Friday, September 11, 2015

Sex in a War Zone

by Jean Roberta

The first calls-for-submissions I saw for lesbian erotica were fired, like cannonballs, into the lesbian-feminist media in the midst of the Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s.

This was a time before the culture of the internet. Women who disagreed with each other were likely to do it, loudly, in real life, often at large conferences. The event that started the whole mess was the Barnard Conference on Sexuality at Barnard College in the spring of 1982. It was the annual Scholar and Feminist conference for that year, sponsored by the Barnard Center for Research on Women. Previous conferences on topics of interest to women hadn’t started World War III, so apparently the organizers didn’t expect this one to be horribly divisive. Many feminists of the time vaguely assumed that we all wanted the same things: peace, freedom, love, equal rights.

A group named Women Against Pornography objected to the theme of the conference before the event. They didn’t see how a whole conference about sexuality could really be empowering for women. They wanted freedom from patriarchal sex (abuse, violence, the treatment of women as objects), and they seemed to have little faith that sex could be reformed enough not to be male-centred. The conference organizers wanted room to talk about the kinds of pleasure women actually wanted. They didn’t want to be silenced.

I wasn’t there, but the accusations and mutual excommunications that took place at that conference affected feminist culture for the rest of the 1980s, and much of the 1990s. I liked to think I had been a feminist since the very beginning of Second Wave feminism (about 1970), and I “came out” as a lesbian in the same year as the Barnard conference, so then I thought of myself as both a feminist (a believer in the need for gender equality) and a lesbian (a lover of women), but what the fuck was feminist sex, and could it possibly coexist with sex between women? Could lesbian sex ever NOT be feminist? Or did it depend on who did what to whom?

The small, incestuous local lesbian community was as divided as lesbian communities elsewhere. There was the butch-femme crowd, in which butches proudly fucked femmes, and supposedly the favour was never returned. (Except that it was, and that was something my butch dates would never confess to their buddies.) There was the university-educated lesbian-feminist crowd, for whom most sexual activities seemed to be a backward sign that some women still identified too much with men.

In 1988, I went to the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, partly to promote my new collection of lesbian stories, published by a one-dyke publisher. That was where I saw the call-for-submissions for lesbian erotica to be published in a new anthology. I was intrigued. And terrified of possible consequences.

While I was arguing with myself about whether to try writing about sex, several lesbians I knew told me what they liked about my book of stories, and what they wanted more of. I noticed that the story that came closest to describing sex between the two major characters seemed to attract the most attention from readers. The one-woman publisher had pulled out the most intense passage from that story and put it on the back cover as a teaser. One reader told me the story was frustrating because I hadn’t “come to the point.” I thought I had made several points about the relationship between the two characters. I could only assume the “point” my reader wanted to reach was an orgasm.

I wrote three sexually-explicit lesbian stories, and snail-mailed them to the editor/publisher who had posted the call-for-submissions. In due course, I got a delightful letter (on paper, mailed from the U.S.) saying that all three had been accepted. Then the small publisher went bust, and the anthology never appeared.

My ability to write publication-worthy erotica lay dormant for several years until my sweetie and I acquired a computer in the 1990s. I surfed the ‘net looking for writers’ groups, and found the Erotic Readers Association, originally a spin-off of a romance writers’ group. (At the time, ERA was only two years old.) I read other people’s erotica, and liked the diversity of the writers in the group, and the colorful array of stories and poems they posted. I posted stories and poems of my own, and exchanged critiques with other writers. I saw new calls-for-submissions, mailed out several manuscripts in manila envelopes with self-addressed envelopes inside, and started getting work published.

To my great relief, I was never trashed by outraged anti-porn feminists – at least, not for writing about sex. I was puzzled by the contradictory responses I often got from women who knew I wrote erotica. Several told me this was okay as long as I wasn’t writing “porn,” but where was the line between that and literary fiction with explicit sex, and who made the rules?

After getting a few stories published in the fledgling market for lesbian erotica, I tried writing about other sexual pairings. I had had sex with men, and had often liked it, so I wrote about it in unusual contexts. (I couldn’t bring myself to describe a traditional wedding as a “happy ending.” It hadn’t been that for me.) I even wrote a few m/m stories, though I was always afraid of getting the details wrong.

By now, lesbian erotica is no longer the experimental field it once was. The golden age of lesbian erotic anthologies may have come and gone, but a lot of it still exists. For better and worse, lesbian writers who write about the sex they know don’t have to break new ground, and the word “transgressive” has become a cliché.

Here is a scene from one of my first erotic stories, “Something Natural.” The title was a sarcastic response to the anti-porn feminist theory that all sex toys were unnatural (oppressive, male-identified, products of late industrial-capitalism). Just writing this made me break out in a cold sweat:

Fennel had been after me for a month to let her use a dildo on me before I finally agreed to it as an experiment. It turned out to be a hard pink plastic strap-on device that was shaped, to my horror, exactly like a man's cock. Because I had already agreed, I gamely spread my legs and tried to pretend I didn't feel like a rape victim as Fennel began to pump. "Do you like this?" she asked cautiously, already knowing the answer.

"No. I like you tongue and your fingers, Fennel. This isn't the same. I don't want an artificial man." She slowly withdrew from me. I couldn't tell from her expression whether she was disappointed. "I'm sorry," I mumbled.

"It's all right, chick," she assured me. She sometimes called me that to provoke me. I was too apologetic to react.

"How was it for you?" I persisted, wanting to know.

"You weren't opening for me the way you usually do," she said softly, running a hand over one of my breasts. The nipple immediately hardened. "I can't enjoy it if you don't want it," she explained. "It's kind of a chemical reaction. If the ingredients aren't all there, it won't fizz."

I knew she was right, but I also knew that she could make me fizz anytime, anywhere, without using something that wasn't part of her body.

"I'm not into sex toys," I told her. "I don't need them."

Fennel continued to play with my breasts, but she was obviously distracted. "You like being filled inside," she reminded me. I squirmed from embarrassment as well as from the waves of sensation she was wringing from my nipples. "I can't believe you never masturbated with anything," she said bluntly.

I was overwhelmed by a rush of memories. How had she ever guessed what I used to do with the handle of the bath brush? Or the perfume flask, so conveniently shaped? Or even (in a pinch) candles or the necks of pop bottles?

Fennel's expressive face watched me with interest. "You did!" she announced. "Tell me, bad girl, what did you use?"

"Whatever came to hand," I admitted, feeling foolish but also aroused. "But I think I would have felt too self-conscious using something that was made for that purpose. So I looked for objects of the right size. You know, it had to seem natural and spontaneous. And if my parents ever found that stuff lying around my room, they would never guess." I wrapped my arms around Fennel, feeling her laugh.

After writing that, I never looked back.

(Note: "Something Natural" was published in 1999 in Batteries Not Included, after a delay of several months. The editor, Alison Tyler of California, apparently thought of giving up after the original New York publisher went bust, but a British press, Divabooks, rescued the book, and published it with a cheeky half-naked model on the cover.)


  1. I'm versed in the Feminist Sex Wars, but it was very interesting reading this firsthand account of an up-and-coming writer navigating her way through it.

    I was a college student in the early 1980s, and I remember struggling to reconcile my political commitment to feminism with my strong sexual interest in women. I wanted to lust without "objectifying," and at that age (and without a lot of clear role models or enlightened guidelines) it was a challenge figuring it all out. Sometimes I'm still not sure I've figured it all out—not in the sense of how to behave, of course, but at the psychological level, balancing inner sexual responses with other considerations.

  2. Ah, Jean! I always enjoy your historical perspective. I was so naive and out of the loop, I missed all this.

    However, I do have a story with a character who's very loathe to have a dildo used on her, for similar reasons. I think the distinction in your story makes sense.

    And for some reason, using "naturally occurring" objects as toys seems far more transgressive to me. (I was once fucked with a bedpost. Really!)

  3. Oh, how we humans can fuck up a natural process by over-thinking everything! Orgasms should be easy to get, since we all have bodies. We should all learn what we like as children, so we can share that knowledge with any partners we choose. Instead we're still being taught that natural urges are nasty. Sigh. Try to imagine telling children their desire for drinking or eating, is dirty and should be ignored. This is so similar!

    While I taught my kids there are things we do in private only, like picking your nose, and using the toilet, I also taught them that masturbation is something we all do, but should be done in private...unless you want to share it with someone else.

    And let politics into the picture, and suddenly everyone wants to tell you what you can and can't do! And with whom. Why can't we all just mind our own business, fuck whomever we want to, however we want to, and let everyone else do the same? IMHO, religion sure has a lot to answer for.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Jeremy, Lisabet and Fiona. I still think the ideological conflicts within feminism in the 1980s are worth considering, and I'm not sure they have really been resolved. Opposition to sexual expression (or, at its root, to sexual pleasure) might have its origins in religion, but anti-porn feminists generally claimed to be opposed to traditional religious rules. Some of the "porn" of the 1970s was full of woman-hatred (women treated like objects, often in a context that was supposedly funny). Boyfriends of mine who showed me this stuff at the time (because I was a girl who liked sex) didn't seem to understand why it turned me off. ("That's not funny" became a feminist cliche. And often, IMO, it wasn't.) The question was how to keep the sex and remove the hatred. I think the diversity of erotica that was written since then has answered that question. A related question was whether sexual aggression (even if very consensual and fairly vanilla) was oppressive by definition -- and if it was, was all fucking politically incorrect? If actually doing something to another person's body (or even one's own) was pathological, how could anyone have healthy sex?? As you say, Fiona, it led to a lot of overthinking. but I think the intentions were often good on both sides of the war.

    1. The question was how to keep the sex and remove the hatred. I think the diversity of erotica that was written since then has answered that question.

      Amen!! (:v>

    2. You got a little bit of a head start on me, Jean, because I didn't come across a lesbian erotica call for submissions until maybe 1998, for Best Lesbian Erotica 1999. We were often in books together after that. You may be right that the golden age of lesbian anthologies is over, but we're still struggling along. The BLE series began in 1996, so the one coming out next February will be the 20th anniversary edition, but I don't think anyone but me realized that until I told the new owners of Cleis Press, and I noticed that within the last couple of weeks they've made that part of the title on Amazon. I have no idea how much longer it will last. I just hope it doesn't die on my watch.

  5. Susie Bright revisits the Fem wars of those years in her memoir. She took it hard--best of friends made enemies fairly suddenly. Like you say, Jean. It was a lot to do with the sexually explicit. Sad scene, During the 70's I once held a door for a woman and she kicked me in the shin, informing me that she could open her own fucking doors, thank you. Christ, I wouldn't have let the door go in a man's face either. I suspect there's the same range today, although those who are receptive don't take shit any more. Isn't a shame how left/liberal factions often work against each other? Almost as if the right doesn't have to worry. The left is either apathetic or subverting each other.

  6. Daddy X, I remember both men and women making a huge deal out of whether men should open doors for women, and this seemed to me like a distraction from more serious issues such as inequality in the job market (directly related to women's poverty), reproductive rights (or lack of them), sexual harassment, male violence against women, double-standard conceptions of "sanity," etc. Opening a door for the person behind you just seemed like common courtesy. (I've done it for a variety of people.) Too true that the left is too often self-destructive.

    1. Of course, there's holding doors and holding doors: the low-key "Here, I'll make sure it doesn't close behind me and sort of hand it off to you," vs. "I will ostentatiously prop the door open in a display of smarmy gallantry and let you enter first, so I can check out your ass."

    2. Too funny, Jeremy! Yes, the first one is very polite and proper for men and women. The second is the kind of alpha shit that makes me want to punch someone. Thanks for your insight into the difference. And might I add, that kind of male point of view is why I love coming here...pun intended, of course.

  7. Sacchi, you've given me an idea for a book that doesn't seem to exist yet: a history of lesbian sex manuals and erotica. There were actually a few of these in the 1970s, while lesbian-feminists and anti-porn feminists mostly seemed to be living separately and not in direct conflict. I've read Tristan Taormino's account of the first BLE in 1996, and how hard it was to get writers to submit stories for it. I certainly hope lesbian erotica doesn't die on your watch, Sacchi! (I don't really think that's possible. Even if all mainstream publishers stopped publishing it, it would probably still exist as self-pubbed work and on private sites, like fanfic.)

  8. As others have said, thank you for the historical perspective, Jean!

    "Just writing this made me break out in a cold sweat"

    I remember when writing erotica did that to me--when I was that nervous of the things I had said and how they might be seen by others.


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