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The Feminist Sex Wars: Radical Feminism Against Sex-Positive Feminism

A 50-year-old struggle about porn, BDSM, and prostitution that still rages on

books about sex and BDSM
Our kinky library of sex-positive books. Photo by the author.

In support of feminism

I am a feminist. However, I feel that I need to qualify this by saying that I support sex-positive feminism and I oppose radical feminism.

Feminism is one of the most righteous and successful social movements in history. In its century and a half of existence

  • it has gotten women the right to vote

  • incorporated women into the workforce

  • defended the rights of women in the workplace

  • gave them access to all professions and political power,

  • granted them the right to control their body, their sexuality, and reproduction

  • defended them against violence and sexual abuse

  • among other things.

That women should enjoy equal rights to men is a no-brainer. It derives from the most basic principles of justice. It is also clear that men stand to benefit from that equality. We all stand to gain from the triumph of feminism.

The fight for equality is not over. Much remains to be done, particularly in the developing world. Still, recognizing past successes gives us hope that complete equality is achievable and that we will get there sooner rather than later.

The dark side of feminism

All that needed to be said because this article is about the dark side of feminism. Nothing of what I will say here should be construed to deny that achieving equality is a worthy and important goal. However, like in any other human enterprise, mistakes are made. People, even with good intentions, hijack good social movements to further nasty goals.

The 70s was an interesting decade, often forgotten in comparison with the enormous energy and the earth-shattering social changes of the 60s. A lot of those changes were deepened, cleaned, and consolidated in the 70s. However, the love and positivity of the 60s turned to anger and negativity in the 70s. That’s what happened to feminism.

Some feminists decided that it was necessary to push back against the sexual liberation of the 60s. At that time, contraceptives had become publicly available, freeing women from the fear of getting pregnant. Now they could have sex for fun, just like men had been doing. These academic feminists cautioned that sexual liberation was an evil in disguise. It hid the fact that women were being exploited by men. This was especially clear in three evil things: pornography, sadomasochism, and prostitution.

Because it initially targeted pornography, this form of feminism was labeled anti-pornography feminism. More recently, people who embrace this ideology have chosen the label of Radical Feminism. Never mind that they have often allied themselves with repressive forms of conservativism and religious intolerance. Although radical feminism does not always overlap with anti-porn feminism, that’s the label that I will use in this article.

On the other side, we have Sex-Positive Feminism. A careful look at the history of feminism in the last 50 years reveals that it has been split between these two camps. Some may argue that this division was a phenomenon of second-wave feminism. I used to think so, but after reading articles and comments against pornography and sex work, I concluded that the Feminist Sex Wars still rage on today. They include wars on sexual intercourse, pornography, BDSM, sex work, and trans women.

The war on sexual intercourse: ‘Penetration is rape’

The quote ‘penetration is rape’ is attributed to Andrea Dworkin, a famous radical feminist, in her book Intercourse. She later denied having written that. The problem is that she used such convoluted language that it can be interpreted either way. It hardly matters because some radical feminists continue to state to this day that penetration is rape. Others get all tied up in rhetorical knots about it.

Where does this outrageous statement come from? Radical feminists see penis-in-vagina (PIV) intercourse as an act of domination of women by men. Alternatively, they claim that men see PIV as an act of domination. It doesn’t matter what men think, they don’t get a say in the matter. Radical feminists know better what is inside men’s heads.

The rejection of intercourse started as a criticism of Freud’s idea that PIV was a sign of mature sexuality, while oral and anal sex denoted being stuck in some stage of childhood. Psychoanalysis is not grounded on empirical observations, so it has a lot of made-up ideas like that. Radical feminists latched on to this and took the opposite position. For them, the only politically correct pleasure for women was from the clitoris, either as masturbation or as oral sex. Men want PIV because it pleasures them, not the woman. Or perhaps because they want to relegate women to a reproductive function. Women who enjoyed fucking had to be reeducated in types of sexuality that do not serve to appease the male desire.

The war on pornography

Radical feminists condemn pornography, arguing that it only serves the pleasure of men and involves the exploitation of women. For them, the porn actress is an exploited woman, led to do this type of work by social circumstances that impoverish her. They argue that women’s sexuality is such that if they could really choose, women would never expose their bodies for the pleasure of men. Of course, men also appear in porn, but radical feminism doesn’t care about them.

In the 70s, the main activity of radical feminism was to initiate campaigns to prohibit and punish pornography, in many cases allying itself with the most reactionary Right in pursuit of this objective.

These arguments against pornography have been superseded today because the attitude of women about porn has gone through a profound change. While in the 70s women did not watch much porn, their consumption of it has been steadily increasing. Therefore, it is no longer true that porn is exclusively for the pleasure of men.

Even more surprising was the tremendous increase in amateur porn done by women. Contrary to what is claimed by radical feminists, many women are exhibitionists who enjoy showing their bodies and being watched while doing sexual acts. In, for example, you can find thousands of amateur nude pictures and sex videos posted by women. Recently, many young women sought to monetize their exhibitionism by posting their videos in places like OnlyFans. This has erased the boundary between exhibitionism and sex work. Therefore, porn does not necessarily exploit women. It can be seen as another way for women to express their sexuality.

The war on BDSM

For radical feminism, sadomasochism is the clearest demonstration that male sexuality is full of violence towards women. According to it, while most men repress their violent instincts, sadomasochists act openly on them. They degrade, mistreat and humiliate their ‘victims’ and, by extension, all women.

Radical feminists overlook the fact that a considerable number of men are masochistic or submissive. Conversely, many women are sadistic or dominant. Men and women can also be switches, people that alternate between topping and bottoming roles.

Radical feminism tried to explain the fact that many women enthusiastically engage in BDSM by saying that they have internalized the sexual violence of the male. Alternatively, women may be re-enacting the violence that they have suffered in the past. They explain male submission as a response of some men to feelings of guilt generated by their own sexual violence. All this reeks of paternalism and condescension. Radical feminists presume to know the minds of BDSM practitioners better than they do.

These explanations are vigorously rejected by the large and well-organized BDSM community. Scientific research shows that BDSM is healthy and different from violence. One study showed that BDSM practitioners were as mentally healthy as the general population. A survey of 975 men and 1,046 women in the USA showed that more than 30% had engaged in spanking, 20% in bondage and 13% in whipping, and that 8% had attended BDSM parties.

Every generation discovers BDSM through their own movie. It was Story of O in the 70s, Nine and a Half Weeks in the 80s, Secretary in the 2000s, and 50 Shades of Grey in the 2010s. With each one, the social acceptance of BDSM steadily increased. Sadomasochism has gone from being the obvious target of radical feminists to being a subject they prefer to avoid.

The war on prostitution

Largely defeated on the pornography and BDSM fronts (never mind intercourse), radical feminists focused on prostitution. They see the prostitute as an exploited woman who would never choose that job if she didn’t find herself in a situation of extreme poverty or even slavery. They have achieved big successes with their relentless identification of prostitution with sex trafficking.

However, the standard narrative of sex trafficking is largely a myth created to support anti-prostitution laws. It tells us that women in poor countries are kidnapped by force, sold by their relatives, or deceived by a pimp, and then taken to a developed country to be prostituted. See the new Netflix series Sky Rojo for an example of this narrative. It erases the sex workers that do it voluntarily and who try to speak for themselves through their own organizations.

The reality is far more complex and largely unknown. There are almost no studies on the percentage of prostitutes that are sex trafficked, probably because they are suppressed so that they do not reveal inconvenient truths. The only study I could find was by the United Nations Office On Drugs and Crime and showed that about 20% of the prostitutes in Europe could be considered victims of exploitation. But even that 20% are not the sex slaves that they are portrayed to be. The underlying reality is that of millions of women in poor countries who live in such unsafe and miserable conditions that they would do anything to migrate to Europe or the USA. Once here, some turn to prostitution to survive or to pay the debts incurred to enter illegally.

So, yes, there is human trafficking, but instead of consisting of kidnapped women, is of people willing to spend all their resources and risk their lives to get here. And, yes, there is the exploitation of women, but it is not limited to sex. Immigrant women work in inhuman conditions in the garment industry, as maids, cleaners, etc. Sex work only looks different through the puritanical view that there is something sacred about sex. We should worry more about the worldwide system of economic injustice than about the titillating narrative of sex trafficking.

In any case, the best way to avoid sexual exploitation is to decriminalize sex work. This would give these women the same protection as any other worker. It would also help to identify and protect those doing it involuntarily.

The biggest success of radical feminism against prostitution is in the Nordic Model, so-called because it was initially adopted in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland. It was later taken by Canada, France, Ireland, and Israel. It consists of the criminalization of the clients and not the sex workers themselves. It is opposed by Amnesty International. The model is considered successful because it has led to a fall in prostitution in these countries, but in that regard, it may not be different from standard prohibition like the one in the USA. Sex workers argue that the model still prosecutes them and forces them to engage in high-risk activities. Similarly, the SESTA/FOSTA laws passed in 2018 in the USA substantially decreased the safety of sex workers by eliminating ways they could check their clients online.

Today, prostitutes have organized in many countries to combat the paternalistic attitude of radical feminists. Many new forms of sex work have appeared in later years: escorts, sugar babies, professional dominatrices, and financial domination. It is no longer clear what is prostitution and what is not.

The war on trans women: Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism (TERF)

Behind all these anti-sex ideas, there is a background of contempt for male sexuality, even hatred of men. Male sexuality is considered inherently domineering and violent, and therefore hurtful to women. There is also a whiff of the conservative idea that men’s sexuality needs to be confined inside marriage.

When transsexuality came to the foreground in the 2000s, a group of radical feminists declared that people transitioning from male to female were not women. They wanted to exclude them from women’s spaces and deny them the benefits of transgender rights legislation. Blogger Viv Smythe popularized the term Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism (TERF), which has gained widespread acceptance. In 2020, the Feminist Party of Spain, a radical feminist organization, was expelled from the coalition Unidas Podemos (now governing with the socialists) because of its TERF ideology.

The push-back: the birth of sex-positive feminism

Opposition to radical feminism began in the late 1970s and early 1980s on the West Coast of the United States. Feminist journalist Ellen Willis was one of the first to denounce it for its puritanism, authoritarianism, and threat to free expression. The controversy spread quickly. Nevertheless, radical feminism achieved an important victory in October 1980. The National Organization for Women (NOW) adopted their ideology by declaring that the ‘Big Four’ — pedophilia, pornography, sadomasochism, and sex in public — are acts of exploitation, violence, and invasion of privacy.

However, sadomasochists had been organizing. The Eulenspiegel Society of New York appeared in 1971 and the Society of Janus of San Francisco in 1974. Samois was a lesbian BDSM group spun off the Society of Janus. It included the famous writer Patrick Califia (then Pat Califia). A group of radical feminists from San Francisco, “Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media”, attacked Samois and organized pickets against them. Samois’ lesbians were not cowered and began the first battles of the Sex Wars. During the 80s, new BDSM organizations appeared in all major American cities: Black Rose in Washington, DC, Threshold in Los Angeles, People Exchanging Power in Houston.

It was a long struggle, which raged through the 80s and persists until today. Radical feminists enjoyed the backing of NOW and the support of feminists departments of many American universities. However, sex-positive feminists were more successful in communicating with the wider public. Their message was more in tune with the American spirit of liberty and free expression. Sex-positive feminists like Carol Queen, Susie Bright, Judith Levine and Patrick Califia wrote funny, popular books, full of sexy anecdotes, while the books of radical feminists were tiresome tirades in postmodern jargon. Stores like Good Vibrations popularized sex toys for women. Today, podcasts like the Savage Lovecast promote sex-positive culture throughout the world.

Will the Sex Wars ever end?

Most young people today have never heard of the Sex Wars and the struggle between radical feminism and sex-positive feminism. Both types of feminism share many goals (contraception, abortion rights, protection of women against violence, fair employment laws), but their differences on sex issues are so profound that we could well talk about two different feminisms. Many people support one while being adamantly opposed to the other.

Although the sex-positive culture appeared inside feminism, by now it has become its own movement. It joins LGTB movements, BDSM organizations, and other forms of alternative sexuality. Many people inside these movements cannot coexist with radical feminists.

Radical feminism is becoming increasingly unpopular, but it still advances its goals by disguising itself as regular feminism. Radical feminists are in positions of power: in the media, as professors of feminists studies in universities, as high-ranking officials in government. For example, in 2018, sex workers in Spain tried to unionize to defend their rights, forming the union OTRAS. The union was declared illegal by Magdalena Valerio, the Minister of Work of the interim socialist government. The Spanish socialists of the PSOE — currently in power — have adopted the ‘abolitionist’ ideology of radical feminism in favor of the prohibition of sex work.

Feminists often sweep under the rug their differences with radical feminists, hindering progress in the sex-positive issues of the Sex Wars. To avoid confrontation, middle-of-the-road positions are forged. On pornography, they pretend that there are good kinds and bad kinds of pornography. On intercourse, they ignore the multiplicity of female orgasms and defend the supremacy of the clitoris. Sex workers are being thrown under the bus. Trans women are marginalized.

Radical feminists are not softening their position. They are doubling down. For a while, their hatred of men was kept undercover, a vague subtext of their contempt for male sexuality. But now it is coming to the surface. People are not shying away from hate speech, like saying “men are trash” or even openly declaring that they hate men. Let’s hope that the Sex Wars do not turn into a War of the Sexes. Meanwhile, conservatives are laughing at the division among progressives and preparing Trump’s Second Coming.

Feminism was never about women fighting against men and much less about hating men. It was about progressives, women and men, fighting against the patriarchy. The patriarchy is not men. It is “a social system in which men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property” (Wikipedia). Although that system primarily oppresses women, in the long run, it does not benefit men, either. When we start identifying the patriarchy with men, the core values of feminism are lost. In a war of half of humanity against the other half, there can be no winners.

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