Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture

Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture

by Lisa Duggan, Nan Hunter, Nan D. Hunter
Sex Wars is a collection of writings by Duggan and Hunter that brings together the best of the important work they have done on sexual politics in America over the past decade. Sex Wars traces the development of this politics and its deployment in three different arenas--speech and representation, legal regulation, and scholarship.


Sex Wars is a collection of writings by Duggan and Hunter that brings together the best of the important work they have done on sexual politics in America over the past decade. Sex Wars traces the development of this politics and its deployment in three different arenas--speech and representation, legal regulation, and scholarship.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The political and cultural battles over issues of sexuality that have affected the nation since the mid-1980s are explored in these 15 essays written over the past decade by Duggan (history, NYU), who co-founded the Feminst Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT), and Hunter (law, Brooklyn Law Sch.). With refreshing authority, passion, wit, clarity, and outspokenness, these articles, which appear in book form for the first time, seek to encourage dialog about, as they offer cogent feminist analysis of, such complex and provocative issues as the call for regulation/censorship of pornography by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, the effects of Bowers v. Hardwick (in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Georgia's sodomy laws), the distinctions between queer theory and lesbian and gay studies, and the implications of the Sharon Kowalski/Karen Thompson case (Thompson fought Kowalski's parents unsuccessfully for the guardianship of her comatose lover). This historic compilation is an important contribution to the field of sexual politics.James E. Van Buskirk, San Francisco P.L.
Susan R. Burgess
SEX WARS consists of a new introductory essay (written by Duggan) and fifteen reprinted articles grouped into three sections tied together by the theme of sexual dissent: pornography (written primarily by Duggan), legal regulation of homosexuality (written by Hunter), and queer activism in the academy (written by Duggan). The reprinted articles, most of which appear in the chronological order of their original publication, first appeared in a variety of venues including scholarly journals, journalistic outlets, law reviews, and edited books. Appendices include proposed anti-pornography ordinances and the FACT (Feminists Anticensorship Task Force) brief. Adopting a social constructionist, as opposed to an essentialist view of sexuality, Duggan and Hunter argue that "[b]ecause sexual representations construct identities (they do not merely reflect preexisting ones), restriction and regulation of sexual expression is a form of political repression [or, a form of war, hence the title of the book] aimed at sexual minorities and gender nonconformists."(5) In order to squelch sexual dissent, right wing and status quo political and legal forces create a series of "sex panics" about the dire consequences of sexual "deviance." (5) Duggan and Hunter argue that sexual dissenters can best disrupt this panicky political and legal rhetoric by "forg[ing] a politics that might effectively intervene to transform public discourses about sexuality." (1) However, disruption entails more than simply fighting the right, because resistance to sexual dissent comes not only from the outside, but also from within more apparently politically progressive circles (such as, Duggan and Hunter argue, from procensorship feminists like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin.) Duggan and Hunter want to enable sexual dissenters of all stripes to resist more effectively by producing "bridge discourses" that will build connections between liberal and progressive reform political groups, the performative or direct action politics of more radical groups, and the critical politics of cultural theory and social analysis. For them, the queer community is "unified only by a shared dissent from the dominant organization of sex and gender." (165) Thus, queer does not simply exist in homosexualized bodies; to the contrary, essentialist, identity politics that would define queer as simply homosexual, "replace[d] closets with ghettos....[and] let the larger society off the hook of anxiety about sexual difference." (184) Duggan and Hunter argue against the antipornography feminism of MacKinnon and Dworkin on grounds that it is censorship in the name of feminism that it creates "sex panics" which serve to reproduce "respectable" representation of sex and to repress dissenting representation, such as lesbian erotica. Duggan and Hunter contend that antipornography feminists largely have aligned themselves with the radical right rather than with local feminists and have far Page 17 follows: too much faith in the ability of courts to protect women; consequently they wind up reproducing respectability and erasing female sexual subjectivity. Arguing that the antipornography feminists conflate concepts of violence, sexual explicitness, and sexism, Duggan and Hunter contend that antipornography campaign is overly broad: "it makes as much sense to organize a group called Women Against the Novel as it does to organize Women Against Porn. We are against MISOGYNY in sexually explicitly materials. We are not against sexually explicit materials per se." (72) The section on law and sexual dissent critiques the essentialist and historically obtuse construction of sexuality that emerges from BOWERS V. HARDWICK and other high profile cases including the Sharon Kowalski case. Hunter shows that the meaning of sodomy has shifted from a crime against procreation to a crime ascribed to identity and same sex sexual activity. Arguing that the shift is problematic she notes that: "It is not a debate about a type of person, any more than one discusses theft in terms of two distinct types of human beings -- the robbers and the burglars. The law does not assume that a certain personality type will commit theft one way, and another personality type another way. Anyone could be guilty of either kind of conduct, depending on the facts of the particular incident." (89) Nevertheless, Hunter reveals that many institutions (not least of which is the US Supreme Court) appear to assume that certain sexual behaviors, such as sodomy, are best characterized along essential identity lines rather than as behavior that both homosexuals and heterosexuals alike can perform. Given this reality, and the oppressive politics that accompany it, the central question becomes how best to combat naturalized categories, while at the same time working to gain equal rights for those who are most disadvantaged by the current constructions. The latter task appears to be the more difficult one for Duggan and Hunter given that the civil right legacy and its positive, moral rhetoric has historically been grounded in the very identity politics that they reject; that the right appears to have cornered the market on moral rhetoric makes recapturing moral discourse all the more urgent. Racial and class divisions are also reproduced along with divisions between the more conservative civil rights wing versus the more radical wing of the gay and lesbian movement; the radicals worry that the civil rights advocates' concern with rights and respectability will lead to limitations on identity and exclusion of some sexual dissenters, while the civil rights advocates worry that criticism of dominant class desires and expectations will impede civil rights victories. Thus we find civil rights advocates perennially discussing whether marginalized identities such as drag queens and transvestites have a place in movement's civil rights marches -- apparently oblivious to the historical fact that the Stonewall rebellion (which makes civil rights marches possible today) was launched by precisely those marginalized groups. In addition, the civil rights wing of the gay and lesbian movement is increasingly populated by white, middle to upper class professional gay men (such as the Log Cabin Republicans) who were forced out of the closet and politicized by the AIDS crisis; they appear unconcerned with Page 18 follows: differences other than sexual orientation, such as racial, class, and gender difference, which are of paramount importance to the more radical wing of the movement. In the final section, dealing with queer activism and the academy, Duggan argues that although queer theorists in the academy often adopt indecipherable jargon and ignore or disdain their activist/intellectual predecessors, many of whom were never able to attain permanent university positions, "[i]t is a terrible mistake to dismiss the work in queer theory as jargon-ridden, elitist claptrap" (205). She argues that "[t]he continuing work of queer politics and theory is to open up possibilities for coalition across barriers of class, race, and gender, and to somehow satisfy the paradoxical necessity of recognizing differences, while producing (provisional) unity." (170) She offers two suggestions to counter the "No Promo Homo" and "No Special Rights" antihomosexual campaigns employed by the right, namely: No Promo Hetero and Whose Special Rights? Duggan argues that such counter-campaigns could expose the false neutrality of the right (and the state) by revealing their covert promotion of heterosexuality, in part by granting special rights to heterosexuals. In her view, such campaigns would work for, but also beyond civil rights and antidiscrimination advocacy by serving to deconstruct the naturalized categories that the right's work is premised upon. Duggan concludes that sexuality is much like religious identification -- unfixed, with conversion possible, yet still a constitutionally protected category. Given the title of the book, and the attention the book pays to the division amongst feminists over pornography, it seems odd that Duggan and Hunter do not discuss in any detail the debate about sadomasochism which occurred in the lesbian feminist community around the same time, and perhaps even in response to, the limits on sexual representation that were being called for by the antipornography wing of the movement. They do say that when feminist anger at women's conditions is displaced onto antipornography campaign, as it was earlier with anti-prostitution campaigns, the laws often turn out to harm or penalize women. But they don't say, what, if any, lines are appropriate to draw between legal and illegal forms of sexual dissent. Although I do not want to suggest that all or many sexual dissenters have any sexual interest whatsoever in children, while reading through SEX WARS I found myself wondering whether Duggan and Hunter envision pedophiles or perpetrators of incest as members of their coalition. Would Duggan and Hunter contend that any sexual choice that appears consensual should be left unaddressed by the law and if so, wouldn't that amount to a vapid liberal individualism of the sort that they wish to escape? These important questions are left undiscussed. If even temporary bridges are to be built between more radical sexual liberationists like Duggan and Hunter and more liberal civil rights reformers, these difficult questions will have to be confronted and discussed in some detail. In addition, while a broad based coalition amongst sexual dissenters sounds strong and thus somewhat appealing at a theoretical level, the politics within such a coalition requires almost constant give and take between its different constituent groups; Page 19 follows: Duggan and Hunter are undoubtedly quite well aware of this due to their extensive activism. Because SEX WARS takes a strong liberationist stand and does not directly discuss the internal politics of coalition building, one could leave the book with the false impression that such negotiation is unnecessary or unimportant; I would argue, to the contrary, that it is the most important political work that diverse coalitions undertake. Because of this, I would have liked to hear Duggan and Hunter describe and analyze that politics. Nevertheless, this book does a fine job of documenting and analyzing several legal and political issues of great importance to the country, and to feminist, gay and lesbian and progressive activists and intellectuals in particular. Because the articles are reprinted, there is some overlap and repetition. Despite this, the book is clearly written and should be accessible to a variety of audiences. SEX WARS could profitably be used as a supplementary text in an introductory or advanced undergraduate class that addresses issues of law and politics in the context of gender and sexuality; it would undoubtedly promote lively discussion of issues that are highly contested, perhaps now more than ever.

Product Details

Taylor & Francis
Publication date:
Edition description:
Older Edition
Product dimensions:
6.02(w) x 8.98(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Lisa Duggan is Associate Professor of History and American Studies at New York University. She was founding member of the Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force, and has written widely on sexual politics.
Nan D. Hunter is Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School. She is a widely recognized authority on health law issues such as productive rights, AIDS, and consumer protection. She is a former lawyer for the ACLU, where she was a founding director of Projects on Lesbian and Gay Rights and AIDS.

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