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March On Times Square protest organized by Women Against Pornography (WAP), October 20, 1979. Image: Barbara Alper/Getty Images
The 1980s sex wars are most strongly associated with conflict over pornography. But a central component, often lost in present-day recollections, was a debate over the politics of queer desire.
The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (cloth)
Since #MeToo became a cultural phenomenon in 2017, the so-called “sex wars” of the 1980s have been getting revisited, reignited, and reappraised. There are many parallels between Me Too and the sex wars, with many of the same debates over power, gender inequality, pornography, sex work, sexual assault and harassment, and the politics of desire animating both. In many ways, invoking the legacy of the sex wars in this new context is productive: we can see how much things have changed, and how much they haven’t. But the inevitably retrospective framings of the 1980s battles—refracted through the lens of current political viewpoints—have also distorted and erased some key parts of the history. As a veteran of the earlier conflicts myself (I coedited a book documenting that period, Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture, with Nan Hunter in 1995), I’m especially sensitive to some major elisions in current discussions.
The 1980s sex wars are most strongly associated with ferocious conflict over pornography, both its meaning and how best to legally regulate it (if at all). The term “pornography” itself was associated with the anti-porn side of the debate; the other side (my side) preferred to talk about “sexually explicit representation.” The semantic dispute contained the heart of the issue: “pornography” is a word strongly associated with starkly sexist commercial media, while “sexually explicit representation” encompasses a wider range of genres and formats.
Feminist critics argued that porn images did not just reflect preexisting inequality but helped to create and perpetuate injustice in the wider world. Feminist defenders of sexually explicit materials offered three rebuttals of this position. First, we argued that the critique should focus on sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, and body shaming in all media, not focus primarily on sexual images. Second, we held that while robust debate and activist mobilization about the impact of media images is necessary and desirable, legal action would be misguided, since representations are notoriously hard to interpret. Feminists strongly disagreed even among ourselves about what counted as “degrading,” for example. Third, we believed that sexually explicit representations per se were worth defending as integral parts of a vibrant feminist culture.
Both sides of the debate were polyvocal. Many critics of pornography were also fierce defenders of women’s erotic freedom. Others allied with the right wing in favor of the policing of various sexual norms. Defenders of sexually explicit representation included supporters of the classic liberal concept of “free speech.” But cadres of socialist feminists and others rejected that framework, attacked the commercialization of sexual culture, and promoted radically democratic cultural production as the best context for sexually explicit media.
The sex wars were not solely focused on pornography, however. Conflicts blazed over sex work, between those who wished to abolish it as sexual slavery (e.g., Kathleen Barry, Female Sexual Slavery, 1979), and those who advocated labor organizing to improve working conditions (Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry, 1987). A pitched battle followed the publication of Janice Raymond’s notorious anti-trans book The Transsexual Empire (1979)—there were many more supporters of trans lives among radical and socialist feminists then than many younger people today realize.
These issues are all still active points of debate among feminists of all varieties and in the mainstream. They seem especially salient in the era of Me Too and renewed culture wars over trans lives and reproductive justice.
But a core issue at the center of the 1980s sex wars often gets lost in present-day recollections, which is that a central component of it was a debate over the politics of queer desire. This is not to be confused with the question of lesbian rights and recognition. The acceptance, even valorization of lesbianism—when imagined as a fundamentally egalitarian social relation—was considered by then a settled matter among feminists. But queer sexual desire—the embrace of multiple genders, gender-bending, kink, and the morphing of intimate and non-intimate connections beyond the monogamous couple form—became a central site of political contention.
For example, the San Francisco lesbian BDSM (bondage, discipline, and sadomasochism) group Samois was a key player in the sex wars from the very beginning. The group became known for its outspoken support of porn, kink, and queer sexuality, and as a result the group and its members and supporters became the target of attacks by anti-porn protesters. Demonstrators at the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality wore T-shirts that said “For a Feminist Sexuality” on the front and “Against S&M” on the back. Their primary targets were not straight BDSM practitioners, but lesbians doxxed in the leaflets handed out at the conference as well as in a feature published in the radical feminist newspaper of record on our backs. Prominent among the lesbians outed as kinky were writer Dorothy Allison and anthropologist Gayle Rubin, a Samois member who was presenting an early version of her classic essay “Thinking Sex” at the conference. Defenders of lesbian butch/femme relationship dynamics (involving one apparently “masculine” and one seemingly “feminine” partner), such as activist Amber Hollibaugh and Lesbian Herstory Archives founder Joan Nestle, were also named as threats to “feminist sexuality.”
For its proponents, queer desire became central during the sex wars as a way to move the focus of attention away from the confining framework of male domination in a heterosexual context. What might desire be about, how might it work, what might it mean in non-hetero relations? If we can see the operations of power and desire in queer settings as more complex, contradictory, and unpredictable than the simple binary of gender suggests, might that also then be true in apparently “straight” relations as well?
On the anti-porn side of the debate, critics insisted that queer desire, if not rigorously egalitarian in action and appearance, could simply replicate unequal hetero dynamics. They argued that butch/femme roles in lesbian relationships were simply an imitation of male dominant/female submissive patriarchal heterosexuality. In books like Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis (1983), they charged lesbian BDSM practitioners with aping patriarchal structures of domination and abuse.
Queer feminists responded that kink’s opponents misunderstood what they thought they were seeing. In A Restricted Country (1987), Joan Nestle wrote that butch/femme couples may seem to act like patriarchal heterosexuals. But look closer and you see that the circuits of desire are rerouted, and the aesthetics of gender repurposed. In many butch/femme relationships, the femme’s pleasure is the center of the sexual action—phallocentric satisfaction being beside the point—and the butch does not have superior social power. That’s kind of different than conventional male-dominant heterosexuality! In Coming to Power (1981), the BDSM dykes in Samois pointed out that practices that may look like abuse to some observers might instead be regarded, from the point of view of the practitioners, as highly choreographed consensual reworkings of relations of power.
Questions surrounding the politics of queer desire were not confined to these issues alone though; the sex wars cut across the full range of debate over sex, pornography, sex work, trans embodiment, and more. This is not how it tends to be remembered, though.
In the current reevaluation of the sex wars, the opposing sides are commonly framed as simply “anti-porn” versus “pro-sex” feminism, a polarity adjudicated from a retrospective middle ground. These Me Too–era recountings of an anti-porn vs. pro-sex battle royale usually either sideline or completely omit the conversations about queer desire.
For example, in her New York Times column “Why Sex-Positive Feminism Is Falling Out of Fashion,” Michelle Goldberg notes that “sex-positive feminism” offered a defense of sexual freedom on behalf of women whose desires were suppressed or demonized, but goes on to say that this project is no longer relevant for young women who feel “brutalized by the expectation that they’ll be open to anything.” For Goldberg, sex-positive feminism went mainstream and fused with commercial sexual culture; it is the anti-porn position that now most resonates with many young feminists. But the polarized sides, as Goldberg frames and adjudicates them, are associated with a narrow view of the porn debate and not the myriad other issues that were at stake in the 1980s. More specifically, they bear no trace of the debates over queer desire, which seem absent from the concerns of her young feminists as well.
Goldberg’s column is a brief riff on the most recent take on the legacy of the sex wars, Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century. Srinivasan, a professor of philosophy at Oxford, is interested in thinking through a political ethics of sex for the twenty-first century. Her research on the Anglo-American feminist debates from the 1970s to the present is deep and wide, and she throws in readings and examples from other places, especially India, to broaden the frame. She is not casual or reductive, but thorough and careful about the many arguments among feminists over sexuality. What she calls for is a working through rather than a recapitulation of the earlier battles.
Expanding on her provocative 2018 London Review of Books essay on “the right to sex,” Srinivasan’s book-length treatment of the topic contemplates the Internet subculture known as incels (involuntary celibates), men who socialize around a shared belief that feminism, the sexual revolution, and women’s rights have unfairly deprived them of sexual gratification and their rightful access to “females.” Srinivasan’s essay focuses in particular on Elliot Rodger, who in 2014 went on a murder spree near the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara. Noting that Rodger was self-evidently a misogynist, Srinivasan goes a step further. Pointing out that his feelings of rejection were partly related to bullying he’d received for his mixed race and “inadequate” masculinity, she asks a challenging question: Shouldn’t we question the way desire is politically structured? She presses us to go beyond “sex-positive” feminism’s libertarian view of desire as properly constrained only by consent. Racism, ableism, body-shaming, and other forms of hierarchy and hate can structure fully consensual sexual desire—as in the Tinder and Grindr profiles that proffer highly discriminatory notions of attractiveness, with admonishments such as “no fats, no fems, no Asians.” Srinivasan wants to know what feminists should say about the social and political implications of the forms of rejection that Rodger experienced, and that fueled his rage. Surely we need to do more than just call for consent in sex? She concludes with the question of whether anyone has a right to sex—and answers with a decided NO, no one is obligated to have sex with anyone else under any circumstances. But she then pushes beyond that question to ask if feminists nonetheless have a “duty” to actively transform desire in the direction of justice.
This analysis raises crucial questions, but is marred by Srinivasan’s reproduction of an oversimplified anti-sex/pro-sex polarity, and her eagerness to occupy the adjudicating middle:
The ‘anti-sex’ view was that sex as we know it is a patriarchal construct—an eroticization of gender inequality—from which there can be no true liberation without a revolution in relations between men and women. . . . On the ‘pro-sex’ view, women’s freedom required a guarantee of women’s right to have sex when, how and (subject to the other party’s consent) with whom they liked, without stigma and shame. (Of course, many feminists found themselves somewhere between these two poles—wanting, for example, to fiercely oppose what they saw as a widespread rape culture . . . while distinguishing rape from ‘wanted’ sex.) While contemporary feminism—in its insistence on women’s right to sexual pleasure, and consent as the sole boundary of permissible sex—has largely taken up the pro-sex perspective, many feminists still feel the pull of an older, more circumspect approach to sex. To them, sex once more appears to be in need of revolutionary transformation.
But both sides in the sex wars hoped for a revolution in the relations of gender and sex. As Maggie Nelson points out in her new book On Freedom, the supposed middle, then and now, is framed in relation to straw poles. There was indeed a split, but it was not defined by a call for transformative revolution in gender on one side versus a consent-based free-for-all on the other. The debate was over how desire interacts with gender, race, and class oppression.
The anti-porn side believed that sexuality is a major vector working consistently to reinforce inequality. Organized through pornography and prostitution, the power of desire is mobilized to maintain the gender hierarchy. An alternative feminist sexuality, like the one called for on the Barnard conference T-shirts, would be shaped, educated, and disciplined for equality.
The so-called pro-sex side promoted a view of sexuality as a multi-impact force, as likely to overturn, or at least disorient, as to reinforce injustice—even when crossing power differentials. So when anti-porn legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon argued, during a vote on an anti-porn ordinance in Indianapolis, that BDSM materials reproduce violent and abusive male-dominant heterosexual relations, her feminist opponents later produced piles of videos featuring female dominant and trans scenarios, taken from the very evidence MacKinnon had submitted to the city.
When Srinivasan references “sex-positive” feminism, she is actually invoking commercial sexual culture and the neoliberal version of feminism that coopted and distorted the sexual freedom advocacy of the sex wars era. That is the “empowerment” of which she speaks—a feminism that promotes sexual expressiveness without political critique, and that imagines sexuality within a binary heterosexual paradigm—and it completely sidelines or reductively distorts the queerness of desire at stake in the sex wars. When she describes pro-sex feminism as unconcerned with the political formation and implications of desire, Srinivasan misses a lot.
Srinivasan is also surprisingly silent about the contributions of numerous historians who participated in the sex wars by penning works that address the very issues Srinivasan raises about the politics of desire in relation to social transformation. For instance, Judith Walkowitz’s stunning book on Jack the Ripper’s London, City of Dreadful Delight (1992), was addressed to several interrelated sex wars era debates—on sex work, danger, desire, and politics. Walkowitz shows how highlighting dangerous male violence in Jack the Ripper’s London worked, ultimately, to restrict women and penalize sex workers even more severely than before the murders. The emphasis placed by alarmist reformers on male domination and female subordination, and men’s active predatory sexuality and women’s vulnerability—a gendered melodrama not unlike the one at the heart of anti-porn rhetoric—had the effect of reinforcing not only male power but class hierarchy as well. The implication is that more emphasis on women’s power, agency, and sexuality, and on the multiple forms of gendered embodiment and diverse sites of desire, would be more politically efficacious for a radically democratic feminism. This is not libertarian, consent-based, sex-positive feminism divorced from political analysis. Nor is it an adjudicating feminism concerned primarily with interpersonal sexual ethics. Rather, it is a politics of desire that takes seriously the power of sexuality in wide social circulation, and the consequences of feminist interventions.
Meanwhile, in the present, the legacy of “sex-positive” queer feminism lives on, now often most trenchantly formulated by those working in an intersectional frame, at the boundary of race, gender, sexuality, and class. In the decades since the sex wars, women of color, postcolonial, decolonial, and indigenous feminists have continued to focus intellectual and political labor on Srinivasan’s questions: How have racial capitalism and colonialism existed as regimes of gendered intimacy and sexuality? How have these historical political forces created shifting categories and norms that uphold the arrangements of power over time? In addressing these questions, this body of work elaborates a range of sexual politics, and not any monolithic view. But Srinivasan’s category of “sex-positive feminism” cannot encompass it, and her assertion that contemporary feminists generally do not address the politics of desire does not do justice to it. Her overall framework does not contemplate their proposed answer to the question of how to transform desire—not through an ethical or moralized sense of duty, but through a long-term collective transformation of overall relations of power.
Many of these intersectional scholars, writers, artists, and activists have centered questions of specifically queer desire in their work. LaMonda Horton-Stallings’s Funk the Erotic: Transaesthetics and Black Sexual Cultures (2015) and A Dirty South Manifesto: Sexual Resistance and Imagination in the New South (2019) outline the erotic dimension of political life and offer a deep reexamination of the body and the senses in motion. Readers will find their understanding of the cultural work of pornography and sex work utterly upended in this writing. Sophie Lewis’s visionary Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (2019) focuses on gendered and raced global class relations in order to queer notions of connection and desire beyond the boundaries of binary gender and the nuclear family.
In another medium, Jeremy O. Harris’s Tony-nominated Slave Play (2018) provokes the audience to consider the queered desires of its Black characters, and their non-Black partners, during “race play” (a kink that explores taboos around race, presented in the play as a form of relationship counseling). Harris offers us a way to think queerly about desire in relation to historical injustice. Srinivasan seems to wish for less of the kind of graphic depiction of sexuality that Harris offers; she wants to free the imagination from representation that is too controlling and constraining:
Rather than more speech or more images, it is their onslaught that would have to be arrested. Perhaps then sexual imagination could be coaxed, even briefly, to recall its lost power.
While it’s true that the play’s scenes, which depict both couples counseling sessions and kinky sex—set on an imaginary southern plantation—are not straightforwardly pedagogical, Harris uses them to show us how we might free libidinal desire within and among representations, even or especially those marked by the brutalities of power imbalances. As queer feminist psychoanalyst Avgi Saketopoulou writes about Harris’s play at the end of her brilliant review “#consentsowhite”:
Slave Play hints at how, in the midst of the trauma of having a body entangled with ghastly histories, the project of emancipation may take unexpected paths. The idea that the woundedness of the flesh can recruit the spasms of desire to move a person through a traumatic past may feel counterintuitive. So, too, might the proposition that a desire for intimate subjugation may open up emancipatory possibilities. But the matter of how traumatized bodies can make bids to release themselves from history is that urgent.
Though Srinivasan’s recounting of the sex wars leaves out a great deal, she is astute in her grasp of our current political moment—a moment in which, similarly, the nuances and provocations of the sex wars have been lost to an overwhelming heterosexual commercial culture sited primarily on the Internet.
For her sense of the experience of the young, Srinivasan turns to her students at Oxford University, who report being persuaded by MacKinnon’s anti-porn analysis. They feel constrained by the grim sexism of contemporary commercial pornography, and they recognize in their own sex lives MacKinnon’s depiction of male pleasure pursued at female expense. They are ready to believe that pornography has warped their male partners and doomed them to sexual immiseration. The persistence of stark gender inequality in heterosexual relations, despite all the progress of feminism over the decades, leads them to see MacKinnon’s view as explanatory, even revelatory.
But I remember my own students during the 1980s and ’90s being similarly persuaded by MacKinnon. My colleagues and I even had a name for it: “the MacKinnon effect.” Students would read the texts as homework and arrive in class feeling persuasively interpolated into the scenes of relentless subordination. But all it took to change their minds was another set of readings and classroom discussion. When we subsequently introduced them to critiques of the anti-porn position, especially from a queer perspective, they just as quickly abandoned that grim worldview for one with many more gleeful as well as critical ways to think about gender and desire. They realized quickly that the dark melodrama of the anti-porn primal scene reflected only a partial reality. Their lives were also full of counter-scenarios—of gender fluidity, of sexual joy, of many possibilities for overturning the scene of sexual subordination. Upon reading and reflection, most of our students rejected MacKinnon’s proposal to get rid of “pornography”—however sexist it might often be, and were it even possible to do so. Once my colleagues and I recognized the pattern in how students were responding, we started to deliberately induce the MacKinnon effect in our classes—as a place to start, not to end up.
In my classes today, I do not have students like Srinivasan’s, though I teach at NYU, a similarly expensive university with a similar share of privileged students, if a decidedly less conservative institution than Oxford. My students are, admittedly, not representative of young people in general or young feminists specifically. They are queerer than Srinivasan’s students, even if they are practicing heterosexuals. They are asexual and demisexual, they prefer cuddling to genital contact, they are trans and enby, they are femme power bottoms and service tops, they have no reverence for commercial porn—they consume it, but they spoof it.
The Right to Sex is much more complex and generous than a short review can do justice to, however. Along the way, Srinivasan lays out conflicting and overlapping arguments fully and fairly. If a reader stops to quote her at one point, a page later she will show you how that point has been countered. The method—point/counterpoint, careful analysis, generous critical argument, ambivalent conclusion—has frustrated some reviewers. But it is a major strength of the book, and one that serves her well in the book’s most significant intervention, a sustained critique of what sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein has called “carceral feminism”: the turn to law, bureaucratic regulation, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to the myriad forms of sexual harassment and violence.
Srinivasan first lays out, in their most persuasive form, the arguments made by some feminists for the pursuit of law-and-order solutions to gender violence (such as mandatory arrests for domestic violence and long prison sentences for convicted rapists). She then methodically refutes them. She draws on the history of feminist prison abolitionism, efforts to decriminalize sex work, critiques of Title IX’s differential impact on men of color, and more. This is a powerful work of synthesis threading its way through the book and culminating in the last chapter, where capitalism and colonialism come under severe review and imperial feminism gets its well-deserved thrashing.
This critical agenda has earned The Right to Sex its popularity among left feminists, especially in Britain where anti–sex work and anti-trans feminism is arguably ascendent in the mainstream (see Sophie Lewis in the New York Times). But her otherwise powerful method, ending in ambivalence, leaves readers wondering how to think about desire and power in the wake of her interventions.
The legacy of so-called pro-sex feminism, if engaged rather than simply superseded, may just offer us ways to go there—ways to think about how we can transform gender in relation to political economic power, as Srinivasan aspires to do, but without trying to “educate” desire into alignment with our political goals.
We might begin by considering the ways sexuality is disciplined by structures of power. Sexual access to social “inferiors,” with and without consent (in homes and offices, state institutions and civil society) is a fundamental feature of power differentials. People at the top of the class, racial, and gender hierarchies—bosses, parents, priests—are least likely to be penalized for their sexual pursuit, harassment, or assault of those “below” them. But those positioned lower in structures of power are heavily penalized for pursuit, with or without consent, of those above them. Thus the problem with the slogan “believe all women” uttered without regard for relations of power. When white women charge Black men with rape, the history of racial injustice that has shaped sexual permission across racial lines gives us good reasons to suspend automatic belief.
It’s a point that Srinivasan somewhat misconstrues: the reason for university professors to refrain from sexual relations with students is not because they are like “children,” as she at one point argues (in relation to a gathering of graduate students!), but because we are embedded in institutions that give professors so much power over even our adult students that their futures are, unjustly, too much in our hands. It is not, therefore, that all sexual relations across power lines are themselves objectionable (though all nonconsensual relations are), but that the socially structured lines of social permission are starkly unjust. Socially legitimated sexual access is in part what power is—sex cannot be separated from other aspects of power dynamics, and sexual abuse is part and parcel of the abuses of inequality in the workplace, home, school, and church.
As the highly publicized case against former New York governor Andrew Cuomo recently showed, sexual abuses are an integral part of the abuse of power in general. As Rebecca Traister pointed out in “Inside Andrew Cuomo’s Toxic Workplace,” the former governor’s sexual harassment of his female employees was deeply embedded in the culture of fear and official impunity that affected everyone in his office.
What if cases of sexual harassment of students by professors were linked to other abuses and addressed by student unions via grievance procedures, rather than handled by special Title IX administrative tribunals that single out sexual harassment, leaving all other related abuses unaddressed?
Might we imagine that, in its relationship to power, desire is a wily creature, winding its way through structures, reinforcing and undermining hierarchies in complex, unpredictable ways—ways that often don’t work the way they may seem to? Can we recognize that we can’t regulate, discipline, or even effectively educate desire? Nor should we want to: our desires can disrupt, illuminate, confuse, reorient, and heal as well as wound and defeat us, and we never really know when or how.
We can’t single out sexual injustice to treat as a special case in activism or law, because it is so deeply embedded in the broadest forms of inequality, exploitation, and oppression. But we can transform the injustices of imbalanced sexual access. We can do that by transforming the political economy and institutions around us—at least reducing or perhaps even eliminating the power of bosses, teachers, priests, and parents in the embedded hierarchies of class, race, gender, ability, and more. For those of us who were on the left in the sex wars, this aspiration is the legacy of so-called pro-sex feminism.
Lisa Duggan is a journalist, activist, and Professor of Social & Cultural Analysis at New York University. She is author most recently of Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed.
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