Basieliere, J. 2008-2009. “Personal is Political: Scholarly Manifestations of the Feminist Sex Wars.”

Basieliere, Jenna. 2008-2009. “Personal is Political: Scholarly Manifestations of the Feminist Sex Wars.” Michigan Feminist Studies 22(1): online.

Feminist theorists initially spoke out against psychological and sociological thought that posited women as neurotic due to biological (hormonal, sexual organs) reasons, and subtly advocated for male control and dominance over female sexuality. This inference of biological, sexual, and cultural superiority of males sparked conversations within the feminist community – revealing contentions on the topics of sex work, s/m, and the centrality of women’s sexuality as both a means of agency and pleasure within patriarchal systems as well as a type of submission and violence directed towards women. Plainly put, debates emerged over whether explorations of female sexuality would incur pleasure and growth, or conversely, a myriad of dangers (rape, sexual assault, domestic violence) – which could potentially overshadow the pleasure women received from sexual activities.   These mostly sourced out of a conference held in 1982 – The Scholar and the Feminist IX.

Author (Basiliere) argues that the mutuality of the personal and political work to construct and frame the debates with the feminist scholarly press. The work seeks to map the discourse of these debates and how these conversations try to address this binarism (in both micro and macro ways). “Ultimately, I concluded that the boundary between pleasure and danger mirrors a number of other binary tensions within feminist theory, a fact which must be central to future to understand this moment in feminist history” (online).

Carole Vance sent out letters to colleagues inviting their participation in this particular conference to explore sexuality as the annual theme, including questions to frame the discussions:

  • How do women get sexual pleasure in patriarchy?
  • How do women of various ethnic, racial, and class groups strategize for pleasure?
  • What are the points of similarity and difference between feminist analyses of pornography, incest, and male and female sexual ‘nature’ and those of the right wing?
  • Dare we persist in questioning traditional sexuality and sexual arrangements in the current political climate? (Note: within the social and religious conservatism of the Reagan years)
  • What is the nature of current conflict between the ‘social purity’ and ‘libertarian’ (kx^ note: the radical feminists vs. the sex-radical feminists, as Basiliere distinguishes here) factions in the feminist community?
  • What can be learned from similar debates during the first wave of feminism in the 19th century? (Vance 1982)

These questions sought to address a strange bedfellowing of radical feminism and the Religious Right of the 1980s – how would feminist critiques vary from those of religious conservatives?  Debate delivered a “divide in the feminist community that became as much about how one understands patriarchal control (whether it be through actual sexual domination, or a dominance over the discourse of sex), as it was about the binary between pleasure and danger” (online).

However, this was not the only debate that had emerged in contemporary feminism – in the 1970s, feminist scholarship and activism was equally debating a politics of consensus and a politic of identity and representation (difference).  This became complicated by the sexuality debate as embodied experiences of femininity and sexuality are significantly disunited. Consensus- and consciousness-building became difficult when shared experiences of sexuality (as related to femininity and feminism) were not shared. The conference expanded its content to exploration of lesbianism and lesbian sexualities, s/m, psychoanalysis, childhood sexual subjectivity – from a variety of different disciplines.

“The ninth The Scholar and the Feminist conference will address women’s sexual pleasure, choice, and autonomy, acknowledging that sexuality is simultaneously a domain of restriction, repression, and danger as well as a domain of exploration, pleasure, and agency. This dual focus is important, we think, for to speak only of pleasure and gratification ignores the patriarchal structure in which women act, yet to talk only of sexual violence and oppression ignores women’s experience with sexual agency and choice and unwittingly increases the sexual terror and despair in which women live” (Vance 1982: 38)

Debate within these issues came from the different conceptualizations of “danger’s location within sexuality” (online) – translation: where danger sources, what is danger, what is dangerous?

Propoganda and protests amongst the conference – leaflets shaming and stigmatizing certain sex practices were prevalent. Though not identified at the time as such, major divisions were established between heterosexual and lesbian women – and the politics, stigma, etc. that come with each sexual identity.

Sex-radical feminists felt increasingly stigmatized and alienated, oftentimes positioning their viewpoints as oppressed from other feminists and external worlds, despite their political progressiveness.  However, this stringency in an attempt to maintain unity became disruptive (indifferent or discriminatory) as criticisms to sex-radicalism (even from those who identified as such) were viewed as dissidents — particularly those who were fat-advocates, queer, etc.  Marginalization of sex-radical feminists (as well as their suppression of dissent within the ranks) creates a tension that makes it difficult to negotiate pleasure-danger questions. Fears of stigmatization associated with fear of loss of legitimacy.

The conference solidified sexuality’s intimate connection with the construction of femininity and gende, and added multiple dimensions as to the complexity surrounding female sexuality. Addressing these binaries were coped with in the manners of other feminist binaries: “For these women [early second-wave feminists] the binary between pleasure and danger became inextricably linked with the binary between the personal and the political. For feminists directly involved with the Barnard conference, their relationship to pleasure was a highly personal one, while feminists in opposition to the conference’s project saw the need to address danger as a highly political reality” (online).  —– THIS! Similarly, no one challenged the cultural constructions of man and woman, but instead treated the analyses of power imbalances between these groups as often directly corresponding to biological sex identifiers.


Vance, Carole. 1982. Diary of a Conference on Sexuality. New York: Barnard College Women’s Center.


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