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The Second Second Wave: Still Fighting the Sex Wars

© Illustration by Alicia Lupieri

The current wave of ‘puritanical’ discourse in queer spaces might be grating and repetitive, but there’s a bigger problem with it too: it legitimizes TERF rhetoric and transmisogyny.

The original ‘second wave’ in feminism began in the 1960s and lasted into the 1980s. Developing on the gains of the ‘first wave’ (think suffragettes), the second wave expanded feminism’s goals from the legal to the social, considering issues like family dynamics, domestic labour, and sexuality. It’s in the discussion of sexuality that many rifts emerged, prominently surrounding sadomasochism. At the same time, cis feminists were grappling with the question of trans inclusion in the movement, and modern LGBTQ+ liberation movements were starting up.

Back (briefly) to the present: Arguments about whether kink belongs at pride have become a seasonal staple over the last few years, starting in late spring as consistently as the warmer weather or blooming flowers. Elder queers (and by that, I really just mean those of us old enough to remember Tumblr porn) say again and again ‘we’ve done all this before:’ it’s the worst kind of gay deja vu. But we tend not to elaborate on when or how these debates have already happened or consider why they’re all coming up again.

As a student of the feminist sex wars and now a veteran of online queer discourse, I think I can provide some insight. As I see it, ideas and arguments that had been put to bed are being rudely reawakened by a TERF movement bent on reviving feminism’s second wave. By re-litigating the debates around kink that our community was having in the 80s and 90s, they’re creating space for arguments about trans inclusion to be reopened too. And it’s working.

You might wonder how I can be so sure these things are connected. It doesn’t take much to figure it out: before even looking at history, you can see these threads all over the contemporary internet. On Tumblr, Twitter, or wherever else you find queer community discourse in 2022, check the blogs or accounts behind ‘kink critical’ posts. Reliably, they are also ‘gender critical,’ ‘TERFs do interact,’ ‘adult human female,’ and otherwise peppered with transphobic dog-whistles.

But looking to history is important too, and making sure we know our real history is key. When it comes to both kink and trans people, there’s an effort by ‘critical’ ideologues to rewrite queer history to exclude communities who have been part of the movement from the beginning. Claims that leather gear doesn’t belong at Pride are often accompanied by the erasure of the historical relationship between queer and leather communities. Similarly, TERFs frequently claim that trans people have been a recent addition to the ‘LGB community,’ tacked on some time in the late 2000s.

In reality, leather and kink communities have always been entwined with LGBTQ+ movements and activism, and (regardless of who threw the first brick at Stonewall) the ‘T’ was added in 1988, and trans people have been part of the queer struggle since it began. What these erasures are trying to do is remove the unpalatable, the unassimilated, from our community, not just in the present but in the past too.

Just as leather has always been entwined with the queer community, so too has anti-kink rhetoric been joined with transphobia. Sadomasochism and trans femininity were both issues that formed faultlines in the lesbian feminist movements of the late 20th century, and there’s a reliable trend that opposition to one meant opposition to the other.

Against Sadomasochism,’ published in 1982, contains an essay by Robin Morgan, who gave a speech at the West Coast Lesbian Conference denouncing Beth Elliott (a trans lesbian and one of the conference’s organisers) as an ‘infiltrator…with the mentality of a rapist’ and misgendering her throughout. Meanwhile, Janice Raymond, author of the infamous transphobic text ‘The Transsexual Empire,’ denounced lesbian sadomasochism as ‘violence against women.’

The foremothers of modern TERFism hated kink and BDSM, so when teenage radical feminists online share texts about the dangers or inherent misogyny of sadomasochism, they’re also often sharing works by virulent, committed transphobes. Denouncement of kink and its practitioners is a gateway to transphobia and a wedge issue that turns our communities against each other.

But it’s not just intra-community attacks that this discourse encourages: another big link between TERF rhetoric and the anti-kink wave in the queer community is the strange bedfellows they make. White supremacist right-wingers like Lauren Southern weighed in against kink at pride last summer because of course conservatives love to take the opportunity to harass a queer person for being a ‘groomer.’ Neo-fascists have also become allied with so-called ‘radical feminists’ in the fight against trans people for many of the same reasons. Whenever you see queer people, or self-identified feminists, getting into bed with right-wing extremists, it’s time to be very suspicious.

Attempts to remove kink from queer spaces and history are dangerous, as is the transphobia they legitimise. So, what do we do? Remember our history, and refuse to repeat it. Even if you’re a vanilla queer, even if you’re not totally sure what BDSM stands for, even if you feel a little uncomfortable seeing pup masks at pride: this affects you too. Stand with the grossest, least palatable parts of your community, and you’ll be standing on the frontlines. And trust me, you need us to win this fight.

Interested in finding out more about the second second wave and TERF rhetoric? Visit these links:


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