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The feminist sex wars, also known as the lesbian sex wars, sex wars or porn wars, are terms used to refer to collective debates amongst feminists regarding a number of issues broadly relating to sexuality and sexual activity. Differences of opinion on matters of sexuality deeply polarized the feminist movement, particularly leading feminist thinkers, in the late 1970s and early 1980s and continue to influence debate amongst feminists to this day.[1]

The sides were characterized by anti-porn feminist and sex-positive feminist groups with disagreements regarding sexuality, including pornography, erotica, prostitution, lesbian sexual practices, the role of transgender women in the lesbian community, sadomasochism and other sexual matters. The feminist movement was deeply divided as a result of these debates.[2][3][4][5][6] Many historians view the feminist sex wars as having been the end of the second-wave feminist era (which began c. 1963) as well as the herald of the third wave (which began in the early 1990s).[7]

Two opposing views

Andrea Dworkin
Catherine MacKinnon
Ariel Levy described the Dworkin-MacKinnon Ordinance as "the single most divisive issue" of the feminist sex wars.[8] Dworkin captured the spirit of the anti-pornography side of the debate in her famous utterance: "I'm a radical feminist, not the fun kind."[9]

The two sides became labelled anti-pornography feminists and sex-positive feminists.

Anti-pornography feminists

In 1976, Andrea Dworkin organized demonstrations against the film Snuff in New York, but attempts to start an organization to continue the feminist anti-pornography campaign failed. Efforts were more successful in Los Angeles, where Women Against Violence Against Women was founded in response to Snuff in 1976; they campaigned against the Rolling Stones' 1976 album Black and Blue.[10] The U.S. anti-pornography movement gained ground with the founding of Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM) in 1977 in San Francisco, following a 1976 conference on violence against women held by local women's centers. Early members included Susan Griffin, Kathleen Barry, and Laura Lederer.

WAVPM organised the first national conference on pornography in San Francisco in 1978 which included the first Take Back the Night march.[11] The conference led to anti-pornography feminists organizing in New York in 1979 under the banner of Women Against Pornography (WAP),[12] and to similar organizations and efforts being created across the United States. In 1983, Page Mellish, a one-time member of WAVPM and of WAP, founded Feminists Fighting Pornography to focus on political activism seeking legal changes to limit the porn industry. Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon wanted civil laws restricting pornography and to this end drafted the Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance,[13] also known as the Dworkin–MacKinnon Ordinance.

Sex-positive feminists

The terms pro-sex feminism and, later, sex-positive feminism were inspired by Ellen Willis.[14]

From 1979, feminist journalist Ellen Willis was one of the early voices criticizing anti-pornography feminists for what she saw as sexual puritanism, moral authoritarianism and a threat to free speech. Her 1981 essay, Lust Horizons: Is the Women's Movement Pro-Sex? is the origin of the term, "pro-sex feminism".[14] In response to the anti-pornography strand of feminism, sex-positive feminists promoted sex as an avenue of pleasure for women, seeing anti-pornography positions as aligned to the political right-wing’s war on recreational sex and pornography.[15] Early sex positive groups included Samois, founded in San Francisco in 1978, whose early members included Gayle Rubin and Pat Califia, and the Lesbian Sex Mafia, founded by Dorothy Allison and Jo Arnone in New York in 1981.[16] The Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT) was set up in 1984 by Ellen Willis in response to the Dworkin–MacKinnon Ordinance;[17] in 1989 Feminists Against Censorship formed in the UK, its members including Avedon Carol; and Feminists for Free Expression formed in the United States in 1992 by Marcia Pally, with founding members including Nadine Strossen, Joan Kennedy Taylor, Veronica Vera and Candida Royalle.

Key events

In October 1980, the National Organization for Women identified what became known as the "Big Four" through declaring that "Pederasty, pornography, sadomasochism and public sex" were about "exploitation, violence or invasion of privacy" and not "sexual preference or orientation".[18] One of the more memorable clashes between the pro-sex and anti-porn feminists occurred at the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality.[19] Anti-pornography feminists were excluded from the events’ planning committee, so they staged rallies outside the conference to show their disdain.[20]


The two sides of the feminist sex wars clashed over a number of issues, resulting in intense debates held both in person and in various media.

Pornography debate

Main article: Feminist views on pornography

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. The two recognized sides of the debate were anti-pornography feminism and "pro-sex" feminism.[21] One of the major influences of anti-pornography feminism was its predecessor, lesbian feminism.[citation needed] Anti-pornography movements developed from fundamental arguments displayed by lesbianism, such as the notion of patriarchal sexual relations.[21] Ellen Willis described these relations as being "based on male power backed by force."[22] From this perspective, pornography is created exclusively for men by men and is a direct reflection of the man-dominant paradigm surrounding sexual relations.[19][21] 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.[23]

In her book, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, Andrea Dworkin argued that the theme of pornography is male dominance and as a result it is intrinsically harmful to women and their well-being. Dworkin believed that pornography is not only damaging in its production but also in its consumption, since the viewer will mentally internalize pornography's misogynistic portrayal of women.[21] Robin Morgan summarized the view of anti-pornography feminists that pornography and violence against women are linked in her statement, "pornography is the theory, rape is the practice".[24]

The anti-pornography movement has been criticised by sex-positive feminists as a repression of sexuality and a move towards censorship.[21] In her article, Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality, Gayle Rubin 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.[25] In XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography, Wendy McElroy summarizes the sex-positive perspective as "the benefits pornography provides to women far outweigh any of its disadvantages".[26]

The pornography debate among radical and libertarian feminists has focused on the depictions of female sexuality in relation to male sexuality in this type of media.[27] Radical feminists emphasize that pornography illustrates objectification and normalization of sexual violence through presentation of specific acts.[27] In contrast, libertarian feminists are concerned with the stigmatization of sexual minorities and the limited right to practice sexual choice that would be hindered without pornography.[27]

Sadomasochism debate

Main article: Feminist views on BDSM

The main focus of the sex wars' debate on sadomasochism and other BDSM practices took place in San Francisco. Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM) was founded there in 1977. Its first political action was to picket a live show at a strip club featuring women performing sadomasochistic acts on each other, in line with its stated aim to end all portrayals of women being "bound, raped, tortured, killed or degraded for sexual stimulation or pleasure".[28] As well as campaigning against pornography, WAVPM were also strongly opposed to BDSM, seeing it as ritualized violence against women and opposed its practice within the lesbian community.[29] In 1978 Samois was formed, an organization for women in the BDSM community who saw their sexual practices as consistent with feminist principles.[30] Several black lesbian feminists have written on this topic, including Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Darlene Pagano, Karen Sims, and Rose Mason, condemning sadomasochism as an often racist practice, insensitive to the black female experience.[31][32]

Prostitution debate

See also: Feminist views on prostitution

Another debate of the feminist sex wars centered on prostitution. The women in the anti-pornography camp argued against prostitution, claiming it is forced on women who have no alternatives.[neutrality is disputed] Meanwhile, sex-positive feminists argued that this position ignored the agency of women who chose sex work, viewing prostitution as not inherently based on the exploitation of women. Carol Leigh notes that "The Prostitutes rights movement of the early 1970s evolved directly from the women's movement", but adds: "The women's movement in the U.S. has always been ambivalent about prostitutes".[33]


This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (June 2014)

The polarization of feminist ideology during the sex wars has had wide-ranging effects. Examples include, according to Liu (2011), "The confusion in the interpretation of the definition of human trafficking is a consequence of opposing feminist views on prostitution."[34]

According to New Directions in Sex Therapy, the fields of sexology and sex therapy were made to keep a "low profile" during the 1970s and 1980s due to attacks from social conservatives and anti-pornography feminists.[35]

Third-wave feminists' views

Third-wave feminist writings promote personal, individualized views on the gender-related issues focused on during the feminist sex wars, such as prostitution, pornography and sadomasochism. Items such as sex objects and porn, identified by some second-wave feminists as instruments of oppression are now no longer being exclusively used by men but also by women.[36] Feminist critic Teresa de Lauretis sees the sex wars not in terms of polarized sides but as reflecting a third wave feminism inherently embodying difference, which may include conflicting and competing drives.[37][38] Meanwhile, critic Jana Sawicki rejects both the polarized positions, seeking a third way that is neither morally dogmatic nor uncritically libertarian.[37]

Sheila Rowbotham and the other socialist feminists who dominated the British women's movement saw women's liberation as inextricably linked to the demolition of capitalism. But it also required—and this is where they diverged from the Old Guard—a reconsideration of common patterns of life, such as sex, love, housework, and childrearing.[39]

See also


  1. ^ Atmore, Chris (2002). Sexual Abuse and Troubled Feminism in Snakes and Ladders: Reviewing feminists at the centuries end. Routeledge. p. 92. ISBN 978-0415197991.
  2. ^ Duggan, Lisa; Hunter, Nan D. (1995). Sex wars: sexual dissent and political culture. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-91036-1.
  3. ^ Hansen, Karen Tranberg; Philipson, Ilene J. (1990). Women, class, and the feminist imagination: a socialist-feminist reader. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 978-0-87722-630-7.
  4. ^ Gerhard, Jane F. (2001). Desiring revolution: second-wave feminism and the rewriting of American sexual thought, 1920 to 1982. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0-231-11204-8.
  5. ^ Leidholdt, Dorchen; Raymond, Janice G (1990). The Sexual liberals and the attack on feminism. New York: Pergamon Press. ISBN 978-0-08-037457-4.
  6. ^ Vance, Carole S (1989). Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Thorsons Publishers. ISBN 978-0-04-440593-1.
  7. ^ As noted in:
  8. ^ Ariel Levy (writer)Levy, Ariel. "The Prisoner of Sex". New York Magazine. Page 4. Retrieved December 24, 2017.
  9. ^ "Dworkin on Dworkin," an interview originally published in Off Our Backs, reprinted in Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed Ed. by Renate Klein and Diane Bell.
  10. ^ Bronstein, Carolyn (2011). Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement 1976-1986. Cambridge University Press. pp. 88–97. ISBN 978-0521879927.
  11. ^ Currens, Elizabeth Gail (2007). Performing Gender, Enacting Community. p. 50. ISBN 978-0549268703.[permanent dead link]
  12. ^ McBride, Andrew. "The Sex Wars, 1970s to 1980s". Archived from the original on 2012-06-24. Retrieved 2011-12-06.
  13. ^ Demaske, Chris (2011). Modern Power and Free Speech: Contemporary culture and issues of equality. Lexington Books. p. 140. ISBN 978-0739127841.
  14. ^ a b Ellen Willis, Lust Horizons: The 'Voice' and the women's movement Archived 2015-05-18 at the Wayback Machine, Village Voice 50th Anniversary Issue, 2007. This is not the original "Lust Horizons" essay, but a retrospective essay mentioning that essay as the origin of the term. Accessed online 7 July 2007. A lightly revised version of the original "Lust Horizons" essay can be found in No More Nice Girls, pp. 3–14.
  15. ^ Johnson, Meri Lisa (2007). Third Wave Feminism and Television. I.B. Taurus. p. 70. ISBN 978-1845112462.
  16. ^ "About us". Lesbian Sex Mafia. Retrieved 4 November 2015.
  17. ^ Boffin, Tina (1996). Stolen Glances in Lesbian Subjects: A Feminist Studies Reader. Indiana University Press. p. 121. ISBN 978-0253330604.
  18. ^ "Promiscuous Affections: A Life in the Bar". Retrieved 1 February 2013.
  19. ^ a b Douglas, Carol Anne (July 1990). "Realignment in Feminist Sexual Politics". Love and Politics : Radical Feminist and Lesbian Theories. San Francisco, CA, USA: ISM PRESS. p. 186-7. ISBN 9780910383172.
  20. ^ McBride, Andrew. "Lesbian History". Archived from the original on 2012-07-19. Retrieved 2008-03-24.
  21. ^ a b c d e McBridge, Andrew. "Lesbian History: The Sex Wars". University of Michigan. Archived from the original on 19 July 2012. Retrieved 6 December 2011.
  22. ^ Willis, Ellen (1983). In Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. New York City: Monthly Review. pp. 460–467.
  23. ^ Ferguson, Anne (1984). Signs. pp. 106–112.
  24. ^ Cavalier, Robert. "Feminism and Pornography". CMU Philosophy Department Web Server. Retrieved 6 December 2011.
  25. ^ Rubin, Gayle (1998). Social Perspectives in Lesbian and Gay Studies. New York City: Routledge. pp. 100–133.
  26. ^ McElroy, Wendy (1997). XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography. St Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0312152451.
  27. ^ a b c Ferguson, A. 1984. "Sex War: The Debate between Radical and Libertarian Feminists." Chicago Journals. 10 (1): 106–112.
  28. ^ Bronstein, Carolyn (2011). Battling Pornography: The American Feminist Anti-Pornography Movement 1976-1986. Cambridge University Press. p. 139. ISBN 978-0521879927.
  29. ^ Bronstein, Carolyn (2011). Battling Pornography: the American Feminist Anti Pornography Movement 1976-1986. Cambridge University Press. p. 287. ISBN 978-1139498715.
  30. ^ Rubin, Gayle S. (2011). Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader. Duke University Press. p. 210. ISBN 978-0822349860.
  31. ^ Ruby., Rich, B. (1998). Chick flicks : theories and memories of the feminist film movement. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0822321064. OCLC 38535937.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  32. ^ Rich, B. Ruby; Samois; Linden, Robin Ruth; Pagano, Darlene R.; Russell, Diana E. H.; Star, Susan Leigh; Snitow, Ann; Stansell, Christine; Thompson, Sharon (1986). "Feminism and Sexuality in the 1980s". Feminist Studies. 12 (3): 525. doi:10.2307/3177911. ISSN 0046-3663. JSTOR 3177911.
  33. ^ Leigh, Carol (July 2008). "On the frontline of sex wars". On The Issues Magazine. Merle Hoffman. Retrieved 1 February 2013.
  34. ^ Liu, Min (2011). "Human trafficking and feminist debates: Feminist debates on human trafficking". In Liu, Min (ed.). Migration, prostitution, and human trafficking the voice of Chinese women. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. pp. 37–39. ISBN 978-1-4128-4554-0. Preview.
  35. ^ New directions in sex therapy : innovations and alternatives. OCLC. 2001. ISBN 9780876309674. OCLC 804013010.
  36. ^ Crawford, Bridget J. (Mar 1, 2010). "The third wave's break from feminism". International Journal of Law in Context. 6 (1): 100. doi:10.1017/S1744552309990346. S2CID 55396191.
  37. ^ a b Code, Lorraine (2003). Encyclopaedia of Feminist Theories. Rroutledge. p. 445. ISBN 978-0415308854.
  38. ^ de Lauretis, Teresa (Nov 1990). "Feminism and Its Differences" (PDF). Pacific Coast Philology. 25 (1/2): 22–30. Retrieved 7 February 2013.
  39. ^ Srinivasan, Amia (2021-09-06). "Who Lost the Sex Wars?". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2024-03-20.