Sep 292016
 

lesbian-tide-7202

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.

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May 272016
 

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.

May 132016
 

Linden, Robin Ruth. 1982. Against sadomasochism: a radical feminist analysis. East Palo Alto, Calif: Frog in the Well. Amazon

I’ve already gone into the history of the lesbian sex wars over BDSM. This post covers one of the major incidents in this struggle, the anthology Against Sadomasochism: a radical feminist analysis. It was published in 1982, the same year as the infamous Barnard Conference incident (in which anti-SM lesbian-feminists harassed and picketed a women’s sexuality conference, in which SM was just one of many topics discussed). Sado-masochism was described as, at worst, patriarchal false consciousness and, at best, an immature holdover from less enlightened times. Witness Vivienne Walker-Crawford’s “The Saga of Sadie O. Massey” [Pg.147], in which sadomasochism is discussed through the metaphor of a woman who is overly attached to a pair of thick wool socks. Instead of being a primitive form of psychological development, it was a primitive form of political consciousness.i See also “Smokers Protest Healthism” by “Paula Tiklicorrect”.[Pg. 164]

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Apr 132016
 

Hydra fighting head to head

“Amnesia” by Chumbawamba

Part 1

Part 2

Unleashings-l225

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.

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Mar 272016
 

Reti, Irene, and Pat Parker. 1993. Unleashing feminism: critiquing lesbian sadomasochism in the gay nineties. Santa Cruz, CA:HerBooks Amazon link

Unleashings-l225

We must not offer haven
for fascists and pigs
be it real or fantasy
the line is too unclear.

“Bar Conversation”, Pat Parker, Pg. 6

Published roughly a decade after Against Sadomasochism, Unleashing Feminism came into a different world. Lesbians were more visible than ever before, including opening their own sex clubs and making their own porn magazines and videos, but to the lesbian feminist authors in this anthology, that was not a sign of progress. Their interpretation was that lesbians and other queers had lost their revolutionary principles and were being assimilated into mainstream consumer culture. Some of the essays portray the “lesbian sex wars” as a microcosm of a larger, almost apocalyptic conflict, a last chance for justice after the Reagan-Thatcher era and the beginning of the neoliberal Clinton era.

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Feb 112016
 

Part 1

The clash of pro- and anti-SM lesbians at the 1982 Barnard Conference is complicated enough to deserve its own post. Again, I reference Anna Robinson’s thesis on the history of lesbian sadomasochism.

To be clear, the ’82 Barnard Conference did not start the Sex Wars, which had been going since ’77 on the west coast (see Robinson Pg. 64), and saw skirmishes like in 1980 when SM lesbians clashed with WAVPM at Berkeley. Robinson says the real starting point of visible lesbian SM in feminist media came in 1975, when Barbara Ruth (aka Barbara Lipschutz aka Drivenwoman) published “Cathexis (on the nature of S&M)” in Hera, reprinted in ’77 in Lesbian Tide. (Robinson Pg. 65) Between then and ’82, the two sides of the debate were relatively civil, appearing in the same anthologies and conferences. It didn’t last.

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Feb 092016
 

At the “”Speakout on Politically Incorrect Sex”” sponsored by the Lesbian Sex Mafia (LSM) the day after the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality in NYC. This was part of the “”Feminist Sex Wars””.

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.

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Sep 122012
 

The second panel I attended on Sunday morning was “Learning from Master-slave fiction”, with David Stein, Laura Antoniou, Anneke Jacob and Reid Spencer.

Most people encounter BDSM fiction before they encounter BDSM in real life, whether in the form of narratives or online encounters. This means that people tend to imprint on those fictions and receive ideas like: Masters are (or should be) wealthy, sadists, men, leather wearing, etc. Slaves are (or should be) without limits, make no decisions, etc. These assumptions cause problems later on. So what is the proper relationship between BDSM fiction, particularly Master-slave relationships, and actually living them?

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Jan 192011
 

Strange Sisters has a gallery of vintage lesbian pulp novel covers with BDSM themes from decades past.

Most of them seem to depict lesbianism as a form of sadistic predation of the dominant, often masculinized woman upon the “confused” woman. Others create a triangular composition of helpless male observer, aggressive female and victim female. The male observer seems to vacillate between delighted voyeur and underdog hero. Some of the images also incorporate elements of the occult, too, with burning braziers or strange idols, and cover blurbs that mention “cults”.

Mar 272008
 

Marcus, Sharon Between Women: Friendship, Desire, And Marriage In Victorian England Princeton University Press, 2007 Google Books Amazon

If “the homosexual”, as a legal and psychological identity, was invented in the late Victorian period via events like the publication of Psychopathia Sexualis and the trial of Oscar Wilde, there may have been forms of sexual identity that were un-invented at the same time. Marcus’ book suggests that, instead of looking at Virgina Woolf’s phrase “Chloe liked Olivia” and immediately assuming that the women in question were lesbians, or should have been lesbians if only their society allowed for it, “liked” may have referred to an emotionally passionate yet physically chaste form of female friendship. Far from being in opposition to heterosexuality, female homosociality was a complimentary adjunct to heterosexuality. Female friends were a standard feature of romantic novels; it was the unmarriageable types like Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp who didn’t like other women.

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