A History of the 1980s Sex Wars You Don't Know
Political scientist Lorna N. Bracewell has identified at least four sides in the 1980s conflict over pornography that tore radical feminism apart. The most influential? Liberals.
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If you haven’t guessed by now (due to the total absence of queer content on this platform in June), I am ambivalent about Pride Month. This is partly because devoting 30 days to celebrating myself is exhausting, partly because no one over the age of ten looks good in rainbow-themed gear, and partly because Pride is now mostly about corporations selling stuff.
As importantly, the celebration of LGBT pride has nothing to do with sexual liberation as it exploded into public view in June 1969, and as I understood it for most of my youth. When I interviewed Lorna N. Bracewell, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Flagler College, about her new book, Why We Lost the Sex Wars: Sexual Freedom in the #MeToo Era (Minnesota, 2021), we talked about how radical feminists also dreamed of sexual liberation in the 1970s. But their dream died by the mid-1980s in the famous “sex wars” over pornography.
This is why.
Claire Potter: There has been so much written about the sex wars of the 1980s when radical feminists split over the politics of pornography and power exchange sexuality. Some veterans of that struggle believe that the conflict was so damaging that it was a breaking point for second-wave feminism, clearing the way for a third-wave in the 1990s.
Why did you revisit this history?
Lorna Bracewell: I came into graduate school interested in the sex wars: I had been exposed to them as an undergraduate student, and I was interested in the questions they raised about feminist political thought.
They also dovetailed with my interest in the Cambridge School approach to the history of political thought. It's a methodological approach to intellectual history that emphasizes textual context, broadly conceived, and attempts to arrive at something like the author's original intention.
I wanted to apply those methods to a moment in history and a set of texts and thinkers that Cambridge School scholars would never, in a million years, have considered—late 20th century feminists.
CP: You created a new perspective on a conflict usually seen as occurring between two groups of mostly white radical feminists by recognizing other groups in the mix: women of color and liberals, who are hardly ever seen as significant players in this drama.
LB: Yes. Like a dutiful student of the Cambridge School approach would, I read as broadly as I could, and I noticed many feminist and non-feminist liberals and many women of color engaged in the debates over pornography. For example, liberals were arguing with Andrea Dworkin at conferences, and sex radical Patrick Califia responded to liberals in his writings for The Advocate.
Expanding my focus to other groups who were actually participating in these debates created an important alternative to what I call the “catfight narrative” of the sex wars. I use the phrase “catfight” to describe a sororicidal struggle between sex radicals and anti-pornography feminists that puts nearly everyone else on the sidelines. But I think that if you were to sit down with the activists on both sides of the pornography struggle, they would all agree that they were critically engaging liberals as much as each other.
CP: Lionel Trilling writes a great essay in the late 1960s that captures the liberal position on erotic materials. The Supreme Court was on its way to making obscenity prosecutions nearly impossible, and Trilling supported that. But he also said that men should be embarrassed to use pornography, and they should have to sneak off to dirty little sex shops if they want it.
LB: Yes, there's a deep ambivalence about sex at the heart of liberal pornography politics. The attorneys who defend the nastier publications like Hustler and Screw in the 1970s are great champions of free speech. Still, part of their argument is that if pornography circulates as freely as possible, people will lose interest in it. They think that censorship only enhances the appeal and the allure of porn.
In other words, their anti-censorship position actually is an anti-pornography position. Then there’s another aspect of liberal sexual politics: the idea that sex is apolitical, private, and personal. Like religion, they argue, it's a totally self-directed action, and the state, therefore, had no legitimate purpose in policing it.
Anti-pornography feminists contested that idea because they saw pornography as having a broad and harmful social impact. In contrast, sex radical feminists believed that porn—and sex in general--was not apolitical, should not be justified by pushing it out of view, and that sexual freedom required a public sex practice.
CP: To make things more complicated, feminists like Susan Brownmiller, Florence Rush, Audre Lorde, and for a time, Adrienne Rich, are also suspicious of the liberal stance that the private sphere, the home, was a space where women could be autonomous from men. The privacy of the home was a critical element of patriarchal power, they argued, and a place where women and girls are raped and physically abused.
LB: Right. They debunk the liberal doctrine of the private sphere because it’s a place where law and justice have not reached.
CP: You actually see that coming out in the 1983 testimony in Minneapolis supporting Dworkin and MacKinnon’s model ordinance. For those who don’t know it, the ordinance permitted people harmed by pornography to file civil rights suits against anyone implicated in the use of pornography to harm men or women.
Sex radicals formed the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force (FACT) and organized to defeat the ordinance in court after it was passed and signed into law in Indianapolis in 1984. But if you read the public testimony, woman after woman describes their sexual abuse as having occurred in the home, with a father or uncle or family friend showing them pornography so they will know what to do.
I’ve never been convinced that other radical feminists should have dismissed such testimony as insignificant or as staged performances. But let’s return to feminist sex radicals: they make a parallel claim that sex should not be confined to the home, but their argument has different implications.
LB: Right. In 1984, when sex radicals formed FACT, they aligned with the liberal anti-censorship agenda, but it was strategic. Sex radicals viewed the liberal anti-censorship crusades of the 1950s and the 1960s as wholly inadequate and insufficient because these defenses articulated pornography and sex as private activities. They argued that to actualize an erotic self fully, people needed a public, communal, social, and political context for sex. Influenced by gay liberation, they believe that sex is a deeply political and public act. But they knew that argument wouldn’t work in court—and a liberal anti-censorship argument would.
CP: And that is, in part, where the history of the sex wars that foregrounds a catfight narrative suppresses a more complex and more accurate history of the sex wars.
LB: Yes. The catfight narrative promotes the idea that back in the benighted 1980s, there were bad conservative feminists who were uptight, no fun, puritanical, and anti-sex. Fortunately, along came sex-positive, fun feminists. They saved us from a world without porn, and because of them, we now live in a sexually enlightened, sexually liberated, and better off world.
CP: Which is horse puckey, not to mention bad history. But you say it better in the book. Go on.
LB: First of all, in the book, I show that turning history into a morality play is unhelpful, inaccurate, and politically stultifying. Second, I'm not sure that we do live in a sexually enlightened, sexually liberated age. I'm not sure that the fight for sexual freedom has been won or that the questions that surfaced in the sex wars have been resolved. So the catfight narrative prevents us from pursuing useful avenues of inquiry.
The catfight narrative also encourages complacency amongst feminists and a Whiggish attitude toward feminist history, as if our present was somehow foreordained and not chosen. In the earliest phases of the sex wars, the question that feminists were trying to open up was not, “How do we ban or save porn,” but: "What is sexual freedom, and how do we achieve it?"
CP: If MacKinnon were here, she might say, "There was no sexual revolution for women, and when feminists point to pornography as part of a sexual revolution, they're wrong because pornography is for men." That's one of the places where things got really muddy. Saying that pornography was for men did not explain why numerous feminists were interested in protecting erotica and pornography for themselves.
At the 1982 Barnard Conference, when feminists had been demonstrating against pornography for a decade, everything goes all to hell over this question.
LB: The Barnard Conference was organized by sex radical feminists, and the catfight narrative originates there. Carole Vance and the organizers were in earnest when they wrote in the concept paper that what they wanted was a thoughtful, reflective discussion about sexuality and what feminism's relationship to it should be.
Unfortunately, that conversation was no longer possible because the issue had already become so polarized. Anti-pornography feminists, who had become very visible and effective by 1979, demonstrated outside the gates of Barnard Hall on the day of the conference. There were allegations of a shadow ban on anti-pornography feminist participation, which perhaps there was, which also made dialogue difficult. However, anti-pornography feminists were also not interested in open reflection: they had an analysis and created a national social movement around it.
The attacks on the conference were successful. They led Barnard to withdraw the program and reprint it without the college's name on it. But in the book, I argue that there was a whole history of feminist engagement with these questions before and after Barnard and that the struggle wasn’t confined to the white feminists who were overrepresented at the conference. A two-sided, sororicidal drama hides the skepticism women of color had about policing, as well as the risks attached to sexual abuse. The catfight narrative also conceals the role that liberalism played as the struggle launched at Barnard continued through the 1984 Minneapolis ordinance and after.
CP: So this gets us back to 1984: although the model ordinance is defeated in court on liberal grounds, surprisingly, some liberal legal theorists began to shift decisively towards an anti-pornography position by the late 1980s.
LB: Yes, they did. As pornography became more contentious by the 1990s, and the anti-pornography forces are more or less defeated, you then see big-name liberals-- Cass Sunstein, Martha Nussbaum, Elena Kagan--becoming more sympathetic to them. They absorb some feminist anti-pornography arguments and amend liberal political theory and philosophy to accommodate these concerns. But they do not adopt the movement’s more radical claims.
CP: Because they can’t, they still recognize the law as neutral rather than patriarchal.
LB: But with sex radical feminism, there's a different and more strategic dynamic at play. They are very critical of liberal sexual politics. But to defeat anti-pornography feminists in court—specifically the model civil ordinance authored by MacKinnon and Dworkin, which was floated in numerous cities in various forms--they must appropriate liberal arguments.
CP: Nan Hunter, a FACT member, worked for the ACLU and worked on the case.
LB: And Nan Hunter and Sylvia Law wrote an essay in the collection Sex Wars (1996) in which they actually said in a wink, wink spirit that they appropriated liberal arguments as a strategy. But many other liberals and civil libertarians, like Nadine Strossen, were very much in earnest that anti-censorship was at the heart of the case.
CP: This, in turn, makes the argument that antipornography feminists are not for civil liberties but against them plausible. Pass the ordinance, and censors will suppress everything erotic they can get their hands on! So what’s the downside?
LB: That this move, by liberals and activists, blunts the edge of sex radical feminism, transforming it into a hybrid anti-censorship position that mutes their radical claims about the centrality of public sex to sexual freedom. Unfortunately, a lot of people who have written this history missed that shift. They mistook the minimal anti-censorship sexual politics of Hudnut, the 1985 circuit court decision that makes the model ordinance impossible to enforce, for a sex radical feminist position, which it wasn’t.
And that error causes us to miss a lot of the political potential for that initial, more radical stance that promoted absolute sexual freedom, in public and private. As an aside, this is also why liberalism is so infuriating to me: it's protean, it shifts, it assimilates, it incorporates and adapts in a way that makes it really, really intractable.
CP: The title of this book is Why We Lost the Sex Wars. Who are “we,” and how did we lose?
LB: It’s a hat tip to one of my favorite books, Jane Mansbridge's Why We Lost the ERA (1986). The "we" are all feminists, and I do mean all of us, not just one side.
We lost the possibility of a feminist sexual politics that is not oriented around a whole host of liberal preoccupations with privacy, with expression, with individual rights, with civil liberties, with due process, but a feminist movement oriented around more radical questions and concerns about sexuality. Ultimately, every radical idea on both sides is snuffed out by these liberal appropriations, and what we’ve been left with is a dispiriting, narrow, limited, and troublingly carceral feminist sexual politics.
CP: We also have a burgeoning corporate pornography industry profitable beyond the wildest dreams of any 1970s smut peddler. There's a brief window when we have a viable feminist pornography industry. But that window seems to have closed, and a broad-based American feminist movement focused on the structural oppression of sex workers has never materialized.
To their credit, anti-pornography feminists took that oppression seriously. Part of what they coalesced around is Linda Boreman, a.k.a. “Linda Lovelace,” the star of Deep Throat (1972), who revealed in 1977 that she was raped, beaten, and robbed by the men who profited from her, which was, and is probably a more common story about the gender politics of the pornography industry than either liberals or sex radicals want to admit.
LB: And this is also why people get it wrong when they dismiss the anti-pornography ordinance that Dworkin and MacKinnon proposed as only censorious and in conflict with free speech. Anti-pornography liberals who defended the ordinance pointed out that some of the causes of action that it would have created would have not limited expression. Instead, they would have responded to how Boreman, and others, were treated on and off the set.
CP: I want to end by asking you about #MeToo. How would a moment when we again recognize that sexual violence is endemic be different if we hadn't lost the sex wars?
LB: #MeToo was one of the things that motivated me to write the book that I did. That a lot of conservatives were very critical of #MeToo didn't surprise me. But what did surprise me were the progressive critics of #MeToo. I'm thinking of Margaret Atwood, an open letter that Catherine Deneuve signed, and a whole host of other left-leaning feminists who shared conservative concerns that #MeToo was a new Puritanism, that it rode roughshod over due process rights, and that it was a threat to the cherished legal principle of presumed innocence.
These are the liberal positions that the sex wars solidified. But radical feminists would have seen #MeToo as a challenge to institutional power, one that liberalism is incapable of perceiving because it was designed not to perceive it but to protect it by enshrouding sex in the private domain of the individual. If we hadn't lost the sex wars and if radical feminist positions had not been occluded by liberalism, there would have been a more nuanced and sophisticated way to understand efforts by the disempowered to contest the structures that dominate them.
CP: For example, patriarchy: and this is what leads many modern feminists to seek remedies in the law, right? Or take matters into their own hands to force employers to punish men?
LB: I have a lot to say about carceral feminism, a form of feminism oriented around punishment. First, it frames the criminal justice system as a potential tool or agent of feminist liberation, which it is not. Had the sex wars played out differently, had they not been absorbed by liberalism, we would have a feminism that is more attuned to the pitfalls and the limits of using the criminal justice system as a way to achieve sexual justice and gender justice.
In the book, I discuss Black and (what was called at the time) Third World feminist contributions to the sex wars written out of history because they don't align with the other three positions. These feminists were attuned to the reality that we could not arrest, prosecute, and litigate our way to sexual freedom. They had no illusions about that because their communities had experienced the failure and violence of policing. But any feminism that has been colonized by liberalism will always be fooled into thinking that the law is a potential political path forward and will zealously pursue it.
You see the effects of that colonization in #MeToo: a will to punishment and a defense of women lodged in liberal legal principles. For example, the reactions to the Harvey Weinstein conviction produced a feminist celebration. But sending someone to prison is a really low bar for women’s liberation since the carceral state perpetrates a lot more sexual violence than it prevents. Any feminism that empowers incarceration uncritically is aiding and abetting sexual assault on a massive scale.
CP: That's a terrific place to end. Thank you, Lorna.
LB: Thank you.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
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