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Who Lost the Feminist Movement's "Sex Wars"?

The women’s-liberation movement in the United States, from its beginning in the late sixties, had been characterized by tensions between socialist feminists (or “politicos”) who saw class subordination as the root cause of women’s oppression and feminists who thought of “male supremacy” as an autonomous structure of social and political life. At the same time, there had been growing tensions between feminists (like Ti-Grace Atkinson and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz) who embraced separatism and, sometimes, political lesbianism as the only acceptable responses to male supremacy, and feminists (like the “pro-woman” members of the group Redstockings, founded by Shulamith Firestone and Ellen Willis, in 1969) who rejected such “personal solutionism” for its rebuke of heterosexual desire and its tendency to alienate “non-movement” women.

In 1978, the tenth National Women’s Liberation Movement Conference was held in Birmingham, England. Self-identified “revolutionary feminists” submitted a proposal to cancel the demands established at previous conferences, insisting that it was “ridiculous for us to demand anything from a patriarchal state—from men—who are the enemy.” Revolutionary feminism had been baptized the year before, when Sheila Jeffreys, in a lecture titled “The Need for Revolutionary Feminism,” chided socialist feminists for failing to recognize that male violence, rather than capitalism, was the root of women’s oppression. At the Birmingham conference, the revolutionary feminists’ proposal was left off the plenary agenda, and, when it was finally read aloud, chaos erupted: women shouted, sang, and wrenched microphones from one another’s hands. Many attendees walked out. It was the last of the national conferences.

What happened at Birmingham prefigured what happened at Barnard College, in New York, four years later. At that point, a lightning rod had emerged for the contrary currents of feminism: pornography. “Antiporn” feminists saw in pornography the ideological training ground of male supremacy. (“Pornography is the theory, and rape the practice,” Robin Morgan declared in 1974.) Their feminist opponents saw the antiporn crusade as a reinforcement of a patriarchal world view that denied women sexual agency. In April, 1982, the Barnard Conference on Sexuality was held, in one organizer’s words, as “a coming out party” for feminists who were “appalled by the intellectual dishonesty and dreariness of the anti-pornography movement.” In the conference’s concept paper, the anthropologist Carole Vance called for an acknowledgment of sex as a domain not merely of danger but of “exploration, pleasure, and agency.”

A week before the conference, antiporn feminists started calling Barnard administrators to complain, and administrators confiscated copies of the “Diary of a Conference on Sexuality”—a compilation of essays, reflections, and erotic images to be given out to participants. At the event, which drew about eight hundred people, antiporn feminists distributed leaflets accusing the organizers of supporting sadomasochism, violence against women, and pedophilia. Feminist newspapers were filled with furious condemnations of the conference and indignant replies. The event’s organizers described an aftermath of “witch-hunting and purges”; Gayle Rubin, who ran a workshop at the conference, wrote in 2011 that she still carried “the horror of having been there.”

In an illuminating retelling of this period of American feminist history, “Why We Lost the Sex Wars: Sexual Freedom in the #MeToo Era,” the political theorist Lorna N. Bracewell challenges the standard narrative of the so-called sex wars as a “catfight,” a “wholly internecine squabble among women.” For Bracewell, that story omits the crucial role of a third interest group, liberals, who, she argues, ultimately domesticated the impulses of both antiporn and pro-porn feminists. Under the influence of liberal legal scholars such as Elena Kagan and Cass Sunstein, antiporn feminism gave up on its dream of transforming relations between women and men in favor of using criminal law to target narrow categories of porn. “Sex radical” defenders of porn became, according to Bracewell, milquetoast “sex positive” civil libertarians who are more concerned today with defending men’s due-process rights than with cultivating sexual countercultures. Both antiporn and pro-sex feminism, she argues, lost their radical, utopian edge.

This sort of plague-on-both-their-houses diagnosis has gained currency. In a 2019 piece on Andrea Dworkin, Moira Donegan wrote that “sex positivity became as strident and incurious in its promotion of all aspects of sexual culture as the anti-porn feminists were in their condemnation of sexual practices under patriarchy.” Yet the inimitable Maggie Nelson, in her new book, “On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint,” sees a “straw man” in such dismissive depictions of sex positivity. She says that skeptics forget its crucial historical backdrop—the feminist and queer aids activism of the eighties and nineties. For such activists, Nelson writes, sex positivity was a way of “insisting, in the face of viciously bigoted moralists who didn’t care if you lived or died (many preferred that you died), that you have every right to your life force and sexual expression, even when the culture was telling you that your desire was a death warrant.”

Both Bracewell and Nelson raise an important question about how disagreements within feminism are seen. Where the famous rifts within the male-dominated left—between, say, E. P. Thompson and Stuart Hall over Louis Althusser’s structuralism—are regarded as instructive mappings of intellectual possibility, as debates to be “worked through,” feminists tend to picture the great “wars” of their movement’s past as warnings or sources of shame. This is not to deny that feminist debate can have a particular emotional resonance. Sheila Rowbotham, though not averse to relitigating old arguments (especially with Selma James, a founder of the Wages for Housework campaign), admits that “connecting the personal with the political” could pose a particular problem for the movement: “when ruptures appeared these proved all the more painful.” She explains, “Theoretically I did not hold with the notion that because we were women we would wipe away political conflicts, but emotionally, like many other feminists, I was attached to a vision of us birthing a new politics of harmony.”

Read entire article at The New Yorker