Feminist Sex Wars

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Editor: Jodi O'Brien
Date: 2009
Encyclopedia of Gender and Society
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Feminist Sex Wars

Sexuality has always been one of the central issues of feminist activism and scholarship. In the 1980s, fierce debates about the representation of sexuality, and pornography in particular, overshadowed other sexuality-related topics. These conflicts are often referred to as the feminist sex wars, the center of which was located in the United States. Feminist voices against pornography are still heard today, most recently in Europe, although with diminished intensity. Pornography remains one of the most hotly debated issues within feminism, one that attracts highly polarized reactions.

Certain aspects of the anti-pornography feminist stance stemmed from the cultural feminism of the 1970s. This stream of feminism praises women's culture, characteristics, and values such as women's bonding, empathy, and care. Conversely, anything connected to the “male principle” is rejected and denied. Sexuality was framed as essentially male and therefore profoundly bad. Within this discourse, male sexuality is singled out as a main source of patriarchy, for example, by Robin Morgan. During the 1970s, sexuality became a forefront feminist issue, although it was reframed in terms of oppression rather than liberation, as had been typical of the 1960s.

These tendencies within feminismcongealed into the anti-pornography wing of the movement, where pornography was identified as the primary source of patriarchal domination over women. The main arguments against pornography are that it causes violence against women, constructs woman as a person with subordinate social status, silences women, and thus, constitutes discrimination against women. Based on this reasoning, part of the feminist movement strived for anti-porn legislation.

Modeled on Morgan's famous phrase “pornography is the theory, rape is the practice,” anti-porn feminists argue that pornography causes violence against women. Thus, all women are victims of porn, which in this view equals violence, and all men are pictured as filled with pornographic desire for violence because, inevitably, men are brutal by nature, as Susan Griffin notes. According to Laura Lederer, porn was emphasized as not about sex but, rather, about violence and subjugation. Authors such as Diana Russell presented arguments stressing the causal link between pornography and violence. Neil Malamuth and Edward Donnerstein state that such assertions are based mostly on the findings of behavioral psychology. Other feminists criticized the mechanistic assumptions behind these claims. These authors highlighted the reductive character of positivist research design, arguing that it simplifies our understanding of the dynamics of pornography's production and consumption. Despite these contestations, the argument connecting porn with violence is still commonly used by feminists today. In these accounts, violence and sex have become inseparably locked together.

According to Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, two leading figures in the feminist anti-porn battle, woman is defined by the objectives of men's desire, whereas pornography is the site of men's power over women. MacKinnon perceives sexuality as a realm of dominance and control, making it a central mechanism for producing gender inequality. In her account, the essence of sexuality is quintessentially revealed in pornography: hierarchy, power, violence. To be a woman in a world governed by porn means pain, degradation, and humiliation. In short, to be a woman means to be oppressed like one. Forming a circular argument, pornography is both cause and expression of the oppression of women. This conception of woman is contrary to the cultural feminist version, which places woman and everything feminine on a pedestal. However, anti-pornography feminism shares with its cultural-feminist predecessor a rejection of sexuality as negative. For the former, sexuality is the core mechanism of dominance of men over women, and for the latter, sexuality falls within an oppressive male principle.

Many feminists opposed such a simplification of both sexuality and femininity. Carol Vance pointed out the twofold character of sexuality as both a realm of restriction and danger as well as a realm of agency and pleasure for women. Ann Snitow and colleagues Page 317  |  Top of Articlecriticized the highly contentious appeals to morality, coupling femininity once again with endangered purity and positing women as “both culture's victims and its moral guardians,” and thus reinforcing rather than subverting the conventional gender binary. These writers explored the complex political nature of the intersection of sexuality with race, class, and ethnicity, in both theoretical and activist modes.

Sexuality and gender are interconnected in multiple ways. MacKinnon, however, simply states that gender is sexual and that the meaning of this sexuality is constituted by pornography. In her account, gender is conflated with sexuality to the point of analytical obliteration. This underscores sexuality as a criterion fully constituting gender, and gender then fully constitutes a person and her status. Using this double step, MacKinnon reduces other status-founding and identificatory criteria into in significance. Woman thus becomes a universal and ahistorical category. In this manner, the anti-pornography approach produces a feminist theory of gender that shows residual essentialism.

The anti-porn reduction of sexuality to the power of men over women is based on a heterosexualization of all sexuality. MacKinnon believes that sexual hierarchy produces gender as a stable category. If the paradigmatic metaphor for the production of gender is pornography, and gender comes out of pornography as a rigid binary, it becomes clear that sexuality in this account equals heterosexuality. MacKinnon strives to analyze a society that is profoundly structured by masculine domination and gets trapped in it herself when she articulates social relations exactly in terms of the dominant perspective, according to which men define women as sexual beings. Ironically, MacKinnon's theory effectively reproduces the dominant discourse. Where other feminists such as Judith Butler cogently theorized gender as a normative institution regulating sexuality (especially sexuality challenging the normative borders of gender) and questioned the supposed coherence of sex, gender, and desire, MacKinnon presented a snapshot of gender causally given by (hetero) sexuality, thus congruous with it, and therefore fundamentally unchangeable.

Typical of both cultural and anti-pornography feminism is their binary conception of gender. Conversely, a major dividing line is their valuation of womanhood. Although cultural feminism mostly glorifies women, there is no positive appraisal of women in anti-porn feminism. In the anti-pornography narrative, women are cast only in one role—the role of victims. Whereas MacKinnon grounds femininity in pornographic oppression, Wendy Brown attacks this definition because it grounds political subjectivity in the status of injury. Thus, a political identity rooted in victimhood must be maintained for the sake of the subject's existence.

Anti-pornography feminists claim that pornography inevitably and without exception silences women. Pornography is, according to Griffin, full of images of women gagged, women silenced; women are not expressing themselves but words are being put into their mouths. Dworkin targeted pornography as a crucial avenue for the male power of naming; she describes a system in which agency lies in the hands of men while women are left silent. This silencing and harm constitute discrimination against women, and therefore its cause, pornography, should be legally treated as such, according to MacKinnon. Anti-porn feminists such as MacKinnon and Dworkin rallied for legal action with the ultimate aim of redefining pornography as the degradation and dehumanization of women. Other feminists opposed such efforts, pointing to their censoring nature and claiming that in the end it is censorship, not pornography, that hurts women. Nadine Strossen notes that the harm done to women is corollary to the suppression of sexual expression that has traditionally been denied women. Anti-censorship feminism's claims ultimately proved their point. After a Canadian court decision against pornography, praised by MacKinnon as a victory for women, criminal charges were brought against a Toronto-based gay and lesbian bookstore for selling a lesbian erotic magazine. As Brenda Cossman describes, the magazine was outlawed according to the new legal interpretation, and with it, the social existence of sexual others.

The argument that pornography silences women can be disclaimed on two levels. On the first, anti-porn feminists' action, organizing, lobbying for new legislation, in other words, speaking, contradict their own argument that silencing is the only and inescapable result of pornography. On the second level, the legal restriction of pornography proposed by feminists proved, ironically, to actually silence women, particularly those who challenged the expected sex-gender-desire coherence. By accenting the legal way, the state's scrutiny over alternative sexualities and marginalized identities was strengthened.

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The feminist sex wars thus often resulted in reduction to dichotomies: sexuality was placed in the categories of pleasure versus danger, victimization versus liberation—all of which reduced power to a negative and divided the feminist movement into two opposing camps. More nuanced critiques of representations of sexuality, however, gave rise to a refinement of conceptualizations of gender and sexuality along with a rethinking of feminist agency and empowerment.

Katerina Liskova

Further Readings

Brown, W. (1995). States of injury: Power and freedom in late modernity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble. New York: Routledge. Cossman, B. (1997). Bad attitude(s) on trial: Pornography, feminism, and the Butler decision. Toronto, ON, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Dworkin, A. (1989). Pornography: Men possessing women. New York: Dutton.

Griffin, S. (1981). Pornography and silence: Culture's revenge against nature. New York: Harper & Row.

Lederer, L. (Ed.). (1980). Take back the night: Women on pornography. New York: William Morrow.

MacKinnon, C. A., & Dworkin, A. (Eds.). (1997). In harm's way: The pornography civil rights hearings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Malamuth, N. M., & Donnerstein, E. (Eds.). (1984). Pornography and sexual aggression. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Morgan, R. (1978). Going too far. New York: Vintage Books.

Russell, D. E. H. (1980). Pornography and violence: What does the new research say. In L. Lederer (Ed.), Take back the night: Women on pornography (pp. 218–238). New York: William Morrow.

Russell, D. E. H. (Ed.). (1993). Making violence sexy: Feminist views on pornography. New York: Teachers College Press.

Snitow, A., Stansell, C., & Thompson, S. (Eds.). (1983). Powers of desire: The politics of sexuality. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Strossen, N. (1995). Defending pornography: Free speech, sex, and the fight for women's rights. New York: Scribner's.

Vance, C. (Ed.). (1984). Pleasure and danger. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3073900170