Feeling Good About Feeling Bad: The Feminist Sex Wars and the Writing of Kathy Acke

Cecily looking at feminist art.




Associate Professor

Project Summary


This summer, I traveled to Duke University to look at the Kathy Acker Papers, housed at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. An independent research project and part of my ongoing work in preparation for my honors thesis for English, this project is currently tentatively titled, “Feeling Good About Feeling Bad,” and specifically looks at the discourses and debates around the issue of sex—specifically, sex between a man and a woman—during the time now known as the “Feminist Sex Wars.” I am especially interested in alternative modes of thinking about sex, sexuality, the body, and desire, that deviate from the two main camps during the Sex Wars, namely, the pro-sex side, who views sex as empowerment, and the anti-sex side, who consider sex with any man, under the conditions of the patriarchy, as fundamentally subjugating for the woman.

Kathy Acker is one of the few woman writers writing during that time whom I believe truly broke free from the dichotomy of how women should have sex—namely, to either feel ashamed and that she “should have known better,” or to feel deeply empowered by her sexuality, to “own it.” In Acker’s writing, she continuously writes about the underbelly of sex and desire that are usually deemed “bad”: bad relationships, bad sex, and thee desire for them. Traveling to Duke, I was able to look through Acker’s journals, notes, and annotate manuscripts, in order to better situate her within the historical continuum of the feminist sex debates. It was particularly illuminating for me to read unpublished interviews and essays by Acker, in which she personally writes about how she felt personally at odd with “much of the feminist canon.” Further, Acker specifically points to the “S&M Lesbian practices” as the lineage of feminism that she identified with most, a subset of feminism that is now usually considered a subculture, rather than the mainstream canon.

Engaging with both Acker’s published writing and her personal journals, I was privy to how Acker viewed sex and desire, and how she approached the seemingly farcical and seemingly unanswerable question: “Men being, in so many words, The Problem, how can women keep sleeping with them without Making The problem Worse?” (Chu, 2017) Acker offers an alternative solution that neither dictates your sexual liberation, nor demands your moral shame; instead, she imagines a way of re-engaging with the body that allows for contradictions, that allows the woman to feel good about feeling bad. To enjoy the filthy, dirty, risky side of sex without the compulsion to moralize or politicize. The personal is political, yes; but Acker counters: it need not always be political. The personal is also libidinal desire and sexual joy, operating beyond a political program. As she writes in an unpublished 1990 essay: “It is necessary for us to perceive what our specific pleasures are, where pleasures lie, the relations between pleasure and need, the structures of desire, all the possibilities of our bodies.”