As an integral component of the notion of the “the personal is political,” many feminists highlighted the importance of women’s sexuality as part of a broader political transformation. While scholars and activists like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin emphasized understanding sexuality as a critical component of women’s oppression, drawing attention to issues like sexual assault and sexual harassment, some feminists also encouraged women to understand their own bodies and explore their sexual pleasure.
Works like the first version of Our Bodies, Ourselves, entitled Women and Their Bodies: A Course (1970), encouraged women to engage in self-exam using a speculum to understand their genitalia, and the workshops and writings of Betty Dodson emphasized the diversity of women’s bodies and offered techniques for self-stimulation. Both self-exams and masturbation were envisioned as a springboard for women taking control of their own bodies and pleasures.
Anne Koedt’s “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” (1970) pushed back against Freud’s denigration of the clitoris by deploying the work of sexologists Alfred Kinsey and William Masters and Virginia Johnson for feminist ends. For some feminists, the clitoris became symbolic of a specifically feminist mode of sexual pleasure—the fully liberated woman would understand her clitoris, and understand it as the primary, if not sole, locus of sexual pleasure. Writers like Jill Johnston, however, pushed back against this notion, arguing that lesbian women have long understood the variety of ways in which women can experience pleasure, including pleasure from vaginal penetration.
Writers such as Jewelle Gomez, Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, and Cheryl Clarke brought critical attention to the intersections among sexuality, gender, and race, specifically drawing attention to black lesbian experiences. The Combahee River Collective’s “A Black Feminist Statement” (1977) also underscored sexuality as a crucial aspect of black women’s lives. The Workshop Resolutions of the First National Chicana Conference held in 1971 highlighted the importance of understanding the role of sexuality in Chicana lives, both as a source of oppression and empowerment.
Two conferences organized around sexuality included a conference hosted by the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) New York division in 1974 and the Scholar and the Feminist IX conference, “Towards a Politics of Sexuality,” held at Barnard College in 1982. Both conferences drew speakers and attendees from a broad spectrum of feminist scholarship and activism, galvanizing conversations around women’s sexuality and generating significant controversy.
The 1970s saw a boom in dating and sex advice literature that took up the feminist focus on women’s sexuality, including Lonnie Garfield Barbach’s influential For Yourself: The Fulfillment of Female Sexuality (1975) and Emily Sisley and Bertha Harris’ The Joy of Lesbian Sex: A Tender and Liberated Guide to the Pleasures and Problems of a Lesbian Lifestyle (1977).
Magazines such as On Our Backs, Bad Attitude, and Suck offered feminist-inspired erotica, pornography, and writings on sex and sexuality. Inspired by the work of Betty Dodson, Dell Williams opened Eve’s Garden in 1974 in New York City, the first sex shop in the U.S. catering to women and inspired by feminist politics.
Jane Gerhard. Desiring Revolution: Second-Wave Feminism and the Rewriting of American Sexual Thought, 1920 to 1982 (2001)
Carole Vance (ed.), Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Women’s Sexuality (1992) [Includes original pieces presented at the Scholar and the Feminist IX conference, “Towards a Politics of Sexuality,” held at Barnard College in 1982]
Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art & Politics #12 “The Sex Issue” (1981)