Apr 132016

Hydra fighting head to head

“Amnesia” by Chumbawamba

Part 1

Part 2


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.

Topless woman wearing pink collar and putting on black leather jacket

Cover of first issue of On Our Backs

The radical lesbian-feminists’ terms of the debate positioned themselves as the true revolutionaries, and their opposition as fifth columnists for the heteropatriarchy. But those borders, political and sexual, were vague and shifting. There’s a vague and squishy line between being held and being held down, between love bites and biting hard, between a playful spank and an erotic spank.

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. [Robinson 2015, Pg. 115]

Some lesbian-feminists tried to reclaim lost territory by positioning certain sexual acts as politically acceptable, instead of leaving them under the umbrella of SM. Robinson cites a discussion of a lesbian erotica anthology in which 5 out of 12 stories contain acts that could be seen as SM, though neither the anthology nor the stories were specifically billed as SM. “This  is,  in part,  a  defusion of sm’s claim to centre stage by redefining as neutral acts that have become  discursively constructed as sm,  for example, anal penetration and  fisting  (Lewis and  Adler 1994, p.438).” [Robinson, Pg. 117] On the other hand, SM-based terminology, like “top” and “bottom”,  also permeated the discussion among vanilla lesbians. [Robinson, Pg.117-118]

African-American butch-femme couple

Cover of On Our Backs magazine, Summer 1985

In anthologies like Coming to Power and magazines like Bad Attitude and On Our Backs (both launched 1984), pro-BDSM lesbians created their own discourse which positioned themselves as rebels against both mainstream society and the orthodoxy of radical lesbian-feminists. In effect, both sides took pleasure in their chosen roles in the drama. [Robinson Pg.136-139] For example, the first issue of On Our Backs included a satirical article about “Andrix Workin” (i.e. radical feminist Andrea Dworkin) of “Concerned Women Against Perverted  Individuals  (C.W.A.P.I)”, titled “A Cup  of  Tea is Preferable to Any Sexual Encounter”. [Robinson 2015, Pg. 140] Likewise, Against Sadomasochism and Unleashing Feminism had their own anti-SM satires, often depicting their opponents as immature. See Walker-Crawford’s “The Saga of Sadie O. Massey” in Against Sadomasochism. (Both sides wrote dystopian science fiction stories prophesying the worst if the other side won.)

Bad Attitude and On Our Backs could be hyperbolic and reactionary [Robinson 2015, Pg. 132], but they were crucial in forming the identity category of the SM lesbian, and it couldn’t be separated from the lesbian-feminist criticism. The letter columns showed a wide variety of attitudes towards sexual expression and SM, but the discussion was what mattered. [Robinson Pg.134, 142] These magazines were small-scale publications in reach and reader numbers, and operated on a shoestring budget at a loss, but they were there, broadening the discourse. Some people read them as shared photocopies, samizdat-style. [Robinson 2015, Pg. 130, note 168]

Hankie code table from On Our Backs, Vol. 1, No. 1

Moral panics don’t end. They just fade out. SM people had a major presence in the 1987 March on Washington, but were not mentioned by on our backs or the mainstream media. Robinson suggests that the kinksters won, if only by default because the anti-SM critics were exhausted on this front. [Robinson 2015 Pg.144-145]

Robinson characterizes this conflict, in which “various  sophisticated  discursive  techniques  and  violent  or  violating  actions  (from  humour  to  picketing)  have  been  used  by  feminists against each other in the pursuit of a sexuality that aligns with a politically correct  feminist politics” as “an iteration of a longer conflict between feminism and lesbianism….” [Pg.148] Borrowing from Foucault, who wrote that, “the  sodomite  was  a  temporary  aberration;  the  homosexual is now a species”, Robinson writes:

We see the creation of the lesbian sadomasochist  as  a  “species”,  not  based  on  biological  reality  but  constructed  through  discursive  practice,  with its origins both in sexological conceptions of sexual deviance as well as lesbian feminist  ones, and all the pleasure, control and power plays that such a move entails. [Robinson 2015, Pg. 149]

Robinson’s thesis covers the period up to the late 1980s (before the publication of Unleashing Feminism) and she suggests that the feminist debate over the political/moral acceptability of BDSM is now largely over, with sex workers and transgender people as the new contested ground of feminist debates. [Pg. 150] I don’t entirely agree. Over the last few years, I have seen criticism of BDSM from leftists/progressives, though it is less of a criticism of BDSM acts than of the BDSM culture as it is currently constituted, for failing to police itself against abusers. This is probably a minority issue, mainly of interest to people who are or were part of the BDSM culture.

Robinson wraps up her thesis by pointing out the large areas of the history of lesbian sadomasochism that are still unexplored, and urges others to pick up where she left off. The lesbian sex wars monopolized the discourse on lesbian sadomasochism and lesbian sexuality in general in this period, and this obscures so many other topics. That diminishes our ability to understand the complex issue of sexuality.

What  the  debates  over SM  show us  is  that perfect alignment between  sexual behaviour and  sexual politics  is  neither possible nor desirable, or that the personal is not, in fact, wholly political. “Consent”  seems to name the public/political (and politicizable) dimension of private/personal sexuality.  Perhaps  it  is  the  debate  over  what  constitutes  meaningful  consent  that  we  should  bring  forward  into  our  own moment  from  the SM  debates  –  not  the wrangling  over  the  political  implications of particular sex acts. [Robinson 2015, Pg. 144]


Another short summary of the Lesbian Sex Wars.

The Lesbian Herstory Archives at the DCMNY site has a number of archive photos related to this issue.

  One Response to “Understanding the history of lesbian sadomasochism Part 3”

  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 and Part 3 […]

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