April 24, 1982, April 24, 1982, April 24, 1982. As a gender studies major at Indiana University, this particular date is one that has been unceasingly plaguing my assigned readings and class discussions since gender 101. As I’ve come to not only know, but will never again forget, this date is considered within feminist academia and feminist social activism circles alike as the day that launched the feminist sex wars.
The sex wars began to form in the late 1970s, came to a head at the Barnard College Conference on Sexuality on that infamous April day, and have continued to shape particular feminist arguments regarding sex and sexuality in a more current setting. The wars consist of a gamut of questions with complicated and debated answers including,
“Is there ever a space and time when women maintain sexual agency, or the ability to define their own sexuality, under a system of patriarchy?”
“Is female sexual pleasure always met with some form of danger?”
“Porn: is it good or bad for women’ sexual agency?”
and one must not forget the exorbitantly deliberated,
“Are there right/wrong or good/bad ways of receiving pleasure or having sex?”
As a volunteer within the art and artifacts collection within The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, I was expecting to deal with images of sex and of a sexual nature. I was also expecting to deal with images of what some would deem “unconventional”, aka “bad sex,” as discussed and debated during the sex wars. During the last couple weeks of my month or so volunteer stint at the institute this past summer, I was given an intriguing project: label and describe multiple boxes of prison art, most from the 1950s and 1960s, from all over the country. I soon learned that these hand drawn cartoons, illustrations, and collages were the perfect showcase for sexualities that could be considered unconventional or off the beaten path.
Within the collections I saw multiple instances what would have been explicitly classified as unconventional at the time of its creation: homosexual sex, sex with more than two people and interracial sex, for example. While these types of sexual activity were highly taboo and did not fit into the normative, reproductive view of what sex should be at that time, these varieties of sex are less unthinkable today. However, there were varieties of sexual activity within the archives of prison art that would be considered by current society as off limits at all times, including pedophilia, nonconsensual sex (rape), and bestiality, or sex with animals.
The moral of the story here is one that has been made equally as important to me as an IU student studying sexuality and gender as the 1982 sex wars: sexuality is fluid and unstable. It’s so unstable it has caused major debates within a supposedly unified feminist movement and discourse. It’s so unstable, sexualities and sexual acts that were once considered completely barred and verboten at a certain time in our country’s history, seen among the prison art I was assigned to organize, are becoming as normalized as the heterosexual, married couple with two and a half kids, a dog, all confined within that iconic white picket fence. While certain boundaries regarding expression of sexuality have begun to break down in the past 50 years or so, there are cultural limits in place that have to do with health, consent, and the avoidance of sexual violence.
So, let us take heed when it comes to dismissing sexualities as wrong, or taboo. What was a sexual disgrace then, might be a cultural norm now. Those who were considered psychologically flawed due to their sexual preferences then, might be your proud, profound, intelligent roommate, classmate, or coworker today. Perhaps the mere fact that sexuality is, at it’s core, unstable, will one day become a recognized characteristic of sexuality, breaking down what is “taboo” and what is “normal.”
Sally Stempler is an undergraduate student at Indiana University, majoring in Gender Studies and minoring in Folklore and Ethnomusicology.