Feminist sex wars

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The feminist sex wars, also known as the lesbian sex wars, or simply the sex wars or porn wars, are terms used to refer to collective debates amongst feminists regarding a number of issues broadly relating to sexuality and sexual activity. Differences of opinion on matters of sexuality deeply polarized the feminist movement, particularly leading feminist thinkers, in the late 1970s and early 1980s and continue to influence debate amongst feminists to this day. [1]


The sides were characterized by anti-porn feminist and sex-positive feminist groups with disagreements regarding sexuality, including pornography, erotica, prostitution, lesbian sexual practices, the role of transgender women in the lesbian community, sadomasochism and other sexual issues. The feminist movement was deeply divided as a result of these debates. [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] Many historians view the feminist sex wars as having been the end of the second-wave feminist era (which began c. 1963) as well as the herald of the third wave (which began in the early 1990s). [7]

Two opposing views

Dworkin on After Dark.JPG
Catherine MacKinnon.png
Ariel Levy described the Dworkin-MacKinnon Ordinance as "the single most divisive issue" of the feminist sex wars. [8] Dworkin captured the spirit of the anti-pornography side of the debate in her famous utterance: "I'm a radical feminist, not the fun kind." [9]

The two sides became labelled anti-pornography feminists and sex-positive feminists.

Anti-pornography feminists

In 1976 Andrea Dworkin organized demonstrations against the film Snuff in New York, but attempts to start an organization to continue the feminist anti-pornography campaign failed. Efforts were more successful in Los Angeles, where Women Against Violence Against Women was founded in response to Snuff in 1976; they campaigned against the Rolling Stones' 1976 album Black and Blue . [10] The U.S. anti-pornography movement gained ground with the founding of Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM) in 1977 in San Francisco, following a 1976 conference on violence against women held by local women's centers. Early members included Susan Griffin, Kathleen Barry, and Laura Lederer.

WAVPM organised the first national conference on pornography in San Francisco in 1978 which included the first Take Back the Night march. [11] The conference led to anti-pornography feminists organizing in New York in 1979 under the banner of Women Against Pornography (WAP), [12] and to similar organizations and efforts being created across the United States. In 1983, Page Mellish, a one-time member of WAVPM and of WAP, founded Feminists Fighting Pornography to focus on political activism seeking legal changes to limit the porn industry. Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon wanted civil laws restricting pornography and to this end drafted the Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance, [13] also known as the Dworkin-MacKinnon Ordinance.

Sex-positive feminists

The term pro-sex feminism and, later, sex-positive feminism were inspired by Ellen Willis. Ellen willis.png
The term pro-sex feminism and, later, sex-positive feminism were inspired by Ellen Willis.

From 1979 feminist journalist Ellen Willis was one of the early voices criticizing anti-pornography feminists for what she saw as sexual puritanism, moral authoritarianism and a threat to free speech. Her 1981 essay, Lust Horizons: Is the Women's Movement Pro-Sex? is the origin of the term, "pro-sex feminism". [14] The response to the anti-pornography strand of feminism by the sex-positive feminists was one that promoted sex as an avenue of pleasure for women, seeing anti-pornography positions as aligned to the political right-wing's war on recreational sex and pornography. [15] Early sex positive groups included Samois, founded in San Francisco in 1978, whose early members included Gayle Rubin and Pat Califia, and the Lesbian Sex Mafia, founded by Dorothy Allison and Jo Arnone in New York in 1981. [16] The Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT) was set up in 1984 by Ellen Willis in response to the Dworkin-MacKinnon Ordinance, [17] in 1989 Feminists Against Censorship formed in the UK, its members including Avedon Carol and Feminists for Free Expression formed in the United States in 1992 by Marcia Pally, with founding members including Nadine Strossen, Joan Kennedy Taylor, Veronica Vera and Candida Royalle.

Key events

In October 1980 the National Organization for Women identified what became known as the "Big Four" through declaring that "Pederasty, pornography, sadomasochism and public sex" were about "exploitation, violence or invasion of privacy" and not "sexual preference or orientation". [18] One of the more memorable clashes between the pro-sex and anti-porn feminists occurred at the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality. Anti-pornography feminists were excluded from the events’ planning committee, so they staged rallies outside the conference to show their disdain. [19]


The two sides of the feminist sex wars clashed over a number of issues, resulting in intense debates held both in person and in various media.

Pornography debate

Toward the end of the 1970s, much of the discourse in the feminist movement shifted from the discussion of lesbian feminism to focus on the new topic of sexuality. One of the primary concerns with sexuality was the issue of pornography, which caused a great divide among feminists. The two recognized sides of the debate were anti-pornography feminism and "pro-sex" feminism. [20] One of the major influences of anti-pornography feminism was its predecessor, lesbian feminism.[ citation needed ] Anti-pornography movements developed from fundamental arguments displayed by lesbianism, such as the notion of patriarchal sexual relations. [20] Ellen Willis described these relations as being "based on male power backed by force." [21] From this perspective, pornography is created exclusively for men by men and is a direct reflection of the man-dominant paradigm surrounding sexual relations. [20] Another idea taken from lesbian feminism by anti-pornography groups was that sexuality is about creating a compassionate bond and a lasting relation with another person, contrary to the belief of the purely physical nature of sex. [22]

In her book, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, Andrea Dworkin argued that the theme of pornography is male dominance and as a result it is intrinsically harmful to women and their well-being. Dworkin believed that pornography is not only damaging in its production but also in its consumption, since the viewer will mentally internalize pornography's misogynistic portrayal of women. [20] Robin Morgan summarized the view of anti-pornography feminists that pornography and violence against women are linked in her statement, "pornography is the theory, rape is the practice". [23]

The anti-pornography movement has been criticised by sex-positive feminists as a repression of sexuality and a move towards censorship. [20] In her article, Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality, Gayle Rubin characterizes sex liberation as a feminist goal and denounces the idea that anti-pornography feminists speak collectively for all of feminism. She offers the notion that what is needed is a theory of sexuality separate from feminism. [24] In XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography, Wendy McElroy summarizes the sex-positive perspective as "the benefits pornography provides to women far outweigh any of its disadvantages". [25]

The pornography debate among radical and libertarian feminists has focused on the depictions of female sexuality in relation to male sexuality in this type of media. [26] Radical feminists emphasize that pornography illustrates objectification and normalization of sexual violence through presentation of specific acts. [26] In contrast, libertarian feminists are concerned with the stigmatization of sexual minorities and the limited right to practice sexual choice that would be hindered without pornography. [26]

Sadomasochism debate

The main focus of the sex wars' debate on sadomasochism and other BDSM practices was San Francisco. Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media was founded there in 1977. Its first political action was to picket a live show at a strip club featuring women performing sadomasochistic acts on each other, in line with its stated aim to end all portrayals of women being "bound, raped, tortured, killed or degraded for sexual stimulation or pleasure". [27] As well as campaigning against pornography, WAVPM were also strongly opposed to BDSM, seeing it as ritualized violence against women and opposed its practice within the lesbian community. [28] In 1978 SAMOIS was formed, an organization for women in the BDSM community who saw their sexual practices as consistent with feminist principles. [29] Several black lesbian feminists have written on this topic, including Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Darlene Pagano, Karen Sims, and Rose Mason, condemning sadomasochism as an often racist practice, insensitive to the black female experience. [30] [31]

Prostitution debate

Another debate of the feminist sex wars centered on prostitution. The women in the anti-pornography camp argued against prostitution, claiming it is forced on women who have no alternatives.[ neutrality is disputed ] Meanwhile, sex-positive feminists argued that this position ignored the agency of women who chose sex work, viewing prostitution as not inherently based on the exploitation of women. Carol Leigh notes that "The Prostitutes rights movement of the early 1970s evolved directly from the women's movement", but adds: "The women's movement in the U.S. has always been ambivalent about prostitutes". [32]


The polarization of feminist ideology during the sex wars has had wide-ranging effects. Examples include, according to Liu (2011), "The confusion in the interpretation of the definition of human trafficking is a consequence of opposing feminist views on prostitution." [33]

Third-wave feminists' views

Third-wave feminist writings promote personal, individualized views on the gender-related issues focused on during the feminist sex wars, such as prostitution, pornography and sadomasochism. In particular, the third-wave view of pornography is that there is no greater meaning other than which the actor or consumer gives it.[ citation needed ] Items such as sex objects and porn, identified by some second-wave feminists as instruments of oppression are now no longer being exclusively used by men but also by women. [34] Feminist critic Teresa de Lauretis sees the sex wars not in terms of polarized sides but as reflecting a third wave feminism inherently embodying difference, which may include conflicting and competing drives. [35] [36] Meanwhile, critic Jana Sawicki rejects both the polarized positions, seeking a third way that is neither morally dogmatic or uncritically libertarian. [35]

See also

Related Research Articles

Radical feminism is a perspective within feminism that calls for a radical reordering of society in which male supremacy is eliminated in all social and economic contexts, while recognizing that women's experiences are also affected by other social divisions such as in race, class, and sexual orientation.

The sex-positive movement is a social and philosophical movement that seeks to change cultural attitudes and norms around sexuality, promoting the recognition of sexuality as a natural and healthy part of the human experience and emphasizing the importance of personal sovereignty, safer sex practices, and consensual sex. It covers every aspect of sexual identity including gender expression, orientation, relationship to the body, relationship-style choice, and reproductive rights. Sex-positivity is "an attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, encouraging sexual pleasure and experimentation." The sex-positive movement also advocates for comprehensive sex education and safe sex as part of its campaign. The movement generally makes no moral distinctions among types of sexual activities, regarding these choices as matters of personal preference.

This is an index of articles related to the issue of feminism, women's liberation, the women's movement, and women's rights.

Sex-positive feminism is a movement that began in the early 1980s centering on the idea that sexual freedom is an essential component of women's freedom. Some feminists became involved in the sex-positive feminist movement in response to efforts by anti-pornography feminists to put pornography at the center of a feminist explanation of women's oppression.

Samois was a lesbian-feminist BDSM organization based in San Francisco that existed from 1978 to 1983. It was the first lesbian BDSM group in the United States. It took its name from Samois-sur-Seine, the location of the fictional estate of Anne-Marie, a lesbian dominatrix character in Story of O, who pierces and brands O. The co-founders were writer Pat Califia, who identified as a lesbian at the time, Gayle Rubin, and sixteen others.

Patrick Califia is an American writer of non-fiction essays about sexuality and of erotic fiction and poetry. Califia is a bisexual trans man. Prior to transitioning, he identified as a lesbian and as such, wrote for many years a sex advice column for the gay men's leather magazine Drummer. His writings explore sexuality and gender identity, and have included lesbian erotica and works about BDSM subculture. Califia is a member of the third-wave feminism movement.

Opposition to pornography

Reasons for opposition to pornography include religious objections, feminist concerns, and claims of harmful effects, such as pornography addiction. Anti-pornography movements have allied disparate social activists in opposition to pornography, from social conservatives to harm reduction advocates.

Women Against Pornography (WAP) was a radical feminist activist group based out of New York City that had an influential force in the anti-pornography movement of the late 1970s and the 1980s.

Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM) was a feminist anti-pornography activist group based in San Francisco and an influential force in the larger feminist anti-pornography movement of the late 1970s and 1980s.

Sheila Jeffreys is a former professor of political science at the University of Melbourne. An English expatriate and lesbian feminist scholar, she analyses the history and politics of human sexuality.

Feminist sexology is an offshoot of traditional studies of sexology that focuses on the intersectionality of sex and gender in relation to the sexual lives of women. Sexology has a basis in psychoanalysis, specifically Freudian theory, which played a big role in early sexology. This reactionary field of feminist sexology seeks to be inclusive of experiences of sexuality and break down the problematic ideas that have been expressed by sexology in the past. Feminist sexology shares many principles with the overarching field of sexology; in particular, it does not try to prescribe a certain path or "normality" for women's sexuality, but only observe and note the different and varied ways in which women express their sexuality. It is a young field, but one that is growing rapidly.

Sex workers rights

Sex workers' rights encompass a variety of aims being pursued globally by individuals and organizations that specifically involve the human, health, and labor rights of sex workers and their clients. The goals of these movements are diverse, but generally aim to decriminalize and destigmatize sex work, and ensure fair treatment before legal and cultural forces on a local and international level for all persons in the sex industry.

Andrea Dworkin American feminist writer

Andrea Rita Dworkin was a U.S. American radical feminist activist and writer. She is best known for her analysis of pornography, although her feminist writings, beginning in 1974, span 40 years. They are found in a dozen solo works: nine books of non-fiction, two novels, and a collection of short stories. Another three volumes were co-written or co-edited with US Constitutional law professor and feminist activist, Catharine A. MacKinnon.

Feminist views on pornography range from condemnation of all of it as a form of violence against women, to an embracing of some forms as a medium of feminist expression. This debate reflects larger concerns surrounding feminist views on sexuality, and is closely related to those on prostitution, on BDSM, and other issues. Pornography has been one of the most divisive issues in feminism, particularly in anglophone (English-speaking) countries. This deep division was exemplified in the feminist sex wars of the 1980s, which pitted anti-pornography activists against sex-positive ones.

Feminism has affected culture in many ways, and has famously been theorized in relation to culture by Angela McRobbie, Laura Mulvey and others. Timothy Laurie and Jessica Kean have argued that "one of [feminism's] most important innovations has been to seriously examine the ways women receive popular culture, given that so much pop culture is made by and for men." This is reflected in a variety of forms, including literature, music, film and other screen cultures.

Feminist views on BDSM vary widely from acceptance to rejection. BDSM refers to bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and Sado-Masochism. In order to evaluate its perception, two polarizing frameworks are compared. Some feminists, such as Gayle Rubin and Patrick Califia, perceive BDSM as a valid form of expression of female sexuality, while other feminists, such as Andrea Dworkin and Susan Griffin, have stated that they regard BDSM as a form of woman-hating violence. Some lesbian feminists practice BDSM and regard it as part of their sexual identity.

The Barnard Conference on Sexuality is often credited as the moment that signaled the beginning of the Feminist Sex Wars. It was held at Barnard College on April 24, 1982, and was presented as the annual Scholar and Feminist Conference IX, an integral part of the Barnard Center for Research on Women. The theme of the Conference was Sexuality. The Conference was set up as a framework for feminist thought to proceed regarding topics that many felt uncomfortable talking about. As Carole Vance, the Academic Coordinator of the Conference wrote in her letter inviting the participants "sexuality is a bread and butter issue, not a frill."

Feminist pornography is a genre of film developed by or for those dedicated to gender equality. It was created for the purposes of encouraging women in their pursuit of freedom through sexuality, equality, and pleasure. Many third-wave feminists are open to seeking freedom and rights of sexual equality through entering the adult entertainment workforce. However, many second-wave feminists believe that the oppression and/or sexual objectification of women is inherent in all pornography involving them. The conflict between the two waves causes many struggles between these different feminist views of pornography.

Feminist views on sexuality widely vary. Many feminists, particularly radical feminists, are highly critical of what they see as sexual objectification and sexual exploitation in the media and society. Radical feminists are often opposed to the sex industry, including opposition to prostitution and pornography. Other feminists define themselves as sex-positive feminists and believe that a wide variety of expressions of female sexuality can be empowering to women when they are freely chosen. Some feminists support efforts to reform the sex industry to become less sexist, such as the feminist pornography movement.

Darlene Pagano is a radical lesbian feminist activist, writer, editor, and librarian. She is most famous for her conversational piece "Racism and Sadomasochism: A Conversation with Two Black Lesbians" published in collaboration with Karen Sims and Rose Mason in a radical feminist anthology entitled Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis, for which she is also credited as co-editor.


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