Mar 272016

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


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.

A notion of lesbian identity as the rage of all women, once celebrated as the embodiment of women’s resistance to male supremacy, has given way to a new era of “hot dykes”; of “sex rebels.” The “sex rebel” image not only gives us the light without the heat of rebellion, but reverses the political meaning of lesbian-feminism as women loving. Sadomasochism has replaced woman loving  as the most visible (public and publicized) emblem of lesbian identity.

Kathy Miriam, “From Rage to All the Rage: Lesbian-Feminism, Sadomasochism, and the Politics of Memory”, Pg. 8 (emphasis in original)

Miriam says that while lesbians may be consenting to engage in BDSM, what they are consenting to is the same old rape culture, just slightly repackaged. [Pg. 12]

Toe me the popularity of lesbian sadomasochism is a sign of some success in this patriarchal venture [to separate lesbianism and feminism]. Lesbian sadomasochism is about, above all else, a radical cleavage between feminism and lesbianism. [Pg.13]

Miriam says that the debates of the 1970s, it was in the context of overthrowing patriarchy. [Pg. 13] It was later on that the terms of the debate shifted from a plea for tolerance to a celebration of lesbian BDSM as the highest form of liberation, and its opponents, radical lesbian-feminists, as prudes. [Pg.15] As lesbian-feminists saw it, what the sex radicals wanted was sex as mainstream patriarchal culture had always defined it. Miriam phrased it:

The question regarding sadomasochism is not, Do we desire what is forbidden, but, Do we desire what is prescribed? And is it only that which we desire? [Pg.19, emphasis in original]

A key point of this debate was, what exactly was the nature of female sexuality without male domination? Would it be purely loving and egalitarian? Could the aggressive aspects of sexuality under patriarchy be expunged? For the lesbian-feminists, that was the ideal, though this kind of perfect sexual experience appears to be a somewhat uncommon event. Miriam quotes Sheila Jeffries discussed egalitarian sexuality as if it some kind of elusive cryptofauna, more theory than practice. [Pg.39-40]

Given a scene in which freedom is re-scripted as an abstract consent, radical lesbian-feminism becomes redefined as a construction of freedom, rather than a liberation of women from compulsory heterosexuality. [Pg.32]

The sadomasochist’s attack on lesbian-feminism (egalitarianism is a mask for good girl patriarchal morality) is a symmetrical rebuttal of the feminist critique of sadomasochism as a product of conditioning. [Pg.34]

Sadomasochism, in Miriam’s view, is the same old sexual values repackaged as hip for queers, which is itself a retreat from more political views of identity. It is an insidious assimilation, a “gentle” erosion. [Pg. 66, 67, 69]

Lesbian sadomasochism, with its dissociation of lesbianism from feminism and from any radical challenge to the heterosexual institution, was a crucial moment in the development of the new sexual pluralism; sadomasochism remains a shaping factor as well as a norm of the new queer culture. In turn, queer politics has both normalized sadomasochism (as safe sex, see below) and popularized sadomasochism as fashion, as “hip.” [Pg. 50-51]

Jamie Lee Evans goes even further in critiquing sadomasochism. Her essay’s first paragraph:

I believe the not-guilty verdict against the batterers of Rodney King was a decision based on racism as well as a product of analysis brought forth via a culture indoctrinated with violence and sadomasochistic beliefs. [Pg.74]

Her theory is based on a statement from jurors in the King case, who said they thought that King was partly in control of the situation in which he was beaten.

… really, how could anyone think that an unarmed grounded man surrounded by more than four armed and violence, battering cops could be in control? Well, two thoughts: Racism and indoctrination into sm thinking.


The only way anyone could think that someone on the bottom of a beating was n control, is by way of sm thinking. The common belief and propaganda in sm is that the bottom is “in control.” We are told that they are in power of “determining” how long, how much and how severe their violent violation will be. Sound familiar?


There was no “safe word in the Rodney King beating because the because the truth of the matter is there is no safe word when you are being beaten!

[Pg.76, emphasis in original]

Evans views sm as just an excuse for violence against the marginalized. She also says:

In sadomasochism […] the backgrounds of masochists are usually of those who have been victimized and those who are sadists are usually people who hold power positions in their family, workplace, etc. [Pg. 75]

(Note that Evans cites no sources for that assertion. She also claims to be a survivor of Satanic ritual abuse. [Pg.77])

Just as lesbians and/or feminists who weren’t necessarily in agreement with the lesbian-feminist agenda were lumped in with a smaller population of lesbian sadomasochists, lesbian sadomasochists were lumped in with the minority of sm lesbians who overtly use fascist symbolism. Irene Reti wrote:

I have been to the Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco and seen lesbians and gay men wearing swastikas and stormtrooper outfits. […] I feel disturbed by the pictures of women wearing stormtrooper costumes in Coming to Power. I feel disturbed by the playful endorsement of torture, humiliation and slavery.


… sadomasochism was an integral part of the Holocaust; there were many “real Nazis” involved in “kinky sexual scenes.” One of the purposes of this essay is to demonstrate that fact. Whips, chains, racks, shackles, and other instruments and methods are our inheritance — passed down through history.

[Pg. 81]

Reti says that SM doesn’t just resemble or take inspiration from historical violence; historical violence is SM. “Sadomasochism has been around for a long time, but the Holocaust was a particularly recent and virulent occurrence of SM.” [Pg.81] She does backpedal somewhat on the next page: “Obviously the people in the camps were not enjoying themselves, no were they there out of any kind of choice. But I think we must ask ourselves — why is this enjoyable? What are these rituals doing in our sexuality?” [Pg. 82] Though Reti and I would greatly disagree about the answers, we’re both asking the same question: the why of BDSM.

She goes on to quote Heinz Heger’s The Men with the Pink Triangle (1972). As I’ve discussed before, there are many different views on the relationship between fascism and sadomasochism. Reti objects to the idea that suffering and submission brings purity and beauty, which she sees as driving Nazi torturers. [Pg.92-93] “For lesbians to play masochist in bed is to endorse a world picture, a reality in which masochism is used to rationalize suffering. To play masochist in bed is to endorse the Nazi picture of reality in which there are sadistic torturers who believe their victims enjoy being punished and humiliated.” [Pg. 93] Masochism is only false consciousness. This gets back to classical psychology’s view that masochism is the bigger mystery and the bigger problem than sadism, as it was for Krafft-Ebing and Freud.

Again, to Reti, sadomasochism is the psychology driving fascism and genocide, particularly the projection of sexual threat onto the despised Other, as Jews were under the Nazi regime in magazines like Der Sturmer. [Pg. 94] Thus, any performance of either is “an incredible insult to my dead, a horrifying trivialization of burnt flesh.” [Pg.96]

D.A. Clarke’s “Consuming Passions: Some Thoughts on History, Sex, and Free Enterprise” [Pg.106] posits opposition to BDSM, not as prudishness or a desire for control, but as “a sensible distaste for unfairness, exploitation, manipulation, and the unlovelier aspects of capitalism; about an aversion to male supremacy and its inevitable side-effects: about a perspective that is woman-positive.” [Pg.109] In her view, Left or Right philosophies and policies about sexuality are only about who gets to exploit women, and even gay sexuality is a part of that. “But lesbian sm is a product of gay culture, not corporate US culture. It was spawned in imitation of the prevailing gay male sm scene in the early eighties.” [Pg.119]

Note that Clarke sees lesbian BDSM as an “imitation” of gay male SM. Like the other authors in this collection, she views BDSM as an external, transformative influence on lesbian women, rather than something originating from within lesbian women’s sexuality and culture. (She’s also a bit off in that there was a lesbian BDSM scene in the 1970s if not earlier.)

Even “deviant” sexuality is does not truly challenge the hegemonic construction of sexuality under consumer-capitalism.[Pg.144] From that premise, the only way to be free is to reject the discourse of “sex” entirely and start from scratch.

The nature of those demands, and the attitude required of the woman, vary over time; but the essential fact remains — the fundamental things apply. This is why I believe that the only possible sexual liberation has to begin with freedom from sex as we know it, freedom from the obligation to please and serve others sexually, freedom from sexual awareness and abuse forced on women from the earliest age.

Who knows what women would choose or do in an atmosphere of real freedom? How many would choose women, how many would choose celibacy, how many would be bisexual, how many monogamous, how many would bear children? [Pg.139]

Implicit in that question is, “How many would practice sadomasochism (or something like it)?”

It was Dr. Einstein who said that you cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war; I firmly believe that you cannot simultaneously oppose and worship violence. People who find whips exciting and bruises alluring, Nazi regalia attractive and slavery titillating, will have a hard time suspending their love affair with evil for long enough to oppose it. [Pg.145]

I think there are plenty of people who would object to that accusation.

The idea that producers and consumers of art that glamorises and eroticises slavery, rape, or other brutality are answerable in some way to the victims of real abuse– that idea is very uncomfortable, new and strange. It offends deeply against the comforting libertarian principle, “I have a right to consume whatever I can afford to buy.” In our world, the right to own and consume (and be entertained) is primary, like the right to drive. [Pg.146]

This makes sexual media and practice a question of societal impact. BDSM ethics does rely on the idea that the individual can decide what is right for the individual, and not for others. The consent component of BDSM ethics does not come up in this discussion.

Emulating and adoring the behaviours that have brought us to this pass will not get us out of it. The symbols, language and style of lesbian sm chic are the symbols and language and style of male supremacy: violation, ruthlessness, intimidation, humiliation, force, mockery, consumerism. Words like respect, tenderness, gentleness, are boring and passé, according to our new fashion leaders. What we want is excess, and lots of it: extreme experiences of very kind, a great bazaar of fantasy for our shopping pleasure. [Pg.148, italics in original]

As Ummni Khan pointed out, one of the problems of the anti-BDSM discourse of lesbian-feminists is that they prescribe a particular style of sexuality in opposition to other styles, but become tepid apologists for what they prescribe. They’ve already conceded coolness, passion, pleasure and excitement to their opposition. They also create a dichotomy, postulating that “respect, tenderness, gentleness” never occur in BDSM sexuality. Also as Khan pointed out, this anthology is long on theory and short on empiricism, as there are a lot of totalizing statements made about lesbian sadomasochists that aren’t backed by first hand observation or citations. The most frequently cited works by lesbian sadomasochists are Coming to Power and Patrick Califia’s Macho Sluts, and Califia was explicitly trying to push the envelope on representations of lesbian sexuality.

As discussed previously, lesbian-feminism as a political philosophy and practice was only about a generation old when Unleashing was published. Perhaps the whole problem in this multi-decade debate is people trying to make two separate concepts (lesbianism and feminism) not just compatible, but synonymous, and excluding people who don’t fit.

The relationship between representations of violence and actual violence, between Hot Studs in Bondage Number 23 and the Rodney King beating, is a complicated issue, one that lies at the heart of this research project. While I’ll admit that I don’t have a definitive answer, I think it is more complicated than the theories presented in this volume.

One oddity in this anthology is the short story “Look on the Bright Side” by Anna Livia. It’s based on an incident in which, after leatherdykes were banned from the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, a group of them retaliated by paying a pilot to drop leaflets on the festival. Livia spins this out into two vignettes. In one, an oppressed straight housewife happens to see one of the flyers, learns of the concept of a realm run by women, and is liberated. The conflict over lesbian BDSM just raises the profile of lesbian feminism.

The second vignette concerns a “small lesbian” in an emotionally abusive relationship with another woman. She hears about the “undesirable elements” in the lesbian community, i.e. sadomasochists. This is the seed that leads to her liberation too.

“Thank heavens for sadomasochists, without them I never would have known you could consent to humiliation and therefore,” she said, “withhold consent.” [Pg.73]

While it’s great that the concept of BDSM can lead to a person getting out of an abusive relationship, the ending of the story contains the possibility of not withholding consent. If anything, it’s a left-handed endorsement of the ethics of BDSM, whereas most of the rest of the anthology implicitly blames BDSM for everything from the rise of Fascism and the Holocaust, to the Rodney King verdict, to the rise of neoliberalism, to a predicted increase in domestic violence.

  One Response to “Unleashing Feminism: critiquing Lesbian Sadomasochism in the Gay Nineties”

  1. […] 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 […]

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