Sex-Positivism Feminism- A Historical Explanation

Sex-positivism feminism (also called pro-sex feminism, sex-radical feminism, or sexually liberal feminism) began in the 1980’s and was coined from Ellen Willis’s 1981 essay Lust Horizons: Is the Women’s Movement Pro-Sex?. The main tenant is that sexual freedom is essential to women’s freedom and is an avenue of pleasure for women. The sex-positive feminists were one of the two main players in the feminist sex wars of the early 1980’s.

What were the feminist sex wars?

During the early 1980’s the main players (the sex-positive feminists and the anti-pornography feminists) debated issues surrounding sexuality and sexual activity such as pornography, erotica, prostitution, lesbian sexual practices, and the role of trans women. Sex-positive feminists were concerned that anti-pornography positions aligned too closely with the oppressive right-wing war on recreational sex and pornography.

Key Player- Ellen Willis

Willis was a journalist and music critic known for her involvement in the feminist movement and her membership in New York Radical Women. She co-founded Redstockings (a feminist group focused on the Pro Woman Line) and No More Nice Girls (a pro-choice street theater and protest group).

Key Player- Gayle Rubin

Some of Rubin’s earliest activism was at the University of Michigan where she organized groups on campus and wrote on feminist topics. Her essay The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economic of Sex was one of the first to propose a difference between gender and sex. She then moved to San Francisco where she co-founded the Samois.

Key Player- Pat Califia

Califia is a bisexual trans man who writes non-fiction about sexuality as well as erotic fiction and poetry. Prior to transitioning, he identified as a lesbian which many of his writings reflect. He was a co-founder of Samois and contributed heavily to group publications.

Key Organization- Redstockings

Founded by Ellen Willis and Shulamith Firestone in 1969, the Redstockings are well known for storming the February 13, 1969 New York State Joint Legislature Committee on Public Health hearing which, at the time, was considering abortion law reform. One month later, Redstockings hosted a public forum where 12 women spoke about their experiences with illegal abortion.

Their main tenant is the Pro-Woman Line which is the idea that women’s submission to male supremacy is a matter of their need to adapt to the patriarchy rather than brainwashing. Their proposed solution is for men to take responsibility to give up their supremacy rather than women changing.

Key Organization- Samois

Named after the fictional estate of Anne-Marie (a lesbian character in Story of O), Samois was a lesbian-feminist BDSM organization in San Francisco from 1978-1983. Practitioners fended off opposition from conservative and puritanical groups arguing that their method of practicing BDSM was consistent with feminist ideals. The group split in 1983 due to infighting.

Key Organization- Lesbian Sex Mafia

Founded by Dorothy Allison and Jo Arnone, the Lesbian Sex Mafia was founded in 1981 in New York City to provide support to lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, and transsexual women. The group did this through promotion of uninhibited sexual expression through exploration of fantasy role playing, fetishes, and alternate gender identities.

Stayed tuned for more bits of feminist history!

8 thoughts on “Sex-Positivism Feminism- A Historical Explanation

  1. This is interesting. Now, I understand why some people conflate women’s sexual liberation with feminism. It seems it’s just a facet of feminism, like a subcategory, but not all it was about.


    1. I had no idea how many subcategories there were and still are! I cannot wait to dig in more and learn about other facets. I wish we were taught more of this kind of stuff in school. It is so and relevant to society today!

      Liked by 1 person

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