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Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society

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In this essay, I trace the contemporary feminist debate on prostitution to the period in which Catharine MacKinnon and Gayle Rubin deemed Marxism inadequate to the task of theorizing women’s oppression. In seeking to surmount this perceived inadequacy, both thinkers counterposed alternative theoretical frameworks for analyzing women’s oppression that nonetheless relied upon certain of Marxism’s central tenets. In a reliance that took the form of strikingly similar translations of Marxism foregrounding what came to be known as radical feminism (in the case of MacKinnon) and queer theory (in the case of Rubin), both theorists problematically render class as, respectively, gender and heterosexuality. Missing what an analysis of sex work as a site of the metamorphosis of the commodity has to tell us about the lived intersectionality of capitalism and patriarchy in individual and collective lives, feminists writing in MacKinnon and Rubin’s wake typically frame their discussions of sex work—including those that are ostensibly pro–sex worker—in terms of gender and sexuality rather than class. I argue that this flattening of sex work—predicated upon MacKinnon’s and Rubin’s translation of class as identity rather than as a dynamic, antagonistic relation between capital and labor—has facilitated feminism’s and queer theory’s unwitting complicity with capitalism, manifested in a lack of attention to women’s privilege and oppression not as women and sexual minorities per se but as workers, commodities, and even capitalists.


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