Sex Wars

Female chauvinist pigs

The Feminist Sex Wars, were acrimonious debates among feminists in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The sides were characterized by anti-porn and pro-sex groups with disagreements regarding sexuality, sexual representation, pornography, sadomasochism, the role of transwomen in the lesbian community, and other sexual issues.

The debate pitted anti-pornography feminism against sex-positive feminism, and the feminist movement was deeply divided as a result. The Feminist Sex Wars are sometimes viewed as part of the division that led to the end of the second-wave feminist era.

Important anti-pornography feminists included Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. The pair wanted civil laws restricting pornography. They viewed male sexual dominance as the root of all female oppression, and thus condemned pornography, prostitution, and other manifestations of male sexual power. The anti-pornography movement gained ground with the creation of Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media. During the time of the Sex Wars, it organized marches against the creators and distributors of pornography in San Francisco and led to Women Against Pornography, Feminists Fighting Pornography, and similarly-oriented organizations and efforts across the United States. The response by ‘sex-positive feminists’ was one that promoted sex as an avenue of pleasure for women. Gayle Rubin and Pat Califia were influential in this part of the movement.

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. Anti-pornography movements developed from fundamental arguments displayed by lesbianism, such as the notion of patriarchal sexual relations. Ellen Willis described these relations as being ‘based on male power backed by force.’ This means that pornography is created exclusively for men by men and is a direct reflection of the man-dominant paradigm surrounding sexual relations. 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.

Andrea Dworkin expressed her views of pornography in her book, ‘Pornography: Men Possessing Women.’ In it, she argued that the theme of pornography is male dominance and as a result is harmful to women and their well-being. Dworkin believed that pornography is not only damaging in the production but also in its viewing effects as men mentally internalize the misogynistic portrayal of women. Other prominent feminists, such as Robin Morgan, agree with Dworkin’s arguments. Morgan defines the link between the production of pornography and the violence of women in her statement, ‘pornography is the theory, rape is the practice.’

On the opposite end of the spectrum, sex-positive feminists have criticized the anti-pornography movement as a repression of sexuality and a move towards censorship. Prominent liberal feminist Gayle Rubin offers a critique of anti-pornography in her article, ‘Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,’ in which she 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.

Third-wave writings promote personal, individualized views on the gender-related issues focused on during the 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. Those weapons, such as sex objects and porn, identified in the second wave as instruments of oppression are now no longer being exclusively used against women but also sometimes by women.

Feminist views on prostitution are one example of the division between anti-prostitution and sex-positive feminists. The anti-prostitution feminists argue that prostitutes are victims of a patriarchal society forced into sex work because they have no other alternative. They argue further that prostitution is a problem that must be contextualized within a patriarchal and capitalist society. Although reasons for becoming a prostituted female are complex, many women are motivated by economic necessity. One woman pointed out that ‘hooking is the only job for which women as a group are paid more than men.’ This does not indicate women are becoming rich by engaging in prostitution. In fact, almost all of the money prostitutes make is used and controlled by pimps. Women who are struggling with poverty may turn to prostitution as a way to provide for themselves or their families, a last resort when they have few other opportunities. It is important to notice that in a patriarchal society, women are a disadvantaged group. The social context of patriarchy gives women fewer opportunities and leaves them more likely to be in a position of economic need; given these circumstances they ‘choose’ to participate in prostitution because it is one of the seemingly few options available.

Anti-prostitution feminists point out prostitution is obviously harmful in many ways to those who are directly involved in it. Prostitution spreads sexually transmitted diseases and threatens health. It also involves violence towards prostitutes either by pimps or clients. According to a study done in 2003, ‘violence is the norm for women in prostitution.’ Women as a group are oppressed and harmed by prostitution even when they are not directly involved in it. Objectifying women through prostitution sends the message that men can buy a woman’s body. They have the power in the ‘relationship’ because they are buying it. Scott Anderson explains, ‘prostitution plays a key role in sustaining the social inequality of women. It does so by defining women in general as sexual objects, available to any man who desires them.’ Similarly, prostitution legitimizes men’s demand for sex through the presence of coercion and rape of prostituted women. The nature of prostitution gives men power and control in the sexual ‘relationship.’

The sex-positive perspective sees prostitutes as active agents in their lives and work and embraces more open views of sexuality and pleasure. It argues that women have power within the sexual experience of prostitution because they control the services and fees. They are seen as sexually liberated and may enjoy their work. Although there is not an easy way to quantify how much control and enjoyment any prostitute has over her work, sex-positive feminists also emphasize that, from a humanist perspective, individuals should have the right to choose their work, including the choice of prostitution. They argue that sex work is not inherently exploitative or degrading and that there is much variation in the situation of sex workers. Most sex-positive feminists do recognize that women working as prostitutes face difficult realities of violence and possible criminal implications. This group often suggests the decriminalization of prostitution, which would allow prostitutes to organize and give them greater protection of health and safety. Decriminalization would allow sex work to be regulated, giving women more protection.

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