Helen Beard

Feminist Sex Wars: the Politics of Pleasure

Instructor: Sophie Lewis
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a series of acrimonious disagreements exploded the US feminist movement—over pornography, prostitution, sadomasochism, and other matters of sex and power, pleasure and violence. What were the terms and stakes that shaped the several “sides” of the so-called “feminist sex wars”—beyond and in excess of the “pro-sex” and “anti-porn” positions to which the history of feminism’s belligerent parties are all too often reduced? How can we understand, in the context of capitalist development, the ways that each of these “sides” were entangled with other political trajectories? And what sort of light does this flashpoint moment in the history of feminism shed on contemporary debates regarding sexual representation, sexual conduct, and the controversial rubrics—”OnlyFans,” film ratings, “no kink at Pride,” sexting, “revenge porn,” sex-trafficking, and others—through which they are refracted today? Forty years on, how have lesbian-socialist, black feminist, youth-liberationist, sex-radical, working-class butch/femme, and transfeminist permutations of the politics of “pleasure and danger” come to inhabit the spaces within feminist activism and discourse that were “shook open” after the infamous 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality—which, as theorist Susan Stryker put it, “allowed transgender feminism to expand and grow in the decades yet to come”?

In this course, we will explore the various dividing lines that once rent US feminism—and that, though faded, have yet to disappear altogether. We will examine the fraught roots of the conflict in early grassroots campaigns against misogynist norms in the media that morphed and calcified into censorship drives that wound up affecting above all gay and lesbian bookstores. We will go on to explore how the feminist fight for and against anti-porn activism impacted relations between women’s studies and queer advocacy, feminism, and porn-worker liberation movements. And we will also dwell in some detail on “Barnard 1982” itself, asking: what can we learn, both from its fateful unfolding and from the politics of its ongoing memorialization? Is there something to be said in favor of the laying-bare of feminist enmities—indeed, enemy feminisms? Through readings in both history and theory by Stryker, Catharine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Gail Dines, Carol Leigh, Carole Vance, Lisa Duggan, Joan Nestle, Gayle Rubin, Jennifer Nash, Amber Hollibaugh, Ellen Willis, Audre Lorde, and others, we will consider questions like: What is violent pornography? How (if at all) should it be produced, regulated, distributed, discussed, and consumed? What is violence against women, representationally? Why is it so prevalent in our culture, and how might we change this? Whom do anti-prostitution laws keep safe? What furthers the conditions of possibility for black feminist porn to flourish? Why were the transsexual women active in the radical feminist movement of the late 1960s almost entirely erased from its history after 1973? And what distinguishes feminist pornophobia and whorephobia from their un-feminist conservative analogs?

“Feminist Sex Wars: the Politics of Pleasure” will also run on Mondays, starting November 27th. For more information and to enroll, please visit the course page

Course Schedule

Sunday, 2:00-5:00pm ET
November 19 — December 17, 2023
4 weeks
Class will not meet Sunday, November 26th.


Registration Open

SKU: NOV23-NY-FEMINIST-SEX-WARS Categories: , Tags: ,