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Sex wars, SlutWalks, and carceral feminism

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgements

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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Correspondence to Lorna Bracewell.

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Bracewell, L. Sex wars, SlutWalks, and carceral feminism. Contemp Polit Theory 19, 61–82 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-019-00318-y

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Keywords

  • feminism
  • sex wars
  • liberalism
  • carceral feminism
  • sex-radical feminism
  • SlutWalk