Sex wars, SlutWalks, and carceral feminism
In recent years, scholars have identified a political formation that mobilizes the emancipatory energies of feminism in the service of the expansion of the carceral state. ‘Carceral feminism,’ as it has come to be known, is often portrayed by these scholars as a product of feminist-conservative convergence. Here, I argue that the rise of the SlutWalk movement suggests a more complex genealogy for carceral feminism. By situating SlutWalk in the historico-theoretical context of feminism’s sex wars, I reveal the carceral–feminist impulses roiling beneath its progressive ‘sex-positive’ surface. With its tendency to reduce sexual freedom to expressive freedom, valorize conventional forms of femininity and (hetero)sexuality, and promote a fundamentally carceral paradigm of sexual freedom, the SlutWalk movement, I argue, is descended from anti-censorship/pro-sex feminism, a liberal-feminist hybrid that emerged out of the convergence of sex-radical feminism and liberalism during the sex wars. When viewed in this light, SlutWalk no longer appears as a sign that feminism’s ‘pleasure’ and ‘danger’ factions have negotiated a long-awaited ‘sex-détente.’ Rather, it stands as a testament to the extent to which feminism’s once radical aspirations in the domain of sexual politics have been supplanted by a tepid, heteronormative, and disquietingly carceral liberal project.
Keywordsfeminism sex wars liberalism carceral feminism sex-radical feminism SlutWalk
In recent years, a body of scholarship has emerged identifying a political formation that mobilizes the emancipatory energies of feminism in the service of the expansion of the carceral state (Critical Resistance and Incite!, 2003; Gottschalk, 2006; Bernstein, 2007, 2010, 2012; Bumiller, 2008; Kim 2015; Heiner and Tyson, 2017). ‘Carceral feminism,’ as sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein (2010) has dubbed it, figures criminalization, policing, prosecution, and incarceration as integral to women’s liberation, constructing gender justice as a matter of criminal justice. Within this scholarship, carceral feminism is portrayed as primarily a product of the confluence of feminist and conservative energies. For example, in her study of contemporary anti-trafficking activism, Bernstein associates the anti-trafficking movement’s embrace of carceral paradigms of justice with ‘a rightward shift’ and ‘feminist-conservative alliances’ (formed between feminists and organizations like the Hudson Institute) (Bernstein, 2010, pp. 47, 53).1 Similarly, Mimi Kim (2015) attributes the anti-domestic violence movement’s turn toward ‘punitive carceral polices’ to strategic decisions made by anti-domestic violence activists to ally themselves with a conservative politics of law and order in an effort to ‘feminize’ and ‘control’ the criminal justice system (2015, p. 5). While there is no denying that the feminist-conservative convergences highlighted by this scholarship have contributed to the rise of carceral feminism, certain strands of contemporary feminist politics, particularly contemporary feminist sexual politics, indicate that the genealogy of feminism’s carceral turn may be more complex than this narrative of feminist-conservative convergence lets on.
Consider, for example, the transnational anti-rape protest movement known as ‘SlutWalk.’ The SlutWalk movement began on April 3, 2011 in Toronto, Canada, when some 1,500 people, mostly women, donned miniskirts, fishnets, and other ‘slutty’ attire and marched to the headquarters of the Toronto Police Service. Billed by organizers as ‘SlutWalk Toronto,’ the purpose of the march was to protest a TPS officer’s remark at a public safety forum that, in order not to be raped, women ‘should avoid dressing like sluts.’ Given these precipitating circumstances, one might imagine SlutWalk Toronto carried a bold anti-carceral message, highlighting instances of the criminal justice system’s complicity in sexual violence and injustice such as prison rape, sexual assault by law enforcement officers, and police harassment of sex workers and sexual minorities.2 However, this was not the case. As SlutWalk Toronto’s website explains, the aim of the march was to ‘call foul’ on TPS for engaging in the sort of ‘slut-shaming’ that deters survivors from reporting their victimization and to demand that police ‘take serious steps’ to make survivors, ‘slut or otherwise,’ ‘feel respected and protected’ (SlutWalk, 2011). The goal, in other words, was more vigorous law enforcement on behalf of ‘sluts.’ Within a year, SlutWalk Toronto had inspired similar events in approximately 200 cities around the world and a global grassroots SlutWalk movement had emerged.3
While SlutWalk’s rise from local demonstration to transnational phenomenon has elicited some criticism from feminist quarters,4 many prominent feminists have embraced the movement. For example, according to popular author and blogger Jessica Valenti, SlutWalks ‘herald a new day in feminist organizing… when women’s anger begins online but takes to the street [and] when a local step makes global waves’ (2011). Similarly, veteran socialist–feminist activist Selma James hails SlutWalk as ‘the new women’s movement…, born of student protests and Arab revolutions…, tearing up the past before our very eyes’ (2011). Philosopher Judith Butler’s assessment is equally sanguine. When asked about the SlutWalk marches in 2011, Butler described them as exemplifying a new kind of public assembly that harnesses ‘a sense of vulnerability and injurability on the streets’ to engender ‘modes of solidarity’ that resist the limitations of identity politics while contesting neoliberal conditions of precarity (Bella, 2011). Butler has recently reaffirmed this position, describing SlutWalks as a ‘public and courageous takeover of public space’ (2016, p. 227).
Perhaps the highest praise garnered by the SlutWalk movement has come from scholars who frame it as a long-awaited resolution of feminism’s sex wars. The sex wars were a series of conflicts over matters pertaining to sex and sexuality that embroiled the feminist movement in the United States and Canada from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. During the sex wars, ‘sex-radical’ and ‘antipornography’ feminists squared off over a whole range of issues, including pornography, prostitution, and S/M.5 Despite pleas for both sides to come together to ‘create a movement that speaks as powerfully in favor of sexual pleasure as it does against sexual danger,’ the sex wars raged for decades, resisting any definitive resolution (Vance, 1984, p. 3). To scholars familiar with this history, the SlutWalk movement’s pairing of audacious assertions of feminine sexuality with strident denunciations of gender-based violence signals a long-awaited ‘sex détente’ (Walters, 2016, p. 4). As legal scholar Deborah Tuerkheimer has observed, ‘By taking aim at rape while expressly promoting the virtues of female sexuality, SlutWalk situates itself where anti-rape and pro-sex norms converge’ (2014, pp. 1455–1456). Joetta Carr has seconded this analysis, praising ‘SlutWalkers’ for ‘speaking in a voice that deplores sexual violence while embracing sex positivity’ (2013, p. 31).
Extolled by the feminist left and lauded by scholars as a Hegelian synthesis of feminism’s longstanding ‘pleasure’ and ‘danger’ antinomies, the SlutWalk movement is in no sense a product of the sort of feminist-conservative convergence scholars claim is fueling the rise of carceral feminism. In fact, conservative feminists like former British MP Louise Mensch (née Bagshawe) have harshly criticized SlutWalk for ‘lionizing promiscuity’ and making ‘sluttishness a mark of feminism’ (2011). Nevertheless, despite its progressive ‘sex-positive’ ethos, the SlutWalk movement, at least in its North American instantiations, is as steeped in a politics of carcerality as any of the conservative-feminist projects highlighted by scholars of carceral feminism.6 My primary aim in this essay is to offer an explanation of how this came to be. How did a feminist movement that is vigorously ‘sex-positive’ and oriented toward the progressive left come to embrace a punitive carceral politics of law and order? How did a feminist project that takes sexual pleasure and freedom as its raisons d’être come to align itself with the carceral power of the state?
To answer these questions, I will draw on recent scholarship highlighting the role of liberalism in the feminist sex wars (Bracewell, 2016). As scholars like Duncan Bell and Judith Shklar have observed, liberalism is a ‘hyper-inflated,’ ‘all-purpose’ term that can be used to signify everything from progressivism to its opposite (Shklar, 1998, p. 3; Bell 2014, p. 691). In the present work, I use the term to denote a range of positions premised on ‘the belief that the freedom of the individual is the highest political value’ and that ‘freedom of conscience, freedom of occupational choice, privacy and family rights all place limits on what governments may do’ (Ryan, 2012, pp. 362, 377). At the heart of liberalism so conceived is a distinction between the public and the private, where the public is figured as a sphere of justice in which law serves as a neutral guarantor of liberty among free and equal individuals, while the private is figured as a sphere ‘beyond justice’ in which law and liberty are fundamentally at odds (Okin, 1989, p. 25).7
While liberals have traditionally presented the public/private distinction as a means of securing individual liberty against the encroachments of overweening governments, feminist political theorists have noted its utility for other purposes. As Carole Pateman has incisively observed, given ‘the way in which women and men are differentially located within private life and the public world,’ liberalism’s public/private distinction ‘obscures the subjection of women to men within an apparently universal, egalitarian individualist order’ (1989, p. 120). It is liberalism in this sense, I argue, that played such a crucial role during the sex wars.
The earliest rumblings of the sex wars began in the latter half of the 1970s when feminists began articulating perspectives on pornography and a whole host of other matters pertaining to sex and sexuality that challenged traditional liberal perspectives. Whereas liberals had long fended off conservative calls for censorship by figuring pornography as private, apolitical, and harmless, feminists during the sex wars insisted that pornography was public, political, and potent. Antipornography feminists argued that pornography threatened women’s physical, civil, and economic wellbeing, while sex-radical feminists defended pornography (and sexuality more generally) as indispensable to human freedom, community, and identity. Initially, liberals resisted these dueling feminist perspectives. They were wary of the brazen defenses of pornography and sexuality offered by sex-radical feminists, and they saw antipornography feminism as little more than old-fashioned Comstockery in new-fangled feminist drag. However, in the mid-1980s, in the midst of a robust public debate surrounding a municipal ordinance that would have made pornography actionable as a civil rights violation, all of this began to change, and liberal variants of both antipornography feminism and sex-radical feminism began taking shape.
In this article, I summarize these developments with a primary focus on the strategic appropriation of liberal ‘civil liberties’ and ‘anti-censorship’ rhetoric by sex-radical feminists in the mid-1980s.8 While this strategy won sex-radical feminists important short-term gains, in the long run, I argue, it led to the eclipse of sex-radical feminism by a liberal-feminist hybrid discourse that I call ‘anti-censorship/pro-sex feminism.’ It is this liberal-feminist hybrid, I argue, that has fueled the rise of the SlutWalk movement. Despite its resemblance to the ‘Take Back the Night’ marches pioneered by antipornography feminists in the late 1970s, and its continuity, in at least some respects, with the playful prurience of sex-radical feminism, the SlutWalk movement, I argue, is no straightforward reconciliation of sex wars-era antinomies. Rather, with its tendency to reduce sexual freedom to expressive freedom, valorize (as opposed to problematize) conventional forms of femininity and (hetero)sexuality, and promote a fundamentally carceral paradigm of sexual freedom, the SlutWalk movement is a descendant of anti-censorship/pro-sex feminism and, thus, a product of the union of sex-radical feminism and liberalism that the sex wars occasioned. When recognized as such, the SlutWalk movement no longer appears as a sign that feminism’s once bitterly divided factions have come together in some new and vital political coalition. Rather, it stands as a testament to the extent to which feminism’s once radical aspirations in the domain of sexual politics have been supplanted by a tepid, heteronormative, and disquietingly carceral liberal project.9
The sex-radical feminist critique of liberalism
Prior to the sex wars, debates concerning sexual freedom in the United States were largely two-sided affairs centered around the topic of sexual expression. Conservatives, like 19th-century anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock, argued that all sexual expression, from straightforwardly pornographic works to Boccaccio’s Decameron, were ‘obscene’ (from the Latin for ‘filthy’ or ‘inauspicious’) and deserving of legal suppression. Liberals responded to these conservative calls for censorship by insisting that sexually explicit materials were harmless vice, deserving of moral opprobrium and some forms of governmental regulation, but not outright prohibition. John Stuart Mill’s remarks in On Liberty concerning ‘offences against decency’ reflect this quintessentially liberal view. ‘There are many acts,’ Mill writes, ‘which, being directly injurious only to the agents themselves, ought not to be legally interdicted, but which, if done publicly, are a violation of good manners, and coming thus within the category of offences against others, may rightfully be prohibited’ (1989, p. 98). ‘Of this kind,’ Mill continues, ‘are offences against decency; on which it is unnecessary to dwell, … as they are only connected indirectly with our subject, the objection to publicity being equally strong in the case of many actions not in themselves condemnable, nor supposed to be so’ (1989, p. 98).
Mill’s equivocal defense of ‘offences against decency’ lived on well into the 20th century, shaping the thinking of some of sexual expression’s most prominent liberal defenders. For instance, in an influential 1981 essay, philosopher Ronald Dworkin vindicated a ‘right to pornography,’ construed as a right to the voluntary consumption of ‘depressingly obscene photographs and films’ in private, while simultaneously defending prohibitions against the display of such photographs and films in public (1981, p. 182). Even the cadre of civil libertarian attorneys and publishers who challenged the Comstock-era regime of obscenity regulation head-on in the 1950s and 1960s embraced this ambivalent view. For instance, Charles Rembar, the attorney who exonerated the first unexpurgated American edition of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover from obscenity charges in 1959 and pioneered the legal strategy that would lead to the exoneration of dozens of other sexually explicit works throughout the 1960s, lamented the more permissive sexual culture his legal victories helped bring about. ‘There is an acne on our culture,’ Rembar wrote in the concluding chapter of his memoir The End of Obscenity, pointing to a glut of books, magazines, advertisements, and films that ‘play upon concupiscence’ and ‘peddle sex with an idiot slyness’ (1968, p. 491). ‘We approach,’ Rembar warned, ‘a seductio ad absurdum’ (1968, p. 491).
As Rembar’s reflections on ‘the end of obscenity’ evince, a profound ambivalence lay at the heart of mid-twentieth-century liberal opposition to obscenity regulation. While liberals defended sexually explicit expression as, for the most part, harmless, they also lamented its prevalence and denounced it as ignoble and base. Some even recommended eliminating legal restraints on obscenity as a means of eradicating it. Consider, for example, the argument Herald Price Fahringer, attorney for the publishers of Hustler and Screw, presented at a New York University School of Law colloquium in 1978. ‘Obscenity,’ Fahringer explained, ‘breeds and multiplies in the dark crevices of a frightened society preoccupied with a sense of self-censorship’ (1979, p. 253). ‘Once pornography is exposed to the strong sunlight of a completely free and uninhibited people,’ Fahringer predicted, ‘its appeal will surely diminish’ (1979, p. 253). Like John Stuart Mill, who famously argued that censorship ‘robs the human race … of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth,’ liberal opponents of obscenity regulation believed that the censorship of sexually explicit materials robs the human race of the opportunity of exchanging obscenity’s tawdry thrill for more dignified and authentic pleasures (1989, p. 20).
During the sex wars, feminists assailed this ambivalent liberal defense of sexual expression on multiple fronts. While antipornography feminists contested liberal claims of pornography’s harmlessness by insisting that pornography played an integral role in the oppression of women, sex-radical feminists challenged liberal sexual politics from another direction. Committed to a robust vision of sexual freedom that necessitated a vibrant, diverse, and public sexual culture, sex-radical feminists found liberals’ ambivalent defenses of sexual expression inadequate and problematic.10 Not only did they leave the stigma traditionally attached to sex and sexual expression undisputed, they evinced a deeper failure on the part of liberals to look beyond the freedom to peruse a narrow range of sexually explicit materials in private without fear of legal sanction to a broader, queerer sexual freedom. As sex-radical feminist author and activist Pat Califia11 explained, while ‘most people seem to want to visit sex as if it were a brothel or a shooting gallery, get [a fix], and then go home without getting busted,’ sex-radical feminists wanted something more (1994, p. 36). ‘I want the freedom to be as queer, as perverted, on the street and on the job as I am in my dungeon,’ Califia, a founding member of the San Francisco-based lesbian s/m group Samois, declared (1994, p. 36). Securing this freedom meant upending what fellow Samois member and leading sex-radical feminist theorist Gayle Rubin described as ‘the system of sexual oppression,’ a ‘Kafkaesque nightmare’ of laws, norms, and social practices designed to reward monogamous, heterosexual ‘vanilla’ sex and punish the rest (Vance, 1984, p. 293, 282). Such a grandiose project of sexual liberation far outstripped anything even the staunchest anti-censorship liberal ever proposed.
Liberals’ failure to confront sexual oppression in all its facets and embrace a more comprehensive vision of sexual freedom made them frequent targets of sex-radical feminist criticism. For instance, in an article published in The Advocate in 1980, Califia criticized the testimony that attorney Heather Grant Florence offered on behalf of the ACLU at the congressional hearings for the Protection of Children Against Sexual Exploitation Act of 1977. According to Califia, Florence’s ‘only objection to [the bill, which made it a felony… to photograph or film a child (anyone under sixteen years of age) in the nude, engaged in sexual activity with another person or masturbating], was the threat it posed to the First Amendment’ (1994, p. 45). In Califia’s view, this liberal objection missed the point; what was at stake in the proposed law was not only or even primarily expressive freedom, but the sexual freedom of young people, their adult friends and lovers, and gays and lesbians and other marginalized sexual minorities who were likely to bear the brunt of any law enforcement crack down on sex crime (1994, p. 71). By failing to object ‘to the committee’s position that sex is bad for children and… even suggest[ing] that it would be appropriate… to increase the legal penalties for adults who have sex with minors,’ Califia believed that Florence and the ACLU betrayed the cause of sexual freedom and aided in the oppression of some of the most vulnerable second-class sexual citizens (1994, p. 45).
Califia offered a similar critique of the testimony Florence and other prominent civil libertarians offered before the 1986 Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography (more commonly known as the ‘Meese Commission’). ‘A lot of the people who turned up to testify before the commission on behalf of the First Amendment,’ Califia noted, ‘did not focus their testimony on the issue of pornography’ and ‘chose instead to speak about the dangerous impact that censorship could have on the arts, theater, and literature’ (1994, p. 36). As Califia saw it, the failure of these liberals to ‘stand up at the Meese Commission and say, “I want to be able to see somebody get spanked, tied up, and soundly fucked in a full-color film with a gorgeous soundtrack”,’ left an opening for the Justice Department to implement many of the Commission’s most draconian recommendations, including cracking down on queer and s/m pornography, which were easier for authorities to cast as beyond the pale of the First Amendment than more sexually orthodox fare (1994, p. 36). By operating within rather than against the normative confines of ‘the system of sexual oppression,’ liberal defenders of expressive freedom failed to vindicate the sexual freedom of the most sexually vulnerable.
As this brief discussion illustrates, during the sex wars’ earliest years, sex-radical feminists and anti-censorship liberals were profoundly at odds. In the face of liberal claims that sexual expression was private, apolitical, and harmless, sex-radical feminists figured the freedom of sexual expression as one integral part of a much larger sexual freedom to craft, cultivate, and live out diverse sexual desires and identities in public and in the context of erotically nurturing communities. Despite these profound differences, in the mid-1980s, as antipornography feminists championed a municipal ordinance making pornography civilly actionable as sex discrimination, tensions between sex-radical feminists and anti-censorship liberals began to ease, and an improbable liberal variant of sex-radical feminism began taking shape.
From sex-radical to sex-positive feminism
In the fall of 1983, at the request of the City of Minneapolis, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon drafted the first version of their pornography civil rights ordinance. Premised on antipornography feminism’s defining dogma that pornography threatens women’s physical, political, and economic wellbeing, the ordinance consisted of a series of amendments to Minneapolis’s existing civil rights code. It singled out pornography as a form of sex discrimination and defined specific acts, including ‘trafficking in pornography,’ as civil rights violations (Dworkin and MacKinnon, 1988, p. 101).
The Minneapolis City Council passed what eventually came to be known as the ‘Dworkin–MacKinnon ordinance’ twice between December 1983 and July 1984. Both times Minneapolis mayor Don Fraser vetoed it citing First Amendment concerns. The ordinance fared better in Indianapolis where it passed into law in the spring of 1984. Over the next 2 years, versions of the Dworkin–MacKinnon ordinance were also considered in Suffolk County, New York; Madison, Wisconsin; Bellingham, Washington; Los Angeles County, California; and Cambridge, Massachusetts. In most of these cities, coordinated opposition came from antipornography feminism’s long-time foes, civil libertarian opponents of obscenity regulation. However, in several instances, traditional liberal coalitions of booksellers, publishing trade associations, and state civil liberties unions were joined by sex-radical feminists acting under the aegis of a new organization, the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT).
According to FACT co-founder Carole Vance, FACT was formed in the fall of 1984 in response to the introduction of a Dworkin–MacKinnon-style antipornography ordinance in Suffolk County, New York (1993). Within a year, FACT chapters had sprung up in Madison, Wisconsin, Los Angeles, California, and Cambridge, Massachusetts ‘to oppose the enactment of Indianapolis-style antipornography laws’ (Duggan and Hunter, 2006, pp. 23, 242). To this end, FACT engaged in a variety of activities, including offering formal testimony at public hearings concerning the ordinance, organizing a street-theater action in protest of the 1986 Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, and publishing Caught Looking (1986), a tabloid-style book that paired essays criticizing antipornography feminism with sexually explicit photographs and illustrations.12 However, FACT’s most influential intervention was an amicus curiae brief it submitted on behalf of the plaintiffs in a legal challenge to the version of the Dworkin–MacKinnon ordinance enacted by the City of Indianapolis, American Booksellers v. Hudnut 771 F.2d 323 (7th Cir. 1985).
Authored by feminist legal scholars Nan Hunter and Sylvia Law and signed by what the radical feminist periodical off our backs described as ‘an extraordinarily wide range of feminists,’ from veteran sex radicals like Amber Hollibaugh and Gayle Rubin to civil libertarian attorneys like Nadine Strossen and David Richards, the FACT brief sought to persuade the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit that the Indianapolis ordinance was unconstitutional (Wallsgrove, 1985, p. 12). To this end, the brief marshaled two primary arguments. First, the brief maintained, the ordinance’s definition of pornography was ‘unconstitutionally vague’ and, when paired with the ordinance’s trafficking provision, it amounted to a license to ‘censor’ a ‘virtually limitless’ number of materials, including ‘experimentations in feminist art,’ in violation of the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee (Hunter and Sylvia, 1987, pp. 108, 89, 101). Second, the brief contended, by defining pornography in gender-specific terms as ‘the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women,’ the ordinance ‘resonate[d] with the traditional concept that sex itself degrades women’ (Hunter and Sylvia, 1987, pp. 132, 105). In FACT’s view, ‘sexually explicit speech [was] not per se sexist or harmful to women,’ and a law designed to protect women from such a dubious harm ‘perpetuate[d] central sexist stereotypes’ and violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection guarantee (Hunter and Sylvia, 1987, pp. 89, 130).
Judged solely on the basis of these arguments, the FACT brief appears to be a conventional liberal effort. It figures sexually explicit expression, for the most part, as harmless, and denounces attempts to regulate it as censorious encroachments on the freedom of speech. Even the FACT brief’s novel deployment of the equal protection clause was in keeping with the traditional liberal claim that obscenity regulation is patronizing and paternalistic. However, despite these affinities, the FACT brief was no straightforward rehearsal of the liberal creed.13 In fact, it flouted liberal convention in many ways. For instance, its bold vindication of ‘sexual speech’ as ‘political’ and ‘highly relevant to our decision-making as citizens on a wide range of social and ethical issues’ is a far cry from liberals’ traditionally ambivalent defenses of sexual expression as private and, therefore, permissible in only a few discreet settings. Similarly, the FACT brief’s argument that the Indianapolis ordinance would exacerbate the ‘massive discrimination’ endured by ‘sexual minorities’ by making their already marginalized ‘erotica’ even more susceptible to suppression was not an argument that had traditionally emanated from liberal quarters (Hunter and Sylvia, 1987, p. 109). Finally, the FACT brief’s dominant theme (apart from the threat the Indianapolis ordinance posed to expressive freedom in general) was a fear that, if enacted, the Indianapolis ordinance would furnish conservatives with ‘an effective tool’ for the curtailment of women’s ‘freedom to appropriate for themselves’ the ‘traditionally male language’ of sexuality (Hunter and Sylvia, 1987, pp. 121, 122). Such concern for women’s ability to express ‘unladylike, unfeminine, aggressive, power-charged, pushy, vulgar, urgent, confident, and intense’ ideas about sex was a definite departure from liberal orthodoxy (Hunter and Sylvia, 1987, p. 122).
That the FACT brief both defied and reproduced the conventional liberal line on ‘free speech’ points to what is, in my view, the most significant aspect of FACT’s intervention. Although many of FACT’s founders and supporters were sex-radical feminists committed to an expansive vision of sexual freedom that exceeded conventional liberal strictures,14 the organization was guided by a strategic vision that held that ‘effective political action consists in appropriating, transforming and deploying the friendliest discourses, in order to counter the most hostile ones’ (Duggan and Hunter, 2006, p. 2). In keeping with this strategy, FACT co-founder Lisa Duggan has explained, FACT ‘appropriated the rhetoric of ‘“anti-censorship”’ along with the accompanying ‘framework of civil liberties’ to construct what Duggan calls a ‘bridge discourse’ connecting the ‘reform politics of liberal and progressive groups’ to the more radical politics of sex-radical feminism (Duggan and Hunter, 2006, p. 2). By speaking in a liberal idiom, FACT was able to hitch sex-radical feminism’s ambitious agenda, which included resisting sexual oppression in all its forms and creating a vibrant and diverse public sexual culture, to a familiar (and much less threatening) liberal politics of ‘free speech’ and ‘civil liberties’ (Duggan and Hunter, 2006, p. 7). This enabled FACT to make not only an effective case against the Dworkin–MacKinnon ordinance, but a lasting contribution to liberal thought as well. FACT’s strategic deployment of liberal rhetoric led directly to the creation of a new discourse on pornography and sexual freedom that provided an alternative to the ambivalent one liberals traditionally employed. I call this new liberal-feminist hybrid discourse ‘anti-censorship/pro-sex feminism.’15
A key figure in the articulation and popularization of anti-censorship/pro-sex feminism was Nadine Strossen.16 As president of the ACLU from 1991 to 2008, founder of Feminists for Free Expression, and a member of the National Coalition against Censorship’s Working Group on Women, Censorship, and ‘Pornography,’ Strossen worked to dispel what she called the ‘widespread misperception’ that feminists and civil libertarians were fundamentally at odds over pornography (1993, p. 1107). According to Strossen, ‘feminism and civil liberties are inextricable’ and the ‘anti-censorship position’ customarily grounded in ‘free speech’ and ‘First Amendment principles’ also found sustenance in ‘feminist principles and concerns’ (1987, p. 202, 1993, p. 1103). To support this claim, Strossen drew on the arguments and ideas of sex-radical feminists. Censoring pornography, Strossen insisted, would not only ‘violate… cherished First Amendment freedoms,’ it would hinder ‘women’s efforts to develop their own sexuality,’ exacerbate the oppression of lesbians and other sexual minorities, ‘harm women who voluntarily work in the sex industry,’17 and undermine ‘essential aspects of human freedom,’ including ‘sexual freedom’ (1995, p. 14, 1993, pp. 1111–1112). Such contentions, originally put forward by sex-radical feminists as alternatives to the limited defenses of sexual freedom anti-censorship liberals espoused, became, in Strossen’s hands, evidence of ‘the falseness of the purported dichotomy between feminist and civil libertarian principles’ (Strossen, 1987, p. 201). Once portrayed by sex-radical feminists as an inadequate response to a ‘Kafkaesque’ system of sexual oppression, liberalism’s narrow sexual politics of anti-censorship and expressive freedom were now passing as a sex-radical feminist sexual politics.
Despite the willingness of anti-censorship/pro-sex feminists like Strossen to figure sexuality as an intrinsically valuable domain of human experience and to express concern for the rights of (some) sexual minorities in the course of defending traditional First Amendment liberties, this fusion of anti-censorship liberalism and sex-radical feminism did not extend liberal sexual politics beyond traditional bounds. Like their liberal forebears, anti-censorship/pro-sex feminists consistently failed to exhibit concern for sexual freedom beyond expressive freedom or to address forms of sexual oppression beyond state censorship. These failures are evident in ‘Polluting the Censorship Debate,’ a report issued by the ACLU in July of 1986 to criticize the findings of the Meese Commission. Although this report offers the sort of bold and unequivocal defense of sexual expression qua sexual expression that eluded even the staunchest civil libertarians for generations,18 it stops far short of pursuing a sex-radical feminist politics of sexual freedom. For instance, the report defends ‘constitutionally protected expression’ like pornography by insisting on its distinctiveness from criminal conduct such as ‘pandering’ (i.e., pimping) and ‘prostitution’ (Lynn, 1986, p. 131). As the report argues, ‘if producing film or pictures, not sexual gratification for money, is the primary purpose of the actors’ work, then that work can in no way be called prostitution, and paying the actors’ salaries can in no way be called pandering’ (Lynn, 1986, p. 132). This argument for the legitimacy of pornography as constitutionally protected expression – an argument, it is worth remembering, that prior liberals had been unwilling to make – tacitly endorses the criminalization of commercial sex work like prostitution. Such an argument would have been untenable to sex-radical feminists who were concerned with a sexual freedom that far outstripped expressive freedom and encompassed the right to engage in commercial sex without fear of stigma or punishment.19
The stance on laws regulating child pornography and intergenerational sex adopted by the ACLU in this report is also at odds with a sex-radical feminist politics of sexual freedom. While sex-radical feminists like Gayle Rubin and Pat Califia opposed age-of-consent and child pornography laws as oppressive denials of the sexual autonomy of young people and unjust threats to the civil liberties and sexual freedom of many adults, the ACLU report shows little concern for either of these matters. In fact, the report clearly states that, while the ACLU believes that child pornography laws pose a threat to constitutionally protected speech, the organization also ‘agrees with [the Meese Commission] that the vast bulk of child pornography does represent the non-consensual violation of a child’s rights’ and that ‘the criminal law should proceed… with increased vigor against those who commit the underlying conduct which results in the sexually explicit photographs of children’ (Lynn, 1986, p. 103, 105). ‘There is much to be done,’ the ACLU report continues, ‘to reach those who finance these photographic productions; those who procure the children (with various degrees of coercion) into making the photographs; those who engage in sexual activities with children, as well as other knowing and willful participants who aid and abet in molestation’ (Lynn 1986, p. 105).20 The possibility that so-called ‘child pornography’ depicts benign and consensual acts or that a criminal crackdown on ‘molestation’ might make already stigmatized sexual minorities even more vulnerable to harassment and persecution is not entertained by the ACLU whose sole concern is expressive freedom, not sexual freedom along the lines envisioned by sex-radical feminists.
As the ACLU’s official response to the findings of the Meese Commission indicates, the strategic appropriation of civil liberties rhetoric by sex-radical feminists yielded ambiguous results. While the Dworkin–MacKinnon ordinance was defeated and a space for a more robust defense of sexual expression was opened up within the conceptual confines of liberalism, these achievements came at a price. Many of sex-radical feminism’s defining features – its expansive vision of sexual freedom and its concern with modes of sexual oppression beyond state censorship – did not survive liberal translation. In the end, sex-radical feminists’ attempts to strategically deploy liberalism in the service of their radical ends got away from them and gave rise to the attenuated sexual politics of anti-censorship/pro-sex feminism. Adherents to this new liberal-feminist hybrid position deployed select aspects of sex-radical feminist thought to do what liberals had always done: defend the expression of sexually orthodox ideas against state censorship. Meanwhile, aspects of sex-radical feminism that were not readily assimilable to this longstanding liberal project, including its challenge to a vast sociolegal apparatus that targets dissident sexualities for regulation and punishment, fell into disuse and obscurity.
Anti-censorship/pro-sex feminism and the rise of carceral feminism
This history of the convergence of liberalism and sex-radical feminism during the sex wars bears important implications for evaluating contemporary feminist interventions like SlutWalk. In a superficial sense, at least, the SlutWalk movement shares certain affinities with feminist positions articulated on both ‘sides’ of the sex wars. For instance, its emphasis on the broader societal and cultural factors that produce sexual violence bears an obvious resemblance to antipornography feminism. Equally obvious is SlutWalk’s continuity, in at least some respects, with the audacious spirit of public sexual assertion characteristic of sex-radical feminism. However, hailing the SlutWalk movement as a rapprochement between antipornography feminism and sex-radical feminism leaves many of its most important facets unaccounted for.
For example, in her recent study of the SlutWalk movement, Kaitlynn Mendes notes that, in addition to challenging ‘rape culture,’ one of the movement’s central priorities has been combatting ‘slut-shaming’ by promoting ‘respect for the individual and the variety of choices they make (including the freedom to dress how they want).’ SlutWalk Toronto’s co-founder, Heather Jarvis, has foregrounded this facet of the movement. When asked in an interview about SlutWalk Toronto’s controversial decision to ‘re-appropriate’ the word ‘slut,’ Jarvis explained that, while she ‘completely respect[s]’ people who have criticized her effort to ‘reclaim’ the charged term, using the word ‘slut’ in a ‘positive context’ is ‘a choice for some people’ and she ‘want[s] more choice, not less’ (Mistry, 2011).
This emphasis on self-expression and personal choice, especially as it pertains to the conventionally feminine and heterosexual women who bear the brunt of the ‘slut’ stigma, distinguishes SlutWalk rather starkly from the sexual politics of sex-radical feminism. Prior to their strategic appropriation of liberal ‘anti-censorship’ rhetoric in the mid-1980s, sex-radical feminists vindicated a vision of sexual freedom so expansive that it seems scandalous and utopian even today. They demanded not merely more space for individual women to enact fairly conventional forms of feminine heterosexuality, but an end to all legal and extra-legal methods of enforcing erotic conformity including statutory rape laws, child pornography laws, laws prohibiting public sex, family violence, employment and housing discrimination; and psychiatric diagnoses and hegemonic norms that punish the ‘perverse’ and reward the ‘normal’ (Rubin, 1984, pp. 294, 292, 289, 295). In stark contrast, the SlutWalk movement shows little interest in addressing these multifarious forms of sexual oppression. In fact, rather than critically interrogating the erotic conformity enacted by SlutWalkers parading around in matching bra and panty sets calling themselves ‘sluts’ as the ambivalent effect of a system of sexual oppression that makes alternative erotic possibilities virtually unthinkable, the SlutWalk movement valorizes these performances of a commonplace, even hackneyed, feminine (hetero)sexuality as hard-won products of individual struggle and choice.21
Such willful disregard for sexual oppression broadly conceived signals not only the SlutWalk movement’s discontinuity with sex-radical feminism, but its continuity with anti-censorship/pro-sex feminism. For anti-censorship/pro-sex feminists like Nadine Strossen, sexual freedom was not ‘the freedom to be as queer, as perverted on the street and on the job as [you are] in [your] dungeon,’ but the freedom to express conventional ideas about sex and gender without being subject to state censorship. This narrow conception of sexual freedom is very much akin to the sexual freedom sought by the SlutWalk movement: the freedom to ‘dress how [you] want,’ ‘be sexual in your own way,’ and publicly perform a normative feminine (hetero)sexuality without being judged or sanctioned.
The SlutWalk movement’s investment in a narrow and individualistic vision of sexual freedom fuels another aspect of the movement that marks a stark departure from sex-radical feminism. As I have already noted, the SlutWalk movement seeks not only to combat sexual assault, but to do so in a way that celebrates (rather than critically interrogates the limits of) women’s freedom to express their sexuality in whatever ways they choose. Honoring these dual commitments requires the SlutWalk movement to respond to the problem of sexual violence without engaging in critiques of normative scripts of (hetero)sexuality and gender that might have a chilling effect on individual choice and expression. Faced with this quandary of resisting sexual violence while refraining from questioning norms that support it, the SlutWalk movement falls back on a strikingly carceral solution. In its rhetoric and messaging, SlutWalk places virtually all responsibility for sexual assault on individual perpetrators and figures the carceral state as the guarantor of women’s sexual freedom.
As I noted in the introduction, the carceral thrust of the SlutWalk movement has been evident from its advent in Toronto. Despite the fact that the original SlutWalk was inspired by outrage at police complicity in rape culture, its primary message was an appeal to police for protection and respect. ‘We want Toronto Police Services to take serious steps to regain our trust,’ SlutWalk Toronto demanded via its website, ‘We want to feel that we will be respected and protected should we ever need them, but more importantly be certain that those charged with our safety have a true understanding of what it is to be a survivor of sexual assault – slut or otherwise’ (SlutWalk Toronto, 2011). A similar appeal emanated from a SlutWalk march in New York City in October of 2011. Despite the fact that the protest occurred only a few months after the acquittal of two NYPD officers accused of raping a woman while on duty and only one day after reports surfaced that police investigating a series of rapes in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood were warning women against wearing skirts or dresses because they provide ‘easy access,’ SlutWalk New York figured police as agents of sexual and gender justice (Anderson, 2011). Carrying signs bearing messages like ‘Punish rapists not victims!’ and ‘NYPD: Target Brooklyn rapist not women!!!’ SlutWalk New York demonstrators called on police to use the full force of their powers on behalf of survivors to catch and punish rapists (Daily Mail Reporter, 2011; Kirschner, 2011). SlutWalk New York organizer Sammy Lifson even couched her critique of victim-blaming and slut-shaming in terms of police efficacy. ‘The cops in Park Slope have really stepped up their presence and they’re trying to be helpful,’ Lifson told a reporter at the event, ‘But to focus on women isn’t going to help catch the perpetrator’ (Daily Mail Reporter, 2011). As these remarks reveal, the goal of these North American SlutWalks was not to highlight police and law enforcement complicity in sexual violence and rape culture but to figure the ‘slut’ as a supplicant before the law deserving of its benevolent protection as any other citizen.
By framing the ‘slut’ as a vulnerable subject entitled to the state’s protection, the SlutWalk movement employs what Iris Marion Young calls ‘the logic of masculinist protection’ (2003). According to this logic, men are ‘gallantly masculine’ protectors who ‘[face] the world’s difficulties and dangers in order to shield women from harm,’ while women are submissive ‘objects of love and guardianship’ who ‘adore [their] protector[s] and happily defer to [their] judgment in return for the promise of security’ (Young, 2003, pp. 4–5). When this gendered logic is extrapolated to the macro level of the modern state, the outcome is authoritarian. Cast in the roll of benevolent masculine protector, the state’s power to surveil, police, detain, and repress in the name of the security of its feminized citizenry is virtually limitless. While the SlutWalk movement challenges the logic of masculinist protection at the micro level by repudiating ‘slut-shaming’ and insisting that women be treated as autonomous sexual subjects regardless of their sexual choices, its macro level demand that police respect and protect ‘sluts’ just as they would any other citizens bolsters the carceral state’s image as masculine protector and aggrandizes its power.
The SlutWalk movement’s faith in the carceral state’s capacity to protect and, ultimately, liberate is not something it inherited from its sex-radical feminist forebears.22 As I have shown, prior to the strategic alliance of sex-radical feminists with anti-censorship liberals in the mid-1980s, sex-radical feminists were ruthlessly critical of the criminal justice system. In Gayle Rubin’s analysis, the carceral state was not an ally in the feminist struggle for sexual freedom, but part of a vast ‘system of sexual oppression,’ that ‘Kafkaesque nightmare in which unlucky victims become herds of human cattle whose identification, surveillance, apprehension, treatment, incarceration, and punishment produce jobs and self-satisfaction for thousands of vice police, prison officials, psychiatrists, and social workers’ (1984, p. 293).
However, as sex-radical feminism resolved into a more conventional anti-censorship politics in the late-1980s and early-1990s, its characteristic suspicion of the carceral state all but vanished. Intent on vindicating an individual’s right to free expression, but wary of undermining the boundaries between the perverse and the normal that liberal defenses of expressive freedom had always bolstered and relied on, anti-censorship/pro-sex feminists defended the freedom of individuals to engage in conventional forms of sexual expression while tacitly accepting (or, in some cases, vigorously endorsing) the criminal regulation of other highly stigmatized forms of sexual conduct. One sees this carceral defense of expressive freedom at work in the ACLU’s official report on the findings of the Meese Commission. While the report offers a bold defense of sexual expression qua sexual expression, it also advocates the criminalization of a variety of forms of sexual conduct, including prostitution, pandering, intergenerational sex, and ‘child pornography’ broadly defined.
While it may seem counterintuitive to claim that liberalism, with its emphasis on individual liberty, limited government, and a sacrosanct private realm of thought and belief, helped forge a feminist politics that aggrandizes the carceral state, this is precisely what seems to have occurred in the case of anti-censorship/pro-sex feminism. A dogged commitment on the part of anti-censorship/pro-sex feminists to expressive freedom supplanted a broader sex-radical feminist vision of sexual freedom and led to the endorsement of a variety of laws criminalizing the very marginalized sexualities that sex-radical feminists had once championed. A similar dynamic is plainly evident in North American SlutWalks. Committed to a narrow conception of sexual freedom qua expressive freedom, the SlutWalk movement holds up aggressive law enforcement as the key to securing women’s freedom to look and live as ‘sluts’ if they so choose. Constrained by this liberal aim, the SlutWalk movement fails to address the carceral state’s complicity in sexual oppression, particularly the widespread sexual abuse and harassment of prisoners, queer, trans, and gender-non-conforming people, and sex workers. Sex-radical feminists were once sharply attuned to this complicity. Recovering their analysis can help contemporary feminists look beyond a narrow liberal politics of expressive freedom and toward anti-carceral approaches to sexual liberation that center on restorative justice and community accountability.23 A feminist movement that is serious about sexual pleasure and freedom must contest the power of the carceral state, not intensify it. A liberal politics of expressive freedom, no matter how vigorously ‘sex-positive,’ is simply not up to this vital task.
Bernstein also highlights several examples of ‘center-left’ feminists embracing the carceral politics of the anti-trafficking movement (2010, p. 54). Unfortunately, instead of asking what distinctive political commitments may be driving these liberal feminists in carceral directions, she simply describes them as ‘eager partners to conservative feminist anti-trafficking campaigns’ (2010, p. 54).
According to Bureau of Justice Statistics studies in 2011 and 2012, 3.2 per cent of all people in jail, 4 per cent of state and federal prisoners, and 9.5 per cent of those held in juvenile detention in the U.S. reported having been sexually abused in their current facility in the preceding year (Kaiser and Stannow, 2013). While data on sexual abuse in Canadian prisons are more difficult to obtain, scholars claim that rates are likely similar to U.S. rates (Ellenbogen, 2009, pp. 344–347). Regarding sexual abuse and harassment perpetrated by the carceral state beyond the walls of the prison, a 2015 report by The University of California’s Williams Institute documents extensive police harassment of LGBTQ people. For example, according to a 2012 survey of more than 300 residents of Queens, New York, 54 per cent of all LGBTQ respondents reported being stopped by police, compared to 28 per cent of non-LGBTQ respondents. ‘Among those individuals who reported being stopped by police,’ the report explains, ‘51 per cent of all LGBTQ respondents and 61 per cent of just transgender respondents reported that they had been physically or verbally harassed by the police during the stop, compared with 33 per cent of non-LGBTQ respondents. Some respondents also reported ‘sexual abuse perpetrated… by police officers,’ including individuals who reported that they were ‘forced to perform sexual acts under threat of arrest’ (Mallory et al., 2015, pp. 7–8).
The focus of this essay are SlutWalks in the U.S. and Canada. On the movement’s transnational peregrinations, see Leach (2013), Carr (2013), Lim and Fanghanel (2013), Kapur (2012), Mitra (2012), and Borah and Subhalakshmi, (2012).
Gail Dines and Wendy Murphy have accused SlutWalk of contributing to the ‘pornification’ of women and girls (2011). Bonnie Dow and Julia Wood have expressed concern that SlutWalk ‘negate[s] or pathologize[s] queerness’ (2014, p. 30). Kathy Miriam has criticized SlutWalk for relying on a neoliberal discourse of self-determination that willfully ignores ‘the matrices of social relations through which [women’s] choices are structured’ (2012, p. 263). Perhaps the most influential critique of SlutWalk has been that it marginalizes women of color. See, for example, Crawford (2011) and Bogado (2011).
The ‘sides’ in feminism’s sex wars have been called by many names. By ‘antipornography feminism,’ I mean to refer to ideas advanced by individuals like Susan Brownmiller and Andrea Dworkin and organizations like Women Against Pornography. By ‘sex-radical feminism,’ I mean to refer to ideas advanced by individuals like Pat Califia and Gayle Rubin and organizations like Samois.
SlutWalk’s ‘sex-positive’ ethos has led at least one scholar to overlook its carceral inflection. In her introduction to a recent special issue of Signs, Suzanna Danuta Walters insists that ‘young activists demanding changes in universities’ handling of sexual assault are not simply litigious “carceral feminists” parroting the likes of Catharine MacKinnon… but are often the same folks marching in SlutWalks and pushing for genderqueer freedom and polyamorous perversity’ (2016, p. 3). Walters’ implication here is clear: because SlutWalkers are ‘sex-positive,’ they cannot be carceral feminists. As I demonstrate in this essay, this is far from true.
Antipornography feminists’ engagements with liberalism have been the focus of previous scholarship (Bracewell, 2016).
Wendy Brown has leveled similar criticisms against antipornography feminism for aggrandizing state power, juridicalizing feminist politics, and shoring up traditional norms of gender and sexuality (1995). My work supplements Brown’s by demonstrating that such solecisms were perpetrated on both ‘sides’ of the sex wars.
Some particularly influential statements of sex-radical feminism include Samois (1979), Samois (1982), Vance (1984), Califia, (1994), Hollibaugh (2000), and Rubin (2011). Also, Jocelyn Boryczka’s Suspect Citizens (2012) offers a portrait of sex-radical feminism that nicely captures its radical challenge to the dualistic logics of virtue and vice underpinning liberal defenses of sexual expression.
Pat Califia is now a bisexual transman who goes by Patrick. Before 1999, Califia went by ‘Pat’ and identified as a female lesbian.
For a transcript of testimony offered by FACT members at hearings for the Dworkin–MacKinnon ordinance, see MacKinnon and Dworkin (1997). For a description of FACT’s protest against the 1986 Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, see English (1987).
As Kathryn Abrams has noted, the FACT brief ‘was animated by many of the concerns that inspired the sex radicals’ (1995, p. 321). Carole Vance has also emphasized the continuities between FACT and sex-radical feminism more broadly (1993, p. 304).
My reading of FACT’s strategy and its consequences differs from readings offered by other scholars. For instance, in repudiating attempts to paint FACT as an organization of ‘sexual liberals,’ Carole Vance makes no mention of FACT’s strategic deployment of liberal rhetoric (1993, p. 304). Dierdre English, by contrast, represents FACT as a consummately liberal organization founded by women who ‘didn’t like having [male civil libertarians] do the fighting for them’ (1995). Finally, Kathryn Abrams portrays FACT as a failed effort on the part of sex-radical feminists to influence liberal thinking (1995).
By ‘women who work in the sex industry,’ Strossen means ‘women who pose for sexually explicit works,’ not women who work in facets of the sex industry that are criminalized such as prostitutes (1993, p. 1162).
For example, the ACLU report describes the ‘presumption that there is a difference between sexually oriented speech and all other kinds of speech’ as ‘completely unwarranted’ and declares that ‘the First Amendment should protect all sexually explicit speech’ without regard to prurience, offensiveness, social value, or utility (Lynn, 1986, pp. 27–29). The report roots this sweeping defense of sexual expression in the claim that sexually explicit speech, including pornography, ‘transmits ideas,’ ‘presents views of aesthetics and ethics about which public debate is certain and desirable,’ and ‘may… have as its purpose or effect the promotion of a political or ideological viewpoint’ (Lynn, 1986, p. 30). To support these claims, the report cites sex-radical feminist theorist Ann Snitow.
As Gayle Rubin memorably states the sex-radical feminist position on the matter, ‘whether sex acts are gay or straight, coupled or in groups, naked or in underwear, commercial or free, should not be ethical concerns’ (1984, p. 153).
All in all, the ACLU report endorses 32 of the commission’s recommendations pertaining to the regulation of child pornography.
In this respect, the SlutWalk movement is a paradigmatic example of ‘choice feminism’ (Kirkpatrick, 2010).
Nor is it something it inherited from antipornography feminism. Antipornography feminists viewed the carceral state as part of the patriarchal ‘rape culture’ they sought to dismantle, not its antidote. Susan Brownmiller’s remarks on this score are representative: ‘A police department, like a prison or an army, is by nature and structure a traditionally male, authoritarian institution … Operating through sanctioned force, the local police precinct has always been a bastion of male attitudes and responses that are inimical to women’ (1975, p. 270).
The author would like to thank Patrick Arnold, Cristina Beltran, Jocelyn Boryczka, Susan Burgess, Andrew Dilts, Farah Godrej, Mary Hawkesworth, Manu Samnotra, and the editors and anonymous reviewers at Contemporary Political Theory for their helpful feedback at various stages in this project’s development.
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