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The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex Analytical Essay

In her essay The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex, Gayle Rubin strived to outline factors that contribute to the fact that even today, women continue to be subjected to different forms of a societal/patriarchal oppression.

While doing it, she made a deliberate point in mentioning a number of discursively relevant theories that provide a partial insight into what may be considered the dialectically predetermined reasons for the earlier mentioned situation to continue remaining an integral part of today’s socio-political realities.

In my paper, I will outline the major qualitative aspects of the author’s line of reasoning (in regards to the theories of Marx, Levy-Strauss and Freud). I will also argue that, contrary to what Rubin implies throughout the essay’s entirety, there is indeed a certain rationale in referring the notion of women’s patriarchal oppression, as such that has been biologically rather than ideologically/socially predetermined.

The first major theoretician of gender inequality, to which Rubin refers in her essay, is Karl Marx. Although, in his writing he never tackled the subject matter explicitly, he nevertheless did succeed in exposing Capitalism, as such that indirectly contributes to the ‘domestication’ of women.

The validity of this idea Rubin illustrates in regards to the discursive implications of the Marxist view on of the generation of the so-called ‘surplus product/value’, as such that ‘fuels’ the free-market economy’s proper functioning. As the author noted: “If the total value of the things the worker has made exceeds the value of his or her wage, the aim of capitalism has been achieved.

The capitalist gets back the cost of die wage, plus an increment-surplus value” (161). This, of course, presupposes that, in order for capitalists to increase the amount of ‘surplus output’, generated by hired employees, the latter must be exploited in the most effective manner.

In its turn, this explains the phenomenon of the so-called ‘corporate culture’, when workers are being instilled with the sense of loyalty towards their exploiters, and the fact that women are assigned to take care of housework-duties, without being paid.

By acting as unpaid ‘housewives’, women allow their husbands to concentrate more on their career-advancement (as a reward for their increased ability to generate more ‘surplus product’).

This, however, naturally results in women’s continual ‘dehumanization’, as their status of ‘housewives’ (euphemism for the notion of lowly female servants) automatically imply their lessened intellectual abilities. Thus, Marxist theory suggests that it is specifically Capitalism, as the form of a socio-political governing, which creates objective preconditions for women to continue suffering from a patriarchal oppression.

Nevertheless, Rubin rightly suggested that this point of view cannot be referred to as such that represents an undisputed truth-value.

The reason for this is apparent – there are plenty of examples of women having been subjected to the different forms of a patriarchal oppression not only in Capitalist, but also in pre-Capitalist and Socialist societies: “Women are oppressed in societies which can by no stretch of the imagination be described as capitalist” (163).

The validity of this suggestion Rubin illustrates in regards to the theory of Levy-Strauss, who views the oppression women as a byproduct of male-dominated societies striving to ensure their structural integrity.

For example, in the tribal societies of Polynesian natives, it represents a commonplace practice for males who seek to attain a social prominence by bestowing gifts upon each other – even though that the act of a gift-giving is not being even slightly justified, in the economic sense of this word.

By indulging in this practice, natives are able to strengthen the extent of their ‘kinship’ with each other, which in turn makes it easier for them to face life-challenges.

According to Levy-Strauss, the fact that the practice of incest is being traditionally considered utterly inappropriate is best explained within the discursive framework of a ‘gift-giving culture’ – it is exactly because by marrying men outside of their own family/tribe, women establish kinship-ties with potential would-be-enemies, which explains the origins of an anti-incest sentiment in just about every human society.

It is needless to mention, of course, that by being objectualized as ‘gifts’, women inevitably end up facing a patriarchal oppression, because the very practice of their earlier mentioned objectualization deems women inferior to men: “If women are the gifts, then it is men who are the exchange partners. And it is the partners, not the presents, upon whom reciprocal exchange confers its quasi-mystical power of social linkage” (174).

Nevertheless, because Levy-Strauss’s theory suggests that the ‘exchange of women’ is the necessary prerequisite for the emergence of culture, it automatically implies that without such an exchange, there would no human civilization, as we know it – a rather controversial idea.

After all; whereas, people’s strong affiliation with the ‘women exchange’ practice reflects the sheer extent of their existential primitiveness (the measure of their closeness to apes), their capacity to push forward scientific and cultural progress is being reflective of their ability to suppress ‘monkey’ within.

This is exactly the reason why it is namely in Western scientifically and culturally advanced societies, where women are entitled to the same scope of civil rights and liberties, as men are.

In her essay, Rubin also made numerous references to the Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis, as such that provides a psychological insight into what causes women to experience deep-seated anxieties of inferiority, which in turn make them more likely to end up being mistreated.

According to Freud, the actual cause of these anxieties is the fact that, throughout the course of their lives, women never cease experiencing the sensation of ‘penis envy’: “The girl turns from the mother and represses the ‘masculine’ elements of her libido…

She compares her tiny clitoris to the larger penis, and in the face of its evident superior ability to satisfy the mother, falls prey to penis envy and a sense of inferiority” (187). It is quite clear that the psychoanalytic view of the subject matter implies the essentially biological roots of women’s patriarchal oppression.

However, this is something that Rubin cannot accept, which is why throughout her essay, the author continues to imply that the extent of just about theory’s (the tackles the issue of women’s oppression) validity reflects its spokespersons’ willingness to refrain from succumbing to ‘biological determinism’.

For example, while referring to the theory of Levy-Strauss, Rubin states: “The ‘exchange of women’ is a seductive and powerful concept. It is attractive in that it places the oppression of women within social systems, rather than biology” (175). Yet, it is specifically the conceptual framework of biology, within which the issue of women’s oppression should be discussed.

We need to understand that, biologically speaking, the representatives of Homo Sapiens sub-species are nothing but hairless primates. In the societies of primates, males dominate – the very laws of nature predetermined such a state of affairs.

This is the reason why, contrary to what many feminists believe, throughout the humankind’s history, there has not been even a single example of women having exercised the de facto matriarchal dominance within the society.

As Henslin pointed out: “The anthropological record shows that all societies for which evidence exists are (or were) patriarchies… Stories about long-lost matriarchies (societies in which women-as-a-group dominate men-as-a-group) are myths” (297).

Nevertheless, this is not only the result of the fact that, as compared to women, men are physically stronger – the very biological constitution of female bodies makes the representatives of the ‘weak gender’ to be differently ‘brain-wired’. The reason for this is apparent – as compared to what it happened to be the case with men’s ‘external’ genitals, women’s genitals are ‘internal’.

It is its turn, this causes women to exist in the state of a constant sexual tension – unlike men, women are quite incapable of detaching their rational psyche from the physiologically predetermined workings of their bodies. Because of that, female whole bodies can be well conceptualized in terms of a sexual organ (this is why women get easily aroused, because of having clearly non-sexual parts of their bodies, such as hands, touched by men).

Whereas, men’s sexual arousal is best compared to a skin-itch, which disappears after having been scratched, women’s sexual arousal is best compared to a skin-rash, which only gets worse while scratched. In its turn, this creates objective preconditions for women to be able to realize the full extent of their existential potential only through socialization (preferably sexual) with men.

As Weininger noted: “A woman does not value herself by the constancy and freedom of her personality… (she) can only value herself at the rate of the man who has fixed his choice on her” (123).

This presupposes women’s comfortableness with being objectualized – hence, establishing a metaphysical ground for women to continue facing patriarchal oppression. The above-statement also exposes the conceptual erroneousness of political philosophies that promote the idea that it is possible to enforce gender-egalitarianism.

Works Cited

Henslin, James. Sociology: A Down to Earth Approach. Upper Saddle River: Pearson, 2011. Print.

Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex.” Toward an Anthropology of Women. Ed. Rayna Reiter. New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1975. 157-210. Print.

Weininger, Otto 1906, Sex & Character. PDF file. 26 Apr. 2013. <>.

This Analytical Essay on The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex was written and submitted by user Cristian Bowman to help you with your own studies. You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.

Cristian Bowman studied at the University of California, Berkeley, USA, with average GPA 3.56 out of 4.0.

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Bowman, C. (2019, June 19). The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex [Blog post]. Retrieved from

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Bowman, Cristian. "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex." IvyPanda, 19 June 2019,

1. Cristian Bowman. "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex." IvyPanda (blog), June 19, 2019.


Bowman, Cristian. "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex." IvyPanda (blog), June 19, 2019.


Bowman, Cristian. 2019. "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex." IvyPanda (blog), June 19, 2019.


Bowman, C. (2019) 'The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex'. IvyPanda, 19 June.

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