with the same uninhibited curiosity he had previously
applied to examining a species of wasp. His scientific detachment gave his work a refreshing neutrality
that enraged moralists and caused immense controversy (Kinsey et al., 1948, 1953). Among Kinsey’s
successors, John Gagnon and William Simon have pioneered the application of sociological
understandings to erotic variety (Gagnon and Simon, 1967, 1970; Gagnon, 1977). Even some of the
older sexology is useful. Although his work is imbued with unappetizing eugenic beliefs, Havelock
Ellis was an acute and sympathetic observer. His monumental Studies in the Psychology of Sex is
resplendent with detail (Ellis, 1936).

Much political writing on sexuality reveals complete ignorance of both classical sexology and
modern sex research. Perhaps this is because so few colleges and universities bother to teach
human sexuality, and because so much stigma adheres even to scholarly investigation of sex. Neither

Figure 9.2: The sex hierarchy: the struggle over where to draw the line



sexology nor sex research has been immune to the prevailing sexual value system. Both contain
assumptions and information which should not be accepted uncritically. But sexology and sex
research provide abundant detail, a welcome posture of calm, and a well-developed ability to treat
sexual variety as something that exists rather than as something to be exterminated. These fields can
provide an empirical grounding for a radical theory of sexuality more useful than the combination of
psychoanalysis and feminist first principles to which so many texts resort.

Sexual Transformation

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden
acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The
nineteenthcentury homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood,
in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet
anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology . . . The sodomite had been a temporary
aberration; the homosexual was now a species. (Foucault, 1978, p. 43)

In spite of many continuities with ancestral forms, modern sexual arrangements have a distinctive
character which sets them apart from preexisting systems. In Western Europe and the United
States, industrialization and urbanization reshaped the traditional rural and peasant populations
into a new urban industrial and service workforce. It generated new forms of state apparatus,
reorganized family relations, altered gender roles, made possible new forms of identity, produced
new varieties of social inequality, and created new formats for political and ideological conflict. It
also gave rise to a new sexual system characterized by distinct types of sexual persons, populations,
stratification, and political conflict.

The writings of nineteenth-century sexology suggest the appearance of a kind of erotic speciation.
However outlandish their explanations, the early sexologists were witnessing the emergence of
new kinds of erotic individuals and their aggregation into rudimentary communities. The modern
sexual system contains sets of these sexual populations, stratified by the operation of an ideological
and social hierarchy. Differences in social value create friction among these groups, who engage
in political contest to alter or maintain their place in the ranking. Contemporary sexual politics
should be reconceptualized in terms of the emergence and on-going development of this system,
its social relations, the ideologies which interpret it, and its characteristic modes of conflict.

Homosexuality is the best example of this process of erotic speciation. Homosexual behaviour
is always present among humans. But in different societies and epochs it may be rewarded or
punished, required or forbidden, a temporary experience or a life-long vocation. In some New
Guinea societies, for example, homosexual activities are obligatory for all males. Homosexual acts
are considered utterly masculine, roles are based on age, and partners are determined by kinship
status (Herdt, 1981; Kelly, 1976; Rubin, 1974, 1982; Baal, 1966; Williams, 1936). Although these
men engage in extensive homosexual and pedophile behaviour, they are neither homosexuals
nor pederasts.

Nor was the sixteenth-century sodomite a homosexual. In 1631, Mervyn Touchet, Earl of
Castlehaven, was tried and executed for Sodomy. It is clear from the proceedings that the earl was
not understood by himself or anyone else to be a particular kind of sexual individual. ‘While from
the twentiethcentury viewpoint Lord Castlehaven obviously suffered from psychosexual problems
requiring the services of an analyst, from the seventeenth-century viewpoint he had deliberately
broken the Law of God and the Laws of England, and required the simpler services of an executioner’
(Bingham, 1971, p. 465). The earl did not slip into his tightest doublet and waltz down to the



nearest gay tavern to mingle with his fellow sodomists. He stayed in his manor house and buggered
his servants. Gay self-awareness, gay pubs, the sense of group commonality, and even the term
homosexual were not part of the earl’s universe.

The New Guinea bachelor and the sodomite nobleman are only tangentially related to a modern
gay man, who may migrate from rural Colorado to San Francisco in order to live in a gay
neighbourhood, work in a gay business, and participate in an elaborate experience that includes
a selfconscious identity, group solidarity, a literature, a press, and a high level of political activity.
In modern, Western, industrial societies, homosexuality has acquired much of the institutional
structure of an ethnic group (Murray, 1979).

The relocation of homoeroticism into these quasi-ethnic, nucleated, sexually constituted
communities is to some extent a consequence of the transfers of population brought by
industrialization. As labourers migrated to work in cities, there were increased opportunities for
voluntary communities to form. Homosexually inclined women and men, who would have been
vulnerable and isolated in most pre-industrial villages, began to congregate in small corners of the
big cities. Most large nineteenth-century cities in Western Europe and North America had areas
where men could cruise for other men. Lesbian communities seem to have coalesced more slowly
and on a smaller scale. Nevertheless, by the 1890s, there were several cafes in Paris near the Place
Pigalle which catered to a lesbian clientele, and it is likely that there were similar places in the
other major capitals of Western Europe.

Areas like these acquired bad reputations, which alerted other interested individuals of their
existence and location. In the United States, lesbian and gay male territories were well established
in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles in the 1950s. Sexually motivated migration
to places such as Greenwich Village had become a sizable sociological phenomenon. By the late
1970s, sexual migration was occurring on a scale so significant that it began to have a recognizable
impact on urban politics in the United States, with San Francisco being the most notable and
notorious example.11

Prostitution has undergone a similar metamorphosis. Prostitution began to change from a
temporary job to a more permanent occupation as a result of nineteenth-century agitation, legal
reform, and police persecution. Prostitutes, who had been part of the general working-class
population, became increasingly isolated as members of an outcast group (Walkowitz, 1980).
Prostitutes and other sex workers differ from homosexuals and other sexual minorities. Sex work
is an occupation, while sexual deviation is an erotic preference. Nevertheless, they share some
common features of social organization. Like homosexuals, prostitutes are a criminal sexual
population stigmatized on the basis of sexual activity. Prostitutes and male homosexuals are the
primary prey of vice police everywhere.12 Like gay men, prostitutes occupy well-demarcated urban
territories and battle with police to defend and maintain those territories. The legal persecution of
both populations is justified by an elaborate ideology which classifies them as dangerous and
inferior undesirables who are not entitled to be left in peace.

Besides organizing homosexuals and prostitutes into localized populations, the ‘modernization
of sex’ has generated a system of continual sexual ethnogenesis. Other populations of erotic
dissidents – commonly known as the ‘perversions’ or the ‘paraphilias’ – also began to coalesce.
Sexualities keep marching out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and on to the pages of
social history. At present, several other groups are trying to emulate the successes of homosexuals.
Bisexuals, sadomasochists, individuals who prefer cross-generational encounters, transsexuals,
and transvestites are all in various states of community formation and identity acquisition. The
perversions are not proliferating as much as they are attempting to acquire social space, small
businesses, political resources, and a measure of relief from the penalties for sexual heresy.



Sexual Stratification

An entire sub-race was born, different – despite certain kinship ties – from the libertines
of the past. From the end of the eighteenth century to our own, they circulated through
the pores of society; they were always hounded, but not always by laws; were often
locked up, but not always in prisons; were sick perhaps, but scandalous, dangerous
victims, prey to a strange evil that also bore the name of vice and sometimes crime. They
were children wise beyond their years, precocious little girls, ambiguous schoolboys,
dubious servants and educators, cruel or maniacal husbands, solitary collectors, ramblers
with bizarre impulses; they haunted the houses of correction, the penal colonies, the
tribunals, and the asylums; they carried their infamy to the doctors and their sickness to
the judges. This was the numberless family of perverts who were on friendly terms with
delinquents and akin to madmen.

(Foucault, 1978, p. 40)

The industrial transformation of Western Europe and North America brought about new forms of social
stratification. The resultant inequalities of class are well known and have been explored in detail by a
century of scholarship. The construction of modern systems of racism and ethnic injustice has been
well documented and critically assessed. Feminist thought has analysed the prevailing organization of
gender oppression. But although specific erotic groups, such as militant homosexuals and sex workers,
have agitated against their own mistreatment, there has been no equivalent attempt to locate particular
varieties of sexual persecution within a more general system of sexual stratification. Nevertheless, such
a system exists, and in its contemporary form it is a consequence of Western industrialization.

Sex law is the most adamantine instrument of sexual stratification and erotic persecution. The state
routinely intervenes in sexual behaviour at a level that would not be tolerated in other areas of social life.
Most people are unaware of the extent of sex law, the quantity and qualities of illegal sexual behaviour,
and the punitive character of legal sanctions. Although federal agencies may be involved in obscenity
and prostitution cases, most sex laws are enacted at the state and municipal level, and enforcement is
largely in the hands of local police. Thus, there is a tremendous amount of variation in the laws applicable
to any given locale. Moreover, enforcement of sex laws varies dramatically with the local political
climate. In spite of this legal thicket, one can make some tentative and qualified generalizations. My
discussion of sex law does not apply to laws against sexual coercion, sexual assault, or rape. It does
pertain to the myriad prohibitions on consensual sex and the ‘status’ offenses such as statutory rape.

Sex law is harsh. The penalties for violating sex statutes are universally out of proportion to any
social or individual harm. A single act of consensual but illicit sex, such as placing one’s lips upon the
genitalia of an enthusiastic partner, is punished in many states with more severity than rape, battery, or
murder. Each such genital kiss, each lewd caress, is a separate crime. It is therefore painfully easy to
commit multiple felonies in the course of a single evening of illegal passion. Once someone is convicted
of a sex violation, a second performance of the same act is grounds for prosecution as a repeat
offender, in which case penalties will be even more severe. In some states, individuals have become
repeat felons for having engaged in homosexual love-making on two separate occasions. Once an
erotic activity has been proscribed by sex law, the full power of the state enforces conformity to the
values embodied in those laws. Sex laws are notoriously easy to pass, as legislators are loath to be soft
on vice. Once on the books, they are extremely difficult to dislodge.

Sex law is not a perfect reflection of the prevailing moral evaluations of sexual conduct. Sexual
variation per se is more specifically policed by the mental-health professions, popular ideology, and
extra-legal social practice. Some of the most detested erotic behaviours, such as fetishism and



sadomasochism, are not as closely or completely regulated by the criminal justice system as somewhat
less stigmatized practices, such as homosexuality. Areas of sexual behaviour come under the purview
of the law when they become objects of social concern and political uproar. Each sex scare or
morality campaign deposits new regulations as a kind of fossil record of its passage. The legal
sediment is thickest – and sex law has its greatest potency – in areas involving obscenity, money,
minors, and homosexuality.

Obscenity laws enforce a powerful taboo against direct representation of erotic activities. Current
emphasis on the ways in which sexuality has become a focus of social attention should not be
misused to undermine a critique of this prohibition. It is one thing to create sexual discourse in the
form of psychoanalysis, or in the course of a morality crusade. It is quite another to depict sex acts
or genitalia graphically. The first is socially permissible in a way the second is not. Sexual speech is
forced into reticence, euphemism, and indirection. Freedom of speech about sex is a glaring exception
to the protections of the First Amendment, which is not even considered applicable to purely sexual

The anti-obscenity laws also form part of a group of statutes that make almost all sexual commerce
illegal. Sex law incorporates a very strong prohibition against mixing sex and money, except via
marriage. In addition to the obscenity statutes, other laws impinging on sexual commerce include
anti-prostitution laws, alcoholic beverage regulations, and ordinances governing the location and
operation of ‘adult’ businesses. The sex industry and the gay economy have both managed to
circumvent some of this legislation, but that process has not been easy or simple. The underlying
criminality of sex-oriented business keeps it marginal, underdeveloped, and distorted. Sex businesses
can only operate in legal loopholes. This tends to keep investment down and to divert commercial
activity towards the goal of staying out of jail rather than delivery of goods and services. It also
renders sex workers more vulnerable to exploitation and bad working conditions. If sex commerce
were legal, sex workers would be more able to organize and agitate for higher pay, better conditions,
greater control, and less stigma.

Whatever one thinks of the limitations of capitalist commerce, such an extreme exclusion from
the market process would hardly be socially acceptable in other areas of activity. Imagine, for
example, that the exchange of money for medical care, pharmacological advice, or psychological
counselling were illegal. Medical practice would take place in a much less satisfactory fashion if
doctors, nurses, druggists, and therapists could be hauled off to jail at the whim of the local ‘health
squad’. But that is essentially the situation of prostitutes, sex workers, and sex entrepreneurs.

Marx himself considered the capitalist market a revolutionary, if limited, force. He argued that
capitalism was progressive in its dissolution of pre-capitalist superstition, prejudice, and the bonds
of traditional modes of life. ‘Hence the great civilizing influence of capital, its production of a state
of society compared with which all earlier stages appear to be merely local progress and idolatry of
nature’ (Marx, 1971, p. 94). Keeping sex from realizing the positive effects of the market economy
hardly makes it socialist.

The law is especially ferocious in maintaining the boundary between childhood ‘innocence’ and
‘adult’ sexuality. Rather than recognizing the sexuality of the young, and attempting to provide for it
in a caring and responsible manner, our culture denies and punishes erotic interest and activity by
anyone under the local age of consent. The amount of law devoted to protecting young people from
premature exposure to sexuality is breath-taking.

The primary mechanism for insuring the separation of sexual generations is age of consent laws.
These laws make no distinction between the most brutal rape and the most gentle romance. A 20-
year-old convicted of sexual contact with a 17-year-old will face a severe sentence in virtually every
state, regardless of the nature of the relationship (Norton, 1981).13 Nor are minors permitted access
to ‘adult’ sexuality in other forms. They are forbidden to see books, movies, or television in which



sexuality is ‘too’ graphically portrayed. It is legal for young people to see hideous depictions of
violence, but not to see explicit pictures of genitalia. Sexually active young people are frequently
incarcerated in juvenile homes, or otherwise punished for their ‘precocity’.

Adults who deviate too much from conventional standards of sexual conduct are often denied
contact with the young, even their own. Custody laws permit the state to steal the children of
anyone whose erotic activities appear questionable to a judge presiding over family court matters.
Countless lesbians, gay men, prostitutes, swingers, sex workers, and ‘promiscuous’ women have
been declared unfit parents under such provisions. Members of the teaching professions are closely
monitored for signs of sexual misconduct. In most states, certification laws require that teachers
arrested for sex offenses lose their jobs and credentials. In some cases, a teacher may be fired merely
because an unconventional lifestyle becomes known to school officials. Moral turpitude is one of
the few legal grounds for revoking academic tenure (Beserra, Franklin, and Clevenger, 1977, pp.
165–7). The more influence one has over the next generation, the less latitude one is permitted in
behaviour and opinion. The coercive power of the law ensures the transmission of conservative
sexual values with these kinds of controls over parenting and teaching.

The only adult sexual behaviour that is legal in every state is the placement of the penis in the
vagina in wedlock. Consenting adults statutes ameliorate this situation in fewer than half the states.
Most states impose severe criminal penalties on consensual sodomy, homosexual contact short of
sodomy, adultery, seduction, and adult incest. Sodomy laws vary a great deal. In some states, they
apply equally to homosexual and heterosexual partners and regardless of marital status. Some state
courts have ruled that married couples have the right to commit sodomy in private. Only homosexual
sodomy is illegal in some states. Some sodomy statutes prohibit both anal sex and oral–genital
contact. In other states, sodomy applies only to anal penetration, and oral sex is covered under
separate statutes (Beserra et al., 1973, pp. 163–8).14

Laws like these criminalize sexual behaviour that is freely chosen and avidly sought. The ideology
embodied in them reflects the value hierarchies discussed above. That is, some sex acts are considered
to be so intrinsically vile that no one should be allowed under any circumstance to perform them.
The fact that individuals consent to or even prefer them is taken to be additional evidence of
depravity. This system of sex law is similar to legalized racism. State prohibition of same sex contact,
anal penetration, and oral sex make homosexuals a criminal group denied the privileges of full
citizenship. With such laws, prosecution is persecution. Even when they are not strictly enforced, as
is usually the case, the members of criminalized sexual communities remain vulnerable to the
possibility of arbitrary arrest, or to periods in which they become the objects of social panic. When
those occur, the laws are in place and police action is swift. Even sporadic enforcement serves to
remind individuals that they are members of a subject population. The occasional arrest for sodomy,
lewd behaviour, solicitation, or oral sex keeps everyone else afraid, nervous, and circumspect.

The state also upholds the sexual hierarchy through bureaucratic regulation. Immigration policy
still prohibits the admission of homosexuals (and other sexual ‘deviates’) into the United States.
Military regulations bar homosexuals from serving in the armed forces. The fact that gay people
cannot legally marry means that they cannot enjoy the same legal rights as heterosexuals in many
matters, including inheritance, taxation, protection from testimony in court, and the acquisition of
citizenship for foreign partners. These are but a few of the ways that the state reflects and maintains
the social relations of sexuality. The law buttresses structures of power, codes of behaviour, and
forms of prejudice. At their worst, sex law and sex regulation are simply sexual apartheid.

Although the legal apparatus of sex is staggering, most everyday social control is extra-legal. Less
formal, but very effective social sanctions are imposed on members of ‘inferior’ sexual populations.

In her marvellous ethnographic study of gay life in the 1960s, Esther Newton observed that the
homosexual population was divided into what she called the ‘overts’ and ‘coverts’. ‘The overts live



their entire working lives within the context of the [gay] community; the coverts live their entire
nonworking lives within it’ (Newton, 1972, p. 21, emphasis in the original). At the time of Newton’s
study, the gay community provided far fewer jobs than it does now, and the non-gay work world
was almost completely intolerant of homosexuality. There were some fortunate individuals who
could be openly gay and earn decent salaries. But the vast majority of homosexuals had to choose
between honest poverty and the strain of maintaining a false identity.

Though this situation has changed a great deal, discrimination against gay people is still rampant.
For the bulk of the gay population, being out on the job is still impossible. Generally, the more
important and higher paid the job, the less the society will tolerate overt erotic deviance. If it is
difficult for gay people to find employment where they do not have to pretend, it is doubly and
triply so for more exotically sexed individuals. Sadomasochists leave their fetish clothes at home,
and know that they must be especially careful to conceal their real identities. An exposed paedophile
would probably be stoned out of the office. Having to maintain such absolute secrecy is a considerable
burden. Even those who are content to be secretive may be exposed by some accidental event.
Individuals who are erotically unconventional risk being unemployable or unable to pursue their
chosen careers.

Public officials and anyone who occupies a position of social consequence are especially vulnerable.
A sex scandal is the surest method for hounding someone out of office or destroying a political
career. The fact that important people are expected to conform to the strictest standards of erotic
conduct discourages sex perverts of all kinds from seeking such positions. Instead, erotic dissidents
are channeled into positions that have less impact on the mainstream of social activity and opinion.

The expansion of the gay economy in the last decade has provided some employment alternatives
and some relief from job discrimination against homosexuals. But most of the jobs provided by the
gay economy are low-status and low-paying. Bartenders, bathhouse attendants, and disc jockeys are
not bank officers or corporate executives. Many of the sexual migrants who flock to places like San
Francisco are downwardly mobile. They face intense competition for choice positions. The influx of
sexual migrants provides a pool of cheap and exploitable labour for many of the city’s businesses,
both gay and straight.

Families play a crucial role in enforcing sexual conformity. Much social pressure is brought to
bear to deny erotic dissidents the comforts and resources that families provide. Popular ideology
holds that families are not supposed to produce or harbor erotic non-conformity. Many families
respond by trying to reform, punish, or exile sexually offending members. Many sexual migrants
have been thrown out by their families, and many others are fleeing from the threat of
institutionalization. Any random collection of homosexuals, sex workers, or miscellaneous perverts
can provide heartstopping stories of rejection and mistreatment by horrified families. Christmas is
the great family holiday in the United States and consequently it is a time of considerable tension in
the gay community. Half the inhabitants go off to their families of origin; many of those who remain
in the gay ghettos cannot do so, and relive their anger and grief.

In addition to economic penalties and strain on family relations, the stigma of erotic dissidence
creates friction at all other levels of everyday life. The general public helps to penalize erotic
nonconformity when, according to the values they have been taught, landlords refuse housing,
neighbours call in the police, and hoodlums commit sanctioned battery. The ideologies of erotic
inferiority and sexual danger decrease the power of sex perverts and sex workers in social encounters
of all kinds. They have less protection from unscrupulous or criminal behaviour, less access to
police protection, and less recourse to the courts. Dealings with institutions and bureaucracies –
hospital, police coroners, banks, public officials – are more difficult.

Sex is a vector of oppression. The system of sexual oppression cuts across other modes of social
inequality, sorting out individuals and groups according to its own intrinsic dynamics. It is not



reducible to, or understandable in terms of, class, race, ethnicity, or gender. Wealth, white skin, male
gender, and ethnic privileges can mitigate the effects of sexual stratification. A rich, white male
pervert will generally be less affected than a poor, black, female pervert. But even the most privileged
are not immune to sexual oppression. Some of the consequences of the system of sexual hierarchy
are mere nuisances. Others are quite grave. In its most serious manifestations, the sexual system is
a Kafkaesque nightmare in which unlucky victims become herds of human cattle whose identification,
surveillance, apprehension, treatment, incarceration, and punishment produce jobs and self-satisfaction
for thousands of vice police, prison officials, psychiatrists, and social workers.15

Sexual Conflicts

The moral panic crystallizes widespread fears and anxieties, and often deals with them
not by seeking the real causes of the problems and conditions which they demonstrate
but by displacing them on to ‘Folk Devils’ in an identified social group (often the ‘immoral’
or ‘degenerate’). Sexuality has had a peculiar centrality in such panics, and sexual ‘deviants’
have been omnipresent scapegoats. (Jeffrey Weeks, 1981, p. 14)

The sexual system is not a monolithic, omnipotent structure. There are continuous battles over the
definitions, evaluations, arrangements, privileges, and costs of sexual behaviour. Political struggle
over sex assumes characteristic forms.

Sexual ideology plays a crucial role in sexual experience. Consequently, definitions and evaluations
of sexual conduct are objects of bitter contest. The confrontations between early gay liberation and
the psychiatric establishment are the best example of this kind of fight, but there are constant
skirmishes. Recurrent battles take place between the primary producers of sexual ideology – the
churches, the family, the shrinks, and the media – and the groups whose experience they name,
distort, and endanger.

The legal regulation of sexual conduct is another battleground. Lysander Spooner dissected
the system of state-sanctioned moral coercion over a century ago in a text inspired primarily by
the temperance campaigns. In Vices Are Not Crimes: A Vindication of Moral Liberty, Spooner
argued that government should protect its citizens against crime, but that it is foolish, unjust,
and tyrannical to legislate against vice. He discusses rationalizations still heard today in defense
of legalized moralism – that ‘vices’ (Spooner is referring to drink, but homosexuality, prostitution,
or recreational drug use may be substituted) lead to crimes, and should therefore be prevented;
that those who practice ‘vice’ are non compos mentis and should therefore be protected from
their self-destruction by state-accomplished ruin; and that children must be protected from
supposedly harmful knowledge (Spooner, 1977). The discourse on victimless crimes has not
changed much. Legal struggle over sex law will continue until basic freedoms of sexual action
and expression are guaranteed. This requires the repeal of all sex laws except those few that
deal with actual, not statutory, coercion; and it entails the abolition of vice squads, whose job it
is to enforce legislated morality.

In addition to the definitional and legal wars, there are less obvious forms of sexual political
conflict which I call the territorial and border wars. The processes by which erotic minorities form
communities and the forces that seek to inhibit them lead to struggles over the nature and boundaries
of sexual zones.

Dissident sexuality is rarer and more closely monitored in small towns and rural areas. Consequently,
metropolitan life continually beckons to young perverts. Sexual migration creates concentrated pools



of potential partners, friends, and associates. It enables individuals to create adult, kin-like networks
in which to live. But there are many barriers which sexual migrants have to overcome.

According to the mainstream media and popular prejudice, the marginal sexual worlds are bleak
and dangerous. They are portrayed as impoverished, ugly, and inhabited by psychopaths and criminals.
New migrants must be sufficiently motivated to resist the impact of such discouraging images.
Attempts to counter negative propaganda with more realistic information generally meet with
censorship, and there are continuous ideological struggles over which representations of sexual
communities make it into the popular media.

Information on how to find, occupy, and live in the marginal sexual worlds is also suppressed.
Navigational guides are scarce and inaccurate. In the past, fragments of rumour, distorted gossip,
and bad publicity were the most available clues to the location of underground erotic communities.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, better information became available. Now groups like the
Moral Majority want to rebuild the ideological walls around the sexual undergrounds and make
transit in and out of them as difficult as possible.

Migration is expensive. Transportation costs, moving expenses, and the necessity of finding new
jobs and housing are economic difficulties that sexual migrants must overcome. These are especially
imposing barriers to the young, who are often the most desperate to move. There are, however,
routes into the erotic communities which mark trails through the propaganda thicket and provide
some economic shelter along the way. Higher education can be a route for young people from
affluent backgrounds. In spite of serious limitations, the information on sexual behaviour at most
colleges and universities is better than elsewhere, and most colleges and universities shelter small
erotic networks of all sorts.

For poorer kids, the military is often the easiest way to get the hell out of wherever they are. Military
prohibitions against homosexuality make this a perilous route. Although young queers continually
attempt to use the armed forces to get out of intolerable hometown situations and closer to functional
gay communities, they face the hazards of exposure, court martial, and dishonourable discharge.

Once in the cities, erotic populations tend to nucleate and to occupy some regular, visible territory.
Churches and other anti-vice forces constantly put pressure on local authorities to contain such
areas, reduce their visibility, or to drive their inhabitants out of town. There are periodic crackdowns
in which local vice squads are unleashed on the populations they control. Gay men, prostitutes, and
sometimes transvestites are sufficiently territorial and numerous to engage in intense battles with the
cops over particular streets, parks, and alleys. Such border wars are usually inconclusive, but they
result in many casualties.

For most of this century, the sexual underworlds have been marginal and impoverished, their
residents subjected to stress and exploitation. The spectacular success of gay entrepreneurs in creating
a variegated gay economy has altered the quality of life within the gay ghetto. The level of material
comfort and social elaboration achieved by the gay community in the last fifteen years is
unprecedented. But it is important to recall what happened to similar miracles. The growth of the
black population in New York in the early part of the twentieth century led to the Harlem Renaissance,
but that period of creativity was doused by the Depression. The relative prosperity and cultural
florescence of the ghetto may be equally fragile. Like blacks who fled the South for the metropolitan
North, homosexuals may have merely traded rural problems for urban ones.

Gay pioneers occupied neighbourhoods that were centrally located but run down. Consequently,
they border poor neighbourhoods. Gays, especially low-income gays, end up competing with other
low-income groups for the limited supply of cheap and moderate housing. In San Francisco,
competition for low-cost housing has exacerbated both racism and homophobia, and is one source
of the epidemic of street violence against homosexuals. Instead of being isolated and invisible in
rural settings, city gays are now numerous and obvious targets for urban frustrations.



In San Francisco, unbridled construction of downtown skyscrapers and high-cost condominiums
is causing affordable housing to evaporate. Megabuck construction is creating pressure on all city
residents. Poor gay renters are visible in low-income neighbourhoods; multimillionaire contractors
are not. The spectre of the ‘homosexual invasion’ is a convenient scapegoat which deflects attention
from the banks, the planning commission, the political establishment, and the big developers. In San
Francisco, the well-being of the gay community has become embroiled in the high-stakes politics of
urban real estate.

Downtown expansion affects all the territorial erotic underworlds. In both San Francisco and New
York, high investment construction and urban renewal have intruded on the main areas of prostitution,
pornography, and leather bars. Developers are salivating over Times Square, the Tenderloin, what is
left of North Beach, and South of Market. Anti-sex ideology, obscenity law, prostitution regulations,
and the alcoholic beverage codes are all being used to dislodge seedy adult business, sex workers, and
leathermen. Within ten years, most of these areas will have been bulldozed and made safe for convention
centres, international hotels, corporate headquarters, and housing for the rich.

The most important and consequential kind of sex conflict is what Jeffrey Weeks has termed the
‘moral panic’. Moral panics are the ‘political moment’ of sex, in which diffuse attitudes are channeled
into political action and from there into social change.16 The white slavery hysteria of the 1880s, the
anti-homosexual campaigns of the 1950s, and the child pornography panic of the late 1970s were
typical moral panics.

Because sexuality in Western societies is so mystified, the wars over it are often fought at oblique
angles, aimed at phony targets, conducted with misplaced passions, and are highly, intensely symbolic.
Sexual activities often function as signifiers for personal and social apprehensions to which they
have no intrinsic connection. During a moral panic such fears attach to some unfortunate sexual
activity or population. The media become ablaze with indignation, the public behaves like a rabid
mob, the police are activated, and the state enacts new laws and regulations. When the furor has
passed, some innocent erotic group has been decimated, and the state has extended its power into
new areas of erotic behaviour.

The system of sexual stratification provides easy victims who lack the power to defend themselves,
and a preexisting apparatus for controlling their movements and curtailing their freedoms. The stigma
against sexual dissidents renders them morally defenceless. Every moral panic has consequences on
two levels. The target population suffers most, but everyone is affected by the social and legal changes.

Moral panics rarely alleviate any real problem, because they are aimed at chimeras and signifiers.
They draw on the pre-existing discursive structure which invents victims in order to justify treating
‘vices’ as crimes. The criminalization of innocuous behaviours such as homosexuality, prostitution,
obscenity, or recreational drug use, is rationalized by portraying them as menaces to health and
safety, women and children, national security, the family, or civilization itself. Even when activity is
acknowledged to be harmless, it may be banned because it is alleged to ‘lead’ to something ostensibly
worse (another manifestation of the domino theory).17 Great and mighty edifices have been built on
the basis of such phantasms. Generally, the outbreak of a moral panic is preceded by an intensification
of such scapegoating.

It is always risky to prophesy. But it does not take much prescience to detect potential moral
panics in two current developments: the attacks on sadomasochists by a segment of the feminist
movement, and the right’s increasing use of AIDS to incite virulent homophobia.

Feminist anti-pornography ideology has always contained an implied, and sometimes overt,
indictment of sadomasochism. The pictures of sucking and fucking that comprise the bulk of
pornography may be unnerving to those who are not familiar with them. But it is hard to make a
convincing case that such images are violent. All of the early anti-porn slide shows used a highly
selective sample of S/M imagery to sell a very flimsy analysis. Taken out of context, such images are



often shocking. This shock value was mercilessly exploited to scare audiences into accepting the
anti-porn perspective.

A great deal of anti-porn propaganda implies sadomasochism is the underlying and essential
‘truth’ towards which all pornography tends. Porn is thought to lead to S/M porn which in turn is
alleged to lead to rape. This is a just-so story that revitalizes the notion that sex perverts commit sex
crimes, not normal people. There is no evidence that the readers of S/M erotica or practising
sadomasochists commit a disproportionate number of sex crimes. Anti-porn literature scapegoats an
unpopular sexual minority and its reading material for social problems they do not create.

The use of S/M imagery in anti-porn discourse is inflammatory. It implies that the way to make
the world safe for women is to get rid of sadomasochism. The use of S/M images in the movie Not
a Love Story was on a moral par with the use of depictions of black men raping white women, or of
drooling old Jews pawing young Aryan girls, to incite racist or anti-Semitic frenzy.

Feminist rhetoric has a distressing tendency to reappear in reactionary contexts. For example, in
1980 and 1981, Pope John Paul II delivered a series of pronouncements reaffirming his commitment
to the most conservative and Pauline understandings of human sexuality. In condemning divorce,
abortion, trial marriage, pornography, prostitution, birth control, unbridled hedonism, and lust, the
pope employed a great deal of feminist rhetoric about sexual objectification. Sounding like lesbian
feminist polemicist Julia Penelope, His Holiness explained that ‘considering anyone in a lustful way
makes that person a sexual object rather than a human being worthy of dignity’.18

The right wing opposes pornography and has already adopted elements of feminist anti-porn
rhetoric. The anti-S/M discourse developed in the women’s movement could easily become a vehicle
for a moral witch hunt. It provides a ready-made defenseless target population. It provides a rationale
for the recriminalization of sexual materials which have escaped the reach of current obscenity laws. It
would be especially easy to pass laws against S/M erotica resembling the child pornography laws. The
ostensible purpose of such laws would be to reduce violence by banning so-called violent porn. A
focused campaign against the leather menace might also result in the passage of laws to criminalize S/
M behaviour that is not currently illegal. The ultimate result of such a moral panic would be the
legalized violation of a community of harmless perverts. It is dubious that such a sexual witch hunt
would make any appreciable contribution towards reducing violence against women.

An AIDS panic is even more probable. When fears of incurable disease mingle with sexual terror,
the resulting brew is extremely volatile. A century ago, attempts to control syphilis led to the passage
of the Contagious Diseases Acts in England. The Acts were based on erroneous medical theories and
did nothing to halt the spread of the disease. But they did make life miserable for the hundreds of
women who were incarcerated, subjected to forcible vaginal examination, and stigmatized for life as
prostitutes (Walkowitz, 1980; Weeks, 1981).

Whatever happens, AIDS will have far-reaching consequences on sex in general, and on
homosexuality in particular. The disease will have a significant impact on the choices gay people
make. Fewer will migrate to the gay meccas out of fear of the disease. Those who already reside in
the ghettos will avoid situations they fear will expose them. The gay economy, and political apparatus
it supports, may prove to be evanescent. Fear of AIDS has already affected sexual ideology. Just
when homosexuals have had some success in throwing off the taint of mental disease, gay people
find themselves metaphorically welded to an image of lethal physical deterioration. The syndrome,
its peculiar qualities, and its transmissibility are being used to reinforce old fears that sexual activity,
homosexuality, and promiscuity led to disease and death.

AIDS is both a personal tragedy for those who contract the syndrome and a calamity for the gay
community. Homophobes have gleefully hastened to turn this tragedy against its victims. One columnist
has suggested that AIDS has always existed, that the Biblical prohibitions on sodomy were designed
to protect people from AIDS, and that AIDS is therefore an appropriate punishment for violating the



Levitical codes. Using fear of infection as a rationale, local right-wingers attempted to ban the gay
rodeo from Reno, Nevada. A recent issue of the Moral Majority Report featured a picture of a ‘typical’
white family of four wearing surgical masks. The headline read: ‘AIDS: HOMOSEXUAL DISEASES
THREATEN AMERICAN FAMILIES’.19 Phyllis Schlafly has recently issued a pamphlet arguing that
passage of the Equal Rights Amendment would make it impossible to ‘legally protect ourselves
against AIDS and other diseases carried by homosexuals’ (cited in Bush, 1983, p. 60). Current
rightwing literature calls for shutting down the gay baths, for a legal ban on homosexual employment
in food-handling occupations, and for state-mandated prohibitions on blood donations by gay people.
Such policies would require the government to identify all homosexuals and impose easily recognizable
legal and social markers on them.

It is bad enough that the gay community must deal with the medical misfortune of having been
the population in which a deadly disease first became widespread and visible. It is worse to have to
deal with the social consequences as well. Even before the AIDS scare, Greece passed a law that
enables police to arrest suspected homosexuals and force them to submit to an examination for
venereal disease. It is likely that until AIDS and its methods of transmission are understood, there
will be all sorts of proposals to control it by punishing the gay community and by attacking its
institutions. When the cause of Legionnaires’ Disease was unknown, there were no calls to quarantine
members of the American Legion or to shut down their meeting halls. The Contagious Diseases Acts
in England did little to control syphilis, but they caused a great deal of suffering for the women who
came under their purview. The history of panic that has accompanied new epidemics, and of the
casualties incurred by their scapegoats, should make everyone pause and consider with extreme
scepticism any attempts to justify anti-gay policy initiatives on the basis of AIDS.

The Limits of Feminism

We know that in an overwhelmingly large number of cases, sex crime is associated with
pornography. We know that sex criminals read it, are clearly influenced by it. I believe
that, if we can eliminate the distribution of such items among impressionable children,
we shall greatly reduce our frightening sex-crime rate.

(J. Edgar Hoover, cited in Hyde, 1965, p. 31)

In the absence of a more articulated radical theory of sex, most progressives have turned to feminism
for guidance. But the relationship between feminism and sex is complex. Because sexuality is a
nexus of relationships between genders, much of the oppression of women is borne by, mediated
through, and constituted within, sexuality. Feminism has always been vitally interested in sex. But
there have been two strains of feminist thought on the subject. One tendency has criticized the
restrictions on women’s sexual behaviour and denounced the high costs imposed on women for
being sexually active. This tradition of feminist sexual thought has called for a sexual liberation that
would work for women as well as for men. The second tendency has considered sexual liberalization
to be inherently a mere extension of male privilege. This tradition resonates with conservative, anti-
sexual discourse. With the advent of the anti-pornography movement, it achieved temporary hegemony
over feminist analysis.

The anti-pornography movement and its texts have been the most extensive expression of this
discourse.20 In addition, proponents of this viewpoint have condemned virtually every variant of
sexual expression as anti-feminist. Within this framework, monogamous lesbianism that occurs within
long-term, intimate relationships and which does not involve playing with polarized roles, has



replaced married, procreative heterosexuality at the top of the value hierarchy. Heterosexuality has
been demoted to somewhere in the middle. Apart from this change, everything else looks more or
less familiar. The lower depths are occupied by the usual groups and behaviours: prostitution,
transsexuality, sadomasochism, and cross-generational activities (Barry, 1979, 1982; Raymond, 1979;
Linden et al., 1982; Rush, 1980). Most gay male conduct, all casual sex, promiscuity, and lesbian
behaviour that does involve roles or kink or non-monogamy are also censured.21 Even sexual
fantasy during masturbation is denounced as a phallocentric holdover (Penelope, 1980).

This discourse on sexuality is less a sexology than a demonology. It presents most sexual behaviour
in the worst possible light. Its descriptions of erotic conduct always use the worst available example
as if it were representative. It presents the most disgusting pornography, the most exploited forms of
prostitution, and the least palatable or most shocking manifestations of sexual variation. This rhetorical
tactic consistently misrepresents human sexuality in all its forms. The picture of human sexuality that
emerges from this literature is unremittingly ugly.

In addition, this anti-porn rhetoric is a massive exercise in scapegoating. It criticizes non-routine
acts of love rather than routine acts of oppression, exploitation, or violence. This demon sexology
directs legitimate anger at women’s lack of personal safety against innocent individuals, practices
and communities. Anti-porn propaganda often implies that sexism originates within the commercial
sex industry and subsequently infects the rest of society. This is sociologically nonsensical. The sex
industry is hardly a feminist utopia. It reflects the sexism that exists in the society as a whole. We
need to analyse and oppose the manifestations of gender inequality specific to the sex industry. But
this is not the same as attempting to wipe out commercial sex.

Similarly, erotic minorities such as sadomasochists and transsexuals are as likely to exhibit sexist
attitudes or behaviour as any other politically random social grouping. But to claim that they are
inherently anti-feminist is sheer fantasy. A good deal of current feminist literature attributes the
oppression of women to graphic representations of sex, prostitution, sex education, sadomasochism,
male homosexuality, and transsexualism. Whatever happened to the family, religion, education,
child-rearing practices, the media, the state, psychiatry, job discrimination, and unequal pay?

Finally, this so-called feminist discourse recreates a very conservative sexual morality. For over a
century, battles have been waged over just how much shame, distress, and punishment should be
incurred by sexual activity. The conservative tradition has promoted opposition to pornography,
prostitution, homosexuality, all erotic variation, sex education, sex research, abortion, and
contraception. The opposing, pro-sex tradition has included individuals like Havelock Ellis, Magnus
Hirschfeld, Alfred Kinsey, and Victoria Woodhull, as well as the sex education movement, organizations
of militant prostitutes and homosexuals, the reproductive rights movement, and organizations such
as the Sexual Reform League of the 1960s. This motley collection of sex reformers, sex educators,
and sexual militants has mixed records on both sexual and feminist issues. But surely they are closer
to the spirit of modern feminism than are moral crusaders, the social purity movement, and anti-vice
organizations. Nevertheless, the current feminist sexual demonology generally elevates the anti-vice
crusaders to positions of ancestral honour, while condemning the more liberatory tradition as
antifeminist. In an essay that exemplifies some of these trends, Sheila Jeffreys blames Havelock Ellis,
Edward Carpenter, Alexandra Kollantai, ‘believers in the joy of sex of every possible political
persuasion’, and the 1929 congress of the World League for Sex Reform for making ‘a great contribution
to the defeat of militant feminism’ (Jeffreys, 1981, p. 26).22

The anti-pornography movement and its avatars have claimed to speak for all feminism. Fortunately,
they do not. Sexual liberation has been and continues to be a feminist goal. The women’s movement
may have produced some of the most retrogressive sexual thinking this side of the Vatican. But it has
also produced an exciting, innovative, and articulate defense of sexual pleasure and erotic justice.
This ‘pro-sex’ feminism has been spearheaded by lesbians whose sexuality does not conform to



movement standards of purity (primarily lesbian sadomasochists and butch/femme dykes), by
unapologetic heterosexuals, and by women who adhere to classic radical feminism rather than to
the revisionist celebrations of femininity which have become so common.23 Although the antiporn
forces have attempted to weed anyone who disagrees with them out of the movement, the fact
remains that feminist thought about sex is profoundly polarized (Orlando, 1982b; Willis, 1982).

Whenever there is polarization, there is an unhappy tendency to think the truth lies somewhere
in between. Ellen Willis has commented sarcastically that ‘the feminist bias is that women are equal
to men and the male chauvinist bias is that women are inferior. The unbiased view is that the truth
lies somewhere in between’ (Willis, 1982, p. 146).24 The most recent development in the feminist sex
wars is the emergence of a ‘middle’ that seeks to evade the dangers of anti-porn fascism, on the one
hand, and a supposed ‘anything goes’ libertarianism, on the other.25 Although it is hard to criticize a
position that is not yet fully formed, I want to draw attention to some incipient problems.

The emergent middle is based on a false characterization of the poles of debate, construing both
sides as equally extremist. According to B. Ruby Rich, ‘the desire for a language of sexuality has led
feminists into locations (pornography, sadomasochism) too narrow or overdetermined for a fruitful
discussion. Debate has collapsed into a rumble’ (Rich, 1983, p. 76). True, the fights between Women
Against Pornography (WAP) and lesbian sadomasochists have resembled gang warfare. But the
responsibility for this lies primarily with the anti-porn movement, and its refusal to engage in
principled discussion. S/M lesbians have been forced into a struggle to maintain their membership
in the movement, and to defend themselves against slander. No major spokeswoman for lesbian S/
M has argued for any kind of S/M supremacy, or advocated that everyone should be a sadomasochist.
In addition to self-defense, S/M lesbians have called for appreciation for erotic diversity and more
open discussion of sexuality (Samois, 1979, 1982; Califia, 1980e, 1981a). Trying to find a middle
course between WAP and Samois is a bit like saying that the truth about homosexuality lies somewhere
between the positions of the Moral Majority and those of the gay movement.

In political life, it is all too easy to marginalize radicals, and to attempt to buy acceptance for a
moderate position by portraying others as extremists. Liberals have done this for years to communists.
Sexual radicals have opened up the sex debates. It is shameful to deny their contribution, misrepresent
their positions, and further their stigmatization.

In contrast to cultural feminists, who simply want to purge sexual dissidents, the sexual moderates
are willing to defend the rights of erotic non-conformists to political participation. Yet this defense of
political rights is linked to an implicit system of ideological condescension. The argument has two
major parts. The first is an accusation that sexual dissidents have not paid close enough attention to
the meaning, sources, or historical construction of their sexuality. This emphasis on meaning appears
to function in much the same way that the question of etiology has functioned in discussions of
homosexuality. That is, homosexuality, sadomasochism, prostitution, or boy-love are taken to be
mysterious and problematic in some way that more respectable sexualities are not. The search for a
cause is a search for something that could change so that these ‘problematic’ eroticisms would
simply not occur. Sexual militants have replied to such exercises that although the question of
etiology or cause is of intellectual interest, it is not high on the political agenda and that, moreover,
the privileging of such questions is itself a regressive political choice.

The second part of the ‘moderate’ position focuses on questions of consent. Sexual radicals of all
varieties have demanded the legal and social legitimation of consenting sexual behaviour. Feminists
have criticized them for ostensibly finessing questions about ‘the limits of consent’ and ‘structural
constraints’ on consent (Orlando, 1983; Wilson, 1983, especially pp. 35–41). Although there are deep
problems with the political discourse of consent, and although there are certainly structural constraints
on sexual choice, this criticism has been consistently misapplied in the sex debates. It does not take
into account the very specific semantic content that consent has in sex law and sex practice.



As I mentioned earlier, a great deal of sex law does not distinguish between consensual and
coercive behaviour. Only rape law contains such a distinction. Rape law is based on the assumption,
correct in my view, that heterosexual activity may be freely chosen or forcibly coerced. One has the
legal right to engage in heterosexual behaviour as long as it does not fall under the purview of other
statutes and as long as it is agreeable to both parties.

This is not the case for most other sexual acts. Sodomy laws, as I mentioned above, are based on
the assumption that the forbidden acts are an ‘abominable and detestable crime against nature’.
Criminality is intrinsic to the acts themselves, no matter what the desires of the participants. ‘Unlike
rape, sodomy or an unnatural or perverted sexual act may be committed between two persons both
of whom consent, and, regardless of which is the aggressor, both may be prosecuted.’26 Before the
consenting adults statute was passed in California in 1976, lesbian lovers could have been prosecuted
for committing oral copulation. If both participants were capable of consent, both were equally
guilty (Besera et al., 1973, pp. 163–5).27

Adult incest statutes operate in a similar fashion. Contrary to popular mythology, the incest
statutes have little to do with protecting children from rape by close relatives. The incest statutes
themselves prohibit marriage or sexual intercourse between adults who are closely related. Prosecutions
are rare, but two were reported recently. In 1979, a 19-year-old Marine met his 42-year-old mother,
from whom he had been separated at birth. The two fell in love and got married. They were charged
and found guilty of incest, which under Virginia law carries a maximum ten-year sentence. During
their trial, the Marine testified, ‘I love her very much. I feel that two people who love each other
should be able to live together.’28 In another case, a brother and sister who had been raised separately
met and decided to get married. They were arrested and pleaded guilty to felony incest in return for
probation. A condition of probation was that they not live together as husband and wife. Had they
not accepted, they would have faced twenty years in prison (Norton, 1981, p. 18). In a famous S/M
case, a man was convicted of aggravated assault for a whipping administered in an S/M scene. There
was no complaining victim. The session had been filmed and he was prosecuted on the basis of the
film. The man appealed his conviction by arguing that he had been involved in a consensual sexual
encounter and had assaulted no one. In rejecting his appeal, the court ruled that one may not
consent to an assault or battery ‘except in a situation involving ordinary physical contact or blows
incident to sports such as football, boxing, or wrestling’.29 The court went on to note that the
‘consent of a person without legal capacity to give consent, such as a child or insane person, is
ineffective’, and that ‘It is a matter of common knowledge that a normal person in full possession of
his mental faculties does not freely consent to the use, upon himself, of force likely to produce great
bodily injury.’30 Therefore, anyone who would consent to a whipping would be presumed non
compos mentis and legally incapable of consenting. S/M sex generally involves a much lower level
of force than the average football game, and results in far fewer injuries than most sports. But the
court ruled that football players are sane, whereas masochists are not.

Sodomy laws, adult incest laws, and legal interpretations such as the one above clearly interfere
with consensual behaviour and impose criminal penalties on it. Within the law, consent is a privilege
enjoyed only by those who engage in the highest-status sexual behaviour. Those who enjoy lowstatus
sexual behaviour do not have the legal right to engage in it. In addition, economic sanctions, family
pressures, erotic stigma, social discrimination, negative ideology, and the paucity of information
about erotic behaviour, all serve to make it difficult for people to make unconventional sexual
choices. There certainly are structural constraints that impede free sexual choice, but they hardly
operate to coerce anyone into being a pervert. On the contrary, they operate to coerce everyone
towards normality.

The ‘brainwash theory’ explains erotic diversity by assuming that some sexual acts are so disgusting
that no one would willingly perform them. Therefore, the reasoning goes, anyone who does so must



have been forced or fooled. Even constructivist sexual theory has been pressed into the service of
explaining away why otherwise rational individuals might engage in variant sexual behaviour. Another
position that is not yet fully formed uses the ideas of Foucault and Weeks to imply that the ‘perversions’
are an especially unsavoury or problematic aspect of the construction of modern sexuality (Valverde,
1980; Wilson, 1983, p. 38). This is yet another version of the notion that sexual dissidents are victims of
the subtle machinations of the social system. Weeks and Foucault would not accept such an interpretation,
since they consider all sexuality to be constructed, the conventional no less than the deviant.

Psychology is the last resort of those who refuse to acknowledge that sexual dissidents are as
conscious and free as any other group of sexual actors. If deviants are not responding to the
manipulations of the social system, then perhaps the source of their incomprehensible choices can
be found in a bad childhood, unsuccessful socialization, or inadequate identity formation. In her
essay on erotic domination, Jessica Benjamin draws upon psychoanalysis and philosophy to explain
why what she calls ‘sadomasochism’ is alienated, distorted, unsatisfactory, numb, purposeless, and
an attempt to ‘relieve an original effort at differentiation that failed’ (Benjamim, 1983, p. 292).31 This
essay substitutes a psycho-philosophical inferiority for the more usual means of devaluing dissident
eroticism. One reviewer has already construed Benjamin’s argument as showing that sadomasochism
is merely an ‘obsessive replay of the infant power struggle’ (Ehrenreich, 1983, p. 247).

The position which defends the political rights of perverts but which seeks to understand their
‘alienated’ sexuality is certainly preferable to the WAP-style blood-baths. But for the most part, the
sexual moderates have not confronted their discomfort with erotic choices that differ from their
own. Erotic chauvinism cannot be redeemed by tarting it up in Marxist drag, sophisticated constructivist
theory, or retro-psychobabble.

Whichever feminist position on sexuality – right, left, or centre – eventually attains dominance,
the existence of such a rich discussion is evidence that the feminist movement will always be a
source of interesting thought about sex. Nevertheless, I want to challenge the assumption that
feminism is or should be the privileged site of a theory of sexuality. Feminism is the theory of
gender oppression. To assume automatically that this makes it the theory of sexual oppression is to
fail to distinguish between gender, on the one hand, and erotic desire, on the other.

In the English language, the word ‘sex’ has two very different meanings. It means gender and
gender identity, as in ‘the female sex’ or ‘the male sex’. But sex also refers to sexual activity, lust,
intercourse, and arousal, as in ‘to have sex’. This semantic merging reflects a cultural assumption that
sexuality is reducible to sexual intercourse and that it is a function of the relations between women
and men. The cultural fusion of gender with sexuality has given rise to the idea that a theory of
sexuality may be derived directly out of a theory of gender.

In an earlier essay, ‘The Traffic in Women’, I used the concept of sex/gender system, defined as a
‘set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity’
(Rubin, 1975, p. 159). I went on to argue that ‘Sex as we know it – gender identity, sexual desire and
fantasy, concepts of childhood – is itself a social product’ (ibid., p. 66). In that essay, I did not
distinguish between lust and gender, treating both as modalities of the same underlying social process.

‘The Traffic in Women’ was inspired by the literature on kin-based systems of social organization.
It appeared to me at the time that gender and desire were systematically intertwined in such social
formations. This may or may not be an accurate assessment of the relationship between sex and
gender in tribal organizations. But it is surely not an adequate formulation for sexuality in Western
industrial societies. As Foucault has pointed out, a system of sexuality has emerged out of earlier
kinship forms and has acquired significant autonomy.

Particularly from the eighteenth century onward, Western societies created and deployed
a new apparatus which was superimposed on the previous one, and which, without



completely supplanting the latter, helped to reduce its importance. I am speaking of the
deployment of sexuality . . . For the first [kinship], what is pertinent is the link between
partners and definite statutes; the second [sexuality] is concerned with the sensations of
the body, the quality of pleasures, and the nature of impressions. (Foucault, 1978, p. 106)

The development of this sexual system has taken place in the context of gender relations. Part of

the modern ideology of sex is that lust is the province of men, purity that of women. It is no accident
that pornography and perversions have been considered part of the male domain. In the sex industry,
women have been excluded from most production and consumption, and allowed to participate
primarily as workers. In order to participate in the ‘perversions’, women have had to overcome
serious limitations on their social mobility, their economic resources, and their sexual freedoms.
Gender affects the operation of the sexual system, and the sexual system has had gender-specific
manifestations. But although sex and gender are related, they are not the same thing, and they form
the basis of two distinct arenas of social practice.

In contrast to my perspective in ‘The Traffic in Women’, I am now arguing that it is essential to
separate gender and sexuality analytically to reflect more accurately their separate social existence.
This goes against the grain of much contemporary feminist thought, which treats sexuality as a
derivation of gender. For instance, lesbian feminist ideology has mostly analysed the oppression of
lesbians in terms of the oppression of women. However, lesbians are also oppressed as queers and
perverts, by the operation of sexual, not gender, stratification. Although it pains many lesbians to
think about it, the fact is that lesbians have shared many of the sociological features and suffered
from many of the same social penalties as have gay men, sadomasochists, transvestites, and prostitutes.

Catherine MacKinnon has made the most explicit theoretical attempt to subsume sexuality under
feminist thought. According to MacKinnon, ‘Sexuality is to feminism what work is to marxism . . . the
moulding, direction, and expression of sexuality organizes society into two sexes, women and men’
(MacKinnon, 1982, pp. 5–16). This analytic strategy in turn rests on a decision to ‘use sex and gender
relatively interchangeably’ (MacKinnon, 1983, p. 635). It is this definitional fusion that I want to

There is an instructive analogy in the history of the differentiation of contemporary feminist
thought from Marxism. Marxism is probably the most supple and powerful conceptual system extant
for analysing social inequality. But attempts to make Marxism the sole explanatory system for all
social inequalities have been dismal exercises. Marxism is most successful in the areas of social life
for which it was originally developed – class relations under capitalism.

In the early days of the contemporary women’s movement, a theoretical conflict took place over
the applicability of Marxism to gender stratification. Since Marxist theory is relatively powerful, it
does in fact detect important and interesting aspects of gender oppression. It works best for those
issues of gender most closely related to issues of class and the organization of labour. The issues
more specific to the social structure of gender were not amenable to Marxist analysis.

The relationship between feminism and a radical theory of sexual oppression is similar. Feminist
conceptual tools were developed to detect and analyse gender-based hierarchies. To the extent that
these overlap with erotic stratifications, feminist theory has some explanatory power. But as issues
become less those of gender and more those of sexuality, feminist analysis becomes misleading and
often irrelevant. Feminist thought simply lacks angles of vision which can fully encompass the social
organization of sexuality. The criteria of relevance in feminist thought do not allow it to see or assess
critical power relations in the area of sexuality.

In the long run, feminism’s critique of gender hierarchy must be incorporated into a radical
theory of sex, and the critique of sexual oppression should enrich feminism. But an autonomous
theory and politics specific to sexuality must be developed.



It is a mistake to substitute feminism for Marxism as the last word in social theory. Feminism is no
more capable than Marxism of being the ultimate and complete account of all social inequality. Nor
is feminism the residual theory which can take care of everything to which Marx did not attend.
These critical tools were fashioned to handle very specific areas of social activity. Other areas of
social life, their forms of power, and their characteristic modes of oppression, need their own
conceptual implements. In this essay, I have argued for theoretical as well as sexual pluralism.


. . . these pleasures which we lightly call physical. . . (Colette, 1982, p. 72)

Like gender, sexuality is political. It is organized into systems of power, which reward and encourage
some individuals and activities, while punishing and suppressing others. Like the capitalist organization
of labour and its distribution of rewards and powers, the modern sexual system has been the object
of political struggle since it emerged and as it has evolved. But if the disputes between labour and
capital are mystified, sexual conflicts are completely camouflaged.

The legislative restructuring that took place at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early
decades of the twentieth was a refracted response to the emergence of the modern erotic system.
During that period, new erotic communities formed. It became possible to be a male homosexual or
a lesbian in a way it had not been previously. Mass-produced erotica became available, and the
possibilities for sexual commerce expanded. The first homosexual rights organizations were formed,
and the first analyses of sexual oppression were articulated (Lauritsen and Thorstad, 1974).

The repression of the 1950s was in part a backlash to the expansion of sexual communities and
possibilities which took place during World War II (D’Emilio, 1983; Bérubé, 1981a, 1981b). During
the 1950s, gay rights organizations were established, the Kinsey reports were published, and lesbian
literature flourished. The 1950s were a formative as well as a repressive era.

The current right-wing sexual counter-offensive is in part a reaction to the sexual liberalization of
the 1960s and early 1970s. Moreover, it has brought about a unified and self-conscious coalition of
sexual radicals. In one sense, what is now occurring is the emergence of a new sexual movement,
aware of new issues and seeking a new theoretical basis. The sex wars out on the streets have been
partly responsible for provoking a new intellectual focus on sexuality. The sexual system is shifting
once again, and we are seeing many symptoms of its change.

In Western culture, sex is taken all too seriously. A person is not considered immoral, is not sent
to prison, and is not expelled from her or his family, for enjoying spicy cuisine. But an individual
may go through all this and more for enjoying shoe leather. Ultimately, of what possible social
significance is it if a person likes to masturbate over a shoe? It may even be non-consensual, but
since we do not ask permission of our shoes to wear them, it hardly seems necessary to obtain
dispensation to come on them.

If sex is taken too seriously, sexual persecution is not taken seriously enough. There is systematic
mistreatment of individuals and communities on the basis of erotic taste or behaviour. There are
serious penalties for belonging to the various sexual occupational castes. The sexuality of the young
is denied, adult sexuality is often treated like a variety of nuclear waste, and the graphic representation
of sex takes place in a mire of legal and social circumlocution. Specific populations bear the brunt
of the current system of erotic power, but their persecution upholds a system that affects everyone.

The 1980s have already been a time of great sexual suffering. They have also been a time of
ferment and new possibility. It is up to all of us to try to prevent more barbarism and to encourage
erotic creativity. Those who consider themselves progressive need to examine their preconceptions,



update their sexual educations, and acquaint themselves with the existence and operation of sexual
hierarchy. It is time to recognize the political dimensions of erotic life.


It is always a treat to get to the point in a chapter when I can thank those who contributed to its
realization. Many of my ideas about the formation of sexual communities first occurred to me during
a course given by Charles Tilly on The Urbanization of Europe from 1500–1900’. Few courses could
ever provide as much excitement, stimulation, and conceptual richness as did that one. Daniel Tsang
alerted me to the significance of the events of 1977 and taught me to pay attention to sex law. Pat
Califia deepened my appreciation for human sexual variety and taught me to respect the muchmaligned
fields of sex research and sex education. Jeff Escoffier shared his powerful grasp of gay history and
sociology, and I have especially benefited from his insights into the gay economy. Allan Bérubé’s
work in progress on gay history has enabled me to think with more clarity about the dynamics of
sexual oppression. Conversations with Ellen Dubois, Amber Hollibaugh, Mary Ryan, Judy Stacey,
Kay Trimberger, Rayna Rapp, and Martha Vicinus have influenced the direction of my thinking.

I am very grateful to Cynthia Astuto for advice and research on legal matters, and to David Sachs,
book dealer extraordinary, for pointing out the right-wing pamphlet literature on sex. I am grateful
to Allan Bérubé, Ralph Bruno, Estelle Freedman, Kent Gerard, Barbara Kerr, Michael Shively, Carole
Vance, Bill Walker, and Judy Walkowitz for miscellaneous references and factual information. I
cannot begin to express my gratitude to those who read and commented on versions of this paper:
Jeanne Bergman, Sally Binford, Lynn Eden, Laura Engelstein, Jeff Escoffier, Carole Vance, and Ellen
Willis. Mark Leger both edited and performed acts of secretarial heroism in preparing the manuscript.
Marybeth Nelson provided emergency graphics assistance.

I owe special thanks to two friends whose care mitigated the strains of writing. E.S. kept my back
operational and guided me firmly through some monumental bouts of writer’s block. Cynthia Astuto’s
many kindnesses and unwavering support enabled me to keep working at an absurd pace for many

None of these individuals should be held responsible for my opinions, but I am grateful to them
all for inspiration, information, and assistance.

A Note on Definitions

Throughout this essay, I use terms such as homosexual, sex worker, and pervert. I use ‘homosexual’
to refer to both women and men. If I want to be more specific, I use terms such as ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay
male’. ‘Sex worker’ is intended to be more inclusive than ‘prostitute’, in order to encompass the
many jobs of the sex industry. Sex worker includes erotic dancers, strippers, porn models, nude
women who will talk to a customer via telephone hook-up and can be seen but not touched, phone
partners, and the various other employees of sex businesses such as receptionists, janitors and
barkers. Obviously, it also includes prostitutes, hustlers, and ‘male models’. I use the term ‘pervert’
as a shorthand for all the stigmatized sexual orientations. It is used to cover male and female
homosexuality as well but as these become less disreputable, the term has increasingly referred to
the other ‘deviations’. Terms such as ‘pervert’ and ‘deviant’ have, in general use, a connotation of
disapproval, disgust, and dislike. I am using these terms in a denotative fashion, and do not intend
them to convey any disapproval on my part.




1. Walkowitz’s entire discussion of the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon and its aftermath (1982, pp. 83–5)
is illuminating.

2. I am indebted to Allan Bérubé for calling my attention to this incident.
3. The following examples suggest avenues for additional research. A local crackdown at the University of

Michigan is documented in Tsang (1977a, 1977b). At the University of Michigan, the number of faculty
dismissed for alleged homosexuality appears to rival the number fired for alleged communist tendencies. It
would be interesting to have figures comparing the number of professors who lost their positions during
this period due to sexual and political offenses. On regulatory reform, many states passed laws during this
period prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages to ‘known sex perverts’ or providing that bars which
catered to ‘sex perverts’ be closed. Such a law was passed in California in 1955, and declared unconstitutional
by the state Supreme Court in 1959 (Allan Bérubé, personal communication). It would be of great interest
to know exactly which states passed such statutes, the dates of their enactment, the discussion that preceded
them, and how many are still on the books. On the persecution of other erotic populations, evidence
indicates that John Willie and Irving Klaw, the two premier producers and distributors of bondage erotica in
the United States from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, encountered frequent police harassment and
that Klaw, at least, was affected by a congressional investigation conducted by the Kefauver Committee. I
am indebted to personal communication from J.B. Rund for information on the careers of Willie and Klaw.
Published sources are scarce, but see Willie (1974); Rund (1977, 1978, 1979). It would be useful to have
more systematic information on legal shifts and police activity affecting non-gay erotic dissidence.

4. ‘Chicago is center of national child porno ring: the child predators’, ‘Child sex: square in new town tells it
all’, ‘U.S. orders hearings on child pornography: Rodino calls sex racket an “outrage”’, ‘Hunt six men, twenty
boys in crackdown’, Chicago Tribune, May 16, 1977; ‘Dentist seized in child sex raid: Carey to open probe’,
‘How ruses lure victims to child pornographers’, Chicago Tribune, 1977; ‘Child pornographers thrive on
legal confusion’, ‘U.S. raids hit porn sellers’, Chicago Tribune, 1977.

5. For more information on the ‘Kiddie porn panic’ see Califia (1980c, 1980d); Mitzel (1980); Rubin (1981). On
the issue of cross-generational relationships, see also Moody (1980); O’Carroll (1980); Tsang (1981) and
Wilson (1981).

6. ‘House passes tough bill on child porn’, San Francisco Chronicle, November 15, 1983, p.14.
7. This insight was first articulated by Mary McIntosh (1968); the idea has been developed in Jeffrey Weeks

(1977, 1981); see also D’Emilio (1983) and Rubin (1979).
8. A very useful discussion of these issues can be found in Robert Padgug (1979).
9. Lévi-Strauss (1970). In this conversation, Lévi-Strauss calls his position ‘a Kantianism without a transcendental

10. See, for example, ‘Pope praises couples for self-control’, San Francisco Chronicle, October 13, 1980; ‘Pope

says sexual arousal isn’t a sin if it’s ethical’, San Francisco Chronicle, November 6, 1980; ‘Pope condemns
“carnal lust” as abuse of human freedom’, San Francisco Chronicle, January 15, 1981; ‘Pope again hits
abortion, birth control’, San Francisco Chronicle, January 16, 1981; and ‘Sexuality, not sex in heaven’, San
Francisco Chronicle, December 3, 1981. See also footnote 18 below.

11. For further elaboration of these processes, see: Bérubé (1981a); D’Emilio (1981, 1983); Foucault (1978); Katz
(1976); Weeks (1977, 1981).

12. Vice cops also harass all sex businesses, be these gay bars, gay baths, adult book stores, the producers and
distribution of commercial erotica, or swing clubs.

13. This article (Norton, 1981) is a superb summary of much current sex law and should be required reading for
anyone interested in sex.

14. This earlier edition of the Sex Code of California preceded the 1976 consenting adults statute and consequently
gives a better overview of sodomy laws.

15. D’Emilio (1983, pp. 40–53) has an excellent discussion of gay oppression in the 1950s which covers many
of the areas I have mentioned. The dynamics he describes, however, are operative in modified forms for
other erotic populations, and in other periods. The specific model of gay oppression needs to be generalized
to apply, with appropriate modifications, to other sexual groups.



16. I have adopted this terminology from the very useful discussion in Weeks, 1981, pp. 14–15.
17. See Spooner, 1977, pp. 25–29. Feminist anti-porn discourse fits right into the tradition of justifying attempts

at moral control by claiming that such action will protect women and children from violence.
18. ‘Pope’s talk on sexual spontaneity’, San Francisco Chronicle, November 13, 1980, p. 8; see also footnote 10

above. Julia Penelope argues that ‘we do not need anything that labels itself purely sexual’ and that ‘fantasy,
as an aspect of sexuality, may be a phallocentric “need” from which we are not yet free . . .’ in Penelope,
1980, p. 103.

19. Moral Majority Report, July 1983. I am indebted to Allan Bérubé for calling my attention to this image.
20. See for example Lederer (1980); Dworkin (1981). The Newspage of San Francisco’s Women Against Violence

in Pornography and Media and the Newsreport of New York Women Against Pornography are excellent

21. Gearhart (1979); Rich (1979, p. 225). (On the other hand, there is homosexual patriarchal culture, a culture
created by homosexual men, reflecting such male stereotypes as dominance and submission as modes of
relationship, and separation of sex from emotional involvement – a culture tainted by profound hatred for
women. The male ‘gay’ culture has offered lesbians the imitation role-stereotypes of ‘butch’ and ‘femme’,
‘active’ and ‘passive’, cruising, sadomasochism, and the violent, self-destructive world of ‘gay bars’); Pasternack
(1983); Rich (1983).

22. A further elaboration of this tendency can be found in Pasternack, 1983.
23. Califia (1980a, 1980b, 1980c, 1980d, 1980e, 1981b, 1982a, 1982b, 1983a, 1983b, 1983c); English, Hollibaugh,

and Rubin (1981a, 1981b); Hollibaugh (1983); Holz (1983); O’Dair (1983); Orlando (1982a); Russ (1982);
Samois (1979, 1982); Sundhal (1983); Wechsler (1981a, 1981b); Willis (1981). For an excellent overview of
the history of the ideological shifts in feminism which have affected the sex debates, see Echols (1983).

24. I am indebted to Jeanne Bergman for calling my attention to this quote.
25. See for example, Benjamin (1983, p. 297) and Rich (1983).
26. Taylor v. State, 214 Md. 156, 165, 133 A. 2d 414, 418. This quote is from a dissenting opinion, but it is a

statement of prevailing law.
27. See note 14 above.
28. ‘Marine and Mom Guilty of Incest’, San Francisco Chronicle, November 16, 1979, p. 16.
29. People v. Samuels, 250 Cal. App. 2d 501, 513, 58 Cal. Rptr. 439, 447 (1967).
30. People v. Samuels, 250 Cal. App. 2d at 513–514, 58 Cal. Rptr. at 447.
31. But see also pp. 286, 291–7.


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WECHSLER, N. (1981a ) ‘Interview with Pat Califia and Gayle Rubin, part I’, Gay Community News , July 18,

WECHSLER, N. (1981b ) ‘Interview with Pat Califia and Gayle Rubin, part II’, Gay Community News , August 15,

WEEKS, J. (1977 ) Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present , New

York: Quartet.
WEEKS, J. (1981 ) Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800 , New York: Longman.



WILLIAMS, F.E. (1936 ) Papuans of the Trans-Fly , Oxford: Clarendon.
WILLIE, J. (1974 ) The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline , New York: Belier Press.
WILLIS, E. (1981 ) Beginning to See the Light , New York: Knopf.
WILLIS, E. (1982 ) ‘Who is feminist? An open letter to Robin Morgan’, Village Voice , Literary Supplement,

December, [n.p.n.].
WILSON, E. (1983 ) ‘The context of “between pleasure and danger”: The Barnard Conference on Sexuality’,

Feminist Review , 13, Spring, pp. 35–41.
WILSON, P. (1981 ) The Man They Called A Monster , New South Wales: Cassell Australia.
WOLFE, A. and SANDERS, J. (1979 ) ‘Resurgent cold war ideology: the case of the Committee on the Present

Danger’, in FAGEN, R. (Ed.) Capitalism and the State in U.S.–Latin American Relations , Stanford: Stanford
University Press.

ZAMBACO, D. (1981 ) ‘Onanism and nervous disorders in two girls’, in PERALDI, F. (Ed.) Polysexuality,
Semiotext(e), 4, 1, [n.p.n.].



‘The Unclean Motion of the Generative Parts’:
Frameworks in Western Thought on Sexuality

Robert W. Connell and Gary W. Dowsett

Sexuality is a major theme in our culture, from the surf video to the opera stage to the papal
encyclical. It is, accordingly, one of the major themes of the human sciences, and figures as weighty
as Darwin and Freud have made major contributions to it. Social research has, over the last hundred
years, produced crucially important evidence for the understanding of sexuality. But social theory
has been slow to grapple with the issue, to give it the sophisticated attention that has been devoted
to questions of production or of communication.

We are convinced that an adequate social theory of sexuality is essential for progress on ‘applied’
issues, such as the design of research on the social transmission of human immunodeficiency virus
(HIV). This chapter attempts a mapping exercise, sorting out the major intellectual frameworks that
have governed Western thinking about sexuality. We discuss first the religious and scientific nativism
that dominated the field into the twentieth century, the problems this approach ran into, and the rise
of social construction approaches to sexuality. We discuss the impasse that social constructionism
has reached. In the final part of the chapter we sketch the outline of an approach which can move
past these difficulties.

Governing such a large issue in a short time necessitates taking a fairly broad approach. But we
hope to give enough of the key details to show the practical significance of theoretical frameworks.


At the bedrock of our culture’s thinking about sexuality is the assumption that a given pattern of
sexuality is native to the human constitution. We will call this position ‘nativism’. It has much in
common with what others call ‘essentialism’, but we want to stress the assumption about origin.
Whether laid down by God, achieved by evolution, or settled by the hormones, the nativist assumption
is that sexuality is fundamentally pre-social. Whatever society does, in attempts to control, channel
or restrict, cannot alter the fundamentals of sexuality.

Until quite recently in Western culture nativism was mainly expressed in religious terms. In the ascetic
Christian tradition sexuality was read as ‘lust’. It was part of the old Adam, an aspect of fallen humanity to
be wrestled with and defeated. As Saint Augustine, no stranger to the pleasures of the flesh, put it:

Although therefore there may be many lusts, yet when we read the word ‘lust’ alone
without mention of the object, we commonly take it for the unclean motion of the

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    Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

    Jillian Hernández, Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research, University of








    Published online:


    February 20


    Racialized sexuality is a term that describes the linking of racial attributes to sexual comportment. Racialized
    sexualities have been produced through colonial conquest in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. European discourses
    framed colonized subjects as racial and thus sexual others—as different kinds of human beings with deviant erotic
    practices. The colonial and racist underpinnings of religion, law, and science have produced pervasive tropes of, for
    example, the sexual excess of Native and African peoples and the sexual submissiveness of Asian peoples. These
    stereotypes have had an enduring impact on the representations of racialized people’s sexual subjectivities in art
    and media, in addition to academic knowledge production. Representations of the insatiable lust and spitfire of
    Black and Latina women, the sexual submissiveness of Asian women, the lack of Asian men and the predatory
    sexualities of Black men, stem from centuries of discursive circulation in fields ranging from biology to
    anthropology, which in turned shaped how such tropes have been taken up and reproduced in cultural production.

    With the understanding that racialized sexuality is a colonial product, scholars invested in anti-racism and queer
    politics have problematized the scientific racisms that have upheld dominant discourses of racialized sexualities by
    exposing their deficient methodologies, ethical violations, and often eugenicist agendas. Racialized sexualities have
    been lived by colonized subjects through a wide range of violences via chattel slavery, and in the early 21st century,
    through eroticized violence such as that inflicted on the Arab detainees of Abu Gharib prison by the United States
    military following 9/11. While acknowledging how racialized sexuality is intimately wedded to experiences of
    violation and injury, contemporary artists and scholars of sexuality have also worked to show how the very tropes
    that dehumanize people of color are also marked by ambivalence. These representations often present the
    possibilities of both pleasure and pain for racialized subjects and thus are in turns claimed, disavowed, and altered
    through art and scholarship in order to highlight the complexities of how racialized sexualities are experienced.
    Queer and trans artists of color are at the forefront of demonstrating the potential of transforming racialized
    sexualities from a colonial product to a creative practice.

    Keywords: race, sexuality, colonialism, gender, representation, cultural production, creativity, erotics

    Subjects: North American Literatures

    Beyond normative ideas about the sexualities of colonized peoples, racialized sexualities can also
    be understood more expansively as complex processes in flux. Racialized sexualities encompass
    ideas and experiences, stereotypes and social constructions as well as fantasies, sensations,
    embodiments, and creative practices that are constantly undergoing transformation and
    negotiation. Scholars and cultural practitioners have engaged racialized sexualities through
    transnational histories, memoirs and testimonios, art, literature, music, film, and video. These
    varied productions of knowledge demonstrate how science, law, immigration, exile, religion, and

    Jillian Hernández, Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research, University of

    46 production

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    broader processes of racialization and gendering shape the sexual representations, identities and
    practices of people of color. Creative practice has been a significant method for complicating the
    master narratives of racialized sexualities that stem from Euro-American colonialism and
    scientific racism.

    Racial Difference as Sexual Deviance

    Racialized sexuality, the social and cultural production of discourses and images that bind racial
    attributes to sexual comportment and subjectivity, is a product of European colonialism and
    modernity. Notions of racial difference emerged in the 18th century as colonial encounters with
    the peoples of Asia, Africa, and the Americas spurred an interest in investigating variations in
    phenotypical attributes through emerging scientific classification methods and Darwinian
    discourses of evolution.1 In the 18th century, the notion of a “Great Chain of Being” was drawn
    upon in Europe to support the notion that natural differences among human beings justified their
    differential treatment and access to rights. The Great Chain of Being posited that “species were
    immutable entities arrayed along a fixed and vertical hierarchy stretching from God down to the
    lowliest sentient being.”2 For example, African peoples were situated as bridging orangutans and
    humans on the Great Chain of Being.3 Beyond generating tropes of sexual personhood, Anne
    McClintock argues that notions of racialized sexuality emerged along with the sexualization of
    the colonial landscape itself. In referencing a map of southern Africa found in Henry Rider
    Haggard’s novel King Solomon’s Mines of 1885, she notes that the diamond mine map illustrated
    therein, which refers to a mountain range as “Sheba’s breasts,” appears like a diagram of a
    women’s body “spread-eagled and truncated—the only parts drawn are those that denote female
    sexuality”.4 The colonialists in the novel describe entering these new territories in the eroticized
    language of sexual conquest, intrigue, and mystery. Such discourses are examples of what Black
    feminist scholar Hortense Spillers describes as the colonial pornotroping of African peoples,
    namely the framing of them as outside the realm of the human, as flesh that is subject to physical
    and sexual violence.


    While such colonial projects were underway, discourses were circulating in Europe that framed
    sexuality as the truth of the subject. Through challenging the notion of the repressive hypothesis,
    the widespread notion that sexuality during the Victorian era in Europe was repressed and
    silenced, Michel Foucault has famously and persuasively argued that in fact, there was a social
    and cultural imperative to speak about sex in the Victorian era.6 Assessments of sexuality became
    utilized in institutions such as churches, schools, doctors’ offices, and psychiatric clinics to
    determine a subject’s state of wellness or disease, morality or deviance. Viewed as an innate
    biological drive intrinsic to the subject, sexuality was framed as the individual’s constitutive
    truth.7 Thus, the appraisal of one’s sexuality in the clinic examination room, psychiatrist’s couch,
    or church confessional provided mechanisms for classifying subjects as normal or abnormal. This
    is the regime of knowledge and power that Foucault describes as scientia sexualis, the science of
    sex. Foucault notes that people were encouraged to tell the truth of their sex as a way to implicate
    them into the networks of power of these various institutions as a form of biopolitics. Biopolitics
    is the interest that modern states took in the biological health of the population by gathering








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    demographic data and engaging in public health projects to protect the social body from
    degeneracies which were imagined in racial, gender, and class terms. Although Foucault noted
    that the modern discourse of sexuality oppressed women, who were often framed as hysterics if
    their sexuality was deemed abnormal, and those who would be labeled “homosexual,” he did not
    attend to the ways that the modern regime of sexuality and its attendant biopolitics affected
    racialized peoples under European colonialism.


    For example, under the system of chattel slavery in the United States and elsewhere, black women
    could not claim to have been raped as they were viewed as lower on the chain of being than white
    men and women, with an excessive sexuality compared to that of animals. As a result of this
    dehumanizing discourse, black women were framed as depraved by nature, and thus incapable of
    being violated, making them subject not only to sexual violence but also to scientific
    experimentation without consent. Black slave women were the primary test subjects of American
    gynecology, and they underwent unanesthetized surgeries by doctors such as J. Marion Sims.


    These dehumanizing ideas and practices were buttressed by the scientific racism of European
    doctors such as Henri de Blainville and Georges Cuvier, known as one of the founders of modern
    biology, who conducted studies of the bodies of African women and crafted arguments about how
    so-called anatomical “abnormalities,” such as purportedly enlarged labia or buttocks, provided
    physical evidence of their sexual aberrance.


    Men of color were also framed as hypersexual under chattel slavery and colonialism and the
    modern European regime of sexuality described by Foucault, which linked the “fate of the race
    and the nation” to individual sexual practices were also mapping colonial relations in Africa,
    Asia, and the Americas. Stoler notes how “Maryland legislators had already made such
    connections in 1


    4 when they focused on the sexual inclinations of white women who bedded
    with ‘non-white’ men as targets of concern, accusing them, as in the Indies, of causing ‘disgrace
    not only to the English but also of many other Christian nations.’”11 Notions of men of color’s
    uncontainable sexuality fed the white slave panic in the early 20th-century United States, which
    framed white women and girls as imperiled due to the then burgeoning youth night life culture
    that coincided with increased immigrant and African American presence in cities like Chicago.


    Recent work by scholars such as L. H. Stallings and Greg Thomas have shifted the scholarly
    discourse beyond the regulatory foci of Foucault and the binaries of the pleasures of sex (ars
    erotica) versus the truth of sex (scientia sexualis), to the alternative formations and philosophies
    of sexuality among racialized peoples that manifest in creative practice.13 In Funk the Erotic:
    Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures, Stallings argues that funk, understood expansively in its
    creative and physical manifestations as musical genre and bodily smell, draws on the imagination
    as resource, producing







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    fictions of sex to counter the truth of sex. Instead of downbeats and bass lines, writers
    and performers use sexually explicit expressions and unique ideas about sex and work to
    undo the coloniality of being/ truth/ freedom. I am calling this literary tradition funky
    erotixxx rather than black erotica because its texts form a black-Atlantic communal
    narrative on the fluid practice of what I theorize as “sacredly profane sexuality,” as
    opposed to sexuality or sacred sexuality in other cultures. Sacredly profane sexuality
    ritualizes and makes sacred what is libidinous and blasphemous in Western humanism so
    as to unset and criticize the inherent imperialistic aims within its social mores and sexual


    Being attentive to the histories and organic sexual formations of Black diaspora peoples allows
    for an understanding of how contemporary black cultural producers embrace their
    hypersexualization through the raunch aesthetics of hip hop music.15 The sexually explicit music
    of performers like Yo! Majesty, Blowfly, and 2 Live Crew inhabit stereotypes of the sexually
    insatiable Black subject to create carnivalesque spaces for communal Black pleasures.


    Yet, when Black men and women reframe and reclaim the sexual scripts inscribed upon them by
    colonial white supremacist discourse, they are censored and posed as dangerous to youth.17 For
    example, the music of 2 Live Crew was censored in 1990, when they were arrested following a live
    show under charges of obscenity, and the labeling of their album As Nasty As They Wanna Be
    (1989) as obscene by a federal judge. In 2014 rap artist Nicki Minaj was widely decried over the
    cover art for her hit single “Anaconda,” while a similarly revealing cover of a Sports Illustrated
    magazine cover at the time was unremarked upon in cultural discourse.18 The “Anaconda” image
    featured the artist photographed from behind in a spread-eagled squat position in a pink thong,
    pink bra and sneakers, with her head turned around to face the camera with a steady and
    commanding gaze. The image drew negative backlash in the media as vulgar and hypersexual,
    which the artist responded to via Instagram posts that juxtaposed her image with the then-
    current issue of Sports Illustrated, which featured three thin topless young white women in thongs
    photographed from the rear at a beach. By placing the accompanying caption “Angelic,
    acceptable, lol” on her post of the young women on the Sports Illustrated cover and
    “UNACCEPTABLE” with the post of her Anaconda photo, the artist directly critiqued the double-
    standard that sanctions white women’s sexual display in mainstream spaces while vilifying that
    of a Black woman as inappropriate, dangerous to youth, and excessive.

    Regulating Erotics, Sexuality and Governmentality

    Colonial rule resulted in decades of church and state efforts to regulate the sexualities and
    reproduction of racialized populations, which were viewed as savage and in need of intervention.
    For example, the Catholic church in colonial Mexico would subject people to Inquisition
    proceedings if they were suspected of illicit or blasphemous desires or sexual practices,
    sometimes based on information garnered from church confessions.19 In Reproducing Empire:
    Race, Sex, Science and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico, Laura Briggs describes the transnational
    traffic in tropical medicine and prostitution law in the 19th century, specifically how the British







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    Contagious Diseases acts subjected sex workers to vaginal inspection for disease and hospital
    confinement to protect colonial soldiers.20 These medical practices, informed by scientific
    racism, spread from British India to other colonial spaces around the world, including Puerto
    Rico. The attendant discourses of these practices framed venereal diseases as stemming from
    racialized peoples, and women of color in particular.

    In addition to attempting to control the sexuality of racialized subjects in colonial territories,
    sexuality is often used to manage and police the borders of First World nations such as the United
    States. Eithne Luibhéid has discussed how rape is often not viewed as a justification for women
    migrants from the global South seeking asylum in the United States, and that when they are
    placed in detention during processing they are then made vulnerable to sexual assault by guards.
    As border crossers are imagined as already breaking the law, migrant women are viewed as
    criminal and undeserving of due process rights. Migrant women also experience rape at the
    border by agents who abuse their power in determining whether or not they are allowed entry.
    Luibhéid argues that “Since rape is a technology for (re)producing hierarchical social
    relationships, it reconstructs borders. These borders are not reducible to the nation’s territorial
    borders, however. Instead, they involve social, economic, political, and symbolic orders within
    the United States that connect to sexuality, gender, race, and class inequalities . . . rape at the
    border by the Border Patrol is a site for reinscription by the state of the social body as stratified by
    gender, sexuality, race, class, and legal status.”21

    Lubhéid’s argument holds for the treatment of queer male Cuban migrants of the Mariel boatlift
    of 1980, who, while held in Immigration and Detention facilities in the United States, were barred
    from engaging in gender non-conformity (though it has been documented that many openly
    broke these rules). For example, signs were placed prominently in refugee housing barracks
    prohibiting residents from wearing women’s clothing or makeup. At the time, the McCarran-
    Walter act prohibited queer people from entering the United States because homosexuality was
    viewed as a mental illness. The United States made a tacit exemption of the Marielitos from this
    policy by not asking entrants about their sexual orientation, which was a way of sidestepping the
    law while continuing to engage in the Cold War politics of receiving the exiles of Communist

    In the post-9/11 period the United States has engaged in a homonationalist discourse that frames
    the nation as exceptional in its acceptance of queer sexualities in order to frame Arab nations as
    hyper-misogynist and homophobic, thus justifying military intervention in countries such as
    Iraq and Afghanistan.23 The revelation of the abuses of the U.S. military at the Abu-Gharib prison,
    many of which were sexual in nature, demonstrated how colonial violence is often meted out in
    erotic terms.


    Mayanthi Fernando has noted how the embrace of European gender and sexual
    mores and secularism by some Muslim immigrant women in France who denounce headscarves
    and Islam has framed the Islamophobic state as the protector of women of color. Fernando argues
    that this phenomenon has had the effect of bolstering the neoliberal sovereignty of France while
    simultaneously framing Arab men as violent misogynists and sexual predators who threaten the
    nation, with Muslim women wearing headscarves viewed as oppressed. Fatima El-Tayeb has
    noted how such Islamophobic discourses in the West, which frame Islam as a culture rather than
    a religion, make the notion of queer Muslims virtually unintelligible in the Western imaginary.






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    Mainstream LGBT discourses, which imagine coming out as the ultimate marker of liberated
    queer subjectivity, fail to take into account the complex ways queers of color, particularly those
    who are working-class migrants, negotiate their performances of gender and sexuality, and
    information regarding their relationships, in their ethnic communities.


    Working-class communities of color in the United States have been imagined as gender-deviant
    and sexually deviant in canonical sociological scholarship and government policy. This has been
    expressed in influential social studies such as the Moynihan Report of 1965, which portrayed
    women-headed Black families as the primary cause for the economic, social, and educational
    marginalization of African Americans. Oscar Lewis’s influential ethnography La Vida: A Puerto
    Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty-San Juan and Puerto Rico (1966), depicted the Puerto Rican
    family as possessing a “culture of poverty,” that, in a similar framing to that of the Moynihan
    report on African Americans, is marked by a “mostly female, disordered sexuality whose
    ‘pathological’ results (free unions, unstable marriages, high rates of illegitimacy, and matrifocal
    households) were perpetuated culturally through deficient child rearing or bad mothering.”


    These discourses continue to circulate culturally through films such as Precious (2009, Lee
    Daniels), which tells the story of a poor young Black woman who is an incest survivor subject to
    the abuse of her pathological mother, who is single, cheats the welfare system, fails out of school,
    and does not work. In the mass market film, which provides a much less nuanced depiction of
    poor Black girlhood than the novel Push (1996) upon which it was based, Precious finds
    redemption by dedicating herself to education and performing selfless motherhood to her two
    young children. Such cultural texts demonstrate Roderick A. Ferguson’s contention that the
    framing of Black gender and sexual deviance has been attended by and functions through
    discourses that link the overcoming of social marginalization and inequality as facilitated by the
    performance of normative and respectable gender, sexual, and family formations.


    Framed, But Uncontained

    Considering how knowledge production has been utilized to bolster the dehumanizing tropes of
    racialized sexuality and their attendant modes of social and state regulation, scholars of color
    have undertaken their own research to complicate and push back against dominant narratives.
    Many of these projects entail looking back at historical representations to understand how they
    continue to inform how people of color experience their racialized sexualities and how their
    meanings are being negotiated socially and culturally.28 Race and sexuality studies scholarship is
    often marked by ambivalence. On the one hand, scholars reckon with and critique negative
    historical representations informed by colonial discourse such as, for example, tropes of Black
    women’s hypersexuality and Asian men’s lack of sexual virility, but they also explore the
    potential such constructions have for complicating racist heteronormatvity and opening risky
    and unexamined pathways to erotic agency.

    For example, artist and scholar Nguyen Tan Hoang’s book A View from the Bottom: Asian/American
    Masculinities and Sexual Representation, is inspired by his video work Forever Bottom! (1999). The
    video features Nguyen alone in various indoor and outdoor settings in the receptive bottom





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    sexual position in gay sex as a way of reclaiming it from its abjected status as an abdication of
    masculinity and power.29 The bottom is a position also ascribed to Asian/American men through
    tropes of feminization and abject masculinities, but the images in Forever Bottom! highlight its
    pleasures. Nguyen’s book explores how Asian/American masculinity is shaped through tropes of
    bottomhood more broadly, which he frames as a sexual position, social alliance, and aesthetic
    form.30 Although being presented as submissive bottoms in visual culture has constrained
    representations of the complexities of Asian/American masculinities and sexuality, Nguyen
    argues that bottomhood is also powerful because it rejects the problematic tactic of attempting to
    reclaim Asian manhood by performing a heteronormative masculinity that is steeped in sexism.

    In A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women and Pornography, Mireille Miller-Young reads early 20th-
    century stag pornography in the U.S. featuring black women, many of which had racist storylines,
    and performs nuanced readings that consider how the women who performed in them subverted
    the plots through their gestures and facial expressions.31 Miller-Young argues that through
    engaging in such work, black women “show[ed] an unruly desire to cross boundaries and to
    transgress social rules. By refusing the call by black social reformers and political activists to
    make themselves into images of moral and respectable womanhood as a counter to black
    women’s stigmatized, hypervisible sexuality, some black pornographic actresses might have
    exhibited their sexualities on different terms—terms that understood their refusal to veil their
    expressive sexuality or forego their sex work.”32 Celine Parreñas Shimizu, author of The
    Hypersexuality of Race: Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene, makes similar arguments about
    Asian/American women in contemporary pornography.33 She has also directed several sexually
    explicit films starring Asian/American women and brings that production experience to bear on
    her analysis. These scholars of racialized sexuality understand that cultural production and
    creative practice are critical objects of analysis to engage, as they carry dominant meanings and
    also have the potential to transform them.

    Visual culture has played a significant role in the discursive production of racialized sexualities.
    Diagrams and illustrations of so-called Hottentot women circulated widely in the 19th century,
    and figures such as Saartje Bartmann, a woman from the KoiKoi tribe of the Eastern Cape of South
    Africa, called the “Hottentot Venus,” were presented semi-nude in public settings to offer
    Europeans an opportunity to view her body, which was framed as evidence of human difference as
    racial-sexual deviance.34 Cartoons depicting audiences’ reactions to Bartmann’s body portray
    European men and women gazing at her buttocks and genitalia with alternating expressions of
    disgust, intrigue, and titillation. As photography emerged as a popular form of image making in
    the late 19th century, African women became the subjects of both ethnographic and pornographic
    visual production (often both at once), with their dark skin, the signifier of their racial difference,
    framed as a titillating trait.


    Sander Gilman has described how the racialized sexuality attributed
    to black women also shaped discourses concerning white women’s sexuality. In his study of 19th
    century art, literature and medical illustration, Gilman has shown how images of white women
    considered sexually amoral, such as prostitutes, were often accompanied by figures of black
    women and men, one famous example being Edouard Manet’s painting Olympia (1863), in which
    a reclining nude white woman looks defiantly out to the viewer while her matronly black maid








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    presents her with a bouquet of flowers from a suitor.36 Gilman argues that the presences of these
    black figures thus marked the white women in the images as prone to sexual aberrance by visual

    Black women artists and playwrights such as Suzan-Lori Parks and Renee Cox have engaged with
    the history of Bartmaan as a way of complicating notions of Black women’s sexual agency and
    subjection and underscoring the relevance of this history in contemporary culture.37 In The
    Anarcha Project, an initiative organized by a collective of artists and scholars that included Petra
    Kuppers, Anita Gonzalez, Carrie Sandahl, Tiye Giraud, and Aimee Meredith Cox, performance
    informed by extensive archival research was used to engage the histories of Anarcha, Lucy, and
    Betsy, the Alabama slave women who were subjected to gynecologist J. Marion Sims’s tortuous
    gynecological experiments. The collective describes the projected as using dance, spoken-word
    poetry, theater, music, and other media to celebrate “folkloric healing practices, explore ethical
    relationships to history, and interrogate the on-going abuse of marginalized people in health
    care practices today.”


    Images of racialized women captured by doctors, anthropologists, and amateur photographers
    circulated widely as a form of pornography. Malek Alloula has studied the representation of
    Algerian women in colonial postcards produced in the early 20th century.39 The images not only
    aimed to provide male Europeans a rare peek behind harem walls and under Arab women’s veils
    by focusing on exposed breasts and sometimes nudity, but markedly, the prominent framing of
    objects such as tea sets and ornate interiors eroticized the markers of Arab cultural difference
    themselves. Similar approaches are found in Orientalist early film representations of Arab and
    Asian women that frame them as mysterious seductresses marked by their ornamentalism.


    Arab dress continues to have a hold on the Western sexual imaginary as 21st-century Arab women
    porn performers such as Nadia Ali and Mia Khalifa attract millions of viewers online when they
    don Islamic dress in their scenes.

    While colonizers took advantage of their power to have sexual access to the bodies of racialized
    subjects, these encounters also caused panic as the resulting offspring defied the racial logics
    undergirding the colonial project by blurring the boundaries of racial difference established by
    scientific racism.41 For example, 18th-century Mexican casta paintings featured images of
    interracial couples and their offspring in ordered, grid formations, along with terms for new
    racial taxonomies. The casta paintings evidence a desire to place a hierarchical order upon the
    new racial formations resulting from interracial couplings.

    Notions of interracial sexual violence have also shaped notions of race and nation. For example,
    in his 1950 book The Labyrinth of Solitude, writer Octavio Paz famously frames Mexico as a
    mestizo, mixed-race state by referencing the sexual relationship between the Spanish
    conquistador Hernán Cortes and Malitzin, known as La Malinche, a Nahuatl woman who served
    as his interpreter and whom bore several of his children.


    Paz fames the native woman as a
    figure of racial betrayal, wanton sexuality, and victimization (as La Chingada, the “fucked one”),
    who is responsible for the continual subjection of Mexico to colonialist violation by Spain and








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    later, the United States. Chicana feminist scholars have reclaimed the figure of La Malinche as one
    that signifies the vicissitudes of agency and victimization that mark Chicana racial and national
    identification and desire.


    Through decades of sexual relations between European men and black women slaves on
    Caribbean islands where there were few European women, Omi’seke Natasha Tinsley has noted
    that these relations “at once institutionalized and domesticated slavery’s social imbalances,
    embedding them in the realm of the intimate in ways that partnerships between slaves could
    not.”44 Tinsley observes that free women of color eventually outnumbered white men, white
    women, and free men of color.45 This unsettling formation to the planter colonial state resulted
    in the creation of sumptuary laws aimed to curb the new freedoms of women of color. Such laws
    aimed to keep them “from being classed too closely to white ladies but also legally restricted their
    ability to be gendered like them, ensuring that the latter’s femininity never looked or sounded
    like the former’s (even if they attracted the same sexual partners) . . . They carefully
    mythologized a split between the luminous attraction of white ladyhood’s receptive femininity
    and the glittering seduction of brown womanhood’s aggressive voluptuousness.”46 One example
    of the regulations Tinsley describes is the Tignón law established by the Spanish Governor of
    Louisiana in 1786 that forced women of color to cover their hair, as it was believed to attract the
    attention of white men, diverting their gazes from the bodies of white women. Artist Firelei Baez,
    a Dominican Republic-born artist of Haitian and Dominican parentage, explores these politics in
    her practice. In works such as Sans-Souci (2015), she references the Tignón law, and in describing
    the ideas that shape the work, states that women of color “started making the most beautiful
    headdresses imaginable, to the point where they became the fashion in Europe.”47 So the law had
    the unintended effect of attracting even more attention to the bodies of women of color, who
    were a spectacular sight in their elegant head wraps. In Baez’s work, the elaborate ornamentation
    of the tignón takes on a life of its own, expressing the subjectivity of the figure, whose facial
    features are obscured save for her arresting gaze. For racialized and sexualized women and girls,
    colonial prohibitions become the grounds for aesthetic innovation and corporeal expressions of
    subjectivity, which then become appropriated Euro-American trends.

    In colonial Cuba, notions voluptuousness, or sexual aggressiveness of mulata (mixed race)
    women of color were also rooted in panics over racial purity on the island. Popular images of
    mulatas that circulated in the 19th century, such as those created by the Spanish artist Victor
    Patricio Landaluze, frame them as sexually assertive women whose irrepressible lust leads them
    to ruin and despair.48 This is the cautionary narrative depicted in a well-known series of cigar
    labels (marquillas), that tell the story of a mulata who ensnares a white man into a sexual
    relationship for financial gain, only to later be abandoned by him after she bears his child. She
    eventually becomes destitute, ill from venereal disease, and dies alone, with her mulata daughter
    framed as promising to follow in her path of sexual depravity.


    These 19th-century images inform the history of Afro-Cubana representations in Latin American
    cultural production such as Golden Age Mexican cabareta films like Victimas del Pecado (Victims of
    Sin) (1951), that featured famous Cuban rumberas like Ninón Sevilla to signify Afrolatinidad as a
    uniquely Caribbean (and thus not Mexican) phenomenon. In these representations shapely light-
    skinned Cubanas, often paired with more dark-skinned, matronly Afrolatina co-stars like the








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    legendary Cuban actress Rita Montaner, suture Latinx femininity to Black sexuality through
    tropes of the tragic mulata whose gendered downfall is caused by her toxic and uncontainable
    eroticism, signaled by her curves and the aesthetic excess of the ruffles and sequins on her
    costumes. Such images of Afrolatinas shape the market for sex tourism in Latin American
    countries, much like Orientalist notions of Asian women’s sexual difference shape tourism in
    countries like Thailand.


    Racialized Sexuality as Creative Practice

    Although the sexuality of Black, Latina, and Asian American women has been framed through
    tropes of racialized sexual deviance, contemporary women of color cultural producers, porn
    performers, and sex workers have tarried with these representational histories by critiquing the
    colonial racism inherent in the representations while also embracing the hypersexuality that has
    been ascribed to them. This is an approach that scholar Celine Parreñas Shimizu describes as
    race-positive sexuality, an approach that Asian American women and other women of color
    employ in their cultural production to “present pleasure, pain, and trauma simultaneously in
    ways that embrace the liberating possibilities of sexuality while also acknowledging the risks of
    reifying perversity and pathology traditionally ascribed to women of color in popular culture.”


    The work of women of color cultural producers who embrace race-positive sexualities reveals
    how their sexual subjectivities are uncontained by colonial tropes, even though they are
    nevertheless shaped by them. By transforming sexual inscription into art, women of color
    cultural workers transform racialized sexuality from a colonial product to a creative practice.

    For example, in responding to the fetishization, dehumanization, and cultural erasure of
    Afrolatinas in representation, the sociocultural critic and artist Zahira Kelly generates images of
    nude Black women admiring and pleasuring themselves.52 The Korean American comedian
    Margaret Cho often engages in raunch aesthetics by performing hypersexuality as a way of
    exposing the absurdly flattening tropes of Asian women’s racialized sexuality.53 Artist Xandra
    Ibarra, who also uses the alias La Chica Boom playfully engages tropes of racialized sexuality in
    her work. In Tapatio Cock and Strap-On Ibarra affixes the iconic bottle of Tapatío brand hot sauce
    with a leather strap-on harness to evoke tropes of Latinx sexual spitfire and poke fun at
    heteropatriarchal mythologies of Latinx male virility.


    Juana Maria Rodríguez has analyzed
    performance works by Ibarra such as I’m Your Puppet (2007), in which Ibarra enacts a scene where
    a Mexican migrant woman embodied as a marionette crosses the border and becomes both
    violated and seduced by a butch woman border patrol officer. Rodríguez describes how the
    performance elicited varied responses among the audience of primarily people of color, it was
    upsetting to some audience members who felt triggered by the scene of racialized violation by the
    state, while other audience members were aroused by the piece, so much so that they were
    inspired to reenact the narratives with their sexual partners. In analyzing these varied responses
    Rodriguez notes that this “is the type of sexual fantasy that we not confess, the type of sexual
    fantasy that marks us as improper sexual subjects of feminist politics. As racialized queers, we are
    not supposed to be aroused by scenes of state subjection, let alone reenact them. When we find
    perverse pleasure in these moments of submission or domination, we expose our own erotic






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    attachments to power, to other scenes and stages that jumble together desire and disgust.”55 In
    her novel Flaming Iguanas, Erika Lopez crafts a lush narrative of a biracial and bisexual Latina
    who traverses the United States in a motorcycle in an appropriation of tropes of white men’s self-
    discovery through travel.56 Throughout the novel, the sexual misadventures of Tomato, the
    protagonist, provide complex insights on queer Latina sexual subjectivity as she navigates sexual
    encounters that often blur the boundaries of coercion and consent, racial fetishization and self-

    Women of color sex workers and pornographic models and performers also reclaim their
    racialized sexualities through a process that Mireille Miller-Young calls, “putting hypersexuality
    to work,” in fulfilling their desires for pleasure, exhibitionism, and social mobility.57 For
    example, inspired by the uninhibited sexuality and exhibitionism of early Latina film stars such
    as Isabel Sarli, the legendary Latina porn performer Vanessa Del Rio made the decision to become
    a self-described “whore” by engaging in sex work and performing in pornographic films as an
    alternative to the gendered restrictions of Latina heteronormativy and respectability.58 Yessica
    Garcia Hernandez has argued that the Chicana banda performer Jenni Rivera opened spaces for
    working-class Latina sex and body positivity by celebrating intoxication in both her live
    performances where she would ingest liquor, but also through the sounds of her music, leading
    many fans to remove their bras in concerts and threw them to her.59 Some Black women BDSM
    and porn performers engage in forms of race play where they assume stereotypical tropes of
    Black femininity, or engage in porn narratives that eroticize the master/ slave relations of chattel
    slavery, such as the film Get My Belt (2013). In describing how the Black actress who plays the role
    of the female slave named Skin in Get My Belt, experiences pleasure in scenes that eroticize
    racialized sexual violence through rough sex, Ariane Cruz contends that her performance
    “communicates an understanding of race play that is not necessarily therapeutic, but one that
    encompasses a kind of redemptive suffering that engenders feelings of agency and power.”


    As the above examples demonstrate, the vicissitudes of racialized sexuality often get worked out
    creatively. Artists of color have put their craft to work in gesturing towards new sexual
    formations that reframe, yet do not attempt to break free of, the “bondage” of sexual othering,
    recognizing that doing so is an impossible project due to the weight of historical
    representations.61 For example, in the 1990s, films such as The Attendant (1993) by Isaac Julien
    and The Watermelon Woman (1996) by Cheryl Dunye, centered the narratives of Black queers in
    interracial relationships, bringing taboo desires into visual representation. In Julien’s film a Black
    museum guard engages in sadomasochistic sex with a white male museum visitor, and in The
    Watermelon Woman, Dunye, playing herself, enters into a relationship with a white woman while
    researching the life of Fae Richards, a fictional queer Black actress of the 1930s who was also in a
    relationship with a white woman. Both films highlight how violent racial histories can become
    fertile ground for the forging of unexpected desires. Art depicting grim scenes of chattel slavery
    hang in the museum where the erotic encounters in Julien’s film are staged, and Dunye finds
    interracial attraction while searching for a Black queer predecessor in Fae Richards. As Matt
    Richardson notes, “Cheryl’s desires for representation and sexual desire drive the plot and her
    search for history.”










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    In responding to critiques of the interracial sex in The Attendant, which eroticized the power
    relations of slavery, as problematic, Julien wrote “Could not the fetish slave-band in the film,
    mimicking the metal collars worn by black slaves–which, for some readers, enacts this colonial
    memory–be read as something else: namely, the unspeakable masochistic desire for sexual
    domination? Surely in this post-colonial moment, black queers should have the choice of acting
    out the roles of “slaves” or “masters” in the realm of desire or fantasy.”63 A poster for Julien’s
    film appears in a scene of The Watermelon Woman, acknowledging that perhaps for Dunye the
    relationship with her white girlfriend Diana in the film enacts a similar kind of masochistic desire
    that, while providing pleasure, also enacts a form of working through the historical woundings of
    sexual racialization.


    Queer filmmakers of color in the early 2000s continue to craft complex representations of
    sexuality. Dee Rees, an heir to the legacy of queer Black women’s filmmaking pioneered by Cheryl
    Dunye, centered the alternative kin formations and openly lived queerness of early blues singers
    such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith in her 2015 film Bessie. In Pariah (2011), Rees tells the story of
    Alike, a black teenage girl from Newark, New Jersey who is negotiating her desires for masculine
    embodiment and other girls in the context of her family and community. Also focused on queer
    youth of color, Mosquita y Mari (2012), directed by Aurora Guerrero, depicts the unspoken yet
    fervent desires between two working-class Latina girls in a Latinx enclave of Los Angeles.

    Trans of color sexual desires are explored by artists such as Juliana Huxtable and Micha Cárdenas.
    In the performance Virus.Circus.Mem., Cárdenas envisions a dystopian future where racialized
    panic over pandemic diseases linked to people of color leads to the banning of physical touch,
    leading to inventive and queer uses of latex and digitally programmed sex toys.65 Mucus in my
    Pineal Gland, a book by the intersex trans visual artist, writer, and DJ Juliana Huxtable, features
    experimental prose that, like Cárdenas’s work, portrays the dense entanglements of trans of color
    desire in networks of biomedical regulation, racial/ sexual fetishization, and the role of the
    internet in mediating trans desires.66

    The work of artist Shoshanna Weinberger exposes the perversions of dominant constructs of
    woman of color beauty and sexuality by engaging the image that epitomizes Black women’s
    essentialism—that of Saartjie Baartman. Rather than articulating a narrative of Black women’s
    subjection, Weinberger gives the icon of the Hottentot Venus a futuristic life as an otherworldly
    grotesque. The bodies in Weinberger’s work, many of which are rendered in silhouettes that
    evoke 19th-century images of the Baartman, are incarnations of excess. Masses of flesh are tied
    into shape by thick gold chains; headless bodies with proliferations of breasts and asses are clad
    in tight, metallic bras, their straps binding the bulging skin into one corpus. In many of
    Weinberger’s works, the static outlines of Black women’s bodies verge on collapsing into
    formlessness: If a line, chain, or bra strap were to become undone, they would signify nothing but
    heavy, amorphous mass. This tension is achieved through her uniquely baroque and
    simultaneously economical approach to image making. The paintings are at once simple and
    ornate, direct and vague, representational and abstract, beautiful and ugly. Although bound by
    history, Weinberger’s grotesques survive, and they evoke radical corporeal futures through their
    perverse hyperboles of beauty and sexuality.





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    Artist Kara Walker creates cut paper dioramas of black silhouettes drawing from antebellum
    images of plantation life in the South, for which she became internationally known in the art
    world. These images often depict explicit and dramatically staged scenes of sexual liaisons
    between masters and slaves, in addition to renderings of violence inflicted upon slaves from
    whites and also among the slaves themselves. Her images visualize the under-acknowledged
    perversity that undergirds U.S. race relations that continue to unfold via police violence, mass
    incarceration, stark disparities in access to health and education resources, and rampant anti-
    Blackness at various levels of social, educational, and political life.

    Walker employed a monumental new direction in A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, a project
    that was commissioned and organized by the New York arts-based organization Creative Time.
    Situated in the abandoned Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, New York, which was slated for
    demolition, Walker created a grouping of sculptures that reference the slave labor associated with
    sugar production. Thus, the full title of the work is,

    At the behest of Creative Time Kara Walker has confected A Subtlety, or the Marvelous
    Sugar Baby, an homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our
    sweet tastes from the cane fields to the kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the
    demolition of the Domino Sugar refining plant.

    The manner in which the Domino Sugar plant was still seeping molasses from its walls and had
    mounds of sugar sitting on the rafters prompted her to research the history of sugar production
    and consumption.

    In thinking about the power relations that shaped the economy of sugar, the artist decided to
    reference an object known as a “sugar subteltie” in imperial Europe. Sugar subtleties were
    sculpted, decorative centerpiece confections made from sugar, nuts, and marzipan that were only
    to be consumed by those of high social standing. Walker’s A Subtlety was a towering 75 feet long,
    35 feet tall figure of a nude Black “mammy” figure in the form of a sphinx, seated on all fours and
    fashioned out of refined white sugar. She was flanked by a grouping of life-size molasses figures
    of Black boy field laborers, holding baskets and bunches of bananas. As the works were fashioned
    from sugar, they melted during the summertime run of the show and were eventually destroyed,
    thus highlighting the passage of time that has marked the slave trade, industrial modes of
    production in the United States, and cultural representations of Blackness.

    Referencing the trope of Black women’s “exotic” hypersexuality as “brown sugar,” the nude
    sphinx embodies an uncommon juxtaposition that pairs the “mammy” headscarf with an arched
    back position that conspicuously displays her hourglass shape, buttocks, and vulva.


    Walker has
    noted that this sphinx is not from antiquity but rather from the New World. In describing the
    sculpture, the artist has said,


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    The mammy, although she is bent over in this gesture of supplication, I don’t feel like
    she’s there to be taken or satisfied or abused in any way. She’s sort of withholding. I don’t
    want to make her into a non-sexual caretaker of domesticity. She’s powerful because she
    is so iconic and so monumental and so unexpected. If I’ve done the job well, then she
    gains her power by upsetting expectations one after the other.


    The representational innovation Walker executes in the project is the fusing of two of the most
    pervasive tropes of Black womanhood—unattractive, asexual mammy, and enticing, sexually
    excessive brown sugar—to frame Black woman’s sexuality as unexpected and powerful, rather
    than the always already known, denigrated, and exploited.

    In conclusion, artists of color transform the colonial product of racialized sexuality through
    creative practice, destabilizing normative understandings of desire and pathology. By artfully
    crossing the boundaries of race, class, gender, and sexuality, at times by rejection of racialized
    erotic abjection and at others, by reclaiming it is an imaginative space of pleasurable potential,
    these cultural producers, show that, as Julien writes, “Joy is never very far away from
    ‘jouissance,’ as mourning is never very far away from abjection.”69 Amber Jamilla Musser views
    creative practice as elaborating what she terms a racialized “brown jouissance” that can be seen
    in the work of contemporary artists of color such as Mickalene Thomas, Nao Bustamante, and
    Lyle Ashton Harris.70 Through analysis of this work, Musser argues that “In contrast to an
    ecstasy that imagines transcending corporeality, brown jouissance is a reveling in fleshiness, its
    sensuous materiality that brings together pleasure and pain.”71 The registers of affect, visuality,
    and materiality that attend creative processes make it uniquely powerful as a medium for
    engaging and remaking racialized sexualities.

    Discussion of the Literature

    Literature, testimonio, theory, and trans/disciplinary scholarship have woven complex narratives
    about how Latinx people live, feel, and document their racialized sexualities, which are subject to
    discipline and policing in social and intimate contexts—from the state to the family. Ground-
    breaking works that made the field of Latinx sexuality studies possible include those penned by
    queer Chicanas in the 1980s such as Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios by
    Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza.72 These books
    mobilized autobiography, theory, and poetic prose to establish critical positions as desiring queer
    Chicanas and expose the limits of second wave white feminisms and heteropatriarchal Chicano
    nationalisms. The 2003 volume Tortilleras: Hispanic and U.S. Latina Lesbian Expression, edited by
    Lourdes Torres and Inmaculada Pertusa, built upon this work to explore the lives of Latina
    lesbians with a wide range of trans/ national identifications.


    The text reclaimed the “tortillera”
    epithet used to disparage lesbians into an oppositional framework.

    The late 1990s and early 2000s saw an explosion of cutting-edge research in Latinx sexualities
    that not only centered queerness, but revealed the queerness of Latinidad itself as an identitarian
    construct. These works include Juana María Rodríguez’s Queer Latinidad, José Estebán Muñoz’s
    Disidentifications, José A. Quiroga’s Tropics of Desire, and Lawrence La Fountain-Stoke’s Queer







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    Ricans.74 This literature also exposed the ways in which queerness is raced. Sandra K. Soto’s
    Reading Chicana Like a Queer made this claim forcefully by demonstrating how racialized sexuality
    plays a critical role in the formation, expression, and literary interpretations of Chicanx desire.


    Ramón H. Rivera-Servera’s Performing Queer Latinidad: Dance, Sexuality, Politics, published in
    2012, drew on this scholarship to show how performance practices, from dancing in nightclubs to
    protesting on the streets, fomented the creation of queer Latinx socialities.76 In centering the
    scents and spaces that mark working-class queer socialities as deviant, Deborah R. Vargas offered
    a theory of suciedad (dirtiness) as a queer Latinx analytic.77 Vargas describes suciedad as a “trope
    for feminine-gendered subjectivities associated with seedy working-class Latino spaces
    including queer femmes, nonnormative working and underclass women of color, and travesty
    and transgender Latinas.”78 The sucia’s gender nonconformity is read through tropes of
    contamination, they are subjects to be sanitized and/or expelled from the social. Yet, according to
    Vargas, “sucia genders signal possibilities of a queer sustenance within rapidly aggressive moves
    to destroy alternative imaginaries of joy and intimacy and care.”


    Latinx sexualities studies have also investigated the complexities of racialized heterosexualities.
    In 2005, Gloria González -López published Erotic Journeys: Mexican Immigrants and Their Sex Lives,
    which offered a layered account of how migration shaped the sexual practices and desires of her
    heterosexual participants. In Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself, based on Lorena Garcia’s
    participatory research with teenage Latina girls in Chicago, tropes of Latina girl sexuality, which
    center on dichotomies of hypersexual excess or disempowering shame, are complicated through
    ethnographic accounts of how they negotiate their sexual encounters and the positions of
    desiring subject and “respectable” girl. Richard T. Rodriguez’s Next of Kin problematizes
    hegemonic tropes of the Chicanx family as a nationalist and heteropatriarchal formation to
    highlight how it is also a site that makes queer relations possible.


    An emerging group of scholars continues to explore the productive politics of Latinx performance
    and cultural production as elaborations of racialized sexualities. These include Roy Pérez,
    Christina A. Léon and Iván Ramos, authors whose work is included in a special issue of ASAP/
    Journal on Queer Form.81 Yessica Garcia Hernandez and Caleb Luna are making interventions in
    the field by examining the cultural politics of Latinx sexualities and fat embodiment; and Tanya
    Saunders’s work offers a hemispheric framework for understanding Black queer expressive
    cultures in the contexts of Cuba and Brazil.


    Further Reading
    Ascencio, Marysol, ed. Latina/o Sexualities: Probing Powers, Passions, Practices, and Policies. New Brunswick, NJ:
    Rutgers University Press, 2010.

    Del Castillo, Adelaida R. and Gibrán Güido, eds. Queer Atzlán: Chicano Male Recollections of Consciousness and Coming
    Out. San Diego, CA: Cognella Academic Publishing, 2014.

    Cisneros, Sandra. Loose Woman. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1995.

    Corral, Eduardo C. Slow Lightning. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.










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    Fitch, Melissa A. Side Dishes: Latina American Women, Sex, and Cultural Production. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers
    University Press, 2009.

    Flores, April. “Being Fatty D: Size, Beauty, and Embodiment in the Adult Industry.” In The Feminist Porn Book: The
    Politics of Producing Pleasure. Edited by Tristan Taormino, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Constance Penley, and Mireille
    Miller-Young. New York: The Feminist Press, 2013.

    Gaspar de Alba, Alicia, ed. Velvet Barrios: Popular Culture and Chicana/o Sexualities. London, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan,

    Gurba, Myriam. Dahlia Season: Stories and a Novella. San Francisco, CA: Manic D Press, 2007.

    Lara, Ana-Maurine. Erzulie’s Skirt. Washington, DC: RedBone Press, 2006.

    Lopera, Juliana Delgado. Cuéntamelo! Oral Histories by LGBT Latino Immigrants. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books,

    Peña, Susana. Oye Loca!: From the Mariel Boatlift to Gay Cuban Miami. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,

    Road, Cristy C. Spit and Passion. New York, NY: The Feminist Press, 2012.

    Rivera, Gabby. Juliet Takes a Breath. Riverdale, NY: Riverdale Avenue Books, 2016.

    Salgado, Yesika. Corazón. Los Angeles, CA: Not a Cult, 2017.


    1. Abdul JanMohamad, “Sexuality on/of the Racial Border: Foucault, Wright, and the Articulation of ‘Racialized
    Sexuality,” in Discourses of Sexuality from Aristotle to AIDS, ed. Domna Stanton (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
    Press, 1992), 94–116. Cesare Lombroso and Guglielmo Ferrero, Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal
    Woman, trans. Nicole Hahn Rafte, and Mary Gibson (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

    2. Londa Schiebinger, “Theories of Gender and Race,” in Feminist Theory and the Body (A Reader), ed. Janet Price and
    Margrit Shildrick (New York: Routledge, 2010), 22.

    3. Anne Fausto-Sterling. “Gender, Race, and Nation: The Comparative Anatomy of ‘Hottentot’ Women in Europe, 1815–
    1817,” in Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture, ed. Jennifer Terry and
    Jacqueline Urla (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 26.

    4. Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York, NY: Routledge,
    1995), 3.

    5. See Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book ,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 65–81; and Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing
    Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

    6. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1988).

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    7. Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality: The 1905 Edition, Introduction by Philippe Van Haute and
    Herman Westerink, trans. Ulrike Kistner (London: Verso, 2016).

    8. Ann Laura Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things
    (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995).

    9. Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-century America (New York:
    Oxford University Press, 1997). See Terri Kapsalis, Public Privates: Performing Gynecology from Both Ends of the
    Speculum. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997); and Dorothy E. Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race,
    Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997).

    10. See Sander L. Gilman, “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late
    Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature ,” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1
    (1985): 204–242, and Fausto-Sterling. “Gender, Race, and Nation.”

    11. Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire, 41.

    12. See Mary E. Odem, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States,
    1885-1920, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Anne Meis Knupfer, “‘To Become Good, Self-
    Supporting Women’: The State Industrial School for Delinquent Girls at Geneva, Illinois, 1900-1935 ,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 9 no. 4 (2000): 420–446; and Brian Donovan, White
    Slave Crusades: Race, Gender, and Anti-Vice Activism, 1887-1917 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006).

    13. Greg Thomas, The Sexual Demon of Colonial Power: Pan-African Embodiment and Erotic Schemes of Empire
    (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).

    14. L. H. Stallings, Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015),

    15. My writings on raunch aesthetics include “Carnal Teachings: Raunch Aesthetics as Queer Feminist Pedagogies in
    Yo! Majesty’s Hip Hop Practice ,” Women & Performance: A Journal of
    Feminist Theory 24, no. 1 (2014): 1–19; and “Raunch Aesthetics as Visceral Address: (MORE) Notes from a
    Voluptuary .” The Interdisciplinary School of Raunch

    16. See Stallings, Funk the Erotic, Henry Louis Gates, “The Case of 2 Live Crews Tells Much About the American
    Psyche .” New York Times (1990, July 15); and Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World trans. Hélène
    Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

    17. Dionne Stephens and Layli Phillips, “Freak, Gold Diggers, Divas, and Dykes: The Sociohistorical Development of
    Adolescent African American Women’s Sexual Scripts .” Sexuality and Culture 7,
    no. 1 (2003): 3–49. Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship
    (Durham, NC: Duke University Press 1997).

    18. Carney Christian, Jillian Hernandez, and Anya Wallace, “Sexual Knowledge and Practiced Feminisms: On Moral
    Panic, Black Girlhoods and Hip Hop ,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 28, no. 4
    (2016): 412–426.

    19. Zeb Tortorici, “Masturbation, Salvation, and Desire: Connecting Sexuality and Religiosity in Colonial
    Mexico ,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 16, no. 3 (2007): 355–372.

    Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

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    20. Laura Briggs, Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico (Berkeley: University of
    California Press, 2002).

    21. Eithne Luibhéid, Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
    2002). Luibhéid, Entry Denied, 129–130.

    22. Julio, Jr. Capo “Queering Mariel: Mediating Cold War Foreign Policy and U.S. Citizenship among Cuba’s
    Homosexual Exile Community, 1978–1994 ,” Journal of American Ethnic
    History 29, no. 4 (2010): 78–106.

    23. Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer times (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

    24. Thomas, The Sexual Demon of Colonial Power.

    25. Mayanthi. L. Fernando, “Save the Muslim Woman, Save the Republic: Ni Putes Ni Soumises and the Ruse of
    Neoliberal Sovereignty ,” Modern and Contemporary France 21, no. 2
    (2013): 147–165. Fatima El-Tayeb, “‘Gays Who Cannot Properly Be Gay’: Queer Muslims in the Neoliberal European
    City ,” European Journal of Women’s Studies 19, no. 1 (2012): 79–95,
    Hiram Perez, “You Can Have My Brown Body and Eat It, Too! ,”
    Social Text 23, no. 3–4 (2005): 171–192; and Carlos Ulises Decena, Tacit Subjects: Belonging and Same Sex Desire among
    Dominican Immigrant Men (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

    26. Arnaldo Cruz-Malave, Queer Latino Testimonio, Keith Haring, and Juanito Xtravaganza: Hard Tails (London, U.K.:
    Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 101.

    27. Roderick A. Ferguson, Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
    Press, 2004).

    28. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism (New York, NY: Routledge,

    29. Nguyen Tan Hoang, A View from the Bottom: Asian/American Masculinities and Sexual Representation (Durham, NC:
    Duke University Press, 2014). Leo Bersani, Is the Rectum a Grave? and Other Essays (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago
    Press, 2010).

    30. This is further explored in Celine Parreñas Shimizu’s book Straitjacket Sexualities Unbinding Asian American
    Manhoods in the Movies (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012).

    31. Mireille Miller-Young. A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography (Durham, NC: Duke University Press,

    32. Miller-Young, A Taste for Brown Sugar, 64.

    33. Celine Parreñas Shimizu, The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene
    (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

    34. Deborah Willis, ed., Black Venus 2010: They Called Her “Hottentot” (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press,

    35. Deborah Willis and Carla Williams, The Black Female Body: A Photographic History (Philadelphia, PA: Temple
    University Press, 2002); and Miller-Young, A Taste for Brown Sugar.

    36. Sander L. Gilman, “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-
    Century Art, Medicine, and Literature ,” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (1985): 204–242.

    37. Suzan-Lori Parks, Venus (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1997).




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    38. Anarcha Project, “The Olimpias Performances Research Project .” Ann Arbor, University of Michigan.

    39. Malek Alloula, “The Colonial Harem: Images of Suberoticsm,” in Feminism and Pornography, ed. Drucilla Cornell
    (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 381–403.

    40. Hollywood Harems (USA) 1999 24 min. Dir/Prod: Tania Kamal-Eldin, Distributed by Women Make Movies, Shimizu,
    The Hypersexuality of Race, and Anne Anlin Cheng, “Ornamentalism: A Feminist Theory for the Yellow Woman,” Critical
    Inquiry 44, no. 3 (2018): 415–446.

    41. Taylor-Garcia Daphne, The Existence of the Mixed Race Damnes: Decolonialism, Class, Gender, Race (Lanham, MD:
    Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018).

    42. Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude; The Other Mexico; Return to the Labyrinth of Solitude; Mexico and the United
    States; The Philanthropic Ogre (New York, NY: Grove Press, 1985).

    43. Sandra K. Soto, Reading Chican@ like a Queer: The De-mastery of Desire (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010);
    Emma Pérez, The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999);
    and Norma Alarcón, “Chicana feminism: In the tracks of ‘the’ native woman ,” Cultural Studies 4 no. 3 (1990): 248–256.

    44. Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Thiefing Sugar: Eroticsim between Women in Caribbean Literature (Durham, NC: Duke
    University Press, 2010), 12.

    45. Tinsley, Thiefing Sugar, 13.

    46. Tinsley, Thiefing Sugar, 13.

    47. “Blog: Watch ‘Art Talk: Firelei Báez in Conversation with Maria Elena Ortiz ,’” Pérez Art Museum Miami.

    48. Alison Fraunhar, “Marquillas Cigarreras Cubanas: Nation and Desire in the Nineteenth Century ,” Hispanic Research Journal 9, no. 5 (2008): 458–478; and Jill Lane, “Smoking Habaneras,
    or A Cuban Struggle with Racial Demons ,” Social Text 28, no. 3 (2010):

    49. Alison Fraunhar, Mulata Nation: Visualizing Race and Gender in Cuba (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi,

    50. Shimizu, The Hypersexuality of Race; Jafari S. Allen ¡Venceremos? The Erotics of Black Self-making in Cuba (Durham,
    NC: Duke University Press, 2011); and Erica Lorraine Williams, Sex Tourism in Bahia: Ambiguous Entanglements
    (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013).

    51. Shimizu, The Hypersexuality of Race, 25.

    52. Zahira Kelly, “Nude Series .”

    53. Margaret Cho “Limited Dreams .”

    54. Xandra Ibarra, “Tapatio Cock, Spic Jouissance Bottle and Strap-On Harnesses .”

    55. Juana Maria Rodriguez, Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings (New York, NY: New York
    University Press, 2014), 152.

    56. Erika Lopez, Flaming Iguanas: An All-Girl Road Novel Thing (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1997).

    Nude Series

    Nude Series




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    57. Mireille Miller-Young, “Putting Hypersexuality to Work: Black Women and Illicit Eroticism in Pornography ,” Sexualities 13, no. 2 (2010): 219–235.

    58. Taschen, Vanessa del Rio: Fifty Years of Slightly Slutty Behavior (Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 2010); and Juana
    María Rodríguez, “Pornographic Encounters and Interpretative Interventions: Vanessa Del Rio: Fifty Years of Slightly
    Slutty Behavior ,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist
    Theory 25, no. 3 (2016): 1–21.

    59. Garcia Hernandez, Yessica. “Intoxication as Feminist Pleasure: Drinking, Dancing, and Un-Dressing With/For Jenni
    Rivera ,” NANO, no. 9 (2016).

    60. Ariane Cruz, The Color of Kink: Black Women, BDSM, and Pornography (New York, NY: New York University Press,
    2016), 99.

    61. Shimizu, The Hypersexuality of Race.

    62. Matt Richardson, “Our Stories Have Never Been Told: Preliminary Thoughts on Black Lesbian Cultural Production
    as Historiography in The Watermelon Woman ,” Black Camera 2, no. 2,
    Special Issue: Beyond Normative: Sexuality and Eroticism in Black Film, Cinema, and Video (2011): 104.

    63. Isaac Julien, “Confessions of a Snow Queen: Notes on the Making of The Attendant ,” Critical Quarterly 36, no. 1(1994): 123.

    64. Amber Jamilla Musser, Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (New York, NY: New York University Press,

    65. Micha Cardenas and Elle Mehrmand, “Virus. Circus. Mem. ,” Drunken Boat 16.

    66. Juliana Huxtable, Mucus in my Pineal Gland (New York: Capricious, Wonder, 2017).

    67. Miller-Young, A Taste for Brown Sugar.

    68. Kara Walker, “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby ” | Art21
    ‘Extended Play’.”

    69. Julien, “Confessions of a Snow Queen,” 121.

    70. Amber Jamilla Musser, Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (New York, NY: New York University
    Press, 2018).

    71. Musser, Sensual Excess, 3.

    72. Cherríe Moraga, Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1983).
    Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 1987).

    73. Lourdes Torres and Inmaculada Pertusa, eds., Tortilleras: Hispanic and U.S. Latina Lesbian Expression.
    (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2003).

    74. Juana María Rodríguez, Queer Latinidad: Identitiy Practices, Discursive Spaces (New York, NY: New York University
    Press 2003). José A. Quiroga, Tropics of Desire: Interventions from Queer Latino America (New York, NY: New York
    University Press, 2000). José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics
    (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999). Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, Queer Ricans: Cultures and
    Sexualities in the Diaspora (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

    Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

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    75. Sandra K. Soto, Reading Chican@ like a Queer: The De-mastery of Desire (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010).

    76. Ramón H. Rivera-Servera, Performing Queer Latinidad: Dance, Sexuality, Politics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
    Press, 2012).

    77. Deborah R. Vargas, “Ruminations on Lo Sucio as a Latino Queer Analytic ,” American
    Quarterly 66 (2014): 715–726.

    78. Vargas, “Ruminations on Lo Sucio ,” 717.

    79. Vargas, “Ruminations on Lo Sucio ,” 718.

    80. Gloria González -López, Erotic Journeys: Mexican Immigrants and Their Sex Lives (Berkeley: University of California
    Press, 2005). Lorena Garcia, Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself: Latina Girls and Sexual Identity (New York, NY: New York
    University Press, 2012). Richard T. Rodríguez, Next of Kin: The Family in Chicano/a Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke
    University Press 2009).

    81. Kadji Amin, Amber Jamilla Musser and Roy Pérez, eds., ASAP/Journal 2, no. 2 (2017) Special issue Queer Form:
    Aesthetics, Race, and the Violences of the Social (2017).

    82. Sounding Out! “Femmes Fucking the Camera: Listening to the Sonics of Boudoir Photography ” (2018, December 3). Tanya
    Saunders, “Toward a Hemispheric Analysis of Black Lesbian Feminist Activism and Hip Hop Feminism: Artist
    Perspectives from Cuba and Brazil ,” in E. Patrick Johnson, ed., No Tea,
    No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 147–165; and Tanya L.
    Saunders, Cuban Underground Hip Hop: Black Thoughts, Black Revolution, Black Modernity (Austin, TX: University of
    Texas, 2015). Cleb Luna, “Everyday Feminism .”

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    Dominican Ethnic Identities, National Borders, and Literature

    The Discursive and Material Construction of Latina Sexuality

    Afro Latina/os











    Femmes Fucking the Camera: Listening to the Sonics of Boudoir Photography

    Femmes Fucking the Camera: Listening to the Sonics of Boudoir Photography

    Femmes Fucking the Camera: Listening to the Sonics of Boudoir Photography

    Femmes Fucking the Camera: Listening to the Sonics of Boudoir Photography

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice




      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Racial Difference as Sexual Deviance

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Regulating Erotics, Sexuality and Governmentality

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Framed, But Uncontained

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Racialized Sexuality as Creative Practice

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Discussion of the Literature

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Further Reading

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice


      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Racialized Sexuality: From Colonial Product to Creative Practice

      Related Articles

    Rebecca Traister, All the Single Ladies

    CHAPTER ONE: “Watch Out for That Woman: The Political and Social Power of an

    Unmarried Nation”

    The contemporary wave of single women was building in the very same years that I was heading

    off to college, though I hadn’t realized it. The early 1990s was the period in which reverberations

    of the social and political revolutions of my mother’s generation were manifesting as swiftly

    changing marriage and reproductive patterns, which, in turn, would create a current of political

    possibility for independent women in America.

    On October 11, 1991, a thirty-five-year-old law professor, Anita Faye Hill, appeared before the

    Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about the sexual harassment she’d experienced while

    working for Clarence Thomas, a D.C. Circuit Judge nominated by President George H. W. Bush

    to fill the Supreme Court seat of the retiring civil rights hero, Thurgood Marshall. A native of

    rural Lone Tree, Oklahoma, Hill was the youngest of thirteen children raised by Baptist farmers;

    her grandfather and great-grandparents had been slaves in Arkansas. She was valedictorian of her

    high-school class and attended Yale Law School, worked for Thomas at both the Department of

    Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and taught contract law at the

    University of Oklahoma. She was not married.

    As cameras recorded every second, broadcasting to a rapt and tense nation, Hill sat before the

    all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Panel and told them in a careful, clear voice of the sexually

    crude ways in which Thomas had spoken to her during the years she worked for him;

    she detailed her former boss’s references to pornographic movie stars, penis size, and pubic hair

    in professional contexts. In turn, she was pilloried by the conservative press, spoken to with

    skepticism and insult by many on the committee, and portrayed by other witnesses as irrational,

    sexually loose, and perhaps a sufferer of erotomania,1 a rare psychological disorder that causes

    women to fantasize sexual relationships with powerful men.

    Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson questioned Hill’s “proclivities” (a term that the conservative

    columnist William Safire suggested was “a code word for homosexuality”2). One pundit, David

    Brock, called Hill “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” Called in front of the committee after

    her testimony, John Doggett, a former classmate of Thomas’s and an acquaintance of Hill’s,

    described Hill as “somewhat unstable” and surmised that she had “fantasized about my being

    interested in her romantically.” He guessed, based on their brief social interactions, “that she was

    having a problem with being rejected by men she was attracted to;” at another point, Doggett

    noted that Hill “seemed to be lonely in this town.”

    As Hill would later write of her experience, “Much was made in the press of the fact that I was

    single, though the relevance of my marital status to the question of sexual harassment was never


    The relevance of her single status was how it distinguished her from established expectations of

    femininity. Hill had no husband to vouch for her virtue, no children to affirm her worth, as

    women’s worth had been historically understood. Her singleness, Hill felt at the time, allowed

    her detractors to place her “as far outside the norms of proper behavior as they could.” Members

    of the Judiciary, she wrote, “could not understand why I was not attached to certain institutions,

    notably marriage,” and were thus left to surmise that she was single “because I was

    unmarriageable or opposed to marriage, the fantasizing spinster or the man-hater.”

    The lingering assumption—born of the same expectations that I had chafed at as a kid, reading

    novels—was that the natural state of adult womanhood involved being legally bound to a man.

    Perhaps especially in the comparatively new world of female professional achievement, in which

    a woman might be in a position, as an equivalently educated professional peer of a judicial

    nominee to the Supreme Court, to offer testimony that could imperil his career, marriage

    remained the familiar institution that might comfortably balance out this new kind of parity, and

    would offer the official male validation and abrogate her questioners’ ability to depict her as a

    spinster fantasist.

    In raising questions about her marital status and her mental stability, Hill wrote, senators were

    “attempting to establish a relationship between marriage, values, and credibility” and prompt

    people to wonder “why I, a thirty-five-year-old Black woman, had chosen to pursue a career and

    to remain single—an irrelevant shift of focus that contributed to the conclusion that I was not to

    be believed.”

    Indeed, Hill’s testimony was not believed by the members of the committee, at least not enough

    to make an impact on their decision. Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court days

    after her appearance before the Judiciary.

    But Hill was not some contemporary Hester Prynne, doomed to a life in exile. Instead, her

    appearance had a lasting impact on the country and its power structures. The term sexual

    harassment entered the lexicon and the American consciousness, allowing women, married and

    single, to make sense of and lodge objections to workplace harassment; it offered us a view of

    how behavior long viewed as harmless was actually a form of discrimination and subjugation

    that hurt women as a class.

    Just as long-lasting was the impact that the vision of Hill’s being grilled by a panel of white men

    had on America’s representative politics. In 1991, there had been only two women serving in the

    United States Senate, an embarrassing circumstance that the hearings put in stark national relief.

    A photograph published by the New York Times showed a group of Congress’s few female

    representatives, including Patricia Schroeder and Eleanor Holmes Norton, running up the Capitol

    steps to stop the proceedings to demand that Hill be allowed to testify.

    The spectacle of Hill’s treatment by the committee spurred a reckoning with the nation’s

    monochromatic and male representative body. The year after her testimony, an unprecedented

    number of women ran for the Senate. Four of them won. One, Washington’s Patty Murray, has

    repeatedly explained that the Thomas hearings had helped spur her to political action; “I just kept

    looking at this committee, going ‘God, who’s saying what I would say if I was there,’?” she’s

    said. “I mean, all men, not saying what I would say. I just felt so disoriented.”4 Another, Carole

    Moseley Braun of Illinois, became the first (and, so far, only) African-American woman elected

    to the Senate. They called 1992 “The Year of the Woman.”

    Though Hill’s life and career were certainly upended by the attention (as well as by the death and

    rape threats) that came in the wake of her testimony, they were not cut short or ended. She was

    not permanently ostracized, professionally or personally. Today, she teaches law at Brandeis and

    lives in Boston with her partner of more than a decade.

    Part of the reason that Hill was not wholly written off as a social aberration was because by the

    early 1990s, she wasn’t. A generation of women was, like Hill, living, working, and occupying

    public space on its own. The percentage of women between the ages of thirty-five and forty-four

    who were married had fallen from about 87 percent in 1960 and 1970 to 73 percent in 1990.5

    “Women began, in the nineties, to embrace their own sexuality and sexual expression in a

    different way,” Hill told me in 2013. Hill may have looked little like the recent past, but she was

    very much the face of the future, surely part of what made her discomfiting enough to send

    senators into paroxysms. As Alan Simpson urged the committee, citing the many warnings he

    claimed to have received about Hill, “Watch out for this woman!”6

    In the early 1990s, there were so many women to watch out for.

    The Great Crossover

    Less than a year after the Thomas hearings, Vice President Dan Quayle gave a campaign trail

    speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, during which he offered his theory on what

    was behind the Los Angeles race riots that had followed the verdict in the Rodney King trial. The

    “lawless social anarchy that we saw,” Quayle argued, “is directly related to the breakdown of the

    family structure.” To illustrate this point, Quayle took an unexpected turn, laying into a

    television character.

    The eponymous heroine of CBS’s Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen, was about to give

    birth to a baby without being married—or romantically attached—to the child’s father. Quayle

    was concerned that in doing so, Murphy, who he noted “supposedly epitomizes today’s

    intelligent, highly paid professional woman,” was “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing

    a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”7 Quayle’s comments would land him,

    fictional Murphy Brown, and her fictional baby, Avery, on the front of the New York Times,

    making the character’s unmarried status far more emblematic than it would have been otherwise.

    Of course, Quayle’s concern hadn’t really been about Murphy; he had been unspooling some

    classic conservative rhetoric about how welfare programs discourage marriage when he’d thrown

    his pop-culture curveball. Quayle’s anxiety over the possibility that new models of motherhood

    and womanhood, unhooked from marriage, might be taking hold across income brackets was

    palpable. A new reality was setting in: If women could live independently, many would do so,

    and as they did, men would become less central to economic security, social standing, sexual

    life, and, as it turned out, to parenthood.

    Though Quayle surely didn’t realize it at the time, 1992 was at the heart of what researchers

    would later dub “the great crossover.”8 Not only were the early nineties the years during which

    the marriage age was rising; they were the point at which the marriage age was rising above the

    age of first birth.

    It was the reversal of a very old cultural and religious norm, purportedly a bedrock of female

    identity and familial formation, though not always a reflection of real life, in which premarital

    sex and pregnant brides had always existed. However, officially, public codes of respectability

    had held that marriage was to precede childbearing. Now, that sequence was being scrambled,

    and amongst the many Americans panicking about it were the men who had long enjoyed

    relatively unchallenged control of politics.

    Two years after Quayle’s speech, Pennsylvania senate candidate Rick Santorum gave a speech

    again emphasizing the link between unmarried motherhood and social chaos, claiming that “We

    are seeing the fabric of this country fall apart, and it’s falling apart because of single moms.”

    In 1994, Jeb Bush, son of former president George H. W. Bush, then running for governor in

    Florida, said that women on welfare “should be able to get their life together and find a husband”

    and, soon after, published a book in which he argued that the reason young women have babies

    outside of wedlock is because “there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior,” suggesting

    that maybe the stigma should return.

    In 1993, Bill Clinton appointed Joycelyn Elders, an outspoken advocate of humane drug laws

    and abortion rights, as Surgeon General of the United States. The following year, at a United

    Nations conference on AIDS, Elders caused a scandal by voicing her support of teaching

    masturbation as part of sex education. It was a perfectly sane message, especially in the context

    of the AIDS epidemic. But so freighted was Elders’s simple advocacy of independent sexual

    pleasure, achievable without a partner and with no chance of procreation, that the president who

    had appointed her asked her to resign.

    It was a fraught period, Anita Hill told me in 2013, in which some Americans were “still trying

    to hold on to the idea that we lived in the 1950s, this Leave It to Beaver world.” This imagined

    white universe, in which sex was hetero and always procreative and women were wives and

    mothers who lived in middle-class comfort and embraced designated gender roles, had “never

    actually existed for most women,” Hill said, but was held up as an American ideal.

    Now, even in pop culture, Leave It to Beaver had given way to the irreverent Roseanne, the

    sitcom about a working-class nuclear family in which the eponymous heroine joked of her

    (loving) marriage as “like a life sentence with no hope for parole.” More broadly, nuclear

    families were being joined on television by a flood of images of women unbound from marriages

    and families altogether. Beginning in 1993, Queen Latifah anchored a group of Brooklyn

    roommates on FOX’s Living Single; the next year, NBC answered with the white, Manhattan

    version: Friends. From 1994 to 1996, journalist Candace Bushnell penned a weekly newspaper

    column called “Sex and the City;” it would go on to become a book and a smash HBO series.

    Terri McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, a 1992 novel about four female friends, some recently

    jilted, juggling the personal and the professional, remained on the bestseller list for months, and

    would be made into a movie. Four years later, British writer Helen Fielding published Bridget

    Jones’s Diary, and was credited with kicking off a new publishing genre, “chick lit,” devoted to

    the stories of women, whom Bridget’s best friend would, in self-parody, describe as “a pioneer

    generation daring to refuse to compromise in love and relying on our own economic power.”

    As the millennium dawned, it was impossible to watch out for all the women who were coming

    to change America.

    Strange Stirrings

    If women slowed their rush to the altar in huge numbers starting in the 1990s, their ability to do

    so was built directly on political, economic, social, and sexual victories won by the previous

    generation, during what is commonly known as the Second Wave of the women’s


    Several Second Wave feminists would remind me pointedly during my research for this book

    that my generation had far from invented contemporary habits of marital abstinence or delay; by

    many measures, theirs had.

    And, to some degree, they’re right: Many women whose consciousness had been raised and

    opportunities expanded by feminism actively decided, for political and personal reasons, to

    postpone or forego marriage.

    They didn’t do so in numbers large enough to create a demographic earthquake, to change the

    marrying behaviors of the masses, at least not right away. Because while its victories would

    transform the landscape in ways that would make it far more possible for my generation to delay

    marriage, the Second Wave was not built on opposition to marriage, but rather a desire to address

    its suffocating circumstances.

    The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a

    strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the

    twentieth century in the Unites States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made

    the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut-butter sandwiches with

    her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was

    afraid to ask even of herself the silent question “Is this all?”9

    Is this all? Betty Friedan’s first paragraph sliced the mid-century American situation for middle-

    class white women to its quick: asserting that the ennui, anger, and unhappiness experienced by

    millions of American women was the product of the “millions of words” spilled by experts

    assuring women that “their role was to seek fulfillment as wives and mothers.” These sages had

    spent a decade and a half, Friedan reported, telling women “how to catch a man and keep him . .

    . that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights—the

    independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists fought for.” Those women

    who’d been raised with the limited scope of female possibility offered by mid-twentieth century

    America, Friedan argued, believed that “All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest

    girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.”

    The Feminine Mystique would sell 1.4 million copies of its first paperback printing and, though

    its popularity was likely a symptom of the fact that Friedan’s ideas were already in circulation

    and gaining steam in other quarters, it would be widely credited as having kicked off the Second

    Wave.10 Early marriage and domestic confinement were so pervasive for middle-class white

    women in the middle of the twentieth century that the nation’s most mass, conscious move to

    emancipate women erupted directly in response to it.

    Yet, funnily enough, as the legal scholar Rachel Moran argues, while the feminist movement of

    the 1970s was in part a “direct response to these conditions of early and pervasive marriage,” the

    ironic side effect was that single women had almost no place in the underpinnings of the


    As much as The Feminine Mystique was a cry against the limitations that early marriage and

    motherhood imposed on women, it did not assume (or even consider) that marriage itself was the

    problematic element, or that it might ever be optional for women. Friedan’s vision of female

    empowerment entailed the expansion of activity outside the domestic sphere, but it did not

    question the primacy of that sphere itself.

    Friedan’s reflexive connections between male attention and female fulfillment—as well as the

    rather dim regard in which she held most single women—are evident throughout her

    book.11 “Strangely, a number of psychiatrists state that, in their experience, unmarried women

    patients were happier than married ones,” writes Friedan with obvious perplexity. Elsewhere, she

    cites Susan B. Anthony as the early feminist who most closely resembled the myth of the

    “embittered shrew,” conceding (generously, she must have thought) that while Anthony “felt

    betrayed when the other [suffragists] started to marry and have babies,” she did not end up some

    “bitter spinster with a cat.”

    When Friedan, who would co-found and become the first president of the National Organization

    for Women in 1966, was asked about NOW’s mission in a television interview, she replied that

    the group’s message was about revising the “conditions that prevent women from easily

    combining marriage and motherhood and work.”12 The group’s mission statement amplified this

    intention, noting that NOW did “not accept the traditional assumption that a woman has to

    choose between marriage and motherhood, on the one hand, and a serious participation in

    industry or the professions on the other . . . We believe that a true partnership between the sexes

    demands a different concept of marriage, an equitable sharing of the responsibilities13 . . .” It

    was (and remains!) a revolutionary vision, but the organization was not the National

    Organization of Married Women, and yet there was no hint of recognition that not every

    woman’s life would (or should) include marriage and children, in that order.

    This was only one way in which Friedan’s vision was blinkered.

    In addition to her inability to conceive of middle-class white women who might not want the

    youthful unions into which they were being nudged, Friedan also didn’t consider the population

    of American women who were already altering marriage patterns, who had in recent years been

    marrying at declining rates and at later ages, who had been working outside the home for longer

    than that, supporting themselves and sometimes their children, both alongside, and independent

    of, husbands. Friedan did not include black women in her vision.

    Black women, who experienced both gender and racial wage discrimination, who were less

    likely than their white peers to have college educations or economic power, and whose families

    and potential husbands were also less likely to have college educations or economic power, were

    also far less likely than white women to have the choice of not working outside their homes.

    They were therefore far less likely to experience the kind of domestic disenchantments from

    which Friedan’s readers suffered.

    Black women had in fact already made some of the very points for which Friedan was being

    hailed. Philadelphia lawyer Sadie Alexander had argued in the 1930s that women yearned to

    “place themselves again among the producers of the world” by involving themselves in work

    “that resulted in the production of goods that have a price value.”14 Not only would this increase

    women’s status and security in the world, Alexander argued, in advance of Friedan, but “the

    satisfaction which comes to the woman in realizing that she is a producer makes for peace and

    happiness, the chief requisites in any home.”

    Even worse was that at practically the same moment that Friedan was being credited with jump

    starting the women’s movement by advocating extramarital wage-earning that black women had

    been doing for generations, black women were being blamed for a different sort of social

    disruption. Two years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, women whose

    experiences had foregrounded its philosophies were at the center of a national conversation about

    the devolution of the black family unit and the social and economic blight it was presumed to

    have precipitated.

    In 1965, Assistant Secretary of Labor and future New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan

    released a report called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” It was, in some

    ways, a thoughtful account of the systemic racial inequality that had plagued the nation since its

    founding, with Moynihan arguing that “the American Republic, which at birth was flawed by the

    institution of Negro slavery, and which throughout its history has been marred by the unequal

    treatment of Negro citizens” long had fallen short of “the full promise of the Declaration of

    Independence.” Moynihan rightly acknowledged the development of middle-class white suburbs

    and abandonment of poor cities to African-Americans as having created a class chasm between

    the races, noting that “because of this new housing pattern—most of which has been financially

    assisted by the Federal government—it is probable that the American school system has become

    more, rather than less segregated in the past two decades.”

    Yet, despite these insights into the unequal histories and prospects of America’s black and white

    populations, Moynihan boiled his argument down to one, punishing point: that the root of black

    poverty lay with the breakdown of marital norms for which nonconforming women were

    responsible. The “deterioration of the Negro family,” Moynihan argued, was tied to the high

    number of dissolved marriages, illegitimate births and the fact that “almost one-fourth of Negro

    families are headed by women.”

    There was some logic here: In economically unstable communities, raising children on single,

    low incomes is an inherently unstable proposition. But there was no consideration that those

    single incomes were a result as much as a cause, that reduced economic opportunity made

    marriage a less beneficial option for women, that women’s work outside the home was, rather

    than a detriment, key to keeping disadvantaged black communities and families afloat. Instead,

    Moynihan positioned female independence from men and dominance within the family at the

    center of a “tangle of pathology” that created “a matriarchal structure which, because it is out of

    line with the rest of American society,” and its patriarchal structure, “seriously retards the

    progress of the group as a whole.”

    Comfort to the Singles

    In the burgeoning feminist movement, the voices of figures more radical than Friedan began to

    get more notice for their arguments that women should not simply move toward the workforce,

    but away from marriage as the ratifying stamp of female worth.

    In 1969, University of Chicago sociology professor Marlene Dixon wrote that “the institution of

    marriage is the chief vehicle for the perpetuation of the oppression of women . . . In a very real

    way the role of wife has been the genesis of women’s rebellion throughout history.” The next

    year, feminist Sheila Cronan wrote, “Since marriage constitutes slavery for women . . . Freedom

    for women cannot be won without the abolition of marriage.” Radical feminist writer Andrea

    Dworkin famously commented that “Marriage as an institution developed from rape as a


    In 1970, the median age of first marriage for women remained under twenty-one, and 69.4

    percent of Americans over the age of eighteen were married.15 This is remarkable, in part,

    because of other social and political upheavals already well underway: In 1960, the FDA had

    approved the birth control pill for contraceptive use, an early step toward (or symptom of) what

    would become the sexual revolution. And, in 1969, the Stonewall riots had kicked off a gay

    rights movement that would be driven explicitly by the fight for acceptance by women and men

    who had no desire to partner with members of the opposite sex.

    The emergence of gay women as a political faction was not an altogether welcome development

    within the Second Wave. Friedan herself would famously refer to lesbians as a “lavender

    menace” and, in later years, would voice her loathing16 of women she called “man-hating”

    feminists, whose “down-with-men, down-with-marriage, down-with-childbearing rhetoric and

    actions” threatened to wrest control of feminism from “women who wanted equality but who

    also wanted to keep on loving their husbands and children.”17

    In fact, for some time, the intersections of the gay rights and women’s rights movements seemed

    mostly to provide evidence both of the strength of homophobia amongst social progressives and

    gender iconoclasts, and of how inconceivable it remained even to many 1970s feminists that

    heterosexual women might live willingly single: The only way some feminists were able to

    absorb the notion of a woman who didn’t necessarily want to marry a man was to understand her

    as homosexual.

    At least until Gloria came along.

    In the early 70s, feminism got a new and powerful popularizer, a woman who would come to

    stand (insufficiently and often to her own dismay) for the diverse, cacophonous, flawed, and

    multifaceted movement whose sometimes spiky messages she was so capable of transmitting

    smoothly to the broader public.

    Gloria Steinem had come to New York from her native Toledo, and began a successful career as

    a writer for print and television; she was mentioned alongside other “new journalism” stars like

    Tom Wolfe, and was a stylish darling of New York’s 1960s media scene, often photographed in

    the company of well-known men, many of whom she was dating.

    Steinem was late to feminism. In 1962, she’d written a story about contraception that laid out the

    ways in which women were asked to choose between career and marriage; the next year she did

    an undercover exposé of Hugh Hefner’s sex-themed Playboy clubs. However, her political

    engagements were with the Democratic Party, the civil rights, and antiwar movements; they

    didn’t yet extend to the burgeoning women’s movement. In 1963, the year that the Feminine

    Mystique was published, Steinem had written The Beach Book, a guide to travel and tanning that

    featured a foil cover flap that readers might use to catch rays.

    Even without a raised consciousness, Steinem’s life, by the late 1960s, served as a striking

    emblem of the era’s new possibilities for women: She was unmarried, widely traveled,

    professionally successful, and open about her sexual appetites. In a 1968 television interview,

    Canadian broadcaster Moses Znaimer asked thirty-four-year-old Steinem about her reputation as

    a “chick with a good sense of the vibrations;” he questioned how she’d gone undercover at

    Playboy, since he “thought you had to be stacked to be a bunny girl;” he asked if she cooked (she

    was ironing in the interview). He asked her if she ever wanted to marry.

    “Eventually,” Steinem replied, “but it keeps receding two years into the comfortable distance.”

    Did she think about it a lot? Yes, she said. “You imagine what it would be like to be married to

    people you’re going out with . . . maybe it’s a lady’s thing . . . You think, ‘Let’s see, my name

    would be Gloria Burgermeister. . . . nah.’?” In the interview’s final question, Znaimer asks

    Steinem what she wants to be “when you grow up.”

    “Free,” Steinem replies, “and old . . . and a little mean.”18

    A year later, Steinem wrote a piece called “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation,” in which

    she reported on the growing feminist movement. That same year, while covering an abortion

    speak-out in Greenwich Village, Steinem, who had had an abortion in Europe in her early

    twenties, experienced a conversion.

    Within months, she was testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary on behalf of the Equal Rights

    Amendment; she co-founded, along with Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Myrlie Evers, Fanny

    Lou Hamer, and Friedan, the National Women’s Political Caucus. In 1971, she and Letty Cottin

    Pogrebin launched Ms. magazine, the title of which rejected the notion that marital status should

    be the identifying feature of a woman.

    Steinem’s most powerful gift was her ability to synthesize radical sentiments into appealingly

    pithy, era-defining sound bites.

    “We are becoming the men we wanted to marry,” she said, clarifying that an opposition to

    marriage need not be about the rejection of men or love, but rather about the filling out and

    equaling up of female life. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” she was often

    credited with coining (actually, the phrase came from Australian educator Irina Dunn19). More

    sharply, Steinem argued that marriage rendered women “half people,” and once explained that

    she had not married, and would not marry, because, “I can’t mate in captivity.” It was a funny

    line, borne of deep dissatisfactions and anger over the way life had been until now.

    Not everyone was charmed.

    “I guess [she] gave some comfort to the singles,” Betty Friedan would later say of Steinem. “But

    really, Gloria was a phony. She always had a man. And I used to catch her hiding behind a

    Vogue magazine at Kenneth’s having her hair streaked.”20

    Steinem herself made the same point to me in 2012, noting that she had been “somewhat

    protected” from certain kinds of man-hating caricature and denigration because “I always had a

    man in my life.” However, that was part of what made her so useful when it came to offering a

    more fetching vision of unmarried life than had previously been available. Steinem’s beauty, her

    independence, her unapologetic heterosexual appetites, and her steady stream of suitors could not

    easily be written off as froideur, as man-hating, as homosexuality. What was so disruptive about

    Steinem, and other women who were living like her, whether or not they had men on their arms,

    was that it seemed she just really enjoyed being free.

    More young unmarried women were about to join her, thanks to two landmark cases decided in

    the early seventies.

    The Supreme Court had made birth control legal for married couples in the 1965 case, Griswold

    v. Connecticut, basing its decision on the opinion that a ban violated the privacy of the marital

    bedroom’s “innermost sanctum.” But, for single women, the relevant decision came seven years

    later. In 1972’s Eisenstadt v. Baird, the Court struck down a law that prohibited the sale of

    contraception to unmarried persons, thus affirming “the right of the individual, married or single,

    to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a

    person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.”

    The decision affirmed both parties within a heterosexual union as individual entities with rights,

    a break from some long-standing principles of marital law, which had, in various forms over two

    centuries, meant that women forfeited many elements of their identities and their liberties upon

    marrying. “The marital couple is not an independent entity with a mind and heart of its own,”

    wrote Justice William Brennan in his decision, “but an association of two individuals each with a

    separate intellectual and emotional make-up.” It was like a legal equivalent of Ms. Magazine: the

    recognition that Americans’ rights should neither be circumscribed nor made more expansive

    based simply on whether they were wed. As the historian Nancy Cott writes, by “refusing to

    deny single persons the privacy that married couples were granted, [Eisenstadt] moved toward

    displacing marriage from the seat of official morality.”21

    One year later, the court ruled in Roe v. Wade that abortion was legal. The decision affected

    married and single women equally. But, for the unmarried, legal abortion provided yet another

    tool to protect their ability to live outside of marriage.

    By 1973, the idea of independent womanhood was worming its way into the national

    imagination persistently enough that Newsweek published a cover story that fulsomely asserted

    that “singlehood has emerged as an intensely ritualized—and newly respectable—style of

    American life. . . . It is finally becoming possible to be both single and whole.”22 And, in 1974,

    Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, making it easier for women to secure credit

    cards, bank loans, and mortgages, and to buy their own homes.

    While the women’s movement had not been explicitly driven by efforts to advocate for single

    women, what it had succeeded at doing, via its impact on politics, economics, and the law, was

    to create options besides or in advance of marriage. With every passing year in the 1970s, there

    were simply more ways to valorize female existence: more jobs to apply for, flings to have,

    money to earn.

    As these new temptations clashed with the retro realities of marriages begun in a pre-feminist

    era, the divorce rate skyrocketed, hitting close to 50 percent through the late 1970s and 1980s.

    The divorce boom had a huge impact on never or not-yet married women. First, it created more

    single people, helping to slowly destigmatize the figure of the woman without a ring on her

    finger. It also forced a very public reckoning with marriage as an institution of variable quality.

    The realization that a bad marriage might be bad enough to cause a painful split provided

    ammunition to those women who preferred to abstain from marriage than to enter a flawed one.

    What the women’s movement of the 1970s did, ultimately, was not to shrink marriage, or the

    desire for male companionship, as a reality for many women, but rather to enlarge the rest of the

    world to such an extent that marriage’s shadow became far less likely to blot out the sun of other

    possibilities. As legal scholar Rachel Moran writes, “One of the great ironies of second-wave

    feminism is that it ignored single women as a distinct constituency while creating the conditions

    that increasingly enabled women to forego marriage.”23

    At the conclusion of the 1970s, the number of never-married persons was at its lowest24 ever

    (mostly because the calculation included the enormous swell of married, now divorcing, Baby

    Boomers), but the rate of women who were getting married was beginning to slow noticeably,

    and the median age of first marriage had inched up to twenty-two.

    In 1981, Ronald Reagan cruised into the Oval Office on a wave of aspersions cast on women he

    depicted as relying on government assistance in place of husbands, or in his parlance, “welfare

    queens.” His ascension had come on the back of, and in tandem with, the rise of the New Right,

    an alliance of fiscal and social conservatives aligned around a commitment to religious

    righteousness and reversing the victories of twentieth-century social progressives. He struck the

    Equal Rights Amendment from the Republican Party’s platform, where it had remained since

    1940; he supported the so-called Human Life Amendment, which would have banned almost all

    abortions, and defined life as beginning at fertilization.

    It was morning in post-feminist America, and the backlash, against the women’s movement and

    the single women whose swelling numbers seemed to emblematize its success most

    uncomfortably, was in full force.

    In 1985, a study conducted by male researchers from Harvard and Yale concluded that a never-

    married, university-educated forty-year-old woman had only a 2.6 percent chance of ever

    marrying. It spurred Newsweek to publish its infamous cover story “The Marriage Crunch,” in

    which it made the famously inaccurate claim that single women at age forty were more likely to

    be killed by terrorists than to marry. People published photos of unmarried celebrities under the

    headline “Are These Old Maids?”25 and warned that “most single women over thirty-five can

    forget about marriage.” The social and cultural resistance to the spurning of marriage was


    And yet, women kept right on not marrying. In 1990, the median age for first marriage for

    women jumped to nearly twenty-four, the highest it had been in the century in which it had been


    The future had arrived. With it had come echoes of the past advances of unmarried women, this

    time threatening the status quo with the sexual and economic power won for them by previous

    generations. Rising to meet them would be new iterations of old political and cultural opposition,

    figures anxious to corral these Amazons back into the marital fold.


    Abstention from or delay of marriage may have been a conscious choice for some women in the

    1970s and 1980s, but it has now simply become a mass behavior. The most radical of feminist

    ideas—the disestablishment of marriage—has, terrifyingly for many conservatives, been so

    widely embraced as to have become habit, drained of its political intent, but ever more potent

    insofar as it has refashioned the course of average female life. The independence of women from

    marriage decried by Moynihan as a pathology at odds with the nation’s patriarchal order is now a


    By 2013, about half of first-time births were to unmarried women; for women under thirty, it was

    almost 60 percent.26 The same year, the National Center for Family and Marriage Research

    released a study that revealed the marriage rate to be the lowest it had been in over a

    century.27 “Marriage is no longer compulsory,” the co-director of the NCFMR said in a

    statement about the study. “It’s just one of an array of options.”

    That array of options is pretty stunning compared to the narrow chute of hetero marriage and

    maternity into which most women were herded just a few decades ago. Millions of women now

    live with, but do not marry, long-term partners; others move in and out of sequential

    monogamous relationships; live sexually diverse lives; live outside of romantic or sexual

    relationships altogether, both with and without children; marry or enter civil unions with

    members of the same sex or combine some of these options.

    The journey toward legal marriage for gays and lesbians may seem at odds with what looks like

    a flight from marriage by heterosexuals. But in fact, they are part of the same project: a

    dismantling of the institution as it once existed—as a rigidly patrolled means by which one sex

    could exert legal, economic, and sexual power over another—and a reimagining of it as a

    flexible union to be entered, ideally, on equal terms.

    Taken together, these shifts, by many measures, embody the worst nightmare of social

    conservatives: a complete rethinking of who women are and who men are and, therefore, also of

    what family is and who holds dominion within it . . . and outside it. The expanded presence of

    women as independent entities means a redistribution of all kinds of power, including electoral

    power, that has, until recently, been wielded mostly by men.

    Single Women Voters

    In 2012, unmarried women made up a remarkable 23 percent of the electorate. Almost a quarter

    of votes were cast by women without husbands, up three points from just four years earlier.

    According to Page Gardner, founder of the Voter Participation Center, in the 2012 presidential

    election, unmarried women, who have a vested stake in their own economic and reproductive

    rights, drove turnout in practically every demographic, making up “almost 40 percent of the

    African-American population, close to 30 percent of the Latino population, and about a third of

    all young voters.”

    Single women helped put Barack Obama back in the White House; they voted for him by 67 to

    31 percent, while married women voted for Romney. In the 2013 Virginia race for governor, the

    Democratic candidate beat his Republican rival, carrying women by nine points, but single

    women by what the New York Times called28 “a staggering 42 percentage points.” Unmarried

    women’s political leanings are not, as has been surmised in some quarters, attributable solely to

    their racial diversity. According to polling firm Lake Research Partners, while white women as a

    whole voted for Romney over Obama, unmarried white women chose Obama over Romney by a

    margin of 49.4 percent to 38.9 percent.29 In 2013, columnist Jonathan Last wrote about a study

    of how women aged twenty-five to thirty voted in the 2000 election. “It turned out,” Last wrote

    in the Weekly Standard, “that the marriage rate for these women was a greater influence on vote

    choice than any other variable” measured.30

    The connection between single female life and electoral engagement is no wonky secret. As one

    2014 New York Times story began, “The decline of marriage over the last generation has helped

    create an emerging voting bloc of unmarried women that is profoundly reshaping the American


    Conservatives are so aware of this that antifeminist pundit Phyllis Schlafly claimed in 2012 that

    President Obama was working to keep women unmarried by giving away so many social

    services to them. “President Obama is simply trying to promote more dependency on

    government hand-outs because he knows that is his constituency,”31 Schlafly said. This is how

    scary single women are today, and how badly Republican politicians want to lash out at them:

    During the October 2012 presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, when

    the candidates were asked about how they might stem the tide of gun violence, Romney replied

    that a major step in curbing “the culture of violence” in the United States was to “tell our kids

    that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone.” Apparently,

    anyone (of the opposite sex) will do.

    As the second decade of the twenty-first century has worn on, politicians of all stripes, aware of

    the political power of the unmarried woman yet seemingly incapable of understanding female

    life outside of a marital context, have come to rely on a metaphor in which American women, no

    longer bound to men, are binding themselves to government. During the lead-up to the 2014

    midterms, Fox News pundit Jesse Watters, referring to unmarried women as “Beyoncé Voters,”

    alleged that “they depend on government because they’re not depending on their husbands. They

    need things like contraception, health care, and they love to talk about equal pay.” Meanwhile,

    some young conservatives at the College Republican National Committee took a less scolding

    approach, cutting a series of television ads that imagined a single female voter trying on wedding

    dresses in the spirit of TLC’s reality show “Say Yes to the Dress,” except in the ads, the dress

    was actually a Republican gubernatorial candidate to whom this would-be-bride was pledging

    herself. Meanwhile, the liberal leaning Cosmopolitan Magazine launched a Get Out the Vote

    initiative that included a social-media–spread “Save the Date” notice for November 4, Election

    Day. It came with the unsubtle message, “You and the polls are getting hitched.”

    Joel Kotkin, a professor of urban development, argued in The Daily Beast that the power of the

    single voter is destined to fade, since single people “by definition . . . have no heirs,”32 while

    their religious, conservative, counterparts will repopulate the nation with children who will

    replicate their parents’ politics, ensuring that “conservative, more familial-oriented values

    inevitably prevail.” Kotkin’s error, of course, is both in assuming that unmarried people do not

    reproduce—in fact, they are doing so in ever greater numbers—but also in failing to consider

    whence the gravitation away from married norms derived. A move toward independent life did

    not simply emerge from a clamshell: It was born of generations of dissatisfaction with the

    inequities of religious, conservative, social practice. Why should we believe that children born to

    social conservatives will not tread a similar path, away from conservative values, as the one

    walked by generations of traditionally raised citizens before them? The impulse toward liberation

    isn’t inoculated against by strict conservative backgrounds; it’s often inculcated by them.

    What all the electoral hand-wringing reveals is the seriousness of anxieties about how, exactly,

    independent women might wield their unprecedented influence, if only they came out to vote in

    full numbers, which they too often fail to do.

    Unmarried women are among the voters who are hardest to pull to the polls. In part because they

    are often poor, many of them overworked single mothers with multiple commitments, low-

    paying jobs that don’t permit them time to stand in line at the voting booth, or women for whom

    social policy has already failed so badly that they might not even see the point of voting.

    According to Page Gardner, in 2016, “For the first time in history, a majority of women voters

    are projected to be unmarried.” Yet going into the last presidential election season, nearly 40

    percent of them had not registered to vote.33

    And yet, even with only a relatively small percentage of them voting, these single American

    women have already shown that they have the power to change America, in ways that make

    many people extremely uncomfortable.

    Co-eds, Sluts, and Marriage Cures

    In 2012, a then-unmarried Georgetown law student, Sandra Fluke, testified about the insurance

    regulations being proposed for women buying birth control. Fluke’s argument barely touched on

    issues of sexual freedom; it was instead about money, wages, education, about the rights that

    women have to live multi-faceted lives—the kinds that are now more possible, since marriage

    has become decentralized as the defining experience of female adulthood—without being taxed

    extra to control their reproduction.

    When he tore into Fluke’s testimony in a lengthy on-air rant, conservative radio host Rush

    Limbaugh couldn’t seem to get past his spluttering fury at the fact that she was arguing for her

    rights to a product that would enable her to have unmonitored amounts of sex. Limbaugh turned

    promptly to eroticized denigration of the independent woman in a way that recalled the treatment

    of Anita Hill twenty years earlier. On his syndicated radio show, Limbaugh called Fluke a “slut”

    and a “prostitute;” “so much sex,” “so much sex,” “so much sex,” he repeated, extending his

    condemnation to envelop Fluke’s generational cohort, the “co-eds” who hook up “with as many

    partners as they want . . . Whatever, no limits on this.” Limbaugh said “unlimited” repeatedly,

    conveying his unmistakable fury that women had successfully conspired to evade the restraints

    that marriage and custom used to provide.

    Fluke, and the growing power of other independent women she seemed to represent, was an

    irritant to these conservatives. More than that, they feared, she might be contagious . . . positively


    A writer at The American Spectator called Fluke, whom he took care to refer to as Mizz, “the

    model Welfare Queen for the 21st Century;” and warned of “how many thousands of” her ilk

    “are graduating this year to enter government jobs or political campaigns. They will be spreading

    their ideas to all within hearing.”34

    Less than a week after his Fluke attack, Limbaugh was tearing into a book on food politics

    written by another young woman when he paused to ask on air: “What is it with all these young,

    single, white women?”

    Watch out for these women, these men were saying. They are everywhere.

    And for those unmarried women who are not privileged white law students like Fluke, the ones

    over whom lawmakers can more easily exert punishing power, there is no end to the rhetorical

    and policy attempts to stuff them back inside a marital box and lock them there.

    The idea that the decline in marriage—as opposed to broken social safety networks and

    economic policies that benefit the wealthy, the white, and the educated over the poor—is the

    source of inequality in our still fundamentally unequal world has lit a fire under Republicans in

    the early decades of the twenty-first century. As Florida Republican Marco Rubio has opined,

    “the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty . . . isn’t a government spending

    program. It’s called marriage.”35 Rubio’s early competitors for the 2016 Republican nomination

    included Rick Santorum and Jeb Bush, politicians who have been campaigning on the

    denigration of single women since the Great Crossover of the mid-1990s.

    In 2013, Mitt Romney’s tone on the subject of early marriage became almost mournful, as he

    reported to graduates of Southern Virginia University during a commencement address there that

    “[S]ome people could marry, but choose to take more time, they say, for themselves. Others plan

    to wait until they’re well into their thirties or forties before they think about getting married.

    They’re going to miss so much of living, I’m afraid.”36

    This edged toward another arm of sociopolitical and economic anxiety about the growth in

    population of single women: the failure of these women to have enough babies.

    “The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate,” wrote columnist Jonathan

    Last, perhaps not coincidentally the same man who has studied marital status as the biggest

    determining factor in partisan affiliation, in a Wall Street Journal column pegged to his 2012

    book, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting.

    The warning reverberated in many venues, and critics fretted that women’s increasing ability to

    devote portions of their adulthood to things other than marriage and motherhood is diminishing

    our national prospects. The New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat wrote a piece

    entitled, “More Babies, Please” in which he called “the retreat from child rearing” a “decadence”

    and “a spirit that privileges the present over the future” and “embraces the comforts and

    pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the

    first place.” Douthat was not specific about whose sacrifices had been so central to the steady

    repopulation of the nation, but Last himself was much more direct. Detailing the reasons for the

    falling number of babies, some of which he took care to call “clearly positive,” Last wrote of

    how “Women began attending college in equal (and then greater) numbers than men” and how

    “more important, women began branching out into careers beyond teaching and nursing.”

    Finally, he wrote, “the combination of the birth-control pill and the rise of cohabitation broke the

    iron triangle linking sex, marriage and childbearing.”37

    Economist Nancy Folbre, responding to demographic Chicken Littles in the New York Times,

    wrote that she knew “of no historical evidence that either the productivity or the creativity of a

    society is determined by the age structure of its population.”38 But the anxiety may not have

    stemmed from historical evidence as much as it did from historical yearning: for a time before

    what Last described as “the iron triangle” linking women, marriage, and reproduction had been


    Whether those who worried were concerned about too many babies or too few babies, women

    living in poverty or women enjoying power, they all seemed to return to the same conclusion:

    Marriage must be reestablished as the norm, the marker and measure of female existence, against

    which all other categories of success are weighed.

    The Story of Single Women Is the Story of the Country

    The funny thing is that all these warnings, diagnoses, and panics—even the most fevered of

    them—aren’t wholly unwarranted. Single women are upending everything; their growing

    presence has an impact on how economic, political, and sexual power is distributed between the

    genders. The ability for women to live unmarried is having an impact on our electoral politics.

    The vast numbers of single women living in the United States are changing our definitions of

    family, and, in turn, will have an impact on our social policies.

    The intensity of the resistance to these women is rooted in the (perhaps unconscious)

    comprehension that their expanded power signals a social and political rupture as profound as the

    invention of birth control, as the sexual revolution, as the abolition of slavery, as women’s

    suffrage and the feminist, civil rights, gay rights, and labor movements.

    Crucially, single women played a huge part in all of those earlier ruptures. Though it may feel as

    though the growing numbers of unmarried women and the influence they wield have shaken the

    nation only in the past five decades, in fact, the story of single women’s nation-shaping power is

    threaded into the story of the nation itself.

    Women, perhaps especially those who have lived untethered from the energy-sucking and

    identity-sapping institution of marriage in its older forms, have helped to drive social progress of

    this country since its founding.

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