Life in America: The Reagan Years, A Webography

The Sex and Culture Wars: A Very Short Introduction

The feminist sex wars and lesbian sex wars, or simply the sex wars or porn wars, were the acrimonious debates within the feminist movement and lesbian community in the late 1970s through the 1980s around the issues of feminist strategies regarding sexuality, sexual representation, pornography, sadomasochism, the role of transwomen in the lesbian community, and other sexual issues.  The debate pitted anti-pornography feminism against sex-positive feminism, and the feminist movement ended up deeply divided as a result.  The feminist sex wars are sometimes viewed as part of the division that led to the end of the second-wave feminist era.

Source:  "Feminist Sex Wars."  Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  8 Dec. 2010.  Web.  15 Dec. 2010.

For a more thoughtful overview of the sex and culture wars, please see Lesbian History: The Sex Wars (part of a web project created by Professor Esther Newton and her students at the University of Michigan), Lesbian Sex Wars (an entry for the qlbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer culture), Forum: The Feminist Sexuality Debates (from a 1984 issue of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society), and "The Fireworks at the Sexuality Conference: Whom Should Feminists Fuck?" (by Marcia Pally, from The New York Native circa 1982).

Web Resources about the Sex and Culture Wars

Second Wave Feminism

Score: 17

Summary: In this section from an article, “Feminism’s Identity Crisis,” author Cristen Conger looks at the beginnings of second-wave feminism with the Vietnam War, and the formation of various women’s rights groups such as NOW (National Organization for Women), NYRW (New York Radical Women), and WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell). This section focuses mainly on the causes of the second wave of feminism, as well as the primary concerns of the wave (rape, abortions, workplace equality, domestic violence, etc.) and the spreading and diversifying of the movement that would result in later tensions.

Evaluation: While having a relatively mundane title, this website is surprisingly informative. After the entirety of the article, there is a complete bibliography, as well as links to various related content. The website is also of good standing, sponsored by Discovery, a trusted company in charge of Animal Planet and the Oprah Winfrey Network. While the author may not be an expert in women’s studies, she does hold a degree in journalism, which allows her a good level of credibility. Considering the sponsorship of the website, however, it can be logically reasoned that any writer would be one of integrity. 

Pat Califia

Score: 16

Summary: This page is a general entry about activist Pat Califia, divided logically into various sections, the most notable being ‘Lesbian Wars’ and ‘Califia’s Writings,’ which discuss Califia’s contributions to the previously named ‘Lesbian Sex Wars’ and the sex wars as a whole. The website also provides strictly biographical information about Califia, from her childhood to her gender reassignment surgery to present day. Throughout the entry, there is a heavy focus on Califia’s support of sado-masochism in the lesbian community, as well as her public activity regarding the issue.

Evaluation: Majorly factual, this entry in the glbtq online encyclopedia is free from any obvious biases or slants. It presents clearly sourced information, and is written by a continuing site contributor with a link to the author’s credentials and past submissions. The website as a whole is constantly updated with new content and information, and although this particular entry is nearly six years old, it provides necessary information about Califia in relation to the sex wars. This entry, as well as its parent site, GLBTQ: The World's Largest Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture, is a wonderful source for content regarding the sex and culture wars in its entirety.

Lesbian Feminism

Score: 16

Summary: This entry about lesbian feminism in the glbtq online encyclopedia explores the origins of lesbian feminism as its own separate branch of feminism, but also the complications with lesbian identity in the movement. Exploring the butch/femme mentality that divided the lesbian community, the article also touches on rejection of lesbian culture within the greater feminist movement. Throughout the entry, the political activism of lesbian feminists and their tendency for radicalism as a collective are also highlighted, communicating the cultural and politic impact lesbian feminism had on the feminist movement as a whole.

Evaluation: As a part of the glbtq online encyclopedia, this article already holds a great deal of credibility, especially when one notes the sizeable bibliography and that the article was written by a history and women’s studies professor (Elise Chenier). Considering the article was updated five years after its creation and the specialization of the online encyclopedia in LGBT issues, this entry should be considered valid and relevant by even the most cautious of readers.

In Harm's Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings

Score: 15

Summary: This article is a review/summary of “In Harm’s Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings,” the compilation of court transcripts edited by Catharine A. MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, discusses the court cases related to the ordinances proposed by MacKinnon and Dworkin in Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Massachusetts. The article goes into detail about the nature of the hearings, as well as the link between each case in relation to the definition and view of porn shared by MacKinnon and Dworkin, discussing the denying of civil rights to all people, and the correlation between porn and abuse of women.

Evaluation: The reviewer, Gloria C. Cox, shies away from particular bias, looking instead at the structural integrity of MacKinnon and Dworkin’s compilation, as opposed to the argument that is naturally hidden in the information. Cox also establishes credibility for herself, as a representative of the Department of Political Science at the University of North Texas, as well as a link to the Law & Politics Book Review. Although the site isn’t necessarily current, it is appropriately aged for the date of the publication of “In Harm’s Way,” and therefore timely.

The Anti-Pornography Movement

Score: 15

Summary: Addressing the anti-pornography movement as a whole, this student-written paper focuses “on the shift of movement activity, from radical feminists to conservative women,” surveying the cohesiveness of anti-porn feminism and right wing morality. The paper also focuses on homosexuality, minorities and ideological division within the feminist movement, as well as the Christian right’s stance and one of its rare alignments with radical feminism, each separate topic under its own heading.

Evaluation: Despite being a student-written paper, this source demonstrates exceptional citation skills, with ever source and picture clearly cited. The paper explores both sides of the debate, although not entirely without bias, but remains grounded in fact and relevant citations. Through its extensive research, the paper provides a thorough but general insight into the anti-pornography that is useful in the acquisition of a broad and extensive knowledge about the topic.

Prostitution and Civil Rights Speech

Score: 15

Summary: In her speech contained within the Michigan Journal of Gender & Law, Catharine MacKinnon speaks out against the violation of women’s liberty in prostitution, and the lessening of civil rights imposed by what she calls “sexual slavery.” MacKinnon especially touches on the treatment of women in prostitution, calling to attention The Green River murders and speaking about the treatment of women as sexual property. MacKinnon also talks about the unconstitutional nature of prostitution, as it violates the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendment explicitly, and goes on to truly define the situations that may be deemed prostitution, bringing up consent and lack of consent in these paid sexual acts and eventually relating prostitution back to pornography.

Evaluation: The web version of this speech includes extensive footnotes referencing court cases and other sources, which add a level of credibility past MacKinnon’s emotional appeal. As a radical anti-porn feminist, MacKinnon words are understandably biased, but the inclusion of factual evidence strengthens otherwise emotional claims. Although found on an unknown, privately hosted website, the speech is credited to MacKinnon, with its source material clearly stated before the body of the speech, cementing that it is indeed an original speech by MacKinnon.

Controversy Develops Over Lesbian S&M Group

Score: 14

Summary: This article recalls the story of a feminist S & M group that tried to hold meetings at the Cambridge Women’s Center in Massachusetts in November 1982. According to the article, the group was denied the privilege to use their facility for their meetings, because “S & M is not a feminist stance.” The news story highlights the tensions surrounding sado-masochism within the larger feminist community, demonstrating a further divide between feminists on the issues of sexuality and sexual practice among women in a traditionally oppressive and sexually violent patriarchal society.

Evaluation: “Controversy Develops Over Lesbian S & M Group” is an effective source for anyone looking to find out more information about the rift between sex-positive and anti-sex feminism, because the article relies on personal testimony from both sides of the controversy. It should be taken into account, however, that the article was posted in the Gay Community News, and makes mention of lesbian sado-masochism, which suggests a possible slant in favor of S & M.

Ellen Willis

Score: 14

Summary: The Ellen Willis tumblr page features a large collection of works written by the Willis from the 1960s to the 2000s. The site is split up into 6 categories (Women and Sex, Politics, Pop Culture, Religion, The World, and Rock Criticism) chronicling the deceased Willis’ range of work on many different topics. Each category contains a list of works in chronological order, with source included. On the main page, a small amount of biographical information is included, as well as links to Willis’ books and the organizations she was affiliated with during her lifetime.

Evaluation: Although a tumblr page, which is by definition a social network, this website features a comprehensive collection of Ellen Willis’ works, covering a wide variety of topics for anyone interested in the feminist professor. All materials featured on the site are written by Willis, which avoids any issues of authenticity. The website does have the opportunity for users to submit texts by Ellen Willis, but these are filtered through the e-mail account of the page’s maintainer - which is also available for the reporting of broken links – to prevent any fraudulent links. For anyone looking to find information about a prominent radical feminist, this is a online archive not to be missed.

Catharine MacKinnon Summary

Score: 14

Summary: A comprehensive summary of Catharine MacKinnon’s life and ideologies, this website provides brief biographical information, and a broken down outline of MacKinnon’s views of sexual harassment, pornography, international law, and political theory, as well as her opponents, major works, and notable court cases she was involved in. The website focuses primarily on MacKinnon’s work to ban pornography, and her radical approach to procuring rights for women, as well as her continued fight (socially and legally) against fellow feminists in favor who were in favor of pornography.

Evaluation: This source is a particularly thorough examination of Catharine MacKinnon, supported by extensive bibliographical information. Yes, the entry itself lacks an actual author or credentials, but the web page is kept honest by the amount of sources used, which provide an easy authenticity check. Lacking bias entirely, this source is purely factual, presenting useful and factual information easily upheld by its sources. Although caution should always be used in deciphering a source’s trustworthiness, the solid foundation of sources makes this link a readily usable one.

The Andrea Dworkin Online Library Catalog

Score: 11

Summary: The Andrea Dworkin Online Library Catalog is a vast database of information about anti-porn feminist Andrea Dworkin, featuring speech transcripts, fictional works, essays, and articles by the author and activist, among many other materials. In addition to the physical works of Dworkin, there are also more personal materials available, including interviews and (auto)biographical information. The website allows visitors to browse through this large archive of materials about and by Dworkin, all separated into categories, ranging from the obvious divisions of ‘fiction’ and ‘speeches’ to ‘In Solidarity with Nicole Brown Simpson’ and ‘The Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance.’

Evaluation: Personal pages are generally not sources of valuable and reliable information, but The Andrea Dworkin Online Library Catalog is a reliable resource, as it surrounds one of the major feminist figures of the ‘Sex Wars.’ Although full of notable personal bias, this bias is necessary for a comprehensive understanding of feminist attitudes in the 1980s. This source should not be used as a factual reservoir, but rather as supplemental material from one of the foremost anti-porn feminists of the century.

Content created by Gary Strain.