Mainstream Feminism Responds to 'Sex Positive'

Historical Essay

by Elizabeth Sullivan

Women's first march aganist porn Bwy and Columbus 1977 AAB-2963.jpg

Women's First March Against Porn, Broadway and Columbus, 1977.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

Joani Blank spins a revealing tale that illustrates the early feminist movement's painful and contradictory struggles to define itself. It seems quaint now to realize that mainstream feminism of the 1970s and even 1980s was very shy about sex, to the point of becoming hostile to the women who were trying to explore its power. Feminism was staking out some new ground: asserting women's right to refuse sex, and eschewing fashion and looking attractive to men. Their mistakes lay not in these explorations but in the way that the insights quickly hardened into dogma, and had to be blasted out in the "sex wars" of the 1980s and early 1990s.

It was a terrible battle to get advertising for Good Vibrations into Ms., the biggest feminist magazine of the time. Blank first tried to buy a display ad in the early 1980s, and Ms. refused, declaring themselves opposed to carrying ads depicting vibrators. One classified ad for "The Playbook for Women About Sex" slipped through, but naturally Blank wanted a real ad to run in the most important feminist magazine of the time. Before she realized it, she had been in negotiation with Ms. for over four years, on and off, trying everything from friendly personal phone calls to threatening a huge publicity stink.

Finally, just before the original Ms. format folded, Lindsey van Gelder wrote a wonderful article about women's sex toys, with Good Vibrations' phone number in a sidebar the bottom. Over the next few weeks Blank received 450 catalog requests and Ms. finally accepted an ad, with one caveat. "You can't use the words 'Good Vibrations,' " the caller explained. Blank told them to shove it. "That's the name of my business, "she explained indignantly, "they expected me to run an advertisement with no name?"

Blank gave up, and shortly after, Ms. re-emerged as an ad-free publication.

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