Sex Wars and Second Wave Feminism

A defining aspect of the second-wave feminist movement was the “feminist sex wars” or “pornography wars,” which emerged from competing thought on issues related to pornography and other forms of prostitution, sexuality and gender. As pornography became more readily available, an anti-pornography movement emerged in response to the violent sexual imagery of women that was common in adult materials, spilling over into mainstream culture. They argued that pornography reinforced dangerous gender stereotypes and encouraged real-world violence, working towards legal restrictions on violent sexual imagery. In response, an alternative “pro-sex” feminism developed, which viewed the anti-pornography movement as dangerously tied to right-wing political thought which sought to repress and control sexuality. Pro-sex feminists argued that legislation on pornography would work to the detriment of sexual liberation and interfere with free speech rights. The debates on sexuality and pornography were considerably more complex than merely a “pro-sex” camp and an “anti-sex” or “anti-pornography” camp, and it is useful to understand the various strains which influenced the conversation. Some women disassociated themselves with the feminist movement over issues related to the sex trade, and the sex wars are viewed as an important factor in the deterioration of the second wave. The sex wars have had a continuing impact as women have begun to advocate for personal empowerment through sex work and the proliferation of pornography via the internet has made it a fixture of popular culture. The anti-pornography movement of the second wave has been oversimplified and mischaracterized to support anti-feminist rhetoric. Women who engage in critique of sex work and pornography may be unfairly labeled as “Dworkinite,” or “anti-sex.” Introducing a sophisticated analysis of the effects of pornography and other forms of commercialized sex into feminist spaces is crucial to understanding its cultural implications. It is evident that the arguments women engaged in over the sex wars are unresolved, and may need more attention now than ever before.

In her memoir of the second-wave movement, In Our Time, Susan Brownmiller discusses “the pornography wars.” She writes that the women’s liberation movement was at a high point at the same time that the availability of pornography was on the increase. In 1973 Miller v California effectively relaxed laws on obscenity which led to a “staggering rise in the production and consumption of over-the-counter pornography” (Brownmiller 296). Pornography, she argued, served to undermine the goals of the feminist movement in two ways. Just as women made gains toward equality in the workplace and developed legal and social remedies for empowering women, a flood of materials objectifying their bodies and reinforcing traditional notions of gender were widely circulated and normalized. In addition, strong feelings about sexually explicit materials on both sides drove the feminist movement into heated debates about the meaning and consequences of the new mainstreaming of pornography. Brownmiller, who became a vocal anti-pornography activist at this time, argued strongly that these materials worked to the detriment of sexual freedom and promoted violence against women. In her 1975 book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, Brownmiller argues against pornography. She sees a clear connection between pornographic imagery and a social environment that objectifies and degrades women. Her examination of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography’s report from 1970 demonstrated that the vast majority of pornographic materials were geared toward a white, middle-class, married, male audience. Unsurprisingly, the report showed that men were far more likely to find the images arousing, where women were more likely to report “disgust” and “offense” (Lederer 31). Brownmiller adds that, “there can be no ‘equality’ in porn, no female equivalent…pornography, like rape, is a male invention, designed to dehumanize women, to reduce the female to an object of sexual access, not to free sensuality from moralistic or parental inhibition” (32). Rather than working to free men and women from the traditional repression of sexuality, Brownmiller argued that popular pornographic images actually worked to reinforce them. Pornography was a form of propaganda which taught men to objectify and demean women, and it contributed to “a cultural climate in which men felt free to rape” (Brownmiller 297).

Popular magazines such as Hustler and Penthouse contained regular images of violence against women, set in a sexual context. Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography by Laura Lederer describes a sampling of some typical “tabletop pornography” from the late 1970s (Lederer 17). Images of bondage and mutilation, child molestation and torture, and rape and violent imagery were common. As Brownmiller became a prominent spokesperson for the anti-pornography movement, Hustler and Screw both made use of her image in their magazines, publishing personal information, including her place of residence in response to her public criticism (Brownmiller 297). Many prominent feminists, including Gloria Steinem, were attacked in this way by publishers. Their caricatures were placed in degrading sexual scenes. This response by pornographers demonstrated a willingness to use sexual imagery as a form of harassment and intimidation that may have led to real violence against Brownmiller and other feminists actively engaged with the subject of pornography.

A 1976 film entitled Snuff which contained scenes of “eroticized torture” and purported murder brought the anti-pornography movement national attention, as women worked to oppose snuff films and sadomasochistic imagery (Brownmiller 298). Women Against Pornography (WAP), and Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM) were two of the prominent anti-pornography groups which hosted demonstrations and worked to raise consciousness about violent sexual imagery. Andrea Dworkin, a leading organizer participated in hosting tours of Times Square in the belief that by raising consciousness about pornography, women would band together to oppose it. The famous Hustler cover of 1978 featured a woman apparently being stuffed into a meat grinder, drawing attention to the anti-pornography movement. In addition to tours of sex shops in Times Square, women were presented with slide shows in order to raise awareness about violent imagery in adult materials. WAP staged a protest against a proposed Penthouse club which would be named the “Meat Rack” (Brownmiller 303). Other anti-pornography groups surfaced around the country promoting feminist criticism of violent materials, which was quite different from the conservative opposition to obscenity. Feminist arguments against pornography addressed concerns over the conflation of sexuality and violence that would have a pervasive effect on society. WAP and other groups argued that pornography itself promoted the sexual repression of women by narrowly defining sexuality and casting women as objects for consumption by men.

In 1972, Deep Throat, starring Linda Lovelace first brought pornography to the mainstream. The popular film was important in that it was the first feature-length pornographic film to attract a wide audience. Later, Lovelace wrote an account of her experiences in the making of Deep Throat entitled Ordeal, in which she claimed that she had been viciously abused by her partner and coerced into her performance. Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin of WAP were inspired by the experiences of Lovelace to draft legislation that might protect women from abuse by pornographers. They argued that pornography was a violation of civil rights for those women coerced into performance or suffering violence as a result of pornography, or being forced in the workplace or elsewhere to view pornographic materials (Brownmiller 316).

The legislation had some limited success but was ultimately rejected as unconstitutional in district court, with pornographic materials defended on the grounds of the First Amendment. MacKinnon continued to argue from a radical feminist stance that within the context of patriarchy, the First Amendment did not apply to women, as the Constitution presumes social equality (MacKinnon 128). She argues in Feminism Unmodified that “Pornography causes attitudes and behaviors of violence and discrimination that define the treatment and status of half the population” (MacKinnon 147). WAP ultimately dissolved over the issue of legislation, with many concerned that legal limits to pornography were not the right solution to the problems surrounding it. Through the pursuit of legislation, MacKinnon and Dworkin earned the attention and support of right wing political leaders, unfortunately linking the ideas of repression of sexuality on religious grounds with the freedom for women victimized by viewing or participating in pornography to pursue legal remedies.

From the beginning, debates over pornography were heated among feminist groups. Brownmiller reports that some women identified with or enjoyed erotic and sadomasochistic imagery, and resented the characterization of all explicit imagery as problematic. Some women felt a sense of liberation through the newfound availability of erotic materials, or worried that the anti-pornography movement was a threat to free speech. Others became concerned with the implied alliance with the religious right (Brownmiller 308). A “feminist anti-anti-pornography” undercurrent began to develop, which included the “promotion of lesbian sadomasochism as a new oppressed minority” (314). It was clear that sexual imagery which could seem degrading and misogynistic to some, was arousing or liberating for others. Underlying arguments about pornography were deeper differences of philosophy on gender and sexuality that would prove to be divisive.

In her book, Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor, Wendy Chapkis examines the various arguments framing the “feminist sex wars,” and supplies a collection of interviews with women in the sex trade. Writing from a pro-prostitution feminist perspective, Chapkis provides a careful examination of competing ideologies around sex work, while demonstrating an awareness of her own bias. She provides a useful analysis of the divisions which characterized the sex wars of the 1970s and 1980s with a careful consideration of its legacy and impact on feminism. Part of her project is to “help heal the schism within feminism…around the subject of commercial sex,” arguing against the typical division of arguments around the sex wars into two distinct groups (Chapkis 1).

Chapkis examines two major ideologies which she identifies as Radical Feminism and Sex Radical Feminism, and details the underlying theoretical make-up of each of these major groups. “Pro-‘positive’ sex feminism” and “anti-sex feminism” are contained within the arguments associated with Radical Feminism (Chapkis 13). Sex Radical Feminism or Sex Radicalism includes “sexual libertarianism” and “sexual subversion” (26). These categories are useful in that they assist the reader in understanding that alliances can be declared by sources external to the conflict, over-simplifying complex arguments and obscuring areas of consensus.

Radical Feminism is associated with the anti-pornography movement of the late 70s and early 80s. Chapkis identifies “pro-‘positive’ sex” feminism as the arguments associated with “sexual romanticism,” articulated by feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem. The erotic is defined as “rooted in Eros or passionate love” (Chapkis 13). Pornography or other forms of commercialized sex are detrimental to this concept of sexuality, being devoid of love or intimacy. In this conceptual understanding of sexuality, certain practices are necessarily bad. A “male sexual style” is identified which is characterized by “objectification, promiscuity and emotional non-involvement.” Female sexuality is characterized by “affection, tenderness and commitment” (14). Pro-positive sex feminists aimed to abolish prostitution, and argued that women’s sexuality was threatened by the proliferation of pornography. Sexual romanticism can serve to define sexuality along gender lines, negating sexual expression which exists outside of romantic love. Further, criticism of pornography and prostitution goes well beyond the loss of Eros including concerns over sexualized violence, worker safety, promotion of rape culture and many other issues.

“Anti-sex feminism,” another component of Radical Feminism includes arguments which condemned prostitution, pornography and other forms of sex. Catherine MacKinnon articulates this argument, as she identifies “the very meaning of sex [as] male domination” (Chapkis 17). “Women Against Sex” argued that sex itself was suspect as a form of female degradation and domination by men. If sex is always an inherent act of male supremacy, there can be no real notion of consent in pornography or other forms of sex. Some proponents of these arguments imagined a “feminist future” in which sex would be “informed by an entirely different practice.” Important to this type of argument is the notion that “sex cannot be a tool for dismantling male supremacy” (18). This form of feminism objected to sexual romanticism as it reinforced notions of inherent gender difference. Anti-sex feminism is commonly confused with religious sexual repression, an unfortunate relationship which detracts from the feminist critique.  In an effort to eliminate gender hierarchy, women strategized by withholding sex as a way to reclaim sexual power. Under this theoretical framework, romanticist feminism is classified as liberal, in the sense that it aims to work with prevailing gender norms, and anti-sex feminism is classified as radical, in the sense that gender itself is challenged in an attempt to upend the patriarchy.

Sex Radical Feminism or Sex Radicalism is another important theoretical framework detailed by Chapkis, containing arguments around sexual libertarianism and sexual subversion. Both are concerned with “active engagement within the social order,” rather than with “purification” or “resistance” to various forms of sexual expression, whether commercial or private (Chapkis 21). Sexual libertarianism argues that the legitimacy of sexual acts are determined by the individual, rather than by society or community standards. Social hierarchies, including sexual inequality should not impose meaning to personal acts of sexual fulfillment. Feminist writer Camille Paglia opposes the anti-pornography movement, arguing that opposition to pornography makes one a “censor” and a “prude.” She argues that women hold sexual power over men, and rather than being cast as “slaves” or “victims” in sex work, they should rightly be viewed as “goddesses” (22). She reasons that women subjected to violence are personally responsible rather than that violence is caused by political or social factors. Sexual libertarian ideas are often expressed by producers of pornography, as individual consent is frequently emphasized over the larger social impact of its production and consumption. Objection to the commoditization of sexuality is not necessarily related to prudishness, as objection to commoditization and objection to sexuality itself are quite separate.

Other Sex Radical views are more concerned with the political and social context of sexuality as commodity. Marcy Sheiner of the magazine On Our Backs questions whether “arousal potential [should be] the sole criteria for what goes into a sex magazine” (Chapkis 23). Sexual subversion differs from sexual libertarianism in its interest in promoting an “erotic ethic,” which is concerned with the social implications of erotic materials and expression (24). Chapkis writes, “sex radical feminists…share with romanticist and anti-sex feminists a sense of outrage at the existing social order” (26). Sex Radicalism generally aims to engage and transform sexual expression from within, with a potential for “sex to be a cultural tactic which can be used both to destabilize male power as well as to reinforce it” (29). Sex work as “cultural tactic” is an idea that is difficult to quantify. Work concerned with the “erotic ethic” is a worthwhile endeavor, but it is important to consider not just the production but the consumption of commercial sex and consideration must be made to the market which may be intentionally drawn to unethical forms of sex work such as child pornography or forced prostitution.

Chapkis demonstrates that feminist thought on commercialized sex is more complicated than is generally discussed. Not all who comprised the anti-pornography movement were “anti-sex,” and not all who argued against it were insensitive to concerns about its quality or content. Her book, written in the late 1990s also demonstrates that the heated debates of the late 70s and 80s which defined the feminist sex wars did not end with the failed Dworkin and MacKinnon legislation and the loss of organization of what is now characterized as the second-wave feminist movement. Sexual romanticism and sexual libertarianism had in common that both theories accepted prevailing gender ideology, while anti-sex and sexual subversion arguments around commercial sex promoted the challenging of gender barriers, and sexual expression.

In considering arguments around pornography and other forms of commercialized sexuality, the notion of consent is crucial. Dworkin and others who promoted “anti-sex” ideology argued that within a male-dominated gender system, women were by nature of their gender subject to abuse through a sexual expression which had been defined and commoditized by men. Similarly, in the sex trade where women are at times prostituted and under the control and management of men, consent becomes questionable. Sexual subversion, where women reclaim agency within sex work, requires an amount of self-actualization which is not always demonstrated to be the case when women engage in these practices. From a social perspective, it is also important to consider not only the agency of performers of commercialized sex, but the effects on consumers in dealing with violent or oppressive sexual imagery and practices.

In Daring to Be Bad, Alice Echols argues that the radical feminism which played such an important part of the second-wave feminist movement was transformed into what she refers to as cultural feminism. Radicals who were interested in redefining gender and challenging the basic social order became less prominent as feminists interested in working within the dominant structure to create change came to shape and define the movement for the third-wave and now post-wave generations. The sex radicalism of which Chapkis identifies is more closely aligned with the idea of cultural feminism, wherein sex workers attempt to defy the mainstream conception of such work as demeaning, and participants as merely victims or objects. It is an attempt to commit radical acts of feminism within a traditionally male dominated structure.

The sex wars are important in understanding current conversations among feminists regarding pornography and other forms of commercial sex. Recent works including Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy and Pamela Paul’s Pornified tackle the mainstreaming of pornography and the popularity of videos such as Girls Gone Wild, in which young women participate in mass produced “amateur” pornography. Some still try to maintain a distinction between “erotica” and “pornography,” or pursue alternative or “feminist pornography.” Some actors in the industry such as Nina Hartley self-identify as feminist and speak out in support of the mainstream industry. Dworkin and MacKinnon had an important impact on the sex wars, with their arguments often characterized as anti-male. Levy and Paul suggest that in order to be viewed as pro-sex, a woman must also be pro-pornography. It is important from a feminist perspective to be free to actively critique pornography in much the same way as other elements of media and culture, challenging overt and subtle forms of misogyny. It works to the benefit of a highly profitable industry for women to participate in their own objectification, and for those who question it to be cast as “man-haters.” Still relevant to the conversation about pornography are issues of violence against women, sex worker safety, and discussion around its effects on body image and sexuality, as well as theoretical analysis on how pornography reflects and reinforces gender roles.

Works Cited
Brownmiller, Susan. In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution. New York: Dial, 1999. Print.
Chapkis, W. Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.
Echols, Alice. Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1989. Print.
“Feminist Views on Pornography.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.
Lederer, Laura. Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography. New York: Morrow, 1980. Print.
Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free, 2005. Print.
“Libertarians and Pro-sex vs. Dworkinite Radical Feminisms.” History News Network. Web. 24 Feb. 2011.
MacKinnon, Catharine A. Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1987. Print.
Paul, Pamela. Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families. New York: Times, 2005. Print.


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