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Editorial: Perverse Politics Pat Parker: A Tribute Lyndie Brimstone International Lesbianism: Brazil—Nana Mendonça Letter from São Paulo—Marlene Rodrigues Israel—Spike Pittsberg Italy—Rosanna Fiocchetto The De-eroticization of Women’s Liberation: Social Purity Movements and the Revolutionary Feminism of Sheila Jeffreys Margaret Hunt Talking About It: Homophobia in the Black Community A dialogue between Jewelle Gomez and Barbara Smith Lesbianism and the Labour Party: The GLC Experience Ann Tobin Skirting the Issue: Lesbian Fashion for the 1990s Inge Blackman and Kathryn Perry Butch/Femme Obsessions Susan Ardill and Sue O’Sullivan Archives: The Will to Remember—Joan Nestle International Archives—Alison Read Audre Lorde: Vignettes and Mental Conversations Gail Lewis Lesbian Tradition
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Rachael Field Mapping: Lesbianism, AIDS and Sexuality An interview with Cindy Patton by Sue O’Sullivan Significant Others: Lesbians and Psychoanalytic Theory Diane Hamer The Pleasure Threshold: Looking at Lesbian Pornography on Film Cherry Smyth Cartoon—Kate Charlesworth Voyages of the Valkyries: Recent Lesbian Pornographic Writing Sara Dunn Reviews Denise O’Connor on Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis Sarah Green on Inventing Ourselves: Lesbian Life Stories Letter Noticeboard 163 168 171 173 115 129
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tandf. PHOTOCOPYING AND REPRINT PERMISSIONS Single and multiple photocopies of extracts from this journal may be made without charge in all public and educational institutions or as part of any non-profit educational activity provided that full acknowledgement is made of the source. Lynne Segal. 22 Hemingway Avenue. Routledge.” Feminist Review is published three times a year by a collective based in London. Inge Blackman and Pratibha Parmar. 2005. ISSN number 0141–7789 ISBN 0-203-99093-5 Master e-book ISBN ISBN 0-415-05272-6 (Print Edition) . Sue O’Sullivan. Annie Whitehead. Helen Crowley. Mica Nava. We need copy to come to us in our house style with references complete and in the right form. Copyright © 1990 in respect of individual articles is held by the authors.This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library. Copyright © 1990 in respect of the collection is held by Feminist Review . Routledge. Guest Editors this Issue: Alison Read. Loretta Loach.co. London N19 5AQ.. AnnMarie Wolpe. Bookshop distribution in the USA Inland Book Company Inc. Kum-Kum Bhavnani. Please send in 4 copies plus the original (5 copies in all). Catherine Hall. For subscriptions and advertising please write to: David Polley. 11 New Fetter Lane. with help from women and groups all over the UK. The Collective: Alison Light. In cases of hardship 2 copies will do. 11 Carleton Gardens. Mary McIntosh. Brecknock Road. East Haven. USA.eBookstore. Cover image: Denise Vale and Virginia Betts Correspondence and advertising For contributions and all other correspondence please write to: Feminist Review. Clara Connolly. “To purchase your own copy of this or any of Taylor & Francis or Routledge’s collection of thousands of eBooks please go to www. Requests to reprint in any publication for public sale should be addressed to the publisher. We can supply you with a style sheet. Naila Kabeer. CT 06512.uk. Dot Griffiths. London EC4P 4EE Contributions Feminist Review is happy to discuss proposed work with intending authors at an early stage. Erica Carter.
lusts and ambivalences. there have been no test cases brought under Clause 28. far from retreating we have moved more deeply into an exploration of our desires. has been variously portrayed as a victory for the right or the start of a new wave of lesbian and gay resistance. highlighting our so-called deviant sexualities. In what is often portrayed as a monolithically gloomy period. The infamous Clause 28 which became law in 1988. To this end an editorial group was set up which included two Feminist Review members and three outside guest editors. The AIDS crisis has opened up a variety of spaces for discourses around sex and sexual identity. Occasionally the collective decides to produce a ‘special issue’. Often these special issues are produced from within the collective but increasingly guest editors who have a particular interest or expertise are invited to join the special issue group. At last we are beginning to have discussions around sex as a separate category rather than subsuming it under the overarching concept of sexuality. in our assessment the threat of complete suppression of our lives has given a sharp edge to a renewed confidence to challenge each onslaught as it comes. To date. This is primarily because too many assumptions have been made about what constitutes actual lesbian sexual practices and identities. Ironically. so that is still to come. As lesbians we have begun to talk about actual sexual practices and begun to formulate a vocabulary which is a prerequisite for the politicization of our varied sexual practices. Feminist Review No 34. nevertheless. Right from the outset the need to reflect the racial and cultural diversities that exist in lesbian communities was recognized as crucial. In the main lesbians have been reluctant to engage with. It seemed extremely pertinent as we approached the end of the 1980s that many of the important theoretical developments and activist interventions lesbians have made be given a forum for exploration and discussion. the implications of AIDS in their own lives. We as a group are responsible for this issue. Lesbianism has never been forefronted in any systematic way in Feminist Review although there have been significant individual articles from time to time. Spring 1990 . Perverse Politics is one of them. let alone acknowledge. the assertion of lesbian and gay politics has had positive reverberations for all radical movements.PERVERSE POLITICS Feminist Review is usually an eclectic mix of feminist academic work and articles about various feminist political and cultural concerns.
since as lesbians we have continuously challenged any form of censorship which will ultimately rebound negatively on our lives. Some of the articles in Perverse Politics were commissioned. Perverse Politics is being produced at a time of fluctuations and possibilities. For a number of years questions about the representation of diversity and difference have been part of our theoretical and practical work. certain huge steps have been taken. It is not surprising that some of the articles in this issue are grappling with new formulations. for us the importance of an internationalist and Black lesbian sensibility as a whole was paramount. In the last decade of the twentieth century. It is all about lesbianism and lesbian politics. albeit fragmented network. fashion and dress. It is not about all lesbians nor is it only about lesbian politics. we believe it’s important at this point to reformulate the significance and different meanings of identities within our individual psyches and collective political projects. In other words. The historical absence and invisibility of Black lesbians within white lesbian communities cannot be denied. Make no mistake. Identities are fluid categories which are constantly being deconstructed in the process of self-definition. Yet we know from our recent and often bitter experiences that many a coalition and collective has fallen apart at the point that radical sexual politics demanded to be integrated into a given political project. seem particularly dangerous to us. They cannot be marginalized or dismissed as being only the concern of queers. From the first Black lesbian workshop held at the Organization of Women of Asian and African Descent conference in 1984 to the existence of a many-layered. The analysis and arguments in Perverse Politics are relevant to all progressive political and cultural movements. we want to reaffirm and celebrate radical sexual politics. it is disquieting that some heterosexual and lesbian feminists are leading a campaign against pornography that calls for state censorship and which seems deliberately to bypass the history of state repression of deviant sexualities. We believe in the centrality of sexuality in transforming all social and political movements. The strength of this collective identity has given rise to numerous groups and organizations.2 FEMINIST REVIEW At the very moment in which we begin to explore all this. The two British campaigns against pornography founded during 1989. In this issue of Feminist Review we did not want to get into a balancing act around representations of race. There is an emphasis on style. While there have been some legitimate and influential critiques of ‘identity’ politics coming from both the Black communities and the women’s movement. we are not ditching class analysis or a recognition of the structured nature of racism. Our confidence and visibility has irrevocably changed the makeup of the lily-white lesbian community. These articles indicate how important dress has been in lesbian subcultures where it has functioned as both an overt and covert sign of our sexual identities. Identity has become a crucial category in organizing politically for different social movements. The assertion of Black lesbian identities has been pivotal to the growth of Black lesbian communities. areas that are of concern to many cultural commentators in the late eighties. others came in spontaneously. These campaigners draw heavily on the Dworkin/MacKinnon initiatives in North America and have grossly distorted the issues by relying on a simplistic moralism and a crude essentialism. Sexual .
. Inge Blackman Mary McIntosh Sue O’Sullivan Pratibha Parmar Alison Read (Perverse Politics Issue Group) We would like to thank all those lesbians who contributed in different ways to this issue.EDITORIAL 3 subjectivities remain as challenging as ever. especially Margaret Hunt and Ines Rieder. We see Perverse Politics as part of that challenge. who gave many hours of their valuable time at the last editorial stage.
4 FEMINIST REVIEW .
but it took almost two decades for a small handful of her poems to find their way into a British anthology (McEwen. to say who and what she should be and what she should think—mother. with ‘Goat Child’. Naming the knots on the tightly-stretched string of her first twenty-two years. ‘soul-searing poverty’ and ‘small town mentality’ (Parker. father. 1978:13). political leaders. pay attention. who had promised to show her ‘the ways of woman’. Pat Parker also begins. 1987:61). Black comrades and friends. For this loud and rich-mouthed poet. churchmen. 1978:13). Pat Parker was one of the first working-class poets to wave two strong womanly fingers at the literary élite and their ‘academic wanderings’ (Parker. 1978:9). 1988). and means them’ (Grahn. Child of Myself. a modern epic’. So who was Pat Parker and what might this failure of respect and reticence to honour mean? A survivor of tin-roofed ‘Texas hell’. sinewy work and a fine example of Pat Parker’s skill. the relentless search for a definition of self that would allow her to formulate her own vision. So many people ready to teach. and she was (Parker. 1984:13. feared for her (Grahn. feminists. Audre Lorde. a ‘class-mate’ and friend for many years. Woman must be/the child of myself’. ‘I. Spring 1990 . whoever they may be. Judy Grahn. the kind who says things first. who spent many a long hour talking with Pat Parker before finally bringing her own erotic power and sexual identity to her poetry. she was Black and lesbian: the very first to refuse to compromise and speak openly from all her undiluted experience. from the unwelcoming facts of her premature birth to the bloody and painful abortion that betrayed her youthful belief in ‘the buddha’. was not only working class. but it took more than two months for news of her death to find its way across the Atlantic and into the alternative press. is without doubt a courageous. her own ‘simple dream’ (Parker. ‘Womanslaughter’). 1978:45). there is nothing she would not remember and learn through. because it ‘was nearly unheard of’ that ‘a woman’s entire life [could] be the storyline of a poem. Pat Parker published her first volume of radical poetry. says the poet.PAT PARKER: A Tribute Lyndie Brimstone Pat Parker died on 4 June 1989. Lorde. the autobiographical story poem that Judy Grahn recalls listening to with amazement in 1970. in 1972. who planted her feet firmly on platforms all over America and demanded that her audiences. sisters. 1978:141. schoolteachers. describes her as ‘an outrageous poet. ‘Goat Child’. radical dykes—but ‘I’. husbands. To this end. Feminist Review No 34.
Throughout her life. nigger. Nor. Pat Parker consistently refused to commit herself entirely to any liberation movement that was fighting for only part of who she was. distortions. ‘my brother’) Acutely aware of the daily atrocities perpetrated by a society intent on preserving white supremacist. It seemed my lesbian audiences were not ready for my faggot brother What is this world we have? Is my house the only safe place for us? (Parker. dyke. whose newly claimed ‘I’ starts between the thighs. Poet. 1985:9–10. nothing short of total revolution would do. pervert. at the time of her death. She listened constantly and she learned. Evasions. rallied. mother. it must be said. Beginning with her involvement with the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. the simple formula. poetic obscurity or meditations on meaning: I’m beginning to wonder if the tactics of this revolution is to talk the enemy to death. relentless activist: there was much to be done and. (Parker. she spoke on political platforms. marched. 1978:76). director of the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Centre. . brought those in need into her home (Parker. and then gets lost somewhere in the fascinating twists of the intestines. nest-eggs won’t do. hetero/sexist values. and whose vision could not encompass all of those she loved: A faggot & a dyke. she poured tremendous energy not only into all the major liberation movements of our time but into her own local community as well. luxuriates in the folds of the labia. worker. she asks. ‘love isn’t’) and was. there is no time for compromise and there is no place to hide. protested. Black My agent couldn’t book us. could she. Pat Parker died of breast cancer at the age of forty-five. may have appealed in moments of exhaustion.6 FEMINIST REVIEW Unlike a number of feminist writers. queer—her work is vital and demands an unequivocal response: ‘Where will you be’. however. Pat Parker had no time for empty rhetoric. Pat Parker never lost sight of the context of her life. 1985:20. however much the easy answer. as a vocal and strikingly visible Black lesbian poet. ‘when they come?’ (Parker. 1978:70) Exploding the words that are stored as ammunition behind skin-tearing teeth—faggot.
each morning when i wake i don’t look out of my window to see if the sun is shining— i turn to you—instead (Parker 1978:127). of being able to take all her parts with her wherever she went ‘and not have to say to one of them. in many ways. 1985: Foreword). ‘ordinary’. perhaps. continuing the Black tradition of radical poetry. 11). When Pat Parker was advertised as a ‘kill the whites’ poet. 1985:35–6. life. A dream. Although there is very little biographical information currently available. Where does a working-class Black lesbian poet who wants to speak about all aspects of her life. 1987:61). with us? . ‘go to a public bathroom. including her children. she read her Black poetry (Parker. close… If I close my eyes I can feel your tongue wrap around my nipples tuck them deep in the corner of your mouth and suck them suck them parched flowers (Parker. you won’t be welcome’ (Parker. ‘go to a hamburger stand/and not be taunted by bikers on holiday’. Her dream. she would have been quite content to get on with her own. you stay home tonight. in short. was ‘not the dream of the vanguard’ or ‘the dream of the masses’ or even ‘the dream of women’. she read dyke poetry. Pat Parker’s poetry would suggest that she was not interested in political power or literary status and that if other people had done more of the shouting. ‘aftermath’)./& not be shrieked at by ladies’. it was ‘a simple dream’: a dream of being able to ‘walk the streets/ holding hands with [her] lover’. when facing a predominantly white middle-class women’s movement audience. 1985:83. ‘No. She was also an incredibly tender woman who wrote exquisitely sensual love poems: Now.PAT PARKER: A TRIBUTE 7 And her ‘simple dream’? Pat Parker was a powerful woman who. but who will work for it now Pat Parker has gone? Is it safe. spoke forcefully on behalf of those who could not speak for themselves and raged at those who would not. a white lover and a ‘faggot’ brother stand? ‘Is my house the only safe place/for us?’ A simple dream. then. (Parker. Did you know I watch you as you cuddle with sleep? Propped on my elbow. ‘walk ghetto streets/& not be beaten up by [her] brothers’.
GRAHN. PARKER. 23. Pat (1985) Jonestown and Other Madness. 60–61. Cherríe and ANZALDÚA. She has published a number of articles and reviews and is currently completing a full-length work on twentieth-century lesbian literature. PARKER. London: Virago. Interview with Libby Woodwoman in Margins. Audre (1978) Foreword to PARKER (1978). Boston: Beacon Press. New York: Firebrand Books. MORAGA. Pat (1978) Movement in Black: The Collected Poetry of Pat Parker 1961–1978. Christian (1988) editor Naming the Waves: Contemporary Lesbian Poetry. Lyndie Brimstone lives in London with her ‘pretended family’. Gloria editors (1981) This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Judy (1978) Introduction to PARKER (1978). References GRAHN. PARKER. pp. Vol. Pat (1983) ‘Revolution: It’s Not Neat or Pretty or Quick’ in MORAGA and ANZALDÚA (1983). Judy (1984) Another Mother Tongue. PARKER. LORDE. Pat (1987) ‘Pat Parker Talks About Her Life and Her Work’. . McEWEN. New York: Kitchen Table—Women of Color Press.8 FEMINIST REVIEW Note Born in 1951. New York: The Crossing Press.
southerners. whereas in the interior there is very little rain and long periods of drought. BRAZIL Nana Mendonça Translated by Marlene Rodrigues My country is large and complex. Over the years this situation has provoked an extensive migration of the population towards the industrialized south which is well developed and rich. as well as people from the other regions. This complexity. the north-eastern state I am from. The state governments in that area are eager to accept as many people as possible to open up new space for development. the main area of development being agriculture. it rains too much in the coastal area. This then is the scenario: a permanent noise of power saws and smoke from the burning forest covering the area. turn towards the north. Brazil is divided into five regions. with all its problems. differs in different social circumstances. which suffers from the drought. what is easier. This is an inevitably arbitrary collection. dialects. with overpopulated cities and a lack of new job opportunities. So these reports are by no means representative. and lesbianism itself. and the Amazon rain forest. They give land away at extremely cheap prices to whoever wants to try his or her luck. is a result of that territorial vastness. It is poorly industrialized. has very bad rain distribution. Pressed by the urge to move on to new areas which are not yet developed. even the promised land now has big problems of its own.INTERNATIONAL LESBIANISM This section contains two reports from Brazil and one each from Israel and Italy. each with its own geographical and socio-economic characteristics. We tried to get reports from lesbians we are in contact with in several other countries and there are many places where we have no contacts at all. With the burning of Feminist Review No 34. Pernambuco. Yet some of the same issues seem to arise time and time again all over the world. the developers have to cut the trees—or. Because the land is still covered by forests. However. Spring 1990 . customs and traditions. The south with its big metropolises like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro is the ‘promised land’ where everybody wants to go to look for a better life. burn them—in order to turn the land into agricultural land. But they do serve to show how much lesbian life.
destroying that sense of . some of them high in the hierarchy. gestures of complicity. it was obvious enough. but over there the game does not go the way it goes at home. disease and illusions—the state of Rondonia. I was lured towards that scenario of burning forests. The fight is for survival before anything else. due to the limited number of doctors in the area. I don’t think I would have lost my job because they could not afford to lose me. the knowledge of having been ‘identified’ brings a reaction of fear. Most of these women have very good jobs. attempts at conquest. where an approach is usually made with an exchange of glances. living and working in very diverse situations. they would ‘recognize’ me. carry on the same male politics of discrimination and prejudice. In Rondonia there are still no ghettos. If they lose those jobs. even rules of behaviour. The thinking is individual. I would ‘recognize’ them. wherever they are. I am sure I would have had to live with nasty comments and jokes from my colleagues and subordinates. Fear because everyone is in a precarious situation. the scenario will change. however. trying their luck in that god-forsaken region. These institutions. to succeed. I had a good job. looking for my emotional and financial independence. the new agricultural projects are set and the society more stratified with its inhabitants thinking more about the present than the future. I think I can understand these women a little bit because I am one of them. and the massive presence of people from other regions. many of them with that indefinite air about them. They wouldn’t have had any other option. But there would have been no respect for my right to define my own sexuality. Maybe in the future. they had lived a double life. with no good career prospects in my state of origin. They attack the invaders. Everybody has the same goal: to build. to make money. I think their reaction would have been to continue under my care. no ‘night-life’. These lesbians were from many different areas. confined in ghettos. discomfort. withdrawal. they can not earn as much back in their home state.10 INTERNATIONAL LESBIANISM the trees. offering them very good pay. when the forest is gone. This was a new place. in a last attempt by the forest to stop invasion and destruction. However. Rondonia is a place where one can still have the illusion of being free. They comprise 80 per cent of the present state population. When I arrived I was very surprised by how few members of the native population there were. As yet. I also discovered that there were a large number of women alone. the mosquitoes which pass on malaria lose their habitat. I would have had to deal with the oppressive consequences of my gesture—an avalanche of discrimination coming from all these people. In Rondonia. I was working for a medical institution. Two women can live together without being bothered by their families or by society. everything still to be built. I was in the same boat. And many of them have come from places where they have been oppressed because of their sexuality. I lived there among them. I would ask myself what would happen if the people I was taking care of discovered that their medical doctor was a radical and stubborn lesbian. men and women. the ghettos will appear. not collective. Sometimes. For a homosexual like me. Repression and self-protection will set their rules. The authorities try to fight back by employing doctors and health professionals from all over the country. that kind of look which maybe wouldn’t mean anything for a heterosexual person. By coming out. Being a doctor. Malaria is an endemic disease which can be deadly if not treated in time.
Somehow we were victims. with no prospects in terms of the future. It was useless to try to be close friends with heterosexuals because. I was feeling the same. the company of the woman I loved. Here one doesn’t hear a defence—one condemns. A refuge should not be transformed into hell. Then. The present Brazilian laws forbid discrimination of any kind. In Rondonia I was the chief of a medical centre. ‘not compatible with my functions’ and so on. In this little town where I work. It’s difficult to say how the other women. I’m still alone. In my country one is never quite sure of one’s rights. At that time. waiting for the day when we will be able to be together again. Now. my family. The hell of loneliness was enough. Whenever I met one of these women I would feel a mixture of sorrow and sympathy and also a certain anger at everything we were missing. of something missing: the distant home. we were sacrificing to society the best aspect of our lives in order to be allowed to participate in the world. It’s work without adventures or poetry. I understood them because I behaved like them. even unconsciously. I prefer to think of it as an escape from our previous fights which had left so many deep scars in our souls. but our legislators are good at changing laws as they please. I know that this town will be forever within me—its people. we are still living in different places. but it meant I would be able to come back and be closer to the woman I loved. I respected their silence. I had gone to Rondonia to open the path for our future: I would buy a piece of land. the feeling of loneliness would creep up slowly. I was offered a job in a small town not far from home. I’m still far from my family.FEMINIST REVIEW 11 peace and freedom I had achieved after being so tired by my many fights at home. our minds were in the future. because their behaviour was very cautious. like a sensation of emptiness. Here there is no room for dialogue. and we decided it would be stupid for her to leave everything behind and move on to a place like Rondonia. Then. the warmth of family. were dealing with that aspect of their lives. my new job. my coming out would provoke a scandal. If I come out in my present situation I’m almost sure I would be despised. It wasn’t as good as the one I had in Rondonia. I have changed my medical instruments for an adding machine. ridiculed and verbally abused. she found a job where she was very happy. After work. the catinga. we would live happily forever. They wanted to be left in peace. she would join me later. My superiors would talk about ‘scandalous behaviour’. Their eyes didn’t show much happiness. after working here for ten months. I work in the interior of my home state. if you tried to deepen your friendship with them. Pernambuco. As for the moment. They did not want to be ‘officially’ recognized as lesbians. when I was exhausted from dealing with my patients. It was impossible to accelerate time. the mesmerized look of . With my eyes still filled with the exuberance of the rain forest I look at the catinga (the dry lands of the interior of the north-east region). Here I’m chief of a tax-collection centre. but with good pay. they would get to know you were a lesbian and would discriminate. One can see this as a defeat. she was jobless. build a house. they were restless. my equals. Even though the woman I love is now closer to me. their solitude. they were not interested in forming ghettos. there is no space for polemics. Lesbianism in the north-east of Brazil is still a taboo. To try to be friends with those women who I identified as lesbians was also difficult. Everybody would be willing to cast the first stone. Loneliness was our lot for the time being. I have been trying to readapt myself to my own environment. one day.
I’m not a journalist. mostly because it is becoming a kind of consumer good which sells well. who are looking for something to hold on to but can’t figure out a way to break the spell that has fallen over our country in the last few years. but I like to listen. When my mother receives me and Ines at home she has a double bed prepared for us. down here below the Equator. ‘there is only good and bad. we have to deal with the impossible and make the best of it. While I was trying to understand what the hell was going on in Brazil I was also trying to come to terms with my own little miseries. But there is no word about us being ‘lesbians’ in my family. for my own sake. if you are a good girl who goes out to work. I would like to understand. Now my family is praising the woman because she is taking such good care of my sister. LETTER FROM SÃO PAULO Marlene Rodrigues Dear Alison. but respects her parents and doesn’t make scandals around the neighbourhood. No . I have the impression that in order to come to an understanding.12 INTERNATIONAL LESBIANISM its old houses. Things would be very easy if we could apply to the Brazilians the official moral patterns and be able to ask just ‘to be or not to be’. what holds the fascination of life is what is in between. Even television brought up the subject in one of the most popular soap operas last year. Many of my lesbian friends behave with their lovers in a way that makes it easy to figure out what their relationship is all about. like a sleeping lioness. Not because we are a chaotic society. I have spoken to some women about the FR special dykes issue and I have to tell you honestly that nobody showed much interest in it. or the line I heard once in a play I saw in the USA. However it is common sense (and one can hear that from everybody’s mouth. There are the rules and the denial of the rules. I don’t have the urge to make people talk just because something has to be printed. The impotent husband has definitely fallen into disgrace. When one of my sisters decided to break her marriage because the husband was not ‘fulfilling his marriage duties’. lacking any sense. that means. because all seemed so displaced. not with rules. especially from women) that two women making love is ‘a disgusting thing—God forbid that such a thing would happen in this family’. I could as well wake up and roar with all my boldness and insolence—only to be buried under stones as persona non grata. In the last few years the media has been talking more and more openly about homosexuality. what does it mean to be a lesbian in a country like Brazil. In a country where nothing seems to be possible. But. there is nothing in between’. showing the relationship between two women without a shade of prejudice. I will never forget it. she moved in with a woman who was her schoolmate. The average Brazilian survives dealing with denial. everything is all right. one would have to put aside all attempts at rationalization. leads her own life. Every time I started to talk with somebody about ‘lesbianism in Brazil’ I wasn’t able to formulate a question. I will never forget that. The picture I would have in front of my eyes was of women who are at a loss. he hasn’t been fucking with her for more than six years. Well. but because we are not really ruled by the moral code we learned so dutifully in school and church.
) One of our favourite pastimes is to figure out who is a lesbian among the people we deal with in our daily life. persecution and actual aggression against lesbians. No woman politician I know at this moment would lift the flag of something like ‘lesbian rights’— and there are many lesbians in very high positions in government as well as in parliament. So. because another woman from the Council who disagreed with her on some issues. etc. its urge to win power at any price. I ran to my friend and asked her—is that actress by any chance a sapata? Of course. the right to free abortion. or in other words. Once one gets into the party. so outstanding. I could go on and on telling stories and I’m sure things wouldn’t become clearer. health care. without that many problems.) into sapata (fem. this is just to give you an idea of things. had said to the Minister: ‘You should be careful with that woman. living under devastating inflation and the fear of dying suffocated by the pollution in the big cities. which takes away the heaviness of the word by eliminating the superlative and transforming the word sapato (masc. etc. etc. She laughed and told me that this was no longer necessary. because she hates men!’ Well. Well. There is a slang word—among many—which is used pretty much all over the country—sapatāo (big shoe)—it gives the idea of masculinity. she said. The problem is that many Brazilians still think that politics means political parties. There is not a lesbian movement in Brazil if one applies the concept of an organized community fighting for a place in the decision-making process of our society. affordable housing. On the other hand I know some women who are very open about being lesbians. They fear they would either lose their jobs or become a laughing stock among their colleagues. heaviness.FEMINIST REVIEW 13 woman I know in Brazil likes to be called ‘lesbian’ (I’m included in the list). It has been extremely hard for feminists to fight for women’s rights when it comes to the old big issues like equal pay. singers. why she didn’t come out and talk as a lesbian to her colleagues. protection against male violence. when we want to point out that somebody is a lesbian. they have a marriage contract where their income is equally shared. One day I was watching TV and I saw this gorgeous woman playing the wife of some rich guy in the eight o’clock soap opera. politics are not to be lived outside the frame of these institutional organizations. of women who come from middle-class families or who ascended from poverty to a better standard of living and can afford to be economically independent. Many lesbians would rather die than talk openly about their sexual behaviour in their workplace. which is controlled by the Ministry of Justice. She was so attractive. it is not difficult to detect cases of discrimination. However with the opening up of the political scene many women decided to join different parties and the number of women participating in the political structure at all levels is increasing each year. it is as hard as not having good jobs. All this easy-going attitude is not to be taken for granted because it reflects somehow the lifestyle of big cities. Many kisses. day care. they even got married in a special ceremony. . Take care. its bureaucracies. we refer to her as sapata. When you start to read the newspapers carefully or listen to women’s stories. Once I asked a lesbian who was occupying a high position in the newly founded Council for the Rights of Women. politicians. one is swallowed by its rules. what to make of it? Is it hard to be a lesbian in Brazil? Yes. or among TV artists. she is living with such and such woman singer. Marlene.
birth. the practical considerations alone are daunting. A married lesbian risks vicious blackmail by husbands who threaten to tell the rabbinical courts of her ‘inversion’. In Israel’s mixed economy. increasingly fundamentalist. Israel is a country of irrational contradictions and confusing combinations. in fact. In housing. However.e. she often must surrender all common property in a deal to shut her husband’s mouth. It retains an element of theocracy which is the product of a political system based on opportunistic governing coalitions between partners of opposing political views. An Israeli wife cannot divorce her husband at will. i. have been included in the coalitions since the establishment of the State. If she has children she wants to keep. and their asking price has always included control of the civil code. for example). marriage. Without enumerating the plethora of social and religious pressures.14 INTERNATIONAL LESBIANISM ISRAEL Spike Pittsberg As an ex-North American living for the past dozen years in Israel. and divorce—those events in relation to which the quality of women’s lives is defined. as in the USA. Since there is neither a constitution nor a bill of rights. death. radically intensifying the gender socialization of children. I am in the unenviable position of being able to compare the relative depths of the two respective closets. in which only 4 per cent of living units are rented (as opposed to 60 per cent in the United States. many of us were able to escape the closet. and in which the outrageous purchase prices must be fully paid in cash before receipt of the key. From the moment we named it. a policewoman. to take one example. The religious parties. Because of the nature of the housing system in Israel. a couple of career army officers and others. rent subsidies and substantial apartment mortgages are just two of the social provisions exclusive to married couples. This situation affects lesbians no less than straight women. no comparison at all. Marriage is not an institution easily avoided by young Israeli women. a high proportion of Israeli lesbians marry. While it is true that life as a pre-movement baby butch in the 1960s in the States was a time of confusion and fear. social workers.. who were tossed out for the explicit reason of being . a large percentage of the employed work for the government or military establishment. With a marriage rate much higher than that of England or North America. There is. since Jewish law gives exclusive rights of divorce to the husbands and rabbis. my decision to move to Israel in 1977 dictated a retreat into the deepest confines of the Middle Eastern sexual underground. the lesbian movement of the 1970s eventually provided a community identity and a context for our lives. I know of too many cases of women—teachers. Lately the Ministry of Education has also fallen into the hands of the religious. The traditional women’s jobs are generally civil service positions. wedlock is one of the few options for the average woman looking to move out of her parents’ home (itself not the most conducive location for living as a lesbian). there is no legal recourse for the woman thrown out of the army (the draft is compulsory for all nonreligious single women of eighteen) or fired for being a lesbian.
concentrated around battered women. to encourage social. tellingly. Today. cultural and political activities. sign for a PO Box. Tel Aviv. and Haifa). but generally not as lesbians. Within a year the mailing list—the only means of judging our membership—reached the amazing figure of 230 names. the L-word has remained unremarked inside the same feminist institutions to which lesbian imput has been crucial. Losing her . feminist energy is divided between. but in Israel there are practically no movements at all. Other than the obligatory lesbian workshop at the annual feminist conference. Lesbians were and are central to all feminist organizing. One of the women who emigrated had been the only collective member who was totally out of the closet: our only phone contact for the isolated women who needed CLaF. progressive people. There is a small committed feminist movement. and on the other hand. the only one able to do an interview. influenced by the energy of the collective. health and rape projects. Working women must snuggle deeply into the closet to remain employed. on the one hand. from both the left and right. However. or environmental movements. but it was short lived. or talk with the authorities. a woman’s movement which is essentially service oriented. In the west there are vocal movements to back up individual heroes and victims. which at its height in the 1970s supported lively women’s centres and book stores in the three major cities (Jerusalem. produced perhaps the only extensive process of politicization of Israeli lesbians as lesbians. four have left to live in the States. must concentrate on resisting the repression and supporting the intifada. The Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Individual. of course. There have been a few attempts among lesbians to organize as lesbians. disabled. or even visible. our heightened consciousness led to the phenomenon familiar to political lesbians throughout the Third World. no matter what their individual political priorities.FEMINIST REVIEW 15 discovered to be lesbian. antinuke. A few years ago a new group called Community of Lesbian-Feminists (CLaF) was started. meet with a café owner to set up a closed afternoon for our members on International Women’s Day. Because of the Occupation. Once we study the gains of the international lesbian movement. and two others were forced by personal circumstances to drop out. old people’s. There was also an autonomous lesbianfeminist organization called Aleph of about fifty women in 1978. Out of nine collective members. There is not even a real trade union movement. In 1976–7. The wellattended bi-weekly general meetings of CLaF. ran Saturday evening dances in the cellar of the Society. There is no mass. gay. is tied up in the national question. a small group of women operating inside the apolitical homosexual organization called. The loss meant more than just a weakened organization. in the context of a feminist view of the particular ways in which war and colonialization affect the lives of women. There is a simple explanation for the lack of political movements around social divisions other than what we here call The Conflict. This is a country in which all political energy. CLaF was run by a feminist collective of nine women who developed a political analysis which tied Israeli lesbian oppression directly to the Occupation. life outside the local closet glitters invitingly. the women’s anti-occupation groups such as Women in Black and aid to Palestinian women political prisoners. more than almost any progressive non-Party group in Israel.
once they have tested the connection. for there is no stigma to neighbours opening their door to see who is knocking at yours. it was a year before CLaF could continue activities on a regular basis. the radicalization of Israelis which began with the invasion of Lebanon and has been intensified by the intifada has affected the lesbian population no less than general society. establishing an air of relaxation which is a foreign but welcome pause in the uptight life of local lesbians. Couples almost inevitably live together. I discovered that there are practically no laundromats or dryers. often retreating from public activism if they had been previously involved. In twelve years. In Haifa. I was forced to change. I have never heard a slow number played. Because of the intimacy of this tiny country. By building up a small circle of other stable couples. They knew quite well there was no man around. Everybody knows everybody else and all of their business. However. they create a private little world around them. Despite the fact that Wednesday is a working day. In the general Jewish gay community Zionism and conservatism run high. and on the other hand their transitory status means they can take risks Israeli women cannot afford. All laundry is hung out on lines. Jerusalem and all the smaller towns. Because of a strong international element in Jerusalem. On the one hand they are used to the privilege of being surrounded by women’s culture. even a lesbian’s home is a closet. community. The male club-owners neither know anything or care about lesbians. When oppression is so relentless. to girls’ panties. the atmosphere hostile. the response is to be more normal than the ‘normals’. lesbians must simply make do within their own social circle. anti-Occupation. if not actually reactionary. only neutral posters are hung. heavily posed Tel Aviv nights: parties that are warm. ear-piercing. but there is only one disco in Israel—in Tel Aviv. Life has a decidedly village ambience in Israel. and my neighbours immediately asked why there were jockey shorts dripping dry outside my window.16 INTERNATIONAL LESBIANISM meant a substantial loss of communication with the world beyond our own subculture. friendly. with its open-door policy of spontaneous visits. We have our share of private parties. and people get very drunk. When I first arrived in this country. The price is steep. smokey. The lesbian community has traditionally been a disengaged. they also inject a valuable lesbian exuberance which the rest of us cannot help but catch. And what do Israeli lesbians do for fun? Not much. the lesbian scene is heavily affected by a constant influx of mostly North American Jewish dykes who are spending one college year abroad or otherwise temporarily trying out life in ‘Zion’. of course—that sets aside one night (Tuesday) for women. the club only operates from after midnight till about three in the morning. A single instance of spontaneous . and lovers are tucked into the expensive but essential spare room whose only role is to display a second bed. and antiracist. local lesbians search for a life partner and hang onto her tightly. Incriminating book titles must be turned to the wall. for the first time in fifteen years. The hours mean that the regulars are very young and unencumbered by such burdens as jobs and responsibilities. A visibly increasing number of Jewish lesbians are now identifying as feminist. Jerusalem has parties unlike the dark. although less so than that of the gay males. full of games. After about age twenty-five. While they impose a certain western chauvinism everywhere they go.
women are rarely permitted to leave them unattended by a male relative. Once we know who and what we are. this only happens when the village is in commuting distance from the city. A college girl is closely watched by the male Arab students. there are waves of soldier-age (18–20) lesbians—that being the only time that women live away from their families— who disappear within a few years. and where the next party might be. No woman is really blamed for trying to go straight. In fact. Israel affection on the street can and does lead to disaster: harassment at school. exclusion from family. and one bad report can hustle her back home quite quickly. Arranged marriages are common in conservative families.FEMINIST REVIEW 17 Women in Black Demonstration. unemployment. The very few Palestinian lesbians I have met have fled in order to live lesbian lives. Israeli Arab lesbians are in a much worse situation. and few feel glad or proud of an identity which so alienates them from ‘real life’. Some women get to study or work in the cities but since Jews almost never rent or sell apartments to Arabs. Most of the issues prominent in the western lesbian discourse are familiar only to those lesbians who travel abroad and/or read English-language periodicals. and our greatest efforts are expended in staying safe and inside it. Talk is mostly about who is with whom. . to be replaced by the next wave. The closet itself defines the borders of our concerns. we try to get the hell out of Israel. like so many of their Jewish sisters. Many lesbians have occasional relations with men. Israeli Palestinians live almost exclusively in their family homes in villages. many of her sisters would wish her luck. The very concept of lesbian is different here. The most common location of coming-out stories among Israelis is in the barracks.
that is to say. negating themselves and reproducing the same feeling towards other lesbians. dismissing them. that even within the women’s movement heterosexual power was based on the oppression of lesbians. Knowing my sisters. It could be that it is a typical Mediterranean sense of honour. These were the components of the Italian lesbian world at the beginning of the eighties. The acceptance that we lesbians found in the women’s movement was the same that we would have found in the outside world. To make the women’s movement include lesbianism. many feminists feared that their strength for negotiation could be destroyed by the ‘infamous’ image of lesbianism. How? For instance. the paradox was that within the women’s movement. if we had tried to be accepted there. but that’s exactly what pushed me in 1981 to start a group called Identità Lesbica (Lesbian Identity). those who had faith in a ‘spiritual rebirth’ of feminism that would also redeem lesbianism. My personal feeling was that I would have felt dishonoured if. in the same way as heterosexual feminists could not count on the conversion of men. I had not fought for myself. I came to understand that. When I became active in the movement I felt that I had to confront myself with other lesbians’ alternatives: women who had decided to be silent. In the end I had to accept that this was premeditated. It was very hard to understand all this and have to decide whether to pretend not to have understood. While on the one hand I felt more and more proud of my choice to be a lesbian. and finally lesbians who aimed at self-destruction through the destruction of everything around them. the same protagonists of liberation tended to reproduce the same patriarchal structure as in the past. by perpetuating the oppression of lesbianism and discrimination against lesbians. in order to keep the peace. They had a low opinion of lesbians (seen either as asexual or hypersexual) and tried to silence us with great determination either by pushing us into the private sphere or devaluing lesbianism simply as a ‘label’. on the other I discovered that the majority of heterosexual feminists whom I knew were deeply ashamed of lesbianism. it was difficult to believe that this happened due to lack of intelligence. I joined the project of the CLI (Collegamento Tra Lesbiche Italiane—Italian Lesbian Link) and am still part of it. and to become outsiders even to the outsiders. I found that many lesbians accepted this model. as we were already so different. lesbian feminists did not count on the conversion of heterosexual feminists. lesbians had to act first. I was part of a movement whose aim was to change the structure of the patriarchal system through sexuality. Nevertheless. My next choice was to found in 1985 the lesbian publishing house ‘Estro’ with Liana Borghi. those who had a negative attitude towards their own lesbianism. knowing what I knew. lesbians who aimed to integrate into the patriarchal system. gather our strength and if necessary even use it against them. The following year. It was hard to separate and put ourselves on a different route. and we knew this would become necessary. . a woman from Florence who has a background similar to mine. Determined to obtain social and political recognition. We had to organize ourselves. for my lesbianism and the lesbianism of others.18 INTERNATIONAL LESBIANISM ITALY Rosanna Fiocchetto Translated by Carmela Turchiarelli I belong to a generation of women whose personal and political need for lesbian identity emerged at the end of the seventies.
FEMINIST REVIEW 19 ‘Lesbian Identity’. and deprived of collective property. to create what we were not: a community. we have to fight ourselves. The lesbian movement has developed with great vitality and as time passes we have to face evolving crises caused by changes in our situation. without connecting bonds among individuals beyond their more or less ephemeral. starting from an individual security often achieved with great difficulty. indeed. Therefore we are deprived of the instruments of cultural transmission. In short. 1981 Our movement is a strange one: first. deep and unmistakable. and above everything else our aim was to join together and grow. I have thought a lot about whether there are similar examples in history of similar levels of oppression and my conclusion is that there are none. The women’s movement seen as the ‘movimento-madre’. that needed to be named so that it could not be denied. There was between lesbians and heterosexuals a socio-political inequality. an issue vital to us as lesbians and to all women. The so-called lesbian ‘minority’. The particular oppression of lesbians is that we do not. and should not. It would be better if we weren’t here. dismantle the identity that we have built. dual relationships. We were few. image created for the poster of the second national lesbian conference in Rome. exist. We are so deeply rooted in heterosexism and that heterosexism is such a big part of us that to challenge it means having to change our structure. . We are denied an identity unless defined by other communities. Therefore the issue of lesbian freedom is at the root of female freedom and of sexual self-determination. deprived of compatible cultural values and of a common knowledge being passed on. both internal and external. and isolated in this struggle. was the first security that we had to give up. able to hold and satisfy the needs of all its political subjects. is the only minority in the world without a community.
). The lesbian movement distinguishes itself by this same contradiction. the environment. therefore able to interact positively in this reciprocal autonomy and in a solid and articulated coalition. cultural and political poverty of the women’s movement in Mediterranean patriarchal society. We try to oppose marginality by encouraging the creation of a lesbian social group and by keeping a connection with the women’s movement regarding common objectives. Also. Lesbianism is not subject to overt social repression in Italy because of its social and political invisibility. lesbianism=heterosexuality and lesbianism=feminism. from coming out. The CLI’s line consists of symbolic gestures. When this does happen. colonialism. disabled women. in fact. The subsoil of Rome is full of catacombs.. who will take part in the debate. unemployed. it is an ‘exception’ due to the excesses of a few ‘bad individuals’. etc.20 INTERNATIONAL LESBIANISM In contrast to the USA. and the fact that the differentiation among women is seen as a threat and not as an exchange of strength among individuals.e. etc. socialist and Catholic women but there are no groups of workers. Our movement is rich in bodies but poor in individuality. who will take the leaflet to the printers. More or less secure with themselves in the maze of the catacombs of feminism or the catacombs of the ‘closet’. to the creation of spaces for lesbians. This invisibility does not mean that conflict is not generated between heterosexuals and lesbians as it is in France or the USA. The women’s movement ignores any other diversity between women that does not fall within the two male national institutions: political parties and religion.e. the result is a prevailing representation limited to a few women at various levels. it is important to understand the economic. we have to take into account small problems such as who will give the articles to the press. If she chooses the former then there are three possibilities: lesbianism=homosexuality. black. West Germany and Holland. who will carry the banner at the demonstration. and repression does not spring up if there is no one to repress. The consequence is that these individuals are quickly consumed in a collective meal without there being reciprocal . racism. to recognise the reality of building an autonomous lesbian group and to work towards the building of a lesbian movement. Italy does not have an alternative scene. A third possibility of an antimarginal strategy would be to intervene as lesbians on crucial social issues (i. There are. It is important to keep this situation in mind as the great difficulty that Italian women face is in being social autonomous subjects and in being autonomous. a richness of subjectivity. to cultural production and political theory. But it is obvious that conflicts do not explode if carefully avoided. lesbians disappear even though lesbians hardly came out. etc. In Italy a lesbian can choose (if one can call it choice) only between fitting in or being marginalized. as well as a political practice against these three equations: to join feminist separatist instead of homosexual organizations. Perhaps it is relevant that Italian lesbians have absorbed the tradition of the Italian catacombs in which first the Jews and later the Christians took refuge. In Italy that is impeded by the clandestine world in which the majority of us live (i.. mothers. visible and distinct socio-political groups of communist.). to refuse to take the route of claiming ‘civil rights’. Lesbianism is not the only branch of Italian feminism that has been made invisible. who will be willing to be interviewed. an increase of consciousness and energy.
they have not inspired an understanding of political responsibility and creativity in respect of lesbianism. from L’Amandorla (Florence) to the Collettivi Lesbici Milanesi. Also this is the reason that in Italy separatist and lesbian projects do not receive public funds but have to count exclusively on the resources of individual women. in Italy lead by the male organization Arci-gay. from the SeNo (Catania) to the intercollectives Progettualità Lesbica and Le Amanti. but in general. On the contrary. work. trying to elaborate a political ground that acknowledges our objective limits but also our unforeseen and luckily unforeseeable excesses. the defence. the groups that form the lesbian movement have organized five national conferences that have inspired social and political dialogue among lesbians and the starting of a few precious spaces for lesbians. apart from parties and holidays. due to the difficult phase that feminist separatism is going through in the context of Italian general politics. with the exception of Rome and Milan. is in fact established at conferences where the prevailing model is of performers (few) and spectators (many). in the majority of Italian cities. exploiting both the crisis of feminist values in a cultural climate of the neo-mystical femininity of ‘career women’. From 1981 to the present. . Furthermore we have to remember that. In this climate the lesbian groups. to organize lesbians outside the feminist movement and against sepa ratism. as well as the new western appeal to maternity that includes techniques of artificial insemination. The only form of current communication. from the CLI to Vivere Lesbica and Video Viola (Rome). separatism is a heresy: a separatist place is not considered ‘public’ as men have no access to it.FEMINIST REVIEW 21 nutriment. Another aspect of the step backward that we share with other countries is the attempt. the practice and the expression of lesbian choice are at present more inhibited than in the recent past. emotional blackmail regarding AIDS.
22 INTERNATIONAL LESBIANISM
THE DE-EROTICIZATION OF WOMEN’S LIBERATION:
Social Purity Movements and the Revolutionary Feminism of Sheila Jeffreys
The British and North American women’s movements are split by controversies over pornography, over sexual minorities within the movement and over a range of other issues. At the heart of these debates are larger questions about alliances, strategy and ideology. Should the movement focus on building connections primarily or solely with women who identify gender oppression as the main oppression, or should it be seeking alliances with antiracist, anti-imperialist and pro-workingclass forces as well? What role does the particular theory of oppression we adopt play in determining what our strategies will be? And what should the response of feminists be to the increasingly conservative climate of national and international politics? My own views on these questions have been shaped by my political work over the years, and, more recently, by the study of European and American social history, particularly the history of women and the family. Social history as it tends to be written and taught these days shares a number of basic assumptions with feminist political practice at the grass-roots level. One key similarity is in the sense of the political (or historical) actor. Neither the ‘new’ social history nor feminism shrink from hard-hitting accounts of the manipulation and victimization of large groups of people in the past and the present, whether the European and American working classes, African Americans, colonialized groups, or women. At the same time, however, both social history and feminism are deeply suspicious of any philosophy which paints the oppressed as merely the passive victims of forces or groups which are beyond their control. While the social history of the last twenty years has been concerned to uncover evidence of slave revolts, of peasant resistance, of women who have defied patriarchal forces, feminism has relied upon and sought to encourage the strength and militance of rape victims, lesbians, battered women, women on the dole, indeed any woman bowed down under the weight of male oppression. That, at any rate, is the theory. In practice, as I found from many years of working in women’s shelters and programmes for low-income women, it is difficult for feminists (perhaps for anyone) to offer help to people who have been victimized without also infantilizing them. And it is profoundly disempowering to have to accept assistance from people who define you as too passive, ignorant or politically benighted to act on your own behalf. The tendency to confuse processes of victimization which women can and do
Feminist Review No 34, Spring 1990
24 FEMINIST REVIEW
resist, and women as victims, people so fundamentally victimized that they can only benefit from outside intervention, from the ‘protection’ of others, is widespread. And it is often intimately intertwined with racism, class-prejudice and disdain for women who do not define themselves as part of the movement. As feminists, then, our relationship to the rhetoric of victimization is a complicated one. Speaking out, confronting our own and others’ victimization is an essential part of coming to terms individually and collectively with male violence, whether psychic or physical. It forms a crucial basis from which to critique the moral and normative basis of marriage, heterosexuality and male supremacy. But it must be embarked upon with care, because it can be, and is routinely, used to argue that most women are so psychologically brutalized that they cannot know their own interests and must have them defined for them by others. I approach present-day feminist controversies, therefore, with the issue of the historical actor and her empowerment very much in mind. Other questions also guide my thinking, such as, how can the women’s movement answer to the concerns of as many women, and as diverse a group of women as possible? And how can our theory and our political strategies avoid simplifying or reducing the complexity of oppression? And finally, will the strategies we pursue actually free women or do they seem likely to lead to new ways of limiting or confining them in body and spirit? It seems to me that revolutionary feminism (or radical feminism as we tend to call it in the USA) does not stand up well under this kind of critical scrutiny. It displays a strong tendency to define the vast majority of women in the world as helpless victims who need to be saved. It is very susceptible to criticism on grounds of reductionist and exclusionary thinking. And it shows a disturbing willingness to support repressive measures around the control of sexuality. My scepticism about revolutionary feminism has been increased by a recent book by revolutionary feminist Sheila Jeffreys which attempts to ‘reclaim’ the late nineteenth—and early twentieth-century British social purity movement as a model for today’s feminist movement. In The Spinster and her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality 1880–1930 (Pandora Press, 1985) Jeffreys departs radically from earlier women’s historians who had stressed the moral repressiveness and lack of regard for the civil liberties of the poor characteristic of most of these activists. By contrast Jeffreys praises these middle-class women activists of the social purity movement for their heavy emphasis upon the sexual victimization of women by men. In Jeffreys’ hands the story of social purity becomes an inspirational tale of an earlier generation of women who got their analysis right and then went on to launch a frontal attack upon what she sees as the main underpinning of female subordination—male heterosexual lust. Her more or less implicit message is that feminists today should enter whole-heartedly into comparable efforts to influence sexual practice, using vehicles like antipornography campaigns, opposition to lesbian sadomasochism, opposition to prostitution and opposition to heterosexual inter-course—the programme, in short, of revolutionary feminism. Jeffrey’s way of doing history tells us a great deal about her feminism. Moreover, while Jeffreys does not represent all revolutionary feminists, she is none the less an especially influential propagandist for that wing of the movement, so examining her approach to history in more detail sheds light on the revolutionary programme as a
looking especially closely at the risks associated with linking feminism to social purity. and shows the way that social purity continues to be linked to a profoundly reactionary programme.SOCIAL PURITY 25 whole. The second half of the paper looks at the situation today. It has by no means always been women who have been typed as the victims of men however. which began in London in the 1690s and lasted into the 1730s. however. Like most social purity movements. while suggesting some of the reasons why revolutionary feminists are unlikely to take up this path. In fact the more prevalent tendency in social purity thinking. A highly illustrative social purity movement is the Movement for the Reformation of Manners. In the post-Enlightenment era. its central concern was the . and it makes it hard to sustain the official male monopoly over sexual decision-making. it contributes to the breaking down of class or racial barriers. 1690 to the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts In simple terms social purity philosophy holds that sex and sexuality are deeply problematic drives. widely viewed as an essential structural support of civilized society. and to demonstrate the centrality of imperialist. It examines the ways social purity thought is being revived by conservatives in both the UK and USA in response to fears of national decline. to show the importance of sexual victimization arguments within social purity rhetoric. Social purity movements in Britain. Pre-nineteenth-century social purity movements were often scripturally inspired. Finally it lays out some of the outlines of an alternative course for feminism. radical feminism) has taken toward ‘social purity’ arguments and suggests some of the problems this raises in terms both of general issues of personal freedom and the treatment of sexual minorities within the movement. it threatens the integrity of marriage. It looks at the turn revolutionary feminism (and. The Movement for the Reformation of Manners (the contemporary meaning of the term ‘manners’ being close to our modern term ‘morals’) coincided historically with a surge of concern about national security occasioned in part by the expansionist military ambitions of Louis XIV. in line with traditional Judaeo-Christian teachings. My purpose here is three-fold: to define what a social purity movement is. Having established the historical background I go on to examine in detail Sheila Jeffreys’ attempt to turn social purity activists of the late nineteenth century into feminist moral exemplars. Sexual victimization arguments have always played a prominent role in social purity rhetoric. which meant that their adherents feared direct punishment from God for sexual infractions (this kind of fundamentalism has re-emerged in some present-day social purity thinking in the USA). the more prevalent tendency has been to see uncontrolled sex as socially harmful. in the USA. has been to do the reverse: to focus on men as the victims of sexually predatory women. patriarchal and heterosexist concerns to these movements. which unless tightly controlled will spill out into society and cause untold harm. so what I propose to do initially is to look briefly at British social purity over the last three centuries. Among the typical arguments made are the following: uncontrolled sex leads to overpopulation and social unrest among the poor (the Malthusian argument). My central disagreement with Jeffreys turns on her interpretation of social purity movements.
Shocking revelations about young men being victimized by sexually assertive women and homosexuals fueled a deep sense of national sexual emergency. Well-placed Anglican clergymen turned out hundreds of sermons and tracts on male sexual continence and made attempts to control the diffusion of sexually explicit books and even graffiti. 1980). it displayed strongly misogynist tendencies. Like later social purity movements. Bristow. The characteristic features of the Movement for the Reformation of Manners. 1977. in practice it focused its repressive activities on these groups. particularly among the young. The mouth of a strange woman is a deep pit. Or it could result from a weakening of the social fabric of the country through venereal disease. either by unchecked female sexuality. 1957. Constables and self-appointed guardians of morals evolved schemes to entrap ‘mollies’ (the populace showed their support by stoning at least one of the latter to death) (Craig. 31. unchecked male sexuality in the form of ‘mollies’. The theme of the alleged danger women posed to men went along. this movement dwelt heavily on sexual victimization. The movement’s supporters associated unrestrained sexuality closely with the spectre of social dissolution. 1979. or the blurring of social distinctions thought to stem therefrom (Bahlman. 1976). Destruction could. they thought. Gilbert. or. However it paid only the most cursory attention to the victimization of women. Foxon. Men. it identified uncontrolled sexuality closely with lower class and unrespectable women and homosexuals. And finally the movement used the clear and present danger supposedly . 1704:11. not out of some sort of chivalrous or protective concern for them.26 FEMINIST REVIEW ‘problem’ of uncontrolled and/or deviant sexuality. Bray. as it always does. Groups of young men formed themselves into all-male religious societies so as to escape the baneful influence of women and encourage one another in sexual restraint. 34–5. Isaacs. 1980: 103–29). and despite occasional rhetorical flourishes about the need for general moral reform. 1982:81–114. Second. those that are abhorred of the Lord shall fall into it’ a prominent champion of reform intoned. 1980. 1965: ix). were as follows: first the movement defined as dangerous and repugnant any and all sex and sexual fantasies that did not conform to the traditional model of heterosexual intercourse within marriage with the man on top. Craig. the contemporary term for male homosexuals. like all later social purity movements. what it was obsessively preoccupied with was the danger posed to men. He had lifted those particular lines from the book of Proverbs (this type of thinking has a long history) but they are the kind of sentiments that one can find over and over again in literature written by reformers (Woodward. addiction to illicit sex. ‘her house inclineth unto death. followed closely by ‘the family’ and ‘the nation’ were the greatest victims of unbridled lust as far as these reformers were concerned (Craig. 14–15). with a pronounced misogyny. come at the hands of God. In particular its calls for sexual continence for men developed out of fear and hatred of women coupled with the desire to contain their sexuality. in some cases. The rhetoric of the Movement for the Reformation of Manners was full of ill-concealed hostility to women. 1977:27–8. Rather. especially women who had escaped the confines of the patriarchal household. Third. because they implied other purposes for sex beyond that of reproduction contained within the patriarchal family (Bristow. just as it had for the corrupt Old Testament cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. none that go unto her return again’. Vigilante groups formed to comb the streets for prostitutes.
1980). and they have striven to make women’s concerns more central within these movements. Similar campaigns to encourage male sexual continence and suppress prostitution. to justify very repressive measures. 1977. social purity in both the USA and the UK became increasingly linked with the burgeoning women’s rights movements. As was the case in some later sexually . feminists have incorporated social purity themes into their writings and political strategies. censoriousness and misogyny. though by no means all.and early eighteenth-century concern for the reformation of manners. minor though it has tended to be in the mainstream social purity world-view.SOCIAL PURITY 27 Combining prurience. Since then many. Walkowitz. often springing up in periods of perceived national crisis or military vulnerability. a series of initiatives which had been passed in 1864. Beginning around the mid-nineteenth century. obscenity and homosexuality were waged in England from the 1780s and in both England and America beginning in the 1860s (Bristow. A good example is found in the Victorian opposition to the Contagious Diseases Acts (CD Acts). as well as the putative inability of the victims to act on their own behalf. Sometimes this work has borne fruit. represented by out-of-control sexuality. this popular pamphlet is typical of the kind of literature spawned by the late seventeenth.1866 and 1869 in an effort to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among enlisted men. The Movement for the Reformation of Manners was followed by other social purity movements. however. These women have responded to the theme of women’s sexual victimization.
1980:1–2). was the LNA’s commitment (not always consistent. 246–52). including the AIDS panic. mandatory fortnightly vaginal examinations on the women so identified. But some feminist groups went further to look at and publicize issues such as women’s sexual exploitation. 1986. Critics of the CD Acts were outraged by the fact that they seemed to sanction prostitutes and hence male vice. The men’s organizations. Social purity from the 1880s: a critique of Sheila Jeffreys Social purity in fin-de-siècle England was a significantly more conservative movement than the opposition to the CD Acts had been. usually linked to church or chapel. Stead. Most of the time the LNA was able to draw on social purity thinking without becoming simply another attempt to control the sexual lives of workingclass women under the guise of protecting them from male lust. but it focused its attention primarily on the victimization of young girls. 1964).T. 1980: 2–3. One wing of the movement consisted of organizations for boys and young men and their sponsors. Baden-Powell and his Boy Scouts were deeply concerned about young men’s vulnerability to prostitutes and masturbation (‘self-abuse’) and convinced of the sacredness of the patriarchal nuclear family and the imperial mission (Rosenthal. class-bound and morally repressive social purity activity that emerged in the 1880s following the repeal of the Acts (Walkowitz. were essentially men’s purity leagues. whose bestselling The Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon (1885) details how he set out to ‘buy’ a child virgin. the CD Acts focused a disproportionate share of the blame on prostitutes. Hillcourt. W. could be classed . swore to suppress unclean language. to be sure) to poor women’s right to some measure of sexual self-determination over against the coercive power of the state as well as individual men and its willingness to work with workingclass organizations in formulating strategies and aims. the double-standard implicit in the Acts (males with the disease were not hampered from spreading it to women. Unfortunately neither the interest in sexual self-determination for poor women. stretching from the period immediately post-repeal into the early twentieth century that Sheila Jeffreys would have feminists take as their model. and often the middleclass and imperialist bias of the first wing.28 FEMINIST REVIEW transmitted disease scares. nor were they locked up) and the harassment of working-class women and workingclass communities at the hands of doctors and the police. What distinguished the work of the most progressive of these groups. and forcible confinement in locked hospitals for up to nine months for those diagnosed with a venereal disease (Walkowitz. nor the cross-class coalition-building that the LNA pioneered was carried over into the more pruriently minded. The Acts provided for a special plainclothes police force to identify prostitutes in garrison towns and ports. men like Robert BadenPowell of the Boy Scouts. 146–7. Their membership vowed to remain continent and especially to avoid prostitutes. from that of more conservative reformers. and worked to instil protective attitudes towards ‘pure’ women in each other and in the wider community. It is however this latter movement. the Ladies’ National Association (LNA) led by Josephine Butler. Another wing of social purity shared the concern about sex.
despite their appeals for an end to the double standard in the enforcement of anti-vice laws. 1988. though often their other social views are quite suspect. shared the men’s focus on helpless victims. In Stead’s strikingly voyeuristic stories of child prostitution the theme of sexual victimization looms large (Walkowitz. However. Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy. while placing much of the blame for the sexual victimization of women on men.Freeman. and criminalized homosexual acts between consenting adult men. and indeed to Victorian middle-class culture generally. after p. and at least some of them shared their appetite for state intervention into the sexual mores and childrearing practices of the poor. Overwhelmingly the group punished under the law was working-class women (Walkowitz. From John D’Emilio and Estelle B. women like J. The feminist or woman’s element in social purity. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. The moral outrage inspired by The Maiden Tribute led to the passage of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act which raised the age of consent for girls. 1980:250–2). they laid greater stress than did most of the men on laws and standards which protected women and girls from male sexual demands. and at least some of them made attempts to place social purity concerns within a larger feminist framework.SOCIAL PURITY 29 This is typical of turn-of-the-century social purity pledges. Ellice Hopkins. here. Unfortunately. to ‘put down’ indecent language. gave law enforcement officials broader powers to arrest and prosecute prostitutes and brothel-keepers. 1989:26–7). ultimately supported police sweeps of brothels and redlight districts. This explains why social purity feminists. measures which primarily affected working-class women. Frances Swiney and a number of others. It is these women whom Sheila Jeffreys . Out of the confusion of social purity discourse some women do emerge who clearly identified women (or at least girls) as the victims and men as the victimizers. This act contributed in subsequent years to a fourteenfold increase in prosecutions of brothels and vastly increased efforts to suppress streetwalking in towns and cities all over England and Wales. New York: Harper & Row. and to embrace sexual continence. 274. It is an appeal to men to protect women from degradation. they tended to retain the fear of sexually assertive women common to the rest of the social purity movement.
appeals which mix an obvious desire to maintain male supremacy with vague claims for female moral superiority: ‘the man is the head of the woman. . In Jeffreys’ view women like Hopkins were engaged in what she terms a ‘massive campaign…to transform male sexual behaviour and protect women from the effects of the exercise of a form of male sexuality damaging to their interests’ (Jeffreys. a concern which. she shared with much more conservative male social purity activists. It is clear that one of Hopkins’s main aims in stressing victimization is precisely to awaken men to their traditional patriarchal responsibility to defend women’s virtue and even Jeffreys has to admit that ‘[Hopkins’s] general attitude to the relationship between the sexes owes more to the principles of chivalry than to those of feminism…’ However in her view Hopkins’s ultimate aims can be ignored or passed over because of her concern with women’s victimization (Jeffreys. as we have seen. 1985:13–15). Let us then look more closely at one of her heroines. 1985:1.Ellice Hopkins. It was one of several attempts in this period to link feminist and social purity aims. for they contain numerous appeals to men to protect women. how does this fit in with the rest of Ellice Hopkins’s thought? Both Hopkins’s personal papers and her public writings give one pause for thought. 1985:13).30 FEMINIST REVIEW This social purity tract by the well-known feminist and suffragist Christabel Pankhurst featured sensationalist claims about the incidence of venereal disease and called for male continence. 15). a prominent social purity reformer named J. If true. celebrates in her book. Jeffreys claims revolutionary significance for Hopkins’s attempts to get men to embrace sexual continence. and is therefore the servant of the woman’ is a typical remark in this vein (Jeffreys.
and true to her class she was genuinely concerned about ensuring an abundant supply of obedient and cheap domestic help.SOCIAL PURITY 31 Jeffreys displays a still more serious tendency to obscure the implications of social purity thinking in her treatment of (or. as the degraded victims of male lust. Though women are depicted here as the passive ‘supply’ in a ‘demand’-led sexual economy. morally pure choice—not to be prostitutes.1 Meanwhile Ellice Hopkins’s private letters make it clear that one reason she opposed prostitution was that it made working-class girls want something better than jobs as servants. Women who ‘choose’ heterosexuality. committed to giving women ‘real choices around sexuality’. create the supply. to interfere with the keeping of boarders (a traditional means of survival in working-class neighbourhoods). Jeffreys’ concept of ‘real choice’ is a surprisingly constraining one. her refusal to discuss) Hopkins’s and others complicity with. more accurately. coercive actions directed against poor women.e. to find places to live.’ Ellice Hopkins writes. whether or not they were prostitutes. are by . making the demand. to ensuring for them the ‘right to bodily integrity’ (Jeffreys. The very terms Jeffreys uses to describe the social purity programme seem designed to conceal its supporters’ complicity in repression. 1985:4–5). she writes. who could disagree with them? But a closer look reveals that. The choice is between purity or starvation. for example. which authorized the forcible removal of children from working-class homes suspected of harbouring prostitutes and their placement in so-called industrial schools (actually closer to borstals). These sound at the outset like standard feminist tenets: indeed. to make it difficult for single women. prostitutes] must tempt or starve. and sometimes enthusiastic approval for. but she was singularly unconcerned about other sorts of coercion. This point is made chillingly clear in a statement from Hopkins’s social purity tract. apparently without noticing its meaning. and to stigmatize prostitutes within their own communities. As with other repressive measures in the past and the present. Social purity feminists were. Lower class women were permitted limited freedom from coercive measures only if they made the politically correct. The Ride of Death which Jeffreys actually quotes in The Spinster and her Enemies. in this case the alleged victimization of children. these poor creatures [i. especially when the women involved were not middle class. ‘Ay I know that it is often the woman who tempts. like the social purity activists of whom she writes. But the result was to break up families. But that does not touch the broad issue. this measure was justified in terms of what it would do to combat victimization. 1985:14). Like many social purity activists Hopkins was far more concerned about sexual selfdetermination among middle-class women than among the poor of either sex. The aim of the Industrial Schools Act was to keep the young from being corrupted by proximity to prostitution. Stop the money of men and the whole thing would be starved out in three months time (Jeffreys. it is men who. that it is men who endow the degradation of women. Thus in 1880 she strongly advocated the passage of the Industrial Schools Amendment Act. Hopkins is strangely without compunctions about subjecting ‘these poor creatures’ to economic coercion to make them submit to social purity aims.2 Hopkins was interested in freeing women from sexual coercion.
Birth control itself is simply ‘first aid’ (read ‘retrograde’) or worse. Lucy Re-Bartlett developed a stage theory of human evolution which moved from a phase characterized by the ‘uncritical simplicity of the instinct’ (a phase she dubbed ‘spiritual childhood’) to the higher plane of entirely spiritual love. 1985:158). like her social purity activists. As they argued repeatedly. Jeffreys’ most astounding departure from a feminist understanding of ‘real choices around sexuality’ is in her thinly veiled hostility to early twentieth-century birth-control activists and by extension the entire birth-control project in the past and present. the suspicion grows that this view still has at least one modern-day adherent among revolutionary feminists. As one advances through Jeffreys’ lengthy celebration of psychic love. Indeed it is not apparent that any genital sexuality constitutes a ‘real choice’. 1985:38). sees ‘the avoidance of sexual intercourse as a more effective and palatable form of contraception than…artificial methods. 1985:41). Once more it is the Victims’ who end up having to pay (Jeffreys. Lucy Re-Bartlett or Frances Swiney. or René Descartes. and dedicating the creative life in the body to the highest uses…’ (Jeffreys. ‘She [Russell] was not concerned with women’s right not to engage in sex with men’ (Jeffreys. . though they had some sympathy for women’s needs. Indeed she goes out of her way to disparage Dora Russell’s attempt to reconcile the mind/body split (Russell: To me the important task of modern feminism is to accept and proclaim sex. Jeffreys is utterly uncritical towards the remarkable revival of mind/body dualism enshrined in the concept of ‘psychic love’. women like Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy. In the social purity world-view genital sexuality is acceptable largely (and in the view of some. the Temple of the Body pure and undefiled. A ‘League of Isis’ founded by Francis Swiney had as one of its rules ‘[keeping] as far as possible by individual effort. while ‘psychic’ or ‘spiritual’ sexuality represented women’s (and men’s) higher destiny (Jeffreys. against whom Jeffreys nurses a particular animus and whom she sees as a kind of male homosexual cabal. 1985:196) there are no more body-positive lesbians in this book than there are undeluded sex-positive heterosexuals. and not just when the genital sexuality being referred to is heterosexual.’ The choice is between purity and pregnancy. solely) for purposes of reproduction. St Augustine. Despite Jeffreys’ stated commitment to ‘a world where many more women would choose to be lesbian’ (Jeffreys. raising sex relations from the physical to the spiritual plane. 1985:157–61). dismissing her with the dishonest charge. to bury…the lie that the body is a hindrance to the mind…To understand sex—to bring it to dignity and beauty and knowledge born of science…’). 36–45). In her view ‘Sex union in the human being should be limited strictly to the actual needs of creation’ (Jeffreys. The women whom Jeffreys cites approvingly. favoured a sexuality which was almost entirely confined to the spiritual plane. were finally the dupes of the labour movement and of male sexologists. Jeffreys. one which would gladden the hearts of men like the Apostle Paul. genital sexuality was animal. especially sexologists like Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis. In her view birth-control reformers like Stella Browne or Dora Russell. 1985:32.32 FEMINIST REVIEW definition not making a ‘real choice’. part of a wider conspiracy to force women to have sexual intercourse by taking away their main excuse for avoiding it—fear of pregnancy.
she cannot bring herself to formulate a serious indictment of the conservatives. the patriarchal family. Socialist feminists of the early twentieth century. thus pulling the rug out from under the social purity critique of sexuality in general. particularly male homosexuals. those same people she is so reluctant to criticize in her book. late nineteenthand early twentieth-century sex reform is undeniable. Instead she blames two other groups. even. However. 1985:84–5. into ‘welfarism’ and organizing around working women. Sex reformers not only made the error of arguing that genital sexuality was not inherently bad. even if their ends sometimes differed.SOCIAL PURITY 33 Many of the women whom Jeffreys wants us to claim as our spiritual foremothers had a genuine desire to end the sexual victimization of women. For Jeffreys the conservatives clearly make better bedfellows. Jeffreys’ argument is undercut at this point by what she conveniently neglects to tell her readers. and they were every bit as willing to use coercion to stamp it out. indeed were repelled by any woman actively desiring sexual intercourse at all. to determine the acts in which one would engage. namely that conservative social purity forces. It was not the positive right to choose with whom one would be physically intimate. socialism and feminism. Though the heterosexist bias of much. because she is fully aware that the working programme of the more reactionary social purity activists and the social purity feminists was almost identical. though by no means all. supported an even more overtly male supremacist model of marriage than the sex reformers did. a way to bind women even more closely to marriage and male sexual abuse than they had been before. . since in that role she could be represented as being devoid of any unclean desires at all. not a ‘right’ in the sense that most of us understand that term. After all. the ultimate aim of the reactionaries (to strengthen Empire. far more comfortable with the idea of woman as total victim. as she defines it. played an even more central role in the decline of social purity feminism. in short. Social purity feminists ultimately failed to achieve their larger objectives. The social purity feminists feared and loathed independent female sexuality as much as Baden-Powell or the evangelical men’s purity leagues did. are simply not compatible. or especially. Feminists will not argue with the principle that no woman should be coerced into submitting to sexual intercourse. 128–64). The ‘right to bodily integrity’ was the purely negative right not to be physically penetrated by a man. For Jeffreys.and early twentieth-century social purity women was that they had difficulty conceiving of. Sex reformers. if the love is only spiritual (Jeffreys. like the attack on male sexuality. and the class system) and those of feminists (to work for a better position for women) were somewhat divergent. constrained by having to work with men and the Labour Party. The problem with these late nineteenth. They were. But no matter. ‘Bodily integrity’ was. either in the past or the present. in fact. Jeffreys believes that sex reform represented a new form of mind control. socialists and sex reformers. or to have sex without fear of pregnancy. an obligation. but this was mingled with some considerably less palatable views. One might have expected her to place part of the blame for the demise of social purity feminism on reactionary elements within social purity generally. and it is revealing to see Jeffreys try to account for this. were diverted away from ‘real’ feminist issues. but they advocated sexual fulfilment for women in marriage.
The Meese Commission was a US Attorney General’s commission (somewhat akin to a Royal commission) convened at the special request of President Reagan in 1985 to ‘determine the nature. extent. and impact on society of pornography in the United States. And what some of the Commissioners mean by degradation bears little resemblance to feminist understandings of that term. rely heavily upon the rhetoric of sexual victimization and they often exploit it for antifeminist purposes. Present-day social purity forces. successful attacks on women’s right to abortion and on the enforcement of civil rights. 1986:3). though they take different forms in the two countries. rock n’ roll lyrics. It forms part of a larger New Right and. The Commission came in direct response to New Right agitation for greater controls on sexual expression. How do arguments about sexual victimization fit into the Meese Commission’s deliberations. and how. AIDS patients are shunned or poorly treated. They contain almost as many testifying to the alleged victimization of men by women: The Woman whose House is Death’ still lurks in the fantasies of the Meese Commissioners even as it did among their eighteenthand nineteenth-century predecessors. across-the-board cuts in social welfare programmes. A striking American example of this is the recent Meese Commission on Pornography. today the British government is on a quest to eliminate ‘pretend families’. The social purity programmes which have arisen in response to this perceived crisis are both depressingly traditional and. among them statements by leading antipornography feminist. There is a growing temptation. and gay poetry. Meanwhile the AIDS epidemic has not only encouraged the tendency to see uncontrolled sexuality as one of the major causes of social disorder but inspired a whole host of repressive actions by governments worldwide. if at all. women. Andrea Dworkin. the sexual revolution. actions aimed especially at sexual minorities. a mainstream Republican attack upon the gains made in the last twenty-five years by people of colour. increasingly. and right-wing publications call for HIV-positive people to be placed in concentration camps. and lesbians and gays in the USA. in a Supreme Court heavy with Reagan appointees. consistent with constitutional guarantees’ (Final Report of the Attorney General’s Commission. the ready availability of pornography. presidential support of tax credits for all-white private schools and. to attribute the ills of both nations to some combination of feminism. This challenge had included the official condoning of antiblack and antigay violence. Eighteenth-century churchmen tried to censor obscene books and graffiti. racial minorities and prostitutes. Degradation follows from any sexual act not sanctified by marriage and not tied to . and to make specific recommendations to the Attorney General concerning more effective ways in which the spread of pornography could be contained. In eighteenth-century England moral reformers declared war on sodomites and prostitutes.34 FEMINIST REVIEW Social purity in the 1980s Today. quite modern. and the rise of a gay and lesbian movement. in their way. like those of the past. All the elements of a classic sexual panic have moved into position. as opposed to New Right principles? The Commission transcripts contain quite a few testimonials about the victimization and degradation of women by men. fears about national decline and military weakness are widespread in both Britain and the USA. do they intersect with feminist. not confined to the right-wing fringe. in the modern day moral vigilante groups have gone after album covers. most recently.
SOCIAL PURITY 35
reproduction (shades of Lucy Re-Bartlett). Women and men are degraded and victimized by engaging in, reading about, or viewing on film teenage or premarital sex, lesbian or gay sex, or sex with a vibrator (one of the proposed recommendations of the Commission, though not one that was finally approved by the full group, was to ban vibrators) (Vance, 1986:65, 77–9). Many of the people responsible for gathering the Commission together, including some of the Commission members, also see as degrading any and all nudity, oral sex, masturbation, sex in which any of the parties uses birth control, sex which leads to abortion, and sex in any position but the missionary position (Vance, 1986:79). The people behind the Commission are some of the same people who are demanding the closure of shelters for battered women (because they encourage women to abandon marriage), stringent crackdowns on lesbian and gay publications, social institutions, and civil liberties, ending teenagers’ access to birth-control devices and information, and banning all abortions under any circumstances whatsoever. What radical feminists who have allowed their work to be used by groups like these seem to be anticipating is either that this social purity movement is going to be converted to feminism, or that it will manage to institute some measures, like the banning of pornography, which will, in their view, benefit women regardless of who administers the laws. The first of these is highly unlikely; the second deeply problematic. The lesson of past social purity movements is that conservatives end up co-opting feminists, not the other way around. The fact that conservatives use the rhetoric of woman as victim to buttress their reactionary message means little. This brand of rhetoric has always been used more readily to confine and ‘protect’ women within patriarchal institutions and justify repressive measures against them than to ensure their safety or their personal autonomy. And it indicates incredible naivety for lesbians, in particular, to think that it makes no real difference who controls the definition of obscenity or, for that matter, the definition of what constitutes degradation and victimization. And lastly, the question needs to be asked, just what would we get in the unlikely event that feminists (and one presumes it would be very specific radical or revolutionary feminists) did get a place on the boards of censorship, the vice squads or the other repressive institutions modern conservatives both in the USA and Britain are champing at the bit to establish?
Revolutionary feminism as a modern-day social purity movement
Sheila Jeffreys is right. There are striking parallels between late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century social purity feminists and revolutionary feminism today. The key similarity lies in revolutionary feminism’s (and, in the US, radical feminism’s) view of sex. In recent years this wing of the movement has decisively abandoned broader, more complex analyses of oppression and exploitation for the argument that the specifically sexual victimization of women constitutes the basis upon which the entire system of male supremacy (and by extension all other oppression) is constructed. According to this view, expressed analytically in terms like American radical feminist Julia Penelope’s ‘heteropatriarchy’ (Penelope, 1986), most sex acts that occur in the world are irrevocably
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corrupted or corrupting. In particular, heterosexual sex, which is indistinguishable from rape, supplies the paradigm for all other forms of oppression, and in an endlessly worked out dialectic, perpetuates and reflects the oppressive structures we see all around us. Revolutionary feminists tend to conceive of all of reality as a sort of gigantic pornographic movie in which the main scene revolves around rape. In the words of American radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, one of revolutionary feminism’s major influences, speaking here about pornography:
Male pleasure is inextricably tied to victimizing, hurting, exploiting;…sexual fun and sexual passion in the privacy of the male imagination are inseparable from the brutality of male history. The private world of sexual dominance that men demand as their right and their freedom is the mirror image of the public world of sadism and atrocity that men consistently and self-righteously deplore. It is in the male experience of pleasure that one finds the meaning of male history’ (Dworkin, 1979:69).
It goes without saying that explanations for oppression that invoke economics, or ones that use analytic categories like class or race, or ones that see male power in a more complicated way than simply the ethos of abusive heterosexual sex writ large, play little or no part in this world-view. With a cosmology like the one just mentioned one might think this wing of the women’s movement would be antisex, and it has sometimes been accused of being so. But this is not quite true. Like past social purity theorists revolutionary feminists consider some kinds of sex to be acceptable. In fact they are convinced that by pushing a purified sexual practice they can break out of the rape dialectic which has the world in its grip. Pure sex is politically correct sex. It is a kind of sex which radically rejects anything which by word or deed, by image, or by suggestion might seem to perpetuate victimization. But since victimization is so very broadly conceived in this system, containing within its compass the vast majority of the sex acts and sexual representations that occur in the world, and most, perhaps all male/female interactions, this is no easy task. Pure sex includes sexual asceticism or continence for both women and men. It also includes intense friendships for one or several other women, not involving genital contact (Raymond, 1986:73–114), a sort of updated version of psychic love. And it apparently includes a purified form of lesbianism, though revolutionary feminists are better at saying what lesbian physicality is not than what it is. Pure lesbian sexuality is not lesbianism infected with phallocentric fantasies or phallic objects (e.g., dildoes). It is not role-playing (butch/fem). And it is emphatically not anything suggesting dominance and submission (an ever-proliferating hit-list of sexual acts, styles of dress, and erotic reading preferences). The status of many acts still remains unclear. Some consider vibrators acceptable as long as they are not the elongated type which you can insert. Many people are unsure as to how much leather you have to be wearing in what style and colour to be one of those ‘women in fascist regalia’ not welcome at a growing number of feminist events. And there is the perennial problem of distinguishing a butch from someone who simply looks androgynous. Politically correct sex demands constant
SOCIAL PURITY 37
vigilance over oneself and over others. The less confident among us might well conclude that an entirely spiritual love represented the safest course. The more sceptical might wonder what, if anything, all this had to do with social change. Revolutionary feminism has a programme of action which any late nineteenth-century social purity activist would recognize: first, protecting women from male lust, and second, purifying sexual relations in the movement itself (tomorrow the world!). With respect to male lust these new social purity feminists have now taken the fairly traditional lesbian/feminist suspicion of heterosexuality to new lengths. Some revolutionary feminists are now arguing that there are almost no circumstances under which heterosexuality is an acceptable sexual choice. Sheila Jeffreys herself has suggested that one feminist aim should be to try to discourage women from having orgasms with men because this represent in her words the ‘eroticization of their own oppression’ (Jeffreys, 1986). She and other revolutionary feminists want to get away from the earlier feminist stress on birth control because they see it as a crutch to keep women in sexual thraldom to men. The other front on the war against male lust is of course the antipornography movement, also that area where some feminists have been willing to co-operate with neoconservative groups. Most of us—some of us to our great personal distress—are familiar with the attempts revolutionary and radical feminists have made to purify sexual practices within the British and North American women’s movements. These have included hostility to butch/fem relationships, the systematic defaming of lesbians who do sado-masochism coupled with efforts to excommunicate them from the movement, attempts to hinder political alliances between lesbians and gay men, and a pointedly suspicious attitude toward feminists who sleep with men. The resemblance to past social purity practice is, once more, striking. It can be seen most readily in the revolutionary feminist insistence that only a very few kinds of sexuality are acceptable, and that even a suggestion of other kinds whether via the printed word or by other sorts of representations including the clothes one wears, poses a clear and present danger to women. Revolutionary feminism is similar also to older moral purity movements in its tendency to attribute tremendous power to sex, and especially to ‘deviant’ sex, to define the entirety of the rest of the practitioner’s life. This is true whether one is talking about heterosexuality, the new ‘deviant sexuality’ for revolutionary feminists, or sado-masochism, an old ‘deviant sexuality’ they’ve hit upon because it suits their current purpose. It used to be said, and not so very long ago either, that homosexuality went along with an uncontrollable desire to molest small children, suicidal and homicidal tendencies, and an inability to think of anything except sex. These assertions were buttressed by very complex, symbolically rich analogies between sexual acts that people were alleged to engage in, and the rest of their lives. Using equally absurd logic revolutionary feminists claim that lesbians who practice SM have no problems with rape, wife battering, or the sexual abuse of children, and suggest repeatedly that were the Nazis to reappear tomorrow, people who practice SM would be the first to sign up for duty in the camps.3 The persistent and thoroughly erroneous attempts to link lesbian SM to Britain’s fascist National Front fit in with this pattern. It has apparently still not occurred to revolutionary feminists to wonder why any lesbian would be drawn to a movement that would like to wipe out all lesbians and gays, quite apart from the National Front’s other
) A lot of us have. Reality is. or wanted to take the initiative. and people who are a part of that culture are much more knowledgeable about and likely to practice safe sex of all kinds than the average lesbian or straight woman (gay and lesbian AIDS activists have repeatedly turned to the SM community for models of how to develop clear sexual information and ethical norms around sexuality and safety that people will actually use to change their behaviour). antiwoman and antiworking-class aims. race. They can also. but who engage in acts that are difficult or impossible to distinguish from SM. lovers. rather different. people into leather are not necessarily into SM.38 FEMINIST REVIEW racist. most of whom have never seen a whip or handcuffs and who may have no interest in leather. or played at wrestling. If this clearly identifiable group can be purged the movement will be ‘pure. The fear revolutionary feminists feel has to do with the question of who SM lesbians really are. Revolutionary feminists are perfectly aware that lesbians who do SM. usually are. They just don’t talk about them. They certainly do not plot to put people in the hospital. despite what some individuals from both sides of the debate have claimed. They try to transform them into nonwomen. encouraging crimes against women. nonlesbians. friends. like other women. gotten off on giving someone else pleasure while holding back on our own. paying their rent. al . either because they don’t want to call down criticism upon themselves. etc. very subtle. Sheila Jeffreys et. though not unremarkably these same people spend most of their waking minutes doing the same thing everyone else does: going to their jobs. or worse. and vice versa. would like to make us think that there is a clearly definable group of lesbians who spend every waking minute devising weirdly oppressive scenes with whips and handcuffs. They know that lesbians who practice SM are just as likely as any other women to have been victims of rape. claims like these raise some serious ethical questions. Why. are all the other lesbians. be made to seem quite extreme. like other women. dealing with their families. But even more troubling to the revolutionary feminist. or because they don’t . (By the way. or looked forward to giving it up entirely. because more inchoate and hard to identify. experience a multitude of forms of oppression based on their gender. class and sexual preference. These differentials can be. did the Nazi analogy arise at all? When people reach for such extreme rhetoric one instinctively looks for what is churning around underneath. But quite apart from revolutionary feminists’ cavalier attitude to the facts. through role-playing and the use of various props. as usual. Yet revolutionary feminists repeatedly accuse them of condoning. and that they have contributed to and continue to be involved in every part of the women’s movement. buying out leather shops and plotting to put one another in the hospital. The line between SM and ‘vanilla’. at one time or another. doing politics. Some people are certainly attracted to leather. SM involves creating (or taking advantage of) temporary power differentials in order to heighten sexual arousal. is very indistinct. incest and physical abuse. and trying to make their way. And finally they know that lesbians who practice SM... have come to the movement out of their experiences as women. after all. handcuffs.’ or at least ‘purer’. Large numbers of women occasionally engage in acts which by some peoples’ definition would be SM. nonfeminists and nonhuman beings. spanking. anti-Semitic. Safe sex has always played a central part in SM culture.
and it must be on their terms. All change must come from outside. or might like to try in bed is politically correct (I’d better not suggest that. ideological and sexual styles by making a painful example of people who don’t fit the mould. better not chance it). and the way these infect our most intimate thoughts. a colony of sexual lepers. and most disturbing parallel between revolutionary feminism and social purity activism. heavily influenced by revolutionary feminist thought. revolutionary feminists see power relations as static. not only against the victimizer. Who.5 A recent example of feminists in the UK abandoning freedom of the press is the brand new Campaign Against Pornography. the complexity of the ideological systems that reinforce it. if necessary against what she thinks is her will. who typically see power relations as being in a constant state of flux and historical renegotiation. conformist. To think one can do any of these things is simply a form of false consciousness. Still others like to read about some kinds of SM but have no interest in acting out what they read. not susceptible to alteration by the people who are victimized by them. As Sheila Jeffreys herself remarked at a recent conference in the States. socialist feminists. not to mention their loathing for any kind of sex they consider ‘incorrect’. This presumption of total powerlessness gives rise to the final. after all. as is indicated both by their hostility to heterosexuality as a personal choice and their growing antipathy to birth control.SOCIAL PURITY 39 think of them as SM. negotiation around or localized resistance to any part of what they define as the system of oppression is impossible. It is to get us worrying about whether what we like to do. she’ll think I’m sick). There can be neither resistance nor autonomous decision-making from within the system. wants to be treated like a sexual leper? For revolutionary feminists victimization is so pervasive that conditional consent to.4 The history of social purity shows clearly that people who focus upon sexual victimization as the root of the problem (rather than as part or symptom of a larger problem) tend to be unusually willing to infringe on other people’s freedoms. It is to keep us tied to the most cautious. but against his or her victim. and poststructuralists. ahistorical. is so caught up in her victimization she cannot know what she is doing. a group totally unworthy of consideration. It is precisely to make us wonder exactly what ‘fascist regalia’ is (that fake-leather vest my aunt gave me? maybe I can get away with that because it’s partly crocheted—no. unlike the former groups. ‘personal freedom is not the sort of thing that fits into my idea of what we can do around sexuality’. CAP argues that porn plays a causal role in job discrimination. Others engage in SM with one lover but not with another. it is said. and must be saved. However. Revolutionary feminists have indeed turned decisively away from the early radical feminist principle of sexual freedom. whether a woman’s freedom to control her own sexuality and reproductive capacities or freedom of the press. violence against . their shared willingness to resort to coercion. guilt-ridden and rigid of personal. The constructing of lesbians who do SM as a group separate from and less human than everyone else. This victim. None of these people have turned into Nazis overnight as a result of what they like to do or fantasize about. revolutionary feminists lay a heavy emphasis upon the pervasiveness of power. Like many contemporary socialists. is essentially a move to intimidate ‘all the rest of us’ into letting someone else define what is acceptable sexual practice.
however. including their freedom of expression. with all the vast law enforcement apparatus that would require. to eliminate a tiny proportion of the degrading images. say. is that revolutionary feminists think sexually explicit material will be easier to eradicate than. and groups like CAP are willing to put themselves at the mercy of conservative ideologues who possess a very different conception of degradation than do most feminists. offended by a piece of pornography to bring suit in civil court against its makers. 1988:272). like murder and rape. TV commercials which. since it limits women’s freedom. So. Therefore porn. Very much for public consumption. or distributors. it recommends a broad-based system of economic boycotts but declines to mention the organization’s support for the statutory abolition of obscenity. In response to the argument that porn cannot be banned because it cannot be strictly defined. as opposed to simply permitting individuals. This approach is not only misguided. (1989) women and the conditioning of women to be subordinate. surely. a recent CAP position paper pushed for the adoption of a definition of porn taken almost verbatim from Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon’s notorious 1983 Minneapolis ordinance.40 FEMINIST REVIEW This is a flyer from the Campaign Against Pornography urging action. far more people actually see. It is worth noting that what is being suggested here is even more sweeping than the local ordinances proposed in the USA (Campaign Against Pornography.6 Then. it is diversionary. Degrading representations of women are all over the place. claiming that they are ‘totally against censorship in every form’ the authors go on to argue that what censorship ‘really’ is is porn itself. . Through this imaginative redefining of terms one can be ‘totally against censorship’ yet be in favour of banning pornography. Why focus simply on the sexually explicit ones? One reason. American radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin. It would involve the direct legislative elimination of porn. must be eliminated by direct legislation. revolutionary feminists like Sheila Jeffreys. sellers. a type of law which was subsequently struck down in US federal court on the grounds that it constituted an infringement of freedom of the press.
some women like and feel empowered by pornography. the same after all. woman-loving. formulate subtler and better analyses of the intersections of power and representation. and recognize the fact that for many women these and other factors play at least as powerful a role in their lives as gender does. or even gay men or men of colour. not just pornography. These new social purity feminists are reluctant to embark on this larger course however. sex. it would be strange. No one disagrees that a lot of porn is male-centred. A new course? First. It is madness to put new repressive tools into the hands of the state at a time when conservatism is riding high (perhaps at any time). break straight white male monopolies on all kinds of image production. class. is to infiltrate the TV and radio networks. oppression. woman-hating. Plenty of people. They might have to compromise themselves by spending a little time on an issue which doesn’t touch them directly or speak plainly to their own personal experience of victimization. multivalent experiences and analyses. or black women. racist world if this were not true. Having been forced to abandon the idea that there is a ‘universal women’s experience’ with which they alone are in touch. They might have to spend some time on issues which primarily affect working-class women. Most revolutionary feminists refuse to get involved in discussions with these people because they don’t want to give up their right to dictate what other women’s preferences should be. and men than they do. They like reading or watching it. woman-hating and racist. and increasing numbers of them are actively involved in producing porn which is woman-centred. and it is time to ask ourselves why. might mean revolutionary feminists would have to reassess their own position as to what constitutes oppression. or western literature. nationality and immigrant status. could be said about mainstream television. and make coalitions with other groups traditionally excluded from the making of images. They might even have to spend some time fighting forms of oppression which affect both men and women. For example. which some feminists in both England and North America are already pursuing. Taking a different course would mean having to listen respectfully to women whose life experiences differ profoundly from theirs and who have a different take on life. They might have to begin to take seriously victimization based on race. A better strategy. revolutionary feminists might actually have to consider making alliances. and antiracist. and they like producing it. really listening to what a wide range of women—and even some men—have to say. sexuality. develop alternative media. including many feminists. Encountering diversity of opinion. simply because it is sexually explicit. revolutionary feminists might have to face squarely the unbelievably reductionist character of the stress on sexuality alone. They would have to embrace a theory of social change which relies on rich analyses and . doubt that porn is inherently that way. even with a greater familiarity with competing theories of gender oppression. in a male-centred. or women in Third World countries. a change of course would require that revolutionary feminists confront differences of opinion. In the face of more complex.SOCIAL PURITY 41 Feminists should be casting their nets both more carefully and more widely. or religion.
238–44. She has published articles on battered women. theoretical complexity. it is not simply to breed up clones to a single political perspective. of course. on grassroots fundraising. To embrace one’s own and others’ empowerment is to embrace diversity (including sexual diversity). however. Massachusetts where she teaches history and women’s studies. rich. ubiquitous in radical feminist writing about SM. The course I’m suggesting is not an easy one. on feminist theory. and strategies based on coalitions. instead of on simple solutions which require straight. not on a self-styled revolutionary vanguard that considers itself purer and more politically correct than everyone else. counsellor and collective member in shelters and other women’s projects throughout the United States. my own. Jill Lewis. She currently lives in Amherst. and that loathsome “five pounds” [for an act of prostitution] irresistible’ (Walkowitz. I am grateful to Judith Walkowitz for allowing me to consult some of her unpublished work and for her sympathetic guidance on the subject of Hopkins’s life and ideas. For a more thorough discussion of the impact of the Industrial Schools Amendment Act and of Hopkins’s enthusiasm for authoritarian tactics see Walkowitz. But in doing this we need to be aware that to empower people is to let them develop their own course. white. and the concerns of low-income women. 1980:211. for example.. Her work has focused on violence against women. and is the co-author of a book entitled Life Skills for Women in Transition (1982). erotically as well as politically. domestic service] simply intolerable. on lesbian and gay issues and on women’s history. welfare advocacy. I would like to thank the following people for their comments and criticisms at different stages of the writing of this paper: Cindy Patton. ‘endorse some actions which infringed upon the civil liberties of [prostitutes]. Notes Margaret Hunt has worked for the last fifteen years as a fundraiser. economically and spiritually. adult literacy. 1 Jeffreys is noncommittal about Hopkins’s willingness to.42 FEMINIST REVIEW diverse coalitions. Catherine Hall. 1987). The opinions expressed in it are. I am grateful to Gayle Rubin for bringing the Jeffreys article to my attention. racism. Richard Wilson and Judith Walkowitz.e.’ possibly because of her (Jeffreys’) own sense that issues of personal liberty are largely irrelevant to the liberation of women (see below). . but it holds out a far better chance of liberating women—all women—than the one social purity feminists of the past or of the present would have us choose. 2 Here. lesbian and gay issues. is the way that Hopkins expresses concern about the sensationalism of some moral purity propaganda: ‘those dear friends of ours are adding to the love of excitement that makes our little girls find the only respectable life open to them [i. in Jeffreys’ words. This theme is. In the final analysis what we need to do as feminists is not to protect women (or get others to do it for us on their terms) but to empower them. 3 For a typical example of the identification of lesbian SM with Nazism and violence against women see Jeffreys. conservative men to carry them out. Sigrid Nielsen. 1986. Sue O’Sullivan.
Julienne (1988) editors Feminism and Censorship: The Current Debate. Alan (1982) Homosexuality in Renaissance England. London: Gay Men’s Press. CAPLAN. Varda (1985) editor. pp. See for example The West Side Spirit for 17 June 1985 where Captain Jerome Piazzo of the Manhattan South Public Morals Division quotes statistics on call girls in Manhattan. FOXON.S. . BURSTYN. Victoria. Lady Olave (1964) Baden-Powell: The Two Lives of a Hero. New Haven: Yale University Press. Sheila (1985) The Spinster and her Enemies: Feminism and Sexuality 1880–1930. 1688–1715’. 30 October 1986. De GRAZIA. 6 I am especially indebted here to Duggan. Martha (1989) ‘Patrolling the Border: Feminist Historiography and the New Historicism’. Radical History Review 43. Edward (1977) Vice and Vigilance. FRADER. New Hyde Park. FINAL REPORT TO THE ATTORNEY GENERAL’S COMMISSION ON PORNOGRAPHY (1986) Nashville. Purity Movements in Britain Since 1700. JEFFREYS. William with BADEN-POWELL. unpublished PhD thesis. unpublished PhD thesis. 5 Jeffreys. University of Rochester. London: Heinemann. Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre. (1957) The Moral Revolution of 1688. I am grateful to Joan Nestle for bringing this article to my attention. ISAACS. Andrea (1979) Pornography: Men Possessing Women. Feminism. BRISTOW.SOCIAL PURITY 43 4 In the US the most striking example of this kind of activity has been the willingness of some radical feminists to assist vice squads in rounding up prostitutes. A. Jane. Nan and VANCE. Boston and Henley: Pandora Press. Women Against Censorship.G. and especially of pornography. noting that they were provided to him by Women Against Pornography. CHESTER. References BAHLMAN. I am very conscious of having left Canada entirely out of my discussion of social purity. New York: Perigee Books. Hunter and Vance (1985). and the State in Early Eighteenth Century England: A Study of Piety and Politics’. Dublin: Gill & MacMillan. Laura and HOWELL. 130–51.’ in BURSTYN (1985). BRAY. Gail and DICKEY. Lisa. HUNTER. University of Edinburgh. London. ‘The Eroticization of Women’s Subordination…’ (quote taken verbatim from tape of speech and subsequent discussion. CRAIG. S. (1985) ‘False Promises: Feminist Antipornography Legislation in the U. (1980) ‘The Movement for the Reformation of Manners. Carole. 1660–1745. Readers who would like to find out what the recent intensification of censorship (supported by many feminists) has done for Canada are directed to Burstyn (1985). Bridport. Dudley W. DWORKIN. HILLCOURT. Tennessee: Rutledge Hill Press.R. David (1965) Libertine Literature in England. Sexuality and Power conference. DUGGAN. NY: University Books. Mount Holyoke College. Moral Reform. Tina Beth (1979) ‘Moral Crime. Rowman & Littlefield. CAMPAIGN AGAINST PORNOGRAPHY (1988) Policy Statement in CHESTER and DICKEY (1988). Dorset: Prism.
Lesbian Ethics Vol. ROSENTHAL. London. 26–7. 2 August. (1986) ‘Porn in the U. pp. VANCE. De GRAZIA. Boston: Beacon Press. 27 October 1986. . 1. unpublished talk delivered at the Feminism. no. RAYMOND. Judith (1980) Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women. Josiah. PENELOPE. FRADER and HOWELL (1989) pp.A: The Meese Commission on the Road’. WOODWARD. pp. Sexuality and Power conference at Mount Holyoke College. WALKOWITZ. Judith (1989) Untitled presentation in CAPLAN. WALKOWITZ. WALKOWITZ. 65–79. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. Judith (1987) ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’. South Hadley. Sheila (1986) ‘Sado-masochism: The Erotic Cult of Fascism’. 2. Massachusetts. 65–82. Carole S. Julia (1986) ‘Controlling Interests and Consuming Passions: Sexual Metaphors’. Janice (1986) A Passion for Friends: Toward a Philosophy of Female Affection. The Nation Vol.S. Michael (1986) The Character Factory: Baden-Powell and the Origins of the Boy Scout Movement.44 FEMINIST REVIEW JEFFREYS. (1704) Rebuke to the Sin of Uncleanness. unpublished paper. New York: Pantheon Books. 243. Class and the State.
Barbara: Not to say arrogant and overbearing. They don’t have the perspective that will allow us to fight through all the issues. And I mean that quite seriously. I think that homophobia. racism. I think Afro-Americans who’ve taken the position of ‘we are the major victim in this society and nobody else has suffered like we’ve suffered’. (Laughter) Because a well-adjusted heterosexual doesn’t care what anybody else is doing. Particularly within the African American community. Jewelle: Yeah. simply because we’re embattled psychologically and economically as an ethnic group. That’s the thing about homophobia. lose their edge. Spring 1990 . any of the ‘isms’—once you embrace those you tend to be kind of smug. I also think it renders Black people politically smug. I think that in addition to affecting lesbians’ emotional health. it’s just boloney to dismiss or say that a certain segment is expendable because of their sexual orientation. homophobia also affects the mental health of heterosexual people. is a sign of arrested development.TALKING ABOUT IT: Homophobia in the Black Community A dialogue between Jewelle Gomez and Barbara Smith Barbara: One of the things we’ve been asked to talk about is how homophobia affects Black women’s mental health. Feminist Review No 34. We leave ourselves in a very weakened position if we allow the system to pit us against each other. Jewelle: I think it’s even more dangerous for people of colour to embrace homophobia than it is for whites to embrace racism. Because that’s like dismissing a part of the human family. It’s just like being a racist. In other words. antiSemitism. being homophobic is not a healthy state for people to be in. I don’t think that most Blacks or other people of colour would vouch for the mental health of somebody who is a rabid and snarling racist. when we are so embattled. And once you take a position of smugness you lose your fighting edge. particularly rabidly and violently expressed homophobia. Anyone who would do that hasn’t grown up. they’re just not mature.
that play made the Black community look at its sexism. there was Miss Kay who was a big queen. There’ve been lesbians and gay men. If you’re a lesbian. which I use often: ‘Play it. So that’s not even a question. So I think that one of the challenges we face in trying to raise the issue of lesbian and gay identity within the Black community is to try to get our people to the place where they see that they can indeed oppress someone after having spent a life seeing themselves as being oppressed. I think that for the first time. The difference today is that the lesbian and gay movement prides itself on being out. You know how they say that the human race was supposed to have been started by an African woman. It was a community in which people did not talk about who was gay. The play really prompted Black women to embrace the idea of independent thinking. you can have as many women as you want. homosexuality has always been an intrinsic part of the Black community. But just don’t say anything about it or make it political. I knew which ones were gay. It represents a grasp on reality and a clear understanding of what it means to be Black in the United States. This was a so-called lower-class community—the working poor in Boston. That’s the breakpoint for this part of the twentieth century. but don’t say it. From the time we get here. Black ones. These were people that everybody knew. But we also have to acknowledge that there are ways that we can be oppressive to other groups whose identities we don’t share. (Laughter) Black lesbian writer Ann Allen Shockley has a wonderful line about that. I think we saw the beginning of it in the 1970s with Ntozake Shange’s play For colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. So I don’t think we should be surprised about homophobia. It was clear as day. as long as there’ve been African people. everyone always knew who was gay. on verbalizing one’s identity and organizing around our oppression. that they could only perceive the play as a negative attack upon themselves. It was always unspoken and I think that there’s something about leaving it unspoken that leaves us unprepared. Because as far as I can tell. It sneaks in in a very subtle and destructive way. When the guys came to my father’s bar. With the advent of this movement. I think that the Black male community was so horrified to discover too that they were not at the centre of Black women’s thoughts. as far as I’m concerned.46 FEMINIST REVIEW Barbara: Right. I mean that’s a very hard transition to make. to begin looking at each other for sustenance and to start appreciating and celebrating each other in ways that we’ve always done naturally. That’s really good sense for us. For instance. They came and went in my father’s bar just like everybody else. Jewelle: At this point it seems almost impossible because the issue of sexism has become such a major stumbling block for the Black community. Well. and Maurice. the African American community has really been confronted with some stuff that they’ve never had . And many people rejected Ntozake Shange and things having to do with feminism in a very cruel way.’ That’s the line that capsulizes the general stance of the Black community on sexual identity and orientation. you can have all the men you want. some of them were undoubtedly queer. If you’re a gay man. When I was growing up. but I knew who the lesbians were. Barbara: Indeed. since she had so many children. we are steeped in the knowledge that we are the victims of a really bigoted and racist society.
‘Why don’t you have any children?’ That really made them curious. Barbara: Indeed. The stereotype that mandates that you develop into the well-groomed Essence girl who pursues a profession and a husband. that if one embraces the principle of liberation. Those of us who don’t may not have had the opportunity. (Laughter) I was just going to talk about being younger and meeting people who would want to know about me. gay liberation and feminism. It was like. Not so much about my sexual orientation. And not having children doesn’t mean we’re selfish. these two things don’t come together. So if you begin to espouse a proud lesbian growth. I grew up in Cleveland in a community very similar to the one you described. That makes embracing your lesbianism doubly frightening. Or the snappy baby machine. three. Jewelle: Yes. Coming out is such a conscious choice that the process manifests itself in other areas of our lives. Or we may have made the conscious choice not to have children. it’s healthy. And the Black community doesn’t like it one bit. then you have to assault the sexual stereotype that young Black girls have been forced to live out in the African American community. That’s why they’re so upset. Today the issue is not whether gay people have been here since forever. I’ve noticed a contradictory element in that that’s the way many of them come into their own. Having grown up with a lot of Black women who had children at an early age. That’s what contemporary Black gay and lesbian activists are doing. But I always noticed they were more surprised to find out I didn’t have children than that I wasn’t married. Barbara: And that you got to have a man. At least those of us who are politicized about what we will and will not have in our lives. You’re either fast or you’re well groomed. You tend to go one way or the other. the idea of finding their place in society has been defined by having a man or a baby. It means we’re self-referenced. four children and are not married and will probably never be married. I have younger cousins who have two. usually. because they weren’t even dealing with the fact that somebody could be a lesbian. but that we are saying that you have to deal with us differently than before. Jewelle: Right. many of them are . It seems that the moment they have the baby is when they come into their own and everything after that is the longsuffering Black mother. Many Black lesbians and gay men have children. On the other hand. when I look at Black lesbian mothers. (Laughter) I think that for so many young Black women. They had no understanding at all that you could reach a certain age and not have any children. The urgency of which probably can’t even be conveyed on the printed page. One of the things about being a Black lesbian is that we’re very conscious. I think it recreates a cycle of victimization because these young women carry the burden of being on a road that wasn’t really a conscious choice. And. because you then have to discard the mythology that’s been developed around what it means to be a young Black woman. you find yourself going against the grain. Marriage was not the operative thing.HOMOPHOBIA IN THE BLACK COMMUNITY 47 to deal with before. (Laughter) Jewelle: I was thinking as you were saying that. I see that yes.
They are not women who have been abandoned by their men. or to act on your lesbian feelings. a political choice because they are doing it in such a supportive context. Those of us who were coming out just before Stonewall knew that we had the feelings. Jewelle: The only role model you might have had would be so far from who you were. out lesbian teachers. understand this a little bit better. Those of us who were coming out before there was a women’s or lesbian and gay movement. But the only available role models weren’t anything like who I thought I was going to be when I grew up. For instance. but that my family had worked very hard to give me the option of choosing. Barbara: Yes. I knew I wasn’t going to be sitting in a bar all day or hustling on the streets. So they can indeed perceive their coming out as following in the footsteps of a role model. Talking about how homophobia and being a lesbian affects one’s mental health—I lived my adolescence and young adulthood in terror. they haven’t inherited any money. graduate school…’ Jewelle: Be an exemplary Black woman. They are not long-suffering victims. I grew up in a bar community and I knew I was a lesbian when I was quite young. So what was I going to be? There were no other role models. That’s something we just didn’t have. passion and lust for other women. I’d think. I would wake up and my grandmother would be standing over me looking and I thought . But likewise I saw no way to act on it and stay on the path. But I think the important point is whether you choose to be out. another thing we’ve been asked to address is why do people become lesbians. Today people have women’s studies courses. or why do we think there is such a thing as lesbianism? (Laughter). go to college. There was a notion in the early women’s movement that you could choose to be a lesbian. Barbara: That was the complete terror. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that things are any easier or simpler for them. ‘How the hell can I excel in school. all kinds of stuff that we didn’t have. or why did we become lesbians. As I’ve mentioned. This was a path that I had not necessarily chosen for myself. (Laughter) But there is a psychological difference because most Black lesbian mothers have made a choice and have a community they can look to for support. But we did know. I knew I was a lesbian too. I had screaming nightmares because I was having dreams of being sexual with women. But I’d just like to say right here for the record. and not because we read it in a book somewhere. In talking about choice. Barbara: Indeed. And then become lowlife by sleeping with women. I teach students who are in their early twenties and they really perceive their coming out as say. that gay was good.48 FEMINIST REVIEW struggling with their children. But there is also a sense of real choice because they’ve made a conscious decision to be out and have children. that from puberty on. We didn’t necessarily have a place for our feelings that felt safe. Some people think that when I came out during the women’s movement it was an easy thing. I mean it just didn’t jibe. They are lesbian mothers who have made a place in the world that is not a victim’s place.
the other is on the bottom. Jewelle: I think the interconnection of racism and sexism has been so profound that we don’t even know how homophobia is going to be difficult for us as Black women. Later we were talking about the incident in our small groups and a woman said something I’ll never forget. Back to homophobia and how it affects our health—I think that conscious lesbianism. I didn’t know that I wasn’t out. Nobody seemed to be homophobic in my community. So. I was out as a lesbian at this conference. (Laughter) But there was a little group of white and Black lesbians and we raised the issue. You can’t eradicate one without the other. Once I realized that one of them had to go—sexuality or Catholicism—it took me about five or ten minutes to drop Catholicism. not the women who went to Sears to buy things. as a friend said. I’ve just recently begun to separate them out. They were wonderful Black women and they treated me gloriously. they skipped that. Homophobia is a logical extension of sexual oppression because sexual oppression is about roles—one gender does this. That left me unprepared. It can be a really affirming choice for women. even though I never revealed to her what it was. Almost everybody in the room stood up. I always had a sexual identity that I tried to sift out. They were kind of like the entertainment until I found another girlfriend and got my bearings. that’s a dead giveaway because this is such a completely segregated society. Then we invited other lesbians and people in solidarity with us to stand up. But I wasn’t. is a positive thing. And I have never . the other does that. but I was most concerned about how I was going to fit it in with being a Black Catholic. because I had never experienced it. So homophobia came as a total shock to me. Funny thing. Barbara: I think it’s easier for two Black women who are lovers to be together publicly than it is for a mixed couple. I was really terrified. I kind of skipped past feminism until much later. it was almost by definition telling the world that we were lesbians. Homophobia was the one issue they had not considered as a barrier to women’s leadership. I think the same is true for interracial gay male couples. I didn’t really come out through the women’s movement. lived in a context of community.HOMOPHOBIA IN THE BLACK COMMUNITY 49 she knew what I was dreaming. To me.’ Because you don’t usually see people of different races together in this country. Then I slept with men until my mid-twenties. which was very difficult. She knew that I was disturbed about something. I felt that it was like having a sign or a billboard over my head that said. She said that what we’d done had taken a lot of courage. For me my sexuality didn’t have a political context until later. The women who came to the conference were. As usual. I had a woman lover very early. (Laughter) Then I focused on racism. The connection to sexism is deep though. Right here. I attended a conference several years ago for women organizing around poverty and economic issues in the deep South. I hadn’t experienced it because I wasn’t out. I didn’t have the political context to deal with what it meant to want to sleep with both men and women. Whenever I had a lover of a different race. They could only afford to go to Woolworth’s or K-Mart to buy the new clothes they were wearing. because no one ever talked about it. These are dykes. We got up on the stage and read a statement about homophobia. to the exclusion of homophobia and everything else. One’s on top.
too. For her to recognize our being out as courage meant a lot to me. Such Black lesbians don’t get many opportunities to share what is going on for them. we have a certain leeway in being out. My medium has primarily been literary—that’s a product of my education and my aspirations. It’s comparable (and this is kind of a trivial thing) to musical artists like Donna Summer who make it to the top on the backs of gay people and then turn around and talk about AIDS as the retribution for our sins. But I’ve thought about this for many. She knew what it meant because she had been hounded by crazy white people all her life. It happens all the time. Your whole view about what it means to be lesbian is coloured by whether you were able to get an education—to read different things about the experience. Albany. That’s one of the things that Ann Allen Shockley writes about so well—the Black lesbian who is isolated and psychically destroyed because she doesn’t have a positive reflection of herself. That’s one of the reasons I’d like to do some video stuff. Not just about lesbian identity. Because it came from the horse’s mouth. rural communities who won’t and can’t come out because they don’t have this support. because that’s a way of making our work more accessible. I think that for those of us in Manhattan. These are the stories that aren’t often told. many years and I think that the basic thing is to get the word out.50 FEMINIST REVIEW forgotten those words because they came from a woman who was in a position to know the meaning of courage. Another point I want to make is that the people who are not out and have the privilege of a good education and jobs need to be more accountable. But we can reach more Black women if we go to them where they are. Jewelle: Yes. Barbara: Yes. I find it despicable and a desecration that our spiritual beliefs are perverted and used against Black gay people. but about liberation and freedom in general. Another thing we need to talk about is religion in the Black community and how it has been such a sustainer in our lives. We have a diverse women’s community that supports us in our efforts to be honest about being lesbians. We have to use every means necessary. because I think they are skating. Barbara: I’m as committed as you are to the written word. It really bothers me that there are closeted people who are perceived as leaders within the Black community. I think they suffer an isolation and even a kind of perversion of their own desires. This is something I find very annoying. would never use it against gays. Jewelle: Certainly. There are Black lesbians all over this country and our existence poses a challenge to business as usual. Brooklyn. class is a factor. . They are skating on our efforts and devotion. Barbara: Love thy neighbour as thyself. I think that Kitchen Table Press will make audio-tapes eventually. I find it sad that there is a larger proportion of Black lesbians in small. This is the thing that pisses me off. Jewelle: That’s a very important point. Anyone who understands what the spirit of Christianity is supposed to be.
They are of course. Racists use Christianity against Black people and then Black people turn around and use Christianity against gays. But as Black gay women.e. If they want to destroy all Black lesbians and gay men then they would alter . This is because we are in a community that supports us in growing past racism. There have always been acceptable places for gay Black men to retreat and escape (relatively speaking) from the danger. In fact. I think it’s telling that Spike Lee. Christianity does not say pick and choose which neighbours you’re going to love. the most popular Black filmmaker in the country today. I think that our ability to see the need to keep the family intact is what is going to be our saviour and help preserve the Black community. Barbara: I’m very glad that you said that about family. the young Black men who are getting over like fat rats in the Hollywood movie and television industry. As lesbians. in a way. bone her.. The insidiousness of homophobia lies in the fact that we’ve been forced to find ways to balance our contact with the community with our need to continue to grow as Black lesbians.’ And the Black women in the audience are giggling. Eddie Murphy. And that’s not the place that the Black lesbians and gays I love. And those biblical quotes that are used against Black gays need to be looked at in the context that the selfsame Bible has been used to depict Blacks as inhuman. ‘Yeah. I think that. we are. We are as Black as anybody ever thought about being. The so-called Black brothers in the movie are saying. includes the rape of a Black woman in two of his films. People say that to be lesbian or gay is to be somehow racially denatured. Just because we are committed to passionate and ongoing relationships with members of our own gender. Jewelle: And sexist. Bone her. I have real problems with that because that’s never been where I was coming from. as Black lesbians. Sexism is so pervasive in our community that we don’t even think of this as awful. sexism and homophobia. When you witness this. I think they are homophobic to their hearts. the choir queen or the Black gay man who embraces the white gay male community. does not mean that we are not Black. People like Arsenio Hall. It doesn’t make any sense to me. the cultural and political leadership of the Black community has always had a very high percentage of lesbian and gay men. Barbara: Another thing I wanted to add is how the ‘Black Pack’ is functioning. i. One of the myths that’s put out about Black lesbians and gay men is that we go into the white gay community and forsake our racial roots. very fortunate. But you know.HOMOPHOBIA IN THE BLACK COMMUNITY 51 Jewelle: Right. We straddle the fence that says we cannot be the uplifters of the race and lesbians at the same time—that’s what makes it so dangerous for our emotional health as Black lesbians. I’d like to wrap up by saying that homophobia is particularly dangerous for Black lesbians because it is so insidious. it is hard to see what we are doing to end our own victimization. we haven’t been interested in removing ourselves from our families or communities because we understand the importance of that connection. respect and work with are coming from either. etc. we have so much to teach the Black community about survival. Imagine what it feels like to sit in a Times Square movie theatre watching School Daze in which this Black woman is being raped.
I learned that as a Black person. Notes This dialogue is from a Black Women’s Health anthology edited by Evelyn C. Though closeted in many cases. Black lesbians and gays have been central in building our freedom.52 FEMINIST REVIEW the entire history of the race. Barbara: What I’d like to leave with is the truth. Everyone asks why do we have to talk about homophobia? Why can’t we be quiet about it? The fact that we have to talk about it means that a lot of people don’t want to hear it. it’s very important that we say it. what they’re doing today and what they’re going to do tomorrow to try to improve the chances that we’ll all be free and sisters. Jewelle: It’s very important that all our voices be heard. White and published by Seal Press. activist and critic who is currently completing her first novel. People really do need to tell the truth. . 1990. Jewelle Gomez is a Black feminist writer. I want to challenge all the nonlesbians who are reading this to think about what they’ve done yesterday. And as soon as there’s something they don’t want to hear. Barbara Smith is a Black feminist writer and activist and a co-founder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.
despite all their current promises to create a Ministry for Women should Labour ever win another election. There was also the odd resolution passed at Party and trade union annual conferences. mainly because it draws upon my own experience of working at the GLC in the year prior to its abolition in March 1986 by the Thatcher Government. Spring 1990 . Whilst lesbian feminists may see themselves and their politics as quite separate from gay male politics. Feminist Review No 34. probably no more than twenty or so Labour Local Authorities were really part of the process. then (principally my involvement as an out lesbian in the Woolwich Constituency and Greenwich Borough Labour Parties). I should also point out that the article is mostly about the Greater London Council and its approach to gay rights. at best embarrassed by Local Authority support for gay rights. largely because the Labour movement has not yet come to terms with feminist politics. my views on gay rights and the Labour movement arise out of the GLC experience. the focus of the Labour movement’s support for gay rights. With one or two exceptions. was more often than not quite happy to agree more or less with whatever the Tories cared to claim about gay rights and Labour Councils.LESBIANISM AND THE LABOUR PARTY: The GLC Experience Ann Tobin Although this article is part of a Feminist Review special on lesbians. Indeed. ‘The gays and lesbians issue is costing us dear’ Although both the tabloid and quality press managed to convey the impression during the 1980s that the Labour Party concerned itself with little else other than gay rights. particularly the National Association of Local Government Officers. followed by another year at the London Strategic Policy Unit (a sort of GLC-in-exile funded by eight London Labour Local Councils for two years following the GLC’s abolition). Under Ken Livingstone. I have found it impossible to discuss lesbians and the British Labour Party without placing it within the overall context of gay rights and the Labour Party. together with one or two trade unions. the GLC became. who was elected to be the Council’s leader following the Labour Party’s GLC victory in May 1981. until its abolition. the Labour movement has never really taken on board the differences. support for gay politics was in fact confined to a remarkably small section of the Labour movement. The Labour leadership.
on 17 November 1986. Political Adviser to Labour Party Leader Neil Kinnock. coupled with the Labour Party’s acquiescence to the values of Thatcherism. A year later. In November 1985. the same month that the GLC’s Lesbian and Gay Charter was launched in a flurry of publicity by Ken Livingstone et al. if only to gather strength to rejoin the battle at a more opportune time. it has in the main achieved the ambitions of its proposers—gay rights on the rates have largely disappeared from view. been followed by any of the threatened prosecutions against Councils who continue to ‘promote’ gay rights. John Cunningham.. However. They were largely seen as an exercise in upholding civil liberties. or trade union liberties in particular. And although Clause 28 has not. agreed that Ridley’s only fault lay in exaggeration. After ten years of unremitting attack on all aspects of left policy. the main reason for the inability or unwillingness of the Party to continue to uphold or defend gay rights is the fact that the Party never really understood what gay rights actually meant. The Sun. be it the Welfare State. was moved by two Tory backbench MPs. then Minister for the Environment mounted a furious attack on local government as a precursor to another piece of local government legislation. Labour’s Parliamentary Spokesman on Local Government. aimed at banning Local Authority expenditure upon activities or materials which ‘promoted’ homosexuality. the most scurrilously right wing of Britain’s tabloid press had made itself the selfappointed mouthpiece for the Conservatives’ political and cultural prejudices and had run a long series of stories attacking both the GLC’s and other London Labour Authorities’ support for gay rights. wrote him a letter of advice on electoral strategy (the contents of which were fortuitously leaked to the Sun) suggesting that ‘the gays and lesbians issue is costing us dear’. civil liberties in general. Nicholas Ridley. he drew quite openly upon the Sun’s ‘loony lefty’ stories. Haringey Labour Council was one of the Sun’s favourite targets after the GLC and. Even where gay rights were apparently firmly established as part and parcel of Labour Council policy.54 FEMINIST REVIEW When. when Clause 28. And although the Labour Party withdrew its formal support for the Clause following the swift and effective lobby mounted by gays on Parliament and some intense back-bench pressure. was the one Nicholas Ridley quoted about Haringey planning to place a gay teacher in every school. yet. Labour politicians were frequently unwilling to follow through their statements of support with practical policies. and Labour politicians often had . Cunningham announced that he and his Party would support it. Rather than laughing this and other fantasies out of court. since his accusations only ‘applied to about one tenth of one per cent of Labour Councillors’. amongst the paper’s more fanciful tales. Cunningham still persisted in giving credence to the Tories’ case by stating in the debate on the Clause that it was ‘only the Inner London Education Authority and the London Borough of Haringey’ that ‘spent millions of pounds promoting homosexuality’. the Housing Committee rejected a research project into the housing needs of lesbians and gay men. It was also during this period that Patricia Hewitt. it is not surprising that libertarian radicals in the Labour Party have retreated. The end to the left’s public espousal of gay rights is in part due to the strength of the right’s attack on the left.
This approach was central to the Party’s support of gay rights. indeed to the Party’s espousal of all the politics of identity that led to the creation of the new equalities strategies and equalities units. When the first consultative meetings were held at County Hall with the aim of producing a programme of action for London’s women. There had been no real organic growth of feminist. but this time with the possible prize being enormous influence in one of the institutions of patriarchal power. Valerie Wise. by socialists who were also Black and by socialists who were also gay. it was a class issue. Black or gay politics within the Labour movement. straight Labour women found themselves colluding with the oppression of lesbians without realizing that they too were being lined up on the firing line. Straight Labour women also had considerable difficulty in allying themselves with their lesbian sisters. defended a controversial committee statement on heterosexism. all the various groupings turned up in force to re-fight the old battles. The example of the women’s committees: ‘In no shape or f orm a lesbian’ This was more true. was initially hostile to the inclusion of lesbian rights in the committee’s work.LABOUR PARTY 55 no greater justification for adding gay rights to their pantheon of causes beyond the simple statement that since many gays were working class. In the early months of the committee. appointed as Chair of the new Women’s Committee at the GLC in May 1982. The Labour Party had happily opened Pandora’s box without having a clue as to what was inside. and their ignorance of the long debate about lesbianism in the Women’s movement. The Labour Women’s Committee found itself in the position of supporting and financing groups who not only had an off-the-wall. for example. Without any experience or knowledge of the internecine struggles of the Women’s movement. of the Women’s Committees than of the other new committees. was in this position. The new politics were forced upon an often unwilling and certainly unenthusiastic Labour Party by socialists who were also feminist. I think. (The choice of the words . Valerie Wise was frequently unable to follow the arguments and tended to obey the dictum that if women said it. and many of the people who volunteered to take on the responsibility of chairing the committees were feminist sympathizers but had no particular involvement or experience in the Women’s movement itself. it must be true. but who were totally and irretrievably hostile to class politics and to the Labour movement. and like many other Women’s Committee chairs. New Left politicians who started to adopt the equalities strategies often had not the slightest idea of what they had let themselves in for. Vice-Chair of the GLC Women’s Committee in 1984. In particular. again demonstrating their lack of understanding of what precisely it was they were supporting. but found it necessary to stress that she was ‘in no shape or form a lesbian’. groups such as the King’s Cross Women’s Centre were able to wield an influence far beyond what their isolated and unrepresentative position within the Women’s movement should have dictated. separatist perspective on the world. Councillor Jenni Fletcher. Women’s Committees were created as a result of pressure from feminists outside the Councils.
The conference was initially united in fury against this report. the Mail described all the GLC women as wearing boiler suits and spiky hair. i. which included many of the senior women in the Party. Delegates were. . the smear is the same. One of Glasgow’s Sunday papers devoted a substantial chunk of its front page to an attack on the conference. County Hall October 1985 ‘shape’ and ‘form’ are particularly revealing. and those that were were almost all very attractive! The Party’s women did not understand that the article. strong and independent women unless they were lesbians. They could not comprehend that it was in effect stating that women could not be. like most of the press attacks on lesbians throughout the 1980s was an attack on all women. In all the press accounts of Labour women. GLC’s Lesbian and Gay Charter. nor would they wish to be.) Then there was the Labour Women’s Conference in 1986 at Rothesay. said the paper. but anger amongst lesbians in the hall soon turned from the press to the conference platform. For in attacking the article. a bunch of hairy lesbians so unappealing that even sex-starved sailors on shore leave would turn them down. unless they were freaks. at best lesbian lookalikes.56 FEMINIST REVIEW Launch of ‘Changing the World’. the platform speakers argued that the majority of women present were not lesbians.. A similar attack upon women is to be found in the Daily Mail’s account of the GLC Women’s Unit weekend conference in Brighton in 1984. Along with coy references to women being doubled up in bedrooms at night. Women who dare to step outside the very narrow male-defined view of womanhood are at worst lesbians.e. This was also the substance of the attacks on Labour’s candidate Dierdre Woods during the Greenwich by-election campaign.
formal support for gay rights often ended up coming from either the Women’s Committee which encompassed lesbianism within its remit or from the Ethnic Minorities Unit which employed gay rights workers. As a result. were there first and foremost as feminists. on the other hand. there . If the GLC could never quite decide where to locate gay rights within its structure. Often they had a long history of membership in the Labour Party itself. however. and many of those who were socialist had no commitment at all to the Labour Party. Its Statement of Practice for Equal Opportunities omitted mention of class altogether. and a catalyst for creating hostility between the old and new GLC. for all that it liked to proclaim itself as the leading public defender of gay rights. With one or two exceptions such as Haringey which instituted a Lesbian and Gay Rights Unit. nor did it foresee how its support for gay rights might affect its class politics. and that Black lesbians and Black gay men shared the same interests and politics as white gays—they assumed that employing gay rights workers in the various specialized units met all the needs of gays. and although the Women’s Committees policy statements did include class in the list of oppressions that headed such statements. class became a major source of dissension. never moved beyond having a Lesbian and Gay Working Party composed of some officers located elsewhere in the GLC.LABOUR PARTY 57 The GLC grapples with gay rights Having opened Pandora’s box. plus some non-GLC advisers. it failed even more dismally to work out precisely what its support for gays actually meant in policy terms. lesbians were more concerned with the politics of sexuality and feminism. the drafters decided to leave class out because they found it too difficult to define class within both the document’s context and the overall context of the committee’s approach to policy. Certainly the GLC. for the GLC as the staunch upholder of local socialism was often strangely unable to talk about class. they never worked out precisely where the responsibility for gay rights should be located in their Local Authority structure. Labour politicians were deeply puzzled as to what to do next. In at least one document discussing heterosexism. This last was not peculiar to gay rights. Whilst some of the opposition to the Women’s Committee was openly misogynistic and homophobic.) Since straight Labour politicians assumed that gay rights were a homogeneous whole—that lesbians and gay men shared the same interests and politics. The old versus the new GLC: class and sexuality Perhaps more than any other issue. and been bemused by its contents. Quite often they had no particular commitment to socialism (indeed rejected socialism as just another patriarchal/racist ideology). Whilst gay men involved in local government politics devoted considerable energy and attention to discussing the relationship of the politics of sexuality to the politics of socialism. the class dimension was rarely a central part of policy discussion. Many of the lesbians involved in local government. The divisions between lesbians and gay men also produced an interesting situation in that the gay male activists who became involved in Labour’s support for gay rights tended to do so because they were committed socialists as well as gay. (It was these two committees which led the protest against the decision of the Housing Committee to reject the research into gay housing needs.
There was a kind of fever on the part of the New Left Councillors to demonstrate their commitment to the new politics. were often dismissed out of hand. The attitudes of some old die-hard trade unionists made it difficult for the new groups to work with them. And the branch of the Transport and General Workers’ Union led a boycott of the Greenwich Women’s Unit for several weeks following the unit’s protest against crude pin-ups adorning office walls. The new employees came in at high levels of pay and on high professional grades. but also apparently at the expense of other sections of the workforce was rather cavalierly disregarded by feminists as a reactionary response which could safely be ignored. There was the Chief Shop Steward in one of London’s Labour Councils who announced that ‘perverts’ would be employed in ‘his’ workforce over his dead body. and of working-class ratepayers. to build the Rainbow Alliance. This was not helped by the tendency of the Women’s Unit (like the other new support units of the various innovative committees introduced by the Livingstone regime) to stay in its small isolated enclave distanced from the rest of the Council—whilst enjoying direct access to leading members.58 FEMINIST REVIEW was also a lack of sense of identification with the politics of class within the Women’s Committees themselves. the day-to-day grind of the Council’s work. meant that many GLC blue-collar workers experienced a considerable gulf between their interests and the interests of the Women’s Unit. The continuing cuts on the services. a deliberate policy aimed at ensuring that workers felt loyalty to the women they represented.000 and a staff of 3 to £16 millions and a staff of 96 in its final and fourth year of existence). The trade union reaction to a growth which was not only at odds with the rest of the Council’s experience. or any desire to share in. In the GLC. Recruitment of Women’s Committee support staff also caused hostility. whilst 4 per cent cuts were being imposed throughout Council services. rather than to the bureaucracy that employed them. not least of which was the fact that local authorities were facing massive cuts throughout their services whilst the new units were enjoying a remarkable period of growth. This position of privilege added to the resentment when the Council started introducing equalities policies at all levels throughout the workforce. combined with the fact that the manual workers (often at the hard end of dealing with a public complaining about reduced services) remained at their same low grades and low rates of pay. As a result the legitimate responses of trade union workforces. but in so doing they lost sight of their class-based support. with many of the long-standing employees feeling that they were having doctrines imposed upon them by a new élite group who had no great understanding of. Council tenants living in deteriorating public sector housing stock with a reduced repairs service saw no reason why a bunch of . again a deliberate policy to combat the traditional expectation of women’s work being low grade and low paid. for example. the Women’s Committee was enjoying a huge growth in its budget (from £332. The sight of lesbians and gay men suddenly feeling able to ‘flaunt’ their sexuality and their existence. however. Most of the women were recruited directly from the women’s movement. But there were also genuine grounds for conflict between the old and the new GLC. The rapid growth of the Committee reflected the nonorganic relationship between the Labour movement and feminism. added to the belief that Labour Councils were abandoning their traditional constituency and concerns in favour of a bunch of social deviants who showed little interest in working-class concerns.
the Rights Workers who felt they were engaged in an unequal . what form should that help take? Should it be confined to a welfare role. the GLC lost all control over direct service provision. In part this was because. A GLC officer.LABOUR PARTY 59 dykes should have ‘dances on the rates’ (one Tory Councillor’s well-publicized description of a GLC grant to Lesbian Line) whilst they were waiting months for a door or window to be replaced.8 per cent of the Council’s overall budget. the stairs to be cleaned. In 1984 GLC expenditure on all lesbian and gay initiatives amounted to 0. in the period leading up to abolition. internal unit documents would be circulated to the Unit’s Equalities Officers for comment. Officers who had thought carefully and sensitively through the issues were upset to find their painstaking drafts returned with dismissive and frequently unhelpful comments attached. along with many of the other equalities strategies. or should it take on an educative role through the schools. Similarly. the GLC no longer had direct housing into which it could introduce joint tenancy rights for gay couples. Nor did public proclamation of gay rights really amount to a major change in service provision as the GLC Housing Committee’s response to the gay housing needs research project demonstrated. were tagged on to policy approaches rather than being integral to the formulation of the policies in the first place. Deteriorating relations A more deep-seated problem was the fact that gay rights. rather than being involved in their creation. Equally. or the lifts to be repaired. or by producing Local Authority literature such as the Lesbian and Gay Charter? The Grant Aid policy adopted by the GLC during the Livingstone years was aimed directly at redistributing resources and wealth throughout London. such as funding Lesbian Line. But within the equalities context the system inevitably created considerable tension. what services should be reduced to make way for this expenditure? Whilst the theories behind the policies were never raised by the Labour Party as a whole (though they were constantly discussed by lesbian and gay activists). the practicalities of putting support for gay rights into action was never really discussed either. The Housing Committee’s refusal to undertake the research project was indicative of the failure of the new Local Government left to really assess the purpose and value of their support for gay rights. having spent weeks or months on writing a new policy document. of course. As a result its policies were theoretical and advisory rather than statutory. Basic questions were never debated: Was it the role of Local Authorities to help raise gay consciousness? And if so. One of the problems. For example. This process emerged out of the longstanding method of dealing with cross-department documents long before equalities were dreamed of and the system was simply adopted. But should gays be part of that redistribution? And if so. which gays? And from whom should the resources be removed? Should Local Authority revenue raised from the rates of the poor working class in the deprived inner cities really go to funding a lesbian and gay social centre in London? And if so. Equalities Officers ended up as attackers of already formulated policy documents. would forward it for comment to the various Equalities Units. was the huge difference in publicity accorded to these initiatives and the actual amount of money being spent.
Many lesbians who benefited directly or indirectly from Labour Councils’ support for gay rights saw no reason why they should give their support to the Labour Councils in return. This was revealed most clearly at the time of the campaign against Clause 28. Some members of the Arts Lobby. ignoring the fact that the Clause was itself contained in another piece of punitive anti-Local Government legislation. GLC equalities at times resembled a wartime bunker or a city under siege. Again the identification of gay rights as just a civil liberties matter was key to this approach and there were considerable differences between those who wanted to relate the issue to the long process of attack on local democracy carried out by the Thatcher Government and those who wanted to keep their hands free from left extremism. as lesbian rights officers commented on the work of Black Rights Officers and vice versa. The phrase was also a useful tool for those on the left who never wanted equalities in the first place. spending their days in quiet misery. both to fulfil a heavy workload and to get the politics right. were now suddenly faced with the realization that one of the key elements that defined ‘loony leftism’ was support for gay rights. riven by internal strife whilst the Tory enemy outside massed its forces around the city’s or County Hall’s walls. including myself. found it difficult to associate themselves with the Labour Councils who were as much the target of Clause 28 as were gay rights. Labour activists who were sympathetic to lesbian and gay rights fell all too easily into using this pernicious phraseology as shorthand for all the equalities policies. and refusing to see that Clause 28 was a multiple weapon aimed not only against the civil rights of gays. but against all civil liberties in general. it was a deeply traumatic experience. They found it easier to have tea with Tory peers on the terrace of the House of Lords than to work with the Labour Councillors who had funded gay rights on the rates in the first place. Livingstone’s Rainbow Alliance may have gained support from lesbian and gays who were already Labour movement activists. they were belittling the entire equalities strategy.60 FEMINIST REVIEW struggle to get their politics integrated into the overall policy of the GLC were frustrated and angered by reading yet another policy statement written by officers who clearly had no idea of what the equalities issues entailed. but it failed to win over the support of gays who had never supported Labour. And at this stage I still find it difficult to assess how successful the GLC’s support for gay rights was. and against Labour Councils in particular. Apart from a few unrepentant Labour hacks of the old school. few dared to . I cannot number many of my ex-colleagues who have happy memories of working in the GLC equalities field. anger and the playing off of one oppression against another. the demand so great. when the Labour movement as a whole had signally failed to do so? One of the most important symptoms of this failure was the ‘Black one-legged lesbians’ syndrome. Many of the campaigners tried to treat Clause 28 as a separate issue. that there was little time given to a learning process. Some workers cracked under the intensity. It was a good joke at endless Party and trade union meetings. others learned simply to say the right words. The pressure on staff was so intense. It was also a system that was ripe for guilt-tripping and denunciations. in particular. Much sophistry was engaged in by gays who. Even supporters of the equalities policies failed to realize that by conflating the equalities issues to produce this singular and obviously absurd figure. The situation seemed designed to encourage jealousies. For many. having largely gone along with the right-wing propaganda about ‘loony leftism’. But then why should gays be expected to work this out.
The Thatcher Government is. many gays blamed the loony left for going too far. allowing her to claim the high moral ground. Indeed some papers when referring to Labour Councils. were a suitable target for attack. I resigned my membership this year. co-opted members. The family is a cornerstone of the New Right’s philosophy. In 1989 it is sometimes difficult to remember that they did. Race Committees. In 1979. with the added advantage that those who opposed the whole idea of equalities could do so obliquely without ever having to spell it out. Gay rights in general. It was also part of a long-overdue but genuine response on the part of the left to the problems created by a hack Labour bureaucracy that was top heavy and unable to deliver a good service. grant aid. in the business of asserting social control (forget all that nonsense about controlling inflation or defeating employment). long before the introduction of Clause 28. the year of Margaret Thatcher’s election victory. So the decade has turned full circle. After twenty-eight years of membership in the Labour Party. The Thatcher response to the rise of the New Left was to adopt the simple expedient of doing away with local democracy altogether. It is no accident that Clause 28 contained within it the infamous reference to ‘pretended families’. The phrase ‘Black lesbians’ was also central to the right-wing press attacks on Labour Councils. When Clause 28 was introduced. Even fewer wanted to oppose provision for people with disabilities. the phrase ‘Black lesbians’ served as an excellent cover for their racism. however. both as users and decision-makers. In particular it was a response to the fact that specific groups were excluded from full participation in local government. enabling order to be maintained and discipline to be preserved. smothered the Party leadership’s ability to support gay rights. beginning when I was sixteen years old. It was a stance which. few would have believed that gay rights would play such an important part in Labour politics during the 1980s. not least of which is the Party’s departure from unilateralism. the magic talisman that will bind society together. There are many reasons. As the decade developed the Labour Party’s only real strategy was to try and claw out a place on the foothills of Thatcherite morality.LABOUR PARTY 61 speak openly against Black people. Women’s Committees. But lesbianism was also central to Thatcherism. after all. Conclusion The New Left’s support for gay rights was one of the most sustained post-Falklands challenges to Thatcher values. the response of much of the Labour movement was to blame the GLC’s support for gay rights. for whilst even the likes of the Sun were reluctant to openly attack Black people. gay rights were all part of an effort to make local Labour democracy more accountable and more representative. The New Left was stymied from the start by the Labour leadership’s decision to surrender itself as a hostage to Thatcher fortune. Lesbians. and lesbianism in particular (men have always allowed themselves the privilege of stepping outside the boundaries of the family) challenged the supremacy of the family as a unit of social control. and its inability to take on board . never seemed to use the word lesbian without preceding it by the word ‘Black’. When the GLC was abolished.
and its desire to produce a genuine alternative to Thatcherism. London: Collins. I suspect. Its continuing attitude to gay rights will. LIVINGSTONE. Prior to going to university where she studied history as a mature student in 1977. But the Labour Leadership’s pusillanimous response to Clause 28 was the final straw. Lansley and FORRESTER. She joined the Labour Party in 1960 when she was sixteen. WAINWRIGHT. for BBC Television’s Current Affairs Department. this time as a freelance producer of documentaries and drama. she worked in television. Martin and FUDGE. She joined the GLC some nine months prior to its abolition working in the Women’s Committee Support Unit. Fourth Estate. London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd. A Tale of Two Parties. be as good a bench mark as any against which to judge both its approach to civil liberties. . Radical Records. London: The Hogarth Press. and left the Party in 1989. CARVEL. Hilary (1987) Labour. During that same period she was also Vice-Chair of the Woolwich Constituency Labour Party. She is now working again in television. Ken (1987) If Voting Changed Anything. I can’t say I have much optimism about the future of the Labour Party. London: The Hogarth Press.62 FEMINIST REVIEW environmental policies other than with cynical opportunism. Thirty Years of Lesbian and Gay History. Local Socialism?. London: Routledge. CANT. came out as a lesbian at the age of thirty-three. Note Ann Tobin is forty-four years old. FORRESTER. Pauley (1985) Beyond Our Ken. Suggested further reading BODDY. Whether it wins the next General Election or not. Susan (1988) editors. Bob and HEMMINGS. Colin (1984) editors. They’d Abolish It. John (1984) Citizen Ken.
there are others who cast only a sideways glance at the mainstream. Although lesbians do model in fashion magazines such as Elle. invites interpretation. so fashion was seen to be the gilded cage that had ensnared them in the mutilations of the feminine. Feminism celebrated the ‘real’ woman beneath her makeup and aimed to set her free from the confines of tight skirts and high heels. lesbian fashion is making statements. Seasonal adjustments of style kept them as much on their toes as the high heels that ruined their spines. Many of these styles are controversial. Spring 1990 . The feminist hostility towards fashion. There seem to be more ways of looking like a lesbian than ever before. is still alive in the late 1980s but it no longer enjoys universal support among all feminists. Faces bare of makeup Although many lesbians are still uncomfortable with many of the trappings of femininity it is revolutionary lesbian feminists who remain most loyal to a 1970s feminist analysis of fashion and femininity. to spare a thought for trend. identifying their politics and sexuality in relation to other lesbians. And with ‘lipstick’ lesbians and SM lesbians set against revolutionary lesbian feminists. characteristic of the 1960s and 1970s. As femininity symbolized women’s oppression by men. But do they have anything new to say about our identities and politics? Certainly. yet their styles echo that decade of Feminist Review No 34. They no longer dress in 1970s fashion (which might have got them into last year’s most trendy acid house parties). The argument has been that fashion epitomized women’s constant striving towards the feminine. displaying lesbians’ new preoccupation with sexual practice. gently flicking ash off her tweeds. and as such.SKIRTING THE ISSUE: Lesbian Fashion for the 1990s Inge Blackman and Kathryn Perry The contemporary lesbian is considered to be ‘congenitally’ unfashionable: too busy propping up Havelock Ellis’s eternal mantlepiece. pipe in hand. Mainstream fashion rather than lesbianism exerts the strongest influence over their style. Marie-Claire and Vogue. So what do lesbians look like? Unsurprisingly. For these women. these fabulous creatures are always assumed to be heterosexual because they ‘look heterosexual’. their ‘style wars’ reveal deep ideological disagreement. the majority look exactly the same as heterosexual women. dress provides a visible connection with their lesbian subcultures. However. lesbians for whom style is a conscious statement of gay identity.
these lesbians flirt with the symbols of heterosexuality. baggy trousers. This kind of revolutionary feminism emphasizes the ‘natural’ and functional aspects of dress. Twinning short skirts with Doctor Martens (DMs) or lacy underwear with men’s trousers. culture rather than nature underlies this high fashion urban look. With flat shoes. But what does this have to do with lesbian politics? ‘Lipstick’ lesbians with feminist leanings argue that the feminine has been engaged with on new terms. is hotly denied by those who see it as culturally specific. constantly changing their meaning within the context of a lesbian subculture. big jewellery and the Haircut. tight dresses or skirts. It should follow that one construction can only be exchanged for another more acceptable construction. for instance. widebottomed trousers. short. are satisfied with a politics that prioritizes gender over race. The view that revolutionary lesbian fashion liberates the ‘real’ woman and is thereby appropriate for all women. (Wilson. For the ‘lipstick’ lesbians. unshaven legs and faces bare of makeup. Consistent with this view. Instead. but they then go on to falsely claim that a face bare of makeup is more ‘natural’. Rather than indulging in consumerist fantasy. However. that there is a subtle but crucial distinction between a femininity that is imposed on women and one that is controlled by women who possess the confidence to subvert it. while it rejects the view that fashion is an aspect of popular culture to be enjoyed by the majority. they believe that femininity can therefore be deconstructed. womanly qualities underlie femininity. Revolutionary feminists accept that femininity is socially constructed. revolutionary feminists claim that innate. and an ‘essentialism’ which claims that people possess innate characteristics. There is scarcely a society in the world that does not practice some form of body painting.64 FEMINIST REVIEW feminism in their self-conscious rejection of a femininity constructed by ‘heteropatriarchy’. with its starlet lipstick. offers a different reading of femininity. . It is street-wise and hip. they are critical of the cosmetics industry and the way that patriarchy connects makeup with femininity. they reject those aspects of women’s fashion that signal the oppressive hierarchy of heterosexuality. Few Black lesbians. For instance. Using the feminine to attract women rather than men. their style combines practicality with a strong statement about not dressing for men. Consistent with the belief that fashion reinforces the gender distinctions between men and women. it echoes the nineteenth-century movements for dress reform and links the search for a style that is ‘authentic’ to the creation of ‘women’s utopias’. and it is difficult to imagine anything short of total nakedness that could be ‘natural’ for humans (and even that is questionable). 1985) This revolutionary feminist analysis seems contradictory because it draws on two opposing ways of seeing the world: a ‘social constructionism’ which claims that people are the product of their environment. crisp white shirts and square or round-toes shoes (with or without heels). with Levis. often cut-offs. and thus many reject aspects of the ideology that underlies revolutionary feminist style. Scarlet starlets The popularity of this revolutionary lesbian style in the 1970s coincided with a mainstream trend toward naturalism. their supposedly ‘androgynous’ style signifies an equal relationship between women. Current fashion is retrospective of Riviera chic in its glamorous echo of 1930s South of France.
and rubber has had a long association with ‘kinky’ sex.LESBIAN FASHION 65 To revolutionary lesbian feminists. many lesbians are making it clear that revolutionary feminism can no longer claim to speak for all women. dresses. uniting feminism through the ‘woman-identified-woman’. and school uniforms with sexual naivety. presents an image that many associate with an aggressive or violent sexuality. waistcoat (no shirt) or no clothing at all. Contemporary lesbian communities are engaged in a continuing project of actually challenging the low profile of sexuality within lesbianism. the top defies the pervasive western fetish of the female breast and flirts with the demand that breasts be kept hidden. power and the threat of violence. Top dress will reveal the body from the waist upwards: light vest. They. These are a metaphor for rigid controls: strict discipline. but at the same time she makes herself vulnerable. It has failed to address their concerns in the 1980s and they interpret its assumed consensus as authoritarian. Military and police uniforms are associated with aggression. The sado-masochistic (SM) style. With lesbianism no longer feminism’s symbol of liberation. For the lesbian on the streets. They accuse the ‘lipstick’ lesbians of libertarianism. smell and feel of leather or rubber. Yet many lesbians interpret these styles—often controversial—with a mixture of fascination and horror. false consciousness. nurses’ and maids’ uniforms with subservience. Within this culture. of being sexually ambiguous. this subtle distinction is questionable. cowboy chaps and wristbands. And the time has passed when lesbian and heterosexual women would dance in a circle. biker boots and cowboy boots. in their turn. She declares her sexuality. The lesbian who wears leather or rubber finds it thrilling to play the pervert. mingled with the sight. wearing uniforms for sex implies an . The onlooker is drawn into a web of fantasy. SM fashion also includes uniforms. As the context is nearly always a club where this exposure is a familiar code it becomes both safe and sexually blatant. In fact. although favourites are DMs. lingerie and high heels. sex promised and control taken. trousers. breasts not touching. The power principle Many of today’s diverse self-definitions and styles reflect lesbians’ renewed preoccupation with sexuality. reinforced by the glamour industries of film and popular music. Footwear includes boots of all descriptions. Y-fronts and snug briefs are essential when ‘packing’ (wearing a dildo). Leather has a particular erotic appeal. a combination that would be impossible in any other situation. perhaps the most controversial. The bottom may wear similar clothes in addition to skirts. are accused of being aesthetically dull and sexually unattractive. worse. Their connotations differ. with rewards for obedience and punishment for breaking the rules. ‘passing’ for heterosexual or. concealing her body and asserting her strength. revolutionary feminist imperatives lack consensus. feeling the charge of sexual power as she eases into her second skin. Leather and rubber are de rigeur for jackets. the leather jacket can become protective armour. riding crops and weapons. By exposing her breasts. intent upon ‘policing’ desire and denying pleasure. Accessories might include peaked ‘muir’ caps (with or without military uniform). The style differs depending on whether the wearer wants to indicate that she is the top/butch or the bottom/femme. handcuffs.
most lesbians think that it is libertarianism taken to an extreme when doing your own thing involves chains and swastikas. nor should the debate be used to obscure the challenges of SM sex and style. jacket. But apart from self-empowerment. daddy) bears the closest resemblance to the fantasy ‘masculine’ lesbian. Some SM lesbians claim that sexual practice enables them to break through to the ‘real’ sexual being underneath. SM lesbians who use symbols associated with mass torture and genocide within a sexual context might argue that they give those symbols a new meaning. the other through sexual practice—and see this as the basis of new social relations. is deeply troubling. and short back and sides—to the more everyday leather jacket. The butch look ranges from the courtly 1920s and 1930s Radclyffe Hall—trousers. proclaiming both their lesbianism and their sexual practice. However. there is no clear strategy in therapy or ‘good’ sex that will enable lesbians to challenge discrimination. This is not dissimilar from radical feminism’s discovery of the ‘natural’ woman. The butch (stud. which was always undercut by an ambiguous masculinity on screen and bisexuality in real life. However it should not be assumed that all SM sex is thereby racist or anti-Semitic. exciting with her up-front sexuality and threatening with her obvious lesbianism. Some SM lesbians claim that their sexual radicalism is also political radicalism. With dress codes an intrinsic part of their sexual practice. optional tie/cravat. Some argue that this represents an important challenge to feminism’s essentialist tendency to ascribe violence and aggression to men and caring and nurturing to women. and in contemporary society it is the emblem of extreme right-wing groups. Aping heterosexuality? A marginally less controversial contemporary lesbian style is butchfemme. these images may be too alien or offensive to arouse. Of course. for those lesbians who are ‘clean-living citizens’ and ambivalent about being ‘out’. SM sexuality is as far removed from the soft-focus caresses of Bilitis as it is from the straight notion of lesbian sex as a warm-up routine for heterosexual sex. It has been pointed out that in India the swastika has religious connotations. the existence of ‘porn-book perverts’. However. strongly negative feelings could conceal unacknowledged desires. butches capture these film stars’ macho image. Both envisage personal transformation—the one through therapy and consciousness-raising. They fix the lesbian into a particular erotic role and may act as a restraint from which she will only be released when she removes the costume. The femme (fish) style can combine short . But for lesbians who are not part of the SM scene. and it was even known as an ‘Indian good luck symbol’ in the west before the 1930s. yet it is now associated with the Third Reich and the Holocaust. Likewise. SM lesbians claim to be putting the sex back into lesbianism. white T-shirt. Certainly. chains can be associated with the shackling of enslaved African peoples in the ‘New World’. This complex erotic exchange takes place consensually and can be ended at any time by saying a prearranged ‘safe word’. It remains important to question whether their use is racist and anti-Semitic. It is not evident that personal change will inevitably become political. Looking like James Dean and Marlon Brando.66 FEMINIST REVIEW exchange of power. jeans (501s) and boots.
I love the texture of the net and the feeling of my legs concealed under the long skirt. but it does not mirror male-female roles as Sheila Jeffreys suggests. Few Black women (or men) in their relationships with white people would agree. Butch/femme style is assumed to relate to role-playing.e. (Anon. the eroticizing of power difference.. I wanted to distort it. Yet revolutionary feminists who believe that gender is potentially the great equalizer between women. a tension between the roles can exist within one person in a way that would be unthinkable for most heterosexual women.LESBIAN FASHION 67 skirts with either big boots or high heels. Nor should it be assumed that lesbianism so closely mirrors heterosexuality. That is why difference in this context cannot be benign. it can no longer be maintained as the primary or exclusive term of analysis. suggesting the creative menace of punk or the high camp of exaggerated femininity: Punk fashion was especially good at injecting a kind of violent aura into femme chic that made it trashy and threatening instead of submissive and vulnerable to wear a skirt. as Joan Nestle explains: . dominance and submission. Under male supremacy it is the subordination of women and male power that are eroticized. i. I wore one because my friend had got married and I was upset that she was getting all that approval. the power relations of dominance and submission are rendered complex by the interaction of gender and race. Even if dominance/submission are essential to the gendered power relations between men and women. It has received vociferous condemnation from revolutionary feminists. In butch-femme relationships. Lesbians who acknowledge and enjoy the complex exchange of power between women stress that the experience bears little resemblance to hetero-sexuality. yet free. When gender inevitably combines with other social relations of power in a fluid exchange. 1989:42) I like bridal outfits. it is not evidence that her interpretation will transfer so readily to lesbian relationships. (Jeffreys. Moreover. as Sheila Jeffreys suggests. The assumption that feminine clothing casts the femme into a submissive heterosexuality (currently more controversial than the assumption that masculine clothing casts the butch into a dominant heterosexuality) can only be made if one first accepts that gender is the only explanation for the erotic pull of difference. Those lesbians who are revalidating butch and femme are not discovering that they are innately butch or femme. Sexual attraction is constructed around ‘difference’. 1987:84) Butch-femme may allude to heterosexuality. can only ascribe this exchange to false consciousness. The ‘male-female polarity’ is a polarity of dominance and submission. both butches and femmes exert their own distinct power. For them. and to involve two women locked in a drama that reworks classic heterosexual dominant/submissive behaviour. they are engaging in an erotic communication based on sado-masochism.
‘Roots’ lesbians are often considered to be harshly critical of Black lesbians who are ‘not Black enough’: who straighten their hair. have a light skin and don’t associate exclusively with Black women. it is a priority to assert their racial and cultural identities in response to invisibility and exclusion. If the revolutionary lesbian style is often seen to denote lesbian separatism. Roots Many lesbian styles are located specifically within a western cultural context. For these lesbians. 1987:100) Butches are on display and are looked at by femmes. the choice of dress from their parental cultures is less selfconscious. with its own prescribed appearance and lifestyle. these styles may appear white-identified or fascistic. However. and Black lesbians who have relationships with white women are thought to have betrayed their sisters. Mingled with various western fashions. the majority of Black lesbians who claim the identities of these subcultures will not. don’t speak their mother tongue. then the ‘roots’ of Black lesbians’ style can signal its own separatism. For them. The imperialist legacy has often meant that fashion from colonized countries is not markedly different from ‘British fashion’. any allusion to heterosexuality is undercut by the creative tension deriving from this specifically lesbian exchange. as in style. The cultures of their ancestors may have been stripped bare. In sexuality. saris. By catching the butch’s eye. but the body remains to be adorned in the fight against further cultural erosion. This philosophy of a pure and essential ‘Blackness’. She takes the sexual initiative. Although it comes from a different . Some Black women who want to dress butch-femme or SM may incorporate aspects of clothing from their cultures of origin into these fashions. a reversal of expectation of where the dominant ‘male gaze’ should reside. cane/corn rows (maybe with extensions) and unstraightened Afro hair. but in taking this risk. Wearing the clothing of their societies of origin is an act of resistance to assimilation into British society. but carries with it the same sense of resistance to cultural imperialism. a working-class bar in Greenwich Village. this fusion of styles reflects the tension of belonging to both Black and gay cultures but being prevented by homophobia and racism from complete acceptance by either. punjabi suits. the femme takes the initiative and so makes herself vulnerable to the butch. dashikis. It is by maintaining this tension—in part through styles of dress—that many Black lesbians sustain their identities as Black women and lesbians without having to deny one at the expense of the other. looking for my friends and sometimes for a lover. The butch’s power is in the sexual arena. clothing made out of African fabric. For first-generation lesbians. when I went to the Sea Colony. has its roots in the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. This style includes headwraps. I was a femme…(Nestle. Asian/African jewellery and hairstyles such as dreadlocks.68 FEMINIST REVIEW In the late 1950s I walked the streets looking so butch that straight teenagers called me bulldyke: however. marginalized by racism and anti-Semitism within lesbian communities and wider society. Yet the femme will not limit her responses to become the passive partner in sex. makes herself vulnerable to the femme. To others. their search for identity will take them back to the homes of their ancestors.
And when they still retain female garments these usually show some traits of masculine simplicity. Michel Foucault’s work has been useful in highlighting the way that the location of ‘perversion’ among marginal types and communities—communities defined . and it will not always be clear whether the wearer is a lesbian. it acquired influence as it became encoded in the scientific language of the late nineteenth-century discourse on sexuality. In such cases male garments are not usually regarded as desirable chiefly on account of practical convenience. leading only to further marginalization. For the professional lesbian who wants to stay in the closet. slacks. (Ellis and Symonds. When pushed to think what ‘appearing normal’ will entail. the lesbian style that is perceived to say the least about the wearer is the high-street casual look. This may include track suit. who repeatedly associated lesbianism with tranvestism. but because the wearer feels more at home in them. this style is the ultimate disguise: ‘I’m just trying to get on with my life. It is important for Black lesbians to support and affirm each other away from white lesbians. Many other lesbian fashions do present a text to be interpreted through the onlooker’s prejudice. trackshoes. loafers. Although the fantasy of what a lesbian looks like has undergone many costume changes over the years. it ironically echoes white supremacist beliefs of racial segregation and purity. it is this masculine aspect that has remained the most enduring characteristic in a tradition extending back to the late nineteenth-century sexologists. brogues. then this would be lesbians’ blank page.LESBIAN FASHION 69 power base. If fashion were a text that is presented to the world. If any makeup is worn at all. However.’ Just like a man Not every lesbian wishes to wear her fashion as a badge of courage. desires and knowledge of the codes. this lesbian style is significant in its capacity to blend in. DMs and sandals. But with mainstream fashion overwhelmingly casual since the 1960s. as unobtrusively and conventionally as possible. jeans. Havelock Ellis. nor even in order to make an impression on other women. it is understated. most lesbians admit that the image to be most strenuously avoided is that of the mannish woman of popular fantasy. explained how to recognize a lesbian: There is…a very pronounced tendency among sexually inverted women to adopt male attire when practicable. separatism as a long-term political strategy has many times proved unsuccessful. shirts and sweatshirts. to be comfortable but not to stand out. Although all fashion makes a statement. I feel that I can be more subversive as a lesbian by appearing normal. It is difficult to read into this fashion any indication of sexual politics or practice. and there is nearly always disdain for the petty feminine artifices of the toilet. The blank page Most lesbians will dress like the majority of the population. 1897:96) Although the accusation of tranvestism predated the sexologists.
The stereotypical lesbian of today is not the fashionable cross-dresser in Ralph Lauren riding breeches or Armani suit and tie. for instance. In this way. she continues to confront us in the external realm of social relations as much as in the internal realm of the psyche. Identity Some lesbians welcome the ways in which their choice of style enables them to be recognized as gay. but it is as incapable as our autobiographies of revealing the ‘real’ self. child. Fashion cannot indicate a fixed identity. Lesbians may change their style with age. But is it possible for fashion to be transparent in that way? Style will encode all the cultural messages of our communities. the lesbian can be recognized from within her guise of normality and exposed for treatment (‘cures’ ranging from psychiatry to electric shock treatment) or punishment (losing job. they will feel a high degree of ambivalence about the fantasy lesbian who can. home. in wearing the styles associated with particular identities. on the one hand. or remind white lesbians of her Blackness at the same meeting by wearing a sari. will locate the wearer within an SM subculture and identify her as an ‘SM lesbian’. To facilitate the intervention of all kinds of regulatory forces into the family (Foucault refers to doctors. racial. may change frequently in relation to circumstances. social welfare workers) there was a need to distinguish between ‘perversion’ and ‘normality’.70 FEMINIST REVIEW by their identity as sexual. A lesbian who wears SM top . The function of this popular fantasy is one of regulation and control. lesbians are still assumed to be defined by those identities: by dressing ‘butch’. class or other kinds of ‘deviants’—reinforced the notion of the bourgeois heterosexual family. SM gear. A lesbian who wishes to challenge directly her marginality within the lesbian community may wear clothes associated with SM practices to a debate on lesbian sexuality. However. One of the ‘deviant’ identities against which the family was defined was the lesbian. Although this fantasy lesbian may bear little relation to what lesbians actually look like. this is commonly used to identify the wearer with a particular subculture. Accordingly. for instance. and they may also exchange roles. many lesbians will conflate the choice of whether to ‘come out’ or ‘stay in the closet’ with the contradictory desires to confess and avoid censure. it is a constantly changing set of statements to be interpreted by the onlooker’s own transforming perceptions. Individual style. they become entirely butch. for instance. psychiatrists. but an unglamorous creature whose masculine attire is symptomatic of her pathology. Despite the self-empowerment of ‘gay pride’. teachers. Thus the supposed affinity for male attire among lesbians took its place alongside other physical and behavioural characteristics of lesbian ‘perversion’. Yet butches may wear femme styles and vice versa. either experimenting with a new-found confidence or relaxing after years of time and money spent on appearance. With the attributes of lesbianism encoded in pseudo-scientific discourse. When their style makes an obvious statement about sexuality and politics. style and lifestyle are considered to be windows to the lesbian’s ‘real’ self. Masculine clothing (or a generally masculine appearance) remains associated with ‘deviance’ as the visible sign of lesbianism. or suffering physical violence). A lesbian with multiple sclerosis who once wore makeup may be unable to do so now because of lack of muscle control. provide valuable selfdefinition but who might also mean unwelcome exposure.
with Indian trousers. However. a biker’s jacket. constructing one self after another. In the early 1990s the political landscape is changing. Many women have greeted these insights with pessimism. identity politics. Chain Reaction. may choose to do so with style. Rather than exclude those groups primarily associated with identity politics. she dabbles in fashion. has left these groups fragmented. Each lesbian views the style/role she most immediately identifies with as a point of reference from which she is free to deviate at any time. which has the atmosphere of men’s clothes. But to subvert her heterosexual femininity she may be cool with men. Likewise a Black lesbian who wishes to show that her roots lie elsewhere while her feet are firmly planted in Britain. The ‘lipstick’ lesbian may be aware of looking ‘heterosexual’. As the credibility of identity politics becomes eroded and new challenges are presented by the right. may lounge around and go shopping in a tracksuit. Women have asserted that they do not all experience male power in the same way. I also like the clean-cut tailored look. I will wear aftershave because it gives that subtle indicator of my lesbianism. believing that a fragmented women’s movement can only campaign ineffectually. Each time the onlooker tries to place her by her colour and her headwrap. Yet even though an acknowledgement of our multiple identities is now on the agenda. Is this the price we pay for our recognition that identity is neither single nor fixed? Today’s lesbian ‘self is a thoroughly urban creature who interprets fashion as something to be worn and discarded. not wearing any leather at all. our discourse is still dominated by the conviction that these identities are fixed in relation to an unchanging hierarchy of oppression.LESBIAN FASHION 71 clothes to London’s SM lesbian club. Constantly changing. anti-apartheid T-Shirt and DMs. Mixing traditional African/Asian dress with male western attire. I like that hard edge with my femininity. she shatters expectations of herself as a Black woman. lesbians may confound expectations by subverting the image they project. and even male power is immersed in complexities. She may even get some transgressive pleasure out of fooling gullible heterosexuals. which suggested that legitimate political insight could only be claimed through direct experience. expressing her . Being aware of how style is used to identify. Sometimes I will go to Chain Reaction dressed all in white. All this has forced feminism to question its assumption of gender’s universality. she may have a severely short haircut and wear aftershave. Nothing is sacred for very long. the party-political left is reluctantly facing up to the fact that it needs all the support it can get from its natural allies. This could protect her from homophobic harassment and ease her entry into straight circles. go to work in a tailored suit and dress up in ‘roots’ style for a party. it becomes possible to acknowledge that identity is not fixed. the fantasy around her identity will be disrupted by her DM boots: It gives me a huge kick to wear earrings my grandmother used to wear in her village in India.
where gay people identify with a range of oppressions and heterosexual people can fight for gay rights. demonstrating that our individual freedom as gay people is as much an illusion as many of Thatcher’s other promises. it is conceivable that feminism is fading and that a ‘post-feminist’ state is evolving.72 FEMINIST REVIEW desires in a continual process of experimentation. Certainly it is ironic that the freedom to dress up has occurred under Thatcherism. To a beleaguered left. Opting out of capitalism does not carry the same weight as it did. The key is self-presentation. but it should be politicized across a number of struggles. but it can never become a substitute for direct political campaigning. You might look like Radclyffe Hall (if you want to). The motivation can only come through identification. the carefully constructed appearance that says you have dressed for success. but style is not sufficient in itself. which has curtailed our lives under Section 28 and allowed AIDS to fan the flames of an even greater hostility to lesbian and gay sexuality. even the left is developing new ways of selling its message to the disenchanted. Amid accusations of designer socialism. Even the ‘lipstick’ lesbians. Amid a growing attitude that lesbians should not be denied the fruits of success. that we are more free than ever before? Victorian values and the renewed sanctity of the family bring with them an increased intolerance of homosexuality. Is it really conceivable. You are more likely to be thought a loser than a freedom fighter. you look the part and opportunity lies before you. it can no longer be a useful rallying cry for mobilizing people into action. difference and diversity often appears as no more than hedonistic frivolity. Lesbians feel less guilty about keeping their options open. but will you ever be able to keep yourself in the style to which she was accustomed? Style may be subversive. and lesbians in provincial towns and rural areas find it almost impossible to be non-conformist. Then our . may use style as a smokescreen for their lesbianism so that the good life does not pass them by. One of the messages it puts across is a variation on the rags-to-riches story: that anything is possible in a world where a grocer’s daughter becomes Prime Minister. There is a new circumspection about coming out and it is no longer a prerequisite for political credibility. In this context. How do we assess that fluidity politically? Now that political lesbianism no longer calls the shots within feminism and the concept of a unified sisterhood has all but disappeared. there is even a certain sympathy for rich. those urbane media creatures. Is selfexpression through fashion the only freedom we have left? Identification The Tory Party encourages us to market ourselves through the example of its own carefully and expensively constructed image. Black lesbians have to face the realities of life in racist Britain. If identity is a constantly shifting and changing phenomenon. Fashion may be personally liberating. the proliferation of lesbian styles is often viewed as nothing more than a symptom of political disengagement. powerful and famous ‘designer dykes’ who would never risk their privilege to ‘come out’. as the Thatcherite rhetoric would have it. The real degree of choice that is open to lesbians depends on the wider political context. The personal is political. Revolutionary lesbian feminists are smartening up: it is no longer so easy to survive on the dole or as chic to look as though you do.
and works in publishing. no. Vol. pp. 5. London: Virago. no. John Addington (1897) Studies in the Psychology of Sex. 4. 1. Outlook. We would also like to thank Erica Carter for her useful suggestions. and provided us with many of the quotations found in this article. Sheila (1987) ‘Butch and Femme: Now and Then. Kathryn Perry has researched on women and autobiography. NESTLE. Elizabeth (1985) Adorned in Dreams. ELLIS. WILSON. Joan (1987) A Restricted Country: Essays and Short Stories. Gossip.LESBIAN FASHION 73 lifestyle—the buzz-word of the 1980s—will reflect the options in our life as well as in our style. Notes Inge Blackman is training to be a film technician. London: Sheba Feminist Publishers. She writes on film and is currently editing a book on women in film for Virago. Havelock and SYMONDS. References ANONYMOUS (1989) ‘S/M Aesthetic’. We would like to thank all the lesbians who talked to us about style. 42–3. . London: Wilson & Macmillan. Volume I—Sexual Inversion. London: Onlywomen Press. JEFFREYS.
74 FEMINIST REVIEW .
but. or haircuts. there now seems to be a consensus of avoidance around some of the serious issues involved. Considering it all just a matter of choice. we find ourselves reacting against it. we do think that what happens to us as babies. perhaps more properly. When it comes to the resurgence of butch/femme (or. the resurgence of femme) the ‘fluidity’ school seems to champion a celebratory approach. Also holding sway at the moment is a theoretical strand which emphasizes the fluidity of sexual identity. What appears to be happening is a definition of who’s butch and who’s femme through trial by clothing. short hair for all. its relationship to masculinity and femininity. We’d like to see a discussion begin which would consider the meanings of butch/ femme in the context of the social and psychic construction of lesbianism. it hardly seems to matter—there’s something shallow going on. can give us a lot to think about in relation to our later lives as lesbians. elements. Or black leather or whatever. We just wonder how all this playing with appearances—in clothes and behaviour—impinges on our relationships and sense of our lesbian selves in the world. We suspect that butch/ femme is a lot more than style or ‘roles’. These days it all seems like hot air and style. or suggest that one precludes the other. All us tarted up femmes running around in cocktail dresses. in all this. top-bottom terminology—and what else? Butch/femme now runs the risk of becoming as de rigeur for parts of the lesbian subculture as androgyny. A massive project.BUTCH/FEMME OBSESSIONS Susan Ardill and Sue O’Sullivan Now that butch/femme has finally achieved respectability and is sweeping sections of the visible British urban lesbian cultures. Spring 1990 . A great big mess of dress style. ‘Gender play’ is all the rage. femme or whatever. where is a feminist consciousness and challenge to gender divisions and inequalities? We don’t want to dichotomize the two. the impossibility of pinning it down. Last gasp of the 1980s or new wave for the 90s. At the same time. and a clean scrubbed face was a decade ago. butch. of course—the whole Feminist Review No 34. fun and flair might go some way however towards enabling lesbian desires to be brought into the open. and all them butches dressed à la Radclyffe Hall. While we don’t believe for a moment that we’re literally born butch or femme. which are what the current vogue seems to emphasize. or makeup. a refusal to consider any deeper. or problematic. as little girls.
predictable lines. butch/femme may be part of the very infrastructure of lesbian desire. although these are not static across race. we think there may also exist some internal psychic structure. let alone at butch and femme. We think that some lesbians around who call themselves butch or femme are the opposite of what they claim. They have to be infinitely elastic terms—living slang.76 FEMINIST REVIEW subject is very tangled and confusing. and believes that other forces may be as powerful in defining lesbian desire. The other one thinks that it’s all more tenuous. in other words. any lesbian language of self-description and selfanalysis has tended to remain underdeveloped. We know that some lesbians believe they are neither butch nor femme and don’t need those categories on any level. meanings and codes within many modern lesbian cultures. One of us thinks that at this point in the historical development of a lesbian identity/psyche. Can we extrapolate from . Because lesbian experience is so untheorized and unsupported. implying or guessing that she takes certain emotional positions in her relationship or that she will behave in a particular way in bed? Does everything proceed along simple. taking on endless nuances of meaning. which maybe we can also describe as butch/femme (or perhaps we should be calling it something else?). If we describe someone as ‘femmeing it up’ (the way they dress) are we also assuming. Underpinning this. a way of organizing sexual desire. Are some elements of it inevitable in relationships between women? Is the new embrace of ‘femmeness’ subversive in the same way the clone look was for gay men a decade ago—so that femininity is no longer essentially a position in relation to men: you can be a lesbian and a ‘real’ woman. Another view is that butch/femme are metaphors for subject/object in lesbian relationships: that talking about ourselves or others as butch/femme essentially describes how we negotiate desire. The absence of any precise or agreed definition about what butch and femme are produces endless heated arguments among lesbians. even within radical or alternative cultures. fluid? Psychic mysteries We wonder what psychoanalysis has to offer us on these questions. for some lesbians. A central question has to be whether butch/femme is liberating or constricting for lesbians. In this article we can only ask some pointed questions and suggest other paths we would like to go down in the future. Very little psychoanalytic theory has been produced which looks at les bianism from a nonpathologizing viewpoint. even in disguised forms? Or is it all more contradictory. And it seems that there are butches in successful relationships with other butches and femmes with femmes. So these two words (and their equivalents in other cultures and contexts) have become dreadfully overburdened. changing and slippery than that. We do think butch and femme exist in some form as a set of social behaviours. But there is no necessarily simple or obvious link between these two spheres—internal and external. What interests us—we use the words in both the senses above. We don’t think that every lesbian who is either butch or femme either acknowledges this or want to be identified as such. and many more—is the relationship between the different meanings. One straightforward and fairly widespread view is that they are merely methods of dress and behaviour—roles. class and national boundaries.
Wanting to be a boy is a different kettle of fish. with a different outcome? Do butch lesbians hate women? What is a femme’s relationship to a butch’s masculine identification? What distinguishes a femme from a heterosexual woman—why does she desire a woman? (Or does she want to be desired by a woman?) Are there more femmes than butches in modern western societies and if so why? Are there (as we guess) butch heterosexual women. In so doing we could approach it from many angles. Some of the questions echo ones we tried to articulate above. many of whom we think of as butch or femme. as socially constructed. where does bisexuality fit into it all? What impact does current feminism have on butch and femme psychic identities of today. how can psychoanalysis account for femme lesbians? Does an unconscious refusal to recognize their status as ‘castrated’ girls underly the butchness of some women? Are butches driven by the necessity to maintain that fantasy to themselves and others? Can femmes have the same fantasy. If difference is necessary for desire to exist.BUTCH/FEMME 77 recent feminist analytic work on femininity? Or are heterosexual feminist theoreticians missing a very important boat by largely leaving lesbians out of their calculations? We’re not on very sure ground when we discuss psychoanalysis. femininity and being a woman and how are their meanings culturally and historically specific? • When it comes to sex. • Does being a woman cause psychic distress to some women? What are the different meanings of femme. what difference? Are butch and femme ways of organizing certain differences between women and then eroticizing them? Is butch/femme a simple matter of masculine and feminine identifications? In a psychoanalytic account of the girl’s ‘achievement’ of her proper feminine position. and what does that say about heterosexual relationships? Inevitably. to domesticate the situation. This is what we wonder: • Who wanted to be a boy? Who was a tomboy? Looking at stories of lesbian lives. or observe. The answers we could come up with have different resonances and meanings when the questions are asked in a social context. do butch and femme have something to do with who is the object for the other and who looks at who? If butches are often caught in the Catch 22 of wanting a femme as the object of their desire at the same time that they are compelled to merge with that object. and the lesbians we know. but there are some areas we’d love to see developed. but here we are content to throw in bits and pieces from different directions. or are told about. if any? All we can do here is ask these questions—we’re nowhere near being able to provide comprehensive answers. We look at ourselves. in thinking about the psychic sphere. there seems to be no correlation between having been a tomboy and whether or not a lesbian is butch or femme. Social meanings At this point we return to considering lesbianism as a social identity. this attainment seems to go hand in hand with the establishment of the psychic conditions necessary for later female heterosexuality—so. and butch/femme in that light as well. what does that signify? Does the butch in the woman want the objectification of the .
the woman in the butch the domestication of her relationship? (And the lesbian loses it all in the end because the two are mutually exclusive?) • And what about the femme? Does she want to be the object of desire? Does she desire the butch only as her objectifier? Is she better placed to resist the merging? Is it the femme who can keep the butch at arm’s length and prolong desire? • Who pursues who? Who fucks who? What with? Here are some stabs in the dark: do butches tend to particularly like and initiate tribadism? Do butches want to penetrate? Are femmes more attached to penetration? .78 FEMINIST REVIEW feminine in her lover.
• We wonder what sort of parent/child. equalled lesbian?) Is it necessarily part of butch/femme that the femme look feminine and the butch masculine? What about those classically narcissistic lesbian couples who look like each other. Sometimes this seems to be mixed up with aspects of a parent/child dynamic. Maybe this reveals both its charm and its potentially self-destructive nature. the look. up until recently. The other emphatically thinks it’s often butches who are the babies. it seems more about self-consciousness and the classic ‘femininity’ of the femme. or even to have their genitals touched—why is this? (On the other hand. However. about having to take on certain social roles in order to make it. Freeing or freezing? When lesbians used to talk about their own experiences of butch/femme. submissive. the gaze. then what is it that we enjoy about looking like lesbians or having lovers who look lesbian and/or butch? (Has butch. One of us thinks that in these scenarios. • Is it possible that butches and femmes experience penetration and orgasm in different ways? If femmes find the womanly masculinity or androgyny of the butch attractive. there are the persuasive voices of butches who maintain that they enable the femme to feel safe and to be the baby. what about the famous butches ‘on the streets’. to give up control. and among many . and we know that many butches live in hope that their femme lover will want to fuck them too. But these ‘butches’ may be scared by the overt nature of butch/ femme too. but at others. about specific times in their histories. These days talk is about the here and now. femme definitely seems to occupy the infantilized position. mother/daughter. who are infamously femme ‘between the sheets’?) Don’t misunderstand: we are not suggesting that a ‘real’ femme never really is wet to fuck her lover. They may be frightened of these things. her womanness? Is the contradiction between butchness and femaleness the exciting ingredient for the femme? • Some lesbians who take on aspects of a butch identity may do so to hold at bay a desire to be passive. where then is the exact location of the femme’s sexual desire for the butch? In other words. Is lack of self-awareness integral to the butch persona? Conversely. are we implying that femmes are more self-aware? What are femmes frightened of? • If it’s all about looks. her cunt. how does a femme actually desire the butch’s breasts. dress like each other? Is the butch/femme component of their relationship played out in private? • Who is emotionally fluid? Who is strong and protective? Who takes care of who? We know femmes who complain (or not) of being the ones who take responsibility for the emotional well-being of the relationship. it was set in the past. father/ daughter narratives butch/femme is giving voice to.BUTCH/FEMME 79 We know that some butches don’t like to be penetrated at all.
Susan Ardill lives in Brixton and is a producer of Channel 4’s lesbian and gay series Out on Tuesday. chiefly about the pleasure and powerfulness of being femme—of being free to be seductive. So we end up ambivalent as usual. not new confining orthodoxies. Sue O’Sullivan lives in King’s Cross. enhanced the excitement. as well as adoring. sometimes overtly. Thanks from Susan to Alison and Wendy for arguing it out. a drain. Notes We would like to thank Diane Hamer and Clara Connolly and the FR lesbian issue group for detailed comments and advice. was fun. Maybe femmes are in the ascendant now—but are we going to see a lot of sapped. or your emotional happiness depends upon. is a member of the Feminist Review collective and works at Sheba Feminist Publishers. .80 FEMINIST REVIEW lesbians we know. and leave it at that. It can also be a trap. was a useful tool for analysing what went on. too rigid for what’s really felt and experienced in our relationships. adored. looked after. a smokescreen. feminist) being told to more or less stay in line in a relationship in the name of butch/femme positions. For now. The opening out of the complexities of our sexual. Where do we end up? Over the last decade we’ve both embraced butch/femme. insecure and above all resentful women around in ten years’ time? Maybe sooner—we’ve recently heard anecdotes about women (young. The flip side of that of course is the cost in terms of real social power—in a relationship and in the wider world—if you are restricted to. found it made sense of strong drives. and from Sue to Mitch. that way of being. sometimes secretly. social and psychic lives as lesbians should lead to opportunities for deeper understanding.
We should add that [she] draws less and less from [her] past. Marxists. Let us ask the colonized [herself]: who are [her] folk heroes? [her] great popular leaders? [her] sages? At most [she] may be able to give us a few names. Concerned with the plight of gay students and teachers in high schools and colleges. Albert Memmi) The Lesbian Herstory Archives of New York City. we wanted our story to be told by us. that our presses and publishers were fragile undertakings and we were concerned about preserving all their precious productions. But the strongest reason for creating the archives was to end the silence of patriarchal history about us—women who loved women. in complete disarray. We also knew. and lesbian-separatists. Most of us were part of the city and state university system but soon we split into the usual early seventies factions: sexist gay men. The colonizer never even recognized that [she] had one. Spring 1990 . Furthermore. everyone knows that the commoner whose origins are unknown has no history. grew out of a consciousness-raising group among the lesbian members of an organization called the Gay Academic Union. shared by us and preserved by us.ARCHIVES THE WILL TO REMEMBER: The Lesbian Herstory Archives of New York Joan Nestle Dedicated to the over thirty co-ordinators and volunteers who make the on-going activities of the archives possible. The colonized seems condemned to lose [her] memory. which began in 1973. I was a member of the latter two. in this early heyday of lesbian publishing. and fewer and fewer as one goes down the generations. (The Colonizer and the Colonized. We were tired of Feminist Review No 34. the GAU was a rallying point for gay scholarship and battles against isolation and homophobia in the city’s schools. Several of us in the CR group who had come out before the Stonewall Rebellion and the advent of a formal feminist movement felt the need to establish a grass-roots lesbian archives project. We remembered a world of lesbian culture that had nourished us but that was rapidly disappearing.
journals. tapes. I wanted the slide-show to be seen as a challenge to whatever complacency the audience derived from their respectable surroundings. Early on in our organizing work. news clippings (from establishment. our most powerful way to work against feelings of cultural deprivation and personal isolation. 1. photos. From our newsletter. and I wanted the . we would have to dedicate many years to spreading the word about this new undertaking. bars. another member of the founding group whose dedication has been unmeasurable. and that more needed to be said than we could cover in the show-and-tell method. However. magazines. churches. we also anticipate that the existence of these archives will encourage lesbians to record their experiences in order to formulate our living Herstory. how was it different from traditional archives and how did it fit into the political struggles of our people? We each had our own way of introducing the show: I would dedicate the presentation to the lesbians who had sat next to me on the barstools of the Sea Colony. it was very important for me to remind them that once I was a sexual criminal who stood on a bathroom line. The existence of these Archives will enable us to analyze and reevaluate the Lesbian experience. The process of gathering this material will also serve to uncover and collect our herstory denied to us previously by patriarchal historians in the interests of the culture which they serve.82 ARCHIVES being the medical. a working-class lesbian bar of the late fifties and early sixties. I would say ‘I am a femme of the fifties’. oral herstories. posters. No. of the different language and style of an earlier courage. In 1975 the archives took up residence in what was to become the home I would share with Deborah Edel. We will collect and preserve any materials that are relevant to the lives and experiences of Lesbians: books. the word I came out into. if you have the courage to touch another woman. poetry and prose. So we created a travelling slide-show to bring home the message that all lesbians were worthy of inclusion in herstory. graphics. Particularly when I was speaking to lesbians in college settings or at women’s conferences held at posh campuses or to gay and lesbian student groups on campuses at universities like Yale or Harvard. This slide-show became our major organizing tool. notices of events. autobiographies. biographies. I always wanted to remind the progressively younger women in our audiences of the generations before them. or I would use the word ‘queer’ to describe myself. that as we have said a thousand times over. It also allowed us to make our vision clear—what was a lesbian archives. anywhere we were asked to speak. legal and religious other. films. At first we carted samples of the archives holdings to homes. herstorical information. 1975: The Lesbian Herstory Archives exist to gather and preserve records of Lesbian lives and activities so that future generations will have ready access to materials relevant to their lives. we realized that because the word ‘archives’ sounded formal and distancing to many of the women we wanted to reach. we soon realized that our copy of the first edition of The Ladder as well as other memorabilia would not survive these trips. you are a famous lesbian. diaries. and other memorabilia and obscure references to our lives. synagogues. Feminist or Lesbian media). bibliog raphies. In 1974 The Lesbian Herstory Archives became a reality.
you are the lesbian the archives exist for. my poems. physical abilities. I wish you could know what a wonderful person you are. We had to clarify that our archives. So perhaps. Our main task was to bring the collection alive. my letters. the honest will work better. how our cultural artifacts were often found in piles of garbage or on bargain tables. We had to combine passion with responsibility and openness with hard hard work. political and confidential. but we also had to convey the seriousness of our undertaking. Not the part about me—that is pitifully . and what joy your letter written last night gave me. It’s such a lovely soft glow and I’m glad because this is a ‘candle light’ letter. We had to be personal and public. 1920) found in a Greenwich Village gutter after the family had cleaned out the apartment of Eleanor C. We spoke of how families burned letters and diaries. When we first started the archives. before me. No letter of introduction was ever needed to gain access. but the core of the slideshow stayed the same. Thanks to you and all the lives in this room for showing me that right! [Judy Reagan] The slide-show helped us make the point that one of our battles was to change secrecy into disclosure. Eleanor darling. why we should be trusted with the photograph of a dead lover or diaries that spanned twenty years. shame into memory.. these were new ideas but now with the international lesbian and gay archives movement. with the flourishing of a lesbian and gay social history movement and with a raised consciousness about the importance of sexual choices in biographical studies. Always we were asked. But I had known this deprivation so searingly in my own life that it was a question that brought out all my fire and love—Yes. yes.FEMINIST REVIEW 83 voices. to show its inclusiveness. a labour educator of the thirties and forties: This is a ‘very quiet’ letter. will you—please. Eleanor dear. Different settings. our family album. its respect for lesbians of all colours. 1979: For two days I have been thinking up wise and pithy things that I should include—no dice. our library. ideas to make them proud of the complexity of the lesbian experience and sure that they had a place in it. but you don’t mean my work. was not primarily for academic scholars but for any lesbian woman who needed an image or a word to survive the day. to tell and share your story. I never thought I would be that lucky again—and I realize it is my right to come home to the world. my photograph? Always there was incredulity at our assertion that her life was the important one. no matter what kind of lesbian they were. browsing was as important as research. This is the second time. classes. with the flamey chrysanthemums you arranged. Thursday night Best Beloved I’m writing by the light of the two tall candles on my desk. we hope the message has been given—no more pyres of same-sex love letters. An excerpt from a love letter (c. From our visitor’s book. Only once before have I felt like I’ve come home. cultural backgrounds and sexual styles. Joan and Deb. different presenters would change the introduction. images. and you won’t read it when you are dashing off somewhere in a hurry.
And I’m not afraid dear. I . You know I feel terribly much the way you do about it all. even in incoherent fashion. and so many times back of my nobler resolves I am just plain selfish about wanting you to look at and talk to…. but I could never say so.84 ARCHIVES From the Lesbian Herstory Archives of New York wrong and only a standard for me to measure up to—but you make it all so wonderful and are clear about it.
but we were also angry. If we assume that because sex was a secret it did not exist. A cross-generational. to an international and multilingual perspective. so must be also the Lesbians of the fifties who left no doubt about their sexuality or their courage. From our newsletter. crosscultural bridge is created. If we assume that in periods of oppression. And most of all we were Lesbian women. If close friends and devoted companions are to be part of Lesbian history. not even in my weakest moments… The candles are burning low. 1981: If we ask decorous questions of history. resilient and creative. look out at the audience. They told us that we should hate ourselves and sometimes we did. one that is of utmost importance if no one segment of our community is to be singled out for societal repression. it never does that. we will get a genteel history. Alice The images in the slide-show are as important as the words. that the collection represents lesbians from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds in their own image. leather women and Goddess-worshippers. they measured our nipples and clitorises to chart our queerness. we stress the need to open the doors of the contemporary lesbian community to lesbians of difference. May God bless you through all time. No. they talked about how we wanted to be men and how our sexual styles were pathetic imitations of the real thing and all along under this barrage of hatred and fear. 7. As we show the tatooed blue stars of the Buffalo working-class lesbian community of the forties. And I am so. to show the legacy of resistance and to give the keys needed to unlock the sometimes coded language of liberation battles of another time. we loved. to lesbian sex-trade workers. What we call history becomes history and since this is a naming time. During the slide-show. Lesbians lost their autonomy and acted as victims only. They make the point that lesbians from different decades had different modes of self-presentation. . all carrying their other identities. Passing women. For many years the psychologists told us we were both emotionally and physically deviant. hold a great historical fascination but as we explain the ‘husband-wife’ image on the screen—a Daily News centrefold photo from 1937—we stress the need to recognize the passing women of our time. to passing women. oh so happy that I know you and love you. we destroy not only history but lives. passing women and lipstick lesbians. forming a mosaic of the lesbian community. revolutionizing each of these terms. Stone butches and lesbian separatists.FEMINIST REVIEW 85 know our love will help—oh so much—and hinder. We create history as much as we discover it. We try to avoid the hypocrisy of commemorating lesbians of the past while exiling their living representatives in the name of a selected herstory. dear heart and the world is very still and beautiful outside. We were part of a community that took care of itself. we will get a sexless history. for instance. Always our goal is to connect the present struggles of lesbian women of all backgrounds to the past. we make a plea for groups to start their own oral history projects to discover the lesbian folklore of their area. we must be on guard against our own class prejudices and discomforts.
400 periodical titles. to social work training sessions. Our model for this is the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture which started as one Black man’s refusal to accept a teacher’s edict that Black people have no history. 1. Of course in many cases the enthusiasm was closer to home. where we all had to take a pledge not to reveal any woman’s identity. the women listening and watching. 000 photographs. gay.’ This summer brought a feeling of universal Lesbian power—women united in the celebration and adventure of pursuing our identity. taking the shape of a ‘Hello. We have shown it to an audience of one and to audiences of thousands. and not be intimidated by the thought of being part of a people’s memory. 1976: Summer was an interesting time for the Archives with a record number of visitors including women from California.000 volumes. of your ways of loving. copy the letter. I found that whether I was talking with Lesbians from Manhattan or Europe the concern expressed for the preservation of our herstory creates an energy that whisks the archives from the past into our daily lives. and Italy. we have taken it to international audiences in Holland and England.000 organizational and subject files. Always our message has been ‘You. posters and T-shirts. feminist and radical funding sources. You must send the photo. Our newsletter and displays in bookstores. There is motivation and activity everywhere. England. In London women are producing street theater in the Punch and Judy tradition in support of Wages for Housework. 3. are our Lesbian herstory. 200 special collections. No. All the technology the archives has—the computer. covering the span of our country. gives space for open debates and discussions where women know that all are welcomed. The archives had never just been a home for the markings of the past. believing that such an action would be an exercise in neocolonialism. thousands of feet of film and video footage. It has taken us to living rooms of rural homes. make the tape. the xeroxing machine—comes from lesbian. to bars where we competed with the ring of the register and the dance music throbbing in the background. I just found out that the Archives is a few blocks away and I’d like to stop by tomorrow. and encourages political organizing.86 ARCHIVES We have shown this slide-show now in hundreds of cities and towns in America. and we are trying to raise funds to purchase a building that will be a research centre for lesbian culture with the archives collection at its heart.’ From our newsletter. 1. You must cherish the courage of your own days. Some of our visitors organized Lesbian centers or were respon sible for coordinating such notable events as the Lesbian Herstory Exploration near Los Angeles. In Italy Lesbian groups are beginning to meet in the high schools. believing that the society that ruled us out of history should never be relied upon to make it possible for us to exist. We take no money from the government. libraries . art and artifacts. Our At-HomeWith-the-Archives series allows lesbian cultural workers to try out first-time creations. the collection is now too large for its home of fifteen years. 12. With its library of over 10. buttons and personal memorabilia. Valerie In order to survive in America as an archives we have had to call ourselves a not-forprofit information resource centre because the New York State Board of Regents maintains control over educational institutions and could therefore confiscate the collection for ‘just cause’.
From the visitor’s book. We actively sort out documentation of the lives of lesbian factory workers. 1974: 1. in turn. Our archives belongs to no one group of lesbians and to no one selected image or formula for liberation. ‘lesbian’. 1983: I am here among women who breathe softly in my ear who speak gently in a voice that will not be stilled. We hope the discussion of lesbian strategies and identities that these objects represent will go on for generations to come. the founders of the Lesbian Herstory Archives. are joined by the lesbian-feminist artifacts of the seventies. and ‘gender’ so they reflect the complex creations which we call our lives. our participation in demonstrations and marches. All women must have access to the archives 2. butch-femme communities of the forties and fifties. lesbian prostitutes and sex performers. actions or images to nourish a diverse and embattled lesbian community of the future. always took as our working principles that we were not interested in a role-model lesbian herstory. there is a passion in what we do. A simplified. that we wanted the collection. we were not hampered by class censorship. For me. to continually reconstruct the words ‘woman’. The collection must be housed in a Lesbian community space and be staffed by Lesbians We. . but as I have said before. We also believed that we could go about our personal lives without harming the image of the archives in the community. From our statement of purpose. and hence the record. but as an archivist I have also made clear that the lives of all lesbian women are worthy of being documented. it will eventually pass into the hands of a new generation of rememberers who we hope will keep the door open to the multiplicities of lesbian identity. We have all put thousands of hours of work into the archives. each decade adding its layer of complexity. many times not very glamorous work. inspirations. homogenized past will not be rich enough in ideas. The collection must never be bartered or sold 3. part of that passionate commitment to lesbian archiving is to say thank you to a generation of women who gave me love and showed me my first portraits of lesbian courage.FEMINIST REVIEW 87 and gay community centres. They. Since many of us who work with the archives are working-class women. I have worked very hard to make clear that what I write about as Joan Nestle. to be as inclusive as possible. all make clear that a lesbian archives is a participant in the creation of culture and social change as well as a preserver of our people’s story. The fullest record we can leave is the best legacy for the political and social survival of our lesbian daughters around the world. Now hard hats and hob-nail boots sit next to pasties and glossy prints of a famous lesbian stripper of the fifties. the femme. Our will to remember is our will to change the world. is not in any way an official voice of the archives.
There is too much material to be reproduced here. there were forty questions varied across a range of topics from funding to materials collected. one archive wrote to say why they did not want to participate and I received twelve replies. I am here to remember faces I have never seen before and I do love. as well as taking on the task of making lesbians more visible in the world. ten were returned ‘no forwarding address’. a complete record of all the replies will be available from the London archive. left me wondering how other archives dealt with the issues around representation and content as well as control of the archive. or a lap. Most of the archives also serve their communities as information centres and contact points. along with an ongoing conflict on race politics. on a knee that is shapely under my thigh leaving the impression that I will never be alone.88 ARCHIVES I am here in a cradle or a womb. all the archives are open to visitors. The questionnaire was therefore biased to a London archive agenda. use of the archive and newsletters and other material published. In all. Jewish. Visitors are advised to phone or . either at designated ‘drop in’ times or by appointment. etc. co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City and author of A Restricted Country which tells everything else.. legal and management structures to representation. Unless otherwise specified. INTERNATIONAL ARCHIVES Alison Read The idea for a questionnaire of international lesbian archives developed from my involvement in the London Lesbian Archive Summer School in July 1988. Jewelle Gomez Note Joan Nestle is forty-nine years old. What follows is a digest to show the diversity and resourcefulness of the archives. Forty-five questionnaires were sent out. The political upheavals and the dispute which followed from debates which came to the surface at the summer school. a feminist.
badges. Notes Alison Read is a part-time bookseller. not just printed word but photos. Most archives without full access are able to make available items from the collections for wheelchair users. the London Archive will maintain on computer a current list. lesbian studies teacher and office worker at Feminist Review. Volunteers are always welcome. skilled or unskilled. I would hope that for the 1990s we would all try to take on the questions around full representation so that the picture we leave for lesbians in the future is not obscured and partially blocked by restrictions in our vision and experience. All the archives make hard choices governed by money and attempts to stretch limited resources and time. It was only the Lesbisch Archief Nijmegen in the Netherlands which made a point of stating they had ‘no political restrictions’ on the material they collect.FEMINIST REVIEW 89 write first. In Britain. etc.. I have included addresses of archives that I know are working but did not reply to the questionnaire. postcards. diaries and letters. and will make contracts with donors about the use of the material. There are many more archives in operation. archives must actively search out all materials from all the lesbian communities—including the writing and images. Thanks to Maree Gladwin and Marie McShea for their work on the questionnaire and our discussions on the issues. My concerns are around whose history we are collecting to leave for lesbians in the future to give a true and accurate picture of lesbians in the 1980s and 1990s. especially those for whom English is not their first language. All the archives welcome donations of all lesbian materials. Historians and researchers add their own priorities and selection to archive material— how much do we blur and disjoint the picture of all our lives by our choice of what we select and prioritize in the archives? Surely. not because less work was happening but because of language. neither of these groups represent in any way the diversity of the lesbian communities. disagree with and strongly object to. It is easy to collect and catalogue the products of our own community and friendship groups. Many of the archives have their roots in the lesbian-feminist movements of the 1970s and in academia. in some cases reports are not so detailed. management groups and users reflected how these archives are not part of the life of the Black lesbian communities. The answers to questions on race and representation amongst workers. the books and magazines we find difficult. Thank you to the archives who took the time to reply. Reading the replies I don’t know if I found the answers to my original doubts and questions. so please send information and updates to that address. .
letters and book reviews. Film and video material is given to the lesbian group Video Viola for their archive.Lesbenarchiv Burgsdorfstrabe 1 D—000 Berlin 65 Germany. 60 per cent gay men. available by subscription. overall 39 per cent women. usage is 30 per cent lesbian. the archive was started in 1978 as part of a move to establish Lesbian and Gay Studies at the university. Tel: (0)20–5252601 Access: P The only archive to reply with a publicity leaflet in three languages. Seventy-five per cent of the material is catalogued on computer. Special focus on Dutch and foreign newspaper and magazine articles on homosexuality. their first priorities are to document lesbians in the south of the Netherlands and a project to record interviews with older lesbians. A mixed lesbian and gay project used mainly for research and recreational reading. holidays and exhibitions they organize. Lesbisch Archief Nijmegen Postbus 1220 . they are looking for premises. with five paid workers. Dokumentatiecentrum Homo.V. Bollettino del CLI (Collegamento tra Lesbiche Italiane) is published monthly with news. Their work is equally divided between archiving and acting as an information centre and action group. Currently housed at the Women’s Centre. The archive is for women only. they also function as a contact and information centre. Funded by a support group of sixty-five people who make a monthly donation. in the magazine Ho mologie.studies (Homodok) University of Amsterdam Oudezijds Achterburgwal 185 NL 1012DK Amsterdam The Netherlands Orlando Schalmstraat 2B 5614 AD Eindhoven The Netherlands Tel: 040 11 15 78 Access: F Orlando was started in 1988 by a group of seven lesbians.Francesco di Sales 1A 00165 Rome Italy Tel: 6864201 Access: P Started in 1986 and funded by income from parties. ALI (Archivi Lesbici Italiani) Via S. and the sale of books and papers they publish. The archive is for women only.Spinnboden e. Eighty-five per cent of the archive is on card catalogue. ‘Relevant’. do their own research and publish an 80-page illustrated journal twice a year. Newsletter three times a year. Tel: 030 465 20 21 Access: X Spinnboden grew from the beginnings of the lesbian movement of the 1970s. 61 per cent men. Also publish a documentary and bibliographic column. Now well established. articles.
discussions. Tel: 312/883–3003 Access: X Founded in 1981. Lesbian Archive and Infor mation Centre —LAIC Box BM 7005 Gerber-Hart Library 3238 North Sheffield Chicago Illinois 60657. young lesbians and health matters available. a healthinformation and resource centre and an expanding collection of records. All staff are volunteers. USA. the library float was on the theme ‘Take a Book to Bed’ and was crowned by the Statue of Liberty reading a copy of ‘Lesbian Sex’! . Lezbiška sekcija c/o SKUC SKUC-Forum Kersnikova 4 61000 Ljubljana Yugoslavia Tel: (061) 31 96 62 (Friday 8–10pm) Access: X Housed and supported financially by ŠŠKUC (Students’ Cultural Centre). There is a register of all materials held. For Gay Pride 1988. both public and personal. the archive was opened in 1985.000 books. They hold 4. Founding member of the International Association of Lesbian and Gay Archives and Libraries. LAIC currently has state funding for three part-time workers and to cover some costs. a film festival and disco dances. 35 per cent is catalogued by card or computer. video and audio-tapes. Gerber-Hart is a lesbian and gay lending library and resource centre as well as an archive. Separate bibliographies on Black lesbians. London WC1N 3XX Tel: 01 405 6475 Access: X Started in 1984. an extensive periodical collection. They publish an annual bulletin and organize lectures. They receive some state funding to cover costs and publish a newsletter twice a year. and was started in 1987. After a political split in 1988/9 a new organizational structure and equal opportunities policy have been adopted to ensure full representation of all groups in the lesbian communities. 60 per cent information and organization centre.91 6501 BE Nijmegen The Netherlands Tel: 080–234459 Access: X Started in 1982. They organize a lesbian book discussion group. Lesbiška sekcija is 40 per cent archive. They prioritize collecting material on lesbians from the Nijmegen area and gather all materials on lesbian lives. the archive is financed by $15 annual membership. with no political restrictions.
They aim to catalogue conferences. They are particularly interested in the role of lesbians in society and in social change movements. etc. etc. They fundraise with talks. USA. They also encourage exchange on controversial lesbian issues by circulating bibliographies and reading lists on those issues and hope to help create a forum for a wide range of responses. Oakland. that she was ‘In the Life’. California 90069. June Mazer Lesbian Collection 626 N. Matrices Lesbian-Feminist Re source Network Women’s Studies Dept 492 Ford Hall University of Minnesota Minneapolis MN 55455. a Lesbian-Feminist resource. discussions. Robertson Blvd. they are still filing…For women only. (From the JMLC brochure) Lesbian Herstory Archive PO Box 1258 New York NY 10116 USA Tel: 212 874 7232 Archives. in not so subtle terms. in their large collection of books. Recherches Lesbiennes Boite Postale 662 75531 Paris cedex 11 et Cul tures . Not open to visitors.92 Kentucky Collection of Lesbian Her-story PO Box 1701 Louisville Kentucky 40201. journals and books. poetry and literary readings and social events. Very little material is catalogued as yet. W. the collection also operates as a lending library. The collection documents lesbian history from the 1890s to the present. Tel: 213 659 2478 Access: X Originally The West Coast Lesbian Collections. lesbian artists and artworks. research projects. a research resource for lesbians and for networking contacts. They hold a complete run of Vice-Versa the earliest known lesbian periodical (Los Angeles 1947–8) and the records of Diana Press. Archiving forms 25 per cent of their work. criticism. they were started in 1981 and are now under the wing of Connexxus Women’s Center—Centro de Mujares of Los Angeles. USA Tel: (502) 895–3127 Access: X Started in 1980 ‘to collect and preserve Lesbian culture in the form of writings’. Hollywood If you were new in the area in 1954 and a women came up to you. bibliographies. archival news. speculation and debate. USA Access: F Matrices. started in 1969 as a networking newsletter for lesbian researchers inside and out of acade-mia. periodicals. one of the first independent lesbian publishers. flashed her pinky ring and suggested that you wear green next Thursday and meet her at Miss Smith’s Tea Room if you want to drop your hairpins—she would be telling you.
P=SPartial access.93 Amazonian sleeping lioness France Tel: 48 05 25 89 II Centro Cassero (Lesbian & Gay) CP 691 40100 Bologna Italy Access code: F=Wheelchair accessible. X=No wheelchair access. .
but it is not. Spring 1990 . living in London. To fully comprehend her. for much of the time. The texture of her writing. So important is she to the students at Hunter that when they established a women’s poetry centre there. converse with and attempt to use Lorde’s work when I am trying to come to grips with things that befuddle or concern me. a black lesbian. the rhythms and tones of her voice and the economy. is a writer. to feel the impact of her work. intellectually and emotionally enormous because it involves the creation of new ways of seeing and being from within the interstices. feminist and activist poet. precision. where in 1987 she became the first woman to be Thomas Hunter Professor. Seemingly simple. are those of the poet. From A Land Where Other People Live (Lorde. the students named it after Lorde. She has published thirteen volumes of work and in 1974 her book of poetry. By engaging with Lorde’s work in an effort to develop a greater understanding of the requirements of change. She is a poet and as such there is both an aural and visual quality to all her work including her essays and biomythography. if not in the person then to be able to conjure up her voice. and can only lead to a one-sided and superficial engagement with her work. Feminist Review No 34. Rather it is part of a longer piece which attempts to critically engage with a small part of Lorde’s work. Well that might be the case if this were an exercise in literary criticism. To hear how she delivers the words that we can see on the written page. this work is practically. How then is it possible to write in connection with Lorde in the absence of the voice and when. who dedicates her work to an acceptance. 1982a). 1973) was nominated for the National Book Award. of our current social realities. understanding and use of difference in the struggle to change the world. She is a professor of English at Hunter College of the City University of New York. yet multiplicity of meaning of her words. She is also a lesbian. African American. 1983:182). Clearly this essay is not concerned with this. the very fabric. Edward Said defines criticism as the task occupying itself ‘with the intrinsic conditions on which knowledge is made possible’ (Said. Rather the impetus comes from a desire to consider some of the ways in which I.AUDRE LORDE: Vignettes and Mental Conversations Gail Lewis For my mother and Pat Parker Audre Lorde. one needs to hear her. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Lorde. I find her poems beyond the bounds of my comprehension? Surely it is both audacious and partial.
and Lorde would expect—no. my friend and some of the other women from Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. and proceed to eat. in varying degrees of comfort and ease. and it is this which structures my memory of the emotions running through that evening. as a recent radio profile called her (Lorde. one might say that she has adopted the concern that we ‘make the best of ourselves’. my grandmother and I are in New Jersey to visit my mother’s sister. this physical condition. seven months after our mother’s death. under her wing. however momentarily. It’s good to be in the States. which led to her intense scrutiny of things and people. quite grown up anymore. How then should I write of the relevance of Lorde’s work? It feels alien to write of this. as a child. carefully watching the speakers as she listens. for the time being. grudging indulgence and deference. absorbing and considering the things they are saying. Nothing more or less than this. Her perception is both powerful and a little frightening. Because the scrutiny of Audre’s perception is a necessary and guiding force for her. even the despair. 1988). she engages with us in the same way as this. Perhaps it is this which enables her to see the connexions that can lie behind difference. I must work to produce it (my mother always knew I was lazy but not a coward). the state of racism in the USA and Britain. memory tells me. later I’ll be able to make better sense of the swirl of confused emotions. This was the setting in which I first met Audre Lorde. irritation and a kind of reticence. watching their movements as if she were ‘listening’ not just with her ears but with her eyes as well. our love is projected and refracted. Somehow being in the country my mother loved so much aids the slow and painful process of waking up to both the reality of her absence and that of her continued and loving presence. Perhaps this is in part the result of the scrutiny with which our mothers see us and love us. my sensibilities do everything. (Lorde. compare Brooklyn to Brixton. we talk about publishing. Certainly. and my sister. giving her an entry into the colour within light. For the moment the need of and comfort from ritual is sharp: a candle in St Patrick’s cathedral (much to the incomprehension of my sister and grandmother) and a quiet dinner in an Indian restaurant in Brooklyn with my sister. demand—nothing less than work. She once remarked that. and great to see my friend from New York. even better to be able to talk with my aunt about my mother’s illness and death. this concept of being a writer. her poor vision resulted in light breaking down into its component parts. There is a kind of ambivalence through which. Audre Lorde is one of the women. as though we weren’t. prism-like. ‘founding mother of Black feminism’. Like a mother. My intellect does nothing to help me through.96 FEMINIST REVIEW my article is a personal tribute to the importance of the work of this woman. Mothering It’s the winter of 1983. The piece makes demands of me. Audre plays mother and we all settle. We say hello and proceed to order. Only for her it is a kind of political motto stemming . Certainly it was this poor vision. I cannot own it. than the best of oneself. there was that curious mix of contradictory feelings often directed towards our mothers—respect. the West Indian bakery round the corner to that uptown in Harlem. 1988).
Not only of that multi-faceted complex of black feminisms (we cannot speak of it in the singular). In her work she gives us some insight into her view of what the responsibilities accompanying motherhood are and reminds us that what constitutes motherhood is contested territory. 1982b: 56) Mothers then bear the awesome responsibility of gathering the past into a pedagogical package. Gods of our own selves is what she would have us be. a contest in which the combatants are not confined to mothers and children. not as a means of controlling but rather as a gift from which their children may fashion their own visions. Her aim is that our individual and collective futures may be different and not mere repetitions of the current choicelessness.AUDRE LORDE 97 from the belief that it is through the pursuit of the best of and in oneself that the seeds of change may spring. For Audre Lorde is a mother. and feminists. Rather ‘motherhood’ is a terrain in which the defining content itself is battled over among mothers themselves: I can see your daughter walking down streets of love in revelation. and black people and others of us struggling to own the present. One as a ‘real’ mother of woman and man children. Since then I can only distinguish one thread within running hours . And who did you make on the edge of Harlem’s winter hard and black While the inside was undetermined swirls of color and need shifting. but raising her up to be a correct little sister is doing your mama’s job all over again. Ain’t that something. as a ‘mother’ of black lesbians. remembering were you making another self to rediscover in a new house and a new name in a new place next to a river of blood or were you putting the past together pooling everything learned into a new and continuous woman divorced from the old shit we share and shared and sharing need not share again? (Lorde. but also in the sense that she has as her concern the construction of futures. But she does not stop there. and she does so in a double sense. their own selves. The other in a metaphorical sense. One of the identities she owns and uses in the struggle to change the order of things is that of ‘mother’.
1978:45). but the particulars of a structure that programs him to fear and despise women as well as his own Black self (Lorde. In this aspect of her work she challenges black men to take care of business and accept their responsibilities towards the younger generations. those corruptions called power by the white fathers who mean his destruction as surely as they mean mine.98 FEMINIST REVIEW you. nieces. 1984:74). It has rained for five days running the world is a round puddle of sunless water where small islands are only beginning to cope a young boy in my garden is bailing out water from his flower patch when I ask him why he tells me young seeds that have not seen sun forget and drown easily (Lorde. etc. Whilst Lorde uses her position as a mother as a metaphor for the responsibilities we have to our collective daughters. to both recognize our responsibility to analyse and pass on the lessons of that experience. What more beautiful gift for the child. and maybe wider. The challenge to those of us who are actually mothers. The challenge to those of us whose political and life experience is older. 1982b: 13). and yet to work with and learn from those who follow us. flowing through selves toward you (Lorde. Since we bequeath what we do today we owe it to ourselves and our inheritors that we leave the best that we can. I wish to raise a Black man who will recognise that the legitimate objects of his hostility are not women. what greater source of joy for the mother? Listen (as Dylan Thomas says) to the challenge in that.. . the challenge to the heterosexist order of things which opposes the categories ‘mother’ and ‘lesbian’. She writes: I wish to raise a Black man who will not be destroyed by. For it is only by doing so that together we deliver the possibility of selfdetermined futures. nor settle for. she is also concerned that our sons and nephews are not denied their birthrights and have the possibility of self-definition.
Joe Beam. Certainly relations between parents and children. Of course Joe Beam was an out and progressive gay man and he knew not only that he owed much to black lesbian and heterosexual feminists for being able to be out. the distance between them as man and woman is fully and sharply defined. at present. and anyway have no appropriate rite of passage to entice us. In response Baldwin didn’t have much to say. So maybe the use of the identity of ‘mother’ is not unproblematic. that they take care of intergenerational business. this lesson will be all he has left of her. take responsibility for. despite his tremendous importance as a purveyor of much-needed representations of AfricanAmerican life in the northern states. My points follow from each other but are not of the same import. and as a result we do often feel ambivalent towards our parents even when we acknowledge and respect what they have given us. as an adult. even when it is used in the pursuit of transforming social relations. In asking this question.AUDRE LORDE 99 As the mother of her son Lorde tells us that her starting point for achieving this aim is to teach her son to acknowledge. is contradictory. For when. To speak to other black men as best as I can to begin creating a dialogue (Lorde. if that is the analogy and identity we are adopting. But others have taken up the call. 1985). I am not sure if Baldwin’s Evidence of Things Not Seen (Baldwin. At present a mother’s ability to equip her son with an alternative or subversive discourse within which his views of and relations with women are framed is limited. preclude empathetic and respectful communication between them. It will provide the tools from which he can make his self-definition without premising that on the subordination and oppression of others. which spoke to many of us children of the diaspora. There are two levels of unease which I have which are at least in part the result of the fact that I am childless and of the age where we resist passing over from being ‘young’. But the relationship between generations. Like many of us. Beam was a child of one generation responding to and hoping to extend the work begun by earlier ones. Other black men. perhaps this book was in part one indirect way in which he sought to meet that responsibility. which she (Lorde) has given me. consciously responded to her challenge. our respected and thanked brother who died in December 1988. What Lorde is concerned with here is the fact that the difference between them as woman and man is a socially constructed one. The first concerns the . however. 1988). were abused and battered and oppressed within the hierarchy of relations called the status quo. can provide a more continuous and sympathetic support system. As such it requires conscious action on the part of those who occupy the spaces ‘mother’ and ‘son’ to break down the barriers which. Lorde generalized the demand many black feminists have been making of those men who say they are concerned with turning the world around. was written before or after that question to him. Lorde asked him how he was meeting his responsibility of speaking to the sons of black America. either way. all women. actual or metaphorical. saying: Black men aren’t any less sexist than other men…and as I look at my writing that’s one of my charges. are unequal. and respect his own feelings. and it is this work that Lorde challenges them to do. Such is the time and place. so that the next might follow with everbroadening visions. In conversation with James Baldwin. but also that he was never going to be liberated while black women.
Perhaps the use of familial terminology and metaphor has felt comfortable to black people of the diaspora because of our condition in ‘the west’. there comes a time when ‘children’ resent being directed by their ‘mothers’ and so cannot hear them. in order that we may constantly move toward ever-broadening visions of freedom? A practical example. many of the women present. Certainly use of such imagery has served as both a sign of community and a mobilizer to action: think of the action of black women as ‘mothers’ in defence of the young of our communities in. of an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. Certainly. Despite the tensions. one is adopting the position of the powerful? I mean. adopting the same concerns and tactics. coming from various backgrounds and offering a variety of methods and analyses for action. and if they don’t then we often tend to dismiss their concerns and contributions to black women’s struggle and development in this country. after a black women’s forum organized by Sheba Feminist Publishers as part of the 1989 Feminist Book Fortnight. In Britain over the last fifteen years or so black women have been organizing as women and feminists to change not just the state of race and class relations. as diverse as we are. actual or symbolic. are at once exclusive and reified. given that within the relation one is assuming. not only doesn’t fit but excludes from the orbit of political dialogue? After all. Those of us ‘older’ women—in the ‘mother’s’ role—often refer to a whole other group of women. then don’t we have to subvert and redefine the very identities which also propel us to action. older/younger generation. antipolicing or education campaigns. at others depressing. If we are adopting familial categories which are contradictory and unequal how will we achieve the harmonization of community and class that we need to achieve our aims of freedom? How will we even be able to hear and respect the differences in our visions of freedom and the futures we want if we adopt categories as though they themselves were unproblematic? If we want to influence not only people’s capacity for fulfilment. with at least a hint of condescension. Let me expand. no matter what the content of the conversation. More and more women have become involved in that process. and by extension of an ‘other’ into which ‘outsiders’. But what I find the most disturbing in this is that we ‘older’ women sometimes talk and act as though we expect these ‘younger’ women to follow exactly in our footsteps. but also the state of gender relations within our various communities. who had been involved in establishing the Organization of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) in the late 1970s. but also the way that they think and act (isn’t that at least a part of what Lorde challenged Baldwin to do?). The second point has to do with the strategic implications which derive from the first. hell. in this case ‘nonmothers/nonchildren’.100 FEMINIST REVIEW extent to which the adoption of the categories ‘mother’/‘child’. What concerns me is the extent to which it is possible to chart this course towards dialogue if one acts according to an identity as ‘mother’. An ambivalent phrase. isn’t it this dialogue which we hope to achieve? The problem lies in charting a course between stultifying and oppressive assumptions of homogeneity and the equally debilitating and oppressive ascriptions of ‘otherness’. ambivalences and contradictions within the parent/child relation there is a suggestion of belongingness. Sometimes it has been exciting. as ‘younger women coming up’. felt an enormous amount of despondency because so . fall. for example. But what of those amongst us for whom the label or identity of ‘mother’. but always challenging.
Some of us think of other parts of the globe also—Sri Lanka. we celebrate ourselves. have been doing in solidarity with sisters in South Africa (Azania). Many women contribute to the event which has been organized to celebrate Lorde in aid of Azania. 1986:63–4). The atmosphere is pregnant with expectancy. Guatemala—but these are not mentioned. for Lorde a redefined politics of difference is also a strategy for harmonizing. ninety-five die at Hillsborough. But more than this. Difference and contradiction London. including the many mistakes we made. because 1989 is not 1979 and the answers we come up with. Nor indeed will the process by which we do so necessarily be the same. They had wanted to watch football. I wonder if others feel as I do: that the only equivalence between Eleanor Bumpers and Indira Gandhi is the manner of the death. October 1987—The Shaw Theatre is full of black women who have come to hear Audre Lorde. I believe breaking down the barrier between those of the OWAAD generation and women who came after us to be one of the most urgent political tasks facing black women concerned with questions of gender and sexuality. but if not examined closely can also help to lock us in an impasse that we seem to have created. orchestrated by the police attempt to debase them and their deaths: hooligans. One is that it is wrong to see the asking of the same questions as repeat performance. their time. drunk. and the resurrected humanity of the dead and bereaved will rise to haunt its would-be assassins. To destroy the mission whereby the many are reduced to the one is the thread which binds her politics. Finally Lorde comes on to read. the diverse impulses to freedom felt by the oppressed and exploited. animals. We died. Obviously one does not want to continually go over old ground. It was a Saturday—free time. The other is that if we do regard the asking of old questions in this way. we will know a little more of the truth. We black people know this. In one of the few essays where exploitation in the Marxist sense is alluded to she writes: . Though focusing on Audre we celebrate the urge to freedom of the people of South Africa. invokes images of slavery. She includes her poem ‘For the Record’ (Lorde. It is a tribute to the work that Lorde and others in SISA. Subverting and redefining the politics of ‘difference’ is Lorde’s work. collectively. but two things seem to me to arise from this. It jars. So does its refusal. The recognition of difference is both a means to begin to undermine the system which exploits and oppresses. nothing else. love. and a mechanism through which we might come to know and construct our visions. That day football died. The media. The portrayal of people as animals to be coralled and penned. I think using Lorde’s work can help us move in the right direction. aesthetics. We lesbians and gays know this. But who will question her authority? April 1989. Liverpool died. Liverpudlians—the messages are a scourge on our eyes. will not be the same. surely we absolve ourselves of any responsibility of examining our past contributions. Later the tables will turn. our compassion. things assumed to have been settled once and for all. without threat or subordination. Lebanon and Palestine.AUDRE LORDE 101 much of the discussion was taken up with what they considered basics. of people to be despised. Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa.
who argues the sentiment in terms of restricting notions of sisterhood. so too inside the ‘factory’. and if that is not possible. To put it another way.. those differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation and confusion (Lorde. a notion of blackness that does not exist. constructed as a hierarchy of oppositions: white/black. male/female. or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. that would tell us that Hillsborough is not to do with us. heterosexual/lesbian/gay. It is not easy and often it is lonely. this task is both enormous and vital if we are to be able to construct our lives without fear. As members of such an economy. workers. as the identities of ‘English’ and ‘British’ crumble. she has warned of the costs of silence.e. unsure which way the forces will pull. we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it. ‘Britishness’) and out (i. and especially for black lesbians. We are subverting accepted notions of both what it means to be British and black and redefining the agenda and terrain of black struggle. 1984:115). the question of whether we can be both black and ‘British’ refocuses with particular sharpness. More. and it is tiring.102 FEMINIST REVIEW Institutionalised rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. To paraphrase Lorde. old/ young. ‘Blackness’) of the picture as it has been traditionally drawn. For we are having to place ourselves within the orbit of concentric circles. Such an approach to the use of difference as a means to unity is particularly pertinent to black people in Britain at the moment. oppression turns around the loci of dehumanized inferiors. And this not only because. able/disabled. In this Lorde is a source of direction and a source of strength. outside of the ‘factory’. in Lorde’s analysis. copy it if we think it is dominant. whilst simultaneously subverting and refusing the label of ‘other’. we are having to deconstruct the old and established axioms of our various communities about what it means to be black (a struggle not new to the many black lesbians and gays who have been told that it is not possible to be both) just as much as we are having to fight over the terrains of the forms and uses of’ ethnicity’ and our rights to civil society and the state. But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals. She also knows that the task is not simple because the ideological and material hierarchy of dominant/ subordinate has eaten its way into the fabric of consciousness held and manifested by the exploited and oppressed. As a result. So. we are moving beyond the pretence of a homogeneity of experience.. She has described the . For black women in Britain. just as the recognition and acceptance of difference outside the ‘factory’ becomes a way of turning that system of ‘seeing’ around and replacing it with a system where ‘human’ difference is joyously embraced. We are reminded of how. One is reminded here of the opposition between capital’s desire for a pool of easily substitutable and homogeneous labour power and its need to maintain divisions between the suppliers of that labour power. More than this we have to try to do it without giving any ammunition to the power structure which would have us fight with our own. As we carve out black British identities and forms of expression.e. and immigration and racism not to do with Hillsborough. we are putting ourselves both in (i.
gays. She has warned us that acceptance of this vision results in us extinguishing the urge to freedom under the delusion of our security in the power system. Look here Karl Marx the apocalyptic vision of amerika! Workers rise and win and have not lost their chains but swing them side by side with the billyclubs in blue securing Wall Street against the striking students. construction workers looking on remembered how it was for them in the old days before their closed shop white security and daddy pays the bills so they climbed down the girders and taught their sons a lesson called Marx as a victim of the generation gap called I grew up the hard way so will you called the limits of sentimental vision. Arab and Turkish people by some of the English who said they were fans? How do we forgive those whom we hold responsible for the pain and turmoil that bloodies our . lesbians. 1982b: 85–6) So in equipping ourselves to transcend the history and experience of division. Here is one illustration: Down Wall Street the students marched for peace Above. (Lorde. rise up as of one voice and condemn the attempt by the police and others to rewrite and justify the tactics used at Hillsborough when it led to so many deaths? Why didn’t football fans rise up and condemn the attacks made during the European cup last year in Germany on black. so are many of her poems. But sometimes the pain has dulled our sense of self so much that it makes it impossible to respond to the suffering and brutality experienced by others. Why didn’t we black people. When the passion play was over and the dust had cleared on Wall Street 500 Union workers together with police had mopped up Foley Square with 2000 of their striking sons who broke and ran before their fathers chains. a politics of difference is an essential tool.AUDRE LORDE 103 consequences of our acceptance of the vision of the world given by the powers that be. The essay and speeches in Sister Outsider (1984) are all about this. women.
Perhaps the only ‘essential’ element which we all share is that we do indeed construct our humanity. the questions she asks. on their terms or ours) are socially constructed. In this respect I find difficulties in her work. 1982b: 102–5) Clearly then. but as one gains entry into it. The poem is centred around two events which take place in Jackson. But more than this—and this is where the power of the poem lies—she describes the difficulty she has in transcending the memory of pain in order to be able to meet another woman in her time of loss and destruction. (Lorde. This struggle is as much about a refutation of essentialism as it is against enforced homogeneity. Because just as our differences (whether used against us or by us. Lorde’s work. A white woman stands bereft and empty a black boy hacked into murderous lesson recalled in me forever like a lurch of earth on the edge of sleep etched into my visions food for dragonfish that learn to live upon whatever they must eat fused images beneath my pain. . In part this springs from her notion of ‘human’ difference.—the lynching of Emmett Till and. so I believe is our ‘humanity’. Mississippi. are useful resources in our struggle to rise to the task of creating our humanity and to find unity in difference. twenty-four years later. the despair of a white woman at the destruction of her home by the flooding of a river. In this poem Lorde forcefully reminds us that past atrocities imposed on one people by another lead to enduring destruction. She recreates the atmosphere of terror produced by the media images of Till’s murder. Like most of her poems it is not easy to grasp at first. veiled warnings to black people that any one of us is a potential lynching victim if we dare to ‘step out of line’. but the first verse conveys much of its overall sentiment. It is a long poem and needs to be read in its entirety. in order that we can act in future to prevent repeat performances? This vexed and tortuous question is one which Lorde addresses in what is perhaps one of her most profound and beautifully constructed pieces of work—the poem ‘Afterimages’. its force and the horrors of its implications hit you fully. so that we can move across the divides and grieve at another’s pain and loss.104 FEMINIST REVIEW collective histories. However the image enters its force remains within my eyes rockstrewn caves where dragonfish evolve wild for life. relentless and acquisitive learning to survive where there is no food my eyes are always hungry and remembering however the image enters its force remains.
but that mobilization is not an indication of an essential humanity. 1984:116). Of course this limitation is. and suggests that all that is needed is for ‘woman’ to be racialized (or for that matter ‘black’ to be gendered) and sexualized along a continuum of sexual orientations. The agenda will not be radically reconstituted. but I believe one of the reasons white women have such difficulty reading Black women’s work is because of their reluctance to see Black women as women and different from themselves. in spite of the terror that some of those who went to Germany last year imposed on black people. To say this is to suggest that we come to terms with and use differences amongst us not to reveal human essences once the layers of oppression have been lifted. are we not constructing our humanity rather than expressing it? When any group takes up the fight of those deemed to be ‘not us’. In Lorde’s schema the category ‘woman’ will simply be given greater depth and breadth—but it will not be deconstructed and redefined. something that many of us black feminists. or the ‘effects upon human behaviour and expectation’.” Women Redefining Difference’. as women. Class. Our selves are constructed out of our quest for humanity. as her frequent criticism of white feminists who believe that their experience and analysis is the one which is constitutive of ‘womanhood’ shows.AUDRE LORDE 105 which is why it is diverse and. is unproblematic. and Sex. thank God(!). Race. But just as some of us believe (following Foucault) that there is no prior existence of sexuality outside of the social matrix within which we practice our sexual relationships. shows what I am talking about: As white women ignore their built-in privilege of whiteness and define woman in terms of their own experience alone. This quote from ‘“Age. have to be historicized. I think. To examine Black women’s literature effectively requires that we be seen as whole people in our actual complexities—as individuals. that one of the forms in which we enact or construct our humanity is through the production and reproduction of differences. But in her critique she stops just short of challenging the category ‘woman’. In the end love and security are just as constructed as hate and fear. have shared. the same may be true of our humanness. in spite of the racism of some of the terraces. Lorde talks of ‘the human differences between us’. on both sides of the Atlantic. do they not do the same? It may be that such responses are mobilized by a recognition of the connections which arise from the fact that many of us are different from ‘the mythical norm’ (Lorde. In contrast to this way of looking at things. People then. Lorde is at times aware of this. then women of color become ‘other’. black people in Britain respond to the slander of the Hillsborough people with a ringing condemnation of the slanderers. That is. as human—rather than as one of those . subject to alteration. but in order to construct visions of what our humanities might become. An example of this is the signal absence of the experience of women of color as a resource for women’s studies courses…This is a very complex question. The time has come for us to try and move beyond it. ‘our human differences as equals’. and this is a process not an essence. as a collectivity. as though what constitutes ‘human’ is a given. If. socialized and politicized. in all the diverse forms of humanity. the outsider whose experience and tradition is too ‘alien’ to comprehend.
academics? Exactly what is a ‘genuine image’ and.106 FEMINIST REVIEW problematic but familiar stereotypes provided in this society in place of genuine images of Black women (Lorde. Questions such as these not only help to move us away from essentialism. Perhaps my point becomes a little clearer if we concentrate on her reference to ‘genuine images of Black women’. beyond anatomical constants. 1984:117–8). how do these relate to the construction of diverse and self-defined womanhoods? It is these questions which are raised more than addressed in much of Lorde’s work—and it is these questions which I feel are as central to our struggle for self-defined humanity as is the struggle against racism. This is why the poem ‘For the Record’ jarred so when I heard Audre read it that October afternoon in London. often fails to distinguish between women who occupy very different and opposing positions within the power structure. but also force us to stop seeing all women as somehow equivalent in their position in the world. exploitation. homophobia and heterosexism. They urge us to consider how we decide and measure the relationships between women whilst simultaneously refusing to use methods commensurate with the existing power structure. For surely the question is begged as to what such images would be. Images of black women cleaners. despite her exploration of the tenacity of division in ‘AfterImages’. girls. nurses or conductresses? Militant black women confronting fascists and racists? Black lesbians sporting some of the more problematic SM regalia such as slave/mistress? Battered black women? Black mother. Yet Lorde. women’s oppression. Call out the colored girls and the ones who call themselves Black and the ones who hate the word nigger and the ones who are very pale Who will count the big fleshy women the grandmother weighing 22 stone with the rusty braids and a gap-toothed scowl who wasn’t afraid of Armageddon the first shotgun blast tore her right arm off the one with the butcher knife the second blew out her heart through the back of her chest and I am going to keep writing it down how they carried her body out of the house dress torn up around her waist uncovered past tenants and the neighborhood children a mountain of Black Woman .
Those of us who wish to urge the move towards freedom along. She offers us her vision of a new world and of at least some of the elements that need to be considered to achieve it. to make the conditions for self-definition and control possible. women who because of their own place in the power structure. seems to be saying that the murder. But surely the only thing which these women did have in common was a shared biology and death. in refusing to allow the memory of Eleanor Bumpers to be lost. In addition to this we should never forget that Indira Gandhi was in power when the programme of enforced sterilization was introduced in the 1970s in which ten million women and men were sterilized. Yet Lorde. fundamentalist movements were encouraged at the expense of democratic movements. to the struggle for black liberation.AUDRE LORDE 107 and I am going to keep telling this if it kills me and it might in ways I am learning The next day Indira Gandhi was shot down in her garden and I wonder what these two 67-year-old colored girls are saying to each other now planning their return and they weren’t even sisters. was the head of the world’s tenth industrial power and was responsible for the dispossession. humiliation and marginalization of millions of Indian Eleanor Bumpers. (Lorde. and the manner of their death is similar. Nothing else. and to the general struggle to create a world where difference does not mean subordination. Gandhi may have been martyred by her death but this does not negate the fact she was an enemy of the Eleanor Bumpers of this world. in stark contrast. stand against us in this. 1986:63–4) I do not believe we are in the business of making equivalences between people because they share the same sex. Audre Lorde offers much to progressive feminism. self-defined and progressive women’s history. That both were murdered does not make them socially equivalent. are both ‘colored’. Rather we need to be looking for a common interest in undermining systems of oppression and exploitation. and where the need to eat doesn’t mean exploitation. The other. sex and colour of these two women mean they should occupy a similar place in a popular. Despite tendencies to essentialism. Gandhi’s introduction of a state of emergency led to conditions similar to those currently prevailing under the South African state of emergency. cannot be in the business of applauding. She also challenges us to use her work to push . and the Indian economy was further opened up to US investment and control. subjected to institutionalized humiliation and marginalization. One was a poor and dispossessed black woman. however subtly or indirectly. The rights of workers and peasants to organize were suspended.
and The Critic. Edward (1983) The World. LORDE. Audre (1982a) Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. New York: The Crossing Press. LORDE. MA: Profile Productions. LORDE. New York: W. Audre (1984) Sister Outsider.Norton & Co. LORDE.W. Audre (1988) A Radio Profile of Audre Lorde. . LORDE. Audre (1978) The Black Unicorn. Audre (1973) From A Land Where Other People Live. London: Sheba Feminist Publishers. London: Sheba Feminist Publishers. References BALDWIN. which will include arguing the point. London: Michael Joseph Ltd.Norton & Co. Audre (1986) Our Dead Behind Us.108 FEMINIST REVIEW forward in our visions of what we want to be. SAID.W. LORDE. James (1985) Evidence of Things Not Seen. She challenges us to act. and who created. standing up to be counted. Audre (1982b) Chosen Poems—Old and New. Note Gail Lewis is thirty-eight. Another who dared. New York: W. lives in London and has been involved in black and feminist politics for many years. The Text. Cambridge. New York: The Crossing Press. But perhaps more important than any of this. Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press. we can know that there is at least one other. and who survived. New York: Broadside Press. LORDE. she offers us her work as an out and proud black lesbian so that in those moments when we think we are alone.
Male homoerotica is sublimated throughout cultural history. whilst lesbians have remained anonymous. I found their work limited as a role model because it was not politically engaged.’ (Kent and Morreau. seemingly to attack but always presenting themselves in relationship to men and never rejecting the privileges of heterosexuality. 1985) Heterosexual women have used their art as a palliative to the male ego. ‘Nobody wants an informer in the kitchen or bedroom and as wives. Gluck and Romaine Brooks portrayed their preference for women in their work. Depicting my sexuality was like accepting it. status and style. It is dissipated throughout the mainstream because of the dominance and control of masculinity. voyeurism and female transvestitism. 1986) Feminist Review No 34. and concentrated on the glorification of wealth.’ (Souhami. ‘Gluck’s women wear their hats. The 1920s and 1930s artists. Although they were an exciting discovery. 1988).’ (Penelope. 1981). assertiveness. I withdrew unhappily from a movement (WLM) that was determined to make the lesbians within its ranks invisible in order to ‘reach out’ to all women when the phrase ‘all women’ clearly excluded lesbians as members and potential beneficiaries of political action. Feminist art of the 1970s and early 1980s has been monopolized by heterosexual women. ‘Hockney’s work appeals to a great many people…the subject matter of leisure and exoticism provides an escape from the mundanities of everyday life. mothers and lovers. jewellery and clothes. In the past my work was mainly concerned with self-portraiture. women know far too much about men to be allowed to speak freely. to show their self assurance. a leap into the glorious dark. My sexuality is a fundamental part of my life and perceptions. Heterosexual women artists have shown a fear of the ‘aggressive and predatory’ lesbian in a similar way to the rejection lesbians experienced in the Women’s Liberation movement in the early 1970s.LESBIAN TRADITION Rachael Field I define myself as a lesbian artist and even when lesbianism is not the central theme of a piece of work it leaves its resonances. Spring 1990 . reaffirming the phallocracy.’ (Livingstone. Then I relied on the reinterpretation of work by old mistresses such as Artemisia Gentileschi and Gwen John. a way to affirm my sense of self as a woman artist in a male-dominated art college.
’ (Kitzinger. 1986. Ignorance is widespread and many people do not realize what a devastating force heterosexism is. held by the German Nazi Party. so that lesbians may have greater insights into the functioning of male power. I use the conventions of the familiar (Christian) religious icon. The time is now and the word is freedom’ (Sulter. accessible. The work of contemporary Black women artists has made me re-evaluate the use of narrative. stripping it of any glorification of the heteropatriarchy. ‘We will be who we want to be. they are confronted by the bold statement of my existence as a lesbian. Black women artists have been producing work that is challenging both politically and artistically. ‘just like heterosexual women’. but are subjected to specific oppressions as lesbians that shape and mould lesbian consciousness. in May 1988. drawing on the realities of my life experiences and illustrating them is a means of taking control. whilst promoting what to many will be an incomprehensible message. the open hostility and indirect assumptions with which men/heterosexual women abuse us. For me. my work is. ‘Degenerate Icons’ was the title of my one-woman exhibition. as much as art ever is. To those who have little or no awareness of lesbianism. Ironical since my exhibition was on the eve of Clause 28 becoming law.110 FEMINIST REVIEW Small Square One. Hopefully lesbians viewing my work are empowered by the representation of our realities and our struggle to survive with strength. 1987) Using the traditional form of painting and drawing. the laws which restrict our lives. . As such lesbians are not. The title refers to the 1937 exhibition of art by undesirable subversives. 1989). oil/canvas In contrast. Black women artists have produced work fuelled with anger and their own sense of worth. because of the double oppression of racism.
oil/canvas Degenerate Icons boldly explores the until now secreted realms of real womens lives. however slightly.REPRESENTATION 111 Illegal on the Street. (Lawrence. enjoying each others company and loving each other. allowing my work a freedom and immediacy of Art Brut (psychotic art) and other nonassimilated art forms. 1988). I have stopped worrying about academic accuracy. is a revelation. The suggestion of form can reinterpret the essence far more than an exact reproduction. These are facets of womens lives which have been deliberately and consistently ignored right across the spectrum of visual imagery. 1987. . The art of the dispossessed. A recognizable image changed. living together.
But the campaign against the Clause has awakened a few galleries to their responsibility and they have created a space within mainstream exhibitions for lesbian art. Along The Lines of Resistance. ‘Rachael Field’s painting didn’t really articulate for me anything about what it must feel like to be a lesbian…I wasn’t sure what the two figures were doing. Exhibited in: The Wedding. There is a danger of tokenism and our politics being submerged within the acceptable face of ‘human relationships’. or if they were women. Survival and Strength and . 1988) Notes Rachael Field. Struggle. One-woman shows include: Degenerate Icons. Now lives in Manchester. included several lesbian artists. 1988). born 1965. ‘Here women speak as the Other and through their artistic and visual languages place themselves within traditions of their own making. Our work was presented within an environment which encouraged full expression of its political arguments. oil/canvas The criticisms of my work have varied: ‘Her figures are almost without the attribute of sex’ (Morris.’ (Pearson. Clause 28 has increased the danger of censorship and can be used as an excuse for not representing lesbian art. Resonances. It is significant that the touring dates have been severely limited for this overtly feminist show. 1989).112 FEMINIST REVIEW Degenerate Icon.’ (Parmar. 1989. Interestingly both the female reviewers state clearly in their articles their heterosexuality and therefore their nonaffiliation with the sexuality I am portraying. a contemporary feminist art exhibition. ‘Along the Lines of Resistance’. North West Frontiers and Images of Women.
Diana (1988) Gluck: Her Biography. London: Writers and Readers. Marco (1981) David Hockney. London. Onlywomen Press. Pratibha (1988) Introduction to the catalogue of exhibition titled ‘Along the Lines of Resistance: An exhibition of contemporary feminist art’. and MORREAU. (1985) Women’s Images of Men. LIVINGSTONE.REPRESENTATION 113 Domestic Scene Whalley Range 1989. Gossip. Elbow Room catalogue. They have two cats. J. oil/canvas Cheshire Arts Tour 1989. PENELOPE. . a rabbit. LAWRENCE. Lives and works with puppeteer Nenagh Watson. Blackwomens Creativity of the African Diaspora’. Araminta (1988) Women Artists Slide Library Journal. PARMAR. Celia (1987) The Social Construction of Lesbianism. S.London. References KENT. London. Vol. 2. London. Drawing Near. 7 . no. London: Pandora. Geni (1988) Feminist Arts Review. London: Thames & Hudson. Maud (1989) ‘Passion. London. and two canaries. London: Sage Publications. Julia (1986) ‘The Mystery of Lesbians’. SOUHAMI. MORRIS. SULTER. Jo (1989) Women Artists Slide Library Journal. KITZINGER. PEARSON.
Lesbians, AIDS and Sexuality An interview with Cindy Patton by Sue O’Sullivan
In this wide-ranging interview, Cindy Patton explores some of the cultural determinants of lesbian sexuality which affect discussions about the meaning of AIDS to lesbians. Cindy: I’d like to talk first about the history of safe sex—in particular about the lesbian safe sex discussion, and how it’s developed. It was in San Francisco, in late 1985 or early 1986, that the SF AIDS Foundation decided to do what became the first brochure on safe sex for lesbians. When you read the brochure now it feels like a gay male brochure changed to fit the technicalities needed to correspond to lesbians, rather than written from the subject position of women. It caused quite a furore at the time. In Boston, Gay Community News quickly ran a lesbians and AIDS article, and other periodicals carried their own pieces. It really was as if lesbians had suddenly been brought into a debate about safe sex which had evolved from gay male sensibilities. Gay men had had to go through a whole process of thinking, ‘My community is changing, I’m going to have to make some changes’. That entire preliminary phase did not happen in the lesbian community—if you can use that phrase—a brochure just appeared. I think that was one of the reasons why it was so divisive at the time. It almost seems as if gay men as a community had an opportunity to process developments around AIDS and then suddenly AIDS workers thought, ‘We should do something about the lesbians’. There were two accusations immediately levelled. One was that men were making lesbians do something they really didn’t need to do. The second was that lesbians who believed in safe sex were being hysterical. Sue: Yes, there were articles in lesbian publications in this country questioning the relevance, or the political desirability for lesbians to take on AIDS in any way. Cindy: I think how the discussion of AIDS is played out in various lesbian communities depends on how those communities have dealt with sexuality in the first place. In communities where race and class divisions are primary, safe sex issues tend to intensify racism and classism. In communities where divisions are around pornography, the debate on safer sex circulates around its status as ‘pornographic’. It’s as if a little sexbomb gets dropped and its explosion throws up and makes visible existing divisions about sexuality, which are then available for—often angry—debate.
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I didn’t realize the depth and the dynamics of some of that to begin with. But what I did notice was that the first lesbian debates on AIDS often circulated around strangely esoteric questions about scientific data. Women would ask stranger things than I’d ever heard from a gay man, like, ‘Has there ever been a study on having warts on your hand and what happens then if you stick your fingers in your lover’s cunt?’ There were certainly things to be said about lesbians and STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), but the emotions behind the questions and the extreme reactions they evoked had to do with issues which had not been resolved in the lesbian community. There are, for example, some real differences in how the gay male community has been able to progress and construct itself and its sexuality, as compared with lesbians, who remain comparatively invisible. This complicated the whole issue of lesbian safe sex. Sue: Don’t you think as well though, that women have, and have had in different cultural and historical moments, health conversations which are a lot more detailed than the ones men usually have? The discourse around health, in women’s magazines, in feminist magazines, in books like Our Bodies Ourselves, may well mean that women are more likely to ask the sort of question which you found bizarre or extreme. I agree that the tendency to question the relevance of safe sex for lesbians, which I’ve expressed myself, as well as heard expressed by other lesbians, can mask a much deeper sense of fear, antagonism and confusion, but I also think women are differently placed in relation to questions around health and are much more likely to become riveted by details of the body and the transmission of infection. Cindy: That’s possible, but it didn’t feel like that. What it really felt like was that even lesbians didn’t know what it was that lesbians did in sex, so there was no way that we could come up with a formula for figuring out what lesbian safe sex was. In groups of gay men there was a more generally accepted idea of what the range of sexual practice might be; there seemed to be a kind of menu of gay male sex acts, and you could go through the menu and figure out what needed to get changed. With lesbians there never seemed to be an perceived baseline of what lesbian sexuality was. I felt completely at sea compared with the work I had done with gay men. Women were either fearful of saying anything—‘What if everyone thinks it’s weird’?—or so convinced that whatever they did was normal that they would just pop out with bizarre questions. I think that it does get down to the fact that lesbian sexuality exists in a kind of void. We haven’t had the opportunity to talk about sexuality in groups and to articulate it as a collective within which different modalities are given time to emerge. It’s only recently that we’ve talked for example, about butch/femme or SM (sado-masochism) or other labelled activities, and even in those debates it’s never quite clear what women are really doing. I think the prior question is, do lesbians really want to talk? As a community, do we want to have the kind of discussions or cultural space and activities which produce different shades of sexuality? In early American lesbian-feminist culture, lesbian sex was thought of as having the possibility of being completely egalitarian; it would be undifferentiated and oceanic. On one level it’s tempting to say we just haven’t had time to get our act together and develop more differentiated categories of lesbian sexuality, but in fact many lesbians of that particular theoretical persuasion would in any case be
so medical data does need to be re-examined in the light of alleged oral transmission or manual transmission between heterosexuals and between women. A really interesting example of this came from a physician friend of mine who had been pretty much of the This is going to freak lesbians out. The . ‘I have HIV and I want to know what I have to do’. if vaginal fluid is highly infected how much of it gets smeared and where does it go? You can’t use the male model of a single ‘glob’ of semen that moves from point A to point B. who feel like they can actually talk about their experience (which very few of those women feel able to do). I think once you realize there is a woman in the community who has contracted HIV from a partner it changes the whole debate. and she started to lay out her whole theoretical argument and the woman said. That’s not how lesbians practice sex. ‘No semen in the anus or vagina’ Sue: Does that mean that your recent safe sex slogan for everyone. but I have to go home to my lover tonight and I want to know what’s safe and not safe’. It’s certainly true that lesbian sex involves a lower range of risk than any activities which get semen in your anus or vagina. we shouldn’t get too het up about this. a relatively new study of heterosexuals which suggest a connexion between vaginal fluids. There is. There are also some aspects of lesbian sexual practice which help to exclude the larger questions of lesbian sexuality from discussions of safe sex—things like lower partner turnover and engaging in activities which in general are less likely to transmit a whole range of pathogens. but I still think there are some questions to be asked. or help people break down. we were just getting to express ourselves and if we talk about safe sex it really makes women shut down’ school of thought. ‘Fine. I think as lesbians emerge who are HIV positive. So the debates feel theoretical. My friend was put on the spot. the lesbian community has tended to subsume those discussions under the heading of safe sex. it tends to be a lot wetter and if they’re women who get very wet then vaginal fluid tends to get smeared around various places—but this isn’t an issue that’s been factored into any of the studies. for example. still stands? When you come down to the questions a lesbian like that might have. Cindy: At the time I wrote that. yeast infections and HIV. For instance. what I was trying to do was break down. that slogan doesn’t give her much to go on. Eventually she had a lesbian client who said. Very few lesbians know another lesbian who is HIV positive and even fewer have the experience of knowing someone who had contacted HIV from their female lover. it is going to become clear that there are still some very practical questions which remain unanswered. On another level—and this is a historical development—AIDS has in some ways deflected attention from debates about sexuality. the idea that belonging to the category ‘lesbian’ meant that your sexual practices by definition did not transmit HIV. Instead of pursuing discussions of lesbian sexuality. ‘No semen in the anus or vagina’.AIDS AND SEXUALITY 117 opposed to having discussions that would lead to the differentiation of lesbian sexuality. unlike the debates around gay men’s sex issues.
‘Am I one of the people it applies to?’ So when I go to do an educational intervention. They may come to a different set of decisions in the end than I would. I suspect. ‘What’s the concentration in X amount of whatever fluid and how long does it sit in any one place?’ In these kinds of calculations. is heterosexual oral sex. Identities Sue: What you say about semen and vaginas raises interesting questions about the way lesbian identities might change with shifts in our understanding of sexuality. to refuse to participate in a cultural event which is so politically charged. or whatever you want to call it. I don’t understand what’s at stake for them. it doesn’t concern me’. but it is not morally correct to say. I try to get people uncentred from that and to understand that as responsible people this is an issue that they are obligated to engage with. lesbian sexuality simply isn’t accounted for—nor. ‘I don’t need to know about this. And this goes for lesbians as much as anyone else. We are in the midst of a huge cultural upheaval around sexuality. though you feel fundamentally that for people to become liberated or to address an issue they need to look at it in a different manner. Even though many lesbians will decide in the end that the techniques of safe sex are not something they need or want. At a time when so many people’s lives are being ruined not just by getting AIDS but by the cultural backlash of the epidemic. It’s much more a matter of getting people to unframe the question they themselves have already framed. But haven’t we just been talking about how difficult it is for lesbians to talk about their sexuality let alone approach lovers with the idea that you negotiate safe sex or even decide if that’s necessary? Cindy: I’m frequently being called in to talk about safe sex. In so far as they consider vaginal fluid. Maybe for another year I will . is very strange and wrong. what they’re interested in is how much of it might have seeped into the penis. I try hard now not to get sucked into situations where people ask. to decide it doesn’t apply to you. you’re often thrown into situations in which people want to be rather passively educated. The basic modality in which decisions are made about safe sex seems to involve making a list of certain types of people and asking. ‘Should we or shouldn’t we?’ I don’t understand what safe sex means to them. ‘I’m exempt from this’. which immediately sets me up into a pedagogic situation—and as an educator. there is something very callous about saying. Sue: You’ve said to me quite emphatically that you tell everyone to practise safe sex.118 FEMINIST REVIEW assumption seems to be. Cindy: The reason I came up with that little catch phrase about not getting semen in vaginas or anuses was because there has been such a proliferation of safe sex guidelines. Studies of transmission are simply based on an intercourse model. They don’t look at how much might have got on the hands or the face. What I wanted to do was figure out a very simple way to give the one piece of information that had the critical logic and information.
if things have evolved then I’ll try something else. On the issue of changing understandings of sexuality. What’s happening with AIDS is that the discussions it gives rise to about safe sex have triggered much more wide-ranging discussion. many women who came out as lesbians thought we weren’t going to have to deal with bad old baggage about heterosexuality that we had never really resolved. menopause. about which there have been a number of studies lately. in 1982 or 1981. The discussion of safe sex has brought them to the fore again. entering the ‘Lesbian Nation’ meant shedding the detritus from issues like pregnancy. The fact that child sexual abuse is then unproblematically linked to adult SM often makes it impossible for SM even to be discussed. particularly around these new studies which seem to indicate that gay people have been more sexually abused than other people. The survivor who is into SM is seen as continuing her victimization. Cindy: I think there has been a little more space in the US because the SM battle was waged a bit earlier on. You have to understand that in the US we love a testimonial format We’re much more involved in grounding our legitimacy in personal experience than British people seem to be. both psychic and physical. as a survivor of child sexual abuse. When people have danced around that one. Lesbians are seen as deluded if they think they’re able to deal with the trauma of abuse within or through SM activity. so very quickly a fairly large number of male and female SM practitioners emerged in the mid-eighties who talked about having been sexually abused as children. For many lesbians. I hear a lot of interesting responses when I suggest to women that they should practise safe sex. As a . I find this frustrating because I would really like to be able to have a discussion which looked nonjudgementally at the emotional and cultural components of lesbian SM and admitted the possibilities that for individual lesbians SM has the potential to be both positive and negative. they didn’t see that those unresolved conflicts would be retained as part of the psyche. What’s emphasized in discussions of child sexual abuse is the pain. let alone admitted as a category of lesbian sexual desire and practice. There has also been an interesting development in politically progressive SM culture more recently. What is coming out for example in the US lesbian community is the issue of child sexual abuse. as far as I am aware. or sexual abuse. choose to practise SM in your sexual relationship. The statistics you see of sexual abuse of women and sexual abuse of gay people. Child sexual abuse is so fused to SM that they cannot be seen separately. suggest that people in these two categories are particularly likely to have been sexually abused. In the US it’s much more common for people to say all sorts of personal things publicly. you can feel them tracking back to unresolved issues about pregnancy.AIDS AND SEXUALITY 119 use that particular catch phrase. Sue: I think the debate on child sexual abuse has surfaced around different issues in Britain. There has been no room yet. or maybe as suffering from the disease of false consciousness. feeling bad about their body in general. to engage in an open discussion about why you might. of which the child sexual abuse debate is one example. All of that then gets hung on to the issue of safe sex. sexual abuse. for the survivor. it’s tended to be discussed much more in the context of struggles around SM. or having a hard time dealing with men because they’re hard to deal with.
I was horrified and very embarrassed. or the adult recalling the child. The power to interpret Sue: But do you find any of this problematic? There’s certainly something about the current discussion on child sexual abuse which makes me itchy. I think if I had a different kind of personality and history. as importantly. I work this out through my SM’. there have certainly been attempts to ‘reclaim’ child sexual abuse. mainly by men. Some say. Sue: That’s true. it has had a heavy dose of very bad Freudian psychoanalysis. So within feminism. for example. with the story into which it was written which we do have some control over. The dominant model is a mixture of Freudian psychoanalysis and American philosophical pragmatism.120 FEMINIST REVIEW result. and some say ‘Well. SM and child sexual abuse are simply two distinct features of my life’. mainly girls. but neither of us could say anything. That denies the child. It has become a feminist heresy to suggest that there may be an element of fantasy that is being claimed as a physical reality. there is a tendency to encourage women to claim victimhood—which means that child sexual experiences are rewritten as narratives of victimization. in the reconstruction of the past. that perhaps I could take that relatively harmless memory and a few others . so was he. either way. I don’t want to let abusers off the hook or suggest all over again that children lie. the power to interpret—which is ultimately very damaging because in this framework sexual abuse has to be claimed as a real event which was enormously formative. Who knows what his unconscious feelings about his young daughter were. have been and continue to be sexually abused. a misunderstanding of how fantasy can work in the construction of present reality and. The US is a very pop psychoanalytic culture. The possibility of fantasy muddies the waters. there’s now a real ‘claiming’ of childhood sexual abuse by SM practitioners. or wipe away the fact that millions of people. The more responsible feminist therapists I know don’t try to essentialize the perceptions their clients have—and that contrasts sharply with mainstream psychoanalysis. In one case I was sitting on my father’s lap in a very crowded car when he got an erection. particularly in recollections of child sexual abuse. I have several recollections of childhood experiences with my father which could indicate the possibility of sexual abuse. puts men in a marginally less clear position and generally makes things more complicated—but surely ultimately it does no one a service to deny the importance of fantasy? Cindy: The best way to answer that question is perhaps to talk a little about the psychoanalysis of child sexual abuse—though I certainly can’t do a survey of psychoanalysts. However. But I do wonder if there hasn’t been a strange disowning of the complexity and importance of fantasy. From everything I know about my father. ‘Well. but that’s not what we’re talking about here. The confusion comes from not distinguishing something which happened in space and time over which we had no control. it’s simply assumed that the stories the adult tells have to be really true. I’m confident there was none. We were both trapped by the situation. so in cases of child sexual abuse.
then we’re mistaken. that perhaps I would take that relatively harmless memory as a clue that I had been sexually abused by my father. Sometimes it is obviously more than that. Are there systematic events. there may be other forms of abuse that deserve attention. Cindy: What more sophisticated psychotherapists and self-narratives do is to look at larger family patterns around the events. A child may be subjected to one instance of abuse but may experience twenty-five occasions when she can’t have her room as she wants it—and that form of disciplinary control is just as much a part of what forms the child’s sexuality as are more obviously ‘sexual’ events. If we stick to a narrative that says. Which is a rhetorical thing to say. It’s unclear to me that having sex with someone is any more than the parallel play of two different people’s vastly different memories. There was assumed to be a finite set of fixed events in early childhood that determined one’s sexuality. I also think it’s a mistake to focus too much on events which become sexualized. ‘Sex actually begins and ends in the grocery store and what we do later with someone else is just a re-enactment of that memory’.AIDS AND SEXUALITY 121 as clues that I might have been sexually abused by my father. but it doesn’t necessarily become psychically structuring unless you’re always being trapped by adults in one way or another. they’re constantly open to reinterpretation. It seems damaging to me to privilege sexual abuse over other sorts of psychic abuse or control. The trick is to have narrative control and poetic licence about your own sexuality. but I think it’s important to maintain. In the past. rather than looking at discipline and control in general. but the substantive part of the decision-making and cognitive process involved in sex has to do with something else. In fact. if you were sexually abused. You yourself talked just now about how it’s generally been assumed that if you were sexually abused. that’s why you would be into SM. or. I think if I had a different kind of personality and history. though this is something that has a particular set of resonances in our culture. I think that there are events that occur throughout one’s life that determine or inform sexuality but I think they’re much less predictable and less determining. why you would never be into SM. So the idea that you can rationally discuss safe sex is inconsistent . Sexual mapping Sue: Can you say some more about the relationship between narrative—the stories we tell about ourselves—and safe sex? Cindy: A little aphorism I once wrote says. we had a very deterministic view of sexuality. or are there single events—or events that happen no more than a couple of times—which for the child may have some psychic similarity but aren’t part of a larger pattern or process? So to be trapped in the car and have your father get a hard on is one thing and it might be upsetting. I think the tendency is to focus too much on sexual abuse as an essential category rather than understanding that. I think a lot of times what comes next may be regression. ‘there was once heterosexuality. then we invented lesbian liberation and somehow we’re always going forward towards a point at which we’ll reach a perfect sexuality’.
But I believe a deeper problem is that we don’t take our sexuality seriously enough as a project. this is how it works. Sue: How. and that there is nothing in the sexual narrative of either partner that makes them incompatible.122 FEMINIST REVIEW with what most people are in relation to their own sexuality. who tell me about times they’d had sex and suddenly just haven’t put the condom on. Everyone has something that makes them anxious. That’s why I try to get people to identify for themselves what it is that makes sex hang together for them in the first place. where lots of women know the guidelines but hardly anyone has integrated them into their daily lives. in the charming way gay men did in the seventies. but then we have to reconstruct anxiety at the threshold of unsafe sex so that people don’t accidently forget the condom just because the framework ‘safe sex’ feels normal. We need to get the red flags to go up before unsafe sex. Let me give an example of the absence of a mapping of sexual categories. Sue: Unsafe sex for many heterosexual women has always been tremendously anxiety producing in terms of unwanted pregnancy. We think of that period now . ‘You have to negotiate safe sex and then you do it’. Cindy: I think you’re right. whereas with many gay men safe sex has become the norm. the whole perception was that it would be a safe sex event—but then all of a sudden it became something different. I think two things are going on here. they just stop. it wasn’t as if one person didn’t want to have safe sex. I’ve generally worked on the principle that. but that denies an intrinsic sexual narrativity. In order for safe sex to work. phase one seems to be to normalize it so that it’s OK to practice safe sex. would lesbians be enabled to negotiate safe sex? We seem to be in such a double-edged situation. it seems to me that it’s rare for lesbians to base their relationship decisions on sexual compatibility. But I’ve started hearing stories from men who have been practising safe sex. in the context you’ve outlined. It’s only then that they can look at what they have to do to stop themselves getting diseases. One is that we don’t have a discourse which allows us to say that category X and category Q are going to be hard to match up. People say that’s horrible. and for the vast majority of gay men I know. In a context where many lesbians haven’t even tentatively mapped out collective sexual categories. It’s just assumed that two women can work it out. when the condom doesn’t go on. but it hasn’t necessarily stopped them fucking. that sexuality should just be ‘natural’ and fun. Clearly there is some narrative structure in those men’s lives which demands that unsafe sex be linked to very high levels of anxiety before they reach a point at which. No decision was made. For example. I’ve recently discovered an interesting thing about gay men. it seems what you describe as the normalization process—the opening up of sexual discussion—still has to be the baseline from which we start. What you always have to be aware of is that safe sex is really different for different people. Cindy: That’s because phase one of normalization never took place.
‘Well. What I’m seeing is something like the return of an eighteenth-century romantic sexuality where you do bundling and cuddling and hand jobs—all those quaint pre-Victorian activities. By the late 1970s or early 1980s. for example. Lesbian feminists like to think we’re the ones who put egalitarian sexuality on the map. it seems that in Gay Liberation. but to refuse to get fucked was to be very uptight and withholding. such as using a dildo? Cindy: Well. but to take one’s sexuality seriously surely can be a revolutionary act. of course. it was very uncool for a man never to get fucked. it is more like a personal development choice. and I say. Sue: And yet I think for lesbians the safe sex discussion has the possibility of making desires for anal stimulation more possible to speak about and to do. They think they’d like to try it out sometime but it neither seems to be a native desire nor an act that they’ve necessarily eroticized. There was an emphasis on ‘democratic fucking’. It’s ironic. Race. sexuality and AIDS Sue: Can you say something about how you think about race in relation to the kinds of questions you’ve been raising about sexuality? . you never liked it before anyway’. ‘I never get fucked now with safe sex’. He might have a preference for fucking. Younger gay men were coming out into a culture where intercourse was the dominant practice. There is a way in which the safe sex discussion has enabled men who didn’t want to have anal sex to avoid it. When you decide to have intercourse you actually do it ‘properly’. The result was that younger gay men were socialized into fucking at an earlier point in their sexual development. Intercourse is becoming something you do when you’re in a ‘real’ relationship. post-Stonewall days. but really gay men in some very profound ways did it just as much or even more. People tend to essentialize the penis as the implement of penetration. and they are being socialized into intercourse a lot later. According to studies being done now by people like Gayle Rubin in the US. my sense is that young gay men now inhabit environments where safe sex is a major topic of discussion.AIDS AND SEXUALITY 123 as one of crass hedonism. the progressive left and ideas of free love. but what I often say jokingly when I’m speaking on safe sex is that it has given many men an excuse not to get fucked. There are gay men I’ve worked with in their early twenties who’ve never had intercourse. To put it another way: I think what’s happening is a process of deessentializing anal stimulation as intercourse. And having intercourse isn’t simply the end point of foreplay. with the influence of feminism. curiously no. That’s changing now. with both partners being able to fuck and be fucked. Does that mean that they’re looking for other forms of anal penetration. there was an increase in ideas of sexual mutuality in the US urban gay cultures. Sue: There must be many gay men who are too frightened to have intercourse even with a condom. Friends have said to me.
we’re saying instead. in the sense that it involves acknowledging the category ‘gay’. Professional Black gay men have now begun to recognize the need to . straight and gay—but they’re more available to become part of a continuum than gender. in the Black community in particular. ‘you better conform to my categories’. They’re also not necessarily structured around binary divisions. for example. The similarity between race and sexuality is that they are two cultural notions which seem to be represented in the body. western categories of sexuality on to very culturally diverse communities. That’s a really stunning and difficult cultural transition for those communities.124 FEMINIST REVIEW Cindy: In the States we’ve tended to treat race. The bipolar categories of sexuality and race are not only more immediately unstable. large numbers of men of colour who have AIDS are being identified as bisexual or gay. which are going through a very interesting consciousness-raising process in trying to deal with the issue of how to relate to Black men who are not of their socio-economic class. ‘Why don’t these women come out?’. gets brutally killed in the end. ‘We’re going to take these members of our community who we’ve always known about. ‘What is AIDS doing for our ability to construct categories? What’s the effect of the AIDS crisis on our ability to construct our identity?’ In some cases. I’m doing some work now on the representation of ‘miscegenation’ in US films. it means saying. are no longer saying. gender and sexuality together (sometimes we’ve treated race and class together. There are a number of largely professional Black men’s gay groups in Boston. like the ‘true homosexual’. There are certainly always two poles—you have black and white. especially in health care. and the person of colour. or ‘Our community is not going to work with your community’. Everybody is recognizing that. But it’s not as if they’re in the closet either. For example. but whom in the past we’ve called the hairdresser or the preacher—and we’ll call them gay. People in the white gay community say. both bisexuality and interracial sexuality get represented in similar ways as liminal sexualities. rather than necessarily conceptualized at the level of language. they’re also often merged at the level of metaphor. and the Latino community in different ways. but what they don’t understand is that ‘gay’ is not a stable and meaningful category in the communities of colour. and their roles as Black people in a largely white. What’s happening slowly is that some of the white educators who are little more sensitive (and I hope I’m one of them). In addition. and thus a number of women who have female partners but who are not at all out as lesbians. AIDS is creating a whole new domain of categories. but our class structure is so different that it is difficult to do class analysis in the way that you’re able to do in Europe). even the problematization of gender produced by transsexuals or cross-dressers is so minimal that it never really rocks the gender boat. Many of the people doing AIDS work in the Black community have traditionally lived between two roles: their leadership position in roles which have been traditional homosexual roles within Black culture. and who also don’t necessarily identify as gay. Funding is in some sense contingent upon the application of essentially white. Gender is always bipolar. In AIDS work the cultural anxieties around sexuality and raciality meet again in the liminal space with polarizing effects. the greater power of Black women meant more women in leadership positions. gay male community. To give an example: Black community groups in Boston are finally able to get government funding for AIDS work.
from being a novice to being someone who can be let loose on their own. Some lesbian porn made for men does have an edge to it that defies heterosexuality and so appeals to lesbian experience. to someone who can actually teach others. Cindy: What I was saying before about SM and butch/femme is that they are the corners of lesbian culture where the boundaries of erotic space and fantasy have been most consciously mapped. or knowledge of your own body that takes time. What about these other Black men. I think all of that is antithetical to what we know as lesbian sexuality and is much more common in gay men’s culture. are they. I think it’s possible at this point politically and culturally for lesbians to start looking at gay male porn… Sue: A recent On Our Backs has a spread on girls looking at boys doing it. Something you said before the interview started implied that women who were into SM or butch/femme were the ones who had taken on the issue of safe sex. without having led us to become connoisseurs of that particular type of pornography. Joan Nestle has of course written about femmes becoming butches at a certain age. One of the problems is the paucity of sexual imagery for lesbians. There is actually a fair amount of sociology done on SM as a career in the sense of an entry into a subculture where you’re expected to learn rules and norms from someone who has been there longer. “I’m a Black man and that means I can have sex with whoever I want?”’ Will lesbians talk? Sue: I want finally to return to the question of future directions for a discussion of lesbian sexuality. It may be that certain sexual practices in our culture require expertise. but I think what she’s talking about is not so much a career. SM culture tends to be very much oriented around that career process. Looking at gay male porn doesn’t have to be the beginning of a particular ‘career path’. or requires particular social experiences. really bisexual? Is their sexuality really about thinking. You progress through developmental stages in that culture. That’s partly an historical phenomenon having to do with the oppression of SM people. I think that SM lesbians picked up on safe sex because they have more interaction with the gay male SM community. what I’m curious about is whether that is really true and also how much the safe sex discussion for lesbians has been formed through gay erotic symbolism. ‘We call ourselves gay and we’re comfortable with that but we’re professionals. but I think it’s more common for lesbians to enter porn culture through gay male porn. I don’t want to be essentialist and say that this is a biological development. but it may be that there are cultural structures in place that make it easier to navigate sexuality in predetermined ways than to choose a different trajectory. for example. the available pervert or queer imagery has been gay male porn. as the acquisition of a set of competences. to master. Many of us have the experience or can tell stories about wandering through a Playboy which sparked our lesbian imagination. . They’re saying. Women who have erotic charges from SM often came out in the context either of gay men’s SM culture or at least of contact with gay men generally.AIDS AND SEXUALITY 125 address the class issues highlighted by sexuality within the Black community.
rather than what was acceptable. (a lesbian porn magazine coming out of Boston). Thanks to Erica Carter for applying her valuable editorial skills at the last moment. It got more of a reaction than the very stylized stuff in On Our Backs. One image.126 FEMINIST REVIEW Cindy: There is clearly a fascination among some lesbians about what men do. to map our sexualities. art therapy work. She has been involved in AIDS organizing since 1982. which is an interesting turnabout. and thought it was abusive to women. It was an elegant. say. not impose one. that were very much what women were doing sexually at grass-roots level. London: Pandora. Taking Liberties: AIDS and Cultural Politics. stunning photograph but some women were really offended. Sue O’Sullivan has written about AIDS since 1984. Simon (1989) editors. 1987). athletic breasts. Patricia (1989) editors. we tried really hard to get women to do their own work around their sexuality for the magazine. It may be that within lesbian/gay culture gay men’s sexuality has moved to a position of prominence because of AIDS. was of very beautiful smallish. RIEDER. It would be nice to do some consciousness-raising involving. with a nipple ring and a very very sharp stiletto between the nipple ring. Background reading CARTER. I don’t know if you recall it. she is author of Sex and Germs: The Politics of AIDS (Boston: South End Press. for example. Bad Attitude was trying to speak out of a set of authentic subject positions and to give women space to talk about their sexuality and develop a language. Ines and RUPPELT. RICHARDSON. and it may be that this offers a vocabulary that lesbians can take on and try out. Notes Cindy Patton is a long-time feminist and gay activist. . Diane (1987) Women and the AIDS Crisis. Sue: I think that would be fun and risky—which can be a fruitful and explosive combination. to begin to find a language of our own somehow. London: Virago. Formally an editor of Boston’s (US) Gay Com munity News. 1985) and Making It: A Women’s Guide to Sex in the Age of AIDS (Ithaca. There are a lot of changes happening in gay male sexuality. ‘AIDS: Lessons from the Gay Community’ appeared in FR 30. Matters of Life and Death: Women Speak About AIDS. Her article. She works as an editor at Sheba Feminist Publishers and is currently working on a book called Positively Women with women from the group of that name. London: Serpent’s Tail. But there are other strategies: when I was working on Bad Attitude. We used images that were produced by the women themselves. NY: Firebrand Books. Erica and WATNEY.
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Perhaps as a result of this consensus of feeling the relationship between psychoanalysis and lesbianism remains largely untheorized. There is a difficulty inherent in entering psychoanalytic discourse from a position of identification as a lesbian. Spring 1990 . Therapy seems to be the new terrain for the working out of a politics of personal life. contestation. together—in part along the axis of a personal account of therapy—to see what it is they might have to say to each other. for lesbians entering analysis. The most recent articulation of a political position on psychoanalysis was in the radical feminist journal Trouble and Strife (Rondot. gaping abysses of opinion. such wholesale dismissal (mainly through silence) does not answer what some lesbians find extremely useful about psychoanalytic theory in accounting for how we make sense of ourselves. fracture. despite the fact that the theoretical bases of many of our therapies will have been informed by psychoanalysis at some point. It even threatens to eclipse the status of lovers as conversation topics. According to that author at least. More and more of us are going into therapy and it is almost becoming unfashionable not to be in it. 1989) in which Freud’s case of ‘Dora’ was once more found to embody all that is most oppressive about psychoanalysis to lesbians and to all women. lesbianism and psychoanalysis. To enter therapy as a lesbian is not to automatically presuppose a problem with our identity—but since a central function of therapy is to problematize our conscious and Feminist Review No 34. Historically. In this article I want to attempt to bring the two. Our discussions have all the elements of political debate— investment. Many of the criticisms directed at the theory and practice of psychoanalysis are undoubtedly accurate. However.SIGNIFICANT OTHERS: Lesbianism and Psychoanalytic Theory Diane Hamer Introduction: lesbians and therapy Of all the conversations I have had with friends lately. Yet there is still an antipsychoanalysis consensus amongst lesbians. it has been their lesbianism which has been assumed to be ‘the problem’ for which they seek help. the implication seemed to be that psychoanalysis has nothing to say to lesbians—and vice versa. the one which raised the most passionate and the most violent emotions is that which concerns the function of my therapist in my life.
as women or as men. our lesbianism will once again be read as ‘the problem’. It is at this level that I see psychoanalysis as potentially having most to offer to us. This remains one of the central contradictions in my own therapy and it dominates the attempt to establish a dialogue between psychoanalysis and lesbianism. natural or pre-given—without pathologizing it. but is a forced condition. 1982). Taking on gender identities Feminists have adopted a psychoanalytic account of individual sexuality and psychic life in an attempt to account for the psychic formation of gender identities. This reading of psychoanalysis assumes that things could be otherwise and thus addresses patriarchal authority and women’s apparent acquiescence to it as fundamentally fragile and precarious. 1983:9). To quote Jacqueline Rose once more.130 FEMINIST REVIEW fixed senses of self. Feminists have turned to Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. it currently occupies a central position within contemporary feminist theory. Jacqueline Rose has argued that psychoanalysis becomes one of the few places in our culture where it is recognised as more than a fact of individual pathology that most women do not painlessly slip into their roles as women. as a contingent identity constructed from individual biographical details rather than as something authentic. There is a real danger here that in the process. in terms of a radical reading of lesbianism. therefore to outline how feminists have understood psychoanalysis’s implicit offerings on the instability of identities and positions within patriarchal culture. (Rose. I want. How do we move towards a psychoanalytic understanding of lesbian identity—and by that I mean how do we begin to think about the history of the formation of our lesbianism. as a way of addressing the internal psychic construction of women’s identity in patriarchal culture. without making it a symptom of a sickness? Uses of psychoanalysis within f eminist theory Although psychoanalysis so far has not found a place within a specifically lesbian politics or theory. This process of recognition (or mis-recognition. initially imported to Britain via the work of feminists Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (Mitchell and Rose. if indeed they do at all. 1983:9) For psychoanalysis to recognize that women’s subordination is achieved only at a cost suggests that within psychoanalytic theory it is understood that women’s oppression is not guaranteed by any natural inferiority. Psychoanalysis has been understood as a way of addressing the psychic cost to women of entering a culture in which our subordination is a sine qua non. she suggests that ‘Feminism’s affinity with psychoanalysis rests above all […] with this recognition that there is resistance to identity which lies at the heart of psychic life’ (Rose. we might say) is not understood as guaranteed according to the details . They use psychoanalysis to describe how each one of us comes to recognize ourselves as members of one or other gender category. our lesbian identity does come up for grabs within the therapeutic relationship.
The Oedipal moment represents the individual’s ‘taking in’ of our culture’s laws as regards gender and sexuality. This earlier state is one in which there is no psychic distinction between girls and boys. in this stage. beyond the biological need which brought them into being. bum-wiping. this is relevant for our purposes because it indicates how the sexual pleasures we derive from our lesbian identifications in our adult lives. and so is always in excess of the realm of biological needs’ (Fletcher 1989:94). In the sense in which Mitchell describes it. by a ‘sameness between the sexes’ which eclipses their differences. sexuality emerges as a symbolic substitution which stands in for this lost object. 1986:14). psychoanalysis ‘conceives sexuality not as a fixed biological instinct to reproduce. It is within the Oedipus complex that cultural prohibitions upon forms of sexuality other than heterosexual reproductive sexuality are imposed. is not one which disappears from our psychic lives with the onslaught of cultural prohibitions. In order for the child to adapt her or himself to the laws of a culture which is . therefore. according to Freud. Rather. and that repeats itself in different ways throughout (her) days in human culture’ (Mitchell. but coexists with them. However.PSYCHOANALYSIS 131 of our biological sex but is a process dependent on a series of splits and about-turns in our psychic life. John Fletcher has argued that in this way. genital or reproductive imperatives which later will figure large in the cultural organization of adult sexuality. This symbolic moment of rupture. As such it is in excess of any heterosexual reproductive urge which is frequently ascribed as ‘natural’ to human subjects. with the category ‘woman’ or with ‘man’. the inaugural moment in which our gender identities are brought into being is designated as the Oedipus complex. it is marked. sexuality is a diffuse set of pleasures experienced across the body and intimately bound up with the presence of the mother. is not organized according to any heterosexual. As the child seeks to repeat the pleasures associated with these activities. which are in opposition to the cultural imperatives to heterosexual reproductive sexuality. The Oepidal moment represents a split with pre-existing psychic configurations in which any notion of a singular or coherent gender identity is not yet in play. To become a member of the social order. Insofar as pre-Oedipal sexuality is active and pleasure-seeking. there is an insistence that we make an identification with one gender or another. breastfeeding. but as a highly mobile psychical reality that is organized symbolically. In order to take up a place at all within the cultural organization of gender and sexuality requires a negotiation with its terms. Sexuality.1 According to Juliet Mitchell. 1933:116). ‘It is the crucial acquisition of the story of (her) life that (a) person is undergoing at the Oedipal moment. have their roots in the polymorphous sexuality of the pre-Oedipal phase. we never entirely leave this Oedipal moment behind—it is not a stage we pass through—but something we constantly re-live or re-enact in the relationships we enter into in our adult lives as in those of our childhood. potty training and so on. it must be remembered. and in the inevitable absence of the mother who was the original source of satisfaction. So far. This phase. the route from pre-Oedipal sexuality is not a straight-forward one and no individual subject stands outside of culture’s injunctions upon it. Freud designated this stage in both sexes as the ‘masculine period’ and accordingly described the little girl at this level as a ‘little man’ (Freud.
Femininity—an impossible identity? The injury which is femininity is entered into via the recognition of castration. For girls. reject the conclusion that she is inferior to him. Jacqueline Rose distinguishes this apparent difference from any real existing biological difference: Sexual difference is assigned according to whether individual subjects do or do not possess the phallus. or in contradiction with these terms. in which now any claim she makes to ‘masculine’ privilege must be mediated through a relationship to a man. a recognition which introduces the girl into Oedipal re lations. (Rose. that he has something which she lacks. then another woman in her place). ‘castrated’.132 FEMINIST REVIEW both patriarchal (that is. 1983:42). Because of the high price women pay in return for their femininity. above all. For the girl. Ryan. and her apparent lack. the right to possess a woman (if not his own mother. it is the metaphor of the ‘phallus’ (as a reference to. 1985) have examined the cost to boys of succumbing to this process. is a subordinate place in the social organization of gender. all she can look forward to in accepting culture’s demand for her femininity. which means not that anatomical difference is sexual difference but that anatomical difference comes to figure sexual difference. of course. acceptance of the position prescribed for her in patriarchal culture entails an acceptance that not only is she different from the boy but also that she is inferior to him. the penis) which is the register of this difference from men. This means that for girls. there is a cost to both girls and boys in this process of fitting oneself into the prescribed categories of gender and overturning multifarious sexual aims and identifications in favour of a single heterosexual aim. organized around a hierarchical difference between the sexes) and heterosexual. an option on which female homosexuality hinges and which I will examine in the rest of the paper. that is. Jacqueline Rose has described femininity as an ‘injury’ and a ‘“catastrophe” for the complexity of [the girl’s] earlier psychic and sexual life (“injury” as its price)’ (Rose 1983:9). the price extracted in return for ‘fitting in’ is high. except by this means? (She could.) In contemporary Lacanian psychoanalysis. . she or he must repress those desires and identifications which are in excess of. John Fletcher (1989) and others (Eardley. It thus covers over the complexity of the child’s early sexual life with a crude opposition in which that very complexity is refused or repressed. 1985. which include. How else is she to make sense of the inferior position which seems to be her fate as a woman. For him at least. acceptance of the terms of patriarchal culture promises his eventual accession to the privileges of masculinity. Clearly. But since the fate of girls and boys is not equivalent in our culture—as men and women do not enjoy an equal status—the cost to each is not the same. but not straightforwardly equated with. becomes the sole representative of what that difference is allowed to be. arguably a great deal higher than for the boy.
The girl’s pre-Oedipal psychic similarity to boys is now overturned and replaced by an emphasis on their difference from each other. Given the high cost for girls of entering Oedipal relations. like femininity.PSYCHOANALYSIS 133 Insofar as the girl ascribes possession of the phallus first to her father and then to all men. Lacan designates this as ‘the Law of the Father’ and it is fundamentally a heterosexual law. it is not surprising that never is this complicated series of splits and ruptures embarked upon without resistance. in which the status quo has been problematized and yet the already existing alternatives to a heterosexual norm are still largely untheorized. Because of the impossibility for psychoanalysis of any unified or coherent gender identity feminists have argued that therefore our culture’s ideal version of femininity—unified in its passivity and heterosexual form—is a fiction. which makes it impossible that femininity should ever completely succeed and which is the site of women’s resistance to the cultural injunctions of the Oedipal law. However. the girl has a great deal to lose (her rightful claim to equality with men. a girl’s acquiescence to this violent splitting within her psychic life is by no means guaranteed. there has been an enormous reluctance to address heterosexuality in the same way. It is the existence of the unconscious. and all other women as lacking it. Jacqueline Rose. her mother. For women. represents an enormous cost to her psychic life. of male impotence and female frigidity. After all. This anomalous situation informs Parveen Adams’s recent contribution to . and to so-called ‘masculine’ activity) and only ever a vicarious authority (through being linked to a man in heterosexual relations) to gain in the ‘successful’ resolution of the Oedipus complex. and. and other feminists working with psychoanalytic theory. Freud’s early essay on ‘“Civilised” Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness’ (1908) describes heterosexuality as ‘a casualty ward of psychic cripples and walking wounded. Regardless of women’s apparent identification with the ideal of femininity. psychoanalysis points to the constructedness and mythical nature of the social category ‘woman’ itself. In the absence of any sort of feminist intervention. unattainable by real women. (Freud’s choice of language would not be my own but the image forcefully describes the difficulties at the heart of the heterosexual ‘norm’. Privileging heterosexuality within feminist psychoanalysis Despite the emphasis on the fragility of femininity in the writing of Juliet Mitchell. she has accepted the Oedipal law. 1989:93).’ (Quoted in Fletcher. nor is it ever perfectly completed. forced into being at the moment of this violent split.) The reluctance to question the status of heterosexuality has led to a frustrating unevenness in feminist psychoanalytic discourse. and regards herself. lesbianism as one ‘deviation’ from this norm is still generally regarded within psychoanalytic accounts as a pathology. residues of that which she has given up continually disrupt and undermine any conscious or fixed sense of self from the place of the unconscious. This is ironic since heterosexuality and femininity are formed in the same moment of violent rupture around which the Oedipal injunctions turn. To the extent that the apparently secure categories of gender are constantly disrupted in this way. taking on an exclusive heterosexual identity is contingent upon the acceptance of the ‘fact’ of her castration.
From there. This refusal is designated as a ‘masculinity complex’.134 FEMINIST REVIEW feminist psychoanalytic debates (Adams. This account of homosexuality as a result of a ‘masculinity complex’—the disavowal of the ‘fact’ of castration in the little girl’s belief that she can indeed be a little man—is a recurrent theme in psychoanalytic literature on female homosexuality. Here. my emphasis). 1989) in which she makes an argument for the radically transgressive sexuality of lesbian sado-masochism but only at the expense of all other lesbians. have been taken up since it was written in 1920 in order to pathologize lesbianism as a ‘deviant’ condition. She also. So. theories about female homosexuality abound in the less progressive literature. in the light of feminist reworkings of other parts of his theory. The Freudian account of female homosexuality begins with the girl’s recognition of castration which heralds her entry into the Oedipus complex. I want to ask whether there is anything we can salvage from the Freudian account. for the girl there are three courses possible on this recognition. (Freud. only one of these. and in the third: she clings with defiant self-assertiveness to her threatened masculinity…and the phantasy of being a man in spite of everything often persists as a formative factor over long periods. Freud makes this very clear in his case study. Psychoanalytic theories of female homosexuality While reticence about problematizing heterosexuality has temporarily deflected the possibility of a radical reassessment of the status of lesbianism in our culture. Freud’s rather truncated ideas about female homosexuality. on inspection of her brother’s genitals ‘developed a pronounced envy for the penis’. 1931:376. Mandy Merck . had ‘brought along with her from childhood a strongly marked ‘masculinity complex’. based predominantly on one case. 1920:197). whose sexuality she still regards as pathological. in which she takes her father as her object’ (Freud. a product of arrested development. The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman’. The second course available to her is ‘a general revulsion from sexuality’ when faced with the ‘fact’ of her castration. 1931:376). This outcome has already been problematized above. she took pleasure in ‘romping and fighting’ and. and signified for Freud the girl’s desire to be a man. was a feminist. the acceptance of her castrated status. and felt it unjust that boys had more freedom than girls. I want to briefly spell out how Freud understood ‘female homosexuality’ and indicate some of the ways this understanding has been deployed in order to shore up conventional notions of normality. his patient. guarantees that she reach ‘the final normal female attitude. According to Freud. lesbianism has appeared in highly contestable ways. Her intervention is nevertheless important because it is one of the few places lesbianism has been taken up at all in recent feminist psychoanalysis and I will return to her argument later. homosexuality is one of the courses available to the girl in her transition from preOedipal sexuality and is an effect of the refusal of castration. Freud states. This ‘masculinity complex’ in women can also result in manifest homosexual choice of object’ (Freud. who developed a homosexual object choice at sixteen.
I want to think about the implications of how I read myself into her ‘case studies’. it is a recurrent theme in lesbian popular fiction (Hamer. And here we have the third theme. I found myself immersed in an identificatory process of recognition. It is an equation. 1987). the benchmark of ‘normality’ against which a ‘homosexual’ route is pathologized. Despite the fact that the book in which McDougall’s article appeared has been published by Virago (Chasseguet-Smirgel. 1981). a practising analyst who has returned to this theme repeatedly over the past two decades. in which femininity is upheld as the privileged route out of the Oedipus complex. it takes up Freud’s theme of female homosexuality as masculinity. thereby denying the specificity of a woman’s desire for another woman. to contemporary lesbian crime fiction. 1986) and identifies two other themes which are concurrent with this first. as I’ve pointed out elsewhere. despite my anger at her descriptions. I felt I was reading about me. I feel a certain reluctance about doing this. and I am very conscious as I do so that the reductionism inherent in collapsing lesbianism into masculinity has historically been one of the sources of our oppression. there is a fascination with women who usurp the sexual and social privileges associated with masculinity. and I recognize it too. The second is the heterosexual origins of a homosexual object choice. Written by Joyce McDougall. but ‘regresses into her early masculinity complex’ ‘as a result of her inevitable disappointments from her father’ (Freud. as well as in other public representations of lesbian identity. I want to address the equation of lesbianism and masculinity posed within psychoanalysis in its implications for us as lesbians. and is frequently cited on women’s studies book lists. Secondly. The common feature of homosexual women in her account is the ways they regard themselves as separate from all other women. from Ann Bannon’s lesbian romances in the 1950s. that has come up time and time again in my own therapy. thus serving as proof of her mother’s victory over the girl in their rivalry for the father. And yet. a characteristic she explains psychically as . in conversations with friends.PSYCHOANALYSIS 135 has pointed this out in her critique of Freud’s case study (Merck. These are points I will come back to in the final section. I agree with her criticisms. Jackie Stacey has pointed out the inevitable problems of an account in which the only trajectory to lesbian desire is through a masculine identification (Stacey. To name two of those here. But first. at a recent ‘Lesbian Sexuality’ discussion series at the Women’s Media Resource Centre in London in the summer of 1989. For Freud’s homosexual patient these disappointments were manifest by her mother’s pregnancy while she herself was in her teens. though. homosexuality as a ‘stepping down’ from feminine competition. the girl initially takes her father as love object as she ought. particularly in her argument that such an account maps lesbian relationships onto a heterosexual blueprint. her interpretations of her patients’ ‘condition’ are given according to a highly normative model of development. Rethinking lesbianism within psychoanalysis Shortly before writing this article I read a clinical case study of ‘Homosexuality in Women’. as I read her series of ‘case studies’. 1990). 1933:130). the question of ‘butch’ lesbians’ bid for masculinity was a strong theme of the ‘Butch and Femme’ discussion.
to have nothing. because. the mother who the child knows to be having penetrative sex with the father. accepting her own fate as ‘sexual partner to the man’ in a relationship in which both partners acknowledge the man’s possession of the phallus over and above the woman. Activity is the privilege of the male…’ and she intends to make her claim to that privilege. to have nothing. she says. to create nothing. to create nothing. even it it means refusing to accept the ‘fact’ of her castration. she thinks ‘to be a woman means to be nothing. To be a women meant to be nothing. In their deeper fantasy they were castrated men. 1988:177). .136 FEMINIST REVIEW Woman Through the Mirror. I understand the ‘genital mother’ here as mother-as—‘woman’. Sculpture in steel by Sarah Reilly homosexual women’s repudiation of ‘any identification with the genital [as opposed to the pre Oedipal] mother. for these women believed they were different from all other women. 1988:179–80). Accepting identification with the genital mother means. a mother different from the powerful ‘phallic’ mother of the pre-Oedipal phase who was not yet known to be ‘castrated’. particularly in her role as sexual partner to the man’ (McDougall. Activity was the privilege of the male…(McDougall. for the girl. But the girl won’t identify.
For a long time I was able to sustain the belief that I was like a boy in all significant respects. and thinks she’s a boy. whose tomboyishness was found endearing and who was encouraged in her academic pursuits. a social construction based on what. described by Fletcher. The category ‘woman’ is a cultural fiction. This is one version of the story. it is an imperative that ‘woman’ be what ‘man’ is not. and renders women’s identifications and disavowals as symptoms of individual pathology. they are two versions of the same family biography. my inability to even think about contraception when I had heterosexual sex (and even after I got pregnant and had to have an abortion. within this construction. This is the contradiction which all women must live out: that the limited versions of womanhood on offer within dominant culture can only be attained at a cost to women’s early psychic lives in which. until the birth of a real boy usurps her position. Neither story is more ‘true’. I still never confronted the fact of my own reproductive capacity). as we we have seen. Yet I feel that what is being gestured towards (perhaps despite authorial intentions) and what I identify with in these accounts. which resulted in me regularly bleeding over myself. at any given historical moment. an impasse of meanings’ (Fletcher. ‘the question is. natural or biologically determined difference between women and men. challenge and disrupt any conscious or fixed sense of self. a category based on any biological reality or necessity. is the internalized experience of patriarchy. Because the ‘active aims’ of women’s early psychic life are not done away with. Of course this belief is not without its contradictions. of girlhood. but continue to inform. The version of womanhood that I repudiated was not. Retaining my earliest position of privilege in that family triangle. Here is the other: the only child in the family enjoys the privileges of being like a son.PSYCHOANALYSIS 137 In the absence of a feminist critique of patriarchy McDougall’s case study is highly problematic. dominant culture thinks ‘woman’ ought to be. What option is left open to her. necessitated a repudiation of femininity as I understood it. the daughter. Am I a woman or a man?. however. the first child in the family who was treated like a son by her parents (especially her father). except that of the (inferior) girl? Life’s narrative is one of ‘stepping down’ in favour of another’s more privileged claim. how we as individual women ‘take in’ patriarchal laws. sometimes. His presence points to her fraudulence. I think about my own history. there is no inherent. for some women is a psychic repudiation of the category ‘woman’. I used to pray to god that I’d do anything if he would make the blood go away). in fantasy if not in actuality. 1989:104). Both are present and active in my psychic life and as competing narratives they pose a question which I re-enact at every moment and every point of my lived experience: just like the hysteric. This ‘taking in’ can occur in multiple and sometimes contradictory ways. my denial of the signs of womanhood as they imposed themselves on my body at puberty—my resistance to the facts of menstruation (for years I couldn’t bring myself to change my tampon or sanitary towel more than about once a day. Above all. The details of how it was possible at all relate to a particular family history. women’s psychology is governed not only by . consciousness of patriarchal conditions leading to politicization on one level can coexist with a repudiation on another of the category ‘woman’ as it applies to oneself. I wonder whether lesbianism. when either position is impossible.
and are fearful of the consequences of that challenge. John Fletcher has described lesbianism as ‘an intelligible response’ to the dilemma of the girl. phallic. depression. can often result in the setting up of anxiety states for women. the father. despite the pulls of opposite and often unconscious identifications. we both challenge the authority that goes with the possession of the phallus. the penis. i. The act of splitting which results ‘produces effects likely to result in anxiety states’. denigrations. turned against the self as occurs in depression. or a person. etc […] lesbianism can be seen as a restorative strategy which seeks to repair the losses. subjugation and an avoidance of the destructive feelings they unleash. as occurs in paranoia (Sayers. who ‘was once a man. As an instance of this contradictory positioning. This occurs simultaneously with girls’ positioning in other practices in which it is their femininity which is validated. hence the translation of this resistance into symptoms such as states of anxiety.138 FEMINIST REVIEW feminine ‘acquiescence’ but also by ‘masculine’ resistance and defences against femininity (Sayers. This contradiction often results in the repression of women’s resistance to cultural forms of femininity. which then reappear as ‘symptoms’. and yet offered fewer possibilities than men of doing so. While wishing to avoid the charge of voluntarism. active and with Mother as primary love-object’ but who ‘in a cultural moment…is called upon to renounce her phallic position’. nor as a disavowal of genital difference. it may then be repressed into the unconscious as occurs in neurosis. and one of these must be the production of anxiety states in individual women attendant upon the challenge a lesbian identification offers to patriarchal authority. As such it may well be an extremely healthy response to the contradictory positioning of women in our culture. He goes on to argue that lesbianism: should be seen not as a blind refusal of an object. In the illustrations above. women’s ‘masculine’ resistance to femininity remains unconscious. or only recognised in others.e. The contradictions for women inherent in having to sustain a feminine identity in order to be socially acceptable. 1986:40). paranoia. This is not to suggest that lesbianism is without psychic costs however. Janet Sayers has argued that the social experience of womanhood is that women are both psychically capable of and socially encouraged to be independent and active. possession. I do think there may be grounds for arguing that psychically lesbianism is the one identity which brings closest to consciousness a recognition of the contradictions women are forced to live out. 1985:224). but as an attempt to contest or displace the meanings they carry. hostility. shame. Valerie Walkerdine has illustrated how in primary education in post-war England girls are incited to be ‘children’ in a context where the category ‘child’ is continually transposed into ‘boy’—thus ‘treating girls “as if” they were boys’ (Walkerdine. That is. She says that to the extent that actual gratification by women of [their active] aim is opposed by consciousness. loss. neurosis and so on. 1986:119). its fantasies of mastery. envy. castration. thwartings that a .
are refusals. in the Women’s Media Resources Centre discussions on lesbian sexuality mentioned above. An exploration of their relationship could be a very . All sorts of social differences impact upon psychic reality. I am not clear precisely how our different social positionings are implicated in our different psychic identifications.PSYCHOANALYSIS 139 patriarchal culture inflicts on the girl in her primary relation to the mother (Fletcher. However.) Feminism is a political movement based on a refusal to accept the social ‘truth’ of men’s superiority over women. This reading of lesbianism points to a correspondence between lesbianism as a psychic position and feminism as a political one. I want to hold onto the idea that we do share elements of a psychic history. while I think that this account has some purchase in the psychic construction of our sexual identities. Similarly. its explanatory power is limited. So that when I refer to our diversity I mean that which exists in terms of these social differences between us according to race and class. 1989:105). (Though I do not mean by this that every woman could be a lesbian or that every feminist should be. though of a different order from each other. as well as the specifics of our different individual histories. feminists have sometimes suffered social condemnation as perverse. thrown together socially by what is now defined as ‘lesbian desire’. we may in fact all be psychically diverse individuals. women who ‘act like men’. Rather they are imbricated alongside each other in the formation of our identities. feminism on the terrain of social relations. racial difference is one problematic yet productive form of difference between lesbians. at least within historically and culturally specific circumstances. This superiority of men over women is a ‘truth’. but that these common features do not take preponderance over the difference between us. The diversity of contemporary lesbian identities foregrounds the limitations of a model which appears to ascribe to all lesbians a singular and unified psychic identity (and of course lesbianism is not only a psychic identity but is also currently a highly social one). lesbianism within psychic life. and could well form the content of another article. it was suggested that in the context of bi-cultural lesbian relationships. jealous. contrary to the assumptions that lesbians share a psychic history. The limits of a psychoanalytic account: the diversity of lesbian identities The idea of lesbian identifications as a form of resistance to patriarchal culture’s demand for femininity marks a departure from the usual pathologization of lesbians within psychoanalysis and shifts the terms of the debate to a critique of patriarchal social relations instead. but only to the extent that it enjoys a material and ideological existence within social relations. In response to an earlier version of this paper Mary McIntosh has commented that. The points of overlap between the two are numerous. Both then. On this point it is interesting to note that Freud referred to both his homosexual women patients as ‘feminists’. Feminism’s resistance to it is in the form of a denial of this ‘truth’ and an assertion that things could be otherwise. lesbianism can be seen as a psychic refusal of the ‘truth’ of women’s castration (acceptance of which would guarantee them a place within the dominant social order). For this reason. twisted and disappointed women. As an example.
and how the fact of lesbians’ desire defies and transgresses the understanding of ‘desire’ within contemporary psychoanalysis. thus lining up all lesbians unproblematically on the side of masculinity. on the side of masculinity. What does seem likely is that the relationship is not a direct nor straightforward one but is complex and subject to contradiction. lesbians are thought to pretend possession of the phallus. that is. 1989:263) and are thus aligned. Raising the issue of butch and femme here may seem somewhat of a digression. and points to the fallibility of a model which attempts to do this. The explanation of this latter point is quite complex but goes something like this: in the Oedipus complex. Masculine and feminine identities are allocated around this apparent opposition between possession and nonpossession of the phallus. On the surface it seems to confirm the most conventional version of female homosexuality within . and change over time. In order to illustrate how desire might be organized amongst lesbians. (they make a ‘virile identification’ with it. 1990). However. desire cannot exist between lesbians. since they are both on the same side of desire. if a lesbian does experience desire. This is firstly because psychoanalysis understands lesbianism primarily in terms of gender identity—as a disaffiliation from the cultural imposition of femininity—and only secondarily as an object choice. Adams. As such it is a refusal of any easy or straightforward allocation of masculine and feminine positions around the phallus. Desire is brought into being with this realization and is always retrospective and recuperative. desire between women ought not to exist. lesbianism is less a claim to phallic possession (although it may be this too) than it is a refusal of the meanings attached to castration. there is recognition of the difference between the sexes and a realization of the inequities of phallic possession. However. I want to make reference to a form of sexuality which has figured large in recent attempts to formulate an ongoing lesbian sexual politics. Classically. it is only in terms of the binary opposition of masculine and feminine identities that desire is seen to exist in psychoanalytic theory. or. What is clear is that the differences between us make it impossible to posit a singular or uniform trajectory to lesbianism. it is bound to be towards a feminine subject who could only desire her back as though she were a man. albeit fraudulently.140 FEMINIST REVIEW fruitful direction for further work. The question of butch/femme sexuality is a highly contested area of debate amongst lesbians for reasons I have examined elsewhere (Hamer. As we shall see. Instead it suggests a much more fluid and flexible relationship to the positions around which desire is organized. In this rather simplistic account lesbian desire becomes near impossible. if the current psychoanalytic account of desire is exhaustive. reversal. it is the desire to get back that which one thought one possessed but which one now realizes is the possession of another. Difference and desire between lesbians What I want to consider is how lesbians’ different psychic identifications are constitutive of desire between us. Secondly. as I have suggested. it seems to me that butch and femme sexuality represents a fulcrum between psychoanalytic accounts of lesbianism and a lesbian discourse on desire.
What all this suggests is that lesbian desire still turns on a relationship to difference. Ardill and O’Sullivan). I do not advocate that it is the only difference between lesbians or that all lesbians can be slotted into one or other of its terms. Jack put his head back and laughed. ‘With Marcie.PSYCHOANALYSIS 141 psychoanalysis. Without making too great a claim for its transgressive qualities (and indeed. ‘Correction. It gestures towards the way we. Why don’t you move down here [into the lesbian ghetto] where you don’t have to be either?’ ‘Everybody has to be one or the other. Jack grinned at her. take up different positions in relation to the desire of another woman. A passage taken from one of the novels of pulp fiction writer. It seems to me that above all. a car coat and some men’s shirts and you’re in business. as lesbians. 1980). It is both one way of giving a name to difference as well as a social and psychic manifestation of a particular difference (the details of which are explored elsewhere in this issue. Different positions are taken up in relation to another’s desire and while the positions may be fixed (as in butch/femme). where it is the relationship which becomes significant over and above the actual terms of the difference. the individuals who occupy them are not necessarily fixed. See Rich. 1988:101).’ he said. in which desire ‘involves a relation between two positions’ (Fletcher.’ ‘You’re too literal. questions which are unthinkable within conventional psychoanalysis.’ he said. What is significant for my purpose in Nestle’s descriptions of butch and femme relationships is less the content of either of its terms but the fact that they exist in relation to each other. 1989:110). anyway […]’. Get some desert boots. Overwhelmingly. yet simultaneously it is acknowledged by many lesbians as an authentic and productive form of lesbian sexual expression.’ (Bannon. illustrates figuratively this play with identities and positions permitted in a lesbian context. Wear those pants you look so nice in. ‘butch and femme’ becomes a very static form of sexual expression) I want to suggest how butch and femme relationships might bring into focus certain questions about lesbian sexuality more generally. what butch and femme sexuality represents is difference between lesbians. ‘You’re a girl. the difference that butch and femme sexuality gives name to is a difference in relation to desire. Butch and femme as a form of sexuality is at its most static and therefore limiting when either term is taken on in the absence of the desire of another. Laura. But as a representation of difference between lesbians it serves as an antidote to the monolithic account of lesbianism within psychoanalysis (as well as to the rather sexless emphasis on sameness between lesbians supported by a certain current of lesbian feminism dominant in the late 1970s and early 1980s. if taken too literally. Ann Bannon. I suggest that this description might be extended to describe forms of desire between lesbians in general. ‘I’m a girl. Laura put her glass down. as an ‘erotic partnership’ between two women (Nestle. 1986:67) . ‘You’re a boy. a negotiation between two desiring partners. Joan Nestle has described butch and femme in terms of this relationship between two desiring positions. Cut off your hair.’ she said […].
fluidity. it could well be argued. I therefore think it is possible to import Adams’s notion of the ‘mobility of desire’—‘there is choice and mobility […] an erotic plasticity and movement […] a play with identity and a play with genitality (Adams. 1989:262)—to all.142 FEMINIST REVIEW The difference around which lesbian desire turns may. That lesbian desire exceeds the forms of sexuality laid out within conventional psychoanalytic accounts may also be about historical change. This argument is not dissimilar to the one Parveen Adams recently made in ‘Of Female Bondage’. not only because lesbian sadomasochists have continually emphasized how their sexual practices exist on a continuum with other forms of lesbian sexuality but also because Adams’s argument for mobility rests substantially on the fact that the lesbian sado-masochist’s desire is not heterosexual and is about ‘the construction of sexuality between women’. desire is not anchored to the paternal phallus of the Oedipal law. movement is much more possible within it. Here. However. say. new possibilities of gender. then. lesbian desire transgresses the masculine/feminine binarism around which phallic sexuality is organized. Given how few affirmative accounts of lesbianism exist within psychoanalytic discourse. an essay on lesbian sado-masochism also reviewed elsewhere in this issue (O’Connor). not because we stand entirely outside it. This fluidity and oscillation around the positions of masculinity and femininity signifies the splitting off of categories of gender from any biological determination. Because of the similarities between the desire of the lesbian sado-masochist and of other lesbians. of an increasingly visible . lesbianism is not merely a refusal of the category ‘woman’ but a reworking of it. Lesbianism is now conceived as a collective and increasingly public identity and the new social forms it takes creates new psychic realities. through other forms of lesbian identification. she makes out a special case for the ‘mobility of desire’ between lesbian sado-masochists. on the grounds that for them. This is ironic. The diversity I mentioned earlier. a ‘femme’ friend of mine recently commented that for her. an insistence upon new meanings of ‘woman’. These are qualities which. it is disquieting that Adams makes her case for the transgressive qualities of lesbian sado-masochism only at the expense of all other lesbians (‘traditional homosexual women’ in her phraseology). There. She ascribes this mobility by tracing a route through clinical heterosexual fetishism. This choice has quite a distinct effect on her argument since it serves to discount the central similarities between lesbian sadomasochism and other forms of lesbianism. To illustrate. then it follows that lesbianism also opens up a space for feminine identifications which are not heterosexual. in the first instance. positively embracing this term was her claim to the status of ‘woman’ simultaneous with her desire for a woman—a position disallowed within any conventional Oedipal trajectory. but because oscillation. Endthoughts If lesbianism is based on a mobility of desire. not merely some forms of lesbian sexuality. Desire here is mobile because lesbians can be both masculine and feminine—simultaneously or at different moments—in relation to the desire of another. are common to all lesbians. be organized around the positions of masculinity and femininity. rather than. an oscillation of identifications.
Diane (1990) ‘“I Am A Woman”: Ann Bannon and the Writing of Lesbian Identity in the 1950s’. in New Introductory Lectures on Psycho analysis. makes possible new forms of identification. LILLY. Parveen (1989) ‘Of Female Bondage’. in BRENNAN (1989). PFL Vol. in Case Histories II. in SHEPHERD and WALLIS (1989). 1 The patriarchal nuclear family is the dominant form in which familial relations are organized in British culture. in The Pelican Freud Library (PFL). EARDLEY. She also teaches women’s studies in adult education and along with two other women is producing an item for Channel 4’s Out On Tuesday. especially Susan Ardill. Harmondsworth: Penguin. FLETCHER. Tony (1985) ‘Violence and Sexuality’. 7 (1979) Harmondsworth: Penguin. CHASSEGUET-SMIRGEL. Sigmund (1920) ‘The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman’. HAMER. Basingstoke: Macmillan. Sigmund (1931) ‘Female Sexuality’. Jannine (1988) editor. FREUD. . References ADAMS. Vol. in On Sexuality. PFL Vol. I would suggest. Ann (1986) I Am A Woman. London: Routledge. Therefore a relation to the Oedipal law derived from that family form. Alison Oram and ‘Harriet’. FREUD. Lesbian and Gay Writing: An Anthology of Critical Essays. originally published London: Virago (1981). Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Sue Bradley. the expansion of new sexual possibilities. Thanks also to the Feminist Review editors for their support and encouragement. ideologically if not in actuality. Mark (1990) editor. But the nature of our relation to it will be different according to the particularities of our history and experience. Thanks to all the friends who are never exhausted by conversations about psychoanalysis or therapy. Notes Diane Hamer is an Australian feminist currently living in London. in METCALF and HUMPHRIES . John (1989) ‘Freud and his Uses: Psychoanalysis and Gay Theory’. Female Sexuality: New Psycho analytic Views. 9 (1979) .PSYCHOANALYSIS 143 collective lesbian identity. London: Karnac. FREUD. BANNON. Harmonds-worth: Penguin. BRENNAN. Florida: Naiad. Sigmund (1908) ‘“Civilised” Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness’. FREUD. 12 (1985) . in LILLY (1990). Sigmund (1933) ‘Femininity’. Susan Black. and working on a PhD on contemporary lesbian identity at the Department for Cultural Studies in Birmingham. Teresa (1989) editor. 2 (1973) . Harmondsworth: Penguin. PFL Vol. governs the internal psychic structure of all individual subjects within this culture. new relationships to gender and new relationships to desire.
Valerie (1985) editors. Jackie (1987) ‘The Invisible Difference: Lesbianism and Sexual Difference Theory’. ROSE. London: Tavistock. in m/f no . RICH. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Juliet (1986) Psychoanalysis and Feminism. NESTLE. . Adrienne (1980) ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’. The Sexuality of Men. Joan ( 1988 ) A Restricted Country. Janet (1986) Sexual Contradictions. SHEPHERD. STACEY. in Signs Vol. 5 no. RYAN. Class and Gender in Contemporary Schooling’. MITCHELL. 4. RONDOT. Trouble and Strife. Mandy (1986) ‘The Train of Thought in Freud’s “Case of Homosexuality in a Woman”’. 15. London: Macmillan. Feminine Sexuality. Amsterdam (1987). in METCALF and HUMPHRIES (1985). 14. in NESTLE (1988). Caroline. Coming On Strong. URWIN. STEEDMAN. London: Sheba Feminist Publishers. MERCK. in CHASSEGUET-SMIRGEL (1988). Juliet and ROSE. Subjectivity. Valerie (1985) ‘On the Regulation of Speaking and Silence. WALKERDINE. Jane (1989) ‘Hysteria or Resistance? The Great Freudian Cover-Up Part II’. London: Penguin. London: Pluto. Jacqueline (1983) ‘Femininity and Its Discontents’. in STEEDMAN. Mick (1989) editors. METCALF. Language. NESTLE. Martin (1985) editors. Tom (1985) ‘Roots of Masculinity’. 11/12. Gender and Childhood. Simon and WALLIS.144 FEMINIST REVIEW McDOUGALL. Andy and HUMPHRIES. Jacqueline (1982) editors. Cathy and WALKERDINE. Joyce (1988) ‘Homosexuality in Women’. in collection of papers for the ‘Homosexuality: Which Homosexuality?’ Conference. Joan (1988) ‘Butch and Fem Relationships: Sexual Courage in the 1950s’. SAYERS. MITCHELL. Feminist Review no. London: Unwin & Hyman. no. URWIN and WALKERDINE (1985).
. Some feminists have argued that recording or studying representations of our sexual acts and fantasies deflects from ‘real’ political work. never mind admit to enjoying porn. phrases traced directly on her skin (Jacqueline Rose. so feminism has prescribed further taboos declaring ‘politically correct’ ways of having sex and seeking arousal. sexual pleasure’ (Jeffreys in Chester and Dickey. in Day and Bloom. As porn is visible and explicit it could be seen as an easier target to focus the fight against sexism and male violence. language and educational systems. Just as it has been taboo for women to express an interest in sex and sexual satisfaction. 1986:212). is equal to treacherous collusion with the most sinister component of hetero-patriarchy. Pornography as an area of study Porn can be both progressive and reactionary. legal and religious traditions. subject-object discourse. i. Spring 1990 .THE PLEASURE THRESHOLD: Looking at Lesbian Pornography on Film Cherry Smyth The body of the women is written over and across with a whole theory of cinema and a whole romance of the woman. which perpetuate the oppression of all women. rather than see porn as a socially constructed part of a much larger whole. for example. Debates in Britain have tended to pivot on the oppressive nature of power without often recognizing the possibility of women’s pleasure. to same-sex erotic representations. both in terms of sexism and racism. often rooted in a binary male-female.e. oppressive and liberating and it is naive simply to welcome or denounce its representations. Many radical feminists have strived to protect us from its corrupting force: ‘It is perhaps the greatest tragedy of our oppression that it can be from images and fantasies of that very oppression that we draw what we have been encouraged to see as empowering and liberating. 1988:139). Richard Dyer suggests that studies of porn Feminist Review No 34. Heterosexual analyses of porn have rarely applied their theories. antiporn campaigners have often conflated sexually explicit images with violence against women. Socialist-feminist men have seen other men’s need to watch porn as a social lack: ‘A narcissistic substitute for really effective and socially interactive powersharing’ (Bloom. typed cards fixed to her body. To watch. 1988:21). However. the family.
the only place within cinema for desiring a woman being a form of control through the look’ (Rose. given our language and the structure of the unconscious. It has been convenient and simpler to see the binary male-female opposition. cinema in general. Rather than enter labyrinthine distinctions between porn (masturbatory) and erotica (celebratory). and porn in particular. Many feminist critiques of cinema have focused on the structure of the male gaze. and also satisfy our desire for pleasure. Studies of both the gaze and the object have often been determined by heterosexuality and whiteness. uncomplicated by the vagaries of ‘difference’ (Mulvey 1975:6–18). The lesbian gaze Heterosexual porn has often failed to portray women’s pleasure. because they all hold a culturally inferior position (Dyer. but to own and activate the gaze. What becomes of the female object and the male gaze when we examine lesbian porn? Is the voyeur assumed to be white? Is there a location of a Black lesbian gaze in lesbian porn? Is it possible to create a female hero-subject who is not a victim? Does lesbian porn succeed in scrutinizing female pleasure where heterosexual porn largely fails? Can it extend definitions of male and female beyond the active/passive. 1985). A feminist counter-cinema would have to construct woman as subject and spectator without perpetuating the repressive identifications of mainstream cinema. I will use the word porn to describe work which seeks to arouse. I would like to go beyond the argument of whether porn should exist. replicating the structure of unequal power relations between men and women. having represented it as a male construct with satisfaction only possible through penetrative sex. or represent arousal. and the anti-sex. Scenes showing masturbation often act as precursors to the ‘real’ sexual act involving the penis. while theories have almost denied the possibility of retrieving pleasure at all. art (pure) and smut (dirty). is to be in the “masculine” position’ (Kaplan. It seeks to promote the male viewer’s erection and masturbation. pressurizing women to join a particular ‘camp’. This had led in some cases to a reactionary ‘feminist’ politics which has desexed the female body. 1986:211).146 FEMINIST REVIEW have been devalued in a similar way to those of weepies. and created a suspicion of all pleasure promoted by cinema. 1983:29). sexuality and race. sexpositive gang. it can only be across a masculine identification. voyeur/exhibitionist stereotypes? . How often do you see the limp. sex-negative lobby. within which the male is subject and the sexualized female body is object. to examine how it gives or withholds pleasure within a lesbian context. Within the ‘lesbian community’ it has created a false polarity between the pro-sex. robbed her of her pleasure. and constantly tries to disguise (thus revealing) the instability of phallic power. divisive dichotomy of good girl/bad girl has silenced doubt and confusion. have objectified and often degraded the female body. assuming that both the gaze and the object are fixed in gender. thrillers and low comedy. ‘If she is desired at all. The reactionary. wrinkled penis exposed? In addressing the male consumer. Kaplan has suggested that ‘the gaze is not necessarily male (literally).
which they simply crewed and casted themselves? Did they purposefully avoid casting Black lesbians for fear of reproducing racist stereotypes. gestures and icons which affirms our sense of belonging. They also uphold the apparently all-powerful constancy of the white gaze. while the other. primarily addressing the dominant voyeur in western culture who is white. These representations therefore perpetuate the hegemony of the perfect. non-penetrative and romantic. As well as provoking the internal disapproving homophobic judge. you always know what is about to happen. which invests the act with the thrill of the forbidden. or did they just ‘not know any’? It perhaps signifies an unwillingness among white lesbians to engage with the issue of difference around race. 1982:39) Another paradox is that we try to find ourselves in the heart of another’s intimacy. in Clips. attractiveness and ability. its seamlessness disguising any problem or disruption of identity. The plot is sacrificed to give ‘value for money’ which is ultimately signalled by the ‘come shot’. defend our right to express our sexuality and assert our desire. the butch. remains uninterested. one character. rendered invisible and impotent by society. the butch is suitably attired in striped shirt. white female body in western cultures. the femme in this case. which only seduce by tapping into the fixed womanobject men have constructed and fetishized to secure their dominance. body size. Was this because a group of white lesbians got together to make lesbian porn videos on very low budgets. and so the gaze operates through this perspective. enters the scene wanting sex. nurturing.’ (Stern. braces and . Part III. In the videos I watched there was only one woman who was not white. Part III is one of the more successfully ironic and humorous sex tapes available In Which Fanny Liquidates Kenni’s Stocks. No matter at which point you join a loop. The three Clips could perhaps be likened to short hardcore films known as loops which have been made since the turn of the century usually for domestic and private venues. watching porn has more recently come to represent rebellion from some kinds of prescriptive feminist sex which must be equal. Porn may leave us with frustrated misrecognition for it usually consolidates oppressive codes of race. Reading the business news. we have a more privileged sense of inclusion as the actors are almost always white. we can on some level recognize ourselves. The plot may be minimal but the narrative codes are so strong that there is no doubt that sex will occur. Fanny Liquidates Kenni’s Stocks In Fatale Video’s 1988 selection of Clips. Another’s intimacy ‘One of the paradoxes of porn lies in a simultaneous compulsion to fetishize (to fragment the body) and a compulsion to “reveal all”. By watching lesbian porn we are transgressing a feminist taboo. If we are white women however. Six women were invited to my front room for an afternoon of viewing and comment. age. It includes us in a subcultural system of coded sexual styles. through fear of including Black lesbian images. as well as the wider socio-political taboo. As in classic porn narratives.PORNOGRAPHY AND FILM 147 Lesbian sexuality has been repressed. By watching porn. porn needs to be illicit. as Blackness represents more potent sexuality which threatens their control. To thrill.
exhibiting an incredible G-spot ejaculation. Heterosexual porn attempts. almost fully clothed.e.148 FEMINIST REVIEW trousers. The woman’s pleasure comes first. but in its very dissonance with the primary social model of fucking (i. beaded with sweat. and also know how many women fake it in order to please men and convince themselves. Ironically. This anxiety around female pleasure and satisfaction transfers to women. The lesbian come shot The symbolic power of the male cum shot rests not in its accuracy. both tender and vulnerable. to make it visible. the female actor can only signify her pleasure by sound and gesture. discreetly closing her legs to the camera and the viewer. tempting the butch. Heterosexual men. begins to masturbate. A close-up of her face. independent of the potency or even visibility of the penis. to reveal the mystery of female pleasure which remains hidden. This third look within the scene intensifies sexual anticipation and highlights the parodied roles each character has adopted. Do they want a visible sign of orgasm which rivals or indeed betters the male come shot. The only convincing female orgasm I have seen in mainstream representations of heterosexual sex is in The Big Easy (Jim McBride. serve as proof of pleasure/orgasm and of reproductive potency. Here the ultra-visible . the butch still watching. 1988) While the male actor exposes his ‘real’ arousal by erection and visible orgasm. (Cindy Patton. flirting with the camera. therefore. exaggeratedly underdressed in floating pale pink négligée. stockings and suspender belt. and the femme’s heaving chest draw the viewer into the promise of eventual fucking. intercourse)…pilled juices. Like hetero-sexual porn. the fact that their bodies and genitals are kept hidden gives the scene an intense eroticism. As she moves her hair off her forehead in a seemingly spontaneous gesture. copiously photographed. then fucks herself with the dildo. but never succeeds. the femme comes singlehanded.. in order to gain its power and potency? Porn produced by heterosexual men will never concede this explicit power to women. and the woman has a manually stimulated clitoral orgasm. and so they are constantly disappointed and disempowered by much of what porn fails to expose. who know the mystery of their pleasure. the woman is revealed beneath the character. The femme fingers a large clear dildo and switches the television channel to images of ultra-feminine women dancing. The television voice-over recites the stocks and shares while the femme. and are drawn back again and again to pornographic attempts to signify her pleasure. it makes the mistake of assuming that the more explicit the sex is. the more it will excite the voyeur. are constantly anxious about their inability to satisfy women. reveals her pleasure and also her apparently ‘real’ exhaustion. Close-ups of the butch undoing her shirt. however. However. Intercutting looks between the characters are well-timed and build up tension. 1987) in which a man and a woman have sex. By replicating the come shot so essential to heterosexual and much gay male porn. Clips has bought into a wide range of signifiers which do not necessarily enhance the ability of the shot to arouse. Heterosexual women’s desire to watch porn therefore works with a different dynamic.
rather than inducing ultimate satisfaction. or who enjoy external ejaculation. as the orgasm made visible is rendered problematic and paradoxical. While some argue that the dildo takes on central signification in the absence of a penis. then does it present a visual goal which we must strive for. Later we see the butch fucking the femme with the dildo which never ejaculates. Coming. as the actor claimed. apparently do not use dildos. The video ends unexpectedly with no closure as they continue to fuck. the visible ejaculation from the femme’s vagina undercuts the scene in a powerfully dramatic and subversive way. Both have the added stimulus of pelvic thrusting and pubic bones rubbing. this is clearly not always the case. It is the ‘butch/ top’s’ aim in lesbian sex to give the ‘femme/bottom’ complete satisfaction. according to some feminists. this may validate their experience.PORNOGRAPHY AND FILM 149 female come shot acts as a visual joke which releases tension and evokes the actor’s pleasure. gay men have ironically contributed to the renaissance of vaginal sex amongst lesbians. The femme/bottom enjoys being filled up and the butch/top has her hands free. This openness challenges the values of dominant cinematic structures which insist on narrative resolution. therefore replicating static and predictable malefemale interaction. apparently wetting the bed. However. 1985) Real lesbians. perpetuates anxiety. yet they appear with remarkable regularity in American lesbian porn. It is also a potent fetish which reintroduces an illusory difference between the lovers. Dildo as fetish Lesbians looked to gay men’s porn for material taboo in their own circles—sex sans romance in its endless variations. especially the pleasures of penetration. thereby creating inadequacy in the lesbian viewer who has never achieved such an awe-inspiring feat? Perhaps what we desire from porn must remain an unfulfilled fantasy. this shot. does not immediately signal the end of the sexual act and thus the video. between subject and object of desire. For lesbians who are embarrassed about coming very wetly. just as the sexual sufficiency of the femme fails to act out the submissivedominant roles of heterosexual porn. By . The dildo signifies the lack of fixity of gender. (Byron. In lesbian porn the presence of the dildo can subvert the potency of the penis by reasserting women’s sexual sufficiency and proving that the woman lover is more powerful than any male rival. Her auto-erotic autonomy mirrors our own as viewers and challenges the stereotype of the passive femme. If this foot-long trajectory from the femme’s vagina is real. Women control the phallus as never before. For me. therefore hidden. made explicit by the come shot. However. Here we are presented with a female hero-subject who is not a victim. the sustained looking without touching and then the laughter and seemingly involuntary interaction is much more erotic. while the penis is often the only satisfied genital in heterosexual porn. With their elaboration on technique. emphasizing that there is always a potential split between the sexual object and the sexual aim. unlike in much heterosexual and gay male porn. for many of us who experience orgasm as internal.
itches and spots. but none the less transcending our complex. simply resulting in badly constructed work. the ‘perfect’ representation of our sexual act. dirty sheets. Regrettably it does not engender an exploratory look at issues of trust. or marches around her in an elaborate game of anticipation in which neither speaks or touches? Beautifully lit and shot in black and white in a large. For Shadows. desperate and banal. ‘ In Which Cocojo and Houlihan are Bound for a Safe Journey ’ with silk scarves. dispassionate. total receptivity. These slippages cause discomfort and an inability to suspend disbelief in the viewer. frigidity and dryness. and failing to recreate them in a way that comprehends and integrates lesbian passion. contact lens falling out. The butch-bottom attempts to present the ultimately eroticized body—availability without response. Voices are inaudible and crucial close-ups absent. collapsing any sexual tension between her and the top-femme betraying our desire for a construction of uncomplicated sexuality. the phone ringing. dressed in black leather constantly watches the . False realism Do we want cinéma-vérité without stylized shots and reverse camera angles. plastic gloves and dental dams? Or will the images appear beyond sex as in Mano Destra. The line between fantasy and reality is dissolved by the artless photography and the selfconsciousness of the actors. the butch-bottom giggles. who experiences undesire and nonpleasure. Shadows represents lesbian porn taking on myths constructed by heterosexual patterns of submission and dominance. often fall into the trap of trying to make it ‘realistic’. conflicting desires. the chance to identify as erotic. somehow unobtainable. commented a friend. awkward fucking—pins and needles. embarrassed and inappropriate. which is often riddled with inhibition. and give the erotic back to another woman. (Cleo Ubelmann. who constantly seeks a seamless ‘other’ reality. In Shadows. the passionless whipping. fear or timidity. which break the secure vision of the voyeur. Future promises What will future representations of lesbian desire bring? Will they advocate safer sex such as Fatale’s Clip Part II. acting and cinematography limit what it can ultimately achieve. the top. bored by the endless strapping and unstrapping. 1985). Switzerland. What we are left with is commoditized fetishism. fast forward is the best viewing method. Attempts to show lesbian sex as it is. ‘They could be doing the hoovering’. We yearn to recognize ourselves in a world which is ‘other’. Emptiness resounds in the viewer as absence and lack. in which one woman is seen tied up while another stands above her. Poor direction.150 FEMINIST REVIEW possessing a mock penis she is given all the freedom of the outside world. as opposed to how it has been constructed by men. such as in Fatale Video’s Shadows (1985)? Here shots are held for an excruciatingly long time as if the production team were afraid to disturb or delay the action by setting up different camera positions. Or the nights spent alone wondering if we will ever be touched again. This could be a how-to-do-SM video. This is porn with two subjects looking for an object. the scene is cold and lifeless. While the SM paraphernalia promises ‘really hot’ sex. sparse setting. lust and power.
Screen. Autumn. Gary and BLOOM. She contributed to Serious Pleasure (London: Sheba. 5. MULVEY. Feminism and Censorship. DYER. E. other representations have successfully explored the dynamics of erotic exchange. pp. as nothingness. reigns. ROSE. pp. Clive (1988) editors. Notes Cherry Smyth lectures on lesbians in film and writes film reviews. luscious fruit drink on a hot day. KAPLAN. and in others power differences are exaggerated and fetishized. DAY. Like being offered an ice-cold. 27–9. 1988) and the forthcoming Feminist Companion Guide to Cinema (Virago). this film encapsulates desire as death. However much some lesbian porn replicates weary stereotypes of oppression. no. Vol. Peg (1985) ‘What we talk about when we talk about dildos’. blindfolded. her knees bound to her torso with white rope. Bridport: Prism. She lives in London. at others. butch-femme. New York. as anticipation moves into an intense study of patience. References BYRON. She is currently contributing to and coediting a book on the representation of women in cinema. Gail and DICKEY. which is almost calm. Mano Destra dissects desire rather than attempting to arouse it. active-passive interaction is subverted. there is no orgasm represented at all. Cindy (1988) ‘Cindy Incidentally’. London: Methuen. Julienne (1988) editors. tests our pleasure threshold and manages to parody and break dominant patterns of filming sex. 3. Square Peg. 20–2. 16. which brings erotic ambiguity into porn. 6–18. Different tableaux of the bound woman in changing positions are presented. issue 23. CHESTER. I hope to see a filmic practice which explores the gap between identity and fantasy. London: Verso. STERN. Laura (1975) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative’. pp. her head turned away from the camera. Elsie. invoking the enduring selflessness of each. until supreme alienation. In some. 30. Lesley (1982) ‘The Body as Evidence’. March 5 . She would like to thank Rosalind. Ann (1983) Women and Film. which you are forbidden to taste. Sally Munt for lending the videos. Maria and Marijke for their viewing stamina. rather than hopelessly imitate them. Vol. and Sara Dunn for advice and support. no. Jumpcut. Jacqueline (1986) Sexuality in the Field of Vision. and yet utter completeness. Richard (1985) ‘Coming to Terms’. PATTON. and fails to transcend embarrassed self-consciousness. 23. . While at times the come shot as closure is challenged. to be published by Virago. The voyeur’s desperate need for something to happen forces an examination of identification with sadistic and masochistic desire. Screen. of contained passion. The Voice. The one moment of touch is uncomplicated as the released bottom sits smoking while the top simply massages her shoulders. no.PORNOGRAPHY AND FILM 151 bottom who is curled up. London: Macmillan. Perspectives on Pornography. sustained trust.
152 FEMINIST REVIEW
VOYAGES OF THE VALKYRIES:
Recent Lesbian Pornographic Writing
One of the paradoxical effects of the feminist antipornography movement is that it has elicited vigorous, polemical and assertive calls for sexually explicit material by and for women. Feminist pornographic writers, lesbians in particular, have achieved a higher profile than they could ever have hoped for in the days when pornography was not one of the few really burning sites of feminist feeling.1 Vilification has proved to be good publicity, though hardly a pleasant experience for most (see Joan Nestle’s ‘My History with Censorship’ (Nestle, 1988:144), or Dorothy Allison’s ‘Public Silence, Private Terror’ (Allison, 1984:103)). It has also created an atmosphere of acute defensiveness and anxiety, so that reasoned debate becomes a nearimpossibility. This, of course, is always the fault of the ‘other side’. Gayle Rubin, for example, says:
The fights between Women Against Pornography (WAP) and lesbian sadomasochists have resembled gang warfare. But the responsibility for this lies primarily with the anti-porn movement, and its refusal to engage in principled discussion (Rubin, 1984:303).
She goes on:
Trying to find a middle-course between WAP and Samois [a lesbian SM group] is a bit like saying that the truth about homosexuality lies somewhere between the position of the Moral Majority and the gay movement (Rubin, 1984:303).
This rhetoric is typical—to lay the blame for the lack of ‘principled discussion’ on the other side, and simultaneously foreclose on the possibility of discussion by claiming a monopoly on virtue, (in this case by saying that to have any disagreements with Samois is de facto to be antigay). Attempting to escape these ‘parallel monologues’ as Adrienne Rich describes them (Rich, 1983:64) proves a nerve-wracking business. (I didn’t realize how nerve-wracking until I came to write this article.) But it is possible to be firmly pro-pornography and Feminist Review No 34, Spring 1990
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still be able to question some of the assumptions made by writers of women’s pornography about what that writing is, and what its function is.
Form and function of lesbian porn
It used to be that lesbian pornography was sexually explicit material containing images of lesbians designed for the arousal of heterosexual men. As lesbians have gained access (albeit miniscule) to the production of print, a different strand has emerged:
Erotic writing is as much documentary as any biographical display. Fantasies, the markings of the erotic imagination, fill in the earth beneath the movement of great social forces; they tell deep tales of endurance and reclamation (Nestle, 1988:10). Was the aim of a ‘good’ erotic story to explore a crucial dimension of lesbian identity…or was the aim to titillate…? We decided the two aims could coexist (Sheba, 1989:8). Lesbian sex writers are trying to provide their sisters with high quality, salacious entertainment…[also] lesbian literature has survival value. Its stimulation can give us hope that our true love is out there somewhere, and the strength to keep paying the bills and looking for her…it makes our lives easier (Lady Winston, 1987: v).
These quotations are taken from the introductions to three very different books: Serious Pleasure, ‘a collection of lesbian erotic stories and poetry, the possible, impossible, fantastic and realistic’; A Re stricted Country, by Joan Nestle, a mixture of autobiography, polemic, sexual memoir and fantasy; and The Leading Edge, edited by Lady Winston, with an introduction by Pat Califia who describes the collection as ‘an anthology of lesbian sexual fiction designed to arouse and excite and be read with a friend’. Different styles but a common theme, namely the assumption that sex writing is in itself radical; that to write of sex and sexual identities is always a subversive act. This is not a new theme—liberals have long equated pornography with the progressive and the good (Diamond, 1980:129)—but it is a contradictory one. For why, when proclaiming a history, an identity to the world, choose a vehicle that by its very nature relies on being illicit? Why choose pornographic writing, the success of which depends on a sense of sex as forbidden and secretive, isolated from its emotional and social context? Reading porn is mostly a solitary activity, which goes on, one-handed or not, behind closed doors, and one of its contradictory pleasures is the tension between its explicit content and illicit context. Lesbian writers very often have a dishonest relationship with this illicitness, as they simultaneously decry their hiddenness, their marginality, and glory in it. By styling themselves (and being styled) the illicit ones, the bad girls (as opposed to the good girls who don’t like any sexual explicitness at all), these writers rely on the same sexual
the exploration of which can generate powerful eroticism—see Califia’s The Surprise Party’ described later in this article) as she assumes (a) that we imagine Iris is feeling degraded (which may be wrong anyway) and (b) that we don’t want her to feel degraded. Bailey’s ‘Ride My Bitch II’ concerns two women (Liz and Carol) who drive round the US ‘looking for women to fuck’. clearly addressed to the reader that Iris is not ‘degraded’. Authorial concern over Iris’s degradation or lack of it is a point for discussion outside the narrative framework of this .PORNOGRAPH IC FICTION 155 double-standards. pinning her face down across the table-top. Liz stripped away her pants. decried as simplistic when it is put forward by antiporn campaigners seeking to connect the reading of porn to the committing of rape. There is a constant loss of nerve in this paragraph. or for political propaganda. It is not immediately clear why those who think porn can’t teach men anything imagine it can teach lesbians something. enjoying the command) the repetition of ‘command’. The notion that porn can have some educative function. the reader to interpret as she wants. not in terms of the action itself. which may also be wrong. who then invites them in for supper. We are suddenly and irritatingly aware of the author’s political worries (as distinct from the character’s. Iris. reveal not just stylistic shortcomings but lack of confidence in allowing the action to speak for itself. Iris could feel Carol enjoying the roughness. with the reassurance. This is a confusion of pornography with sex education and propaganda. Iris could feel Carol enjoying taking command. ‘Reading this won’t make you an outlaw—it’s not that easy sweetheart’ (Califia. and whimpered. But once again. but in the reiterated psychology. but Carol twisted her arm behind her back. They pick up a hitchhiker. an easy conflation. but Carol was quick. C. The repetition of what Iris could feel in Carol. But whether out of evangelical enthusiasm or political defensiveness the lesbian porn writer interjects all too often. bad). As Pat Califia says in her introduction to Macho Sluts. effectively taking command. 1988:21). Radical content A corollary to this assumption of the inherently radical in the act of sexual revelation is the assumption that content can inform. used to great effect by the right. more grateful than afraid. 1987:71). She made as if to protest. the reiteration ‘longed for yet feared’ and ‘more grateful than afraid’. utterly destroying our privileged position as voyeur. Iris struggled. The bad girls need the good girls to make them feel good (i. is in danger of sounding like a reworking of the stimulus-response model. Pornographic politics? Porn relies on the seeming absence of an authorial presence. Soon their intentions towards her become clear: Here again was the roughness that Iris longed for yet feared. then there was a long pause in which Iris felt not at all degraded as the two women coveted her greedily (Bailey. the same sex-associated shame and guilt which they claim it is their mission to remove. (enjoying the roughness. material whose appeal is predicated on taboo cannot readily be appropriated for soothing sexual or psychic anxiety. The final sentence is perhaps the most transparent.e. For example.. either political or sexual.
‘What’s troubling you?’ she asked gently. nibbling on an earlobe. I bet she thought she’d slum it with me. I wasn’t going to trust her. but not right now. This problem is interestingly ironized in Barbara Smith’s The Art of Poise’: I watch your face watching my cunt. her hands pushing the top of my buttocks. She was so sure of herself. produce a richer texture to the story than mere explicitness could do: She hadn’t seen me before. 1989:64. Cherry Smyth’s ‘Crazy About Mary Kelly’ (Smyth. The Mistress and the Slave Girl’ is set in the early nineteenth-century American South and is the story of white mistress Heather and her Black slave Delia. Ann Allen Shockley tackles the sexuality between mistress and slave. class and race can be the driving force behind lesbian pornography. with a special interest in the Irish question. I didn’t want to be safe. her slender fingers pulled at the grass…she seemed on the verge of tears. say my name. whilst acknowledging the issues. Delia is feeling a little miserable: A shadow crossed the girl’s face.’ Heather urged. (Emphasis in original) Later. rather than exploit them. Acute political understanding of the workings of power in terms of sexuality. ‘Janine Robertson. Cocky bitch. making me safe. How was I so wet? (Smyth. The ambivalence of desire fuelled partly by an anger which has its roots in political oppression. academic. emphasis in original) Later. seems to gloss over the realities of power. the two women end up in bed: ‘Delia. say please again…She knelt down and licked the crack between my cheeks. and the confusion it evokes. Yet I was wet. holding me firm and sure. Besides being a slave. the moving of me? Is your face my cunt? (Later we will discuss the politics of looking. I wanted to make her beg to touch me. something no white writer in any of the collections I read was brave enough to do. The hand fit like a small bird in the palm of her own. the power of lesbian porn writing can be pitifully circumscribed by political anxiety. Heather automatically took her hand to comfort her. but I’d seen her. 1989:103) exploits the contradictory emotional and sexual charges generated by an encounter between a second generation Irish Protestant and an Irish Catholic recently moved to London. 1989:105) Some porn. I made her say please. You lick your lips—appetite? Or are you reflecting the movement. say my name. ‘Mistress—’ . With downcast eyes.) (Smith.’ She was moving her hands over my arse. In this extract. she thought to herself.156 FEMINIST REVIEW story.
as the hairdresser. A woman’s banquet? An almost universal assumption made by women pornographers is that putting the woman at the centre of the story will make porn more appealing to women consumers. which somehow diffuse the immediacy of the sexual content. Explicit sex can rarely be written about without some kind of boundary—as if we are afraid it might somehow dribble off the page unless kept under tight control. In her introduction to Herotica. stories will be in the form of a character imagining—a fantasy inside the fantasy of the text—or reconstructing past experience. The fantasy mechanism is skilfully handled here. through the eyes of each character. (a collection of pornography aimed at both heterosexual women and lesbians). In ‘Crazy about Mary Kelly’. and a certain amount of erotic charge is generated because the hairdresser does not know anything about the scene she has just taken part in. Susie Bright maintains: .PORNOGRAPH IC FICTION 157 ‘No! I’m not your mistress!’ Heather retorted half angrily. 1987:31) This seems so embarrassingly far from any real attempt to explore the sexual charge between a white woman and her Black slave that it comes across as a kind of alternative Mills & Boon. Her nipple hardens. The end of the story sees the protagonist opening her eyes. In this instance a sense of immediacy for the reader is cleverly maintained as the transition from fantasy to reality is seamless: I close my eyes and listen to the music. In Cuntessa De Mons Veneris’s ‘A Visit to the Hairdresser’ (Cuntessa De Mons Veneris. It seems to be the author’s desire to diminish her own intimacy with the acts she is describing which necessitates these often clumsy reminders that we are in the realm of fiction. takes the towels away. ‘I am your lover!’ ‘Lo-ver. Sex at arm’s length A common feature of much lesbian porn writing is the use of distancing mechanisms in the narrative. the sex all takes place in retrospect. I nibble a nipple.’ (Shockley. Heather. Ann Allen Shockley’s historical setting similarly distances the reader—the sex took place hundreds of years ago. fantasy sequences often veer dangerously close to the ‘then I woke up and discovered it was all a dream’ schoolessay genre. clothes intact. I undo her blouse one button at a time. 1989:130)—one of the most explicit pieces in an otherwise overly restrained collection— the author frames the sex in the context of a fantasy imagined by the narrator as she is having her hair washed. running her fingers through my scalp… As she rinses my hair it makes little squeaky noises when she squeezes the water out. I lick a nipple through her blouse. Often. She wets my hair then applies the shampoo. She squeezes the water out of my locks. However.
It is often assumed that it is the explicitness of porn that titilates. Still there is an apologetic preamble: These books [heterosexual porn books] were written by men. but I had slept with men. its otherness from daily experience that is so vital. her anticipation. or gay male ones which generate that intense feeling of voyeurism. (or perversely increase it. it will be interracial lesbian encounters. it frees us to imagine what we will—it opens up fantastic possibilities. race. its contradictory and recalcitrant nature. 1988:16). where two lesbians use ‘conventional’ (heterosexual) porn as a part of their own lovemaking. whether it is told from her perspective or not. sexual identity. 1988:13). or SM lesbian encounters. porn constantly heightens expectations whilst never being able to offer the goods. we may feel this threatens our very identity as lesbians—but it is time to get away from the idea that we can all be ‘lesbian separatist masturbators’. Women reading porn will not always picture themselves as being the woman in a story. lesbians will not always picture themselves as lesbians—precisely because they do not have to. as Pat Califia says (Califia. not what we think ought to get us wet’ (Califia. whereas in fact it is the possibilities evoked that arouse—with a perverse coyness. for others. It must be remembered that porn does not offer us the bodies it describes in reality. the possibilities of fantasy. whose views of sex.158 FEMINIST REVIEW The most obvious feature of women’s erotic writing is the nature of the woman’s arousal. 1988:4). For some the portrayal of any kind of lesbian encounter will be ‘other’ enough.) We may have uneasy feelings because we are not supposed to be turned on by pricks. It is precisely the fantastic nature of porn. In practice this is a difficult and slow process. and of women’s sexuality in particular. The consumer of porn is able to derive pleasure precisely because the boundaries between subject and object are fluid and subject to the consumer’s will. for lesbians. Suddenly. My opinion of their ideas might have been biased because I am a lesbian. the lack of ‘important details’ is forgotten and our reader starts to get turned on: . Separatist masturbations What constitutes this otherness for a particular reader will depend on a whole matrix of past experience (sexual and otherwise). But do women always identify with the woman in a story? Do lesbians always identify with lesbians? I would suggest not. and had found it ridiculous how many of the important details of lovemaking these writers left out (Dobbs. It is vital to recognize the complexity of our sexual identity. to be aroused by anything outside ‘vanilla’ lesbian sex may be politically troubling. The beginnings of an experiment in this direction are made by Cathy Dobbs in ‘Read Me a Story’. never cease to amaze me. religion. 1988:59). Her path to orgasm. to write of what ‘really gets us wet. upbringing. Of course. are front and centre in each story…it is her sexual banquet that is being served (Bright. this may suppress arousal. or heterosexual ones. politics and physical ability. as we play into the ‘bad girl syndrome’ I mentioned earlier. with no explanation.
The otherness of sex (i. coupled. I could feel it. fondled it and squeezed it. emphasis in original). his stiff penis pushing against her ass cheeks…She moaned deeply. Waves of sweet honey ran through her. In their formulation.. not coyly forgiven. 1987: vii). It is as if. her sex-conscience jeered. 1988:60.PORNOGRAPH IC FICTION 159 He reached around her breasts. 1988:211) tells of a self-possessed butch who gets arrested and repeatedly and ritually fucked by three policemen. More orgies. ‘You don’t like this either. do you?’ he demanded. whatever our enemies have to say about us will subside to the status of a footnote (Bright. makes her read out loud and fucks her as she is reading. heterosexual and gay male) generates the erotic charge. . Many lesbians justify ‘their’ porn from a disturbingly similar position. and the woman’s lover notices her arousal. the fiction is sustained and the piece maintains erotic momentum. 1988:215). The disparity between private pleasures and public faces is exploited here. But I’m a lesbian. The antiporn lobby is consistently criticized for its transhistorical view of sex.e. throw off repression and oppression will follow. fewer meetings? If we have the courage to describe ourselves without shame. her public persona objected. through sex. ‘No!’ Liar. Pat Califia’s The Surprise Party’ (Califia. become more honest people. Moving beyond the need to apologize. I could feel the stabs of pleasure running through her body. The sexually satisfied woman is not a vegetable. homophobia will become a footnote. So it goes on. she is a Valkyrie (Califia. of course with the butch’s realization of the perversity of her own desires: He put his hand on his crotch. sex per se is radical. have more energy and be less inclined to take shit or be talked down to. through me (Dobbs. we can reclaim our lives. 1988: x). taking them in his hands. for seeing sex as sexism. When women have enough sex…we will feel better about ourselves. an agency for change. the wiser voice replied (Califia. Califia’s own voice does not inhibit the character. You fantasise about cock and talk dirty about it all the time. and consequently achieving a more skilfully sustained sexual charge. sex per se as the root of women’s oppression. You love getting fucked. This doesn’t have anything to do with that.
We acknowledge. real lesbians believe in market forces (competition.160 FEMINIST REVIEW Over and over women porn writers justify themselves in language as essentialist as those they most vehemently oppose: Sex is play and joy and power and gifts we give each other.) Lesbian sex is neither reactionary nor subversive—it can be either. direct. She will probably have something better to do than go to five meetings a week to argue about the language of a resolution. but unfortunately the need for the meetings isn’t going to disappear in the roar of lesbian orgasm—they’ll simply go on without us. given how much all this costs . In short. genital pleasure’ (Califia. an essence that needs some particular expression out of its own nature. Real lesbians want ‘selfish [this word crops up a lot]. individual. Porn depends on not delivering the goods. So. The world will not have changed: We know that even if our coming out has changed our experience of the world.e. 1988:10). real lesbians ‘don’t want to save the world but they know it’s essential to be able to save your own ass’ (Califia. never a Valkyrie? Merely to transpose the language of sexual liberation to a lesbian context is not enough: for this is the language that assumes sex is natural. it has done nothing to change the world. 1988:26). the ‘real’ face of lesbianism) then you can’t be a lesbian: If you don’t like to read about pussy maybe you don’t like pussy and you should be lickin’ something else (Califia. 1989:6). It is also the language that assumes ‘repression’ of sexuality stunts the personality. (A nifty oxymoron I admit. 1988: x). not free? Are you always a vegetable. just like all other sex. Sex is also work. If you have no desire. grief and tension. At the end of a piece of lesbian porn you will either have enjoyed it or you won’t. are you then. real lesbians will like ‘Macho Sluts’. you will have come or you won’t.. according to lesbian porn writers. if we are all having good sex then we won’t go to meetings any more—that may well be true. but macho lesbians are usually the ones who don’t do the washing-up and think butch is all about the way you walk. Furthermore: The sexually autonomous woman is probably not going to be a docile follower. talking about sex is a way of reclaiming our lives (Nestle. It can be disempowering. Not having sex can be strengthening and consolidating. some of the more puerile utterances of the lesbian porn movement imply that if you don’t like what you read (i. It seems we are assailed from all sides: if we like porn we are male-identified and if we don’t we aren’t real lesbians. After the moments of harsh intimacy with ourselves or others we let the world fall back into place again. with extraordinary calmness. according to Califia will improve the quality of porn). or no sex.
She lives in London. Barbara (1989) ‘The Art of Poise’. another Saturday night. Adrienne (1983) ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’. Colorado: Lace. Dorothy (1984) ‘Public Silence. The Leading Edge: An Anthology of Lesbian Sexual Fiction. SMITH. erotic writing and sexual writing. California: Down There Press. CALIFIA. Neil (1988) Who Was That Man? A Present to Mr Oscar Wilde. RUBIN. London: Serpent’s Tail. Serious Pleasure: Lesbian Erotic Stories and Poetry. BAILEY. in STIMSON and PERSON (1980). for voyages of the Valkyries. London: Sheba. 1 . Cherry (1989) ‘Crazy About Mary Kelly’. SHEBA (1989) editors. NESTLE. that there is no radical impulse beneath our radical acts. London: Sheba. . Cathy (1988) ‘Read Me a Story’. in SHEBA (1989). in LADYWINSTON (1987). But the privileging of sex and sexual representation as the site for radical impulses. in LADY WINSTON (1987). in STIMSON and PERSON (1980). Where particular writers make a distinction I have quoted them directly. 1 I have deliberately made no distinction between pornographic writing. Herotica. Boston: Alyson. DIAMOND. CALIFIA. Gayle (1984) ‘Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality’.PORNOGRAPH IC FICTION 161 us. no. SHOCKLEY. c. Ann Allen (1987) ‘The Mistress and the Slave Girl’. in VANCE (1984). in VANCE (1984). Notes Sara Dunn is a freelance writer and editor. CUNTESSADE MONS VENERIS (1989) ‘A Visit to the Hairdresser’. 1988:216). BRIGHT. Women. DOBBS. Catharine and PERSON. Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Morning comes (Bartlett. BARTLETT. in BRIGHT (1988). but used all these terms interchangeably. Pat (1988) Macho Sluts. London: University of Chicago Press. in SHEBA (1989) SMYTH. Irene (1980) ‘Pornography and Repression: A Reconsideration’. in SHEBA (1989). Ethel (1980) editors. that’s all. RICH. The privileging of sex and sexual representation as the site of women’s oppression is misguided at best. (1987) ‘Ride My Bitch II’. Susie (1988) editor. Joan (1988) A Restricted Country: Essays and Short Stories. Denver. References ALLISON. comes perilously close to the same thing. NESTLE. p. Joan (1989) Quim. Carole (1984) editor. After Saturday night. Pat (1987) Introduction to LADY WINSTON (1987). VANCE. 6. LADY WINSTON (1987) editor. Sex and Sexuality. Summer. STIMSON. Private Terror’. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
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we might not find a way out of this impasse of femininity —die Verwerfung also means a geological fault. and weisen—to exile. remains endlessly undecideable in their relations because the predicament both face is identifying each other’s sex. then the irony of this ‘affair’ is that the ‘place’ of endless undecideability is the ‘place’ of the feminine (and a horizon towards which much contemporary European theory has been heading). she repudiating his repudiation of her. that many of the texts in this collection emerge. ‘your place or mine?’. If Bowlby is right. Bowlby unconceals three different words which Stratchey has translated as ‘repudiate’: verfen—to discard. ablehnen—to decline.00 Hbk ISBN 0 415 01489 1 £9.95 Pbk ISBN 0 415 01490 5 ‘No femininity please. Spring 1990 . expel or banish. this slide. because the place where neither wants to be is the place of the feminine.’ This. Both are caught in the dynamics of repudiation: psychoanalysis arguing that she must repudiate femininity in order to accede to womanhood. suggests Rachel Bowlby in her contribution to this collection. The urgent question. Through a series of intricate unravellings. It is perhaps from this fault. Bowlby asks whether now. Substitute this for the ‘bedrock of femininity’ and we get. refuse. the slide between the strata. remove. but the faulting of femininity. Teresa Brennan argues in her introduction that between psychoanalysis and feminism lies an open space without anachronistic boundaries where basic premises are being rethought. Jane Gallop in the opening paper wonders whether we are moving backwards or forwards in that Feminist Review No 34. is perhaps a particularly English line of development in discussions of psychoanalysis and feminism. Bowlby considers the affair between psychoanalysis and feminism since their coincidental appearance in a supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1906. the leaving open. not repudiation. and pays particular attention to the status of the feminine in both discourses. we’re British. many fraught repudiations later.REVIEWS Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis Edited by Teresa Brennan Routledge: London 1989 £30.
It seems symptomatic of what Bowlby has described as the British neurosis about femininity that Luce Irigaray is the focal point for the section in the book about essentialism. or cut. She argues that the little girl could never objectify her mother in this way (a spool of thread which the boy throws forwards and backwards is seen as mother coming and going). Or she might be overcome by distress and neither speak nor eat. Gallop now rejects her own alliance with this adversarial position and seriously questions the insistence on the ‘split’ or division in models of the human subject. more extraordinary that she has been heard at all than it is that she has been repudiated in this country—No Irigaray please. or in a dance. the human becomes human at the moment of castration. we’re British! In her own paper. in some sense. with a doll. woman does not exist in language. essentialism and sexual difference. For Lacan. a severance. The girl has the mother. in her skin. in the humidity of her mucous . Feminism. why can one not speak otherwise? It is perhaps. But it is not immutable. This suggests that perhaps we are still at work on those anachronistic boundaries. likewise. Whitford argues that what is problematic for readers of Irigaray is not some biological essentialism (she does not propose a fixed female essence) but rather. That she is lesbian may have something to do with the extraordinary reception which one of the first of her theoretical papers to have been translated received: ‘When our lips speak together’ seems to have been read as a rather aberrant lesbian love poem. from biology. She might play. When she plays. Irigaray is quite clear that female sexuality cannot articulate itself within an Aristotelian type of logic. Irigaray is a practising psychoanalyst. Irigaray discusses the significance of gesture in psychoanalysis. For Mitchell and Lacan. she constructs a vital subjective space for herself in relation to her mother. Irigaray insists that this pre-verbal gesture is already sexual difference in play. She reads Juliet Mitchell as allying herself with the Lacanian attack on the biologism of much psychoanalytic theory. She describes a range of reactions which the girl might have. can still reject humanism without jettisoning biology. This split is emblematic of the division between the human and the natural sciences—a border Mitchell wants psychoanalysis to patrol. her vast erudition. to be deprived in the present of the power to produce meaningful discourse) and suggests that it has different implications for men and women. She has been engaged in linguistic research into gender and schizophrenic discourse. a philosopher and a poet. The mother’s sex is the same as hers and therefore cannot have the status of a reel. His theory of female sexuality is predicated on this negative entry into the symbolic.164 FEMINIST REVIEW space. She discusses the therapeutic significance of lying on the couch’ (to be removed from the scene of representation. she argues. The former challenges the structuralist theory of the universality of language and Lacan’s insistence on woman’s negative entry into the symbolic order. Many of the papers which follow Gallop engage with what have seemed like entrenched debates about the body. In a satisfying corollary to the Freud/ Lacan/Derrida appropriations of baby Ernst’s fort/da game of symbolizing his mother’s absence. Both Rosi Braidotti and Margaret Whitford are charged with the task of refuting the British reception of Irigaray’s work. Her specificity is repressed within this framework. The Mechanics of Fluids’ from her book Speculum of the Other Woman. learning from Bowlby.
for women in this culture. as in the sexual theories or fantasies of children. a central theoretical problem is the inability to separate ‘mother’ and the ‘woman’. Whitford argues on behalf of Irigaray that if mother is not also woman. In clinical theory. She goes on to argue that there are two reasons for Freud’s insistence that the little girl’s relation to her mother is phallic rather than feminine: firstly. of the maternal. eaten whole. The status of the daughter is vital here. According to Margaret Whitford in her paper in this collection. can be read as the site of a resistance to the symbolic repression of what Gayatri Spivak calls ‘the name of the mother’ (Spivak 1983). rather than a phallic. rather than feminine.g. the daughter’s desire is characterized as inevitably phallic. as it were. then there is no real other—presumably because if she is unique (unsexed maternal) she can be incorporated. 134–5). She thus occupies the site of a struggle for a place for ‘woman’ (which Bowlby reminds us necessitates a repudiation of femininity). In psychoanalytic discourses. Many of these papers stress the necessity for an articulation of the heterogenous mother/ woman daughter/woman relations within the symbolic.REVIEWS 165 membranes. to re-member mother in this way but the implications of being unable to symbolize this relation are dire. there is only the place of the mother. secondly. I believe that we must unravel the fear and understandable mistrust of essentialist theories from structures of resistance and denial. In a marvellous unravelling. Lesbianism. or baby as substitute for penis is essentialist. ‘the difference within’. an inability to mourn (her loss). relation to her mother is not. that on a more global level it is based on a metaphysics of presence: ‘what you see (presence) is privileged over what you cannot see (absence) and seeing guarantees being. thus the penis is elevated to the position of phallus: nothing to be seen is equivalent to having no thing. guaranteed only by the ‘threat’ of castration. For Irigaray and many of the other contributors to this collection. camouflaged by the maternal function. it does not recognize sexual difference: for Freud the little girl is a little man. birth…she does not want to master the mother. or to perform certain operations of sublimation. Penis envy. her otherness. in the intimacy of her most intimate parts. It is difficult. To argue that the little girl can have a feminine. she argues for a radically . a woman taking an other woman as lover. Within the Oedipal scenario then there is the imbalance masculinity/ phallus/Law of the Father and an unsexed Maternal. Irigaray argues that the need for the phallus which is imputed to the little girl is an a posteriori justification of the obligation which is placed on her to be legal mother and wife. but to create herself (pp. in the mystery of her relation to gestation. e. that is. Alice Jardine takes up the mother/ daughter paradigm in a different but none the less equally pertinent way in her discussion of the different generations of women caught in the web of different historical transferences (an earlier generation in transference to psychoanalysis. then later. threads of which include discussions of women who have written of their analysis. or penis as access to the mother. no truth’. that Freud’s imaginary (which is also the imaginary of western representation) is anal. as in metaphysics. no being. another to femininism and this present generation in transference to both discourses and both previous generations)..
in Lacan’s words. acknowledge that we participated in obliterating the trace of her production. male and female subjects construing themselves as knowable objects. For Spivak. through and from the perspective of the generation before us. We must. we must stage the scene of effacing her biography. what am I?) and axiology (which is about value. This mode changes our linear conception of time and does away with the concept of ‘generation’ altogether. the future anterior incorporates the possibility of understanding the history/story we are. as an élite complicit with the culture of imperialism. historically. that Braidotti should read this as Spivak reproducing an ‘essential woman’. there is an irreducible difference between the subject (woman) of the psychoanalytic epistemology and the subject (feminist) of axiology. in the hope that the possibility for that name will finally be erased. who am I?). If there is a consensus. then the name woman will refer to the ‘gendered subaltern’ of decolonized space. Toril Moi. Teresa Brennan. while lesbian sado-masochism remains a perversion. a metaphor without literal referent). geopolitically cannot imagine’ as literal referent. Naomi Segal and Joan Copec also contribute to this anthology with ideas about epistemophilia. Gayatri Spivak in her paper outlines some of the difficulties of the feminist/ psychoanalytic epistemological project through which men and women understand their ontology in terms of sexual difference. if we must think the relationship between the subject of ontology and the subject of axiology. ‘the real’ and the death drive and so on but within the context of this special issue. Lisa Jardine. She retraces the relation between the concept ‘woman’ (a catachresis. But as Rosi Braidotti argues. she repositions herself in relation to deconstructive theory and argues for the (philosophical) integrity of naming that disenfranchized woman ‘whom we strictly. Ultimately. She identifies a crucial distinction between ontology (which is about essence. it is not pathological and that ‘entities which are perverse but not . Adams herself informs us that she hopes to contribute to the debate on sexual politics by ‘showing that psychoanalysis can theorize new phenomena without transforming itself into sociology or psychology’. It is ironic. deconstruction and the post-colonial disenfranchized woman. Her main thesis is that. in so far as that perspective becomes or is now our own and is realised in the future’—or. psychoanalytically speaking. in her introduction. argues that this ‘pathbreaking’ paper contributes to our understanding of the ‘relations between the psychical and the social’ by ‘studying a new sexuality’: lesbian sado-masochism. Elizabeth Wright. ‘what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming’. ‘I do not have to define the signifier woman in order to assert it as the speaking subject of my discourse’. then it is that we could never possibly reach the definitive ‘woman’.166 FEMINIST REVIEW different understanding of these transferences through a thinking in the time of future anterior: ‘moving from an individual to a collective analytic perspective. or essence. For the philosopher. if not a little frightening. I would like to bring attention to last paper in the collection: ‘Of female bondage’ by Parveen Adams. The difficulties and dangers inherent in the possibility of inscribing woman in the symbolic are not underestimated—but none of them develop ideas on the basis of a self evident female nature.
while disavowing the sexual difference of the parents (or more precisely the absence of a maternal phallus). a play with genitality’ (pp. I wonder who exactly Adams is appealing to in this debate? Are not the real protagonists in the story of female bondage which unfolds in this paper the ‘virile’ heterosexual women (intellectuals) and vanilla lesbians who remain forever tied up in phallic knots? Furthermore. 262–3). Adams finds herself obliged. of course she . a transgressive excitement. one for another. constructs a sexuality among women. on ‘aspects of reality which press forward [on the SM lesbian] and make possible a change in the balance of unconscious life which produce a possible but unpredictable materialisation of unconscious life’ (p. and very little of it has to do with a distinction between SM lesbian praxis ‘non’ SM lesbian praxis. One might well welcome such a reading into debates on sexual politics were it not for the fact that in constructing this thesis. The clinical male masochist. to establish an equivalence between female heterosexuality and nonsado-masochistic lesbian sexuality and. within the masculinity complex the heterosexual woman who has made a virile identification with the father wants the man to recognize her virility and the homosexual woman is in the same way enabled to offer that which she does not have’ (p. heterosexual women can train with the Institute of Psychoanalysis in this country while women who are lesbian cannot. What ‘aspects of reality’ ‘press forward’ on the SM lesbian and not on other women. experiences choice and mobility and genital satisfaction is one among many pleasures: ‘she constructs fetishes and substitutes them. firstly. it hinges on two points. Adams’s explanation for this exciting and radical new found freedom which only SM lesbians have acquired is complex. she multiplies fantasies and tries them on like costumes…a proliferation of bodily pleasures. this curious assimilation of ‘straight’ lesbianism into a general theory of female heterosexuality is not generally reflected in psychoanalytic discourse or in its institutional practices (in principle. a play with identity. whether lesbian or otherwise. In Adam’s narrative. Briefly. secondly. on a distinction between the SM lesbian and the clinical male heterosexual masochist and secondly. to situate them both as pathological (‘within the forms of womanly pathology organized within the phallic field’). are not at all discussed and this seems to me a tantalising omission. Adams is enabled to decide who signifies whose desire for whom by assessing positions taken up in relation to the paternal phallus: ‘in the feminine heterosexual position the woman finds the signifier of her desire in the body of a man. necessarily remains within a heterosexual framework. if not a little tortuous. his practice is compulsive and genitality is ‘disturbed’ whereas the lesbian sadomasochist. What this ultimately presents is a twofold theory of female sexuality: the heterosexual woman and the non SM lesbian on one side. although also disavowing the absence of the maternal phallus. 261). perverse but not pathological. 263).REVIEWS 167 pathological demonstrate that psychical processes do not of themselves determine sexualities and their “normal” or pathological status’. not perverse but ‘normally’ and inevitably pathological and the SM lesbian on the other side. the dividing line or ‘cut’ is the (Lacanian) phallus. Firstly. so she could not be expecting to contribute to change there—unless.
Indiana University Press. In Inventing Ourselves. lesbians were not depicted as whole people. (1983) Displacement and the Discourse of Women in KRUPNICK (editor) Displacement Derrida and After. to such an extent that in some of the interviews. Much work needs to be done (if not undone) on these questions and I believe that what this paper clearly identifies is the frustration of thinking through issues of female sexuality outside of a critique of the metaphysics of presence on which Lacanian theory is predicated. or she was in the vanguard of womenidentification. Presumably. and make the book a product of its time. political and cultural history’ (p. it is repeated in the various introductions and the postscript to the book: ‘this book explores how lesbians have created their lives and contributed to the changes of their times’ (p. despite all the odds. Some may have a few of those characteristics. non pathological) she affords her ‘new’ sexuality (lesbian sadomasochism) is likely to see the doors of the Institute flung open to SM dykes…). pIt is also noticeable that whole women appear in the book. Whether this category was seen as unfortunate or wonderful depended on the story-collector’s motives. young. the reason for the latter comment is that if lesbians will not. or to further the fount of human knowledge. or to other lesbians. middleclass. or both. ‘As lesbians we have to take on the responsibility to make sure that we are part of social. During the late seventies and early eighties. Denise O’Connor Reference SPIVAK. the editing has been equally careful to show the breadth and diversity of each individual’s experience and participation in the world in general. But is this a responsibility to society. These contrasts with previous oral history collections are significant. or nirvana.95 Pbk ISBN 0 415 02959 7 Not one of the women telling her story in Inventing Ourselves is a white.168 FEMINIST REVIEW believes that the ‘new’ status (i.00 Hbk ISBN 0 415 02958 9 £8. lesbian life history collections winged their way across the Atlantic. Either the lesbian was a pitiable wretch doomed to a life of misery. x). The Hall Carpenter Archive/Oral History Group has clearly read a message from the tortuous battles over the years in women’s collectives and groups across the country. able-bodied. lesbianism received relatively little attention. southern English woman with a Christian background. G. rather than some fraction of their existence. the stories would read as carefully edited descriptions which defined a unified category. describing whole lives. In case the reader misses the point. vii). or what? We are not told.e. producing something very readable in the process. having discovered the female utopia. Either way. nobody will. containing the category lesbian. Inventing Ourselves: Lesbian Life Stories Edited by Hall Carpenter Archives/ Lesbian Oral History Group Routledge: London 1989 £20. In . but never all of them.
the concept of difference is fully explored. which switched from the old we’re-all-thesame-really argument some time ago. only succeeded in pushing out those who did not. The message to lesbians is that difference and change should be recognized and appreciated for what they are: part of their history. so although it could be argued they created their lives in one sense. then. the trend is towards the antiracist movement’s attitude. It is not surprising either to discover an absence of any statement which suggests that all lesbians are united in some great struggle. Instead. about happy heterosexual marriages and other positive relationships with men as well as awful ones. On the contrary. however tenuous. there is an insistence that lesbians not be erased from the history books. In Inventing Ourselves.. women. etc. or share some great truth. Things are just not that simple anymore.’ (pp. ix-x) Inventing Ourselves is also peppered with snippets of history. which should be looked at and considered. to find the editors emphasizing the individual in her role as creator of her own life. even if . which form an essential part of the book. as it were. Again. More recently. These are the messages to the nonlesbian world. fit this conjured-up unity. It is not the externally imposed category but the woman that makes her life. the book argues. told from the perspective of women who were often creating a chunk of it themselves. starting with an older Jewish lesbian (now dead) who lost most of her family at the hands of the Nazis. warts and all. however. they most certainly did not have a free reign. that they not be seen as white. The interviews tell of women’s disasters as well as their successes. just as the category ‘woman’ has been crumbling under the weight of the evidence in feminist circles for some time. Change and difference is further emphasized by the selection of photographs of the interviewees. In that respect. middle-class. the emphasis has been on difference (an ‘in’ word in academic and some political circles at the moment). So it would seem the category ‘lesbian’ is crumbling. in both the material sense and in terms of her right to perceive and interpret the past as she chooses.REVIEWS 169 the past. And as for truth. from the very title of the book to the editorial comment. those concerned with social life. occasionally show that their choices were severely limited by the powers that be. and would never. and that they will not take legislation such as Section 28 of the Local Government Act lying down. including feminists and sociologists. Nicky West (who shot most of the portraits). in case the significance of the photographs and how they have been chosen is missed. tells the reader: The sense of personal development and change conveyed by the close positioning of past and present representations of the subject undermines the fallacy of fixed identity. It is not surprising. The interviewees themselves. the implication is that previous attempts to paper over the cracks. about the more dubious sides of the lesbian community as well as the positive ones. the editors remind the reader that truth is in the eye of the beholder and changes constantly anyway. were searching for unity in experience. and finishing with a mixed-race woman who was shunted around like passthe-parcel by a social service that appeared to be ignorant of the problems of race in Britain. What comes across is that these women all had fundamentally different experiences and made fundamentally different choices.
but there is certainly a lot of it going on in these pages. southern English young lesbians with a Christian background is fair enough. The editors overtly intended to represent those groups which are rarely given any space at all in this society. middle-class ablebodied. Sarah Green . since ‘representative’ is a relative concept. This is perhaps unfair criticism. but the editors should not have spoiled this valid point by slipping into the old implication that the stories cover lesbian experience as a whole. it was not necessary to try and add to them. It is not made clear whether the interviewees have been carefully selected for political activism or not. Excluding white. The book stands perfectly well on its own merits. as they are covered copiously elsewhere. It is hard to believe that this political energy is representative of lesbians in general. in lesbian books or anywhere else. and this they have done.170 FEMINIST REVIEW (or perhaps be cause) they found themselves marginalized in society. The book can almost make a reader dizzy with the energy and determination many of these women show politically. and from a very young age. though it does make for absorbing reading.
whom they invite to ‘come out of the closet and discuss and reveal the intricacies of their sexuality and sexual practice’ (come to think of it. whoever they are’. Some 200 lesbians may have been spending the summer of ‘88 ‘talking about sex’ and learning to say naughty words ‘such as dildo. but with theoretical and political issues). as a mixture of lesbians. nevertheless reply to their article ‘Sex in the Summer of ’88’ (Feminist Review 31. Spring 1990 . more attention and struggle focused on Clause 28 than on Joan Nestle (and pace Sue and Susan. Yet to them. millions of lesbians elsewhere were not only actively Feminist Review No 34. ‘thoughts on S/M’.) And no events outside of London? Arguably. sex-toy. Proud not to be (like revolutionary feminists) ‘stuck somewhere back in the 1970s’. As feminists mostly active in the ‘smelly but possibly fertile muck’ of the provinces. and are only too keen to ‘discuss and reveal’)—may we.’ No events prior to ’88? (The last noteworthy event appears to have been Sue and Susan’s article about the London Lesbian and Gay Centre in ’86. butch/femme’ and. While Susan Ardill and Sue O’Sullivan are waiting for responses from ‘individual heterosexual socialist-feminists’. Spring 1989). an historic shift ‘in the struggles around lesbian sexuality’. for many it meant engaging not only with pragmatic.LETTER Dear Feminist Review. it is a couple of hundred ‘mostly young white lesbians’ recycling themselves around a number of London events which amounts to a ‘groundswell’. And ‘a handful of women’ or ‘a small minority of women’ among these are taken to stand for or ‘crystallize’ ‘the main strands of current lesbian feminist discourse’. assertive (feminist?) heterosexual women’. why not from heterosexual men. events took place in London…which indicate new shifts and struggles around lesbian sexuality. we are mystified by Sue and Susan’s construction of a universal history of ‘Sex in the Summer of ’88’: ‘After a couple of years. S/M. they leapt ahead into the revival of Joan Nestle’s ground-breaking nostalgia for the ‘butch/femme bar culture of the 1950s’. feminists and ‘women. While they were thus engaged at the very pulse of the new wave. they too might have exciting things to say about ‘domination and subordination’. from ‘heterosexual feminists’ or from ‘strong. ‘a strong tide’. horror of horrors (or thrill of thrills) ‘fucking’ (even if they ‘still don’t know the relationship of those words to what we actually tend to do sexually’). with ‘considerable impact at grass-roots level’.
loneliness.’ From saying significant words like ‘dildo’ and sex-toy’? Or ‘from talking about those problems which’. In sisterhood. the historic saga continues: overwhelmed by ‘the sense that talking about sex was the only thing to do as the summer of ’88 drew to a close’.) ‘It seemed as if many women and men were holding back. jealousy and obsessive dependencies’? No wonder then that ‘perhaps what we are is stupefied’.172 engaging in sexual relationships (with or without naughty words). but also in sexual politics. (Despite the fact that ‘two women on the panel’ apparently ‘addressed the state of the world’. according to the authors. Still. ‘large numbers of women and men’ got together for a ‘significant event at which nothing particularly significant was said’. ‘really dominate our lives. Susanne Kappeler Liz Kelly Joan Scanlon . like frustration.
after a long fight against cancer. Donations to Gillian Skirrow Appeal. In all her work she gave total dedication and commitment. Leicester LE1 7RH. She was. and she always had great enthusiasm and energy. It will also be concerned with previously marginalized areas within Women’s Studies itself.NOTICEBOARD The Gillian Skirrow Appeal for Cancer Research Gillian died on 30 December 1987. papers and workshops will be divided into four strands. and was very active in setting up and teaching the Women’s Studies course there. she pioneered the teaching of Film and TV Studies at Strathclyde. a source of inspiration for women who are concerned with feminism. University of Strathclyde. Feminist Review No 34. Gillian was also a founder member of the Steering Board of Opportunities for Women. Tel. Spring 1990 . and consider their developing significance for the subject as a whole. Papers. She was a lecturer at the University of Strathclyde. and still is. Plenary addresses. The third Women’s Studies Network (UK) conference will focus on the development of Women’s Studies out from the margins of higher education. University of Leicester. Call for Papers ‘Out of the Margins: Women’s Studies in the Nineties’ A conference to be held at Coventry Polytechnic on 7 and 8 July 1990. and its prospects in the 90s. 0533 522630 or 0533 701443. and explore its current impact upon mainstream teaching. English Studies Department. Richmond Street. or proposals for leading a workshop. c/o Sara Mills. Glasgow G1 1XH. such as Black Women’s Studies and Lesbian Studies. aged forty-eight. research and publication. to run throughout the two-day conference. are invited from those working in the field: please contact Jane Aaron at the Department of English.