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The Alarming Paternalism of Today’s Queer Agenda

What the anti-pornography campaign of 1980s radical feminism can teach us about queer politics today.

This piece is part of the Radical issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

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The 1969 Stonewall riots galvanized what came to be called “gay liberation,” a period of disruptive activism in the ’70s that formed part of a broader countercultural upheaval that began in the previous decade. But that heady moment—full of blistering manifestos and confrontational direct action—came to a quick end in the survivalist demands of the AIDS crisis, and over the next half-century, riots have since been steadily replaced with solemn rituals. Back then, the nuclear family was on the chopping block; now, queer couples clamor to imitate it. Back then, activists rebelled against juridical standards of decency; now, respectability is all the rage.

In fact, a conservative penchant for rules and continuity animates nearly every item on today’s queer political agenda. Marriage was the coup d’état in the quest for regularity, for it offered, in Justice Kennedy’s words, “recognition, stability, and predictability.” LGBTQ advocates have since doubled down on this security agenda, visible in the proliferation of safe zones, trigger warnings, anti-bullying campaigns, meticulously elaborated protocols for verbal address, and labyrinthine nomenclatures of identity. Order is the order of the day. Those behind this agenda see themselves as spearheading radical transformation and fomenting inclusion, as though authentic autonomy reaches its freest expression by hewing to bureaucratic decorum. What I’m observing, put bluntly, is authoritarian conservatism tricked out as radicalism.

I grant, of course, that you will search mostly in vain for rock-ribbed Republicans on staff at the Human Rights Campaign or populating the bylines of Them. I’m speaking of a deeper conservatism that is positively Victorian in sensibility, one that construes queer lives as frail, delicate, and virtuous, and thus in need of institutions and protocols to protect them from the coarse utterances of a hostile public. But lest I be accused of misreading the zeitgeist of today’s self-styled radicalism, it may be useful to step back to examine a radical movement from recent memory—one that found itself, like today’s queer movement, in bizarre confederacy with a conservative zeal for supervision and censorship.

Radical feminism, though born out of groups like the Redstockings in the late ’60s, really rose to national prominence in the 1980s by zeroing in on a single antagonist: pornography. Even before this period, pornography had already been indicted as a manifestation of the hate of women, and thus, an index of how deeply misogyny permeated the culture and structured the sexual division of labor. What was new, however, was the claim that pornography was the fundamental training ground for objectifying women—not a reflection of sex-based inequality, but its source. Men who masturbated to it, who fed and formed their fantasies by it, inextricably fused their desire with domination, then played out the script by abusing real women’s real bodies.

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With formidable prose and ferocious conviction, Andrea Dworkin theorized that women’s emancipation could never ensue without addressing pornography’s power to enact, not just depict, subordination. In her 1981 polemic, Pornography: Men Possessing Women, she laid out the core of her argument.

From the perspective of the political activist, pornography is the blueprint of male supremacy; it shows how male supremacy is built. The political activist needs to know the blueprint. In cultural terms, pornography is the fundamentalism of male dominance. Its absolutism on women and sexuality, its dogma, is merciless. Women are consigned to rape and prostitution; heretics are disappeared and destroyed. Pornography is the essential sexuality of male power: of hate, of ownership, of hierarchy; of sadism, of dominance. The premises of pornography are controlling in every rape and every rape case, whenever a woman is battered or prostituted, in incest, including in incest that occurs before a child can even speak, and in murder—murders of women by husbands, lovers, and serial killers. If this is superficial, what’s deep?

Women, as Dworkin tells it, are mere marionettes twisted about by the pornographic page—docile, inert, silenced, and fungible. Passivity never looked so inevitable. With “radicals” like this, who needs patriarchy?

Dworkin’s radicalism was actually radically reductive, capable of seeing only trauma, wounds, gouges, damage, and submission. Rich layers of self-discovery, spontaneous play, comedic deflation, ironic winking, campy self-awareness, queer pleasure—all these got buried under an avalanche of accusations of harm. Offering a dissenting interpretation, as Ellen Willis, Gayle Rubin, and many other feminists did, meant being branded a collaborator in carrying out the carnage. More importantly, Dworkin’s analysis vilified the symbolic realm—language, images, pictures, narratives—in ways that made imagining new possibilities of pleasure and identity impossible.

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But what is really striking, in retrospect, is how these radical arguments eerily resonate with that most quintessentially American conservative rhetoric: Calvinism. Calling to mind colonial-era preacher Jonathan Edwards, Dworkin howled with fiery wrath against pornography by summoning lurid images of brutality and agony. With depravity so total, of course men and women would need to be rescued from their own fetid imaginations and debauched choices. Here, finally, enters the implicit plea for imperious oversight, for a policing institutional force to shelter the damsel in distress.

Thus, a curious incident occurred in this trailblazing radical activism: It emerged onto a conservative thoroughfare and piled into the nearest car pool. Religious conservatives had long opposed obscenity as a vulgar incitement to sexual incontinence and a danger to the integrity of the family unit. Seizing the moment, President Reagan convened the Meese Commission—before which Dworkin would testify alongside more than 200 other witnesses—which eventually issued a sprawling report in 1986 complete with florid proclamations on the harms wrought by obscenity. Its recommendations for stifling the pornographic menace doubled as a how-to guide in vastly extending bureaucratic intrusion and surveillance: racketeering laws, forfeiture statutes, IRS audits, pandering proscriptions, commercial regulation, centralized digital databases—a whole new legal toolbox to harass, intimidate, and jail the purveyors of sexual deviance. I need hardly add that the principal authors of the report included beloved patron of the LGBTQ community and founder of Focus on the Family, James Dobson.

A broad coalition—led in large part by the ACLU’s Nadine Strossen—converged to repel the crackdown on sexual expression, but my concern here isn’t about the troubling resurgence of sex panic. I recount this history to throw into relief a covert conservatism latent in today’s supposed queer radicalism.

Institutions and bureaucracies have deeply involved themselves in controlling how gender and sexuality get recognized and categorized. Queer organizations routinely disseminate lengthy lists prescribing an obligatory woke lingo along with a profusion of gender and sexual brackets to master—an etiquette fine-tuned to the standards of Emily Post. These bulletins often arrive bristling with sanctimonious warnings that deviations not only reflect cis privilege and heterosexism but also perform epistemic violence, or discursive violence, or just plain violence. Language, by this theory, must be vetted by the “right” people at GLAAD as something that must fit “just right,” lest an errant word rend its subject. The irony of this corporate spreadsheet radicalism is that it cedes control to a handful of trendy arbiters of queer language and makes the rest of us stenographers of their authoritative diction. To be clear, I’m all for busting open and subverting standardized language, but if the point is to stir things up and rupture existing categories, why deliver these terms as dogma?

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A good many national figures—journalist Bob Woodward and philosopher Martha Nussbaum among them—have diagnosed fear as the defining emotion of our era. Given our pervasive anxiety and sense of powerlessness, it’s all too easy to become fixated on ways to wrest order and calm from the perceived chaos of our cultural and political moment. But a security-obsessed agenda inevitably yields disciplinary excesses. Just as paranoia over the harm wrought by pornography once mobilized authoritarian impulses to stifle expression, fearmongering today threatens to convince LGBTQ people of their brittle breakability and the necessity of institutional surveillance. An authentic radicalism must defy priggish codes of propriety and mawkish pleas from self-righteous do-gooders. Queer words and images should be prized for their creative, disruptive force, not muzzled or edited into party-line scripts. That’s the tragic irony here: Enlisting paternalistic bureaucracies to enforce radicalism is the surest way to paralyze queer dissidence.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Radicalism. And queer your ears with a special radical-themed episode of the Outward podcast.