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Sex and Feminism: Who Is Being Silenced?
by Adriene Sere

Leftist publications have a problem with radical feminism. They have long maintained an informal ban against publishing radical feminist writers. They refuse to grapple with radical feminism's critique of male supremacist sexuality as a system of oppression of women. They generally pretend radical feminists don't exist, except for Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, whose names they try to weld into keywords for "censorship," "anti-sex," and "bad kind of feminist."

Leftist publications do publish liberal feminists and leftist women, thanks in part to the pressures of the feminist movement. There's a tiny bit of space given to women in the Nation, a little bit more in Z Magazine, and a generous bit more in the Progressive. But whatever the ratio, all publishing access comes under the provisions of an underlying contract: "We will publish your writing. We will even allow you to be stars. Just don't go there -- where Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, and those nameless radical feminists go. That's taboo territory. Don't even think about respectfully engaging with these feminists. If you join their ranks, we will treat you the way we treat them. If you even look like their friend, you will no longer be welcome here. We will reward you, so long as you don't cross that line."

After decades of this divide-and-conquer strategy, radical feminists might hope that sexist men on the left would simply tire themselves out. After all, how can they keep pummeling those who are made invisible? How can they both bash and erase, year after year? How can they keep getting liberal and leftist women to follow their rules, almost without exception?

Unfortunately, no one is getting tired -- except perhaps radical feminists. Women who move in leftist and liberal publishing circles know the rules of the contract, and more and more of them make these rules their own. Many of them take the initiative to bash and erase the "bad feminists" (the two that exist) as a pledge of allegiance to the men and the system around them.

Laura Flanders, a leftist-feminist journalist and founder of the Women's Desk at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, provided a recent example in the May issue of the Progressive. In "Living on the Wrong Side of Sex," Flanders profiles Amber Hollibaugh, a "pro-sex" writer and activist who, like celebrated writers Dorothy Allison and Joan Nestle, argues that people shouldn't have to suppress their enjoyment of a "politically incorrect" sexuality to fit a feminist politics. That's a valid message that should be heard. Like so many other "pro-sex" writers, Hollibaugh also argues incessantly that the feminist movement is sexless, prudish, "the last rock of conservatism"; that egalitarian sexuality, referred to as "vanilla sex," isn't really sex at all; and that sadomasochism is a working class sexuality. Such are arguments that should be openly discussed, as part of a fair dialogue, when they are made in progressive political forums.

The problem is, these arguments are put forth in an ongoing monologue that not only suppresses dissent, but contemptuously dismisses those who would object. What is called "pro-sex" -- sadomasochism and butch/femme role-playing -- is put forth not just as a personal preference that one should be able to choose without shame, but as cutting-edge politics itself. In the Progressive, such a depiction of "pro-sex" is featured, in all seriousness, alongside coverage of worker's rights, militarism, U.S. imperialism, and deteriorating inner city schools.

Capitalizing on the aura of taboo, "pro-sex" advocates tend to characterize their sexuality as the most marginalized, and its participants as oppressed in a way that is on par with racism, sexism, and classism. This notion has been widely accepted in popular alternative media, even though the explicit themes of "pro-sex" are ritualistically hierarchical and often fascist -- slave owner and slave, nazi and prisoner, etc. Advocates also tend to depict themselves as silenced and censored, in spite of their access to the popular alternative publishing world, from Salon to local weeklies, to Bust and Sojourner.

The ones who are, in fact, denied speech by almost all alternative (not to mention mainstream) publications are radical feminists, specifically in their attempts to critique what they see as a male supremacist sexuality. Leftist publications (unlike a few mainstream publications) also seem to be uninterested in offering space to popular, liberal feminists such as Pepper Schwartz, or the more cutting-edge Shere Hite, who explore possibilities of egalitarian relationships and sex. (Review of Shere Hite's work has appeared in leftist pages only for the purpose of scrutinizing the imperfect methodology of her studies.) The male-established leftist media, eager to portray women's participation in hierarchical sex as "cutting-edge," are simply not interested in promoting egalitarian sexuality as political.

The extent of censorship of radical feminists in particular is difficult to calculate, since it consists of what the public doesn't see or hear. However, the suppression of speech, direct or indirect, can be measured by the absolute absence of radical feminist thought in the leftist media -- though radical feminism is, even now, not uncommon in the grassroots, and tends to flourish when women are exposed to its ideas.

Occassionally, deliberate acts of censorship are exposed. For instance, in Letters from a War Zone, Andrea Dworkin recounts several attempts to get her (exquisitely written) essays published in the Nation, Mother Jones, the Village Voice, and many other publications. Colleen McGuire's articulate letter to the Nation pointing out columnist Katha Pollitt's ignorance of grassroots feminist activism was published only after editors nonsensically omitted the writer's brief reference to pornography as a tool of oppression. (off our backs, 6/94)

By keeping radical feminism out, leftist media allow the promoters of "pro-sex" to make any assertion without fear of accountability, challenge, or correction of inaccuracy. The recent article by Flanders was published in this context. One would hope that as a journalist who has dealt extensively with the unfairness of the corporate media, Flanders would make sure to give critical viewpoints a fair shake, and radical feminists accurate representation, if she is going to represent them at all.

No such luck. Leftist concern for media fairness simply does not apply when it comes to radical feminists. As is predictable in the "pro-sex" monologue, Flanders points to and then contemptuously dismisses Andrea Dworkin who, she says, sees "prostitution and pornography as the root of all evil." More accurately, Dworkin sees prostitution and pornography as male supremacy's main playing fields. Shouldn't Flanders and the Progressive treat a complex and original thinker like Dworkin in a more constructive manner -- for instance, by arguing with her actual ideas? Instead, they simply sneer, as if Dworkin were nothing more than an anti-intellectual, anti-leftist propagandist like Rush Limbaugh.

Ironically, while misrepresenting and excluding the ideas of radical feminists, Flanders attempts to characterize "pro-sex" advocates as the ones raising the critical questions. She quotes Hollibaugh as asking, "If the forbidden is connected to taboo, how can we resist oppression without destroying our means to excitement? ... Is there feminist sex?" Well, some of us would like to answer that question in a forum like the Progressive. In fact, there is a large body of work by radical feminists that has, for decades now, explored such questions; it is the analyses these feminists put forth, and the answers they discover, that have them banned from the leftist media.

As is also predictable in this monologue, Flanders characterizes anti-porn activists as historically having wanted to silence those with a more brave and honest sexuality. She writes, "Demanding inclusivity brought Hollibaugh into direct conflict with the just-then burgeoning anti-porn movement in New York." She refers to the 1981 Barnard Conference on Sexuality, and claims that "alongside novelist Dorothy Allison, Joan Nestle of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, and sociologist Gayle Rubin, Hollibaugh was picketed and denounced by anti-porn feminists." A caption below an accompanying photo of Hollibaugh and Allison reads, "Amber Hollibaugh and novelist Dorothy Allison were denounced by anti-pornography feminists in 1981."

As always, there is no representation of the viewpoints of the denounced anti-porn activists. A younger feminist would have to do some serious research to learn about the anti-porn activists' version of events. Fortunately, the radical feminist paper off our backs revisited the controversy in several issues during the early '90s. Both sides were represented, alongside an extensive interview with Joan Nestle, belying the accusation that anti-porn feminists are the ones obsessed with wanting to suppress speech.

Carol Anne Douglas, who was a reporter for off our backs during the conference, recounts, "I was astonished and pained that a group of women who identified as feminists would hold a conference on sexuality where virtually every radical feminist and lesbian feminist I respected -- from Ti-Grace Atkinson to Adrienne Rich to Andrea Dworkin -- was heavily criticized, with no voice to counter those attacks. I didn't hear anyone [among the protesters] criticize the speakers as perverts, but I heard a great deal of dismay that [the conference organizers] did not permit any feminists who have a critique of sexuality rather than an 'anything goes' perspective to speak." In other words, radical feminists, not "pro-sex" advocates, were the ones who were silenced. The Progressive continues the exclusion twenty years later, with the extra bonus of portraying anti-porn feminists as the ones who were trying to suppress dialogue.

Douglas also states in her account, "I don't think we should target particular individuals' practices, but I do think it is very important for us to hold each other accountable for what we defend theoretically. Specifically, I think it is very relevant that an individual defends sadomasochism theoretically; that certainly does not mean that she practices it, and whether she does is not a subject that reporters should investigate." (off our backs, Aug/Sept 1993)

"Pro-sex" writers such as Hollibaugh and Allison have written extensively on the shame they were made to feel by "rigid" feminists because of their enjoyment of hierarchical and "taboo" sexuality. No doubt, there were many feminists who failed to make the distinction that Douglas makes, and carried their politics into others' personal territory -- judging, condemning, even excommunicating. By exposing and criticising such behavior, Allison and Hollibaugh have made an important contribution to the feminist movement. However, the legitimate objection to inappropriate peer pressures should not be used as an excuse to eliminate feminist analyses of the history, context, and larger meaning of what is called "pro-sex" from public debate.

It must also be acknowledged that peer pressure and the demand for conformity within political movements are hardly exclusive to feminists.

Leftist culture, particularly during the '60s and '70s, put incredible pressure on people to conform to certain forms of behavior -- including what to eat, how to dress, what language to use, and how to earn and spend money. Perhaps the most stringent demand for conformity was made on women's sexuality. For a woman to be considered acceptable within leftist culture, she had to have a "good attitude" about sex. She was suppose to be sexually accessible, go along with casual sex, and be open to "sexual experimentation." If a woman rejected the demand for sexual conformity, she would face ferocious male wrath in the form of exclusion, harassment, and stigmatization.

Strangely, Flanders criticizes leftists, as well as feminists, for their role in "oppressing" those who are "pro-sex." Many leftists, of course, still carry prejudices they learned from the establishment, such as homophobia and disrespect for sex workers. But by and large, the left's attitudes toward sexuality have been extremely compatible with the taboo-breaking "pro-sex." In fact, it could be said that the left uniquely influenced today's mainstream culture in its intolerance for "prudishness."

The Progressive must delight in publishing an article that criticizes the left for being too sexually uptight. They would be far less likely to use up three pages of the slim publication for an article examining the peer pressures that actually characterized leftist culture. While feminists are criticized without end for their "repressive" peer pressures, real or imagined, the leftist media have better things to do than examine themselves in this way.

If they did ever allow certain aspects of the left's rigidities to be criticized, it is certain that they would not exalt those who gleefully participate in the status quo. Meat-eaters, for instance, would never be characterized as cutting-edge liberators, just because they enjoy eating meat, and are rebelling against rigid vegetarians. Critics of the meat industry and meat consumerism would never be slandered for their positions, portrayed as "anti-appetite," and denied a voice in the leftist media.

But such is the treatment that radical and anti-porn feminists receive. Leftist publications characterize the anti-porn movement (when they acknowledge it at all) as a censorship monger with no meaningful points to make, nothing of substance to communicate. The only significance of the movement is that it "oppresses" those who have a good time being sexual.

Or so the monologue goes, without end. Everyone knows there will be no retorts, no corrections, no arguments and counterarguments made by radical feminists. There is simply no criticism allowed, and no built-in system of accountability when it comes to the terrain of male supremacist sexuality. These publications just pretend that radical feminism doesn't really exist -- except to occasionally warn women away from the "bad" feminists, or portray the never-heard-from radical feminists as the all-powerful oppressors of those who monopolize the "discourse" on the politics of sexuality.





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