You can view the trailer and some supplemental interviews and other materials on Vimeo. There was an online discussion with the director, Michelle Handelman, and others in August 2020, available on Youtube.
NOTE: I attempted to view this stream in Canada and was refused. It may only be available for viewers in the USA.
The L Word was a night-time soap about a group of lesbian and bisexual women in West Hollywood, with multiple continuing storylines.
“Loud and Proud” is centered on Pride Weekend in LA. In the previous season, Jenny arrived in West Hollywood and began exploring her sexuality, which caused some complications with her boyfriend. Jenny broke up with him and joined the other characters.
The cold-open shows two women having a BDSM session, in the red-on-black color scheme we will see repeatedly in this episode. The bottom is cuffed to a St. Andrew’s cross. There’s no nudity, and only a couple of light impacts with a flogger.
The top says, “I’m going to give you a minute to think about how badly you want me to fuck you.”
Back in 2004, The L Word was a groundbreaking nighttime soap/drama series focusing on a group of lesbians living in Los Angeles. It was actually shot in Vancouver in early seasons.
The producers put out a call through the Vancouver BDSM community for extras and performers for a BDSM party scene in the season 2 finale, “Lacuna“. I signed up, not really expecting to get anywhere, and received the following as a script sample, or “side”.
As we can see from the second page, the story reproduces the common belief that being into BDSM is a response to trauma.
I did my best in the audition, but it was my first attempt at acting since high school drama class. I didn’t get the part.
Others have told me that the scene was filmed, but not used. In the aired episode, IIRC, there’s a very brief insert of the party scene and a scene in which two characters tentatively go to a BDSM demo and immediately leave.
One Shocking Moment (IMDB) is a 1965 exploitation drama film, written and directed by Ted V. Mikels. Unlike some other movies discussed in this project, it has a coherent narrative and recorded dialog.
Newlyweds Cliff and Mindy leave their home town so Cliff can get a big corporate job in LA. They settle into an apartment complex. This is the sleazy side of the sixties when everybody smoked like chimneys and drank like fish, and men cheerfully belittled and objectified women. Cliff even does so right in front of his new wife, with only her mild objections. Cliff starts an affair with his boss’ secretary, while lonely Mindy drifts into an implied lesbian affair with her neighbor Tanya, a lesbian nightclub owner.
The Duke of Burgundy (IMDB) is a 2014 drama film written and directed by Peter Strickland, and starring Chiara D’Anna as Evelyn and Sidse Babett Knudsen as Cynthia. Shot in the UK and Hungary.
One of the oldest cliches in BDSM is “the submissive has all the power”. This is not always true, nor is it necessarily a good thing, as the life of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch demonstrated. Submissives and masochists can be abusive, as shown by The Duke of Burgundy.
Somewhere in Europe, sometime in the mid-20th century, two women play out elaborate sadomasochistic scenarios. Evelyn, playing the meek maid, comes to the house of Cynthia, playing the haughty mistress. Evelyn’s duties of cleaning and laundry are, inevitably, unsatisfactory, which results in punishment. Cynthia drags Evelyn to the bathroom, closes the door on the camera, and urinates on her.
Obviously, the MPAA would not give a film could give a film with an explicit golden showers scene an R-rating or even an NC-17 rating. (IMDB says it doesn’t have a rating in the USA.)
A few days later, they do it all over again. It’s a bit reminiscent of Secretary or the Munby-Cullwick relationship, a private world between two people in which mundane activities are elevated to erotic rituals.
There are a couple of principles I keep in mind when studying history. The first is, “You have to work with the evidence you have.” We have no way of knowing how many people secretly had relationships like Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick, but left no historical evidence. Likewise, I and other scholars of this particular field have to contend with the lack of historical material about lesbian SM before the 1970s. Maybe somewhere there’s an old journal or manuscript or audiotape sitting in somebody’s basement, and someday somebody will find it and open up a new field of study.
The second principle is, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” It’s highly unlikely there were no lesbian women doing SM before 1974, but we can only make cautious, educated inferences based on what evidence we do have.
Thankfully, somebody scanned and posted old issues of Lesbian Tide, which contain what may be the earliest mentions of BDSM in lesbian media. As I mentioned before, lesbian SM emerged into visibility at the same time and in dialectic with more restrictive theorizations of lesbian-feminist sexuality, and it cannot be discussed without also discussing this conflict.
According to the New Yorker, the Van Dykes were a microculture of nomadic lesbian separatists who roved around the US in vans (hence the collective and individual names) in the late 1970s. They were on a quest of sorts to explore the new frontier of lesbian culture. Interestingly, when the mainstream of lesbian feminists were building an orthodoxy position that female sexuality was inherently domestic, monogamous, and without power dynamics, the Van Dykes went in the opposite direction, developing a new sexual culture of what would today be called polyamory and sadomasochism.
During yet another fight among the Van Dykes over who was sleeping with whom, Heather recalls, Judith left in a huff and caught a ride to San Francisco. There she met the sex radicals Pat Califia and Gayle Rubin, who had started a lesbian sadomasochist group that they called Samois, for the house of torture in “The Story of O.” “She hooked up with those women and when she came back she said, ‘You’re going to love this,’ “ Van Dyke remembers. Judith was not mistaken: tofu quickly gave way to leather in the vans. The Van Dykes loved the drama of sadomasochism, the way it gave them license to play power games—which, really, they had been engaged in all along. For Heather Van Dyke, who had been a kind of lesbian Joseph Smith, driving around the continent looking for the promised land with a band of wives and ex-wives and future wives in tow, the idea of being explicitly dominant—a top, in the parlance of sadomasochism—was particularly appealing.
Lesbianism in the seventies had been configured as a loving sisterhood in which sex was less important than consciousness-raising. For many gay women, sadomasochism was an antidote to this tepid formulation. It was permission to focus on what turned them on, rather than what was politically correct, a way of appropriating the lust and power hunger that feminist doctrine had deemed male. “We’d been being egalitarian,” Lamar Van Dyke told me. “And suddenly we were over it.”
The Van Dykes even gave a SM workshop at the 1979 Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which in later years would be the site of many conflicts over the presence and visibility of BDSM.
Linden, Robin Ruth. 1982. Against sadomasochism: a radical feminist analysis. East Palo Alto, Calif: Frog in the Well. Amazon
I’ve already gone into the history of the lesbian sex wars over BDSM. This post covers one of the major incidents in this struggle, the anthology Against Sadomasochism: a radical feminist analysis. It was published in 1982, the same year as the infamous Barnard Conference incident (in which anti-SM lesbian-feminists harassed and picketed a women’s sexuality conference, in which SM was just one of many topics discussed). Sado-masochism was described as, at worst, patriarchal false consciousness and, at best, an immature holdover from less enlightened times. Witness Vivienne Walker-Crawford’s “The Saga of Sadie O. Massey” [Pg.147], in which sadomasochism is discussed through the metaphor of a woman who is overly attached to a pair of thick wool socks. Instead of being a primitive form of psychological development, it was a primitive form of political consciousness.i See also “Smokers Protest Healthism” by “Paula Tiklicorrect”.[Pg. 164]
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.
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.