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The Censorship of Feminism

Guest Post By Rickie de la Vega

I write smut. My publisher calls it “erotica,” but that distinction doesn’t wash with many, so I may as well be honest. I write books with explicit sexual content, with threesomes and orgies, bukkake and BDSM. I’m also a feminist, and my writing reflects that in showing models of consent and pleasure, with women asserting their desires and boundaries, and their partners listening and respecting. I write about sex because it’s part of life, and we should stop stigmatizing it. And I support sex workers’ rights because, as a feminist, I believe that sex workers should be free to control their own lives, not be subordinated to any person or group claiming to know what’s best for them.

Of course, there are those who disagree, who think that any sexually explicit writing or imagery should be consigned to the flames, and “prostituted women” reformed or punished “for their own good” in accord with some rigid dogma. But the worst form of prudery and repression is that which comes from those who also claim to be feminists. I’ve never accepted that casting off patriarchy and misogyny meant acquiescing to some self-appointed ideological elite. Call me a heretical feminist, if you like – I’ll wear that label proudly and declare: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

This schism within feminism is nothing new. Women’s rights activists have been divided about sex from the beginning. In the nineteenth century, the “free love” movement, which promoted birth control and sought to replace traditional male-dominated marriage with consensual unions of equal partners, butted heads with the “social purity” movement obsessed with controlling men’s lust as a way of eradicating such “evils” of prostitution and venereal disease. And those who sought the right to vote and better conditions for women were often divided between those camps. Victoria Woodhull, who campaigned for President of the United States in 1872, was a notorious free-lover, while British suffragette Christabel Pankhurst wrote that votes for women should also be paired with demanding chastity for men. This division was based on two impulses which were in constant tension with one another along a spectrum – equality and personal freedom on one end, protection from harm on the other. This also influenced attitudes towards men, especially whether and what kind of role men would play in the women’s rights movement. Those leaning towards the equality pole welcomed and worked with men who agreed with their goals, like Frederick Douglass and John Stuart Mill. Those on the protectionist side, however, viewed men with skepticism, and demanded that they prove their worth by swearing to be chaste and “chivalrous” towards women. Jane Ellice Hopkins founded the White Cross Army, calling on working-class men to make such pledges and recruit their “younger brothers” to do the same, all with the hope not only of protecting “respectable women” (read white and middle-class), but of combating the “social evil” of prostitution by reducing the number of men who pursued it. Not far off from contemporary pledges to not use porn or “end demand for sex trafficking”!

If the women who worked for social purity back then sounded like religious zealots, it’s because they were. The movement was rooted in the evangelical revival of the Victorian era, and was intertwined with the movements to ban alcohol and enforce the closing of businesses on Sunday. They were willing to work with the likes of conservatives like Anthony Comstock, who opposed women’s suffrage, access to birth control, and any questioning of traditional marriage. Social purity was also bound up in white supremacy, as evident by the racist and xenophobic rhetoric often employed. As a result, the movement for women’s suffrage was not only divided for much of its history, but protectionists often went out of their way to attack and silence suffragists who disagreed with them on issues of sexuality.

We’ve seen that censorious approach within the feminism of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon would refuse to participate in many forums with feminists who disagreed with them on porn and prostitution, even bullying university administrators into turning their academic conferences into mere echo chambers. After the National Organization for Women embraced the Swedish model of criminalizing and punishing sex work clients, dissidents in its chapters who favor decriminalization have accused the national leadership of silencing them.

Feminists do not need this. We should be able to discuss and debate disagreements honestly, and focus on the facts of what works best for women. We should be able to see that the porn industry and sex work are not monolithic, and that punitive and prudish approaches only serve to harm women. The razor that censors use to cut out anything deemed improper can just as easily be used against us.

 

Rikki de la Vega is a writer living in Boston, with 15 erotica books currently published, who is also working on a history of sexual repression and censorship. You can see more of their work and purchase her books at

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