Rethinking the Sex Wars
(Under contract with University of Minnesota Press)
From the mid-1970s through the early 1990s, feminists in the United States were embroiled in a series of debates over matters pertaining to sex and sexuality that have come to be known as “the sex wars.” During the sex wars, feminists staked out a variety of positions on a number of issues, including pornography, prostitution, sadomasochism, heterosexuality, lesbianism, intergenerational sex, butch-fem identifies and practices, the nature and limits of law, the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee, the wisdom and sufficiency of state-centered politics, the boundaries of the category of woman, and the meaning of sexual freedom. Unfortunately, these complex and heterogeneous debates tend to be remembered as a rather straightforward conflict between “antipornography” feminists concerned primarily with sexual “danger” on one side and “sex radical” feminists concerned primarily with sexual “pleasure” on the other.
In Rethinking the Sex Wars: Feminism, Liberalism, and the Fight for Sexual Freedom, I challenge this simplistic view. Rather than focusing exclusively on the differences dividing antipornography and sex radical feminists during this period, I highlight significant points of contact and overlap between them, particularly the challenges they posed to the narrow and ambivalent sexual politics of post-war liberalism. I also highlight other conflicts and relationships that, I argue, were central to the sex wars, including a series of improbable alliances that emerged between antipornography feminists, sex radical feminists, and liberals of various stripes in the mid-1980s. Whether it was liberal jurists like Cass Sunstein drawing on antipornography feminist theory to formulate liberal rationales for the regulation of pornography or civil libertarian activists like Nadine Strossen drawing on sex radical feminist theory to bolster the liberal case against state censorship, antipornography feminism, sex radical feminism, and liberalism continued to interact throughout the 1980s and 1990s in ways that have had lasting consequences for feminist sexual politics.
By rethinking the sex wars to foreground the crucial role liberal ideas, concepts, and arguments played in these conflicts, Rethinking the Sex Wars provides a more nuanced, richly contextualized, and complete account of the sex wars than has heretofore been available. It also illuminates in fresh and provocative ways a range of contemporary phenomena that, I argue, the liberal-feminist convergences that the sex wars occasioned have produced, including recent controversies over “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” on college and university campuses, the narrow and unimaginative politics of “sex-positive” feminism, and the rise of a political formation that mobilizes the emancipatory energies of feminism in the service of the expansion of the carceral state known as “carceral feminism.”
Beyond a work of history and political theory, Rethinking the Sex Wars is, ultimately, a plea. It urges contemporary feminists who are passionate about sexual freedom to return to the sex wars to (re)consider antipornography feminism and sex radical feminism prior to their attenuation by liberalism. Conventional wisdom aside, the sex wars were not an act of sororicide or a petty and intellectually bankrupt internecine feminist squabble. They were, rather, a spectacularly fecund moment for feminist political thought when both antipornography and sex radical feminists formulated visions of sexual freedom that burst existing liberal strictures asunder and opened up new sexual political vistas and possibilities. That these visions seem scandalous and utopian even today is evidence that they might once again fire feminist imaginations and revivify something of the radical impulses that started the sex wars, but, unfortunately, did not survive them.