Because sexuality in Western societies is so mystified, the wars over it are often fought at oblique angles, aimed at phony targets, conducted with misplaced passions, and are highly, intensely symbolic.

Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Culture, Society, and Sexuality: A Reader, 2007, 171.


The sex wars (or feminist sex wars) of the 1970s and 1980s denotes a number of debates about sexuality and sexual activities such as pornography, erotica, prostitution, lesbian sexual practices, the role of transgender women in the lesbian community, and sadomasochism. Differences of opinion on matters of sexuality deeply polarized the feminist movement into anti-porn feminist and sex-positive feminist groups, which continue to influence how we think about these topics today.

In this lesson, our focus will be on understanding the feminist sex wars. We will read two pieces from that time, one representative of each side of the debate. While the term ‘war’ does indeed imply that there are only two sides of the debate and you can and must choose one or the other, an emphasis will be put on the historical context of the debates, the different kinds of oppression centralized on each side of the debate, and how the sex wars are relevant today. 

Learning Objectives

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  • Recognize the key issues at stake during the feminist sex wars
  • Identify contemporary manifestations of the key issues debated during the sex wars
  • Understand what it means to historicize sexual practices and sexual politics
  • Define sex positivity, sex negativity, ideology, and the eroticization of domination

Moving Forward

Each module contains a big idea + lesson, assigned resources, and a summary page. Visit each section below by clicking or tapping the images.