One afternoon many years ago when I was in college, I got stoned before a film class and stumbled late into the darkened lecture hall without looking at the syllabus. On screen, I was somewhat disconcerted to discover, was hardcore Japanese bondage porn. I don’t really remember the pedagogical purpose of the film, but I do recall being uncomfortable, and being deeply ashamed of my discomfort. Back then, I longed to be worldly and unflappable, and would never have admitted to anyone that I was anything besides wholly conversant with the full panoply of international erotica. After class, I hurried out with my head down, not wanting to look anyone in the eye.
Had that happened in 2015, I might have considered myself triggered, expected a warning, and felt entitled to complain.
I thought of this yesterday reading Emily Bazelon’s New York Times Magazine piece, “The Return of the Sex Wars.” It framed the current debate over campus sexual culture as the reemergence of a fierce feminist battle from the 1980s, waged between so-called “dominance feminists,” who tended to see heterosexual sex in terms of power and coercion, and pro-sex feminists, sexual libertarians who celebrated erotic freedom. The most well-known and influential of the dominance feminists—though she doesn’t like the term—is Catherine MacKinnon. Bazelon describes her position this way: “Women lived in a state of subordination, MacKinnon argued, with pornography, sexual harassment, prostitution, child sexual abuse, domestic violence and rape as core elements in male domination.”
Bazelon sees today’s campus anti-rape activists as MacKinnon’s heirs. “Like MacKinnon, student activists see the law as a tool of resistance against oppression, usually though not exclusively perpetrated by men,” she writes. It’s too simple, however, to say that MacKinnon’s ideology has been resurrected. Instead, what we see now is a strange synthesis between the two camps in the 1980s sex wars. Young feminists appear to be trying to combine the intense legal regulation of sexuality favored by MacKinnon with a liberationism that is wholly foreign to her.
“[B]y the beginning of the twenty-first century, the cultural pendulum had swung in a more libertarian direction,” writes Rachel Hills in her new book, The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Our Realities. “The ‘sex wars,’ which had pitted feminists against one another on the integrity of everything from sex work to BDSM to having sex with men, had been won, and the winning position was that sexual imagery didn’t have to be degrading or objectifying. To the contrary: eroticism could be a source of power.”
These days, among young feminists, criticizing prostitution is highly unfashionable, likely to get you labeled a SWERF, or sex-work exclusive radical feminist. Schools including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, and the University of Chicago have BDSM clubs. Hills has written an entire book about the shame of not being sexual enough, saying, “The compulsion to appear ‘liberated’ is a form of regulation of its own.”