Dressing For Pleasure is a 1977 25-minute documentary directed by John Samson, who made a career out of films about outsider topics (e.g. tattoos, competitive darts, the sexual lives of disabled people).
There are a couple of principles I keep in mind when studying history. The first is, “You have to work with the evidence you have.” We have no way of knowing how many people secretly had relationships like Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick, but left no historical evidence. Likewise, I and other scholars of this particular field have to contend with the lack of historical material about lesbian SM before the 1970s. Maybe somewhere there’s an old journal or manuscript or audiotape sitting in somebody’s basement, and someday somebody will find it and open up a new field of study.
The second principle is, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” It’s highly unlikely there were no lesbian women doing SM before 1974, but we can only make cautious, educated inferences based on what evidence we do have.
Thankfully, somebody scanned and posted old issues of Lesbian Tide, which contain what may be the earliest mentions of BDSM in lesbian media. As I mentioned before, lesbian SM emerged into visibility at the same time and in dialectic with more restrictive theorizations of lesbian-feminist sexuality, and it cannot be discussed without also discussing this conflict.
According to the New Yorker, the Van Dykes were a microculture of nomadic lesbian separatists who roved around the US in vans (hence the collective and individual names) in the late 1970s. They were on a quest of sorts to explore the new frontier of lesbian culture. Interestingly, when the mainstream of lesbian feminists were building an orthodoxy position that female sexuality was inherently domestic, monogamous, and without power dynamics, the Van Dykes went in the opposite direction, developing a new sexual culture of what would today be called polyamory and sadomasochism.
During yet another fight among the Van Dykes over who was sleeping with whom, Heather recalls, Judith left in a huff and caught a ride to San Francisco. There she met the sex radicals Pat Califia and Gayle Rubin, who had started a lesbian sadomasochist group that they called Samois, for the house of torture in “The Story of O.” “She hooked up with those women and when she came back she said, ‘You’re going to love this,’ “ Van Dyke remembers. Judith was not mistaken: tofu quickly gave way to leather in the vans. The Van Dykes loved the drama of sadomasochism, the way it gave them license to play power games—which, really, they had been engaged in all along. For Heather Van Dyke, who had been a kind of lesbian Joseph Smith, driving around the continent looking for the promised land with a band of wives and ex-wives and future wives in tow, the idea of being explicitly dominant—a top, in the parlance of sadomasochism—was particularly appealing.
Lesbianism in the seventies had been configured as a loving sisterhood in which sex was less important than consciousness-raising. For many gay women, sadomasochism was an antidote to this tepid formulation. It was permission to focus on what turned them on, rather than what was politically correct, a way of appropriating the lust and power hunger that feminist doctrine had deemed male. “We’d been being egalitarian,” Lamar Van Dyke told me. “And suddenly we were over it.”
The Van Dykes even gave a SM workshop at the 1979 Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which in later years would be the site of many conflicts over the presence and visibility of BDSM.
Hydra fighting head to head
“Amnesia” by Chumbawamba
Continuing my discussion of Anna Robinson’s “Passion, Politics, And Politically Incorrect Sex: Towards A History Of Lesbian Sadomasochism In The USA 1975-1993” (2015). (Alternate)
Even the most crankish of critics can ask pertinent questions. That’s why the lesbian-feminist criticism of BDSM is so interesting, even with all the distortions and straw-women attacks and other problems.
As I wrote in my previous discussion of the Unleashing Feminism anthology, the problem was an attempt to fuse together two separate concepts, feminism and lesbianism, and enforce the border around that rather narrow ideal, both sexually and politically. However, the lesbian sex wars occurred mainly in the 80s and early 90s, when the BDSM community was just beginning to work out ideas of physical and mental safety. This was before the publication of Different Loving or On the Safe Edge, when kinky people rarely had any venues to express themselves.
After researching this topic for so long, I’ve gone through all the low- and medium-hanging fruit, and it has become more difficult to find a new, good source.
One of my best finds so far is a thesis by Anna Robinson of the Central European University, “Passion, Politics, And Politically Incorrect Sex: Towards A History Of Lesbian Sadomasochism In The USA 1975-1993” (2015). (Alternate) It’s definitely the most comprehensive history I’ve found so far of the so-called “Sex Wars” of the 1970s and 1980s, between lesbian-feminists on the one side and more sex-positive lesbians and/or feminists. Definitely a worthy companion to Bienvenu’s “American Fetish” in this particular field (which sadly has little to say about the history of lesbian BDSM).
However, it covers a fairly short period of time, and focusses more on the internal conflict of lesbians rather than the overall history. The history of lesbian BDSM is largely defined by these political struggles, and we know relatively less about actual practice or social organization.
That’s where Lynda Hart’s book Between the Body and the Flesh (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) comes in. While the second half of her book goes into critical theory, the first half is a good analysis of the complex and often antagonistic relationship between lesbians, feminism and BDSM.
Lesbian s/m discussions, however, rarely historicize the practice any farther back than the early 1970s, and most contextualize it, if not assign it as an originary moment, within the sex wars of the 1980s. It is as if lesbian s/m is a relatively new phenomenon, disconnected from other historical antecedents, born within the contemporary women’s movement. [Hart Pg.74]
Between Robinson and Hart, there’s a much more complete picture of the history of lesbian sadomasochism in America.
The Seduction of Venus blog digs into a 1977 Penthouse “love set”, with a Nazi theme. This was in the years following films like Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS, Salon Kitty and The Night Porter, when there was a kind of fascist chic in the mid-70s. This was one of the first SM-themed photoshoots in Penthouse, and the first involving a man, in full black SS uniform, no less.
Let me come clean and say I didn’t finish a draft by the end of 2013, nor am I particularly close. I am closer to completion, having made significant progress by finishing a few chapters. Furthermore, I have a clearer view of the path ahead.
Currently I’m working on the chapter that covers about 1970 to 1990, the post-Stonewall, pre-Internet era. This will cover the rise of aboveground kink organizations like TES, Janus, Samois, LSM and GMSMA, and how they coped with the AIDS crisis and other challenges. One of the interesting dynamics of this period was how the previous generation of gay leathermen interacted with the new crop of straights, bisexuals and lesbians. The post-1970 BDSM culture was built on the infrastructure of leathermen, both their venues and their expertise. Which is not to say that other communities didn’t have their own stories to tell.
In that light, it’s a bit sad that the relationship was always a bit unstable and didn’t last. In the 1980s, the impact of AIDS and the gentrification of leatherman districts in San Francisco and New York City decimated those communities, and straight/bi organizations basically split off from the leatherman culture.
I’m in touch with some of the founders of TES and GMSMA, and they’ve provided some much-appreciated resources. This is also a bit dicey, as I’m describing people who may still be alive. By necessity, this book will be a broad and not particularly deep.
I definitely think I can finish a draft this year, and then start sending queries to agents and publishers.
Arguably the best known Nazisploitation film (though Love Camp 7 (1969) is usually cited as the first), Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS was a US-Canadian production (and shot on the exterior old sets for Hogan’s Heroes, according to one source). It starred Dyanne Thorne as the titular concentration camp commandant, impeccably crisp in a black, white and red SS uniform.
The women sent to Ils’a camp are divided into two groups. One gets sent to “work details” of serving the men in the guard house. The other gets beaten, electrocuted, boiled, suffocated and more in “experiments” overseen by Ilsa and her female assistants. Ilsa’s ostensible reason for all of this is to demonstrate that women can withstand as much pain as men, and therefore prove that women can serve the Reich by fighting on the front line.
The male prisoners each get one night with Ilsa, after which they’re castrated.
Erosblog has the story on the billboard advertisement for the Rolling Stones’ Black and Blue album (1976), featuring model Anita Russell in bondage (allegedly tied by Mick Jagger himself).