Thirty-three years ago, Gayle Rubin, a cultural anthropologist and feminist activist, observed that, during certain times in history, humans tended to renegotiate the sexual order. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in England and the United States were such a period; the nineteen-fifties, when the popular imagination linked the threat of Communism to homosexuals, was another. In her still influential essay “Thinking Sex,” Rubin didn’t offer a hypothesis to explain why these periods called for a rearrangement in the sexual sphere, but she noted that they produced laws, institutions, and, most important, norms that governed sexuality for decades after.
It’s possible that we are living through such a period now. It is also possible that, like previous renegotiations, this one has been brought on by the fear of a world careening out of control. “The time has come to think about sex,” Rubin wrote in the opening lines of “Thinking 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.” Fast-forward to 2017: we are living with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, but we seem to be spending significantly more time discussing the sexual misbehavior of a growing number of prominent men than talking about North Korea or climate change.
Rubin did not expect good things to come from the renegotiation of the sexual sphere. The problem, she wrote, was “the fallacy of misplaced scale”: sex loomed so large that any sexual transgression, or imagined transgression, might bring extreme punishment. She quoted Susan Sontag, who wrote that “everything pertaining to sex has been a ‘special case’ in our culture.”