Sex within the charmed circle

In both mainstream feminist discourse and in rolequeer theory, sex within the charmed circle or its shorthand “charmed sex”, refers to attitudes, beliefs, and practices related to sex that are considered “normal and good” in the dominant culture (the “overculture”). The terms reference an essay written in 1984 by Gayle Rubin called “Thinking Sex” in which Rubin introduced what she called the “Charmed Circle”. Rubin uses the visualization of a circle divided into inner and outer portions to describe how different social groups with different social values applied those values to sexual behaviors, placing certain behaviors in the inner-most “good and natural” portion (e.g., heterosexual, monogamous, coupled, unpaid sex in private between two people who are married to each other) and certain other behaviors in the circle’s outskirts due to being “bad and unnatural” (e.g., queer, polyamorous, sex in exchange for money in public between five people who just met).

Screenshot of "the Charmed Circle" of sexuality, showing two circular regions, one inside the other.

As society changes, which behaviors are or are not “charmed” changes with it. That is, what behaviors are perceived as “good and normal,” as well as what behaviors are not, shift over time in different ways and in different places. For example, unmarried recreational sex is considered normal and even healthy in many more parts of contemporary society than it was several decades ago. Rolequeer theory primarily concerns itself with the mechanism behind this cultural malleability, regardless of whether the behavior in question is sexual or not.

Application to rolequeer theory

The Charmed Circle became an integral component of rolequeer theory when rolequeer theorists built on Rubin’s work to describe rolequeerness as “a mental tool [useful for finding ways to] actually undermine power.” This approach was first articulated in the essay, Thinking Rolequeer: Stepping Outside the Charmed Circle, which was sharply critical of the identity politics of its day:

In other words, kyriarchical positionality is about identity, whereas the Charmed Circle is about actions. To think about and criticize power and powerful structures effectively, we must first deeply internalize the difference between these two things and apply them both at the same time in any analysis of a given situation. This two-pronged approach is important because, for starters, “power” is not merely some abstract idea, but the application of force placed in time and space.

Most current discourse about sex and power has been totally overwhelmed by these ultimately unhelpful questions: Are you what you do? Are you only what you do? More crudely: Are you gay because you have gay sex? Or are you having gay sex because you are gay? Is it a choice? Or were you born that way? While politically expedient, I believe these questions dissecting the justifications for a given act are derailing distractions from the real issue: in what ways do our identities or actions threaten the ability of The Powers That Be to define our boundaries on our behalf?

Rolequeerness is a mental tool (that is, it is an idea) enabling us to more easily merge the two interrogatory approaches outlined in intersectional feminist analysis (kyriarchy, queer theory, etc.) described above in order to help us focus on actions whose impacts actually undermine power.

—maymay, “Thinking Rolequeer: Stepping Outside the Charmed Circle

In “Stepping Outside the Charmed Circle,” its author advanced the argument made by earlier rolequeer theorist R. Foxtale that “rolequeerness provides a methodological framework for ‘downward mobility’ inside the power gradient of oppression culture” by outlining a concrete approach to analyzing the influences of power in a given situational context:

“Downward mobility” can be interpreted to mean “doing a thing that makes one vulnerable but by the doing also makes powerful institutions and oppressive systems less able to effectively police people’s thoughts and actions.” […] Some relevant questions to ask about “downward mobility” would be: What kyriarchical positions were [certain people] in? What focus did they place on their actions? How did they react to others’ responses to their actions?


My goal in this post is not to propose answers for whether [certain] behaviors or people “are rolequeer” or whatever. My goal is simply to more clearly describe a way of thinking about power and domination that has, at least for me, proven itself capable of inspiring acts and desires that reliably frighten powerful people. Regardless of your position in oppressive systems, you can still take liberatory acts; what matters is the focus of your action, what story you’re telling yourself and others about it, and how you respond to others who react to the acts you take.

—maymay, “Thinking Rolequeer: Stepping Outside the Charmed Circle

“Stepping Outside the Charmed Circle” provided rolequeer theory with the necessary distinctions between roles, identities, actions that would later inform much of its discourse:

Maymay’s juxtaposing here of the ideas of doing deviance alongside being deviant, and locating the intersection of those two things within a context of intentionally moving down the hierarchical power gradient—because you can certainly also be a deviant who does deviant things in order to climb the hierarchical power ladder, but that’s not what we’re talking about here—helped me clarify my own thinking about the relationship of doing rolequeerness to being rolequeer. I think I still feel more comfortable saying “I’m rolequeer” rather than “I’m a rolequeer” — much as I’ve always felt more comfortable saying “I’m kinky” rather than “I’m a kinkster” — but, regardless, I have a better sense now of what I mean when I say that.

—R. Foxtale (source)

See also


Good point, please fix this. :)


Great start!! I’m going to bed now but may come back around to this tomorrow. In the mean time, if you still have energy to keep editing, consider looking for other pages that link to the old version of this page as straight sex and editing them so they point here?


All right, I expanded this a bunch. Let me know if you think this is ready for us to mark “public” yet or, if not, keep editing and let me know when you do think it’s ready? Thanks. :)


Yeah, I don’t mind putting this public.


Okay, cool, marking public. I noticed you deleted your prior comments (which is totes cool), just making a comment of it since I want to leave mine.


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