Lesbian Ethics Part 4 – Expanding Lesbian feminist communities – Angela C. Wild

Lesbian Ethics. Lesbian History Group Event 3/06/2016

Lesbian Ethics Part 4 – Angela C. Wild PDF

I am going to talk about Lesbian ethics, anti-political lesbians and expanding Lesbian feminist communities.

Because this particular topic has been discussed online in more or less heated debates I want to clarify that my position here is a political one, I am after deconstructing an ideology, not individual women who recognise themselves under that name

I am going to discuss here where the “born this way” narrative is coming from, what it is doing to women who are not “born this way” lesbians, what impact it has on women’s ability to access a political awareness of sexuality and their sexuality, the impact it has on women ability to reach a stage of self determination and the impact it has a the wider movement. And how this particular rhetoric seems to prevent a sense of lesbian feminist community   or makes it harder to expand our community.

 

A few definitions:

Born this way lesbians : otherwise known as essential lesbian, natal lesbian…:

That theory defines sexuality is innate, sexuality is sometime defined as a genetic reality or a mix of genetic/ social constructivism.

Women who agree with that narrative say they were lesbians from birth, lesbianism is said to be an essential part of themselves, something that was always in them since birth. These women knew very early they were lesbians and have had very little or no sexual experiences with men.

The issue isn’t that some women say they are born lesbians, but that the only way to be a lesbian, is to be born a lesbian, you cannot become one later in life.

 

Political lesbian: I use the term political lesbian rather than lesbian feminist because it is most of the time misunderstood for meaning “lesbian” and “feminist” As if these two things have nothing to do with one another.

A Political Lesbian is a woman who has chosen to become a lesbian because or thanks to her politics. A woman who has chosen to put women first in all aspects of her life including romantically and sexually.

Political Lesbians define sexuality as socially constructed, it is uncompromisingly anti-essentialist,  it comes hand in hand with a political critique of heterosexuality as an institution and defines heterosexuality as politically enforced on all women by violence and a relentless propaganda, to ensure each men has access to women for sexual but also domestic servitude.

Political Lesbian define lesbianism as political act of resistance because it is denying men access to women. It often means that for the women who call themselves Political Lesbians, politics got them to lesbianism, they couldn’t have been lesbians without the feminist process.

As sexuality is socially constructed, it can and should be deconstructed, women forced in heterosexuality should be freed from it.

 

History

The born this way narrative is an ideology that actually comes from the gay men movement. In the 70’s, the gay liberation movement and Lesbian feminists were together challenging that ideology that sexuality is biological.

In the 80’s there was a big return to the biological model to explain homosexuality. It is an argument that is directly drawn from the Victorian sexologists (who were notoriously not very pro women)

Homosexuality is according to that model a deviation from the norm (the norm being heterosexuality), a perversion.

In the 80’s the gay men’s movement makes the strategic decision to argue that homosexuality is innate. The shift is supposed to attract mainstream sympathies on the basis that homosexuals have to be accepted for who they are as they cannot help themselves.

Lesbian feminists at the time disagrees and opposed the move because it didn’t represent their experience and was anti feminist and counterproductive.

 

 

One of the opposition to Political Lesbianism by women who call themselves “actual Lesbians” on the basis that they have been lesbians since very young is that it is appropriating and insulting to Lesbian who have suffered from anti lesbian oppression since they came out. Supposedly, women who came to lesbianism later have not suffered from that oppression because they were straight.

If we go back to a critique of compulsory heterosexuality by Adrienne Rich and how she describes the “pervasive cluster of forces, ranging from physical brutality to control of consciousness, “. “within which women have been convinced that marriage, and sexual orientation toward men, are inevitable, even if unsatisfying or oppressive components of their lives.”  we can see that this assumption is completely unfounded.

No woman is heterosexual.

The one amongst us who are or have been in heterosexual relationships are the ones who Patriarchy anti lesbian oppression has successfully formatted.

These women have experienced precisely that: Anti Lesbian oppression and Compulsory heterosexuality are one and he same thing and no woman straight or lesbian has ever escaped it.

Talking about appropriation in that context is dividing women and prevent us to see our common experience of oppression.

 

 

 

Another anti political lesbian argument that we hear a lot is that Political Lesbians desexualise Lesbianism.

The famous line from the Leeds pamphlet “Love your enemy” that states that “political lesbianism doesn’t mean compulsory sexual activity with women

This line has been used and twisted to prove that political lesbians are not real lesbians, because it has been understood to mean political lesbians don’t actually have any sexual activity with women and that lesbianism is about holding hands while reading feminist books with women. This is of course ridiculous as political lesbians defines as loving women and putting women first in every way including emotionally and sexually.

The born this way narrative basis the very definition of lesbianism on and ONLY on sexual attraction and sexual activity with women.

That is problematic.

Political lesbians argue that lesbianism is more than just about sexuality. It is about culture, politics, building communities, sisterhood, revolution etc. Sexuality is one part of that.

Because political lesbianism  has by definition a political analysis of sexuality, we get named anti sex by anti feminist men. Why would women who call themselves feminist use the same argument as our oppressors?

One of the way non political lesbian justify being more lesbian that political lesbians is by saying they “lust after women’s bodies since they were teenagers”.

It is one of the effect of basing ones definition of lesbianism on men’s culture and men’s values, then we have the incredible situation where women who objectify other women get to be more of a lesbian than women who actually made the decision to love women in a non objectifying way.

Political lesbianism  rejects the definition of lesbianism as women’s right to objectify and prey sexually on other women. This is what men do. It is misogyny.

The point of saying “Lesbianism doesn’t mean compulsory sexual activity with women” is obvious.

No woman is sexual all of the time, women don’t walk around in a constant state of sexual heat. Further more women are constantly assumed to be straight whether they are having a relationship or not, one do not loose ones sexuality if we do not have a sexual activity at one point of our life!

Does a lesbian who has broken up with her lover stop being a lesbian?  As Ann Tagonist asked Do older lesbian who do not have sex anymore stop being lesbians?

 

Very ironically I have read recently that political lesbianism’s view of sexuality is creating a hierarchy amongst lesbians. The idea is that political lesbians would be more worthy lesbians than the born this way lesbian.

In my opinion, political lesbianism is the most women inclusive movement within feminism. It argues every women is shaped and oppressed by hetero-patriarchy.and that it is possible for every women to fight that conditioning and escape what patriarchy has build us and name us for.

The idea of an essential sexuality on the other hand is an invention of patriarchy. That some women are innately straight and some other women (a minority) are innately lesbians both serve the patriarchy.

Arguing that some women are innately heterosexual mean these women are biologically determined to be sexually used by men. this is deeply misogynistic and anti feminist idea.

Ironically the hierarchy of lesbian does exist and is an invention of the anti political lesbian propaganda and lesbians who are not feminists.

In that model, lesbians are judged to be more or less worthy according to how much contact they have had with men. It is nothing more than a cult of purity and how women are deemed as unworthy if they ve ever been touched by a penis

Typically it goes like this:

“GoldStar Butch / Butch Lesbian / Fem lesbian / ex het lesbians / heterosexual women”

In this model women who have had any kind of sexual activity with men are called sells outs, traitors and collaborators.

In contradiction to that, political lesbians acknowledge that women have been coerced to be heterosexual in the first place and recognise that heterosexuality is the core of the oppression of women. The closer to men the more in danger.

Blaming women for their oppression is anti feminist.

 

It is not surprising that some of the opponent to political lesbianism are stating  “lesbianism is not a threat to patriarchy.” 

  • Indeed if ones definition of lesbianism is male centred it is not a thread to patriarchy.
  • If ones definition of lesbianism is condemning women to a lifetime of heterosexuality, it is not  a threat to patriarchy.
  • If ones definition of lesbianism is that of an elitist club one can only access by being born into, it is not a threat to patriarchy.
  • If ones definition of lesbianism is about blaming women for their oppression it is not a threat to patriarchy.

A Lesbianism which is part of a conservative patriarchal gay movement isn’t threatening because it argues homosexuality is innate and cannot be promoted.

Political Lesbians argue that Lesbianism can be promoted and indeed it should be.

Surely conservative male government officials were feeling threatened enough by lesbianism when they passed Section 28.

Why else would they push a law forbidding the promotion of homosexuality and pretend families (read Lesbian mothers) in primary and secondary education? This followed a time in the mid l980’s when Lesbian feminism had been at its height, challenging compulsory heterosexuality in the mainstream in London local government.

 

To conclude, the born this way / anti political Lesbian narrative, has become stronger and stronger over the decades. Women used to choose lesbianism more in the 80’s, now its harder and harder for women to challenge their heterosexual conditioning because the world lesbian is locked to define the ones who knew they were lesbians since they were born.

The born this way anti political lesbian argues that women who were once straight should never call themselves lesbians if they became lesbians later in life as a result of their political awareness.

its a political problem for women who are looking for their way out of heterosexuality and are pushed out of lesbianism and bullied to call themselves “celibate or “Female exclusive bisexual”, forever outsider to the wider lesbian community.

As a woman who was once straight and who survived heterosexuality I am grateful I once heard one didn’t have to be born a lesbian to become one. I am grateful I had sisters around me who had walked this path before and told me it was possible.

As we are trying to free ourselves from men’s sexuality and colonisation over our bodies and minds, as we are trying to redefine desire, love relationships while the whole wide world tell us it is impossible to do so,  it would be good to have the support from our sisters.

 

Copyrights © Angela C. Wild / Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

Lesbian Ethics Part 3 – Lesbian feminist friendship – Lynne Harne

Lesbian Ethics. Lesbian History Group Event 3/06/2016

Lesbian Ethics Part 3 – Lynne Harne PDF

 

Following on from Elaine Hutton I am going to talk about the significance of lesbian feminist friendship particularly in terms of the ideas developed by Jan Raymond in her book A Passion for Friends.[i] I will also refer to some of the ideas that were already developing in the lesbian feminist community in the UK about friendship in the early l980s.

 

Jan Raymond built on Adrienne Riches’ ideas from her essay Women and Honour[ii] and those of others such as Mary Daly. . She primarily saw lesbian feminist friendship as both political and personal relationships which could help us to develop more effective politics and women’s political power through female bonding. She saw this as a challenge to what she called hetero-relations and hetero reality defined by the ideology that women primarily exist for men.  She did not view lesbianism as a purely sexual category but also as a social and political category where lesbianism is a choice.

 

She invented an ideal of friendship which she termed ‘Gyn Affection’ and said that it means

 

“Personal and political movement towards each other. As the personal is political so too the political is personal. Although politics and friendship cannot always go together we need to create a feminist politics based on friendship”

 

She saw this type of friendship as sustaining lesbian feminist community and political resistance to male power and male bonding against women. I should also say that she did not necessarily exclude heterosexual women in developing these ideas of friendship, but acknowledged this was much more difficult for heterosexual women. Nevertheless, I believe that for the most part she was referring to the lesbian feminist community.

 

She stated that Gyn affection  is not only a loving bond between 2 or more women but it is also a freely chosen bond which involves reciprocal assurances based on honour (which I interpret to mean trust), loyalty and affection.

 

Despite this slightly romanticised idea of female friendship she recognised it as an ideal to which there were several obstacles.

 

These included certain forms of lesbian separatism which she called ‘disassociation from the world.’ While recognising that lesbian separatism can have value in strengthening bonds between women she also saw long term disassociation from the world, as negative because it fails to confront and challenge male power in the form of hetero-reality and hetero-relations.

 

This argument is similar to one made by Adrienne Rich in an essay called ‘The meaning of our love for women is what we have to constantly expand’ (1977).  Rich argued that total separatism is a ‘temptation into sterile correctness, into powerlessness and an escape from radical complexity’ and that turning our backs on issues like women’s reproductive rights mean that we are turning our backs on compulsory heterosexuality where women are forced for different reasons to have sex with men. She also stated that violence against women, motherhood, childcare and racism were all issues which involved lesbians, so needed to be challenged for these reasons alone.

 

Other obstacles to the kind of personal and political friendship that Raymond was proposing included what she termed therapism;relationism; the tyranny of tolerance and victimism to name but a few.  While I do not have time to discuss all these here I want to focus on some aspects that can still have relevance today.

 

As Elaine Hutton has already highlighted although therapy as a practice is no longer so relevant now, the ideas behind it are.

For example in using the term therapism Raymond talks about ‘a tyranny of feelings where women come to believe that what really counts in their lives is their psychology’ and where a refusal to tell how one feels is seen as repressive and a denial of one’s inner life.

 

She argued that we live in a therapeutic society where self-exposure of feelings is seen as one of the highest virtues. Psychology has created a new type of person the human confessing animal which also leads to the publicising of personal life. Thus in her view therapising where women often act as sisterly co-counsellors is a substitute for genuine female friendship. She argues that the personal is political does not mean the publicising of ones personal life, where the intimate and private are expected to be exposed.  I hesitate to refer to facebook here, but in my view and probably many of my generation facebook is not the place to reveal our most deeply felt thoughts about our lives.

 

In relationism as applied to the lesbian feminist community, she refers to the tyranny of relations where she argues that the lesbian obsession to be in an ‘erotic relationship’ is no different from heterosexual women being obsessed with having a relationship with a man. ‘It seems’ she says, ‘that in one sense, lesbians have replaced men with women as relational objects.’

 

A critique of relationism or what in the UK we called couplism was also being developed here in the early l980s.  For example in a journal called REV/RAD –   the revolutionary and radical feminist magazine couplism was critiqued as a form of relationship where lesbians in sexual relationships do everything together. Such behaviour makes it impossible to have autonomous friendships with either individual in the relationship. Couplism was also seen in relationships where friendships were secondary and friends only became important usually when the relationship was in trouble.

 

I do not have time here to go into more detail on all the obstacles that Raymond identified. She recognised that what she was describing was ideal and that many women had felt betrayed by their personal and political friendships in lesbian feminism. She argued that we shouldn’t have too high expectations of each other and that feeling the ultimate victim of women’s betrayals are the result of too high expectations that women will behave differently from men. She states that in a woman hating world women will internalise and externalise anti-woman values. But that this is only a partial truth, and while we should continue to have high expectations of women, we shouldn’t be surprised when they are not lived up to.

 

References

[i] Janice Raymond l986 A Passion for Friends. The Women’s Press. London

[ii] Adrienne Rich l979 On Lies, Secrets and Silence. Virago. London

 

 

Copyrights © Lynne Harne / Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

Lesbian Ethics Part 2 – Elaine Hutton

 Lesbian Ethics. Lesbian History Group Event 3/06/2016

https://lesbianhistorygroup.files.wordpress.com/2016/10/elaine-hutton-lesbian-ethics.pdf

 

Adrienne Rich’s Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying was written in 1975. Her introduction said ‘It is clear that among women we need a new ethics; as women, a new morality.’ She went on to say, ‘I wrote Women and Honor in an effort to make myself more honest, and to understand the terrible negative power of the lie in relationships between women.’

I think I first read it in Newcastle on Tyne in the late 70s, and as I remember it was circulated widely among lesbian feminists in Tyneside at the time. Women mainly reached for it to quote bits to each other when they’d split up with a lover, or fallen out with a friend or a group. We focussed on ‘the terrible negative power of the lie in relationships between women’, and conveniently forgot AR’s assertion that she wrote it also ‘in an effort to make [herself] more honest’.

This reaction to the article points up the difficulty of establishing a lesbian ethics. A ‘new morality’ does involve making judgments about the attitudes and actions and politics of other lesbians, and we can fall into many traps in trying to do so.

I’m going to read out some significant passages from the essay, just in case you’re not familiar with it, and/or to give you the flavour.

Just a word – AR constantly refers to ‘relationships’; Julia Penelope – quoted in Changing our Minds, (p 116) says

‘Our relationships aren’t limited to those that are sexual; sexual intimacy isn’t the defining characteristic of a ‘relationship’. Our friendships are ‘relationships’, and our disagreements are relationships, too.’ (1990)

Can we think in terms of this wider definition?

Rich begins by talking about the male idea of honour, and how women in patriarchy have been expected to lie, and rewarded for lying. She then switches to our own relationships.

‘To discover that one has been lied to in a personal relationship, however, leads one to feel a little crazy.’ etc.

  • Read out a number of statements in her article.
  • Note that within this dense series of dictums about how to conduct ourselves in relationships with other women, individually and in groups, inevitably criticism and judgments are involved.

In Changing our Minds (1993), Celia Kitzinger and Rachel Perkins basically wrote another version of lesbian ethics, in that they mount a detailed critique of therapy and the way it has been taken up by lesbians, causing us to embrace being victims together, rather than enriching each other as activists changing the world. A major part of therapy ideology is establishing a cult of ‘the self’, so that every woman’s experience and opinions are valid, and equal. (‘You’re worth it.’) Perhaps therapy doesn’t have such a hold now, but what’s still relevant is the way the jargon and psychobabble has infiltrated our consciousness – and politics. For instance, ‘just as therapists are not supposed to be judgemental, angry or critical with us, so we are supposed not to be judgemental, angry or critical with each other.’

‘Criticisms are felt as “attacks” and disagreements experienced as “hostility.” (p 148)

Where I stand

I’m totally sympathetic to Women and Honor, and I’ve always thought Changing our Minds a ground breaking book, and dipping into it over the last few days 20 years later I haven’t changed my mind.

My difficulty is applying the ethics to the lesbian community, in a bid to change the world.

As long ago as 1981, I wrote an article entitled ‘Reflections on the break-up of a lesbian relationship’, in which I stated ‘Because of the confusions and lack of patterns for our behaviour, it’s very easy for us to accuse each other of acting like men, of not having rid ourselves of ‘the patriarchy within’, …for instance, the word ‘patriarchal’ can be used to apply to all kinds of lesbian feminist behaviour. We can call monogamy patriarchal because of all the associations of property/possession. But we can also call non-monogamy patriarchal when it’s expressed as ‘Why should I deny myself as many sexual partners as I want just because my lover feels hurt? Why should any of these women put demands on me? I’m free to sleep with them all’. In the latter case, we have the problem of morality. In trying to invent a new existence, we hurt others.’

I think I was saying we can play with words and concepts to our own advantage. (Friggin’ Little Bits, a lesbian singing group in Newcastle in the 1970s, wrote lots of songs that showed how lesbians tied ourselves in knots trying to invent new ways of relating, while not being able to discard notions and feelings of possessiveness, ownership and jealousy. – ‘I’m yours, you’re mine, fuck anyone else’ go the words of one song).

A list of devices lesbians use against each other in the name of ethics/morality roll off my tongue….

‘You’re aggressive/entitled/abusive…acting like a man’; ‘you’re silencing me/negating my experience’; ‘right and wrong are patriarchal concepts, smacking of Catholicism’; ‘let me discuss your racism with you’, etc. I’m sure you can all think of examples…

So, is there a relevance for lesbian ethics today?

  • How do we begin to live up to it?
  • Is it possible to be critical of other lesbians/ lesbian lifestyles/ politics without setting ourselves above them?

Note that as a political movement, being critical and asking questions has meant we are denigrated as the ‘thought police’, and now, of course, as TERFS.

Elaine Hutton, June 3rd, 2016

Copyrights © Elaine Hutton / Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Lesbian Ethics Part 1 – Sheila Jeffreys

Lesbian Ethics. Lesbian History Group Event 3/06/2016

Lesbian Ethics Part 1 – Sheila Jeffreys PDF

What is lesbian ethics?

In the 1980s Lesbian Ethics was a hot topic in a way that is unknown today. In the US the journal Lesbian Ethics was published from 1984 into the 1990s. In the UK the journal Gossip: a journal of lesbian feminist ethics was published from 1986 onwards by Onlywomen Press in response to the US version. Lesbian ethics was understood to cover analysis and theoretical exploration of issues concerning lesbian personal lives, sexuality and relationships. There was not a clear distinction between ethics and theory. Indeed the UK publication, Gossip, covers a wider ground of lesbian theory with much material on lesbians in fiction and in the movies, for instance. The US journal is a little more limited in scope.

Origin in the male left?

Lesbian feminists in the WLM considered that the personal and the political should reflect each other. They were not alone in thinking this. Many had come from the left where thinkers in the 1960s and 70s talked about what they called ‘living the revolution now’, how activists and revolutionaries should conduct their ‘private lives’ in consonance with their political beliefs and aims. They talked about prefigurative forms, i.e. creating forms of practice that would prefigure what would happen after the revolution. For those on the left this related to issues such as squatting, non-monogamy, sharing resources. These ideas travelled over into the WLM as we saw last meeting in relation to squatting.

Non-monogamy

In particular, the idea that the correct politics of relationships entailed non-monogamy was adopted by some within feminism and particularly lesbian feminism. This idea had its origins with sexist men who wanted widespread sexual access to women and were able to lecture non-compliant women that they were too hung up on seeking ownership and property in another person and deeply bourgeois ‘romantic love’, rather than ‘free love’. Within heterosexuality these ideas benefitted men but not women so much.

So, some of the ideas of living the revolution now came to lesbian feminism from the male left, though lesbian feminists added their own interpretations. Other ideas came specifically from lesbian feminism and included radical critiques of the male left ideas. Lesbian feminists agreed with the radical feminist understanding that the personal is political, i.e. issues of personal life are shaped by political structures. Lesbian ethics could be seen as a way to turn that around and accept that the political is personal, i.e. political values should form the foundation of the way in which we live our personal lives. Lesbian feminists often took these ideas very seriously indeed. The idea that we should not be looksist, for instance, was interpreted by some to mean that we should not ‘fancy’ other women but engage in sexual relationships with them solely on  the basis of their right on political ideas.

Feminist philosophy

In the 1980s, lesbian feminists in the US in particular, began to address these ideas within discussion of what was called ‘lesbian ethics’. From 1984 an important journal was published by Jeanette Silveira in California, called Lesbian Ethics. This published articles by many of those involved in discussing what we in UK were probably still calling the politics of the personal, such as Julia Penelope, Bev Jo, Sidney Spinster, the UK novelist Anna Livia, and the Bloodroot Collective which ran the feminist vegetarian café and bookstore in Connecticut and first delivered their paper at the W.I.T.C.H. lecture series in Boston, Women’s Intellectual Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell.

Lesbian Ethics featured a regular “Readers’ Forum,” offering short pieces by many contributors on special topics set in advance. Memorable topics have been “Non? Monogamy?” (1: 2, Spring 1985); “Lesbian Therapy” (3: 3,Fall 1985); “Femme and Butch” (2: 2, Fall 1986); “Sex” (2: 3, Summer 1987); and “Separatism” (3: 2, Fall 1988). Articles covered topics such as lesbian nuns, sado-masochism, Dyke Economic, fat oppression, lesbian violence and the possibility of lesbian community.

Gossip, in the UK, republished some of the articles from Lesbian Ethics in the US, notable Julia Penelope’s series The Mystery of Lesbians, but also pieces by UK lesbians like me on butch and femme, separatism, AIDS, fat oppression, lesbian movies and literature.

In the late 1980s in the US, lesbian ethics became a field of teaching and literature in philosophy departments in universities where lesbian feminists were teaching. Philosophy in the academy seems to have taken a rather different form from here in the UK, where universities have not nurtured feminist philosophers. In the US however, a number of academic lesbian feminists were been able to incorporate issues such as sadomasochism into the remit of philosophy in a way that I think would have been unthinkable in the UK. These remarkable and exciting US academic lesbian feminist philosophers include Marilyn Frye, Sara Lucia Hoagland, Claudia Card, Joyce Trebilcot and Jeffner Allen. For example, Sarah Lucia Hoagland published her book, Lesbian Ethics, in 1988, Claudia Card published Lesbian Choices in 1995, and Jeffner Allen’s collection Lesbian Philosophies and Cultures was published in 1990.

 

Sado-masochism

Lesbian feminist ethics was concerned with how lesbians related sexually with each other. In concert with the idea of living the revolution now, there was some outrage and horror when, in the early 1980s, the ideas of a lesbian sado-masochist movement were imported from a group of San Francisco dykes who called themselves Samois, into the UK. The revolution was, of course, to be about equality, so how could a sexual practice based upon the eroticising of  extreme differences of power, be consistent with our revolutionary aims. We did not want to create a future, through our actions in the present which continued to eroticise women’s inequality.

 

We understood that the eroticising of women’s inequality was the foundation, the very bedrock of the way in which sexuality was constructed under male supremacy. We did not see sex as ‘essential’ or ‘natural’ but as a form of thinking and behaviour that is shaped by the power relationship of men to women. Women are born into inequality and only have powerlessness to eroticise. Heterosexuality embodies women’s masochism and powerlessness, in makeup and clothing, high heeled shoes for instance, having to show bottoms in skirts and not be able to climb trees etc. Men, very clearly, find women’s subordination sexy and this is the very basis of their sexual response. Pornography and men’s writings make that extremely clear. Men are trained to be initiatory and aggressive towards women sexually. Women are expected to eroticise submission and this works fairly well. Collections of erotica and women’s sexual fantasies show women eroticising men’s power. Mills and Boon novels feature big, strong men and women as swooning fans. The murder of women, rape and all forms of sexual violence against women and children  are ordinary aspects of men’s sexual sadism. We argued as lesbian feminists, and I argued in my book Anticlimax, that for women’s revolution to have any chance of success it was necessary to transform sexuality so that it featured the eroticising of equality because, as I wrote in my paper in Lesbian Ethics onSM, it was hard to fight oppression when you responded sexually to the boot that kicked you into submission.

 

In the early 1980s revolutionary feminist lesbians such as myself would go to conferences and set up workshops to discuss sadomasochist fantasies. Our practice was to ask women what sort of fantasies they had and make them seem funny and laugh at them. We considered that laughter was the best response and would take the power out of the fantasies, which would not be capable of creating such a sexual frisson after a roomful of women had rolled about laughing at them. In 1984 we set up the group Lesbians Against Sado-Masochism in London, and I wrote the piece, Sado-Masochism: the erotic cult of fascism which was published in the US journal Lesbian Ethics in 1986, and then became the appendix of my book The Lesbian Heresy in 1993. In the 1980s the term sado-masochism was used whereas the term BDSM is used today.

 

The ideology of SM

In the early 80s there was a detailed ideological defence of sado-masochism mainly created by gay male practitioners. Not surprisingly, SM was central to the sexuality of gay men, as they had ‘damaged’ masculinity and therefore eroticised powerlessness and powerful, aggressive masculinity in the way that women were expected to do. Many books and articles were written by them, and critique was thin on the ground. The forms of defence put forward were that SM was a valuable form of practice because it created a particularly powerful and pleasurable sexual response. Gay sex that did not focus on SM was called disparagingly at the time, vanilla sex i.e. colourless, or bambi, and seen as namby- pamby or niminy-piminy. SM sex was called by gay men ‘heavy-duty’, i.e. the real thing.

 

At that time there was a rather small underground fetish scene of het SMers. The most publicly promoted form of SM was gay sex, and indeed, as I argue in my book Unpacking Queer Politics, sm became the mainstream and accepted expression of gay male sexuality and gay male porn. The promotion of sado-masochism influenced lesbians who were part of a mixed gay scene.

 

SM dykes

SM dykes defended their position in slightly different ways from the gay men. Some practitioners made it clear that SM was a solution for them to the problem of having a damaged sexual response as a result of sexual abuse by men, usually their fathers or stepfathers. I can remember speaking against SM at conferences where young women would jump up from the audience and say that SM had healed them from the PTSD they suffered from sexual violence. They said that it enabled them to ‘feel’ and broke down the defensive wall they had built up to guard against sexual feeling lest it trigger the trauma of the abuse. In reply I would always say that that just created a constant cycle of abuse and offered no way out. The feminists speaking out about sexual violence from fathers within the WLM joined what were called Incest Survivors’ Groups in order to practice feminist consciousness-raising and self-help to heal from trauma. SM groups, it seemed were the new anti-feminist alternative, aimed at recycling rather than healing. Many feminists weighed in with critiques at the time, and the book Against Sadomasochism (1982) was a useful collection of pieces from very well-known feminists including Kathleen Barry, Diana Russell, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker. One defence lesbians made in the 80s of SM was that it was OK for lesbians to do it because no men were involved and women were each other’s equals. Thus they could truly consent to the practice and no inbuilt power imbalances existed. Articles and memoirs in the book showed how the practice of SM functioned within abusive relationships wherein one lesbian could punish her partner for infidelity, for instance, by humiliating her and causing pain.

 

Alice Walker’s piece was particularly powerful. She argued that sm was racist because it eroticised and recycled the abuses of slavery. She explained that SM dykes played out scenarios of master slave, with white mistresses and black slaves in dog collars and on their knees. This she saw as counter-revolutionary, sexist and racist in the extreme.

 

In the early 80s in London there was much use of Nazi imagery by SM gays and SM dykes. The swastika was an important SM symbol and both gay men and lesbians into SM wore them. It was in response to this that I wrote ‘Sadomasochism: the erotic cult of fascism’. I argued that at a time when skinhead youth were beating up black gay men, and particularly disabled gay men, in the toilets at gay clubs, it was entirely inappropriate to be promoting the eroticising of fascism.

 

There were some within the WLM who considered that fighting SM was an unnecessary distraction, rather an unimportant side alley for feminists. The radical feminist journal Trouble and Strife, for instance, in the early 80s put the shoutline ‘Not the sadomasochism debate’ on its cover in order to show its disdain for the issue. But SM proved not to be a minor issue, tangential to mainstream feminism. The huge expansion of the porn industry mainstreamed SM. The defence by many gay male and some lesbian practitioners made SM chic, such that it became the trendy and progressive way to do sex. The effect now is that many young heterosexual feminists I speak to say they have been involved in SM. They have mostly got out by the time I talk with them but it is clear that SM is very big now in mainstream heterosexuality. But, more importantly, the promotion of SM has so influenced everyday malestream sexuality that what were once seen as SM practices are now routinely carried out against women in heterosexuality, practices such as what is called ‘rough sex’, anal sex which leads to teenage girls having to wear butt plugs because of the damage to their bodies, or even the choking of women, for instance. None of this was ordinary practice when I was a young heterosexual woman at all.

 

Far from being a diversion, the SM that we combatted so valiantly in the 80s, now called BDSM, has become de rigueur in much heterosexual practice in the present. BDSM is mainstream and not looking particularly niche and revolutionary any more. However, at this time there is vanishingly little in the feminist or lesbian communities online or off of the ethics of sexuality and everyday life and relationships. Sexual practice, in particular, is hardly examined. Whereas it was politicised as crucial to women’s oppression in the WLM it has now been almost entirely reprivatized. Women do not speak of how troubled they are by SM sexual fantasies now. I see no discussion of how our sexual practice fits into the revolution we are trying to create.

 

Copyrights © Sheila Jeffreys / Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Lesbian History Group and lesbianhistorygroup.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.