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Sex-Debate Snapshots in the 1990s

By Catherine Sameh

A FUNNY THING happened to the feminist sex debates of the 1980s: They resurfaced in the 1990s. Not that funny, really, when you consider this a war with a long, bloody history. If we frame the debate with antipornography feminists on one side and sex radical feminists on the other, it's safe to say the sex radicals have won. Susie Bright is a nationally recognized sexpert; movies about strippers as ordinary and dignified workers are popular; lesbian strip clubs are in; anticensorship campaigns are growing.

The late 1990s are sex-positive, and that's a good thing. A very good thing.

But beneath the (often sensationalized) image of two warring camps of women, "Hip sex radicals slay prude antiporn gals!" lies a different picture. It's out of focus, not as easy to identify. It reflects multiple, complex and contradictory views. Comprised of snapshots from real life, it begs to be seen.

Snapshot #1: I am at a Liz Phair concert a few years ago. Phair, one of many original women rockers who paved the way for more mass- produced artists like Alanis Morissette, writes angry, funny, explicitly pro-sex lyrics. I am disturbed by the number of teenage boys who push their way to the front of the crowd offering unbridled enthusiasm whenever Phair sings of sex. "This chick is so cool! She likes to fuck!" they seem to nod ecstatically to each other. They miss her irony, her subversion. They miss the point.

Snapshot #2": "The People vs. Larry Flynt" opens to eager crowds, myself included. I see it. I like it. But something nags at me. I talk about it with everyone I know. Fellow feminists enlighten me: There's virtually no pornography in the film, nothing controversial or challenging to wrestle with. It's a movie about the right wing vs. free speech, and as it should, free speech wins. I feel duped.

Snapshot #3:" Portland's local arts weekly runs a debate between two young women-"conservative feminist" vs. "nude dancer feminist"-mostly about dancing, but also porn, sex, feminism. Potentially a great piece, it ends up simplifying each argument, making a mockery of each woman, particularly the antiporn feminist. I believe this is the weekly's goal, to make feminist concerns about pornography and sex work seem laughable, old fashioned, retrograde.

The assumption that there are only two ways to approach the question of women in the sex industry, and that the debate has been tidily resolved, seems to dominate popular media and culture right now. Our weekly newspaper takes its place among the onslaught of media reflecting this view back to the public. It clouds the really agonizing stuff in between, the flip-flop that many of us do when we talk and think about, or organize around, these issues.

Were I to choose a camp, I would feel most at home with the sex radicals. Their notion of women in the sex industry as sex "workers" instead of sex "objects" offers the best promise for broad theoretical and activist alliances with other marginalized groups. That they've been censored by some antiporn feminists at various junctures is unforgivable.

But the choice isn't always crystal clear to me. I am lately so fed up with feminism getting the shaft for "everything," I feel forced to defend all traditions, all views, even those I disagree with, simply to defend feminism itself.

The sex debates are important especially in forcing us all to be more honest about our desires, fantasies and practices. Isn't it time we were honest again about how difficult and confusing, how not so easily resolved, these issues are?

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