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The Feminist Sex Wars, also known as the Lesbian Sex Wars, or simply the Sex Wars or Porn Wars, were acrimonious debates amongst feminists regarding a number of issues broadly relating to sex. The debates, which Lisa Duggan said felt like war, polarised into two sides during the late 1970s and early 1980s and the aftermath of this polarisation of feminist views during the sex wars continues to this day. The sides were characterized by anti-porn feminist and sex-positive feminist groups with disagreements regarding sexuality, pornography and other forms of sexual representation, prostitution, the role of trans women in the lesbian community, lesbian sexual practices, sadomasochism and other sexual issues. The feminist movement was deeply divided as a result of these debates.
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. The U.S. anti-pornography movement gained ground with the founding of Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media 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. The conference led to anti-pornography feminists organizing in New York in 1979 under the banner of Women Against Pornography, 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.
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". The response to the anti-pornography strand of feminism by the sex-positive feminists was one that 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. 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 others in New York in 1981. The Feminists Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT) was set up in 1984 by Ellen Willis in response to the Dworkin-MacKinnon Ordinance, in 1989 Feminists Against Censorship, formed in the UK, its members including Avedon Carol and Feminists for Free Expression formed in the USA in 1992 with founding members including Veronica Vera and Candida Royalle.
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". One of the more memorable clashes between the pro-sex and anti-porn feminists occurred at the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality. Anti-pornography feminists were excluded from the events’ planning committee, so they staged rallies outside the conference to show their disdain.
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.
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. One of the major influences of anti-pornography feminism was its predecessor, lesbian feminism. Anti-pornography movements developed from fundamental arguments displayed by lesbianism, such as the notion of patriarchal sexual relations. Ellen Willis described these relations as being “based on male power backed by force.” From this perspective, pornography is created exclusively for men by men and is a direct reflection of the man-dominant paradigm surrounding sexual relations. 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.
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. 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".
The anti-pornography movement has been criticised by sex-positive feminists as a repression of sexuality and a move towards censorship. 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. 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".
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. Radical feminists emphasize that pornography illustrates objectification and normalization of sexual violence through presentation of specific acts. 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.
The main locus of the sex wars' debate on sadomasochism and other BDSM practices was San Francisco. Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media 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". 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. In 1978 SAMOIS was formed, an organization for women in the BDSM community who saw their sexual practices as consistent with feminist principles.
Another debate of the feminist sex wars centered on prostitution. The women in the radical feminist (or anti-pornography) camp argued against prostitution, claiming it is forced on women who have no other alternatives. Meanwhile, sex-positive feminists argued that this position ignored the self-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 1970's evolved directly from the women's movement", but adds: "The women's movement in the U.S. has always been ambivalent about prostitutes". The polarized views of feminists on prostitution have affected their positions on the related issue of human trafficking, which is frequently for the purpose of sexual exploitation, with anti-prostitution feminists taking up the position of abolitionists and sex-positive feminists that of regulationists.
Anti-prostitution feminists identify prostitution as harmful to those who are directly involved in it: it spreads sexually transmitted diseases and threatens health and it involves violence towards prostitutes either by pimps or clients. According to a 2003 study: “violence is the norm for women in prostitution”. These feminists also argue that women as a group are oppressed and harmed by prostitution even when they are not directly involved in it. Objectifying women through prostitution sends the message that men can buy a woman’s body. Scott Anderson explains, “prostitution plays a key role in sustaining the social inequality of women. It does so by defining women in general as sexual objects, available to any man who desires them”. Similarly, prostitution legitimizes men’s demand for sex through the presence of coercion and rape of prostituted women. The nature of prostitution gives men power and control in the sexual ‘relationship’. Some anti-prostitution feminists argue further that prostitution is an issue that must be contextualized within a patriarchal and capitalist society. Although reasons for becoming a prostituted female are complex, many women are motivated by economic necessity. One woman pointed out that “hooking is the only job for which women as a group are paid more than men”, but despite this, most of the money prostitutes make is used and controlled by pimps. Women who are struggling with poverty may turn to prostitution as a way to provide for themselves or their families, a last resort when they have few other opportunities. The social context of patriarchy gives women fewer opportunities and leaves them more likely to be in a position of economic need; given these circumstances they ‘choose’ to participate in prostitution because it is one of the seemingly few options available.
The sex-positive perspective sees prostitutes as active agents in their lives and work and embraces more open views of sexuality and pleasure. It argues that women have power within the sexual experience of prostitution because they control the services and fees. They are seen as sexually liberated and may enjoy their work. Although there is not an easy way to quantify how much control and enjoyment any prostitute has over her work, sex-positive feminists also emphasize that, from a humanist perspective, individuals should have the right to choose their work, including the choice of prostitution. They argue that sex work is not inherently exploitative or degrading and that there is much variation in the situation of sex workers. Most sex-positive feminists do recognize that women working as prostitutes face difficult realities of violence and possible criminal implications. This group often supports sex worker rights projects and the decriminalization of prostitution, which would allow prostitutes to organize and give them greater protection of health and safety. Decriminalization would allow sex work to be regulated, giving women more protection.
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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."
Third-wave writings promote personal, individualized views on the gender-related issues focused on during the feminist sex wars, such as prostitution, pornography and sadomasochism. In particular, the third-wave view of pornography is that there is no greater meaning other than which the actor or consumer gives it. 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. 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. Meanwhile, critic Jana Sawicki rejects both the polarised positions, seeking a third way that is neither morally dogmatic or uncritically libertarian.