This essay extracts the concept of “benign sexual variation” from the work of feminist anthropologist Gayle Rubin. The concept has been largely ignored by queer theorists and has often been misunderstood as liberal by feminists. In this essay, I seek to illuminate the concept's radical implications and relevance for contemporary sexual politics. Against the currently dominant view that sexual oppression, sexism, racism, and capitalism are inseparable, and against the frequent conflation of early- and late-1970s radical feminisms, this article revisits early-1970s debates between radical feminists and socialist feminists and highlights the extent to which Rubin's opposition to late-1970s radical feminists relies on early radical feminism. Reading Rubin's contribution in this light allows me to show why it is critical to distinguish between sexual oppression and other forms of oppression as well as why this move is vital to understanding how sexual oppression intersects with other oppressions. In doing so, I draw the theoretical and political consequences of Rubin's concept for a radical politics of sexuality.

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