The Feminist Sex Wars, also known as the Lesbian Sex Wars, or simply the Sex Wars or Porn Wars, were acrimonious debates amongst feminists regarding a number of issues broadly relating to sex. The debates, which Lisa Duggan said felt like war, polarised into two sides during the late 1970s and early 1980s and the aftermath of this polarisation of feminist views during the sex wars continues to this day. The sides were characterized by anti-porn feminist and sex-positive feminist groups with disagreements regarding sexuality, pornography and other forms of sexual representation, prostitution, the role of trans women in the lesbian community, lesbian sexual practices, sadomasochism and other sexual issues. The feminist movement was deeply divided as a result of these debates. The Feminist Sex Wars are sometimes viewed as part of the division that led to the end of the second-wave feminist era.
In New York in 1976 Andrea Dworkin was active in organising demonstrations against the film Snuff. However, attempts made to also start an organisation to continue anti-pornography campaigning by feminists in the city failed. In LA organising was more successful and the group Women Against Violence Against Women was founded in 1976 in response to the film and then also proceeded to campaign against the advertising for the Rolling Stones’ album Black and Blue. The anti-pornography movement in the USA gained ground with the creation of Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media 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. The conference led to anti-pornography feminists organizing in New York in 1979 under the banner of Women Against Pornography, and to similarly-orientated organisations 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 Catherine MacKinnon wanted civil laws restricting pornography and to this end drafted the Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance. They viewed male sexual dominance as the root of all female oppression, and thus condemned pornography, prostitution, and other manifestations of male sexual power.
From 1979 feminist journalist Ellen Willis was one of the early voices criticising 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”. 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. 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 others in New York in 1981. The Feminists Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT) was set up in 1984 by Ellen Willis in response to the Dworkin-MacKinnon Ordinance, in 1989 Feminists Against Censorship, formed in the UK, its members including Avedon Carol and Feminists for Free Expression formed in the USA in 1992 with founding members including Veronica Vera and Candida Royalle.
In October 1980 the National Organisation 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”. 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.
Feminist Views on BDSM vary widely from rejection to acceptance and all points in between. As an example, the two polarizing frameworks are being compared here. Some feminists, such as Andrea Dworkin and Susan Griffin, regard BDSM as a form of woman-hating violence, while other feminists, such as Gayle Rubin and Patrick Califia, see BDSM as a valid form of expression of female sexuality. Some lesbian feminists practice BDSM and regard it as part of their sexual identity.
The history between feminists and BDSM practitioners has been controversial. The two most extreme positions are those who believe that feminism and BDSM are mutually exclusive beliefs, and those who believe that BDSM practices are an expression of sexual freedom. A lot of the controversy is left over from the feminist sex wars and the battle between the anti-pornography feminists and the pro-pornography feminists.
- The Feminist Sex Wars (pamproductions.wordpress.com)
- The Feminist Porn Book Editors Respond to Gayle Rubin (susiebright.blogs.com)
- The Feminist Sex Wars and the Myth of the Missing Middle (susiebright.blogs.com)
- So It’s Come To This: Star Wars Inspired BDSM Sex Toys (geekologie.com)
- The War Against Erotica (victoriadougherty.wordpress.com)
- How to Make a Feminist Porno (manifestamagazine.com)
- True or False: Feminists Lack Sexuality (feministfalsehoods.wordpress.com)
- Today’s Feminism: A Brief Look at Third-Wave Feminism (beingfeministblog.wordpress.com)
- The Feminized Labor of Sex Work – Two Decades of Feminist Historical and Ethnographic Research (sexworkresearch.wordpress.com)
- Abortion Rights Campaign Weekly Media Roundup (considertheteacosy.wordpress.com)