Queer Theory is Sexy

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Theoretical Engagements beyond the Feminist “Sex Wars”

How the Space between Sex Radicals and Radical Feminists Can Structure Our Questioning about Sex

            Introduction: Or, Why the Hell Do the Sex Wars Matter?

                It can be easy, in reading about the history of conflicts between the camps of feminism that have come to be identified as sex positive feminists on the one hand, and radical feminists on the other—conflicts that are remembered by both sides as the “feminists sex wars” of the ‘70s and ‘80s—to become frustrated and dismiss them as an unfortunate and embarrassing, not to mention unproductive episode in the history of feminism. Yet to do so would to ignore the ways in which this schism structures the reality of feminism today. Further, as I hope to argue in this paper, to do so would be to fail to utilize the productive theoretical space that this opposition has opened up. In between and across these apparently antithetical viewpoints lie a series of doubts and challenges to our thinking about sexuality—questions that offer productive and exciting possibilities for the future of queer theorists’ and feminists’ critique of sexuality.

                What does a conflict among feminists mean for scholars and activists who have come to be identified with and shape the field known as queer studies? Queer studies scholars tend to fall more within sex-positive camps, which extend beyond feminist circles (in gay and lesbian BDSM and kink circles, for instance). Some, like Lisa Duggan, were among the sex positive activists that protested radical feminist moves towards censorship. Despite this, radical feminist thought has some presence in queer studies, from dismissed and harshly criticized (Rubin, 1993) to critically received (Bersani, 1987). Yet even these crucial theorists and activists fail to ask a critical question of this dichotomy in feminism: what happens if we take seriously both sides of the war, not in the trivial sense of recognizing their contributions to the field or history, but to situate their challenges to and rejections of each other’s viewpoints as a site of interrogation for determining the theoretical implications of this conflict? In other words, by framing the disagreements between sex positive and radical feminists as a series of open questions, we can forge a structured interrogation of sexual ethics, values, and practices, that will help us to not only understand the conflict and why it happened, but also shape our understanding, beliefs, theorizing and activism around sexuality.

                I came to this project after discovering that my incorporation of both radical feminist and sex positive perspectives into my own thinking was apparently unique among my immediate peers. It had always seemed to me that both groups make certain analytical claims that could not be dismissed, while making other evaluative claims that were more easily criticized or rejected (such as the hatred or moral disgust towards transsexuals by some radical feminists). In particular, it seemed to me that radical feminists’ critique of male sexuality described well my experience as a socialized male, and that sex positive feminists’ critiques of sexual oppression aligned with my understanding of that oppression. Yet I sought in vain to find thinkers and theorists who really incorporated both perspectives. I discovered plenty of influence from both sides on individual theorists, but influence is not necessarily integration. As I explored the history of on-the-ground engagements of feminist activists during and after the “sex wars,” I became more and more curious about how little I was reading of conversations about the theoretical assumptions of both sides. I sought to explore this lack of engagement through the literature, and to map its way into queer studies. My ultimate theoretical assumption was not that these positions are ultimately compatible; on the contrary, it is their fundamental incompatibility that is most interesting and, I argue, most relevant and challenging to queer studies. Thus, while my interest began from a sense of identification and agreement with these perspectives, I am ultimately not interested in agreeing with or taking sides. Rather, I hope to demonstrate the ways in which the gap in theoretical engagement between the perspectives of sex positive and radical feminists itself implies an unresolved tension in our thinking about sexuality, a tension that demands explicit articulation and, hopefully, eventually, resolution. My aim in this paper is thus to articulate the terms of this tension and its implications. I will do this by discussing a broad spectrum of literature, from both during and after the feminist sex wars up to the present, in order to map the engagements (or lack thereof) between both sides of the conflict, and to suggest the ways in which this conflict continues to structure feminist divisions. I will ultimately argue that this mapping, however selective and inadequate, highlights certain tensions that have been inscribed yet buried within the conflict. By bringing these issues to light, I hope to lay the groundwork for a future privileged discussion of their implications.

II.            The “War” Around Sex

                The interactions between sex positive and radical feminists, culminating in the proposed and eventually rejected anti-pornography laws of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine Mackinnon, were anything but cordial. Playing out as a series of contests between groups such as Samois, a group of S/M lesbians, Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAM), Women Against Pornography (WAP), and the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT), these conflicts often turned bitter and personal (Duggan and Hunter, 2006, pp. 22-24). Besides picketing each other’s events and protesting their exclusion from particular venues, some individuals made very hostile and personal attacks against their opponents. Certain figures, such as Dworkin, who was often the subject of vilifying and petty critiques of her appearance and weight (Bindel, 2006), became prominent targets of attack.[1] On the other hand, groups like WAP and WAVAW were notorious for accusations about the sexual practices of individual women during their protests (Basiliere, 2009, p. 8). In the years since, there has been a marked exclusion of opposing viewpoints from sex-positive and radical feminist specific journals and publications. In an online feminist publication Said It, Adriene Sere complains of an ongoing monologue of sex positive perspectives to the exclusion and silencing of radical feminist voices, despite the fact that radical feminism continues to flourish “in the grassroots” if not the mainstream (Sere, 2001).

                There were, of course, exceptions to these heated encounters. There were those like Audre Lorde who were against condemning individuals for their sexual practices, and who admitted that “This is complex. I speak not about condemnation but about recognizing what is happening and questioning what it means. I’m not willing to regiment anyone’s life…” (Star, 1988). Others’ work was ultimately shaped by an understanding of both positions, such as Carla Freccero, an anti-pornography feminist who admits that the pleasure emphasized by sex-positive feminist changed her thinking about pornography (Freccero, 2008, p. 212). Yet it appears that this cordiality rarely extended to actual, critical dialogue.

III.           Who’s Listening? The Failure of Theoretical Engagements after the Bernard Conference

                One of the most astounding things about this theoretical silence amid much activist shouting[2] is that it almost didn’t happen that way. An early effort to lay out the issues facing feminists was made by a feminist sociologist named Carol Vance, whose letter of invitation to participate in the annual Bernard Conference in 1982 framed some of the issues concerning feminists at the time:

·         How do women get sexual pleasure in patriarchy?

·         How do women of various ethnic, racial, and class groups strategize for pleasure?

·         What are the points of similarity and difference between feminist analyses of pornography, incest, and male and female sexual ‘nature’ and those of the right wing?

·         Dare we persist in questioning traditional sexuality and sexual arrangements in the current political climate?

·         What is the nature of the conflict between the ‘social purity’ [i.e. radical feminist] and ‘libertarian’ [i.e. sex positive] factions in the feminist community?

·         What can be learned from similar debates during the first wave of feminism in the 19th century? (quoted in Basiliere, 2009, p. 4)

Clearly feminists at the time were aware of the polarization taking place, and sought to explore the reasons for this polarization, while offering the possibility for distinguishing feminist critiques of sexuality from conservative or religious critiques, a possibility whose failure is often noted by those in the sex-positive camp (notably Duggan). There was also a sense in the first two bullet points of the complicated nature of agency and coercion under patriarchy, which establishes agency towards pleasure as a problem rather than as a foregone conclusion.[3] However, the broader feminist community did not react positively to the conference. After numerous phone-calls denouncing the conference, Bernard College confiscated the brochures set to accompany the conference and removed all references to Bernard College within them. WAP and WAVAW went on to picket the conference, distributing defamatory leaflets condemning individuals and individual sex practices of the conference membership. Jenna Basiliere (2009) claims that these groups misrepresented the diversity of presenters and presentations at the conference, acting as though the conference had a united agenda to promote the redeployment of patriarchal power dynamics in feminist sexuality (pp. 10-11).

                Basiliere argues that “there was a discomfort within the feminist community at large around the issue of pornography as form of sexual expression,” as evidenced by the letters of sex-positive feminists who also showed concern for pornography, which can help “explain the fallout that occurred as a result of the Barnard conference” (ibid., p. 17). Thus, the kind of sex positivity that aimed to explain the differences in feminism was marginalized by a larger feminist community that was still deeply concerned about the dangers of pornography. However, at the same time radical feminists felt as though they could not connect to the sex-positive camp, who posited their own position as marginal and more progressive, and were (according to the radical feminist camp) unreceptive to criticism as to what was problematic about their position. Thus, Basiliere claims that “women on both sides of the debate were thinking and speaking in ways that prevented them from effectively communicating with each other” (ibid., p. 20). Thus it appears that while there were attempts to bridge the theoretical gap, such attempts were largely unsuccessful.

IV.          Queer Studies and Radical Feminists

                Queer studies has a unique relationship to radical feminism in that one of the most important foundational works calling for a critique of sexuality on its own terms (and not merely in terms of a broader discussion of women’s gender oppression) harshly criticizes the anti-pornography movement. Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” (1993 below, first published 1984) argues for tolerance of sexual diversity and thus could be considered a sex positive position, and condemns the efforts of the anti-pornography radical feminists as moralizing, discriminatory, and aligned with a conservative political agenda. Rubin’s reflections on the sex wars tend to minimize and misrepresent the radical feminist position to the point at which she can, in the same paragraph, accuse them of inflammatory rhetoric and at the same time compare their tactics to Nazi propaganda (Rubin, 1993, p. 26). Rubin also dodges radical feminism’s most radical point of critique—her analysis exhibits a tendency to see sexual media as victims rather than institutionalized forms of normative (patriarchal) sexuality, to see them as forces of sexual liberation rather than producing and re-producing narratives of sexual domination, as radical feminists claim they do. She even states that anti-pornography and anti-BDSM feminists’ arguments imply that only “sex-perverts” commit sex crimes (ibid.) when in reality they claim that sex crimes like rape are normative elements in male supremacist sexuality (c.f. Dworkin, 1978).

                Other scholars who advocate for queer issues and freedom of sexual practice are Lisa Duggan and Nan Hunter, whose collection of essays Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture chronicles their involvement with the sex wars and their aftermath. Duggan and Hunter do a better job in general of taking radical feminist arguments seriously, while highlighting the dangers they foresaw (and indeed, that were realized) in anti-pornography efforts of censorship being coopted by conservative efforts to punish sexual minorities. Over and against this, they lay claim to the project of “reclaiming and reinventing ‘pornography’ on behalf of women and queers, not trying to abolish it (like divine-right queens of culture), or defending it ‘as is’ as the price of ‘free speech’” (p. 4). Here Duggan in her introduction to the collection identifies and criticizes several positions. She acknowledges the radical feminist definition of pornography as a form of violence towards and degradation of women and provides a vision of “pornography” properly understood that would be free from violence or sexism. She also criticizes the paternalistic tendency of radical feminists to claim to be speaking for the needs of all women, including those who have been silenced by male political and sexual power (see my next section). Finally, Duggan distances herself from an uncritical or nihilistic sex positivity that claims all forms of sexual representation to be legitimate. However, she argues for a reclamation and reinventing of pornography without explaining what such a reinvention would look like, or taking into account the particular aspects of pornography that radical feminists find problematic. In short, Duggan and Hunter want to imagine a queer or feminist pornography without incorporating the crucial critique that radical feminists have made.

                If Rubin can admit that “Sexual ideology plays a crucial role in sexual experience” (1993, p. 23), and further, that sex can be political, but not admit that the political can also be sexual; and if Duggan and Hunter can imagine pornography without violence or patriarchy and yet not give us an idea of what that might look like—of what elements are extrinsic to the concept of pornography but intrinsic to patriarchy—then can these representatives of queer studies be said to be actually engaging with radical feminist ideas?[4] One queer theorist who takes the full implications of radical feminist critique of sexuality seriously is Leo Bersani. In his essay “Is the Rectum a Grave?” (1987), Bersani includes a discussion of the anti-pornography movement as represented by Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, and the theoretical insights that they provide. He states, “MacKinnon and Dworkin are really making a claim for the realism of pornography. That is, whether or not we think of it as constitutive (rather than merely reflective) of an eroticizing of the violence of inequality, pornography would be the most accurate description and the most effective promotion of inequality” (p. 213). The insight here is much more troubling than sex positive theorists’ view of things: “their most radical claim is not that pornography has a pernicious effect on otherwise nonpernicious sexual relations, but rather that so-called normal sexuality is already pornographic [that is, focused on violence and degradation of women]” (p. 214). He further associates this insight with a similar comment made by Foucault, who states that “Men think that women can only experience pleasure in recognizing men as masters” (quoted ibid.). Unlike Foucault, Bersani argues, these radical feminists bring the question of values in response to this theoretical insight to the fore. What should be our response if sex becomes ethically problematic? In this light, we can start to understand the political urgency that many radical feminists felt, and why they felt so betrayed by those who ignored or excluded their concerns.

V.            Pornography and its Relevance to the Study of Sexuality

                Bersani and Basiliere give us an idea of why pornography was so central in the sex wars. Besides them, we have other claims that “pornography is about the most reliable evidence that we have about male sexual identity and the sexuality that reinforces it and the values that construct it” (Stoltenberg, 2000, p. 105). And as Dworkin asks us, “what is this male sexuality that requires our humiliation, that literally swells with pride at our anguish,” and further, “what does it mean that the pornographers, the consumers of pornography… are the men we grew up with, the men we talk with, live with, the men…cherished by us as friends, fathers, brothers, sons, and lovers” (Dworkin, 1978). Insofar as queer studies is interested in the intersection of masculinity, power, and sexuality, a critique of pornography is incredibly relevant to this project.

My own essay is not the first effort in documenting the literature on feminist disagreements on pornography. Natalie Purcell, in her essay “Feminism and Pornography: Building Sensitive Research and Analytic Approaches” (2009), presented at The Western Regional Conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, documents extensively the need for more historically aware (i.e. of the history of the sex wars) and cross-perspective research into the ethical effects of pornography. The reason pornography becomes so important and difficult in the study of sexual and gender oppression is because of the extensive claims of harm that have been made by anti-pornography activists, both empirically and theoretically, and yet addressing such problems becomes inherently difficult given the problems that sex-positive activists have identified. Thus, a critique of pornography is simultaneously vitally necessary and urgent and yet extremely dangerous. The claims of harm are significant enough (and the evidence at least convincing enough to take them seriously) to demand action, yet acting itself is fraught with ethical peril. Purcell does not shy away from identifying the faults in the rhetoric of both sides. For instance, she criticizes MacKinnon for ignoring the voices of women in sex work whose silence she claims to be speaking for (thus reinforcing their silence), while also criticizing sex positive feminists for dismissing empirical evidence of the other camp as simply the result of emotional bias. After documenting the ways in which the different camps have dismissed each other’s viewpoints and research and the reasons that the gap exists so pervasively between these camps, Purcell goes on to suggest the ways that sexuality researchers can better proceed in investigating these claims while being attentive to the concerns of both sides. I would like to further this project by laying out the theoretical issues at stake in our on-going conversations on sexuality, given the conflict that was the feminist sex wars.

VI.          Conclusion: Aporias

                Our inheritance of the feminist sex wars is structured by a series of aporias. An aporia (as I use it in the Derridian sense) is a critical doubt, one that demands movement and resolution and yet itself is a non-movement, a non-path. Sex positive feminists and radical feminists each offer a series of positions that calls the assumptions of the other camp into doubt. Once we distance ourselves from picking sides, we can look at our most fundamental assumptions about sex and sexuality as open questions. Radical feminists center the discussion of values in particular, and question the ways in which values interact with our political, social, and ethical reality. This is just one way in which the sex wars challenge us to consider the ethical, practical, moral, and political implications our values and sexual ideologies have. I would like to conclude by identifying some issues that could be considered open questions by this taking seriously of the dissonance in feminist history:

·         From the radical feminists: What values play out in everyday sexual encounters? What material and social effects do patriarchal values have on sexual expression? In what ways do representations of sexuality continue to structure sexuality in a way that recognizes, endorses, or creates gendered power differences? To what extent and in what ways can sexuality be rescued from such power structures? Who is most victimized by patriarchal power, and in what ways can we best empower them?

·         From the sex positive feminists: Is pain harm? Always and unequivocally? Can pain itself be desired, desirable (two separate questions)? Likewise, are power dynamics harm? To what extent can we condemn instances of patriarchy in sexual representation without overshadowing those women who engage in sex work? Can we outlaw pornography or prostitution without harming the material conditions of sex workers? Without being coopted by sexual conservatives? Without arming our enemies with another weapon for repressing sexual minorities and deviants from state-sanctioned sexuality?

·         The above issues are made explicit to greater and lesser extents in the sex war polemics. However, our inheritance of these issues is structured not only by their own positions, but the theoretical space between the two: To what extent can power relations be removed from human relationships, sexual or otherwise? Is a perfectly egalitarian inter-personal ethic possible? Desirable? Should we be advocating for enforced egalitarian gender power dynamics, not only at the political but at the social and individual level? Or is it possible to “consent” to power imbalances at the individual level? Should it be possible? Desirable? Legal? Moral? Is there a distinction between rigid power dynamics of domination and fluid and navigable power dynamics of relating? Is a binary notion of consent (be it “yes=yes/no=no” or “yes=no, no=no”) possible in a society which involves both socialization and gendered power that structure situational sexual experience as well as individual agency? Can “consent” in a situation in which non-consent would have adverse consequences meaningfully be considered consent? If power dynamics can be causally (and not only conceptually) separated from their harmful effects, is their reproduction still reprehensible? Can they be separated? Does this separation imply our control and reclaiming of them? Or is this reclaiming inextricably tied to how we view and interact with others? As Barseni seems to suggest, is it possible that sex itself is a problem for ethical human relationships? Is it possible that sex is anti-social? And if so, what then? On the other hand, can sexual acts themselves be transformative of social hierarchies? If values shape sexual experience and its material effects, and vice-versa, what is the proper relationship between our values, sex, and our theoretical and activist goals?

I have been unable to find a navigable conceptual framework that provides a satisfactory answer to all or even most of these questions. Karen Rian makes a powerful argument that we should wield control over our sexual experiences in a way that is self-determined:

"I think the issue of “mutual consent” is utterly beside the point. The pro-sadomasochism argument often justifies lesbian sadomasochism as a matter of mutual consent and therefore, beyond reproach. However…Since our sexuality has been for the most part constructed through social structures over which we have had no control, we all “consent” to sexual desires and activities which are alienating to at least some degree. However, there’s a vast difference between consent and self-determination. The latter includes the former, but in addition entails control over the social structures which shape our lives, including our sexual desires and relationships (Rian, 1982)."

Yet if anything, the above line of questioning illustrates just how little control we have over our beliefs, actions, values, and their effects. We are all inextricably bound by a context that is infinitely beyond our immediate control, and as much as we’d like to transform it, we remain as individuals in a politically marginal movement for sexual liberation, not in a sectarian (pro-sex) sense, but in a shared desire to be rid of the gender (and racial, class, etc.) oppression that characterizes our lived experience and that of others. We all bear differing and unique relationships to these power structures and their oppression. To what extent, then, can something as individual and as intimate as our sex lives be considered transformative or oppressive, liberating or dangerous, self-determined or reproducing the political power that our sex and gender may or may not embody? In what ways can we have sex or think about sex that allows for a hopeful future?

Works Referenced

Basiliere, Jenna. “Political is Personal: Scholarly Manifestations of the Feminist Sex Wars.” Michigan Feminist Studies; Fall 2009; 22; GenderWatch.

Bersani, Leo. “Is the Rectum a Grave?” October, Vol. 43, AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism (Winter, 1987), pp. 197-222.

Davis, Kathy. “Complicit Sex: Or What’s Feminism Got to Do With It?” European Journal of Women’s Studies, 2013 20: 119.

De Lauretis, Teresa. “Feminism and Its Differences.” Pacific Coast Philology, Vol. 25, No. 1/2. (Nov., 1990), pp. 24-30.

Duggan, Lisa, and Nan D. Hunter. Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Dworkin, Andrea. “Pornography: The New Terrorism?” The Body Politic, No. 45, August 1978.

Freccero, Carla. “Updating the Sex ‘Wars’: Political Challenges to Liberationism.” The Communication Review, 11: 212–216, 2008.

Purcell, Natalie. “Feminism and Pornography: Building Sensitive Research and Analytic Approaches.” Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, 15455556, Apr2009, Vol. 12 (Presented on May 8, 2009 at Sexual Ontogeny: A Lifelong Work in Progress, The Western Regional Conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality).

Rubin, Gayle. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Routledge, 1993. pp. 3-44.

Sere, Adriene. “Sex and Feminism: Who Is Being Silenced?” Said It, Vol. 3, No. 3, 2001.

Stoltenberg, John. Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice. London: UCL, 2000.

Accessed through Feminist Reprise Archive (

Bindel, Julie. “Myths about Andrea Dworkin.” From the Andrea Dworkin Commemorative Conference, April 7, 2006.

Card, Claudia. “Consensual Sadomasochism: charting the issues.” From Lesbian Choices (1995, Columbia University Press).

Jeffreys, Sheila. “How Orgasm Politics Has Hijacked the Women’s Movement.”

Raymond, Janice. “A Vision of Lesbian Sexuality.” Published in All The Rage: Reasserting Radical Lesbian Feminism, Lynne Harne & Elaine Miller, Editors (Teachers College Press, New York, 1996), pp. 227-230.

Rian, Karen. “Sadomasochism and the Social Construction of Desire.” (from Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis, edited by Robin Ruth Linden, Darlene R. Pagano, Diana E.H. Russell, and Susan Leigh Star; Frog in the Well Press, 1982)

Star, Susan Leigh. “Sadomasochism: Not About Condemnation. An Interview with Audre Lorde” (As published in A Burst of Light: Essays by Audre Lorde, 1988, Firebrand Books)

[1] Even Duggan identifies the strategic exclusion of Dworkin from later work on anti-pornography legislation, in view of her “overalls and unruly appearance.” Duggan, p. 33

[2] By saying this I do not mean to articulate an elitist privileging of “theory” over activism (as if such a dichotomy were tenable); on the contrary, the urgency of the issues facing both sides made a lack of theoretical dialogue quite understandable. Again, I argue not for condemning or throwing up one’s hands in frustration at the lack of dialogue, but rather understanding what this absence implies.

[3] Vance would go on to make this implication explicit: acknowledging that “sexuality is simultaneously a domain of restriction, repression, and danger as well as a domain of exploration, pleasure, and agency.” (quoted in Basiliere, 2009, p. 6)

[4] The point is not to accept radical feminist conclusions uncritically, but to recognize the importance of taking their ideas seriously, given the far reaching ethical implications of their arguments

Filed under feminism sex wars theory queer theory queer rape culture anti-pornography pornography

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