Gayle Rubin and Claudia Card: The politics of sex, marriage and motherhood

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Sex and Gender

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Gayle Rubin and Claudia Card: The politics of sex, marriage and motherhood

Elle Stacy

The United States lives and breaths sex. It calls out from every billboard, every T.V. commercial; from teen magazines to toothpaste ads. Sex is everywhere. Or should we say, sexual expression is everywhere. The actual act of sex itself is considered by most of America as dirty, and sinful if performed outside of a state sanctioned heterosexual marriage. For a married couple to engage in the act of procreation is allowed, and if not linked to closely with the erotic act itself, even considered beautiful. Sex between unmarried individuals that do not meet the traditional relationship model, be they significantly older or younger than one another, not "opposite" genders, be there money exchanged, or the forms of sex "non-traditional", and it is considered obscene, dirty, and deviant. So where and when is it that this stigma against sex came from? and what have it's effects been on American society?

There are two feminists that I see as the foremothers to my own political feminist theory. Gayle Rubin speaks of the history and influence of the U.S. anti-sex federal laws from the beginning of the 19th century through the 1980's on relationships and societies. I take from her my understanding of a sex-negative history that stems from relgious, victorian morality, and fear of emerging systems of eroticism. Claudia Card speaks of the effect of sex-negative politics on marriage, and in turn, motherhood. She speaks to the oppression women face in hetrosexual marriage, and uses its flaws as a backdrop for discussing the absurdity of arguing for homosexual marriage. Her arguments are the reality of a history of sex-negative politics that Rubin speaks of.
The History

The Comstock Act of 1873, named for Anthony Comstock, made it a federal crime to make, advertise, sell, possess, send through the mail, or import books or pictures deemed obscene (Rubin p.7). It also banned contraceptive or abortive drugs, devices, and information about them. Most states passed their own anti-obscenity laws at this time. In 1910 The Mann Act, also known as the White Slave Act went on to criminalize prostitution. The 1940s through the 1970s brought homosexual witch-hunts, the grouping of deviant sexualities and eroticism with child molestation, pornography and communism (Rubin p.7). Notably, these actions were not simply about enforcing a religious ideology. They came as a response to the emerging modern erotic system. They came as a response to the flux of pornography, out gay and lesbians in the workforce, and the expansion of the commercial sex industry. The 1950s were an especially good example of formative yet repressed times for sexuality: homosexual literature was flourishing, and gay rights organizations were forming, along side a right-wing sexual counter-offensive (Rubin, p. 44). The notion that sex is bad for the young was chiseled into extensive social and legal structures at this time, right along side the criminalizing of gay men as the stereotypical child molester (Rubin, p. 5). To date, the lack of sex education in schools, as well as rising rates of teen pregnancy are an example of the current reality of these histories.
Safe Sex

The Institution of Marriage
While Card's main focus is on the fatuity of fighting for homosexual marriage, she debunks the structure and validity of state sanctioned marriage in the process. As she sees it, the institution of marriage is so flawed that it should not be reproduced or ameliorated by anyone:

"Family,"...comes from the Latin familia, meaning "household,", which in turn came from famulus, which...mean[s] "servant." The ancient Roman paterfamilias was the head of a household of servants and slaves, including his wife or wives, concubines, and children. He had the power of life and death over them. The ability of contemporary male heads of households to get away with battering, incest, and murder suggests to many feminists that the family has not evolved into anything acceptable yet. (Card, p.358)

Card understands marriage as a relationship to which the State is an essential third party, in which a history of modern patriarchies have been mandatory for and oppressive to women. As she points out, there are relatively few things necessary in obtaining a marriage license; one need only be of the correct age and gender. No recognition is given to the dangers of legally sanctioning the access of one person to the person and life of another without evidence of relevant knowledge of those doing the licencing. There is no test, or course one must take, or mandatary background check as a legal safeguard to a potentially abusive marriage. Central to the idea of marriage, historically, has been intimate access to one's spouses activities, belongings, person, histories, physical access to each other's residences, and financial status (Card, p. 364). The legal rights of marriage to each other's persons, property, and lives is something Card sees as endangering the lives of women, opening up possibilities for torture, rape, battery, stalking, mayhem, or murder by the other spouse.

Sexuality is broken down in the United States into two categories the insiders: those who are allowed to carefully experience sex within the right rules, and the outsiders: all other forms of sexuality. Sex may happen in state sanctified, heterosexual, same-generational, monogamous marriage, but what does that sex look like for women? Procreative sex is legitimate as it creates a family unit, however, beyond this, the "mother" is no longer a sexual being. This harkens back to Rubin's discussion of knowlege of sex as harmful to children, which gained ground in the 1950s. If sex is bad for children, then the "mother", the "caregiver", must therefore be the anti-sex. This striped a woman of her sexual expression, and the last space for an accepted sexual space for women generally.

Card also challenges the assumption that parental responsibility should be concentrated in one or two people, given the liklyhood for all rearing responsibility to fall on the mother. She also discusses the possible negaive effects of concentrated parental responsibility as having too much "power of a child's happiness and unhappiness in their hands for nearly two decades" (Card, P. 368).

What neither of my feminist foremothers discuss is the connection between monogamous heterosexual marriage, and sex work. I see these two institutions as intrinsically related, and inherent in one another. Claudia Card speaks of the negative effects on marriage for women, and in leaving out its counterpart, lead me to think about the reverse effect of marriage on men. I see the traditional form of monogamous, heterosexual marriage as unlikely to meet the needs of either of the two parties. It is for that reason that sex work is so important. I see sex workers as the invisible glue that holds many marriages together. The mother must be a non-sexual figure, yet the father is permitted to be sexual and supposedly holds an innate drive to inseminate. Weather it be filling sexual needs that "mother's" as moral figures cannot give their husbands in the limiting structure of traditional marriage and motherhood, or the need for an immoral "other" to allow the sanctity of a space deemed morally holy, sex workers are a vital counter-part to the traditional structure of marriage as it exists in the United States, and must be used when discussing marriage from a feminist perspective.

Card, Claudia, Against Marriage and Motherhood, Moral Issues in Global Perspective, edited by Christine Koggel, Canada 1999.

Rubin, Gayle, Thinking Sex, American Feminist Thought at Century's End: A Reader, Edited by Linda Kauffman

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