Sex wars (also known as feminist sex wars) describes the ideological schism among activists in the women’s liberation movement in the early- to mid-1980s over politically correct sexuality versus radical sexuality and femme-butch expression.
In the late 1970s, conservative feminists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon declared pornography to be not just degrading, but physically harmful to women. They drafted anti-pornography legislation that was adopted by a handful of American cities. Feminist sexual radicals argued that women had a right to pornography and unconventional sexual expression if they desired, including masculine/feminine identities and role play. Lesbians questioned the politically correct sexuality of the 1970s, and shifted toward tolerance of radical sexual style modeled on sado-masochism (S/M or S&M) that incorporates fetish and Leathersex as legitimate Lesbian sexual expression.
History: Politically Correct Sexuality
Beginning in the mid-1970s, factions within the feminist movement disagreed over sexual values. Lesbian feminists felt marginalized by the mostly Straight feminist leaders, and some sought to form separatist Lesbian-feminist communities such as Lesbian Nation, free from heterosexual influences. Political correctness among Lesbian feminists did not just dictate dress, money, language, and sexual identity. It functioned to smooth out any discrepancies in social, economic or sexual power so all Lesbians would be equal within the movement.
Butch-femme (masculine-feminine) identities and relationships were not acceptable because butches were too male-identified and femmes too Straight-acting, and therefore considered enemies of Lesbian equality. Lesbian-feminist communities did not tolerate eroticism that involved sexual power play or raw physical sexuality because such eroticism validated what they considered to be elements of patriarchy. Lesbian-feminists advocated non-monogamous relationships to eradicate any similarities to heterosexual coupling. Buttons appeared with the slogan “Smash Monogamy!”
In the late 1970s, however, a radical movement emerged to reclaim so-called deviant sexuality. Led by the Lesbian-feminist collective Samois (named after the estate of dominatrix Anne-Marie, a fictional character from Story of O) and two of its founders, Gayle Rubin and Pat Califia, the sex radicals argued that pornography and sadomasochism were as much a part of Lesbian sexual spectra as any other variations. “Some feminists object to the description of S/M as consensual,” says Califia. “They believe that our society has conditioned all of us to accept inequalities in power and hierarchical relationships. Therefore, S/M is simply a manifestation of the same system that dresses girls in pink and boys in blue.” She decries the willful erasure of erotic desire based on power dynamics in favor of egalitarian solidarity: “They [Lesbian-feminists] are high priestesses of feminism, conjuring up the wimmin’s revolution. As I understand it, after the wimmin’s revolution sex will consist of wimmin holding hands, taking off their shirts, and dancing in a circle. Then we will all fall asleep at exactly the same moment.”
Radical Sexuality During the Sex Wars
In 1979, Samois published the first pamphlet about Lesbian S/M, What Color is Your Handkerchief? A Lesbian S/M Sexuality Reader, mimicking the folk language of the Gay male Leather community and claiming it for sexually radical women. Certain colors indicated sexual preferences usually associated with Gay men (olive drab: a preference for military uniforms, dark blue: anal sex). A hanky in the left pocket signaled top/dominant, while the right side meant bottom/submissive.
Multiplicity of Sexual Identities
The radical trend gained momentum, and the ideological arguments for and against politically correct sexuality reach a peak in 1982. Barnard College sponsored a “Feminist and the Scholar” conference where feminist leaders evaluated the movement’s attitudes toward sexual evolution. Samois leader Gayle Rubin presented her influential essay, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” introducing a sexual radicalism wherein all forms of sexual identity and consensual behavior are allowed.
Lesbians would be free to claim folk identities as dykes, daddies (mature masculine), tops (penetrators), bottoms (penetrated), dominant, submissive, butch, femme, and so on. These identities would be accompanied by sexual practices unencumbered by politically correct ideas, including bondage/discipline, S/M, role play, pornography, toys, fetishes, and activities like stripping or casual sex traditionally identified with male sexual privilege. To achieve that end, a group of sex radicals founded the Lesbian Sex Mafia (LSM) in 1981 in New York. Like an East Coast version of Samois, LSM emphasized sexual play and S/M education over espousing a feminist political ideology. Members were encouraged to explore “fantasy and role playing, bondage, discipline, S/M, fetishes, costumes, alternate gender identities and uninhibited sexual expression in a safe, sane, consensual and confidential way.”
In 1984, San Francisco-based writer Susie Bright founded the Lesbian sex magazine On Our Backs in 1984, taking on the role of sexpert for Lesbian readers still figuring out the sex wars. Penetration and use of dildos in sex was considered too male-identified among Lesbian-feminists in the 1970s. But in the 1980s, Bright cheerfully claimed, “ladies, the discreet, complete and definitive information on dildos is this: penetration is only as heterosexual as kissing. Now the truth can be known! Fucking knows no gender.” Another reader asked worriedly, “I’ve found a new fetish that is very unsettling… curiosity prompted me to put my dildo in my 501’s [and] the contrived bulge was a major turn-on. How do I incorporate this desire into my feminist ideology?” Bright responded with an attitude typical of the liberal side of the sex wars. “The real question is: how can feminist ideology incorporate your desires?”
Aftermath of the Sex Wars
Furor among Lesbian sex radicals and their conservative counterparts ebbed in the late 1980s, when the realities of the AIDS epidemic eclipsed their ideological differences. Remnants of radical sexual expression, however, remain, while anti-pornography feminism has mostly disappeared. In New York City, the Lesbian Sex Mafia has held regular meetings and field trips to monthly women-only play parties hosted by S/M activists. In support of gender diversity, Trans and Intersex people are also LSM members, a sign of inclusiveness and tolerance of difference coming from the arguments raised during the sex wars.
Bright, Suzie. “Toys for Us.” On Our Backs, 1, 1, 1984, p. 13.
Bright, Susie. Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World. San Francisco: Cleis, 1990.
Califia, Pat. Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex. Second Edition. San Francisco: Cleis, 1994, 2000.
Coming to Power: Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M. Edited by members of SAMOIS, a lesbian/feminist S/M organization. Third Edition. Boston: Alyson, 1983.
Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Edited by Carol S. Vance. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.