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.

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]

Cover of Against Sadomasochism (1982)

Cover of Against Sadomasochism (1982)

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.

  3 Responses to “Understanding the history of lesbian sadomasochism, Part 2”

  1. […] 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. […]

  2. This is a great summary. 🙂

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