While you may have never heard about the feminist sex wars, you will be surprised by how many issues debated by feminists in the 1980s remain incredibly relevant today. Discussions about sex positivity, sexual expression, ‘slut shaming’, pornography, pedophilia, BDSM, sexual harm, and LGBTQ rights are all issues that were hotly contested by feminist scholars and activists a few decades ago. While some of these issues may not be particularly contentious today, many of them are still the topic of debate. Reading scholarship written during this time is a reminder that many contemporary feminist issues are not ‘new’ at all, but remain unresolved and take on new specificities as the years go by. The impulse to claim that what feminists were saying in the 1980s is not relevant, or is out of date, is challenged by a serious engagement with scholars such as Gayle Rubin and Catharine Mackinnon, who we will be discussing in this module. These are classic feminist texts that can and ought to be revisited, not only to learn what has come before us, but also to remind us that when it comes to issues of gender, sexuality, and sex, there is always more to think through.  

Both of the readings assigned for today are challenging conceptually, politically, and emotionally. However, why they are challenging depends as much on our own personal histories and identities as it does the arguments that the authors are making. As you read, I urge you to ask yourself why it is that you are responding in the way you do. For example, you might ask yourself: Why does Mackinnon’s claim that pornography epitomizes women’s oppression make me feel angry? Why does Rubin’s discussion of children’s sexuality make me feel deeply uncomfortable? Asking yourself these sorts of questions will not only help you understand each piece, but it will help you to understand one of the main objectives of this lesson: our ideas about sex and sexuality are socially constructed and historically specific. 

Before digging into the specifics of each piece, let’s briefly summarize the feminist sex wars. The sex wars occurred during the 1980s between two camps: The Sex Radicals and the Cultural Feminists. Cultural Feminists were also referred to as Anti-Pornography Feminists. While some would refer to the sex wars as a debate between ‘Sex Positive’ feminism and ‘Sex Negative’ feminism, that is an oversimplification of the debate. As you read, notice how each side depicts the other. For example, you will notice that Gayle Rubin depicts herself and other Sex Radicals as progressive, enlightened, sexually liberated, pro-sex, pro-pleasure, and open to bodily and sexual experimentation. In contrast, Rubin depicts Cultural or Anti-Pornography feminists such as Catharine Mackinnon as moralistic, prudish, repressive, anti-sex, and anti-pleasure. Anti-pornography/Cultural feminists would depict Sex Radical Feminists as dupes of patriarchy who are reinforcing gender inequality through sex, and who fail to adequately address gender oppression and sexual harm. Cultural Feminists, one could assume, understood themselves as standing up for those harmed through sex, pornography, and fighting for women’s rights more generally.

In sum, there are two lenses that we can understand the sex wars through:

  1. Freedom versus Equality: While the Sex Radicals emphasized sexual freedom, Cultural Feminists emphasized gender equality and argued that without equality, there could be no real freedom.
  2. Sexual Oppression versus Gender Oppression: While the Sex Radicals problematized the harms done to sexual ‘deviants’ (e.g. queer folks, BDSM practitioners) through sexual oppression, Cultural Feminists focused on the harms done primarily to women and children through gender oppression.

BIG IDEA: Ideology

The ‘Big Idea’ for this unit is the concept of ideology. While you have likely heard the term before, the scholarly usages of the term vary significantly from its colloquial usage, as they are embedded in specific theoretical paradigms. When politicians or others in the media use the term ideology it has very specific, usually negative, connotations. When a particular political party accuses their opponent of being ‘overly ideological’ or of ‘pushing an ideological agenda’ it is not a compliment. But what do they mean by this? When it is used in the political sphere, it usually is a coded way of saying that your opponent is too invested in a particular worldview to see clearly, or that they are too political to be reasonable. Colloquially, ideology refers to a set of beliefs, values and attitudes that are understood as natural or commonsense. Thinking of ideology as a set of beliefs, values and attitude that constitute a particular worldview is a good jumping off point for thinking about scholarly understandings of the concept. It is crucial to consider the power of commonsense, or naturalizing a particular world view. When something is commonsense, natural, or ‘just the way it is’ it is understood as being fixed and immutable rather than social and cultural.

Before we delve into one specific scholarly understanding of ideology, it is important to note that nobody can escape ideology. We are always in it, and of it. We all have worldviews that structure our beliefs, practices, and politics. When politicians accuse one party of being ‘ideological’ what is implicit is that they are also ‘ideological’ – albeit in a different way. As such, being without or outside of ideology should not be the goal. Instead, we should try to understand the ways that we are shaped by various ideologies, both dominant and non-dominant or subversive.

Today we are going to discuss the understanding of ideology put forward by French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. Althusser was born in French Algiers in 1918 and died in France in 1990. He was highly influential to thinkers including Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Slavoj Zizek. Althusser’s understanding of ideology built off of other classical Marxist theorists who had been asking questions about why the working-class did not rise up against their oppressors, the bourgeoisie. 

Here are some key characteristics of Althusser’s understanding of ideology:

Ideology has a material existence

Althusser emphasized the material existence of ideology. This is important because it positions ideology not at an idea that is in the mind or somewhere ‘out there’ but as something that is brought into being through practices and rituals.  It is manifested through our actions. We do not act a certain way because of ideology – it doesn’t dictate what we do because we are ‘brainwashed’ by its mystical power – but rather it is in the doing that ideology becomes real.  While commonsense may tell us that first we believe, then we do, Althusser flips this on its head and tells us that first we do, and in the doing our belief is constituted.  The example he gives is prayer: we do not pray because we believe, rather it is in the repeated and ritualized practice of kneeling down, moving your lips, bowing your head and closing your eyes that your belief becomes real. Can you think of other examples of practices and rituals constituting belief?

“…all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects.” (Lenin, 116)

This last key point about ideology is that it constitutes us as subjects. In other words, it is always within and through ideology and ideological apparatuses that we become subjects, and come to recognize and understand ourselves within a social world. This is why we can’t be outside of ideology! The main function of ideology is to shape certain kinds of subjects. Ideological state apparatuses include the Family, Church, School and Media. How have these ‘ideological state apparatuses’ shaped who you are? To what extent could you understand yourself outside of family, church, school and media?