Sex good. Pornography bad. With such utterances we begin to draw the lines that marked the “sex wars” of the 1980s, in which feminism schismed over how to approach sexual expression and the pornography industry. For some feminists, porn amplified the potential for violence against women—porn was essentially as bad as rape. For other feminists, the fight against porn was a fight against freedom of sexual expression, freedom to openly and intensely celebrate women’s sexuality. Lorna N. Bracewell seeks to subvert the conventional narrative that this conflict was a simple, two-sided fight between anti-pornography feminists on one side and sex-radical feminists on the other. Why We Lost the Sex Wars is a very deep, very slow dive into the sex wars and their echoes into the 21st century. Thanks to NetGalley and University of Minnesota Press for the review copy!
Bracewell’s thesis has 3 components. Firstly, she examines how both anti-pornography feminists and sex-radical feminists flirted contentiously with liberalism, and how this undermines the simplistic view that the sex wars were a “catfight” between two feminist movements. Secondly, Bracewell contends that these two groups largely ignored, erased, or appropriated from the work of Black and self-identified “third world” feminists; in other words, the conventional narrative of the sex wars has been whitewashed. Finally, Bracewell attempts to connect this complicated narrative to more recent developments—in particular, as the subtitle suggests, the #MeToo movement originating from Tarana Burke’s hashtag and catching fire after numerous women began openly accusing powerful men of sexual harassment and assault.
Before I go further: this is an academic manuscript. On the plus side, that means it is saturated with citations. Bracewell is quite literally walking us through the minutes and minutiae of various feminist writers and activists from the 1970s onwards, and she does not come to play. On the downside, this means that if you are not of a particularly academic inclination—or if you are merely looking for a more conversational read, then this book is not going to be your jam. I can take what Bracewell dishes out here, but I’m going to confess I didn’t enjoy it that much merely because, the further I drift away from my university days, the less interested I become in reading highly academic publications. This was giving me flashbacks to revising my best friend’s PhD. dissertation a year ago! Nevertheless, I persevered, and Bracewell definitely has some interesting things to say.
I grew up in the ’90s and early 2000s, so the sex wars that Bracewell describes aren’t something I’m very familiar with. My feminist awakening during high school was very much an, “oh, yeah, ok,” realization that women are still oppressed in our society, followed by many years of autodidactic education and one or two university courses to help me come to appreciate how that oppression manifests. My knowledge of the history of feminism as a movement has always been spotty, so that was what attracted me to Why We Lost the Sex Wars: I was hoping Bracewell would fill in some of those gaps. For the most part, she does!
Writers like Andrea Dworkin, Caroline MacKinnon, Judith Butler, etc.—some of whom I’ve read things by, some of whom I haven’t—become central characters in this much larger story, and Bracewell helps you understand how the sex wars actually played out. As someone who wasn’t alive then, who didn’t live through those tumultuous middle and later decades of the 20th century, this is valuable. I do not want to be guilty of oversimplifying feminism’s past, of saying, “well, you had the good feminists and the bad feminists” or even, as Bracewell chides us, the anti-pornography feminists and the sex-radical feminists. It was, as these things usually are, so, so much more complex than that.
Bracewell devotes most of the book to examining how these various positions interacted with legal frameworks and proposed solutions to the problem of pornography and related ideas of sexual deviancy or otherness. In particular, Bracewell is keen to critique tenets of liberalism as a political philosophy grounded in the preservation of individual liberties provided they don’t threaten the coherence of the state. While I admit I found some of this interesting and enlightening, the staid, survey-like nature of Bracewell’s narrative means I was not exactly enthralled.
Probably the best part of this book is the chapter that looks at how Black women and other women of colour were shut out of the sex wars pretty much entirely. The problem, Bracewell points out, is a “monistic” view of womanhood—something that others might more commonly refer to as the “monolith” idea of feminism. The sex wars were not intersectional, in other words; both anti-pornography and sex-radical feminists viewed the issues as they pertained to white women, often in ways that were racist and ignorant of the history of white supremacy in the United States. This resonated with me a lot—I’m really interested in making sure that I approach equity work with an intersectional lens; we cannot burn down the patriarchy without also tackling the white supremacist society that enables it. So I think it is very important to acknowledge and critique, as Bracewell does here, how white feminism often erased or appropriated the work of Black feminists, pushing aside or dismissing race as a factor and choosing to focus exclusively on sex/gender as an axis of oppression.
Towards the end of the book, Bracewell goes off on a tangent about why she thinks trigger warnings are a not-useful outgrowth of tepid liberal responses to harm and oppression. I guess … agree to disagree? This is the part of the book that seeks to fulfill the promise of the subtitle and connect Bracewell’s historical overview with more recent events. She examines the SlutWalk phenomenon of the past decade before briefly turning to #MeToo. Bracewell is highly critical of the way that SlutWalk and similar movements embraced a carceral notion of feminism, i.e., that the best way to deal with things like violence against women is to make it easier and safer for victims to report violence to the police, who can then take care of it as part of a reformed criminal justice system.
Now, ideologically speaking, I agree with Bracewell here. She finishes the book with a call to action to return feminism to some of its more radical roots—i.e., the feminists from all sides of the sex wars who were sceptical of state involvement or invoking state power in what is ultimately a social issue. I am on Team Abolish the Police and agree that the solution is not “please, police, treat victims better!” and that feminism is best served aligning itself with more radical, abolitionist aims.
Nevertheless, this part of the book is the least satisfying because Bracewell ultimately doesn’t succeed at drawing a clear connection between #MeToo-ish movements of the now and the sex wars of the then. The moment the book seems to be getting good and about to make this connection … it ends. All we get are some tentative discussions in the introduction and then conclusion about how “sex-positive feminists” are complaining about #MeToo because it’s prudish. Yet I’m failing to see how the critical retelling of the sex wars informs this phenomenon, because Bracewell spends too little time on the modern phenomenon.
So Why We Lost the Sex Wars is incredibly detailed, well-researched, and well-organized. As an academic publication, it ticks a lot of the boxes. It is definitely informative and got me thinking about things like intersectionality and how liberalist philosophies interact with feminist thinking. Nevertheless, the book left me hanging with the third part of its thesis, the promise that this would feel relevant to more recent events.