Rubin Revisited

This post from 2012 introduces some ideas about Rubin’s sex hierarchy which I write about in more depth in The Psychology of Sex.

For the Sexual Cultures conference at Brunel 2012 I gave a presentation about how we view sex in our culture, specifically focusing on the way it is understood in medicine and mainstream sex therapy, compared to the way that it is understood by people in various sexual communities.

Mainly I’m making the point (which I also make in Rewriting the Rules) that the mainstream sexual categories we have give us a rather limited and fixed idea of what sex is. Straying outside this idea is seen as being abnormal or ‘dysfunctional’. In contrast, groups like bisexual, asexual, BDSM and slash communities, often have a more diverse and fluid understanding of what sex is and how it may differ between people and in the same person over time.

The idea in the presentation was to revisit Gayle Rubin‘s ‘sex hierarchy’ diagram (from her classic paper: Thinking Sex) where she illustrates how the dominant way of viewing sex in our culture is that we have to stay within a ‘charmed circle’ of good, natural, normal, acceptable sexuality, and that we will be seen as bad, mad, dangerous or wrong if we stray outside of this:

I started to wonder what the circles might look like if we placed the different understandings of sex, which have emerged from various sexual communities, in the centre. This is what I have come up with so far, but it’s definitely a work in progress:

Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.


  1. […] interesting alternative I found was from Meg-John Barker who flipped the circle so that narrower ideas about acceptable sex where on the outer circle.  […]