Photo courtesy of The University of Nebraska- Kearney Website
By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
In the current climate of sex positivity, the history of feminism and the “sex wars” are often forgotten in an effort to preserve their victories for the present and future. University of Nebraska-Kearney professor Lorna Bracewell came to Sewanee and debated feminism versus the playboy philosophy, explaining the sometimes unflattering history behind the movement.
She began by giving the audience of 20 people, consisting primarily of women, a historical overview of liberal sexual politics. She explained the Comstock Act of 1873 and its ban on pornographic materials in an attempt to discourage lewd thoughts and acts, before going on to explore the roots of the word “obscene” and how it contributes to our understanding of its implications today.
The Comstock Act was contested in the mid-20th century, three generations later, during the Roth v. the United States court case in 1957, which overturned the restrictive Hicklin Test that supported the destruction of “obscene” books. Obscenity was then redefined as “whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.”
As a result, Barney Rosset of Grove Press published an unedited version of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover to test the new Roth standard. This led to a series of similar publishing ventures, including the revival of erotic Victorian novels and once-literary magazine Evergreen.
Bracewell launched into the heart of her presentation, discussing what she calls “the sex wars,” in reference to the debates that United States feminists had from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s about sex and sexuality.
“While most scholars portray the sex wars as a two-sided and wholly internecine feminist ‘catfight’ between antipornography feminists on one side and sex radical feminists on the other, my research suggests a more nuanced view,” she said. “The sex wars, I argue, are more accurately conceived of as a multi-faceted and motile ‘three-way’ between antipornography feminism, sex radical feminism, and liberalism.”
She then spoke of the Slut Walk movement, which originated in Toronto, Canada, in 2011, when Constable Michael Sanguinetti, in a presentation about campus rape at Osgoode Hall Law School, stated: “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” In response, thousands of women took to the streets to challenge this statement.
“I want to use the history of the sex wars to cast a critical light on contemporary feminist movements like Slut Walk that tend to frame sexual freedom as a highly individualistic and heteronormative exercise in expressive freedom,” said Bracewell.
“I hope my work will get folks at Sewanee curious to explore the history of feminism more deeply, especially the unflattering and contentious aspects of that history. I also hope it will encourage folks to resist taking a whiggish view of the history of feminism. I want to spur folks to think critically about contemporary feminist interventions in sexual politics and to be open to the possibility that we in the present might actually have something to learn from the past,” she said.
Bracewell’s work can be found in the Fall 2016 edition of the Journal of Women in Culture and Society, titled “Beyond Barnard: Liberalism, Antipornography Feminism, and the Sex Wars,” and in the encyclopaedia Great Events in Religion with a section titled “The Ordination of Women in Methodism.”