During the early 1970s, a heightened awareness about incest and sexual abuse developed within radical feminism and eventually produced robust movements to end violence against women and children as well as to end pornography, which radical feminists saw as anti-woman propaganda and a source of sexual violence. This collided with but did not merge with the demands of a growing conservative movement to police sex more rigorously and also incited opposition within the feminist movement as some activists were concerned about a return to state censorship and the intensification of an anti-sex backlash for women.
Debates most salient within the movement were engaged around contentions of pornography, sex work and gender expression of butch/femme roles. Many women within the feminist movement saw pornography as a central dilemma, implemented as a cultural, patriarchal tool supporting male sexual domination over women and asserted that all pornography should be banned or at the very least, heavily regulated. Thus, the anti-pornography feminist movement was formed.
In response to the anti-pornography movement, the “pro-sex” or sex positive movement arose as a reactionary dispute, arguing that regulating porn would lead to greater sexual oppression for women and that women’s sexual liberation was central to women’s liberation as a whole. The result was a polarization between these two movements which became known as the 1980s “Sex Wars” of Feminism. Although both movements have concrete, justification for their arguments, being forced to choose between these two binary, oppositional viewpoints is an overly simplistic, restrictive way of solving the problem.
These issues of pornography and women’s sexuality need to be critiqued on a broader spectrum that acknowledges the social context and situational aspects consequently allowing women to determine their own personal stance within the scope of these polarized perspectives. Beginning with the anti-pornography movement, which constitutes the more conventional side of the binary around sexuality, opinions surrounding the debate stemmed from certain key concepts of lesbian feminism in the late 1970s, such as arguments of male sexuality and patriarchal sexual relations.
Feminist journalist and activist Ellen Willis states in her essay “Feminism, Morality, and Pornography”, that this includes the argument that “patriarchal sexual relations are based on male power backed by force” and since pornography is mainly produced by men and for men, it in turn reveals the dominant male paradigm surrounding sexual relations (Willis, 464). This phallocentric perspective on sex in the porn industry denies any sexual autonomy for women and is therefore unable to accurately represent female sexual desire.
Willis, along with many other anti-porn feminists, would argue that pornographic imagery continually objectifies women as depersonalized bodies or receivers of sex that must passively submit to the sexual demands of men. This objectification is still present today as our media and advertising culture is saturated with pornified depictions of women used to draw audience’s attention.
Furthering this perspective, Robin Morgan, another influential feminist activist and author, created the “montra”of the antipornography movement stating that, “Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice”, directly linking the consumption of pornography to sexual violence against women (Morgan, 128). Seeing as porn to this day is often produced by the beating and raping of women, as a result, male sexual domination is reinforced and sexual violence against women becomes normalized.
Eroticizing violence in such a way is dangerous because of it’s one sided nature that only caters towards male sexual aggression. This not only limits men and women into dominant and subordinate roles, but also contributes to a culture that emphasizes sensation without feeling and relationships without intimacy. Thus, according to anti-porn feminists, sex becomes a disconnected activity between two people, ignoring significant aspects of bonding, communication and forming lasting relationships, which are all factors that contribute healthy human sexuality (Willis, 472).
This led to the formation of the activist group Women against Pornography (WAP) which was established in 1976 and worked towards educating and protesting the harms of the pornography industry. Anti-porn feminist Gail Dines writes, “Anti-pornography slide shows were distributed to local feminist groups and presented in private homes, local community groups, and colleges to help build a grassroots movement of women to organize against the pornography industry” (Dines, 27).
Solidifying the link between pornography and violent crimes against women moves the issue from a personal concern with moral conduct to a legal concern with civil protection whereby pornography would be banned or at least heavily censored. It wasn’t until 1983 when a legal framework was actually developed by radical anti-porn feminist, Andrea Dworkin and feminist lawyer and law professor, Catharine MacKinnon, that the anti-pornography movement faced organized opposition from other feminists.
Dworkin and MacKinnon’s legal solution was called the Anti-pornography Civil Rights Ordinance and would allow women harmed by pornography to seek damages through lawsuits in civil courts. More specifically, the ordinance constructed five causes of action women could pursue: coercion into making pornography; the forcing of pornography on unwilling people; assault resulting from pornography, defamation through pornography; and trafficking in pornography (Dines, 29).
The ordinance was rejected by Federal courts in 1986 due to the freedom of speech protections of the First Amendment. Although Dworkin and Mackinnon supported censorship and sexual surveillance, they did not consider the ways sexual policing disproportionally targets people with less political power; women of color, youth, poor people and sexual minorities were much more vulnerable to such policies. In the US, censorship and morals policing was always a form of class domination that linked moral failures to poor citizenship.
Until second wave feminist activism intervened, social scientists had historically understood incest, indecency and sexual violence as almost exclusively crimes of poor people. In 1982, the sex wars of feminism officially began at the annual Scholar and the Feminist conference at Barnard college. Women against pornography confronted both the college and individual feminists about their failure to disavow pornography and other heterosexual and homosexual sex acts that anti-porn feminists believed to be oppressive and violent towards women (Dines, 33).
While for many feminists the links between pornography, dangerous male sexuality and female oppression were not as direct as anti-porn feminists claimed, at the same time, it is difficult to determine why these concepts would have absolutely nothing to do with each other, particularly since the distribution of commercial porn was often linked to other forms of organized crime such as prostitution and traffic in narcotic drugs.
Anti-pornography feminism also faced serious critique for forming alliances with men and women who were deemed right-wing conservatives; this resulted in sex positive feminists accusing anti-pornography feminists of “getting in bed with the right”. Despite these criticisms, if we are going to regulate porn, civil litigation is the best option, not criminalization or obscenity laws. As MacKinnon and Dworkin infer, if porn producers are threatened with a law suit over bad practices in pornography they will be pressured to do better.
In direct opposition to both anti-pornography feminism as well as millennial long patriarchal and religious groups against women having sex, the sex positive feminist movement was born. Some argue that sex positive feminism has its historical roots in reformers of sexual morality such as Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, both of whom challenged traditional ideals of love, sex and marriage as sexually nonconforming omen, birth control activists and supporters of sex education. The modern sex positive movement came around in the early 1980s and contested anti-porn feminist values with the belief that regulation of porn would just lead to greater sexual oppression for women and instead they insisted that pornography could be reclaimed and used as a tool to educate women about sex as well as grant them opportunity to explore their own sexual interests.
As a result, pro-sex feminists coined the concept of “Feminist Porn”, which involves the inclusion of all gender identities and sexual orientations as well as ethical and consensual working conditions whereby performers were in control of the production of the scene and fairly compensated for their work. They also advocated for women’s right to free love and argued that women’s sexual liberation was central to women’s liberation as a whole.
Since pro-sex feminists claim that the patriarchal nature of our society has negative effects for everyone, they did not accept the demonization that was common among anti-porn feminists and believed any restrictions against sexual expression, including pornography, was wrong. Despite the more liberal approach that sex positive feminism promotes, there are still problems that need to be addressed within the movement.
Feminist scholar, llene Philipson contends that though they have found flaws and problems with the theories of the anti-pornography movement, pro-sex feminists stop discourse by applying theories and ideas that are just as superficial and ahistorical. While “pro-sex” feminists blame the anti-pornography movement of not historicizing patriarchy, Philipson asserts that they are guilty of the same. They portray sexual repression instead of patriarchy as being timeless and relentless meanwhile disregarding the enormous changes in sexuality since the nineteenth century (Philipson, 113).
Philipson also accuses them of “glorifying the sexuality of men and denigrating the sexuality of women” (Philipson, 115). This kind of criticism stems from the belief that sex positive feminism is actually just a disguised version of male privilege, making colorful excuses for the objectification of women and favoring male sexuality over women’s. Due to the fact that both antipornography feminism and sex positive feminism possess problematic ideologies, women have a harder time figuring out where they stand on these issues without any sort of theoretical compromise between these two extreme groups.
According to another feminist philosopher and women’s studies professor Ann Ferguson, sex positive feminism was characterized by the “primacy of pleasure theory” whereby sexuality is an “exchange of physical and genital pleasure”, as opposed to just intimacy and bonding (Ferguson, 109). Essentially, Ferguson is arguing that radical anti-porn feminists focus on emotional intimacy, while libertarian pro-sex feminists focus on physical pleasure.
She goes on to critique each position of the binary, asserting that both sides “express their viewpoints without contextualizing them” (Ferguson, 111). Hence, the polarization of the two movements leaves no room for compromise or middle ground opinion, but instead each side views the other as having nothing in common with themselves. In a perfect world, women shouldn’t be forced to choose between two opposing viewpoints because in doing so, ideals about sexuality become flawed in that various complexities and intersections within diverse sexual identities are ignored.