Luce Irigaray: The Queer Implications of Sexual Difference

By Jordan Ross

Luce Irigaray’s theory of sexual difference as posited in I Love to You attempts to identify the crux of our exploitation in the dichotomous relationship between man and woman. Under the rule of patriarchy and capitalism, sexual difference only allows women to exist in relation to men and consequently forces women into the private sphere. Subjectivity becomes synonymous with masculinity, as we are enslaved by the binary of sexual difference and obsessed with consumption and the subsuming of others to ‘cultivate’ our identity. For Irigaray, we need to make it known that sexual difference is what underpins our culture and attempt to cultivate ourselves within ourselves, in order to break the dichotomous relationship that alienates us all, thus granting us access to true unmediated love and salvation. Irigaray’s sexual difference has been critiqued by many as essentialist and problematic in regard to queer, transgender, intersex and gender non-conforming people. While it is true Irigaray’s work silences queer people in some respects, I believe her work follows in the same vein as Kristeva, who questioned whether heterosexual relationships are  “a miracle of civilisation” or a “quintessential success story”.[1] The binary of sexual difference restricts the access to salvation through love for us all, and when Irigaray speaks on love between women and the way in which sexual difference creates what is feminine or masculine, it becomes evident how her work does in fact hold merit for queer perspectives. Sexual difference conjures up a vicious cycle that works with patriarchy and permits subjectivity only as masculine, which permits heterocentrism, which in turn permits cis-normativity and so forth.

Veering away from prominent feminist scholars such as Simone de Beauvoir, Irigaray insists that we must not call for equality between men and women but instead focus on “changing the horizon itself”, [2] for it is our conception of human identity that is both theoretically and practically wrong. A woman cannot be a subject in a culture where the very modalities of that culture are masculine—femininity, and thus women, are cloistered in the private sphere, only attributed subjectivity from a male perspective.[3] Yet, this is not to say that men are not also alienated, as Irigaray makes clear that sexual difference severs the possibility of salvation through love for all and instead creates the façade that the aim of love is the accumulation of family capital.[4] The overarching goal of achieving capital causes us to lose sight of an unmediated love and instead obsess over consumption and the ownership of property.

This is what puzzles Irigaray when it comes to Marx, as he had identified the “root of all evil” in the division of labour between man and woman, and yet had made no attempt to investigate the question of love as labour.[5] This division of labour is central to sexual difference. Men project the unwanted immanence of the human body onto women so that they themselves can occupy what Irigaray calls ‘heaven’, leaving women to the realm of earth or nature.[6] A similar notion is shared in Kristeva’s theory of abjection, where women are oppressed for their relationship to the maternal, serving as a constant reminder of our immanence.[7] A woman is reduced to a body-object that remains still, while a man is allowed to roam in the symbolic realm in the pursuit of accumulating family capital. This is where the women’s work inside the home is silenced, and where her duty of love is forced upon her.

In the ideal nuclear family, a woman is only given singularity through the man’s perspective: “wife of this man” or “this mother of this child”.[8] The mother then has no right to singular love as she must love man and her children as “generic representatives of the human species dominated by the male gender”.[9] The woman sacrifices her relationship to transcendence in order to love those who are affiliated with the masculine and thus granted access to the universal. Through her endless self-sacrifice, enacted in the labour of love, women with children are void of subjectivity and are stripped of any desire, disappearing into the title of the ‘mother’. Her labour is not defined as practical work; instead a duty that establishes her role in the couple as man’s servant.[10] The man, however, can have mistresses or prostitutes and the wife stands as something he can return to as he likes.[11] While this allows only masculinity as subjectivity, it also does not allow men access to subjectivity unless tied with the goal of family capital. This leaves them jaded. Both men and women under the dominance of sexual difference are disallowed access to the salvation that genuine love brings. Therefore, it should be the goal of all humanity to reinterpret what we take our human identity to be. According to Irigaray, we are all alienated by the binary structure of sexual difference and denied the evolution of our genders and their relations between each other. As convincing of an argument as this is, where does this leave queer and gender non-conforming people in the oppressive dichotomy? Irigaray’s work as it stands appears to be a heterocentric account of the world, and she has been criticised for this very reason. However, I believe that, if we are to delve deeper into Irigaray’s work, the implications for queer people are clear. After all, there is no denying that Western culture is currently dominated by heterosexism. Why is it considered so erroneous for Irigaray to point this out?

It is important to note the distinction of nature that is present in Irigaray’s work. When Irigaray discusses nature, particularly in moments where she speaks of self-cultivation, at first glance she can appear to allude to pre-determinant feminine qualities. For example, the phrase: “gather herself within herself in order to accomplish her gender’s perfection.”[12] Yet it is not uncommon in Irigaray’s work for her to reinforce humans as natural beings, and natural beings are not fixed but rather “a process of open-ended growth and unfolding.”[13] This belief is palpable in I Love To You when she mentions that sexual difference stunts evolution.[14] The claim that Irigaray makes is not that we are hindered from fulfilling our predetermined genetic destinies, but rather that we do not have  any idea what a woman or man free from sexual difference could look like. Sexual difference creates and restricts what is masculine and feminine in accordance to the goal of achieving family capital. A similarity can be found in the work of Monique Wittig, where she claims that lesbians are not women, as the category of ‘woman’ only has meaning in heterosexual systems of thought.[15] There is no mistaking that Irigaray is concerned with the potentiality of bodies, and not what they currently are. This ideology fits perfectly with the elements of queer theory, which is why I find some critiques of Irigaray’s work troubling, particularly when it comes to that by Judith Butler.

Butler’s work on gender is known for defining how gender is socially and culturally constructed. Already, we can begin to see a conflict here between this and the theory of sexual difference. Butler contends that Irigaray naturalises sex and gender, making no attempt to deconstruct what these categories mean in relation to the body.[16] Irigaray makes no reference to how gender is culturally determined and prioritises the relationship between sex and gender, which is highly problematic for Butler. I agree that Irigaray does not account for the impact of culture on gender, but I believe that—for the purpose of the argument she was making, sexual difference being the crux of problem—it was not necessary. Irigaray might argue that culture has no chance to intervene when the sole problem of how we interpret and cultivate our human identity looms over.

This is not the first time Butler has seemingly jumped to conclusions of essentialism, as she had critiqued Kristeva due to her focus on the mother and the vagina,[17] without recognising the justified argument that the silencing of the mother is an issue. Admittedly, this focus on nature and cis-normative conceptions of gender do silence queer people. However, it is ironic that Butler critiques Irigaray for this, when Butler’s own theory argues that gender is a stylised repetition of acts that imitate a gender—something which has highly damaging ramifications for transgender people who simply wish to be recognised as they are.[18]Butler conceivably becomes stuck on the focus of heterosexual and cisgender people that she misses the implications that come out of sexual difference. Even in later works Irigaray stresses that “new models of sexual identity must be established” and that the categories of man and woman as we know them today are but a fraction of their potential.[19] It is our interpretation of our identity through the concept of sexual difference that hinders our own evolution and makes genuine love and salvation unbeknownst to us. This same theme is carried over when Irigaray talks about revolutionary potential of love between women, which also has queer implications.

As aforementioned, sexual difference denies women the right to singular love and instead forces them to undertake love as a duty. Women are taught to surrender their relationship to the universal to serve children and men.[20] What is particularly silenced or disallowed, then, is love between women. Irigaray argues that the object (women) are in a sense more crucial than the subject (men), for if there were no object for the subject to appropriate for themselves, they would have no foundation on which to stand—“he can only sustain himself by bouncing off some objectiveness.”[21] For Irigaray, love between women and love for themselves shakes this foundation and could potentially overturn the system in some form.[22] Phallocentrism has made it so that the woman is always seen as lacking a phallus, and most importantly seen as lacking desire. In the work of psychoanalysts such as Freud, the desire of women is left out completely, but what is entirely unfathomable is that woman may desire another woman.[23] In Irigaray’s work, I believe she speaks here of the love between a mother and a daughter, something that is outlawed due to mother’s duty to love and cater to the man. Yet, why can we not take this notion and substitute it into a queer context? If the love between a mother and a daughter could shake the foundations of man’s subjectivity, wouldn’t any non-heterosexual desire (or lack thereof, in the case of people who identify as asexual) do the very same? Homosexual and queer relationships destabilise the dichotomous nature of sexual difference purely by existing, as there is no heterosexual binary to enforce itself. Although it is understandable for queer theorists to view the prominence of sexual difference in psychoanalysis as, like James Penney expresses, “an imposture that circumscribes sexuality’s diverse manifestations within a normative sociosymbolic framework”,[24] could the foundations of this theory not be used in a queer context similar to how Irigaray used it in a feminist context? I stress in particular Irigaray’s use of the theory of sexual difference to exemplify the restriction on the evolution of gender, which would most likely be welcomed in the discipline of queer theory. Also applicable to queer people is how Irigaray suggests we overcome or subvert sexual difference.

For Irigaray, we must ground ourselves within ourselves to give our bodies back to ourselves.[25] Under sexual difference, we attempt to own our partners in order to achieve a sense of pseudo-love and security. This is quite a Sartrean notion that echoes his work on sadism and masochism.[26] Under capitalism and patriarchy, we are so obsessed with consumption and ownership that we never really experience true love—simply because we do not even own our own bodies. In no way is this only applicable to heterosexuals; in homosexual encounters there is usually a ‘top’ and a ‘bottom’ in an act that conspires the question of who owns who. I would argue that it is sexual difference that leads even queer sexual experiences to be dwindled down to such demeaning and rigid categories. Sexual difference does not allow us to conceive of anything other than the categories and ways of identification that have been handed to us. This is why Irigaray brings in Eastern philosophy and yoga as a solution to this epidemic of accumulation. We are too concerned about the submission to death that we attempt to own as much as we can to feel a sense of power in lieu of an actual fulfilment on life.[27] Irigaray refers to a Buddha’s gazing at a flower without uprooting it, and this should serve as a model for how we act. We appreciate the flower for what it is, appreciate ourselves in nature and in relation to this flower, and recognise our place as two distinct entities, without wanting to own the other. Irigaray states that the most hardy of flowers are the ones that are untouched, as they are “constantly moving between the appearance of their forms,” [28]—a striking metaphor for the potentiality of gender without the oppression of sexual difference. If we are to get past the effects of sexual difference and the division of labour that comes from it, a whole world of possibilities opens up for how we perceive ourselves in a gendered context. The categories of man and woman are so restrictive because of sexual difference, so it should be of the utmost importance for queer people to investigate how they can begin to cultivate themselves and break out of this oppressive dichotomy.

Love, as we know, is not actualised to its fullest potential within Western culture. As Irigaray has made clear, we know nothing of the salvation it could bring due to the sexual difference which is enforced and the restrictive categories that come with it. Though the heart of the problem lies in the dichotomous heterosexual relationship, this relationship permeates and affects all other ways of relating and connecting to others, as well as how we perceive ourselves as human beings. It is true that sexual difference does not account for queer people, but is that not indicative of the heterosexist reality in which we currently live? It should be the task of everyone to attempt self-cultivation and subvert the rigidity of sexual difference so that we can all live and evolve to our fullest potential outside of the binaries we have been given.

Jordan is currently in the last year of their undergraduate degree, with an extended major in Philosophy and a minor in Gender Studies. Their research/study interests include European Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Feminist and Queer Theory.


[1] Julia Kristeva, Revolt, She Said (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2002), 25.

[2] Luce Irigaray, I Love to You (New York: Routledge, 2016), 18.

[3] Ibid., 22.

[4] Luce Irigaray, I Love to You(New York: Routledge, 2016), 20.

[5] Ibid., 18.

[6] Luce Irigaray, The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 49.

[7] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection(New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 2-5.

[8] Luce Irigaray, I Love to You(New York: Routledge, 2016), 19.

[9] Ibid., 19

[10] Ibid., 20

[11] Luce Irigaray, The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 49.

[12] Luce Irigaray, I Love to You(New York: Routledge, 2016), 23.

[13] Alison Stone, Luce Irigaray and the Philosophy of Sexual Difference(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 2.

[14] Luce Irigaray, I Love to You(New York: Routledge, 2016), 21.

[15] Gill Jagger, Judith Butler: Sexual Politics, Social Change and the Power of the Performative(New York: Routledge, 2008), 30.

[16] Moya Lloyd, Judith Butler: From Norms to Politics(Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), 31.

[17] Kelly Oliver, Reading Kristeva: Unravelling the Double-Bind(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 1.

[18] Judith Butler, cited in The New Social Theory Reader: Contemporary Debates(London: Routledge, 2001), 339.

[19] Luce Irigaray, Elemental Passions (New York: Routledge, 1992), 3.

[20] Luce Irigaray, I Love to You(New York: Routledge, 2016), 20.

[21] Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman(New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), 133.

[22] Margaret Homans, “Reconstituting the Feminine” The Women’s Review of Books 3, no.6 (1986): 12.

[23] Ibid., 12

[24] James Penney, After Queer Theory (London: Pluto Press, 2014), 146.

[25] Luce Irigaray, I Love to You, 21.

[26] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness(New York: Washington Square Press, 1984), 416.

[27] Luce Irigaray, I Love to You, 21.

[28] Ibid., 21.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. cited in The New Social Theory Reader: Contemporary Debates. London: Routledge, 2001.

Homans, Margaret. “Reconstituting the Feminine” The Women’s Review of Books 3, no.6 (1986): 12.

Irigaray, Luce. Elemental Passions. New York: Routledge, 1992.

——. I Love to You. New York: Routledge, 2016.

——. Speculum of the Other Woman. New York: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Jagger, Gill. Judith Butler: Sexual Politics, Social Change and the Power of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

——. Revolt, She Said. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2002.

Lloyd, Moya. Judith Butler: From Norms to Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007.

Oliver, Kelly. Reading Kristeva: Unravelling the Double-Bind. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Penney, James. After Queer Theory. London: Pluto Press, 2014.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. New York: Washington Square Press, 1984.

Stone, Alison. Luce Irigaray and the Philosophy of Sexual Difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Featured image by Internet Archive Book Images via flickr


1 Comment

  1. This was a nice read, thank you! I’ve been trying to make the feeling described by Monique Wittig for years! I also appreciate your sensitive appraisal of Iragaray’s theory, it has opened me up to reading her work.


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