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.
From the beginning of Western discourse, both lesbians and feminists have struggled with the accusation that they are not actually women, or at least not the right kind of women. The charge was that they were somehow men in women’s bodies. In effect this meant there was no such thing as a lesbian, just a male mind in a female body or a very confused female mind in a female body, and lesbian sexuality could only be an inferior approximation of heterosexuality.
Likewise, women’s sexuality had their own awkward definitions. Krafft-Ebing and Freud both saw female sexuality as basically passive. Krafft-Ebing postulated masochism as the problem of female behaviour in a man, while women were supposed to be that way. Freud also distinguished between various types of masochism, and said “feminine masochism” was distinct from other types, which were exclusively male. There’s also the long, convoluted story of the female fetish, and whether they existed at all. Though 19th century sexology put forth a “two sex” model of the human body, the human mind was still a “one sex” model. Woman was only an incomplete or distorted man.
American second wave feminism in the 1960s saw lesbians as “the lavender menace”, as Betty Friedan put it in 1969. They had to guard against any taint by association with any form of deviant sexuality or gender expression. In 1970, lesbians crashed the second Congress to Unite Women, wearing “lavender menace” t-shirts, and read their manifesto. (Robinson Pg. 47)
Then, in a remarkably short period of time, lesbians went from the barbarians at the gates to standard bearers. Ti Grace Atkinson is said to have proclaimed, in the early 1970s, “Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is practice.” (That she may have never said this, or was misquoted, is beside the point.) (Hart, Pg.52)
However, this acceptance only applied to certain types of lesbians: femme but not too femme, monogamous, bourgeois and domestic (and white), and vanilla. No butches, no WOC, no bisexuals, no sex toys, no strap-ons, no “roles” (i.e. butch-femme), no fisting, no cruising, no porn, and definitely no S/M.
This is a good reminder to avoid thinking of lesbian BDSM (and lesbian sexuality in general) as something only derived from heterosexual or gay male BDSM, and instead to think of it as a thing in itself, with its own history, desires, etc. Unfortunately, this is where we run into a lack of historical evidence about lesbian BDSM prior to the mid-70s. Remember, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. As Robinson put it, “Lesbian SM surely existed before 1975.” and adds an anecdote in a footnote: “[Patrick] Califia even recalls a story of a couple who cruised in gay men’s leather bars in the early 1960s looking for partners – but organised groups and published work did not (Samois 1981, p.245). ” (Robinson Pg.7) To paraphrase Arthur Munby, “We must build our history out of what is at hand.” The lesbian sex wars made lesbian BDSM historically visible.
The newly conceived identity of the lesbian-feminist asserted a new model of “real” female sexuality. The irony of this new, supposedly revolutionary theory is that it was perfectly compatible with mainstream (i.e. patriarchal) society’s stereotype of female sexuality, as had been dominant since at least the mid-nineteenth century. Furthermore, some proposed that “lesbian” was a political identity, not a sexual identity, and not at all analogous to male homosexuality. Lesbian sexuality was not sexuality at all.
Remembering that Freud originally posited three kinds of masochism: erotogenic, feminine, and moral, it seems that early feminists aligned themselves with the latter — moral masochism — martyrdom to an ideal that was in fact largely constructed by the very discourse against which they stood so strongly. […] What many antiporn anti-s/m feminists are recommending for a “cure” for women who enjoy these practices is, precisely, sublimation. [Hart Pg.26]
All of this rested on a massive, untested assumption, that this style of female sexuality was privileged as “natural” and “authentic”.
…it is important to recognize that there has been a rather widespread supposition among feminists that women are “nonviolent.” “Violence” is a term that is tossed about very loosely, and it often takes some startling terms. Pat Califia, for example, points out that in the late 1970s feminists who organized WAVPM (Women Against Violence and Pornography in the Media) considered images of women kissing and having oral sex with each other to be “violent,” and women “wearing high heels or being tied up was described with as much horror as getting raped.” [Hart Pg.26]
In an interview, Michel Foucault said he would “explode with laughter” when told what radical feminists thought female sexuality was really about.
Not interested in pursing the matter further, Foucault would say only that this difference seemed peculiar to American intellectual circles. His laughter suggests that the construction of lesbian desire as a longing for permanence, commitment, and endurance was geographically and historically specific, and perhaps even generally illusionary.
Such values, did, for a time, serve a particular American feminism’s foundational fantasy of “role-less equality.” And this feminism was able, for a while, to keep this myth relatively coherent and contained….
In the late 70s and early 80s, the categories of “lesbian” and “feminist” were highly unstable, with fuzzy boundaries. In such circumstances, people shore up their boundaries by identifying marginal populations and trying to exclude them. In this particular moment, kinky lesbians were the marginal population that lesbian-feminists targeted as a patriarchal fifth column. Lesbian S/M organizations like Samois and the Lesbian Sex Mafia were just beginning to make themselves known. There was a certain amount of S/M chic at the time, which was often associated with the trappings of fascism or nihilistic decadence as seen in films like The Night Porter (1974) or Cruising (1980). S/M looked reactionary. It had to be excluded. Hart calls this a moral panic. (In modern feminism, sex workers and transpeople occupy a similar controversial position, as male-identified infiltrators.)
This led to the National Organization of Women passing a resolution on lesbian and gay rights in 1980 that pretty clearly stated what was unacceptable sexual expression.
Whereas NOW does not support the inclusion of pederasty, pornography, sadomasochism and public sex as Lesbian rights issues, since to do so would violate the feminist principles upon which this organization was founded…. [Hart Pg.39]
This was part of a wave against deviant sexuality in general, from both liberal and conservative fronts. That same year, 1980, also saw Cruising, which portrayed the leather scene as a hellish underworld; CBS aired a documentary called Gay Power, Gay Politics which “erroneously stated that S/M is a mostly gay male practice, and that 10 percent of all gay deaths in San Francsico were S/M-related.” ; Take Back the Night, a collection of anti-pornography articles, was published. In the decade to come, this lead to events like the confiscation of works at the Canadian border (including Patrick Califia’s Macho Sluts), the controversies over the NEA funding Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography, Dworkin and MacKinnon’s strange-bedfellows alliance with the conservative right, etc. [Hart Pg.41-41]
The joining of radical feminism and the New Right is not only one of the most bizarre alliances in history, it is also one of the most brilliant appropriations. [Hart Pg.42]
If only through negation, by stating what lesbians weren’t, NOW’s resolution defined a new and extremely narrow identity of lesbian.
…liberal feminism was engaged in a project to eliminate all signs of masculinity from their agenda. “Lesbian” alone thus became the placeholder of that lack. […] Implied in this exclusion and momentary reappearance is that any and all “masculine” identities or psychic identifications were already excluded from the platform prior to the execution of its rhetoric, even as the resolution performatively enacted that presupposition. The terms that did them become articulated as prescriptions — sadomasochism, pederasty, public sex, and pornography — were implicitly proscribed for lesbians because they were terms already associated with masculinity — and particularly with gay masculinity. To put it succinctly, the NOW gay and lesbian rights resolution essentially stated that lesbians were allowed to be part of the feminist movement as long as they were “women,” which is to say, as long as they were heterosexual women. The resolution then did not merely limit what constituted lesbianism; it effectively (re)eliminated lesbians from the feminist movement, in the very name of constituting their inclusion. [Hart Pg.42-43, emphasis in original]
There had to be an external enemy to define the self against. But that border was always shifting and vague.
As soon as actual sexual practices begin to be discussed, which is rare, the ground begins slipping and sliding away. Boundaries dissolve immediately when feminists attempt to secure differences between being penetrated with a finger, a fist, or a dildo; being held firmly, held down, tied up, handcuffed, or chained; being persuaded, seduced, or coerced. [Hart Pg.58]
Shoring up this boundary became a sub-genre of lesbian-feminist academia, with the publication of two anthologies condemning lesbian BDSM: Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis (1982) and Unleashing Feminism: Critiquing Lesbian Sadomasochism in the Gay Nineties (1993). (To be discussed in future posts.) As Hart points out, these arguments are often based on resemblance, not causation. It’s enough to say that sadomasochism looks like something bad (e.g. fascism, antebellum slavery, rape) to make it like something bad. [Hart Pg.84-85] If a dildo resembles a penis, it might as well be (an inferior imitation of) a penis, rather than the possibility it is something different from (or perhaps in ways better than) a penis.