The feminist ‘sex wars’

Are our girls to be as free to please themselves by indulging in the loveless gratification of every instinct … and passion as our boys? (Willard, 1891 in Hunter, 2006, p. 15).

It was in 1982, when the Barnard Sex Conference took place and the feminist ‘sex wars’ crossed the starting point. The controversies were mainly focused on the role of pornography in women’s subordination and depiction as sexual objects, and on the new queerfeminist voice that supported acts of “sadomasochism in the name of a feminist sexual liberation” (Lykke, 2010, p. 58). This feminist conference initiated a complex dispute among multi-discipline, feminist theorists, which challenged not only the role of sexuality in cis women’s subordination, but also the power dynamics and hierarchies in the heteronormative societal order.

In 1983 Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin drafted an anti – pornography ordinance, in which pornography was defined as the ultimate patriarchal technology of women’s subordination (MODEL ANTIPORNOGRAPHY CIVIL-RIGHTS ORDINANCE, 1983). According to this ordinance women in pornography “are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things or commodities”, a trope that reinforces the male aggressive sexual behavior and tramples women’s struggle for equal rights. This tenacity with the sexist and loathing nature of pornography led to the MacKinnon – Dworkin Ordinance passage by the Minneapolis City Council in 1983, although it short-lived until 1984, when it was vetoed by Minneapolis Mayor Donald Fraser (Sandler, 1985). According to MacKinnon (1997), “male dominance is sexual” (p. 158) and “woman is defined by what male desire requires for arousal and satisfaction” (p. 161). By protecting (i.e. restrain) their sexuality, women can regain their position in the male supremacy realm as the ones holding the power, “because sex – gender and sexuality – is about power” (p. 162) and dominance and not pleasure and deconstruction of roles such as lesbian’s buth/femme and BDSM’s top/bottom, like sex liberals argue.

Catherine MacKinnon

The opposite wing echoed the sex – positive, mostly lesbian, feminist voices that viewed anti – pornography activists as one sided, and promoted the women’s right to sexual pleasure and liberation. This liberation would be articulated under women’s own terms and conditions, so that sexuality would alter from a mean of patriarchal and heteronormative subordination, to a queerfeminist technology of empowerment and freedom for all sexualities. The group Samois (1978–1983), a lesbian, feminist BDSM group in U.S.A., which was founded by the anthropologist Gayle Rubin and the writer Patrick (then Pat) Califia, played a critical role in the advocacy of the sex liberation thought. Rubin (2006) very much criticized the shifts in the organization of sexuality in the United States during the 1950s, outlining the established heteronormative sex hierarchy and questioning “where does justification end and degeneracy begin?” when it comes to sexual orientation and expression (p. 148). In her “charmed circle” (p. 153), Rubin created a graphic depiction on the established sex organization, in which the heterosexual, procreative, no pornography side represents the normal and blessed sexuality, while the outer limits are inhabited by the homosexual, sadomasochistic and promiscuous. The outer limits must be restrained by constitutional authorities, so that they do not intermingle and taint the ‘blessed’ sexuality.

Gayle Rubin

Whereas most feminists were concerned about women’s sexuality, male sexuality remained an untouched and unproblematic issue. Many scholars were examining female sexuality from a social and cultural understanding, while male sexuality was immersed in its biological epistemology. Thus, men were seen as naturally aggressive and violent, without questioning or doubting their presupposed dominant role in sex. Their anxieties, uncertainties and fears may compose a different reality for the heterosexual relationship and some feminists authors started to pay attention to it (Mottier, 2008).

These controversies about sexuality seem not to have come to an end quite yet. Europe, which claims itself a rather liberated land, have been proven to be conservative when sexuality issues are discussed and challenged. An instance, is the ‘Nordic Model’ of prostitution, which criminalizes the act of buying sex (but not the act of selling), in a way to regulate commercial sex and put an end to sex trafficking industries. It is a legislative model which is described as feminist and ‘women-friendly’, and depicts sex workers as oppressed victims with no agency over their bodies and sexuality. The ‘Nordic Model’ has been criticized a lot by other feminist scholars and primarily by the sex workers community in the Nordic countries (see, for instance Fuckförbundet, 2019). Their main arguments concern the unavoidable entanglement of the Nordic model legislation with immigration laws and police aggression, which leads to a dangerous persecution and stigmatization of the sex workers in the name of finding their clients (Vuolajärvi, 2018). This tension between the feminist-humanitarian initiation of the Nordic model and the actual punitive acts of the governmental authorities, lead to a “punitivist humanitarianism” (p. 13), which operates under a morality code against any kind of sex work (especially when it is offered by migrants) but it is veiled with a feminist justification, for the sake of women’s rights. In the end, the voices and needs of the sex workers are not heard, and they are persecuted and humiliated by a legislative body that has been passed in order to protect them.

By Φαίδρα Γατσαρούλη

My name is Faidra Gatsarouli. I am a psychology graduate from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and a master’s student in Human Rights and Migration Studies and in Gender, Justice and Society in the University of Macedonia and Umea University, respectively. I'm particularly interested in research on feminist and gender studies, women’s rights and the LGBTQ+ community, the intersectional migration and refugee experience and the psychological well-being of the nontraditional family structure. Besides my academic aspirations, I really love art, photography. solo travelling and reading contemporary fiction.

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