On Monday, a U.S. district court in Phoenix will hear the latest in a case against the owners of Backpage.com, a website accused of hosting ads for sexual services. Federal authorities shut down the site in 2018. The hearing will outline the next steps for its owners, who have been charged with facilitating prostitution and money laundering. Backpage’s classified ads were popular among sex workers, who used its “Adult” section to correspond with and screen potential clients. Critics say Backpage was a “trafficking titan,” facilitating exploitation and abuse.

Both conservative Christians and anti-pornography feminists are leading this charge. Their larger aim is to use these charges to close down Backpage and similar sites, driving sexually explicit media off the Internet.

Critics and commentators have long accused these seemingly mismatched groups of being aligned. As sociologists who have studied decades of the anti-pornography movement, we know that “strange bedfellows” is the wrong metaphor. Nancy Whittier’s book and Kelsy Burke’s forthcoming book analyze feminist and conservative publications, anti-pornography organizations’ archives, government records and interviews and observations with contemporary opponents and supporters of pornography, all of which we quote in this article.

Conservatives and anti-porn feminists are not exactly friends, but neither are they enemies. They are “frenemies,” sharing some goals and sometimes cooperating. But they don’t truly collaborate, and they fundamentally disagree on just about everything except sex work.

The anti-porn movement that became the anti-trafficking movement

Though they did not yet use the language of “trafficking,” anti-porn feminists in the 1980s argued that sexism and economic inequality made consent impossible for women in pornography or sex work. They saw all forms of sex work as coercive and as literal or symbolic violence against women. In 1983, the Minneapolis City Council passed an anti-pornography ordinance written by feminist law professor Catharine MacKinnon and radical feminist activist Andrea Dworkin. The ordinance, which was highly controversial among feminists, was the first to present pornography as a civil offense. It explicitly authorized any woman to bring action against producers or distributors of pornography “as a woman acting against the subordination of women.”

Inspired by this, conservatives proposed similar laws. For example, the Pornography Victims Protection Act, which Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) introduced in 1984 (and which never became law), would have permitted civil damages against those who coerce people into appearing in pornography. Although it was roughly modeled after the MacKinnon-Dworkin ordinance, most feminists — even the major anti-pornography organizations — did not support it because of its narrow definition of those harmed by pornography.

Anti-trafficking efforts today mirror these 1980s legal strategies. Though the Minneapolis ordinance did not survive court challenge, the federal Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, known as SESTA-FOSTA, became law in 2018, offering victimized women the opportunity to bring lawsuits against sex industry websites.

SESTA-FOSTA passed after three underage women attempted to sue Backpage.com in 2014 for allegedly enabling traffickers to arrange their repeated sexual assault. Although the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit described Backpage’s practices as “sordid,” it determined that the site was not breaking the law because Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protected websites from liability for their content. Activists and politicians expressed outrage, leading to SESTA-FOSTA — which removed that protection if the website’s contents “promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” This vague definition for trafficking leaves all Internet pornography potentially at risk.

The illusion of alliances

In the 1980s, conservatives borrowed anti-porn feminists’ ideas as they tried to criminalize all sex work. But anti-porn feminists and conservatives worked in separate organizations. Conservatives invited individual anti-porn feminists to testify about legislation or the social ills of pornography and touted their claims that pornography harms women, but they worried more about how pornography fostered “destructive attitudes toward sexuality and family life” than about how pornography contributed to gender inequality. And conservatives blamed feminism for breaking down morality and the “traditional family.”

Some contemporary organizations claim to bring together those who oppose online sex trafficking from a variety of perspectives. Most of the largest organizations call themselves nonreligious and nonpartisan and, as Burke observed, describe their members as “people of all political persuasions and religions” and “conservatives and feminists alike.”

This is not exactly accurate. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) has invited feminist activists to speak at its annual summit but was founded by an ecumenical clergy group called “Morality in Media” in the 1960s and is still sponsored and led by many evangelical organizations and board members. Laila Mickelwait, a Christian who started the #TraffickingHub campaign and formerly worked for Exodus Cry, another officially nonreligious group founded as an evangelical prayer meeting, calls herself a feminist and a Dworkin admirer.

Yet in the 21st century, there is no anti-porn feminist movement. In the 1980s, anti-pornography feminist organizations mounted protests and educational events, and major feminist organizations engaged with the issue. But that branch of feminism has waned in the United States. American anti-pornography feminist groups today tend to be one-woman operations.

Ironically, this decline may allow evangelical-based groups to tout feminist credentials. In fact, some conservatives opposing porn and sex trafficking claim that they are the real feminists. But unlike the 1980s, when feminists and evangelicals made up distinct and robust social movements, the anti-pornography movement today seems to rest only on feminist principles.

Breaking the ‘strange bedfellows’ myth

Social scientists generally consider social movements to be either allies or opponents. But that’s not really an accurate view of the relationship between anti-porn feminists and conservatives.

Evangelicals lead the anti-porn movement. They are working to uphold the power structure that feminists critique, in which sexual expression is permitted only within heterosexual marriage. Whereas anti-porn feminists wanted to eliminate sexual exploitation to support female autonomy, anti-porn evangelicals are promoting the same “traditional family” agenda they’ve championed for decades. Along with its anti-trafficking efforts, NCOSE tries to shut down the distribution of pornography through military retailers and hotel televisions. Current feminist mobilization against violence instead tends to focus on sexual harassment and violence at work and in daily life. Their agendas are far from the same.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) began as an evangelical group and was still led by evangelicals. We regret the error.

Kelsy Burke (@kelsyburke) is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and author of the forthcoming “The Pornography Wars: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Obscene Obsession” (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022).

Nancy Whittier (@nancywhittier5) is the Sophia Smith Professor of Sociology at Smith College and the author of “Frenemies: Feminists, Conservatives and Sexual Violence” (Oxford University Press, 2018).