Annotated Bibliography: The Sex Wars, 1970s to 1980s

Copyright (c) by Andrew McBride, 2008. All rights reserved.

Barry, Kathleen. “Beyond Pornography: From Defensive Politics to Creating a Vision.” In Take Back the Night, edited by Laura Lederer, 307-312. New York City: William Morrow & Co, Inc., 1980.

“This paper was the opening speech at the 1978 Feminist Perspectives on Pornography conference in San Francisco” (307). In it, Kathleen Barry describes why pornography is an issue on which feminists much focus their energies. The challenge mounted against pornography will be difficult, she says, because it is a large, legitimate business. She compares the fight against pornography with the fight against rape and the fight for abortion rights. By doing this, she positions pornography as a legitimate issue for feminism and characterizes the opposition against feminists surrounding each issue and their tactics as similar and therefore surmountable. She dismisses the attempt to frame the pornography issue in terms of free speech by appealing to “common sense” notions of the causal relationship between pornography and sexual violence (311). This is problematic in that she does not explain why it is common sense, she simply states that it is and leaves no room for disagreement.

Califia, Pat. “A Secret Side of Lesbian Sexuality.” In Sexual Revolution, edited by Jeffrey Escoffier, 527-536. New York City: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2003.

In this article, Pat Califia, now Patrick Califia, elaborates on the topic of lesbian sadomasochism. He challenges the invisibility and oppression experienced by sadomasochists within a variety of erotic communities. The piece is decidedly anti-assimilationist, with Califia stating on the first page, “We are not like everyone else,”(527) and describing S&M as “erotic blasphemy”(528). The tone takes on an extremely personal tone with Califia describing his own identities as both a sadist and a leather fetishist. He even goes into great detail in describing his typical interactions with potential sex partners. He provides an insider's view of a sexuality and a subculture that is often misunderstood and was a target of attack during the Sex Wars. He ends with describing sadomasochism as being “threatening to the established order” and by articulating a general call to arms for sadomasochists to become angry and stand up for their own rights (534). For more information on Pat Califia:

Chapkis, Wendy. “Chapter One: The Meaning of Sex.” In Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor, 11-32. New York City: Routledge, 1997.

In this chapter from her book Live Sex Acts, Wendy Chapkis outlines the various positions of both sides of the debate during the Sex Wars. She makes it a point to discuss the fact that the two sides in the Sex Wars, the “Radical Feminists” and the “Sex Radical” feminists, were not nearly as monolithic as often portrayed. Within “Radical Feminism”, she discusses the presence of both “pro-'positive' sex feminism” and “anti-sex feminism”. Within “Sex Radical” feminism, she outlines both “Sexual Libertarianism” and “Sexual Subversion”. She explains each position and goes through its faults and pitfalls, though she has a bias toward the “Sexual Subversion” viewpoint. One theme that pervades throughout this piece is that of prostitution. She uses it to help her explanation of each viewpoint and it is the central trope that drives her arguments. For more information on Wendy Chapkis:

Dworkin, Andrea. Pornography: Men Possessing Women. New York City: E.P. Dutton, 1979.

This book by Andrea Dworkin is a seminal piece in the feminist anti-pornography movement. She examines and closely analyzes both historical and contemporary pornography, from the writings of the Marquis de Sade to present-day magazines such as Playboy and Hustler. Not only does she examine pornography, but she also takes to task all of male sexuality as being violence and domination. This is exemplified in such quotes as, “[M]ale sexual aggression is the unifying thematic and behavioral reality of male sexuality” (57). Pornography is equated with violence against women in two fashions: first, in its production, in that it is abusive toward the women who are participants, and second, in its consumption, in that it is supposedly a direct of cause of men's eroticization of the domination of women. Dworkin's tone is angry and vitriolic. Most of her evidence is either anecdotal or her own conjectures upon examining certain isolated examples of pornography. For more information on Andrea Dworkin:

Ferguson, Ann. “Sex War: The Debate Between Radical and Libertarian Feminists.” Signs 10, no. 1 (Autumn 1984): 106-112.

In many respects, this article is similar to the Chapkis piece. Ann Ferguson fleshes out many of the distinctions between “radical feminists” and “libertarian feminists”. Very straightforwardly, she lays out four aspects of each ideology and then describes three paradigms that can be extrapolated from each. Her basic claim is that “radical feminists” focus on emotional intimacy, while “libertarian feminists” focus on physical pleasure. She then goes on to critique each position. Her major contention is that both sides express their viewpoints without contextualizing them. This makes them become polarized and leaves little room for a middle ground or for any sort of compromise. They see the other side as having nothing in common with themselves. She contends that this view of sexuality is faulty in that it does not take into account various complexities and intricacies. This article is available online at: For more information on Ann Ferguson:

Freedman, Estelle B. and Barrie Thorne. “Introduction to 'The Feminist Sexuality Debates'.” Signs 10, no. 1 (Autumn 1984): 102-105.

This article provides an introduction to the debates surrounding sexuality in feminism. Estelle B. Freedman and Barrie Thorne point out that, while sexuality had always been an important part of second wave feminism's critique of patriarchal values, it took on a new urgency in the 1970s with the emergence of the anti-pornography movement within feminism. The propose many questions that they leave for the reader to ponder and think about. They then give brief descriptions of the articles that will be following, each discussing the Sex Wars in a different light. For more information on Estelle B. Freedman: For more information on Barrie Thorne:

Hollibaugh, Amber and Cherrie Moraga. “What We're Rollin' Around in Bed With.” In Sexual Revolution, edited by Jeffrey Escoffier, 538-552. New York City: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2003.

This article takes a format different from the usual, in that it is a conversation between Amber Hollibaugh and Cherrie Moraga. Hollibaugh identifies as femme, whereas Moraga identifies as butch. They both agree that "the way feminism has dealt with sexuality has been entirely inadequate" (540). They discuss how, because of their identities as butch and femme, they have been pushed to the margins of acceptable lesbianism within the confines of lesbian feminism. They talk about what it means to be butch and what it means to be femme. The tone of the piece is highly personal, as each talks about her sexual and emotional experiences. They end with the offer of a challenge, that, just like feminist theory, women must also develop a sexual theory that incorporates both racial and class backgrounds. For more information on Amber Hollibaugh: For more information on Cherrie Moraga:

Newton, Esther. “The Mythic Mannish Lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the New Woman.” In Hidden from History, edited by Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, 281-293. New York City: Penguin Books Ltd., 1991.

In this piece, Esther Newton argues that Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness provides and important symbol of gender rebellion, the butch lesbian, or "mannish woman". She goes on to describe the two different generations of the New Woman and how their gender, sexuality, and gender relations differed from each other. With the second generation of the New Woman came a new definition of homosocial relations, that of lesbianism. This was defined by sexologists such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis in various ways, but it often rested on ideas of inversion and the "mannish woman". Newton asserts that Radclyffe Hall's character Stephen Gordon exemplified this new theory of inversion and became a model for certain types of lesbian behavior and expression. She opened a category of gender identity that allowed lesbians to transgress against traditional gender norms. For more information on Esther Newton:,2416,13694%255Fpeople%255F115407,00.html

Philipson, Ilene. “The Repression of History and Gender: A Critical Perspective on the Feminist Sexuality Debate.” Signs 10, no. 1 (Autumn 1984): 113-118.

In this article, Ilene Philipson criticizes those known as "pro-sex" feminists. Though they have found flaws and problems with the theories of the anti-pornography movement, she claims that they stop discussion by utilizing theories and ideas that are just as simplistic and ahistorical. While "pro-sex" feminists accuse the anti-pornography movement of not historicizing patriarchy, they are guilty of the same. They portray sexual repression instead of patriarchy as being timeless and unrelenting. They do not take into account the enormous changes in sexuality since the nineteenth century. Philipson also accuses them of glorifying the sexuality of men and denigrating the sexuality of women, as women as somehow seen as being more repressed in their sexuality than men. This article is available online at:

Rich, Adrienne. “Afterword.” In Take Back the Night, edited by Laura Lederer, 313-320. New York City: William Morrow & Co, Inc., 1980.

In this piece, Adrienne Rich, summarizes many of the arguments against pornography that were expressed in the rest of Taking Back the Night. She sees the collection of writings as being extraordinarily important in feminism and that they will remain important for years to come. She claims that pornography is about objectification, not sex. She points out something important that often gets left out of other anti-pornography writings, namely that pornography is not an "isolated 'social problem'", but that it is enmeshed in and a product of patriarchal society (316). She tends to universalize women's experiences, especially those of "Third-World" women. She claims that they are no different from the experiences of American women, but just of a different degree on the same continuum. Finally, she makes a rather grandiose claim in that statement, "Pornography is about slavery" (318). For more information on Adrienne Rich:

Rubin, Gayle S. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality." In Social Perspectives in Lesbian and Gay Studies, edited by Peter M. Nardi and Beth E. Schneider, 100- 133. New York City: Routledge, 1998.

In this extremely important article, Gayle Rubin lays the groundwork for a new theory of sex. She begins with describing certain historical periods when sexuality becomes more politicized than usual, such as the late nineteenth century and the late 1970s. She then goes on to elaborate in detail on six ideologies that have basically held sexual thought hostage. These are sexual essentialism, sex negativity, the fallacy of misplaced scale, the hierarchical valuation of sex acts, the domino theory of sexual peril, and the lack of a concept of benign sexual variation (106). She goes on to discuss the various ways in which sex laws have affected how various sexualities are viewed and treated. She then touches on various sexual conflicts, such as the feminist anti-pornography movement and how it has aligned itself with the right wing in the United States. In her last section, she speaks to the ways in which feminism falls short of properly addressing and theorizing sexuality. She concludes with a call for an autonomous theory of sexuality that is related to but separate from feminism. Just as Adrienne Rich's "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" is considered to be one of the major theoretical pieces of lesbian feminism, this work by Rubin is one of the cornerstones of "pro-sex" feminism. For more information on Gayle Rubin:,2777,19565%255Fpeople%255F92739756,00.htmlor

Russell, Diana E.H. and Laura Lederer. “Questions We Get Asked Most Often.” In Take Back the Night, edited by Laura Lederer, 23-29. New York City: William Morrow & Co, Inc., 1980.

In this article Diana E.H. Russell and Laura Lederer provide a small guide to the main views held and expounded by Women Against Violence in Pornography, or WAVPM. It is styled in a sort of “Frequently Asked Questions” format. They emphasize that the issue of pornography is not about free speech, but about abuse and the abuse of free speech. Much like Dworkin, they claim that pornography both permits and promotes violence against women and children. This document a short and succinct portrait of the values and views of the anti-pornography movement. For more information on Diana E.H. Russell:

“Sex-Positive Feminism.” Wikipedia. <> (18 December 2007.

This Wikpedia article provides a concise explanation of the viewpoints of “sex-positive” feminism. It begins with a short summary and then delves into the historical roots of “sex-positive” feminism. It then goes one by one through the major political issues important to “sex-positive” feminism, including pornography, sex work, sadomasochism, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The article includes debates that have occurred within “sex-positive” feminism and criticisms it has withstood from outside sources. The article ends with an extensive list of various resources, from scholarly essays to the blogs of various “sex-positive” writers and activists. As always, one must be wary when relying on Wikipedia articles. They cannot be used in place of scholarly resources as they are able to be changed an edited by anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. It is, however, valuable as a short introduction to and summary of the topic.

Stein, Arlene. “Sex, Kids, and Therapy: The Decentering of Lesbian Feminism.” In Sex and Sensibility: Stories of a Lesbian Generation, 123-153. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

In this chapter of her book, Arlene Stein examines how the lesbian community and understandings of lesbianism changed after lesbian feminism. She mentions how lesbian feminism was challenged by both the Sex Wars and women of color. Stein says that two themes emerged in her talks with lesbians who went through the “decentering of lesbian feminism”. One is a greater commitment to both work and family and the other is the changes that occurred in lesbian self-concepts. She mentions the increasing importance of therapy in the lives of many women. She also talks about the “lesbian baby boom” and the prominence of careers in the lives of many lesbians. When it comes to “pro-sex” views of lesbian sexuality, though many women repudiate an “anything goes” approach, Stein claims that the “pro-sex” viewpoint opened up space for more discussions around sexuality. For more information on Arlene Stein:

Stoller, Nancy E. “Lesbian Involvement in the AIDS Epidemic: Changing Roles and Generational Differences.” In Social Perspectives in Lesbian and Gay Studies, edited by Peter M. Nardi and Beth E. Schneider, 366-376. New York City: Routledge, 1998.

Nancy Stoller begins this article with a descriptions of both the feminist movement and the gay liberation movement. She points out that a significant distinction between lesbians and gay men was in views surrounding sexuality and sexual freedom. This caused major divisions that were long-lasting. With the coming of the AIDS epidemic, lesbians were both among the sick and the caretakers. Stoller outlines four dominant perspectives put forth by lesbians concerning the priority of AIDS. These ranged from lesbians making a distinctive contribution to equal rights for lesbians and women concerning AIDS resources to coalition-building with gay men to a reassertion of lesbian separatism. She concludes by pointing out the generational differences between lesbian AIDS activists. The earlier generation saw merely being out as a lesbian as being revolutionary, while the younger generation take being lesbian as a given and have been effected by explicit debates surrounding sexuality. For more information on Nancy E. Stoller:

Vance, Carole S. and Ann Barr Snitow. “Toward a Conversation About Sex in Feminism: A Modest Proposal.” Signs 10, no. 1 (Autumn 1984): 126-135.

In this article, Carole S. Vance and Ann Barr Snitow discuss the difficulties that arise when one begins to discuss sexuality in a feminist context. They say that one such difficulty is with the idea of the social construction of sexuality. Though it is “congenial to feminism” it is often misused. Another problem that they point out is the conflation of categories. They say that this is especially prevalent among anti-pornography feminists, who often conflate pornography, sex, and violence. The anti-pornography feminists also present a critique of pornography as if it were a comprehensive analysis of sexuality. They also explore the role of representations of sexuality and an unwillingness to explore differences of sexuality. The criticisms, though often directed at anti-pornography feminists, can also be applied to other participants in the debate. This article is available online at : For more information on Carole S. Vance:

Willis, Ellen. “Feminism, Morality, and Pornography.” In Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, edited by Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompsen, 460-467. New York City: Monthly Review, 1983.

This article by Ellen Willis, written in 1979 is “one of the earliest public feminist critiques of the growing anti-pornography movement” (460). She accuses anti-pornography feminists of degrading feminism into a single-issue movement without any larger political context. She says that they are able to ignore qualitative differences in pornography by saying that pornography is about violence against women, not sex. She also takes on the distinction that is often made between pornography and erotica, claiming that they aren't as clearcut of categories as most would assert and that there is a definite class component to the supposed differences between them. She also brings the pornography issue back to discussions of free speech and the First Amendment. To conclude, she asserts that, because the anti-pornography movement is respectable, it is in fact feeding the right wing backlash against feminism. For more information about Ellen Willis:

Wilson, Elizabeth. “The Context of 'Between Pleasure and Danger': The Barnard Conference on Sexuality.” Feminist Review 13 (Spring 1983): 35-41.

In this article, Elizabeth Wilson describes the ninth conference in “The Scholar and the Feminist” series. It was held at Barnard College and the topic was Sexuality. Throughout the essay, she explains many of the differences between conferences and debates in feminism in the American context as opposed to the British context, of which she is a part. This conference was when the Sex Wars came to a head between the anti-pornography feminists and the “pro-sex” feminists. She describes how the planning committee for the conference excluded anti-pornography feminists because “the whole of the American feminist debate on sexuality is now dominated by the 'anti-pornography' position” (35). She describes many of the aspects of the conference, such as the protesters stationed outside, the tone of various papers presented, and the workshops offered in the afternoon by such feminists as Gayle Rubin, Dorothy Allison, Shirley Walton, Esther Newton, and Kate Millet. She then details some of the fallout of the conference, such as a loss of funding, trouble from Barnard authorities, biased reporting in the national feminist magazine Off Our Backs, and a general deepening of the enmity between anti-pornography and “pro-sex” feminists.

Other Sources of Interest

Alderfer, Hannah, Beth Jaker and Marybeth Nelson. Diary of a Conference on Sexuality. New York City: Faculty Press, 1983.

Califia, Pat. Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1994.

Douglas, Carol Anne. Love & Politics: Radical Feminist & Lesbian Theories. San Francisco: ism press, 1990.

Duggan, Lisa and Nan D. Hunter. Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture. New York City: Routledge, 2006.

Gaines, Jane. “Feminist Heterosexuality and Its Politically Incorrect Pleasures.” Critical Inquiry 21, no. 2 (Winter 1995): 382-410.

McElroy, Wendy. XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography. New York City: St. Martin's Press, 1995.