Sex Wars Old and New

Twenty-odd years after Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon took the nation by storm, the debate around women, sexuality, what turns us all on, and what oppresses us is no less intense.
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Last Tuesday, author Courtney Martin published an interview, "Why Feminists Fight," about my new book, Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild, on AlterNet. By Friday, 103 comments had piled up in response. The majority of these reiterated the "sex debates" that characterized 1980s feminism -- not always self-reflectively, but often offered in the same spirit that animated splits the first time round.

The AlterNet thread is but one example. Feminism's hot controversies take place, these days, online. You might think the Internet has changed the way feminists (and others on a mission) do business. But the fiery AlterNet thread is evidence that we're also using this new medium to rehash a conversation we've been having for years.

After reading the comments, I called up a politically-minded shrink friend who edits an e-journal to see if he might have some insight on the general subject of the Internet, repetition, and the way people engaged in social issues debate online.

"Online debates are easily given over to misunderstanding, and the antidote is to be extremely clear," my friend said on the phone, going on to explain how in an online exchange, we miss nonverbal facial and tonal cues, making everything more prone to miscommunication.

Not satisfied, I probed.

"Well, why do people in general have the same argument over and over again?" he asked me, most likely while scratching his beard. "It's because the topic is generally unresolved."

Interesting, I thought, but not complete.

I tried explaining to him the specifics. "Some feminists today debate whether women who dance around poles are liberated or enslaved, which is, to my mind (and to others), an updated version of the 1980s sex wars around which feminists of different stripes established their positions on porn," I tried.

"Hmm," he said. "Perhaps the reason the debate is the same is because, for a new generation, the questions are new. But you have to ask yourself, even though it's a new conversation for the current generation, why don't these questions settle?" And with that, he politely got off the phone to mind the grill.

My friend's question -- why don't these debates settle? -- left me thinking. Twenty-odd years after Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon took the nation by storm with their talk of oppression and porn and Barnard College held a conference on sex, the debate around women, sexuality, what turns us all on, and what oppresses us is no less intense. In the 38 years since Anne Koedt penned "The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm," 34 since Erica Jong penned her bestseller Fear of Flying, and 37 since the originator of sexual politics, Kate Millett, penned hers, feminists have been debating the contours of sexual pleasure and danger, the extent of men's violence and women's vulnerability, the power of taking "it" back. Back then, of course, there was all sort of disagreement. The more socially conservative Betty Friedan took up the question of whether feminists should even be debating the politics of sex ("orgasm politics," in her words) at all.

Yesterday's unresolved debates fuel today's online exchanges. And while I know neither the age nor the gender of most of last week's AlterNet commentators (most were posted under screen names like "Frosty" and "Hagwind"), I do know the last commentator was female and young. "Cruella," I learned in one click, was a blogger from the UK who describes herself as "a young woman whose principal interests are secularism, feminism, and stand-up comedy." Rounding off the AlterNet thread, "Cruella" offered sober wisdom:

"I never fall out with other feminists. We disagree on the way various issues should be tackled, but the idea that it's aggressive angry disagreement doesn't reflect what I experience in my life. We love to have our ideas tested and challenged. Or maybe we even disagree over whether or not we disagree. If there's one thing we agree on, it's the need to bring the positive message of feminism to the younger generation and dispel the false image of feminism as divided, unattractive and pointless."

I've watched with admiration as a new generation takes up this test and this challenge with the gusto of new crusaders. But let's face it: today's "sex debates" are as old as they are new.

The Internet has spawned new ways of doing things but it's perpetuated old business and bias, too. Keyboards clicking, today we post and comment, circling around old themes redressed in the vampy garb -- stilettos and strip dance -- of our times. Across the generations, we repeat some threads and we start others anew. The language and fashions have changed, but the passion still remains. Some arguments, it seems, bear repeating. Resolution is not the solution. The fight itself is the point.

Post-script: The past seeps into the present via the Web for me in other ways this week as well. As I type, I've simultaneously been emailing one of the founders of the South Jersey NOW chapter, which is named after first-wave feminist crusader Alice Paul. And just the other day, a ghost sent me an email: "Victoria Woodhull" invited me to join her Facebook group. Without hesitation, I did.