This module explores a number of historical and contemporary ethical and political debates about sexuality within feminist theory. It is divided into four parts.

First the module will introduce students to what have been called “The Feminist Sex Wars” – a number of divisive disagreements around sexual issues that took place between feminists in the 1970s and 80s. These “sex wars” were touched upon in the first module when we considered “sex negative” (or anti-pornography) and “sex positive” feminisms. The central issues in the sex wars were pornography and sex work, but other sexual issues were also hotly debated, such as gender roles in lesbian relations and BDSM.

The second part of the module will consider sex work from the time of the feminist sex wars to today.

The third part of the module will introduce you to the notion of affirmative consent. This is an understanding of consent for which feminists fought and which is now reflected in Canada’s sexual assault legislation.

Affirmative consent means that only “yes” means “yes”; consent cannot be implied by the absence of a “no.”

Finally, the fourth part of this module, which includes the video lecture, considers how we might extend or apply what we have learned about feminist perspectives on sexual consent to consider human-animal relations.

The Feminist Sex Wars

To start this section on the Feminist Sex Wars, let’s listen to two podcasts in which your instructor interviews a former University of Alberta graduate student and a current University of Alberta graduate student whose research relates to the Feminist Sex Wars: first, Gender and Social Justice program graduate Diana Pearson will speak on the topics of sex education, sex positivity, and the feminist sex wars in the U.S. context, and then Political Science PhD student Kyler Chittick will introduce the sex wars in the Canadian context.

“Diana Pearson on Sex Positivity and the Feminist Sex Wars” (17:20)
“Kyler Chittick on the Sex Wars in Canada” (22:02)

Pornography was so central to the feminist sex wars that the feminists Gayle Rubin described as “sex negative” are often referred to as “anti-pornography feminists.” Although they are labeled this way based on their stance that pornography is exploitative of and degrading to women and should be censored, many of these feminists were also in favour of criminalizing aspects of sex work, and were often critical of butch-femme relationships, transgender, and BDSM.

Feminist lawyer Catharine MacKinnon

An important episode in the feminist sex wars was the Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance. While previous, non-feminist anti-pornography legislation had treated pornography as an “obscenity,” or harmful to social mores, in 1983 American anti-pornography feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon proposed legislation against pornography on the basis that it violated women’s civil rights. On their view, many women who performed in pornography were coerced and violated, and women in general were harmed by the degrading ways in which pornography was said to construct women. According to Dworkin and MacKinnon, men who watched pornography would be encouraged to view women as mere sex objects who enjoy being raped and humiliated, or whose enjoyment doesn’t matter, and these men were likely to treat women accordingly. On this view, pornography could lead men to harm women, and women who had been so harmed would be able to sue pornographers and hold them accountable.

While Dworkin and MacKinnon’s legislation was passed in several American cities they were quickly struck down on the grounds that they violated the constitutional right to free speech. MacKinnon, a feminist lawyer, would write scathingly against the view that pornography was best understood as the “speech” of pornographers.

Andrea Dworkin

While Dworkin and MacKinnon’s ordinance was quickly struck down in the U.S. context, in 1992 some elements in the ordinance were accepted by the Supreme Court of Canada in their R v. Butler decision. Notoriously, while the Canadian law did little to restrict the type of mainstream heterosexual pornography that concerned Dworkin and MacKinnon, it was used to censor a lesbian sex magazine, Bad Attitude, and the gay and lesbian bookstores in Canada that sold it.

Bad Attitude

What the Bad Attitude censorship case shines a light on is that while Dworkin and MacKinnon approached pornography as something consumed almost exclusively by heterosexual men, and assumed that women involved in making pornography were often being tortured and raped, in fact pornography can be and is produced and enjoyed by women.

Annie Sprinkle’s Herstory of Porn

As with their anti-pornography legislation, Dworkin and MacKinnon had more success legislating against sex work in the international context than at home. In 1990 they proposed an anti-prostitution law that would criminalize people who purchase and sell sex, with sellers of sex understood not as sex workers themselves but as traffickers, pimps and brothel owners. The proposed law did not criminalize sex workers as they were seen as the exploited victims of sellers and buyers rather than as agents. The law was first passed in Sweden in 1998, and became known as the “Swedish Model” or “Nordic Model.” It would later be passed in other countries including Norway, Iceland, Canada, Ireland, France, and Israel.

Although the feminist intention behind the law was to punish people who exploit sex workers while refraining from criminalizing the sex workers themselves, it not only denies women’s agency in sex work but makes the lives of sex workers considerably more difficult and dangerous. For these reasons it has been opposed by sex worker advocacy organizations. The topic of the “Nordic Model” and how it harms sex workers will be seen further below in the section on sex work.

The 1982 book, Against Sadomasochism, collected essays by anti-pornography or sex negative feminists who argued that BDSM practices were irreconcilable with feminism.

Another contentious topic in the feminist sex wars was BDSM. Anti-pornography feminists saw representations of BDSM as similar to degrading portrayals of women in pornography: it was thought to reinforce the sexual objectification and social subordination of women, and to eroticize women’s pain and humiliation. In the late 70s and 80s, anti-pornography feminists picketed strip clubs where BDSM acts were performed by women on one another. A number of prominent Black feminists, such as Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, criticized BDSM as racist as well as sexist, eroticizing tools such as whips and chains that had brutalized Black people during centuries of slavery. On their view, practitioners of BDSM who role play master-slave relations insensitively trivialize the experiences of Black people.

Sandra Bartky’s Femininity and Domination

In “Feminine Masochism and the Politics of Personal Transformation,” a chapter in her 1990 book, Femininity and Domination, feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky describes female masochism as the internalization by women of their oppression. According to Bartky, women’s sexual and social subordination to men is eroticized in the dominant, patriarchal society, and these representations shape female sexuality as much as male sexuality. Part of the feminist project, for Bartky, is for women to resist the ways in which they have incorporated sexist representations and to engage in personal growth and transformation. Bartky recognizes that sexuality is not easy to change, and it may be as hard for someone who experiences masochistic desires to overcome their masochism as it is for a person to change their sexual orientation, and yet, for Bartky, it is counter to feminism for women to give in to their desires to be dominated or humiliated. Throughout her chapter, Bartky depicts the dominant partners in BDSM as men and the submissive partners as women. In actuality, of course, things are more complicated: often BDSM involves men being submissive to women or to other men, and women exploring their desires to dominate men or other women.

Pat Califia’s Public Sex

“Is there a single controversial sexual issue that the women’s movement has not reacted to with a conservative, feminine horror of the outrageous and the rebellious? A movement that started out by saying that biology is not destiny is now trashing transsexuals and celebrating women’s ‘natural’ connection to the earth and living things. A movement that spawned children’s liberation is now trashing boy-lovers and supporting the passage of draconian sex laws that assign heavier sentences for having sex with a minor than you’d get for armed robbery. A movement that developed an analysis of housework as unpaid labor and acknowledged that women usually trade sex for what they want because that’s all they’ve got is now joining the vice squad to get prostitutes off the street. A movement whose early literature was often called obscene and was banned from circulation is now campaigning to get rid of pornography. The only sex perverts this movement supports are lesbian mothers, and I suspect that’s because of the current propaganda about women comprising the nurturing, healing force that will save the world from destructive male energy.

Lesbianism is being desexualized as fast as movement dykes can apply the whitewash.”

Pat Califia, “Feminism and Sadomasochism”

On the other side, pro-BDSM feminism was championed most vocally by queer feminists. Patrick Califia is a transman who, prior to transitioning, wrote a number of books on lesbian eroticism and BDSM. In a 1980 article, “Feminism and Sadomasochism,” which can be found online and in his collection Public Sex, Califia describes attempting to do what Bartky prescribes. Despite having had desires involving dominance, submission, punishment and pain since the age of two, he attempted to overcome these desires through feminist consciousness raising, abstinence, and therapy. The result was a lot of shame, guilt, and sexual frustration but no change in his sexual desires. Finally, in the late 70s, he decided to stop ignoring his sexual fantasies and began engaging in BDSM as a top. In 1978, he co-founded Samois, a lesbian feminist BDSM collective based in San Francisco. Samois would publish Coming to Power: Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M. Consequently, Califia describes, he experienced ostracization within the larger lesbian feminist community, losing a lover and friends.

Patrick Califia

In “Feminism and Sadomasochism,” Califia explores feminist arguments about consent in relation to BDSM. For anti-pornography feminists, he notes, the fact that BDSM is consensual makes it all the more horrifying, as the idea that some women enjoy submission and pain would seem to reinforce misogynist patriarchal beliefs about women. At the same time, the idea that some women enjoy dominating and even inflicting pain on others ran counter to mainstream feminism’s own understandings of femininity in this time period. In particular, Califia is scornful of certain essentialist ecofeminists who saw women as a nurturing and healing force for the planet, in contrast with ecologically and sexually toxic masculinity.

Most ecofeminists see the linking of women with the environment and with maternal, nurturing characteristics as social constructs, however some ecofeminists in the 70s and 80s essentialized these connections and characteristics, and they are a primary target of Califia’s ire in “Feminism and Sadomasochism.”

As Califia observes, such feminists might also deny that BDSM can be consensual, arguing that even if its practitioners believe they are behaving voluntarily, their sexuality simply reflects patriarchal constructs that they have involuntarily internalized. Califia argues, however, that kink is not part of the patriarchal system but part of the revolution, and, much like Gayle Rubin, he decries the moral puritanism of anti-pornography feminism.

The first assigned resource for this module, Gayle Rubin’s article, “Blood Under the Bridge: Reflections on ‘Thinking Sex'” (2010), looks back on the sex wars of the 70s and 80s several decades later. The other assigned resource, a video of a book launch for University of Toronto Law professor Brenda Cossman’s The New Sex Wars: Sexual Harm in the #MeToo Era (2021), considers a question that was brought up in the conversations with both Diana Pearson and Kyler Chittick: today, in the time of #MeToo, are we witnessing a new feminist sex wars?

Sex Work

Sex work involves the exchange of erotic or sexual services, performances, or products for material compensation such as money or goods, either regularly or occasionally. Sex work only refers to voluntary sexual transactions between consenting adults who are of the legal age and mental capacity to consent and must take place without any methods of coercion. Thus, the term does not refer to human trafficking and other coerced or nonconsensual sexual transactions such as child prostitution.

Sex work is often referred to as “the oldest profession” – an expression that functions fatalistically, suggesting that sex work has existed since the start of time and will thus always exist as an inevitable outcome of male sex right. Moreover, the stigma around sex work is often thought to be as inevitable as sex work itself. In fact, sex work is not the oldest profession, the prevalence of sex work in a society is highly variable, and perceptions of sex work have been very different across cultures and time periods.

Martha Nussbaum

Feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written an article on sex work in which she shows the historical and cultural contingency of the social stigma that attaches to various professions. The subtitle of her essay is “Taking Money for Bodily Services” and, as she observes, many professions, including teaching, entail such an exchange of embodied acts for money. Which exchanges of bodily services for money have been considered shameful or immoral has varied over time and space. As Nussbaum discusses, in antiquity taking money for either athletic performance or teaching was considered degrading to the noble pursuits of sport and learning. In contrast, today professional athletes may be exceptionally well-paid and exalted, and there is no perceived indecency in teaching as a salaried profession.

Edouard Manet, “Le Ballet Espagnol” (1862)

Also showing shifting ideas about respectable work, Nussbaum observes that in 19th-century Europe professions such as ballet dancing and opera singing were highly stigmatized, and closely associated with prostitution. Ballet performances in particular did not take place with the audience sitting in respectful silence, but were often rowdy environments, where women were considered to be putting themselves on display for male pleasure. Paintings of ballet dancers by 19th-century male impressionist artists such as Manet and Degas in fact represented disreputable women, and these poorly paid dancers often exchanged sexual services for money with male audience members after performances to make ends meet.

Edgar Degas, “Two Ballet Dancers” (1879)

A respectable, middle class woman could in fact not attend the ballet in this time period, as these were the Victorian equivalent of strip clubs. For this reason, female impressionist artists such as Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot did not paint this subject that was popular among their male contemporaries. In contrast, dancing in a professional ballet company is a highly respected and well paid career today. Nussbaum’s point is that which professions are stigmatized is socially constructed and culturally variable, and sex work has not always fallen into this category in the past, and thus need not be in this category in the future.

A sex worker being arrested

As Nussbaum also argues in her article, it is clear today that neither moralizing nor criminalizing has any impact on the prevalence of commercial sex in a country. What is effective at decreasing prostitution is having a strong welfare system, affordable housing, affordable childcare, affordable education, job training opportunities, and socialized health care. A sex worker with few options who cannot pay her rent, feed her children, or afford medication is not going to stop engaging in sex work just because it is criminalized. She is more likely to stop engaging in sex work if she is provided with affordable housing and childcare, and if education, job training opportunities, and health care are socialized. This is not to say that sex work is a bad thing or that no person with other options would choose it as a job, but for those who think that sex work is bad and that we should try to have less of it, Nussbaum argues that we need to talk less about sex and morality and more about jobs and housing.

Sex workers demonstrating for childcare, health care, a universal basic income and other rights

The word “work” in the term “sex work” recognizes that selling sexual services is a form of labour and emphasizes the implications of this for labour rights. Unfortunately, sex work and the laws surrounding it are not well understood, and this contributes to the perpetuation of stereotypes that lead to stigma, discrimination, and violence against sex workers. Furthermore, the criminalization of sex work compromises sex workers’ health and safety and makes it difficult for sex workers to report rights violations, especially by the police, because they are vulnerable to incarceration, further abuse, and retribution.

Canadian sex workers rights demonstration

If you are interested in learning more about sex work legislation in Canada, and about sex workers’ perspectives, you are encouraged to watch the VICE documentary, “The New Era of Canadian Sex Work.” This documentary explores how the politicians behind Bill C-36, also known as the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), failed to give proper consideration to the workers who are consensually employed in Canada’s sex industry. While it is technically still legal to sell sexual services under the new law, PCEPA criminalizes many related aspects of sex work. Introduced in 2013, Bill C-36 made it illegal for sex workers to advertise through a third party and criminalized the discussion of transactions between sex workers and their clients. Consequently, it has become harder for sex workers to vet potential clients in order to ensure health and personal safety.

Affirmative Consent

Only yes means yes is the mantra of affirmative consent law

Affirmative consent is the legal consent standard in Canada. In R v. Ewanchuk (1999) the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that there was no defense of “implied consent.” This is key to understanding some of the crucial aspects of affirmative consent. As the name indicates, affirmative consent goes beyond the phrase “no means no” and replaces it with the mantra “only yes means yes.” What that means is that in order for a sexual encounter to be consensual, there must be voluntary and positive evidence of agreement determined from the perspective of the complainant. The following video is a good springboard for a discussion of affirmative consent.

Tea Consent
Tea Consent (2:50)

In the tea video we see many of the central tenets of affirmative consent at work through the analogy of offering someone a cup of tea. If someone says “I’m not really sure” about tea (sex) then you should not pressure them, guilt-trip them, or get annoyed – that is coercion. The Tea Consent video does a great job of emphasizing the importance of ongoing consent. Just because someone says “yes” to tea, or sex, doesn’t mean they are in a perpetual state of consent. People can change their mind any time during a sexual encounter or at any point in a relationship, whether it is on the drive home or in the middle of sex. 


A great example of affirmative consent at work can be seen in the Elizabeth post, “How to Have Sex With An Asexual Person.” The author clearly outlines the way that seduction is a violent framework for asexual people, since it invalidates their identity. The article is clever in that it is aimed at an audience who may be interested in having sex with an asexual person, but the lesson in the post is that the framework that should be used is the one used for everyone: affirmative consent. Attempting to seduce an asexual person is violent because asexual people experience little to no sexual attraction, and are not interested in having sex. While theoretically they can have sex, and of course they can consent to sex, going into an encounter with an asexual person wanting sex basically says to them: your identity does not matter to me. Elizabeth goes through a series of steps that are useful for those thinking about carefully and ethically pursuing a sexual relationship with someone who identifies as asexual, however, these steps are a useful guide for anyone wanting tips on how to have ethical sex.

Animals and Consent

Historically, bestiality was criminalized along with same-sex relationships, oral sex, and anal sex under sodomy laws. When these antiquated sexual laws were repealed in the 20th century, primarily to decriminalize homosexuality, bestiality was quietly legalized as well. In the years that followed, a few sensational cases of bestiality emerged, and the public was shocked to learn that no charges could be pressed. For instance, in 2005 Kenneth Pinyan was fatally injured while receiving anal sex from a stallion at a farm outside Seattle. In the aftermath of his death, it emerged that agricultural animals were being prostituted at the farm where Pinyan was injured, and that these bestial encounters were being videotaped, but also that no charges could be pressed (other than trespassing) against the employee who was prostituting the animals. To the surprise of most Washingtonians, bestiality was not against the law in their state. Legislation was soon passed to re-criminalize bestiality as a felony in the state of Washington, and similar bills were crafted in other jurisdictions.

Gabriel Rosenberg

In “How Meat Changed Sex,” Duke University Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies Gabriel Rosenberg observes that such bills were often fiercly resisted by politicians with investments in animal agriculture, however. These politicians feared that many common agricultural practices would be criminalized in the process. Many such bills passed only by making explicit exemptions for agricultural practices. As Rosenberg explores, acts that are once again illegal if performed by “bestialists” are permissible if performed by farmers. From the perspective of the animals who are manually masturbated and vaginally or anally penetrated by human hands and arms, it likely makes little difference if the primary motivation for these acts is pleasure versus capital gain, but from the perspective of the law, Rosenberg argues, the relation to capital legitimates what are otherwise understood as bestial acts.

Artificial insemination of a cow
Semen collection

As this example makes clear, feminist understandings of sexual consent are complicated when we turn to consider human relationships with other animals. While it is frequently argued that sex with animals is wrong because the animals, like children, cannot consent, many others have questioned why we claim to care about animals’ consent when it comes to sex but not when it comes to any other aspects of their lives. Some of the ways that these topics have been explored in the social sciences, in feminist and queer theory, and by animal studies scholars and animal activists are explored in the lecture for this module, “Animals and Consent.” A 2007 documentary about Kenneth Pinyan’s death, Zoo, is also provided as an optional resource for this module.

Animals and Consent (40:14)