From Foucault to San Francisco: The Enduring Roots of Queer Theory

Today Queer Theory is taught within the Humanities subjects of the Western academy as a matter of consensus, but its historical roots half a century ago tend not to be included on the syllabus. We must ask how did Queer Theory originate? How did the prominence of queer thinkers on sexuality come about?

Prior to our contemporary juncture where Queer Theory and queer politics are almost unquestionable, both were in fact contested throughout the 1980s in what became known as the ‘Sex Wars’. Opposing sides consisted mainly of radical lesbian feminists who believed sexuality should, like any other topic, be subject to ruthless criticism, and on the other side, proponents of ‘kink’. 

Those who espoused the virtues of kink, primarily in the form of bondage, domination, sadomasochism (BDSM), did so through a coarsely simplistic idea: that if something sexual is desired it must be a moral good, and that the more transgressive that desire and its accompanying sexual acts are, the better. That assertion existed in diametric opposition to the radical and lesbian feminists who theorised that men and women are socialised into eroticising domination and submission. According to lesbian feminists, we live in an alienated and alienating, unequal, and unjust society. We are therefore conditioned to reproduce those hierarchies sexually. These ‘sex critical’ feminists claimed that the way in which sexuality is socially constructed under patriarchy must be exposed, and the existing social order decisively challenged. These feminists’ goal was a total reorganisation of society from top to bottom (pun intended). On the other side, the so-called ‘sex positive’ activists whacked each other with bits of leather and called it politics. They also wrote, prolifically, in support of their subculture of leather whacking, which is how Queer Theory emerged.

The founding document of Queer Theory is widely recognised as Gayle Rubin’s 1984 essay Thinking Sex: Notes For A Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality (which can be read here). Rubin had arrived in San Francisco in 1978 a lesbian feminist, but soon after studying gay male leather S&M culture, Gayle gaily donned a pair of leather trousers herself, and took up the persona and mantle of ‘butch leather daddy dom’. 

Almost half of Thinking Sex is dedicated to arguing for adult sexual contact with children and children being exposed to sexual imagery in schools. Rubin says opposition to this is misguided and exists only as an attack on both homosexuality and ‘other’ forms of historically marginalised sexualities. She creates a ‘respectability’ pyramid of sexually othered groups, with long-term gay and lesbian couples at the top, fetishists and BDSM practitioners in the middle, and at the bottom people ‘whose eroticism transgresses generational boundaries’. When ‘leather puppy’ groups at Pride marches are observed, often with some consternation and horror, we should remember that queer politics from the start listed homosexuality alongside these sexual practices, incorporating them from its inception.

Rubin quotes a passage of Foucault from A History of Sexuality where he categorises cruel husbands with children he conceives of as sexually ambivalent:

‘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, p40)

We gain an insight here into what is considered ‘queer’. If queer is simply that which is anti-normative, how do ‘cruel’ husbands fit into it? The logic rests on the fact wife battery is technically against the law. But the criminalisation of domestic violence doesn’t eradicate it as a norm of our society.  Foucault conceives of an expanded, decentered state, rather than distinguishing between ‘the social’ (society) and politics (the state) in the way Marx does within A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy or Right (1844) and On The Jewish Question (1844). ‘Normative’ for Foucault, and for queer theorists, is that which the state does not legislate against, not which is not actually normative within society. It is Foucault’s understanding of the state that makes him so popular with anarchists, as if we need only combat the state, and the rest of society will no longer suffer social ills.

The placing of ‘precocious little girls’ and ‘ambiguous schoolboys’ alongside ‘cruel or maniacal husbands’ is an odd choice. Odd, firstly, because it implies that the sexualisation of children is a process of their own doing, just as the cruelty of a husband is his. Secondly, it is odd in how it ignores power differentials in regard to state power: husbands within households possess much more power and status than children ever do, both legally and socially. Furthermore, how are either of these categories deviant? Cruelty of husbands towards wives and children is not an uncommon phenomenon. Neither, unfortunately, is sexualising children and child sexual abuse. Neither are deviations from history, both have existed and been the norm during the last 5,000 years of patriarchy.  

Foucault’s categories of ‘precocious schoolgirls’ and ‘ambiguous schoolboys’ as ‘perverts’ are surely identifiable as a thread of paedophile culture. The ‘solitary collectors’ and ‘ramblers’ as perverts is anyone’s guess; this surely depends what you’re collecting and whether clothed whilst rambling!

Rubin claims in Thinking Sex that opposition to the sexualisation of children is ‘erotic hysteria’, a kind of libidinally invested moral panic. We might recognise that as the classic notion that sex-critical feminists who support sexual boundaries are just repressed prudes. The idea that we are unconsciously excited precisely by that which we disavow, leads seamlessly to the classic line: ‘feminists just need a good shagging’. 

Rubin posits that a fetish for shoes as neatly comparable to a preference to ‘spicy cuisine’. The epigraph to Thinking Sex is a description of the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). That is not to say that Rubin advocates FGM, but that this example, and comparing shoe fetishes to food preferences, are deployed to conflate very different issues. The comparison of fetishism with dietary discretion is about rendering fetishist sexual practices as banal as decisions around food.

By eliding FGM and opposition to the sexualisation of children Rubin paints feminists who wish to protect children from child sexual abuse with the adults who cause irreparable harm by mutilate girl’s genitals. The insinuation works by equating all preferences as equally harmless and projects the likes of FGM onto sex-critical feminists, as if it is we who sexualise children and would seek to mutilate their sexual organs to de-sex them, as if that must be the logical endpoint of our thought. 

Queer Theory investigates sexuality in a way that does not view any sexual practices as problematic. Has anyone ever developed CPTSD (complex PTSD) from an encounter with over-spiced food? This has often happened as a result of CSA (child sexual abuse) and participation in the violent sexual worlds of porn or BDSM. Has anyone ever developed traumatic responses to their own shoe fetish? Unlikely, but those subjected to the fetishes of others, such as witnesses men engaging in public masturbation when becoming aroused by passersby, those onlookers certainly can. This sort of ‘flashing’ as many women will know is very common. The deliberate conflation of these issues is designed to make it hard for us to disentangle them.

It might be suggested the concept of consent can clarify the above, but Rubin only uses the term to argue against age of consent laws for children and draws a comparison with consent inside BDSM. The divorcing of sexual matters from social power structures, and characterising BDSM as a kind of ‘play’ full of possibilities for ‘destructuring’ power, despite its sexual thrill based on reproducing power, is a tactic of queer politics and notoriously present in Queer Theory e.g the work of Judith Butler on porn). The possibility of sex without dominance and submission is foreclosed, or at least written off as unworthy of interest, existing outside the bounds of queer scope. 

Rubin makes the case that ‘different sexual cultures’ should be celebrated as ‘unique expressions of human inventiveness’, including within that prostitution, pornography, sadomasochism, and so on. Today queer politics continues to insert exhibitionism, polyamory, ‘adult baby’, and other sexual forms into LGBT politics (if that list is considered disparate or disparaging, again, it is a grouping decided by queer politics). Many believe the ‘listitcle’ tendency to be a modern revisionism due to its popularity on social media in recent times, but it is inherent to queer politics from the start. Queer from the beginning has been characterised primarily, not by anti-normativity, but by the removal of boundaries of any kind. That sexual boundlessness is how lesbian and gay people end up categorised alongside straight demisexual femdoms who call themselves ‘queer’.

A couple of years prior to writing Thinking Sex, Rubin was involved in Samois, the first organised lesbian BDSM group in the USA, formed in San Francisco with Pat Califa. The group took the name Samois from Samois-sur-Seine, the location of the fictional estate of a dominatrix in the book Story of O (the dominatrix pierces and brands the central character, a woman without a name, known only as O). Califa is most famous for authoring the book Macho Sluts (1988) and carving a swastika into a tied-up Jewish lover’s shoulder. Califa is quoted as justifying this by saying it was “only a scratch”, but nevertheless the lover required medical attention after. The politics of this event, an incident that would now be labelled ‘race play’, is part and parcel of how, within queer politics, once something is eroticised it is somehow acceptable and beyond political critique. The UK far-Left experienced its own dose of this madness in 2014’s ‘kinky split’ incident.

The Left adopts Queer Theory at its peril. Not only because of its foundations in apologism for paedophilia, but because its trajectory has not strayed far from those roots. We are now faced with the sexualisation of children in the form of ‘drag queen storytime’ and the demonisation of feminists who consider BDSM and prostitution forms of sexual violence against women.

A world without the extremes of inequality that we observe today, without dominance and submission is surely a goal for anyone who seeks genuine liberation for oppressed groups. Re-enacting those oppressions in the bedroom hinders this aim. The social reality is that we, as subjects, are produced to do just that by our societies steeped in dominance and submission.  For radical objectors, this is not an inevitability, and can be resisted. For queer politics that is why sex-critical feminists are so dangerous, because they threaten to overturn and demolish social hierarchies, not only at institutional levels and the wider public sphere, but also threatening reproductions of these hierarchies in the private world of kitchens and bedrooms. 

Today, Queer Theory arrives usually in one form; Judith Butler and the theory of gender performativity. A young Butler orbited San Franciso in the late 1970s, arriving as a lesbian feminist — even writing an essay criticising Foucault entitled Lesbian S&M: The Politics of Dis-illusion (1980) — then transforming into a proponent of gender ideology by 1990. Butler differs from Rubin and Califa — but their influences on her, and the political influence of their shared city’s lesbian scene, are clear. This backdrop of queer politics and inescapable context fermented much of what we know as Queer Theory today.

Butler’s work is widely misunderstood — most often by its most faithful proponents. Her reconceptualisation of performativity (which she recently renounced in the New York Times last summer), alongside her wider theoretical understandings of gender, pornography, and race, deserve their own article, which is forthcoming. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: