Feminist sex wars
Controversies over lesbian separatism also created tensions within the Women Against Pornography (WAP) group, whose founders in 1976 had included prominent figures such as Andrea Dworkin, Shere Hite, Gloria Steinem, and Adrienne Rich. Debates around pornography and prostitution, in turn, triggered major and bitter divisions among feminists, which became particularly intense during the 1980s. American organizations such as Women Against Violence Against Women, the UK Campaign Against Pornography, or New Zealand’s Women Against Pornography defined prostitution and pornography as central to the oppression of women generally, in stark contrast to their portrayal within the sexual revolution as part of the wider march towards greater sexual liberation. Feminists such as Susan Brownmiller,
6. A feminist demonstration against pornography in New York, 1979
Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon, and Susan Griffin conceptualized pornography and prostitution as forms of violence against women, and sexual violence as a key feature of male domination in general.
Controversially, they grounded their critique of female sexual exploitation in a broader analysis of male sexuality which identified violence as the underlying foundation of all male sexuality. As Brownmiller formulated it in her influential analysis of rape in 1975, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape:
From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.
Rape, Brownmiller claimed, is a ‘political crime against women’, a weapon of patriarchy, as Kate Millett had also argued. Shere Hite agreed, stating in her report on male sexuality:
Right now, forcible physical rape stands as an overwhelming metaphor for what has been the rape – physical, emotional and spiritual – of an entire gender by our culture.
From this perspective, pornography came to be seen as another manifestation of male violence against women, both during the production process of pornographic material, and in its consequences, by teaching men to eroticize the sexual subordination and abuse of women. Andrea Dworkin famously extended the analysis to intercourse itself, arguing that the sexual domination that she saw as central to pornography constitutes a basic feature of the ways in which men and women experience intercourse in patriarchal society. As she put it in 1987:
In the fuck, the man expresses the geography of his dominance: her sex, her insides are part of his domain as a male. He can possess her as an individual – be her lord and master – and thus be expressing
a private right of ownership (the private right issuing from his gender); or he can possess her by fucking her impersonally and thus be expressing a collective right of ownership without masquerade or manners.
Dworkin’s views echoed statements made eight years earlier by the Leeds Feminist Revolutionary Group, who had written:
Only in the system of oppression that is male supremacy does the oppressor actually invade and colonise the interior of the body of the oppressed. (…) Penetration is an act of great symbolic significance by which the oppressor enters the body of the oppressed.
Male sexuality was thus presented as intrinsically violent.
Whereas Dworkin located this violence within the historic context of current gender relations, Catharine MacKinnon criticized social-construction theories of sexuality for obscuring the universal forms of the oppression of women through sexual abuse, rape, prostitution, and pornography. The short-lived women’s collective Women Against Sex presented one possible conclusion of such analyses when stating in the late 1980s:
There is no way out of the practice of sexuality except out… we know of no exception to male supremacist sex. We name orgasm as the epistemological mark of the sexual, and we therefore criticise it too, as oppressive to women.
Not all feminists agreed, however. Critics such as Ellen Willis, Gayle Rubin, Susie Bright, Lynne Segal, Carol Queen, and Carol Vance began to define themselves as ‘sex-positive’ feminists, in contrast to the perceived negative stance towards sex that pervaded the anti-pornography and anti-prostitution crusades. They attacked the anti-pornography stance on the grounds that its analysis of porn, which made no distinction between violent, misogynistic porn or porn produced for lesbians by lesbians, for
example, was over-simplistic; rejected the ‘depressing’ views of sex that reduce female sexual pleasure in intercourse to the result of male brainwashing; and denounced the dangers of the legal strategies pursued by anti-porn activists to freedom of speech in general, as well as the ‘disturbing’ political alliances with the religious Right (who meanwhile continued to combat women’s and gay rights) the anti-porn crusaders had made.
In the US, organizations such as the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT) were founded in the early 1980s to fight the attempts to legislate against pornographic materials led by Dworkin and MacKinnon; while the transnational feminist Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, based in Thailand, combated the call for the abolition of all prostitution promoted by the US-based Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW). The Alliance called for the decriminalization of voluntary prostitution, reconceptualized as a form of ‘work’ that women can choose to engage in, while battling against any type of forced prostitution and trafficking in women. Meanwhile, women working in the porn industry and prostitutes, who had recently started to found their own interest groups and trade unions, often vigorously objected against feminist labelling of their activities as inherently degrading for women (though the prominent porn star Linda Boreman, who had appeared in the notorious porn movie Deep Throat as ‘Linda Lovelace’, joined forces with MacKinnon and Dworkin). Adopting the ‘sex work’ label, organizations of sex workers argued that the political emphasis should be on trying to legalize and improve working conditions in the sex industry rather than trying to eradicate commercial sex altogether. Sex-positive feminism further spawned a series of thriving businesses, particularly in the US, specializing in the sale of women-friendly sex toys and publications, such as Good Vibrations, Babeland, the Down There Press, or the lesbian magazine On Our Backs.
The fights between ‘sex-positive’ and anti-prostitution/ pornography feminists, described as the feminist ‘sex wars’
7. Japanese sex toys, 1830
by Lisa Duggan and Nan Hunter, led to deep and permanent splits within feminism from the 1980s. One of the reasons for this is that the conflicts did not only concern differences about political strategies regarding commercial sex, but also involved fundamentally different ways of thinking about sexuality and its links to relations of power between the genders. In a context in which the women’s movement came to be criticized by lesbians for privileging heterosexual concerns, by working-class women for reflecting middle-class interests, and by women of colour for being implicitly white, post-structuralist, postcolonial, and postmodern theories of gender emerged from the 1980s that rejected perceived simplistic binary oppositions between men-the-oppressors and women-the-passive-victims as politically mobilizing but conceptually unhelpful.
For example, as the African-American feminist Bell Hooks pointed out, sexual violence such as ‘rape’ has historically played a particularly important role for black women, as a central element of the system of slavery, and continues to impact on contemporary sexualized portrayals of black women; glossing over such differences in the name of universal male oppression is neither useful nor accurate. The category ‘black feminist’ has, in turn, also been criticized for masking cultural and class differences. For example, the African-American feminist novelist Alice Walker was actively involved in the international campaign against clitoridectomy, which is currently practised primarily in various countries on the African continent and some parts of the Middle East, as well as among some immigrant communities in Western countries. Feminist activists, including the prominent US feminists Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan, joined third-world feminists such as the Egyptian Nawal El Saadawi to call for the redefinition of the practice as ‘female genital mutilation’ and a form of violence against women. As a result of international campaigns, the practice was declared a violation of human rights by Amnesty International and the United Nations, and made illegal in many Western as well as non-Western legislations since
the mid-1990s. Whereas Alice Walker’s earlier work had criticized white feminists for routinely excluding black women by speaking out on their behalf, her anti-female genital mutilation novel Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), dedicated to ‘the blameless vulva’, and the documentary film Warrior Marks on the same topic which she co-produced, have been accused of cultural imperialism and neo-colonialism, for claiming to speak on behalf of African women on the grounds of her ancestry, while actually imposing an ethnocentric American vision of African cultural practices. More generally, Western feminists have been criticized for focusing on third-world cultural practices, while largely ignoring the fact that surgical interventions on women’s genitals such as ‘laser vaginal rejuvenation’ and ‘designer laser vaginoplasty’ are currently among the fastest-growing areas of cosmetic surgery in many Western countries.
Whereas most feminists would promote a social rather than a biological understanding of gender identity and female sexuality, feminist thought on sexuality had primarily problematized female sexuality while treating male sexuality as, implicitly, unproblematic. Portrayals of male sexuality had echoed biological models of sexuality in taking for granted its naturally aggressive, triumphant, and, at times, violent nature. Feminist critics such as Lynne Segal, joined by theorists of masculinity – a field that greatly expanded in the 1990s – argued that it would be a mistake to conclude that this is also the way in which individual men experience sexuality. As Segal has pointed out:
for many men it is precisely through sex that they experience their greatest uncertainties, dependence and deference in relation to women – in stark contrast, quite often, with their experience of authority and independence in the public world.
A significant degree of sexual anxiety, insecurity, and suffering on the part of individual heterosexual men, also emphasized in the work of Masters and Johnson, has been attested by empirical
analyses of masculinity and male sexuality, including by feminist researchers such as Shere Hite, Wendy Hollway, or Susan Faludi. Whereas much of feminist theorization of sex has tended to equate heterosexuality with male domination, other feminist authors have thus emphasized the complexity of male and female sexual experiences. While not accepting male domination uncritically, they have stressed the need to take a closer look at what current transformations of masculinity mean for the dynamics of sexual interactions between men and women.
Feminist analyses of sexuality have constructed the institution of heterosexuality, the family, and intimate relationships as particularly important sites of the oppression of women by men, and therefore of political struggle. While this has led at least some radical feminists to argue for the abolition of the family (echoing the earlier views of Alexandra Kollontai or Wilhelm Reich), or the boycott of heterosexuality, the privileged focus on gender power within intimate relationships has also resulted in a comparative theoretical neglect of the role of state regulation of the family and sexuality. Paradoxically however, it is also in the context of the politics of sexuality that feminist activism has most frequently and successfully interpellated the state, albeit in contradictory ways. Whereas feminists have called for state legislation in areas such as rape, sexual harassment, and pornography, pushing these issues from the private into the public sphere, they have also argued against state intervention in matters such as abortion, on the grounds of a woman’s ‘private’ right to decide. Feminist politics of sexuality have also, as we have seen, been the source of great conflict among feminists. Recent calls for more differentiated analyses of male and female sexuality have pointed out the importance of other types of identity, especially class and race, to the understanding of the ways in which power relations shape sexual experiences. As we shall see in the next chapter, gender, class, and race have also crucially shaped the regulation of sexuality by the state.