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.
Held on April 24, 1982, Barnard’s ninth annual Scholar and Feminist conference, “Towards a Politics of Sexuality”(“The Barnard Conference”) was a major engagement. The organizers intended to bring in people of many different perspectives. However, the troubles began when the Barnard College administration panicked less than 24 hours before the conference.
The Barnard College administration who had supported the conference in its long planning stage, alerted by the anti-pornography movement, panicked less than 24 hours before the conference and attempted to confiscate the diary because it contained their letterhead on the invitation and some pictures within were deemed “offensive”, before agreeing to reprint it without a trace of Barnard. “In other words, the College effectively paid thousands of dollars to have Barnard’s name taken off of the document, thus removing the College’s connection to this important body of work”, observes the current director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women in the conference’s thirtieth incarnation (Jakobsen 2005). Such was the anxiety caused by this ground-breaking conference that subverted the mainstream discourses about sex and women’s sexuality. Even a university who ran a feminist conference for almost ten years was made to panic about the impact of this theme because of anti-pornography groups’ extremist rhetoric. [Robinson Pg. 73]
The conference itself had even more problems.
Conference goers were met at the entrance with picketing anti-pornography feminists from Women Against Pornography, (and at least in name, Women Against Violence Against Women, and New York Radical Feminists), under the banner of a newly formed “Coalition for a Feminist Sexuality Against Sadomasochism”, wearing tee shirts reading “For Feminist Sexuality” on one side and “Against S/M” on the other . [Robinson Pg.74-75]
WAP distributed leaflets maligning the organizers and participants, often with erroneous information, and even people who were not directly involved in the conference. Organizations like SAMOIS and Lesbian Sex Mafia, and S/M lesbians in general, were used to smear the entire conference. WAP starkly polarized the debate, making it for or against pornography, butch-femme and S/M, when the conference actually had a wide variety of topics related to women’s sexuality and health.(Robinson Pg.80)
A day later (April 25), LSM organized another event in response.
SM dykes proudly wore their leather to the Speakout, speaking out with their garb, and here addressed the issues that the conference was accused of focussing on, but did not, such as sadomasochism, butch-femme roles and different kinds of desires. [Robinson Pg. 100]
The slandering of the Barnard Conference was just the beginning of a campaign of harassment directed at the organizers (many of whom were at least S/M friendly) and their relatives and employers. The terms of the debate had been successfully framed into pro- versus anti-SM in feminist media.
What we see here is a typical example of a full-blown sex panic….
WAP’s actions in discrediting the conference and the subsequent uncritical reporting spread stigma and disgust at the women who embodied sexualities at the bottom of their perceived sexual hierarchy. In trying to disrupt the conference and in intimidating those who attended, WAP was literally trying to make the topic unspeakable. So it doesn’t matter if the arguments against SM are factually flawed or run in circles, because public emotion has cultural authority; hyperboles are loud and result in reactionary political action….[Robinson Pg. 93]
The debate that followed over feminism and S/M was largely academic, and heavy on theory instead of practical knowledge. (Robinson Pg. 102-103) In Against Sadomasochism (1982), sado-masochism was described as, at worst, patriarchal false consciousness and, at best, an immature holdover from less enlightened times. Instead of being a primitive form of psychological development, it’s a primitive form of political consciousness. (Robinson Pg. 105) (There’s also a strong undertone of Judeo-Christian thought, in which bodily pleasure is opposed to spiritual development.)
Studying the articles and letters in feminist/lesbian magazines published in the 1980s, Robinson finds that the debate over S/M was just one of many discussions of lesbian identity and sexuality. Some positioned S/M as a temporary indiscretion to be overcome on the path to feminist enlightenment. (“Just a phase”, if you will.) Harsher critics saw S/M as not just a sexual style that might be incompatible with feminism, but a political stance completely opposed to feminism.
Within the anti-SM positions of critics like [Diana H.] Russell and [Lorena Leigh] Saxe, there is no epistemological room for a pro-feminist, extremely political, non-bourgeois sadomasochist who is also a feminist activist involved in actions to fight women’s oppression in society. SM is positioned as the opposite of women’s liberation. Such extreme statements indicate that these debates were not really about the morality of the personal practice of SM, but instead about the power of definition, visibility and inclusion in the lesbian feminist movement. Conversely, pro-sex feminists, in labelling themselves in this way, created another kind of feminist who was, by implication, “anti-sex”. (Robinson Pg.115)
More to come in part 3.
[…] 1982 was also the year of the (in)famous Barnard Conference, when pro- and anti-SM lesbian feminists clashed. More on that in Part 2. […]
This is a great summary. 🙂
[…] Part 2 […]