Take that, you bitch!
The origins of the Feminist Sex Wars extend back to the dawn of time, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth and men and women worshipped strange gods and played board games that would horrify a modern person beyond belief. But most of what happened back then is neither here not there, as in the old days feminists were woman who had any ideas or opinions whatsoever, and were often hanged as witches. It was indeed a dark time, and hence has been called "history."
Let's fast forward to the time when the precursors of modern feminists arose, in the Victorian Era. In those days, as in these, sick fucks often attained power among conservative/religious folks, and one of the sickest fucks going in the Victorian Era was Anthony Comstock, a moral crusader against smut, immorality and, well, fun of all kinds.
As head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Comstock had a lot of clout, especially with the postal service, who made him a special agent and even allowed him to carry a gun as part of his duties. (Actually, Comstock's preferred method of killing people was driving them to commit suicide. He bragged of driving 15 people to suicide – told you he was a sick fuck.)
Comstock got a lot of his power by badgering Congress to pass the Comstock Law, which made illegal the delivery or transportation of both "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" material as well as any methods of, or information pertaining to, birth control. The definition of what was obscene, lewd or lascivious was Comstock's to make, and he found a lot of things obscene. Such as medical texts (can't have those student doctors learning TOO MUCH about the human body!), George Barnard Shaw's play Mrs. Warren's Profession (it dealt, in Shaw's usual sexless way, with prostitution) and even Bible verses were found immoral by Mr. Comstock..
OK, Comstock may have had a point about this particular Bible verse. Source: verydemotivational.com.
Of course, it was the birth control information that put the asstard Comstock in opposition to feminists of the time. He fought women's right to know reproductive information with the fury of a righteous idiot. For years he succeeded but finally, Margaret Sanger was able to break the power of the Comstock Law in the period from 1918 to 1936 with some well-made freedom of speech cases opposing it. This set the stage for feminists right through to the 1960s, because one of the ways they fought censorship of birth control information was by maintaining that it was political speech, and hence not censorable.
1920s feminists gagged for speaking out on birth control issues. (See alt text for more info.)
Feminism lost much of its traction in American society when the Great Depression hit and the main thing on everybody's mind was survival in a society without a social safety net. (Something to think about, people, with rich conservatives wanting to shut off Medicare and Social Security, fighting universal healthcare and generally trying to see that when a man or woman in the lower and middle classes goes down, he or she stays down.) In the 1940s there was World War II on the front burner, and in the late 1940s-early 1950s everybody was making baby boomers.
But in the late 50s and early 60s, feminism got traction in society again. Feminists' opponents tried to silence feminism by saying all the sex talk was unimportant and not political and not fit for public debate … basically a retread of the old Victorian notion that nothing relating to women is fit for public debate, though only the far right called for outright censorship this time. Mostly it was a matter of presenting reasons why they didn't have to listen
"Sorry, Lois, I can't hear a thing about equal pay for equal work. Must be the gag! Think I'll leave it be." Vidcap from the 1950s Superman TV series.
Which is why feminists started insisting that “the sexual is political.” The term got its most notable boost in the book “Sexual Politics” by Kate Millet, which examined the sexism and patriarchal notions in classic authors like D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and Norman Mailer (which pissed Mailer off to no end -- like a lot of things).
Feminists were concerned about equal opportunity in the workplace, the freedom to enter the workplace, violence against women and the general exploitation of women by men, but one thing they WEREN'T concerned about at the time was pornography. That's because in the 60s whe femnists began pressing the point that sexual matters are political, there was no porn industry, as we understand it today. Oh, porn EXISTED, but it was a hidden thing, a tiny thing, a niche market and a tiny one at that.
The growth of porn titles (VHS and DVD based, mostly) from 1988-2005. If you project that chart backward to 1958 you'd see it disappear into nothingness around 1968. Seems about right. You can see the full chart and the article it came from here. In 1988 there were roughly ten porn titles released, in 2005 there were 13,000. In 1968, there was, pretty much, nothing -- because there were no DVDs or VHS tapes!
Film and television were heavily censored at the time, still held in check by the dying grasp of the Hayes Code. Basically the mainstream porn industry circa 1968 consisted of:
1. Playboy Magazine 2. Nothing much else
There were nudie porn filmmakers, but they were frozen out of movie chain theaters and only played in place like pool halls, VFW halls and the like … the “stag films” you hear so much about were shown there. And in weird places like New York City there were places like Movie Star News photographing Bettie Page and other gorgeous bondage models of the time (though Page was by all accounts the gorgeous-est of the bunch) doing their thing, but it was very much a niche market, most people had no idea how to get their hands on them. And of course, Kefauver put the kibosh on Movie Star News and what little else there was of porn at the time.
"But Senator Kefauver, I can't speak to defend myself!" (Image source: the 1950s. Seriously, it almost certainly originated with Movie Star News but this image is all over the Web.)
The only mainstream medium that was pretty much free of censorship was the printed word, because they figured if you were reading voluntarily you probably were not rapist/murderer material … which happened to be completely wrong, as serial killers and rapists have turned out to be quite well educated in some cases.
So it's fair to say that when the feminists raised the cry of “the sexual is political” they were not thinking about porn as a problem, because back then, it wasn't common enough to be a problem.
Then of course the 70s came along and suddenly there was a LOT more porn than there had ever been before, and by the 1980s, porn WAS a problem if you were the sort of person who is bothered by porn 1... which it turns out, a lot of feminists were. In the mid-70s some feminists began voicing their complaints. They felt that pornography was part of the whole patriarchal oppression thing they had been fighting for so long and that it should be suppressed. It objectified women. It degraded them. It tied them up. It made them write bad checks. So they felt porn should be censored, even. They were a media-savvy bunch and they came out with some great encapsulations of their ideas and names that epitomized the Rule of Cool.
Well this movie may have gotten a few feminists aroused in the 1970s ... deeply aroused, it turns out ... (Image source: Vidcap from The Story of O).
Some even went so far as to claim that pornography was a central underpinning of patriarchy and a direct cause of violence against women. Robin Morgan summarized this idea in her statement, "Pornography is the theory; rape the practice." (Like I said, Rule of Cool!). Basically, they thought that pornography objectified women (made them objects instead of human beings, the equal of men) and was a means by which men controlled women. It led to men assaulting and raping women, and was in and of itself an offense against the civil rights of women. The solution, of course, was to censor pornography. All pornography. Because it turns out, SOME subset of prudish feminists was against EVERY kind of sex, including vanilla lesbianism. (Betty Friedan once called lesbianism "the lavendar menace").
Some feminists even considered innocent images of televised vanilla lesbian three-way sex wrestling to be worthy of censorship! Source: Ultimate Surrender.
But it didn't just stop there. Feminists began prescribing, not just what was fit sexual information for people to obtain, but also what kind of sex was all right. Lesbian separatists accused women who had sex with men with sleeping with the enemy, literally. As one member of a group called the Radicalesbians wrote: “Why in the name of hell do so many of our Sisters continue to let men use and abuse them to death? […] any woman sleeping with any man on a fairly regular basis is prostituting her mind, her body, and her spirit.” (M. Stein, 354)." Cite.
Sleeping with the enemy, oh noes! (Image source: vidcap from the Jenna Jameson film Silver Screen Confidential.)
Meanwhle, an early feminist group called the Redstockings (Rule of Cool!) took sexuality as a politically-inspired thing rather than a biologically-inspired thing and declared that lesbian separatism was wrong (failure to engage with the enemy) and that male homosexuality was terribly misogynist (apparently because homosexual men disliked women so much that they would not have sex with them).
And of course, most of the feminists were hating on BDSM. Not just maledom/femsub BDSM either (although, clearly, that was the WORST) but even lesbian BDSM feminists who consensually tied each other up in the spirit of true equality between truly equal equals were considered to be merely acting out internalized fantasies of being brutalized by the Patriarchy.®
Left: bad awful nasty lesbian bondage sex. Right: even badder, awfuller, nastier hetero bondage sex. Tsk! Tsk!
Image source: Sex and Submission.com.
In the mid-seventies Women Against Pornography (WAP) and Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM) arose. (By and large, anti-porn feminists went for dull, mundane names that completely missed out on the Rule of Cool, which should tell you all you need to know about THAT particular issue.)
However, the most vivid pronouncement of the anti-porn feminists, or prudo-feminists as I call them (they would surely object, I call it “truth in labelling”) attributed to both Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin at various times (a pretty good indicator of its inaccuracy) was never said: “All sex is rape.” Well, Andrea Dworkin never QUITE said it, she certainly danced around the idea pretty closely, and she DID sorta sorta advance the opinion that it was easier for a man to get his dick through a needle's eye than to have sex with a woman without totally going patriarchal on her.
But Dworkin never ACTUALLY said the words, which makes all the conservative commentators who've cited them sound kinda stupid, generally along with all the other things they say. It's not like there's not a lot of actual lard-brained things said by prudo-feminists out there to make fun of, trying to stick someone with something they didn't actually say seems dumb and well, dickish. Kinda making the other side's point for them if you know what I mean.
C'mon, buy this book! You know you WANT to! It speaks of the skimpy clothing slave girls had to wear in movies!
The most extreme, and the most enthusiastic anti-sex feminists were radical lesbian feminists, especially the lesbian feminist separatists, who of course had little interest in having sex with men in the first place. Perhaps it would be wrong to say that some of them leapt on the anti-sex bandwagon like starving hounds leap on a pork chop, but a lot of lesbian feminists were quite enthusiastic about the whole anti-sex anti-porn thing. No skin off their backs.
Another group that leapt on the anti-porn thing were the right wing cultural conservatives, who were of course anti-porn and anti-sex from way back. However, modern cultural conservatives, being putative heterosexuals, they really couldn't be outright anti-sex because you know, that would be kinda gay, and they WERE and ARE anti-gay. They weren't so anti-gay that they couldn't make common cause with lesbian feminists to go after porn, (I have to add, this cite has an EXCELLENT information about the anti-porn movement) because they were REALLY anti-porn. It was kinda, “the enemy of my enemy makes for strange bedfellows, but hey, PORN!”
This despite the fact that a recent study shows that conservatives overall tend to be bigger consumers of porn than moderates or liberals.
C'mon, conservatives, you know you like this ... whatever it is!
(Image source: Jaybird Happening Magazine cover.)
That said, or not said, all this prudo-feminism soon provoked a response from non-prudish feminists, which turned out to be an awful lot of them. The non-prudished feminists were alarmed because they felt that the whole anti-sex, anti-porn thing ran directly counter to the general impetus of feminism, which was toward sexual and personal liberation, and for some reason, running around censoring sexual things and banging on people because of their sexual practices (especially fucking men, which a lot of them liked and BDSM, which some of them liked) did not strike them as particularly liberating. Au contraire!
In addition, some feminists had taken up the cause of prostitutes, strippers and other sex workers and of course the anti-sex feminists were all for putting the sex workers out of jobs en masse, as from their point of view sex workers' work consisted of getting their brains exploited out by the patriarchy on an hourly basis. So there was a definite conflict there.
And of course, a lot of feminists pointed out that when you were making allies with your traditional enemies, the ones who'd been censoring YOU in the first place and doing everything they could do to stuff you back in the kitchen and remove your shoes and get you knocked up, you might just want to rethink whatever the hell it is you think you are doing.
Ms. Radical Lesbian: "OK, Mrs. Moral Conservative, I'm naked and on my hands and knees ... what's this wonderful surprise you have in store for me?"
(Image source: Ultimate Surrender.com.)
So with the antics of the antisex, antiporn, antifun feminists in full cry, saying real feminists censor porn, don't support sex workers, don't fuck men or tie up women even if they themselves are women, well, there was a LOT of common ground for most feminists to oppose them, and in two shakes of a stripper's tail, the sex-positive feminists were forming groups, writing manifestos, issuing proclamations, strapping on dildoes, oiling their bodies up, putting on the ball gags and the steel collars, and doing all the other things we normally associate with starting a social/political movement.
And unlike the anti-sex feminists, the sex-positive feminists were totally in synch with the Rule of Cool, especially the lesbian BDSM feminists. For example, a BDSM group called The Society of Janus spawned an all-woman discussion group called Cardea (lame name, the only one though) which led to the a breakaway lesbian BDSM group called Samois, named after the dominatrix who ran The Chateau in the Story of O (so there was some definite Rule of Cool there). Then a group split off (apparently, feminist discussion groups spawn breakaways like glider guns spawn cells in Life) to form the Outcasts, which later had a breakaway group called The Exiles.
Each group a really nice Rule of Cool name, it's as if they were searching for the ultimate Rule of Cool name, but this particular chain of lesbian feminist discussion groups did not find it. But it WAS found, by ANOTHER lesbian group: the Lesbian Sex Mafia!
If there is ANY justice, honorary Lesbian Sex Mafioso Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly, in a promo still for Bound.
Yes, there was and IS such a thing as the Lesbian Sex Mafia, they even have their own website.
The WAP and the WAPVM were so incensed by the mere thought of women supporting sex and pornography and having kinky sex with other women (and not inviting them, probably) and also having names WAY COOLER than theirs, that they actively campaigned, not just against their ideas, but the women themselves. They picketed the women, they sent flyers and leaflets around with their addresses on them, they harassed them by phone and in person. It was some ugly shit – but that's Sex War for ya!
Interestingly, lesbian separatists play a part in my novel Karg.
The ugliness came to a head at a Barnard College conference on sexuality in 1982. Yeah, that fast. The anti-sex feminists were pissed about the conference before it even started because they were blocked out of the organizing committee that set up the conference, which was entirely composed of sex-positive feminists. The organizing committee's claim was that mainstream feminism was so overwhelmed by anti-sex feminists that the voices of pro-sex feminists would not be heard if the anti-sex contingent were involved -- they would be drowned out.
The morning of the conference was one of those warm summer mornings that belies the ugliness that was about to occur.
The sex-positive feminists arrived first, their almost-naked bodies oiled and gleaming, the dark leather straps of their various straps in stark contrast to their pale pink bodies. (Second Wave feminism, which this would be the defining moment of, was a movement mostly comprised of middle class white women living in the Northeastern United States, so of course, pink skin mostly. There were also Europeans involved in their usual shady ways, but Asian, African and Middle-Eastern feminism would comprise the Third Wave, which is still crashing on the rocky shores of the massive sexism that exists in those places.)
The anti-sex forces wore the modern day equivalent of crinolines, sun hats and bustles, ie., pantsuits. They were not there for men, so their faces typically were not adorned by makeup. They had the usual dour, unhappy expressions you associate with prudes, the sort of women who would scold their own orgasms for existing.
The forces lined up in a well-appointed theater of war, their leaders at the usual flimsy tables onstage, and suddenly battle was joined. Oily, strappy leather dykes surged against lines of unadorned prude dykes. The leather dykes' muscles gleamed in the lights, the prude dykes looked generic and eminently replaceable, like your average video game zombie.
Even with their antisex conservative religious right buddies jumping in there and working the levers of power for all they could manage, the most the anti-porn feminists were able to accomplish in the US was to prevent the explicit depiction of women having sex while in bondage for a few years. You could have explicit depictions of women having sex, and you could have depictions of naked women in bondage, but you couldn't have explicit depictions of women having sex while in bondage though you could have softcore depictions of women having sex while in bondage, but as a practical matter, that didn't happen a lot.
The basic problem that the anti-sex feminists had apart from the fact that they were squaring off against other feminists and not just the monolithic patriarchy was that they were in an incredibly untenable position, logically speaking. Remember back in the seventies? Sexual politics, sexual speech is political speech, so it can't be censored? Feminists were absolutely right on that point! But now they were in the position of saying, “Well THIS kind of sexual speech … pornography … that we don't like ... it CAN be censored … and SHOULD be!”
The anti-sex feminists' solution was to try to frame pornography as a civil rights issue2. They said that pornography is innately harmful and degrading to women, that even pornography that simply showed women and men consensually having vanilla sex objectified the women and somehow made them less than human. Let's face it, it was a stretch, but they went for it big time, and of course, utterly failed. There are all sorts of speech, sexual and otherwise, that could be said to degrade various groups and subgroups, yet the government has not censored them. Censoring sexual speech on civil rights grounds would lead to being able to censor almost any kind of speech, most especially political speech which frequently impinges on civil rights issues, one way and another.
It was, shall we say, a limited victory, and sometime in the 2000s even that restriction was eased, with the current limits set at actual non-consensual stuff like filmings that involve non-consensual stuff like bestiality, actual rape and child porn. In short, sensible limits.
Eventually, in a long campaign of skirmishes and set-tos, the pro-sex forces had what amounted to a solid victory over the anti-sex forces, especially on the censorship issue, but also in most other regards, mostly because they had the numbers, but also because eventually everybody who was not a lesbian feminist separatist figured out that feminists in general and prudo-feminists in particular had lost most of their traction in mainstream American society while they were fighting each other. (The lesbian separatists may have figured it out, but you have to figure they didn't care.)
See, when the antisex feminists started talking about not just what kind of porn you could see but who could fuck who and how they could go about it, they sort of tipped their hands. They were clearly aiming at establishing a Directorate of Who Could Fuck Who In What Way And What Could Be Thought About That (like the one that used to control all thinking about sex in the US back in the 1950s) with themselves at the helm. And given what things had been like when the religious right types had run the Directorate (hint: they had sucked), nobody wanted a repeat with lesbian feminists at the helm.
"More speech, Master? Please?" Image source: Fucking Dungeon.
There is a lesson in the Feminist Sex Wars for us unapologetically male types who like a bit of female bondage now and then. It is that it's dumb to think all feminists are the same. I get so tired of reading about how “feminists want to censor everything, destroy the family, make all women lesbians” and similar stuff. Sure, some feminists want to do some of that stuff, and a very tiny few may want to do ALL of that stuff, but most feminists don't want to censor ANY pornography, either because they are sex-positive feminists and are not inclined to, or because they have decided there are much more important issues they need to deal with, like preventing ACTUAL rape, not fictional depictions of it, and fighting the sort of shit women have to put up in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia and the Congo, and/or they've decided that porn and sexuality are divisive issues within the feminist movement that have thoroughly fucked it up and should be quietly sorted out later.
There's absolutely no point in pissing the majority of feminists off unnecessarily. I'll grant you there is no love lost for us among many feminists, even those who are not anti-porn. Even those who might be putative allies of ours would in many cases regard even someone as liberal and fair-minded as me as “Not a DEADLY enemy, but completely disgusting.” The pro-sex feminists didn't take their positions in the hopes that it would please US or appeal to us, but because it was what was right to THEIR minds. Nevertheless, their approach is MUCH more appealing to us than the prudo-feminists. They have a right to their opinions, we have a right to ours.
Still, if you want your viewpoint to prevail in society, you don't go making enemies unnecessarily – as many anti-porn feminists have learned to their sorrow. There's a reason political scientists are always studying social groups, dividing them along this line and the other, seeing where the dividing lines among people are in terms of basic assumptions about how the world works, what people are like, and so forth. The goal of political types who study such things is to find the seams that make groups unite and divide and then divide their enemies and unite with their friends on the issues that matter to them.
We need all the friends we can get and we don't need more enemies, there are PLENTY of right wing prudes out there who hate sexual content just because it's sexual content, and there are some prudo-feminists who have not at all moved on the topic of censorship, they're still all for it. That's why I always call the feminists I oppose “prudo-feminists” and “anti-sex” feminists, not just "feminists." They are a minority of feminists, not the whole kit and kaboodle.
Here's the thing, the real point of the Sex Wars to my mind. We who enjoy maledom/femsub BDSM kind of NEED feminism to be successful. Why? Well it goes back to the feminists saying, " No means no" which is about rape, the idea that if a woman says "no" her voice should be respected, and all horseplay comes to a stop, in sexual terms. If you think about it, this is exactly what consensuality, as in "safe, sane and consensual" is all about. Pretty much all feminists agree on that one, as do almost all BDSM fans.
But if no means no, then the obverse must be true: yes must mean yes. If you must respect a woman's right to say "no" to most any sex act, you must also respect her right to say "yes" to most any sex act, even if the "yes" is to being tied and and spanked as foreplay, or to being tied and gagged during sex, even gasp, by a man! This, I think is what pro-sex feminists have grasped, that sexual agency extends beyond rejecting sex they don't want, to accepting whatever kind of sex they DO want. And since most BDSM folks are all about that kind of freedom, there's another point we are in agreement with feminists on. (And in fact "yes means yes" implies that women may participate in the production of porn as part of their sexual agency, so it's a point that porn producers can agree on too.)
"Mmmffgh mmmffgh mmmfffgh!!!" (Translation: "Yes yes yes yes yes yes!!!!") Image source: Sex and Submission.
But for "yes" to be meaningful, it has to exist in a context of freedom. Yes can't mean "yes" when your culture pretty much gives the answers to most sexual questions for you, as cultures have throughout most of human history. And it can be difficult to say "yes" in a context of relative freedom when you live in a culture that is not free. For example, I think we can all agree that a female slave who is ordered to her master's bed ... a real slave, say in Roman times ... might have opinions about whether or not she wants to have sex, but being a slave those opinions are moot. There is no agency there, no choice, so it's pretty much rape and an awful thing even if she is all for it. It's the denial of her choice, her right to say no, that makes it horrible.But what of a free woman who thinks she'd like to wear chains in bed and be spanked and ordered about and have to call her husband Master? Well, in ancient Rome that would have been a difficult proposition. In fact, for most of human history that was undoubtedly a difficult proposition, since for most of history and in most societies women just were not give a lot of choices about how they lived their lives, their husband pretty much WAS their master and they HAD to do what he told her, like it or not. Social custom sort of took the matter of "choice" and crushed it, and undoubtedly crushed a lot of human pleasure along with it.
Ok, I gotta comment on
this. I did a Google search for "feminist prude" to find
some backup for this, and what I found was roughly a billion sites
(OK, I did not ACTUALLY count them all) which either consisted of
feminists saying, "Feminists are not prudes and anyone who says
we are is trying to shame us into silence!" or prudo-feminists
and SNAG (Sensitive
New Age Guy) bloggers/writers saying, "I am not a prude, but
I don't like (this instance of) the sexy." Which is to say,
about a billion sites with prudes claming not to be prudes. It's
hilariously, EXACTLY like the phenomenon of the 90s in which almost
any public figure of any note, when advancing a proposal likely to
meet with the approval of feminists (like, say, equal pay for equal
work) would preface their statement with "I
am not a feminist, but ..." . That's because they wanted to
separate themselves from the feminists, who had pretty much
discredited themselves in the sex wars, even if they advocated
specific ideas (or in many cases, most of the ideas) associated with
feminism. It's the same thing here: when a writer/blogger says "I
am not a prude, but ..." they are being prudes, but don't want
to be identified as prudes, even as they advocate ideas favored by
prudes. Just so ya know.
2. MacKinnon and Dworkin, however, continued to discuss civil rights litigation as a possible approach to combatting pornography. MacKinnon opposed traditional arguments against pornography based on the idea of morality or sexual innocence, as well as the use of traditional criminal obscenity law to suppress pornography. Instead of condemning pornography for violating "community standards" of sexual decency or modesty, they characterized pornography as a form of sex discrimination, and sought to give women the right to seek damages under civil rights law.