Why We Lost the Sex Wars

Sexual Freedom in the #MeToo Era

2021
Author:

Lorna N. Bracewell

Why We Lost the Sex Wars

Reexamining feminist sexual politics since the 1970s—the rivalries and the remarkable alliances

To better understand today’s multilayered sexual politics, Lorna N. Bracewell offers a revisionist history of the “sex wars” of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Rather than focusing on what divided antipornography and sex-radical feminists, Bracewell highlights significant points of contact and overlap between these rivals and leverages this recovered history to illuminate a range of current phenomena in provocative ways.

Why We Lost the Sex Wars is a fascinating read. It provides a gripping social history of both feminist movement and of feminist political theory, including archival research into interviews and writings that current feminist ‘legends’ did as graduate students. This is intertwined with incisive and creative theoretical analysis of the arguments offered in courts, conferences, and publications. Lorna N. Bracewell shows that the so-called ‘sex wars’ were not warlike, nor a clear-cut duality, but rather multiple and complex, and that these debates and arguments still influence feminism and feminist theory today. In Bracewell’s account of the central role that feminists of color played, which is often overlooked, is particularly insightful and important. This book is essential reading for all of us interested in the history of late-twentieth-century feminism and in understanding how we got to where we are today.

Nancy Hirschmann, author of Gender, Class, and Freedom in Modern Political Theory

Since the historic #MeToo movement materialized in 2017, innumerable survivors of sexual assault and misconduct have broken their silence and called out their abusers publicly—from well-known celebrities to politicians and high-profile business leaders. Not surprisingly, conservatives quickly opposed this new movement, but the fact that “sex positive” progressives joined in the opposition was unexpected and seldom discussed. Why We Lost the Sex Wars explores how a narrow set of political prospects for resisting the use of sex as a tool of domination came to be embraced across this broad swath of the political spectrum in the contemporary United States.

To better understand today’s multilayered sexual politics, Lorna N. Bracewell offers a revisionist history of the “sex wars” of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Rather than focusing on what divided antipornography and sex-radical feminists, Bracewell highlights significant points of contact and overlap between these rivals, particularly the trenchant challenges they offered to the narrow and ambivalent sexual politics of postwar liberalism. Bracewell leverages this recovered history to illuminate in fresh and provocative ways a range of current phenomena, including recent controversies over trigger warnings, the unimaginative politics of “sex-positive” feminism, and the rise of carceral feminism. By foregrounding the role played by liberal concepts such as expressive freedom and the public/private divide as well as the long-neglected contributions of Black and “Third World” feminists, Bracewell upends much of what we think we know about the sex wars and makes a strong case for the continued relevance of these debates today.

Why We Lost the Sex Wars provides a history of feminist thinking on topics such as pornography, commercial sex work, LGBTQ+ identities, and BDSM, as well as discussions of such notable figures as Patrick Califia, Alan Dershowitz, Andrea Dworkin, Elena Kagan, Audre Lorde, Catharine MacKinnon, Cherríe Moraga, Robin Morgan, Gayle Rubin, Nadine Strossen, Cass Sunstein, and Alice Walker.

Why We Lost the Sex Wars

Lorna N. Bracewell is assistant professor of political science at Flagler College. In 2017 she received the American Political Science Association’s Okin-Young Award in Feminist Political Theory.

Why We Lost the Sex Wars

A timely revisionist scholarly history certain to spark debate.

Kirkus Reviews

Why We Lost the Sex Wars is a fascinating read. It provides a gripping social history of both feminist movement and of feminist political theory, including archival research into interviews and writings that current feminist ‘legends’ did as graduate students. This is intertwined with incisive and creative theoretical analysis of the arguments offered in courts, conferences, and publications. Lorna N. Bracewell shows that the so-called ‘sex wars’ were not warlike, nor a clear-cut duality, but rather multiple and complex, and that these debates and arguments still influence feminism and feminist theory today. In Bracewell’s account of the central role that feminists of color played, which is often overlooked, is particularly insightful and important. This book is essential reading for all of us interested in the history of late-twentieth-century feminism and in understanding how we got to where we are today.

Nancy Hirschmann, author of Gender, Class, and Freedom in Modern Political Theory

Lorna N. Bracewell’s careful treatment of the feminist sexuality debates of the 1980s demonstrates how their framing in terms of liberal philosophies of the eighteenth century contributed to a reductive misunderstanding of key questions about freedom and sexuality that continue to resurface decades later. This is a timely and important work.

Judith Grant, Ohio University

Thoroughly researched, yet immensely readable, Why We Lost the Sex Wars provides a clear, illuminating, and utterly engaging account of antipornography feminism and sex-radical feminists’ consequential encounters with liberalism. It details how liberalism remade both and, in that remaking, helped to foreclose feminist imaginations regarding damage and reparation and worked to lead us to our carceral present. It, rightly, highlights the oft-overlooked interventions of Black and ‘Third World’ feminists who critiqued the ‘monism’ of white antipornography and whose analyses helped to clarify that pornography could do far worse than simply objectify women. The book skillfully and seamlessly combines historical accounts and close textual reading. Among the latter method, the author's convincing illustration of the impact of antipornography feminism on one of liberalism's most revered feminist critics, Carole Pateman, stands out, as it demonstrates how the feminists, who we too often understand to have lost their fight ultimately, helped to shape her understanding of male power. An important contribution to feminist political theory.

Shatema Threadcraft, author of Intimate Justice: The Black Female Body and the Body Politic

Why We Lost the Sex Wars

Contents


Introduction: Rethinking the Sex Wars


1. “Pornography Is the Theory. Rape Is the Practice”: The Antipornography Feminist Critique of Liberalism


2. Free Speech, Criminal Acts: Liberal Appropriations of Antipornography Feminism


3. Ambivalent Liberals, Sex Radical Feminists


4. Third World Feminism and the Sex Wars


Conclusion: The Liberal Roots of Carceral Feminism


Acknowledgments


Notes


Bibliography


Index