Talk of Sex Disrupts Academic Conference

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(WOMENSENEWS)–In April 1982, the Women’s Center at Barnard College sponsored an annual day-long conference called “The Scholar and The Feminist.” For nine years, the conference had been bringing together women inside and outside the walls of academia to discuss topics crucial to the women’s movement. That year’s subject was “Towards a Politics of Sexuality.”

A planning committee had assembled panels and workshops on infant sexuality, body image, feminist history, abortion, and what became three “hot button” issues: pornography, sado-masochism and butch-femme roles. The idea, organizers said, was to balance talk about increasing sexual pleasure in all its forms with talk about protecting women from sexual danger. The day would end with readings by black, Latina and white poets, including hattie gossett, Cherrie Moraga and Sharon Olds. Eight-hundred women registered–a full house.

But several groups objected to the presence of what they considered proponents of anti-feminist sexual practices–those “hot button” issues–and the dissent was getting ugly. Members of Women Against Pornography were the strongest opponents. On April 24, the day of the conference, guests had to make their way through a noisy picket line of anti-porn feminists.

The conference’s aftermath became personal attacks and counter-attacks among women who had been on the same page a year before and the ‘hot-button’ issues remain highly divisive.

Louise Bernikow is the author of nine books, including “The American Women’s Almanac.” She takes her women’s history slide show to communities and campuses all over the country.

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