May 132016

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]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Feb 092016

At the “”Speakout on Politically Incorrect Sex”” sponsored by the Lesbian Sex Mafia (LSM) the day after the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality in NYC. This was part of the “”Feminist Sex Wars””.

After researching this topic for so long, I’ve gone through all the low- and medium-hanging fruit, and it has become more difficult to find a new, good source.

One of my best finds so far is a thesis by Anna Robinson of the Central European University, “Passion, Politics, And Politically Incorrect Sex: Towards A History Of Lesbian Sadomasochism In The USA 1975-1993” (2015). (Alternate) It’s definitely the most comprehensive history I’ve found so far of the so-called “Sex Wars” of the 1970s and 1980s, between lesbian-feminists on the one side and more sex-positive lesbians and/or feminists. Definitely a worthy companion to Bienvenu’s “American Fetish” in this particular field (which sadly has little to say about the history of lesbian BDSM).

However, it covers a fairly short period of time, and focusses more on the internal conflict of lesbians rather than the overall history. The history of lesbian BDSM is largely defined by these political struggles, and we know relatively less about actual practice or social organization.

That’s where Lynda Hart’s book Between the Body and the Flesh (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) comes in. While the second half of her book goes into critical theory, the first half is a good analysis of the complex and often antagonistic relationship between lesbians, feminism and BDSM.

Lesbian s/m discussions, however, rarely historicize the practice any farther back than the early 1970s, and most contextualize it, if not assign it as an originary moment, within the sex wars of the 1980s. It is as if lesbian s/m is a relatively new phenomenon, disconnected from other historical antecedents, born within the contemporary women’s movement. [Hart Pg.74]

Between Robinson and Hart, there’s a much more complete picture of the history of lesbian sadomasochism in America.

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Sep 122012

The second panel I attended on Sunday morning was “Learning from Master-slave fiction”, with David Stein, Laura Antoniou, Anneke Jacob and Reid Spencer.

Most people encounter BDSM fiction before they encounter BDSM in real life, whether in the form of narratives or online encounters. This means that people tend to imprint on those fictions and receive ideas like: Masters are (or should be) wealthy, sadists, men, leather wearing, etc. Slaves are (or should be) without limits, make no decisions, etc. These assumptions cause problems later on. So what is the proper relationship between BDSM fiction, particularly Master-slave relationships, and actually living them?

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Jan 192011

Strange Sisters has a gallery of vintage lesbian pulp novel covers with BDSM themes from decades past.

Most of them seem to depict lesbianism as a form of sadistic predation of the dominant, often masculinized woman upon the “confused” woman. Others create a triangular composition of helpless male observer, aggressive female and victim female. The male observer seems to vacillate between delighted voyeur and underdog hero. Some of the images also incorporate elements of the occult, too, with burning braziers or strange idols, and cover blurbs that mention “cults”.

Mar 272008

Marcus, Sharon Between Women: Friendship, Desire, And Marriage In Victorian England Princeton University Press, 2007 Google Books Amazon

If “the homosexual”, as a legal and psychological identity, was invented in the late Victorian period via events like the publication of Psychopathia Sexualis and the trial of Oscar Wilde, there may have been forms of sexual identity that were un-invented at the same time. Marcus’ book suggests that, instead of looking at Virgina Woolf’s phrase “Chloe liked Olivia” and immediately assuming that the women in question were lesbians, or should have been lesbians if only their society allowed for it, “liked” may have referred to an emotionally passionate yet physically chaste form of female friendship. Far from being in opposition to heterosexuality, female homosociality was a complimentary adjunct to heterosexuality. Female friends were a standard feature of romantic novels; it was the unmarriageable types like Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp who didn’t like other women.

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Mar 072008

Marcus, Sharon. Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England Princeton University Press, 2007.

I’ve run into yet another snag in the question of, Is BDSM necessarily sexual? And how do we write about people’s sexualities who are very, very different from modern conceptions?

Even the primary sources may not be as reliable as we might think. I’ve always taken for granted that Arthur Munby had little or no interest in vanilla sex, that it was all sublimated into his working-class women fetish. There’s no hint he ever had intercourse in the diaries of him or Hannah Cullwick. However, does that necessarily mean anything?

The question “did the have sex?” is the first one on people’s lips today when confronted with a claim that women in the past were lovers — and it is almost always unanswerable. If firsthand testimony about sex is the standard for defining a relationship as sexual, then most Victorians never had sex. Scholars have yet to determine whether Thomas Carlyle was impotent; when, if ever, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor consummated their relationship; or if Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick, whose diaries recorded their experiments with fetishes, cross-dressing, and bootlicking, also had genital intercourse…. one rarely finds even oblique references to sex between husband and wife.


One could add: Did Henry Spencer Ashbee write or compile My Secret Life and just never mention it in his diaries? (I don’t think he did.) And what really happened to T.E. Lawrence in De’era? (Reminds me of a joke in Blackadder, in which a character casually mentions that Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality is actually just a character assassination by a literary rival.) Even in the well-documented cases with primary sources, there’s so much room for uncertainty.

Sharon Marcus’ book about 19th century female relationships argues that “romantic friendship” between women is not just a genteel, Victorian way of saying “lesbian.” Based on her studies of “life writing”, she claims that passionate yet chaste female-female relationships existed as a complementary adjunct to heterosexual marriage. Women were known to and expected to have intense homoerotic relationships, which would develop their feminine qualities. These relationships existed within the “play of the system” of heterosexual marriage, and constituted a separate realm from actual lesbianism as we would define it today.

Marcus provides a lot of examples from diaries and memoirs of intimate encounters between women that apparently never went past first base, if that far. That suggests a remarkable degree of self-restraint. How often did two women slip over that boundary between female friendship and lesbianism? Alternatively, after reading Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls, were Victorian women quietly having orgies in the parlor while their menfolk enjoyed port and cigars in the study?

Who knows? If there was an accepted social realm for intimate relationships between women, that were emotionally intense yet chaste, then there can be erotics that don’t involve genital contact or even arousal. Munby may very well have gone to the grave a technical virgin even after marrying Cullwick, having perhaps never had an erection in all his interactions with working women.

My personal theory is that Munby was aroused by Cullwick and women like her, but he blocked that out on some level, so he could maintain the pretense, to the world and to himself, that there was nothing improper about his “hobby.” Thus, to him, it wasn’t sexual.

That leaves the even more vexing question of how Cullwick experienced her relationship with Munby. We know that she wrote about flirting with and kissing men other than Munby, so she was more sexually expressive than him (or just less reticent about it.) But was what she felt when kneeling and scrubbing floors pleasure?