A Literary History of Feminist Sex
A ten-week college-level course
Designed by Annie Atura in consultation with Petra Dierkes-Thrun
Hustler cover, June 1978. Larry Flynt, famed Hustler editor (against whom a famous case was brought in Hustler vs. Falwell), claimed his magazine’s goal was to expose the hypocrisy of political correctness.
Syllabus, p. 3
Course rationale, p. 5
Sample class materials, “Pornography and the Sex Wars” unit:
Take-home research assignment, p. 8
Example for Close Reading: Legal Research on Obscenity Law in Massachusetts, p. 9
In-class activity, p. 11
Accompanying worksheet, p. 12
Handout: historical background and questions, p. 13
Bibliography, p. 19
A Literary History of Feminist Sex
This course endeavors to consider feminism’s slippery relationship to the body through texts that extol, scorn, or otherwise contend with sex’s sway over and integration with the female subject(/object). Through an eclectic mix of canonical and popular texts, we will explore how authors think through what happens to a body in the act of sex and how ways of living and being are built around conceptions of the sexual and/or chaste woman. Reading an array of work that spans from Sigmund Freud to Audre Lorde, from erotic literature to anti-pornographic polemic, we’ll earnestly seek to understand why authors over the past century have reached such disparate conclusions about the role sex should and does play in women’s emotional, political, physical, and spiritual self-expression. The course will provide a context for contemporary rhetorics of female “empowerment” and “sex-positive” feminisms, and students will be encouraged throughout the course to relate the historical narrative sketched by the texts to contemporary constructions of feminism, obscenity, and pop sexuality. The generically diverse works will be discussed in a way that draws out the theoretical in the literary and the literary in the theoretical. Students will grapple with questions concerning the nature of the explicit as a legal, philosophical, literary, and sexual category, and will explore the problems and potential of bringing female pleasures to public consciousness.
Assignments (outside of reading, participation, and small daily assignments) will consist of 1) three short (1-page) exploratory response papers to a text, to be submitted within a week of that text’s appearance in class; 2) daily questions, to be emailed an hour in advance of the course to the instructor; and 3) a final research paper that situates one of the literary texts in light of an appropriate historical or theoretical framework.
Liberating Sex as a Concept
1. Sigmund Freud, “Dora” case study
Jane Gallup, Feminism and Psychoanalysis (excerpts)
2. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 (excerpts)
The New Woman
1. Kate Chopin, The Awakening
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (excerpts)
2. Kate Chopin, The Awakening (ctd.)
1. Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind (excerpts)
1. Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness (excerpts)
Hysteria, Pathology, and Psychic Development
1. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Phyllis Chesler, Women and Madness (excerpts)
2. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (ctd.)
Elaine Showalter, Hystories (excerpts)
1. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland
2. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (excerpts)
Gilman, “Women and Economics” (excerpts)
Explicit Female Sexuality
1. Audre Lorde, “On the Uses of the Erotic”
Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (excerpts)
2. Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Pornography and the Sex Wars
1. Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women (excerpts)
2. Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex”
Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (excerpts)
Deconstructing the Body
1. Monique Wittig, The Lesbian Body (excerpts) and Wittig’s brief theoretical justification
Eve Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (excerpts)
2. Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body
S&M and its discontents
1. Pauline Réage, The Story of O with the original introduction by Jean Paulhan
2. E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey (excerpts)
The course I’ve designed has three interrelated goals: 1) to familiarize students with the evolving historical relationship of feminism to sex as manifest in both popular and theoretical texts, thereby educating them in both literary analysis and in history; 2) to unseat students’ notions of a hegemonic and/or consistent feminism by presenting feminism as a dynamic enterprise that is both historically situated and constantly challenging itself; and 3) to challenge processes of canonization and to think critically as feminists about the production of WGSS syllabi and their coincident dogmas. The course is designed for students mature enough to discuss sex and sexuality as important theoretical concepts and cultural constructs—that is, they must have reached something resembling college-level maturity. Though students must enter with a certain degree of comfort with talking about sex, however, the course also endeavors to equip students with the tools they need to articulate more clearly how sex functions as an important legal, theoretical, and emotional battleground. It will soon become apparent that we aren’t reading about sex for “pleasure” as commonly construed (though it’s my hope that the pointedly popular and often whimsical reading list will attract students who would otherwise not consider themselves to be literary scholars).
Students are intended to leave the course with a sense of how the struggle over what sex means offers an inroad into exploring and ultimately understanding any number of contemporary issues facing women and feminism. Whether or not the personal is political, the question of whether or not the personal is political is certainly political. It is ultimately the question of whether we can divorce sex from meaning or fantasy from reality, and whether we would want to if we could, that I would like students of the course to consider. Indeed, the class will challenge students to consider whether the two poles (political vs. apolitical personal praxis) really exist at all, or whether the fact that one must wrestle with the question of whether sex is political means that sex will always be political, that it must always symbolize something other than itself—even in cases in which it symbolizes precisely the explicit and un-symbolic and seeks to resist identification with politics altogether.
The arc of the reading assignments endeavors to prepare students to deal with increasingly knotty dilemmas for the feminist writer and consumer. The course begins with a basic background in the psychologization of female sex—via the Freud case study—and in the psychologization of that psychologization—via Foucault. I hope that this difficult pair of theoretical texts (together with the Gallup, which valiantly attempts to recuperate Freud for feminists) will provide a useful framework for both reading into sexuality and for being skeptical of our desire to read into it. Each of the scholars is attempting to grapple with what sex means even as they produce a kind of literary pornography themselves; each graphically depicts sex and violence (especially in fantasy) and emphasizes the psychic import of making fantasy explicit.
The Awakening, a classic in the feminist canon, will follow on the heels of the theory to ease students into a discussion of how sexuality has been historically understood as both a liberating force for women and one that leads inexorably to their dissolution and demise. (The Awakening, the reader will recall, is the story of a housewife and mother who discovers sexuality but effectively abandons her children and finally walks into and drowns in the very sea that symbolizes her desire.) In conjunction with A Room of One’s Own, The Awakening will also help to articulate how and why space is such an important concept in thinking through questions of how sexuality is enabled and performed.
Gone with the Wind and The Well of Loneliness will both present alternatives to the liberated Edna of Chopin’s imagination: these women, though also sexually “liberated,” express that liberation not only by acting like men but also by adopting many vices and blind spots that are coded masculine. These texts, which feature feminist anti-heroes, express ambivalence about the mayhem that springs from sexual awakening (as the Chopin does), and their tendency toward romance and melodrama will be an interesting entrée into the importance of genre in texts by and for women about women’s relationship to sex (a theme that will be most pointedly recapitulated in the Williams text, which focuses on the nature and meaning of genre).
The Bell Jar and Woman and Madness will continue the theme of dissolution accompanying the recognition of injustice in sex, but it will be the first text we read to obsess over the injustice of women’s forced identification with sex as meaning. That is, in Plath, sexuality is meaningful in explaining hysteria precisely because it means for women and does not mean for men; in Plath, men have sex because sex is understood to be a natural need, but women’s very identity and development are culturally cathected with their sexual experience or lack thereof. The Showalter will help to trace and stretch the historical roots of hysteria and its relationship to the feminine and to sex. (After all, it would be doing students something of a disservice not to have a section on hysteria in a class about female sexuality, and I don’t want to assume that students will enter with a fully formed concept of what hysteria has historically signified and why it’s an important concept in unfolding the canon of mad heroines.)
Herland and The Feminine Mystique will be something of a break for the students; they’re both sublimely readable and upbeat texts whose basic stance towards sexuality will likely feel familiar to the class. Both present the emancipated woman as a citizen who wants much more than sex, and who yearns for concrete triumphs outside the home and for connections with other women (this is a simplification, of course, but a useful one). Plath’s gripping story of self-destruction and alienation in the face of a blatantly inhospitable world presents the feminist relationship to sex as one of loathing, resentment, and disgust, and the Gilman and Friedan texts largely share that attitude; but where Plath’s work presents a dystopic reality the Friedan and Gilman offer a utopic fantasy. These two fiction-heavy weeks will present something of an idea of how and why some feminists approach sex as a threat to their well-being and to that of their society. These texts also juxtapose the isolated female against the community-oriented, social female, and point up the importance of the literary project itself in fomenting feminist community.
Having established basic fictional background in feminism’s relationship to sexuality writ large, the class will move into exploring what sex as an act comes to signify in literature. The next segment will weave “On the Uses of the Erotic” and Fear of Flying together to introduce explicit female sexuality and consider why making female sexuality explicit was a transgressive and historically meaningful act. Fun Home will extend this idea to homosexual sex—we will explore why Bechdel’s confessional style and open homosexuality are important thematically—but the graphic novel will also complicate the idea that ascribing meaning to sexuality is necessarily healthy. (After all, as we discussed as a class, the book suggests that Bechdel’s meaning-making is, to a certain extent, symptomatic of her neuroses and insecurities.)
I chose the subsequent section on Pornography and the Sex Wars to unpack in my sample class materials because it demands historical grounding more than some of the other syllabus categories do—not only because it inhabited a very specific potent (and entertaining!) historical moment in the 70s and 80s, but also because without careful historical contextualization on the part of the professor the assigned sources about pornography might overwhelm students unaccustomed to thinking about obscenity and pornography against the cultural grain, i.e., through the lens of the social critic rather than that of the consumer. The texts—by Dworkin, Rubin, and Williams—all contend with the boundaries (or lack thereof) between fantasy and reality, and they take pains to close-read texts even as they incorporate rigorous historical research. The methodological montage within each of these texts (which are otherwise quite different) will be a fruitful jumping-off point for the class to consider what it means to produce feminist research and what it means to read with a feminist eye on the lived experience of women’s sexual practices.
The section on “Deconstructing the Body” offers a cerebral step back from pornography into the realm of the body as a purely discursive construct. The theme of all three texts—Wittig, Winterson, and Sedgwick—is how language becomes embodied, and how feminists can intervene in language to deconstruct and reconstruct the body in accordance with their own ideologies. It’s my hope that this rather heady work will make more sense after the assault on the senses of the pornography week. These works, too, are concerned with how and what the body means, but they all but entirely erase the pornographic sense (or fiction) of a whole and intelligible body.
The final week, “S&M and its Discontents,” offers two strange, fun, and unapologetically salacious texts—both runaway commercial successes—that make no outward claims to feminism, and yet whose raison d’être is to explore how and whether women can reclaim agency through surrendering it. One book considered high-brow and the other low-brow, both are extremely intense love stories between a single man and a single woman, and both are told from the point of view of a woman who is effectively seduced into masochistic role-play (if “role-play” can be said to extend to an entire lifestyle). It’s my hope that by closing on this note students will be able to flex their newly developed critical muscles to come to their own conclusion about the role of feminism in popular erotic literature in their own cultural milieu.
The assignments I have devised grew from my desire to bring the questions raised by the course to life, to force students to inhabit them and to consider them seriously in the context of history and of their own personal/political/personal-political lives. It’s important to me that the course constantly challenge the students to examine their own beliefs and to consider what these issues’ very intimate ideological demands say about them as issues. Therefore, in addition to providing handouts that paint a general historical background with which to understand both the texts and the evolution of the feminist movement in the U.S., I will ask students to do research into how these issues have actually been interpreted legally, socially, and scientifically. The options listed in the take-home assignment are designed to afford students an opportunity to approach pornography from a disciplinary angle that they’re comfortable with or otherwise invested in. Hopefully, the research will complicate the ways the students think about defining and controlling pornography, and will force them to consider the real-world implications of theorizing pornography as well as the potential illogic of theorizing pornography.
The second activity I provide, an in-class activity, requires group metacognition about how these texts are conveyed and metabolized. It’s my hope that the group work will spark productive disagreement about how fictional texts could be construed to advance or detract from the causes of anti-pornographic and anti-censorship feminism, and that the worksheet/checklist will bring out interesting patterns in which aspects of pornography (particularly as identified by Dworkin) are to be found in texts that contend to be anti-pornographic. Assigning students to a side of the debate will, I hope, encourage students to suspend their personal biases in the interest of exploring both systems of thought and collaborating with peers who potentially hold conflicting values with an open mind.
The overall aim of the course—an ambitious one, admittedly—is to make students more reflective, motivated, historically grounded, and disciplinarily flexible feminist thinkers. It aspires to give them a better theoretical toolkit with which to make personal and political readings and decisions of their own. I hope these materials will be of use to teachers and students who might use them to inspire their own courses and private investigations.
In preparation for the first class of the “Pornography and the Sex Wars” unit, choose a take-home research assignment from the following. The information you’re looking for may be in the public domain and available through simple Googling, but it may require recourse to databases to which the university subscribes. For example, you will probably want to look in scholarly databases for psychology, sociology, and/or anthropology if you choose 3-4, and you may need to consult legal databases for more esoteric responses to 1 or 2. Keep in mind that a librarian will be well equipped to help you with your research, should you find yourself stuck; they can be very beneficial in getting the hang of navigating scholastic sources. Do not just search on the web and come to class with sources of dubious historical and/or scientific accuracy.
The options are:
- Uncover and compare three legal definitions of “pornography” since the turn of the twentieth century. What strikes you about these definitions? Does their evolution follow a clear narrative/historical arc? If you’re interested: how are these definitions practically applied in contemporaneous court cases?
- Disinter at least two sets of contemporaneous definitions of “pornography” and “obscenity.” How are they distinguished? How does that distinction evolve?
- Consider at least two studies of the effects of pornography on the brain (i.e., physiological, not social) published in peer-reviewed journals within the last ten years. Do they affirm or contradict the cultural criticism we’ve read?
- Compare at least two studies of the social (i.e., not physiological) effects of pornography published in peer-reviewed journals within the last ten years. What are the conclusions of these studies, and what are their assumptions?
Bring copies of the pertinent materials to class and be prepared to discuss your findings. We will be close reading the texts as a group with an eye on the following questions:
- Where do your sources differ and where do they agree?
- Is there language that suggests value judgment? Is there language that’s unusual, provocative, jarring, or otherwise of interest?
- How clear or ambiguous are the definitions and/or assertions of the sources, and what do you think is the rhetorical use of that clarity or ambiguity?
Please consider the next pages for an example of research on obscenity and pornography law in Massachusetts.
Example: Obscenity definition
The following information is drawn from official government documentation available at http://www.lawlib.state.ma.us/subject/about/obscenity.html.
Contemporary legal definitions pertinent to pornography law in Massachusetts:
Section 31. As used in sections twenty-eight, twenty-eight C, twenty-eight D, twenty-eight E, twenty-nine, twenty-nine A, twenty-nine B, thirty and thirty D, the following words shall, unless the context requires otherwise, have the following meanings:—
“Disseminate”, to import, publish, produce, print, manufacture, distribute, sell, lease, exhibit or display.
“Harmful to minors”, matter is harmful to minors if it is obscene or, if taken as a whole, it (1) describes or represents nudity, sexual conduct or sexual excitement, so as to appeal predominantly to the prurient interest of minors; (2) is patently contrary to prevailing standards of adults in the county where the offense was committed as to suitable material for such minors; and (3) lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.
“Knowing”, a general awareness of the character of the matter.
“Lascivious intent”, a state of mind in which the sexual gratification or arousal of any person is an objective. For the purposes of prosecution under this chapter, proof of lascivious intent may include, but shall not be limited to, the following:
(1) whether the circumstances include sexual behavior, sexual relations, infamous conduct of a lustful or obscene nature, deviation from accepted customs and manners, or sexually oriented displays;
(2) whether the focal point of a visual depiction is the child’s genitalia, pubic area, or breast area of a female child;
(3) whether the setting or pose of a visual depiction is generally associated with sexual activity;
(4) whether the child is depicted in an unnatural pose or inappropriate attire, considering the child’s age;
(5) whether the depiction denotes sexual suggestiveness or a willingness to engage in sexual activity;
(6) whether the depiction is of a child engaging in or being engaged in sexual conduct, including, but not limited to, sexual intercourse, unnatural sexual intercourse, bestiality, masturbation, sado-masochistic behavior, or lewd exhibition of the genitals.
“Minor”, a person under eighteen years of age.
“Nudity”, uncovered or less than opaquely covered human genitals, pubic areas, the human female breast below a point immediately above the top of the areola, or the covered male genitals in a discernibly turgid state. For purposes of this definition, a female breast is considered uncovered if the nipple or areola only are covered.
“Matter”, any handwritten or printed material, visual representation, live performance or sound recording including, but not limited to, books, magazines, motion picture films, pamphlets, phonographic records, pictures, photographs, figures, statues, plays, dances, or any electronic communication including, but not limited to, electronic mail, instant messages, text messages, and any other communication created by means of use of the Internet or wireless network, whether by computer, telephone, or any other device or by any transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data, or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, electromagnetic, photo-electronic or photo-optical system.
“Performance”, any play, dance, exhibit, or such similar activity performed before one or more persons.
“Obscene”, matter is obscene if taken as a whole it
(1) appeals to the prurient interest of the average person applying the contemporary standards of the county where the offense was committed;
(2) depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way; and
(3) lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
“Sexual conduct”, human masturbation, sexual intercourse, actual or simulated, normal or perverted, any lewd exhibitions of the genitals, flagellation or torture in the context of a sexual relationship, any lewd touching of the genitals, pubic areas, or buttocks of the human male or female, or the breasts of the female, whether alone or between members of the same or opposite sex or between humans and animals, and any depiction or representation of excretory functions in the context of a sexual relationship. Sexual intercourse is simulated when it depicts explicit sexual intercourse which gives the appearance of the consummation of sexual intercourse, normal or perverted.
“Sexual excitement”, the condition of human male or female genitals or the breasts of the female while in a state of sexual stimulation or the sensual experiences of humans engaging in or witnessing sexual conduct or nudity.
“Visual material”, any motion picture film, picture, photograph, videotape, book, magazine, pamphlet that contains pictures, photographs or similar visual representations or reproductions, or depiction by computer, telephone or any other device capable of electronic data storage or transmission. Undeveloped photographs, pictures, motion picture films, videotapes and similar visual representations or reproductions may be visual materials notwithstanding that processing, development or similar acts may be required to make the contents thereof apparent.
Contemporary Massachusetts law concerning “obscene books”:
Section 28C. Whenever there is reasonable cause to believe that a book which is being disseminated, or is in the possession of any person who intends to disseminate the same, is obscene, the attorney general, or any district attorney within his district, shall bring an information or petition in equity in the superior court directed against said book by name. Upon the filing of such information or petition in equity, a justice of the superior court shall, if, upon a summary examination of the book, he is of opinion that there is reasonable cause to believe that such book is obscene, issue an order of notice, returnable in or within thirty days, directed against such book by name and addressed to all persons interested in the dissemination thereof, to show cause why said book should not be judicially determined to be obscene. Notice of such order shall be given by publication once each week for two successive weeks in a daily newspaper published in the city of Boston and, if such information or petition be filed in any county other than Suffolk county, then by publication also in a daily newspaper published in such other county. A copy of such order of notice shall be sent by registered mail to the publisher of said book, to the person holding the copyrights, and to the author, in case the names of any such persons appear upon said book, fourteen days at least before the return day of such order of notice. After the issuance of an order of notice under the provisions of this section, the court shall, on motion of the attorney general or district attorney, make an interlocutory finding and adjudication that said book is obscene, which finding and adjudication shall be of the same force and effect as the final finding and adjudication provided in section twenty-eight E or section twenty-eight F, but only until such final finding and adjudication is made or until further order of the court. It shall be an affirmative defense under this section if the evidence proves that the defendant was a bona fide school, museum or library, or was acting in the course of his employment as an employee of such organization or of a retail outlet affiliated with and serving the educational purpose of such organization.
Imagine you’re either an anti-censorship or an anti-pornography feminist in the tradition of the texts we have read this week. (We’ll assign “teams” in class.) Brainstorm with your group about how your kind of feminist might interpret the texts we have read together thus far. Which texts would they want to include on their own syllabi, and how would they teach them? (Assume that you don’t have time to teach them all; you must prioritize.) Can you think of other materials you might include? Books you’ve read? Movies you’ve watched? Primary materials—visual, audial, and ephemeral, as well as written?
In the last twenty minutes of class, each group will present their envisioned syllabus and articulate the rationale behind assembling it.
To help you fully consider which texts to include and how to support including them, please complete the attached table with your group. Which aspects of potentially problematic pornography does each text include, and how does it mobilize those aspects? A few spaces are left blank for you to enter and analyze texts of your own choosing.
Laying Claim: Texts as Anti-Porn or Anti-Censorship
Which texts include which aspects? What do those aspects signify in their respective contexts?
|Non-normative sexuality||Explicit sexuality||Violence against women||Association of men or masculinity with power||Glorification of pain||Association of sex with freedom|
|Freud, “Dora” case|
The Bell Jar
|Hall, Well of Loneliness|
|Rubin, Thinking Sex|
|Williams, Hard Core|
Pornography and the Sex Wars!
A historical background
The so-called “Sex Wars” (also “Feminist Sex Wars” or “Porn Wars”) marked a period of sharp internal disagreement in the feminist movement. In the simplest terms, it pitted two camps of feminists against one another. One camp sought to protect women from the perceived violence of sex and sexuality in contemporary culture by banning pornography and hypersexualization in the media and by combatting demeaning sexual practices; the other camp sought to empower women by defending and promoting sexual freedom in many forms, including but not limited to deviant sexual practices and gender identities, public sexuality, pornography, and sex work. Sexuality has always been a knotty issue in the feminist movement (as we have seen), but the Sex Wars focused public attention on the issue, and resulted in intense factionalization of the women’s movement—specifically along lines of sexual identification, as trans- and lesbian women, together with women who participated in sadomasochism and/or sex work, were alienated from the sometimes heteronormative anti-porn movement. The feminist movements surrounding pornography erupted into public consciousness around the mid-seventies; the hot-button issue’s rise to prominence is linked to the founding of Women Against Violence Against Women in 1976. In 1984, Andrea Dworkin (see below) and Catharine MacKinnon succeeded in passing the law they coauthored that censored pornography and defined it as a violation of the civil rights of women and children. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that the Dworkin/MacKinnon law was unconstitutional. Subsequently, the Sex Wars died down and were no longer the focus of the public eye; media attention shifted instead to the AIDS epidemic and the concomitant dispute over teaching and practicing safe sex. The end of the Sex Wars is sometimes cited as marking the fall of second-wave feminism.
The following timeline is adapted from Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture by Lisa Duggan and Nan Hunter.
- 1966: The National Organization for Women (NOW) is formed; part of its mission is to remedy and correct false representations of women in the media.
- The Masters and Johnson research team publishes findings that women are multi-orgasmic and experience both vaginal and clitoral orgasm.
- 1968: Radical women in NYC protest the Miss America pageant by crowning a sheep and encouraging women to burn “bras, girdles, curlers, false eyelashes, wigs and representative issues of Cosmopolitan, Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, etc” in a “freedom trashcan” (thus spawning the myth of bra-burning feminists). The feminists who run the protest connect the pageant to pornography: “Miss America and Playboy’s centerfold are sisters over the skin. To win approval, we must be both sexy and wholesome.”
- 1969: The Stonewall Riots, commonly recognized as the beginning of the gay rights movement, erupt.
- Women hold demonstrations against Playboy Clubs across the country; students at Grinnell College stage a “nude-in” in response to a Playboy representative’s talk on “Playboy philosophy” (the rep is asked by the protestors to disrobe and flees in response).
- 1970: The President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography recommends the repeal of all laws blocking the distribution of sexually explicit material to consenting adults and also recommends the implementation of institutionalized sex education. Congress begins funding family planning services.
- The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone and Sisterhood is Powerful edited by Robin Morgan are published. Both are cited by Dworkin as inspirations for her anti-pornographic polemic.
- off our backs begins publication in Washington, D.C.
- 1971: Discord strikes the Women’s National Abortion Conference; delegates demand the repeal of all abortion laws and the elimination of forced sterilizations, but they are divided about whether to demand “freedom of sexual expression;” the demand is ultimately voted down and many women delegates walk out in protest.
- Extant women’s groups experience a mass exodus of lesbians who feel unwelcome or inadequately represented. For example: the lesbian constituents of off our backs form The Furies.
- Rape crisis centers open around the country.
- NOW creates the NOW Media Task Force to monitor the role and images of women in media.
- 1972: Supreme Court rules that unmarried persons have the same right to contraceptives as married persons.
- Congress passes the Equal Rights Amendment.
- 1973: Roe v. Wade legalizes abortion.
- Miller v. California redefines obscenity and makes it easier to prosecute. The new precedent defines obscenity as that which lacks “serious” artistic or social value rather than as that which is “utterly without redeeming social value.”
- The National Black Feminist Organization is created.
- COYOTE (Call Off Your Tired Old Ethics) is formed to advocate for the legalization of sex work.
- 1974: Battered women’s movement first stirs; the first shelter for battered women opens in St. Paul.
- Betty Dodson self-publishes Liberating Masturbation after five thousand women respond to a notice in Ms. Magazine offering a booklet on women and masturbation.
- 1975: Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller proves an influential feminist study of rape, but is criticized for race and class bias.
- 1976: Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) is founded in Los Angeles.
- Women Against Violence in Pornography and the Media (WAVPM) is founded in San Francisco.
- 1978: Lesbians and gays in California successfully advocate for the defeat the Briggs Initiative, a ballot proposal that would require the state to fire any employee, gay or straight, who advocated for gay rights.
- WAVPM organizes the conference “Feminist Perspectives on Pornography,” culminating in a march of women 5,000 strong supporting the outlawing of pornography.
- 1979: Samois, the lesbian S/M group of which Gayle Rubin was a part, holds its first public forum and denounces the equation of consensual sadomasochism with violence.
- Women Against Pornography (WAP) forms in New York; it leads tours through 42nd street and disavows censorship.
- Pornography: Men Possessing Women by Dworkin is published.
- 1980: Take Back the Night, an anthology of anti-pornography writing, is published.
- WAVPM sponsors a forum on S/M at Berkeley that isn’t friendly to the practice; Samois pickets.
- NOW passes a resolution condemning pornography and S/M as exploitation and violence.
- 1981: Coming to Power, an anthology of essays and fiction concerning lesbian S/M, is published by Samois.
- This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color is published.
- “GRID,” gay-related immune deficiency, makes its appearance in New York and Los Angeles.
- 1982: A conference at Barnard takes “pleasure and danger” as its theme, and ends up provoking WAP protests it had sought to avoid. (WAP t-shirts read “Against S/M”.)
- The deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment passes.
- 1983: Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin draft an ordinance to ban pornography in Minneapolis.
- The CDC recommends avoiding sexual contact with persons “known or suspected” to have AIDS.
- 1984: The Minneapolis ordinance passes City Council but is vetoed by the mayor; a revised version is signed into law in Indianapolis but a court order declares it unconstitutional.
- FACT (Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce) opposes the Dworkin/MacKinnon legislation on feminist grounds.
- Lesbian sex magazines, including Bad Attitude and On Our Backs, begin publishing.
- 1985: Attorney General Edwin Meese forms a commission “to address the serious national problem of pornography.”
- Over 12,000 Americans, including Rock Hudson, have AIDS.
- 1986: The US Supreme Court rules that the Indianapolis ordinance is unconstitutional.
- The Meese Commission’s final report condemns “violent” pornography (including S/M pornography) but comes to no consensus about whether to outlaw explicit depictions of sex outside of marriage.
- Bowers v. Hardwick rules that the right to privacy does not protect homosexual sex.
- 1986: 36,000 Americans have AIDS and Reagan speaks on the issue for the first time, demanding that all immigrants and prisoners are screened for the disease.
- 1988: Reagan’s “gag rule” prevents federally funded family planning clinics from informing clients of abortion options.
About the authors we read this week:
Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005) produced ten books on radical feminism (of which Pornography and Intercourse are most widely cited), wrote fiction, and worked as an activist. She became an outspoken leader of the antipornography movement, arguing that pornography is intimately connected to rape and violence against women. A Jew originally from New Jersey whose parents spoke often of the Holocaust (a theme that frequently appears in her writing), Dworkin was molested in a movie theater at the age of nine. In college she spent time in prison for protesting the war and claimed she was abused by the guards, who gave her an internal examination that she said resulted in her bleeding for weeks. Her testimony concerning her treatment in prison gained national attention, and a few years later the prison was closed. After getting her degree in literature from Bennington, Dworkin moved to the Netherlands and married an anarchist she met there. He was physically abusive and continued to pursue and harass her even after she divorced him. She worked as a prostitute for a period and saved up money to get back to the United States. While in the Netherlands, Dworkin worked on fragments of radical feminist writing with Ricki Abrams, a fellow expat radical feminist, and when Dworkin returned to the United States 1972 she published Woman Hating. In New York, she became a prominent activist and speaker for lesbian rights and against war and violence against women. Dworkin spoke at the first Take Back the Night march through the Red Light district of San Francisco. In 1980, Linda Boreman made public, with Dworkin’s support, that she had been coerced into making Deep Throat and other pornography by her ex-husband; in the end, Boreman did not press charges, but Dworkin referred to the incident repeatedly in her writing. After a brief stint as a professor, the Minneapolis city government hired Dworkin along with the constitutional lawyer Catharine MacKinnon to draft a city ordinance banning pornography. The resulting piece was passed twice by city council but vetoed by the mayor. Dworkin continued to fight for the legislation and for a decade promoted similar bills around the country through a variety of voter initiatives. Dworkin’s testimony before the Attorney General led to the Meese Commission’s ban of magazines like Playboy and Penthouse from convenience stores; the Supreme Court ruled the Meese Commission initiatives unconstitutional under the First Amendment in Meese v. Playboy. Dworkin eventually married her life partner, fellow feminist John Stoltenberg, but Dworkin continued to identify as a lesbian and Stoltenberg continued to identify as gay.
Gayle Rubin (1949- ) is a Professor of Anthropology and a practicing cultural anthropologist whose work focuses on urban sexual subcultures, feminism, and deviance. In 1975 she was made famous by her article “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” which argues, among other things, for the differentiation of sex and gender. She moved to San Francisco in 1978 to study gay men’s leather culture and was one of the founders of Samois, the first known lesbian S&M group. Rubin became active in the sex wars as a sex-positive feminist. She has been a part of a number of public historical projects, including the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project and the Leather Archive and Museum; she advocates for publicizing and honoring sexual minorities to counteract society’s dangerous ignorance and/or refusal of benign sexual variation.
Linda Williams (1946- ) is a film scholar and feminist. She famously theorizes what she calls “body genres,” namely pornography, horror, and melodrama; she claims that all three are characterized by their emphasis on producing corporeal responses in their viewers, and all three encourage the viewer to physically mimic the physical reactions they see on screen (ejaculating, screaming, crying). She employs a wide range of theoretical approaches, including but not limited to Marxism, New Historicism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis. She also takes a special interest in the intersection of race with feminist issues of representation.
“Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice.” –Robin Morgan
Defining “hard-core pornography:” “I know it when I see it.” –Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart
“Men are visually aroused by women’s bodies and less sensitive to their arousal by women’s personalities because they are trained early into that response, while women are less visually aroused and more emotionally aroused because that is their training. This asymmetry in sexual education maintains men’s power in the myth: They look at women’s bodies, evaluate, move on; their own bodies are not looked at, evaluated, and taken or passed over. But there is no ‘rock called gender’ responsible for that; it can change so that real mutuality–an equal gaze, equal vulnerability, equal desire–brings heterosexual men and women together.” –Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women
“One man’s pornography is another man’s theology.” –Clive Barker
“I don’t know what the definition of pornography is and nobody else does either. Pornography is somebody else’s erotica that you don’t like. People are interested in their own sexuality and they’ve always reflected it in their art. End of story.” –Erica Jong
“Another unary photograph is the pornographic photograph (I am not saying the erotic photograph: the erotic is a pornographic that has been disturbed, fissured). Nothing more homogeneous than a pornographic photograph. It is always a naive photograph, without intention and without calculation. Like a shop window which shows only one illuminated piece of jewelry, it is completely constituted by the presentation of only one thing: sex: no secondary, untimely object ever manages to half conceal, delay, or distract… A proof a contrario: Mapplethorpe shifts his close-ups of genitalia from the pornographic to the erotic by photographing the fabric of underwear at very close range: the photograph is no longer unary, since I am interested in the texture of the material.
The presence (the dynamics) of this blind field is, I believe, what distinguishes the erotic photograph from the pornographic photograph. Pornography ordinarily represents the sexual organs, making them into a motionless object (a fetish), flattered like an idol that does not leave its niche; for me, there is no punctum in the pornographic image; at most it amuses me (and even then, boredom follows quickly). The erotic photograph, on the contrary (and this is its very condition), does not make the sexual organs into a central object; it may very well not show them at all; it takes the spectator outside its frame, and it is there that I animate this photograph and that it animates me.” –Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography
“Prostitution, perversion, and pornography are intertwined with independence and radical politics in the history of outstanding women. Radclyffe Hall, Colette, Anaïs Nin, Kate Millett, Erica Jong–all of these women used the money they made from writing about sexuality to make it possible for them to live as rebels, dykes, feminists, artists, or whatever deviant and defiant identities they assumed.” –Pat Califia, Some Women
“Any violation of a woman’s body can become sex for men; this is the essential truth of pornography.” –Andrea Dworkin
“Machines were the ideal metaphor for the central pornographic fantasy of the nineteenth century, rape followed by gratitude.” –Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New
“The most pernicious message relayed by pornography is that women are natural sexual prey to men and love it; that sexuality and violence are congruent; and that for women sex is essentially masochistic, humiliation pleasurable, physical abuse erotic. But along with this message comes another, not always recognized: that enforced submission and the use of cruelty, if played out in heterosexual pairing, is sexually “normal,” while sensuality between women, including erotic mutuality and respect, is “queer,” “sick,” and either pornographic in itself or not very exciting compared with the sexuality of whips and bondage. Pornography does not simply create a climate in which sex and violence are interchangeable; it widens the range of behavior considered
acceptable from men in heterosexual intercourse-behavior which reiteratively strips women of their autonomy, dignity, and sexual potential, including the potential of loving and being loved by women in mutuality and integrity.” –Adrienne Rich, Compulsory Heterosexuaity and Lesbian Existence
How do the authors we read today distinguish fantasy from reality, if at all? What can this distinction teach us about how the authors intend for us to consume literature writ large? Consider how the authors use stories in their arguments as well as talk about stories as objects of study.
Think about the role of history in the arguments made by all three authors. How is history knit together with theory? What do you notice about the concrete versus the abstract in the form as well as the content of the authors’ work?
How do the authors’ personal stories and subject positions figure into their work? Why might that relationship be important to them, to their argument, and to their reception?
Describe the language used by the authors. How would you characterize their rhetoric? To whom does it appeal? What does it evoke? What’s the role of the poetic or the literary?
How does each thinker approach defining pornography, obscenity, feminism, and sex? What components unite their definitions, and what components distinguish them?
Bibliography: Further Resources for Reference and Research
Boyle, Karen. Everyday Pornography. London: Routledge, 2010.
Bronstein, Carolyn. Battling Pornography : the American Feminist Anti-pornography Movement, 1976-1986. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Caught Looking : Feminism, Pornography & Censorship. 2nd ed. Seattle: Real Comet Press, 1988.
Cornell, Drucilla. Feminism and Pornography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Cornell, Drucilla. The Imaginary Domain : Abortion, Pornography and Sexual Harassment. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Corrêa, Sonia, Rosalind P Petchesky, and Richard Parker. Sexuality, Health and Human Rights. London: Routledge, 2008.
Dines, Gail. Pornland : How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 2010.
Donnerstein, Edward I, Daniel Linz, and Steven Penrod. The Question of Pornography : Research Findings and Policy Implications. New York: Free Press , 1987.
Duggan, Lisa, and Nan D Hunter. Sex Wars : Sexual Dissent and Political Culture. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Dworkin, Andrea. Pornography. New York: Putnam, 1981.
Faust, Beatrice. Women, Sex, and Pornography : a Controversial and Unique Study. 1st American ed. New York: Macmillan, 1980.
Gibson, Pamela Church, and Roma Gibson. Dirty Looks : Women, Pornography, Power. London: BFI Publishing, 1993.
Henry, Astrid. “The Third Wave Does the Sex Wars.” Not My Mother’s Sister : Generational Conflict and Third-wave Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
Hines, Claire, and Darren Kerr. Hard to Swallow : Hard-core Pornography On Screen. London: Wallflower Press, 2012.
Johnson, Merri Lisa. Third Wave Feminism and Television : Jane Puts it In a Box. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.
Kuo, Lenore. Prostitution Policy : Revolutionizing Practice Through a Gendered Perspective. New York: New York University Press, 2002.
Martindale, Kathleen. Un/popular Culture : Lesbian Writing After the Sex Wars. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1997.
Nagel, Joane. Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality : Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Piette, Adam. “Cold War, Sex War, or the Other Being Inside.” The Literary Cold War, 1945 to Vietnam. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.
Piontek, Thomas. “Queering the Rhetoric of the Gay Male Sex Wars.” Queering Gay and Lesbian Studies. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
Rich, B. Ruby. Chick Flicks : Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.
Rubin, Gayle. Deviations : a Gayle Rubin Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
Taormino, Tristan. The Feminist Porn Book : the Politics of Producing Pleasure. New York City: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2013.
Wheeler, Leigh Ann. Against Obscenity : Reform and the Politics of Womanhood In America, 1873-1935. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
Williams, Linda. Hard Core : Power, Pleasure, and the “frenzy of the Visible”. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
Williams, Linda. Porn Studies. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
Williams, Linda. Screening Sex. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.