|EROTICA and the
Feminist Sex Wars:
A PERSONAL HERSTORY
Copyright 1999 by Jean Roberta.
Back in the 1950s, when television and yours truly were both very young, a lot of spanking was shown on the small screen, as well as in movies. (Much of it was done to children in real life too, but that is another essay.) The unreal, Hollywood version lacked variety (always male dominant/female submissive, as I recall, usually done with a bare hand over layers of petticoats), but it was titillating, and it was the closest thing to sex ever shown on TV in those days.
These scenes were often set in the Old West, when Men were Men. The usual plot was along the lines of "The Heiress and the Cowboy" (which might be an actual title - I'm not sure): snooty and luscious heiress from the East arrives in a frontier town by stagecoach, complaining about the ride. From her first meeting with a local cowboy, she deliberately provokes him to get his attention. When his patience runs out, he pulls her over his knee and gives her what she has been pushing for. She pretends to be outraged, but soon apologizes and accepts his proposal. They live happily ever after.
The Good Old Days before censorship, you think? Not necessarily. In the real world, most grown women of the 1950s were housewives with no recourse if their husbands dished out nonconsensual abuse. The social climate was ultraconservative, and hundreds of liberal/leftist types were kicked out of jobs and driven to suicide in the United States by the House Un-American Activities Committee and local government bodies looking for "reds under the bed" as well as homosexuals and other sick deviants (anyone who did it out of wedlock, not in the missionary position). Everyone who was not a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant was likely to be seen as a sick deviant. Sexual abuse of women and children was uncontrolled because it was unmentionable. Shame applied to the victims, who therefore kept their mouths shut in public.
So why the kinky scenes on every TV in the land? Why do you think? To keep women in their place, maybe? Note that to this day, household products are advertized in the media by women who seem orgasmic over their effectiveness. The subtext about housework is what was hinted to me by my elders: Just wait until you find a man, honey. Housework as submission was assumed to be erotic for women, even in the absence of the Master for whom it must be done.
Then came the thaw of the 1960s: rock music! The counterculture! The Pill and the Sexual Revolution! Anti-government protests! ("Make love, not war.") The Civil Rights movement! Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and the rebirth of feminist theory! (Feminism had been a nineteenth-century movement for women's rights.) In 1969, some feisty patrons at a gay bar in New York fought back against the cops who had come to make a routine raid. The "gay rights" movement grew out of that protest, parallel to the movement for "Women's Lib." Spanking quietly disappeared from the screen as the popularity of Dr. Spock made it less acceptable even as a means of disciplining children.
The backlash against feminism was immediate, and has continued in various forms to this day. The Pushy Bottom Theory of Feminism was born. Reckless claims from this writer that females are human and therefore deserve human rights usually got the reaction (especially from young men) that feminists needed and wanted a good spanking, not social/political rights. Everything feminists pointed out as evidence of unbearable injustice (especially male violence against women) could be interpreted this way. If women were being bought, sold, raped, beaten and even killed all over the world, this could be seen as proof of the savage strength of female MASOCHISM. (Apparently men could hardly treat women badly enough.) If women were unpaid or underpaid and overworked, that was pointed out as another sign of women's submissive nature.
If I had actually been spanked every time this was threatened, I probably would not have been able to sit down throughout my teenage years. The threats alone were bewildering - why didn't the political movements against racism and militarism get this kind of reaction? Why was the whole idea of women's rights seen as a dirty joke?
The 1970s saw the implementation of feminist theory. Women's growing awareness of male violence as a social problem fueled the spread of safe shelters, rape crisis phone lines and counseling services, and political lobbying for fairer laws as well as fairer application of them. Working mothers needed accessible day care, and formed child care co-ops. They also needed better deals at work, so they joined or formed unions, and signed up for job training and all other forms of education. (It wasn't immediately recognized that upward mobility for some would lead to deeper class divisions among women.)
Lesbianism (still largely invisible in the culture at large) became an issue within feminism as lesbians struggled for recognition and heterosexual feminists struggled to avoid being "dyke-baited." The slogan "The personal is political" led women to examine every aspect of their lives (especially their "sex lives") for signs of oppression. Another slogan, "Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice," confused many about which was which and who was who. Working-class dykes sneered at the "political lesbianism" of college-educated lesbian-feminists, who sneered back at the political ignorance of working-class dykes.
One "politically correct" lesbian novel that seemed to thrill most self-identified lesbians when it first appeared in 1973 was RUBYFRUIT JUNGLE by Rita Mae Brown, featuring the androgynous heroine Molly Bolt (often confused with the author) who had all the glamor of a femme, the strength of a butch, the honesty of her southern working-class roots and the style of her college education. (Some feminist fans have never forgiven Rita Mae for writing other books on other subjects.) At about the same time, Rita Mae shook up the National Organization of Women by confronting the heterosexual members about their lesbophobia in a demonstration by the Lavender Menace, the lesbian caucus she helped form.
As feminism achieved some gains (mainly for married, college-educated white women who entered the professions in large numbers), announcements were made regularly in mainstream culture that "Women's Lib" was dead because it was no longer needed. Some women who gained entrance to places where women had formerly been excluded claimed they didn't need the feminist movement and never had.
By the 1980s, the movement for women's rights was facing schisms and diversity from within and stonewalling from without. In the United States, the time-limit for passing the Equal Rights Amendment ran out, and this bill died on the vine. (In Canada, a parallel piece of legislation became part of the new federal constitution in 1985.)
The 1980s backlash against feminism was documented in a nonfiction bestseller, BACKLASH by Susan Faludi. Several other women wrote books criticizing feminism and claiming that they "used to be" feminists before they outgrew the illusions of their youth. None of them actually seem to have belonged to feminist organizations at any time; all seemed to have conservative backgrounds. They took for granted their right to hold paid jobs and to get their work published under their own names.
Violence against women and children was now openly talked about, but it was painfully clear that emergency shelters and support for victims of sexual abuse were needed more than ever, because endless discussions about abuse hadn't diminished it. Dedicated feminists who worked for little or nothing in the shelters and the counseling centers watched in frustration as most abusers avoided negative consequences for their actions.No part of a traditionally male-dominated society was really equipped to deal with dominating men as outlaws or deviants.
The Soviet Union collapsed, and the Russian Mafia (along with the Colombian drug cartel and other underground corporations) arose as a force in international trade. The robber barons of capitalism (legal and illegal) increasingly gained the ability to control governments at every level, making feminist lobbying less effective in changing laws or in influencing economic conditions. Ethnic nationalism and religious fundamentalism gained strength all over the world, and the resulting changes of government often removed women's limited rights overnight.
Unequal access to well-paid jobs and to men's incomes deepened class divisions among women. While women who were already privileged swelled the ranks of doctors, lawyers and middle managers, the "feminization of poverty" accompanied the rise in the of single motherhood, as "unwed mothers" (as they used to be called) increasingly kept their babies and liberalized divorce laws enabled unhappy wives to escape from men who hadn't learned (after all this time and effort) to treat women as equals. Most divorced fathers showed their unwillingness to support their children, let alone ex-wives, and it became harder for anyone to believe in universal male chivalry or noblesse oblige. (The "men's movement" seems to be trying to bring it back, but that is another topic.)
Racism, closely associated with classism, seemed as entrenched in some feminist organizations as in the culture at large. Women who experienced "double discrimination" (lesbians, poor women, women "of color," girls under the age of majority, elderly women, the disabled) were often pressured to join competing movements or groups, none of which offered them adequate recognition or relief.
More relevant to sexual attitudes, the AIDS epidemic carried a scary message for people in general, but especially for sexual outlaws: reckless lust leads to doom, or the wages of sin is death. In North America, the new plague hit gay men first and hardest, and was seen by fundamentalists as God's punishment for "deviants." The increased risk associated with sexual freedom was the last straw for feminists who were already exhausted from fighting "sexist" concepts in themselves as well as in others.
Male violence (including sexual violence) hadn't slunk away in shame after being hauled into the spotlight; could it be biologically-based after all? Or could dominating men's sexual fantasies, promoted through "porn," be the cause?
Women's fantasies were not necessarily more acceptable. Many heterosexual feminists had been made to feel guilty about "sleeping with the enemy," but lesbian desire (if acted out exclusively) still tended to keep a woman marginalized, poor and subject to homophobic violence as well as the ordinary woman-bashing kind.
Besides this, it was never clear how the political ideal of universal equality could be expressed in sexual terms. If all women were to be "equal," did this mean that penetration in any form should be banned? Could any sexual contact be considered respectful, not a violation of boundaries?
Sexual fantasies about being protected and taken care of seemed disgustingly retro by feminist standards, but sexual fantasies about being aggressive were also Politically Incorrect and Male-Identified. Allowing room in one's head for such fantasies could seem like a sign that the men of the backlash were right all along: women are born to be slaves, but are also nasty bitches who need to be kept under control.
Feminists needed a scapegoat and an achievable goal. A new discovery was made: porn was the enemy! There was too much degrading sex in the media, and it was warping impressionable minds! (Especially one's own, but this wasn't said aloud.) If this form of brainwashing could be purged from Western culture, androgyny and equality would supposedly flourish everywhere. As an added bonus, being against porn meant that feminists could join forces with conservatives who wanted sex to be kept out of sight.
Parallel to the slogan "Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice" was an opposite slogan: "Pornography is the theory, prostitution is the practice." The white heterosexual college-educated women of the "mainstream" feminist movement, like the Victorian reformers before them, picketed the book and video stores that sold women and girls had been forced into it to inspire feminist outrage against "female sexual slavery."
The class bias of this moral crusade became clear to this writer, who (by 1981) was a self-supporting single mother scrounging a living from various jobs, including nude modeling for university art classes. This work could be considered as degrading (posing for clothed voyeurs who literally belonged to a privileged class) and as stressful (holding poses, some less comfortable than others, on command for long periods) as beng "objectified" in the photo spread of a porn magazine. However, my career as an art model was not seen as "sex work" by any of the feminists I knew, who did not seem to believe I had been "forced" into it by poverty. I didn't dare tempt their rejection by telling them I was also working for an escort agency. I doubted whether they would regard prostitution as "art."
So what exactly was "art" by anti-porn standards, and what was its connection to "life"? As a graduate student in English, I was aware that socially-unacceptable sex is a crucial element of the plots of most of the best-known nineteenth and twentieth-century novels and operas. I loved their tragic whores and adulteresses. Most anti-porn feminists seemed to feel that an act veiled in metaphors (like the extramarital trysts in THE SCARLET LETTER and LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER, the gay male seduction in THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, or the famous night in THE WELL OF LONELINESS when Stephen the dyke "was not divided" from her beloved Mary) couldn't be pornographic. It seemed as if vague euphemisms and the passage of time could transform stories of damning passion into literature which was above reproach.
Some feminists defended "erotica" (especially "feminist erotica") as a very different thing from "porn," although the boundaries were never clear. The National Film Board of Canada produced a documentary on "porn" called NOT A LOVE STORY, and this film became the manifesto of Canadian anti-porn feminists. Its title, along with the often-repeated claim that for (good) women, sex is more emotional than physical, raised questions about how to define "sex," let alone "porn."
Enter the sexual outlaws: while the anti-porn movement was heating up (or cooling down), Dominance/Submission or Sadism/Masochism (with its links to the sex biz) became increasingly visible in the cultural mainstream, especially in urban centers. Gender-specific (butch and femme) roles made a comeback in the lesbian and gay male communities. Not coincidentally, self-identified dykes, women "of color" and working class women increasingly organized apart from, or in opposition to, white educated feminists who argued for the regulation of porn, prostitution and violence by various branches of government.
The "pro-sex" and anti-porn communities provoked each other worse than the heiress had ever provoked the cowboy. A book of feminist essays linking porn and violence against women would no sooner appear in print than a book against censorship and government regulation of sex would appear. In 1982, a pioneering lesbian SM group (identifying themselves as "feminist") in San Francisco published an anthology, COMING TO POWER. Almost immediately an anthology of "feminist" essays, AGAINST SADOMASOCHISM, appeared. Women's and other "alternative" bookstores, under pressure to take sides, either banned "pro-sex" (especially SM) material from their shelves or tried to show fairness by displaying books from each camp in their windows.
This cultural and political divide was played out in my social life with other lesbians. Working-class dykes were generally better in bed (just as they bragged), even if they hadn't read the new lesbian sex books, because they had none of the squeamishness of "politically correct" lesbian-feminists. On the other hand, my conversations with women who could discuss ideas were more stimulating than my conversations with women who didn't read. When I tried to promote literacy, I was usually accused of preaching conventional values.
Several other college-educated lesbian-feminists "came out" to me as survivors of childhood sexual abuse, a topic which could now be mentioned aloud. They wanted the feminist movement to lobby government to intervene more effectively to (1) protect the public from the harmful influence of porn, and (2) protect innocent children from "unfit" parents and caretakers. As the lesbian prostitute mother of a child of mixed race, I could guess what "unfit" might mean to a typical social worker. When some of my "sisters" also suggested that enforcers of the law should "protect" women from prostitution (by throwing more whores in the clink), I was further alarmed.
By the mid-1980s, one of the regulars (a man in his 60s) from my stint with the escort agency was regularly visiting me at home, and I strenuously kept him away from the women in my life. (He didn't see why, and often suggested a threesome.) The lesbian-feminists I knew, apparently smelling something male, tended to drift away. The non-reading dykes did the same as soon as they realized that I would never be "normal" by their standards. My life, like the "women's movement," lacked coherence.
The polarization of sex-positive and anti-porn approaches was crazy-making even on a purely ideological level. If androgyny was now boring, as many born-again butches and femmes were saying, why was Molly Bolt so popular in her time? Did no one remember Molly, or the writer who created her? Did no one remember Germaine Greer, a sassy Australian feminist who wrote magazine articles in the early 1970s about her sexual adventures with men she had no interest in marrying? Sex for her was hot, wet and groovy.
But if all erotic expression was now chic, did that include the sexual harassment of women in "non-traditional" occupations by men determined to drive them out? If the spankings of the 1950s were back in style, did that mean the morality of the 1950s was back too? Mass rapes in various wars were now openly reported in the media, making it clear that rape as a military strategy was a widespread method of destroying the lives of those defined as the "enemy." How cool could this be by any feminist (or humanist) standards?
DS or BD or SM was a philosophical pretzel in itself. It had several features I found appealing: it sounded like theater (with scripts, scenes, costumes, props), it was not vague, it promised orgasms and catharsis for the novice/slave/victim and luscious, forbidden power for the Mistress or Master, and it involved rules, suggesting a code of honor which all true players were committed to upholding.
This feature especially appealed to me after I had spent too much time in feminist groups run by women who claimed that any formal group structure was "patriarchal." These groups always had an unofficial structure consisting of ruling clique which could never be voted out because they had never been voted in. As a result, the groups couldn't withstand conflict and fell apart faster than my relationships. In an SM scene, democracy might still be nowhere in sight, but by the Goddess, everyone would know who was who and what was what.
On the other hand, I remembered being threatened with spankings for my outrageous belief that I and all other women should be able to exercise the rights we already had in theory. Was SM just the latest expression of male backlash, even among lesbians? Anti-porn feminists thought so. Was it a diversion from more serious political work? And if so, could women afford to be diverted at a time when things seemed to be getting worse?
As if to dramatize these qualms, a few women began showing up in the local gay bar in black leather and heavy metal. They did not seem to have anything in common with me. On principle, I defended their freedom of choice to scandalized lesbian-feminists who saw these outlaws as a threat to all they held dear.
At the same time, if leather dykes represented "sex-positive" culture, and possibly the future of the queer community, I didn't see how there could be room for me in it. There seemed to be only one way I could possibly earn a tiny shred of acceptance from the likes of them. Why go there after escaping from an abusive husband in the 1970s? Why defend that sexual style at all if it was only going to bring back snobbery ("reverse" or not), as well as the same control and abuse that anti-violence feminists were trying to stamp out with the slogan "Zero Tolerance"? A plague on both their houses.
The Siege of Atlanta (remember GONE WITH THE WIND?) in the civil war between American feminists over sexual imagery was the legal fight over the Minneapolis Ordinance in the mid-1980s. When I attended the International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal in 1988, I met the lawyer, Catherine McKinnon, who was hawking unbound photocopies of this law which she had drafted with anti-porn feminist Andrea Dworkin, complete with background information. This sheaf was thicker than any of Dworkin's books. In brief, the city ordinance (intended to be a model piece of legislation which could then spread to other cities and higher levels of government) identified pornography as an expression of violence against women, and allowed victims of actual violence to bring criminal charges against "pornographers" (writers, producers, distributors of material defined as porn) without having to pay for private lawsuits. This, according to McKinnon, was progress.
The possibility that women might be defined as pornographers under this law seemed to have escaped her, but it did not escape the "pro-sex" women at the book fair, including lesbian artist, writer and photographer Tee Corinne, probably best known for her CUNT COLORING BOOK, also published as LABIAFLOWERS. I was warned that McKinnon's buddy Dworkin had a dangerous ability to work up a crowd into a lynch-mob frenzy.
At this time, feminist publications were full of items about the progress of the ordinance. A group of concerned citizens (including relatively well-known erotic and/or lesbian writers) quickly formed an ad-hoc committee to oppose it. They failed to block passage of the ordinance by Minneapolis City Council, but they kept up the pressure and helped to get it revoked. By this time, a pro-ordinance group (including other "feminist" literary divas) had formed. Women writers stopped speaking to other women writers. The ordinance was eventually killed, and has not been revived since.
The original plan of Dworkin and McKinnon to get this particular law passed throughout North America seems to have died before 1990, but they have served as advisers to American AND Canadian government bodies, since their agenda fits in with that of some officials who don't even claim to be feminist.
Government-run boards or committees for the regulation of controversial reading and viewing material actually existed for a long time before anti-porn feminism was born. In the early twentieth century, an obsessed employee of the United States Post Office named Anthony Comstock persecuted his many enemies, including nurse Margaret Sanger who coined the term "birth control" and founded an organization, Planned Parenthood, to provide needed information on sex and reproduction, two related topics which were largely unmentionable in her time. Comstock made it his mission to disrupt the spread of "obscene" material (including biological information now taught in schools) through the mails. "Comstockery" entered the language as a synonym for censorship. Comstock's effect on American culture was such that the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once refused to tour the United States for fear of being arrested for writing controversial plays.
Governments in general tend to be in a no-win position regarding anything currently considered controversial (and the scandalous topics of today are not those of yesterday). Governments are often called on to maintain general standards of "decency" by setting limits on what can be published, circulated, shown or performed. On the other hand, voters in supposedly democratic countries like to believe they are free to choose what to read, see and think. What's a politician to do? Appoint someone else (the current Comstock) to do the dirty work.
Censorship in Canada is further complicated by Canada's economic and cultural relationship with the United States. Most art (loosely speaking) in North America is produced in the country that contains 90% of the continent's population, so Canadian booksellers and video stores import reading and viewing matter from American producers and distributors. Limiting the type of material which can be legally bought, read or shown in Canada is largely a matter of patrolling the border. (A popular button of the 1980s shows an American flag with the slogan: "Keep your porn and your guns.") While Americans who disapprove of "porn" have to admit that the devil is loose (so to speak) in their own culture, like-minded Canadians can claim that much of it is a foreign import which does not meet local "community standards."
So anti-porn sentiment in Canada has a vaguely patriotic flavor that it doesn't have elsewhere. The trendiness of this sentiment in the 1980s seemed to encourage a small number of individuals, none directly responsible to the Canadian voting public, let alone to women or to feminists, to make sweeping decisions about what Canadians could legally get their hands on. And although most Canadian provinces have had a federally-funded feminist "action committee" (affiliated with the National Action Committee on the Status of Women) since a ground-breaking government study on the status of women was done in the late 1960s, Canadian feminists were so divided on the issue (or just plain confused) that government boards were free to do what they would without much opposition. This led to several disasters that hit the media in the 1990s.
The problem seemed small at first: a gay/lesbian bookstore started by two gay men and a lesbian in Vancouver in 1983 began attracting the attention of Canada Customs, which had to clear the bookstore's frequent orders of books, magazines and other items from American sources. A contact person warned the store owners that if they continued to order (homo)sexual material, Canada Customs was prepared to cut off their supply. By then, the bookstore (Little Sister's) had become a gathering-place for the Vancouver queer community, and the owners did not want to disappoint their customers. The warning was ignored.
Canada Customs dropped its bomb in time for Christmas 1986: box after box of goodies from the U.S. was seized at the border. The two men who were the remaining owners of Little Sister's were told by their lawyer that going through Canada Customs' internal appeal process would involve an expensive court case. They realized that they would have to go public and take the offensive, or go bankrupt.
The first protest rally for the bookstore was held outside the Vancouver office of the Conservative federal minister responsible for Customs. The protesters demanded the replacement of the Customs officers responsible for the seizures and also demanded a re-evaluation of the regulations which allowed individual officers to decide what is and is not fit to be seen in Canada. Glad Day, the Toronto gay/lesbian bookstore, was currently suing Canada Customs for seizing THE JOY OF GAY SEX at the border in 1986.
No one at Canada Customs made an official response, but within days, some of the detained material found its way back to Little Sister's. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association offered to support Little Sister's in a general court challenge to Canada, not just an appeal of particular seizures. The legal basis for this daring move was the Charter of Rights (mentioned earlier in this essay) which was part of the new Canadian constitution. So on the level of federal Canadian law, equal rights for women were associated with ANTI-censorship.
The court case which was eventually heard from October to December of 1994 was a three-ring circus. Little Sister's called in an array of expert witnesses, including the American authors of some of the banned books. A key issue under debate was whether customs officers could put their personal prejudices aside when applying obscenity laws to particular reading and viewing material. The expert witnesses for the government claimed that legal concepts of "obscenity" and "pornography" have no connection with sexual orientation OR with personal bias.
All models, actors, actresses and other persons that are depicted in this site were over the age of 18 years when the images were produced