Biddy Martin, in her article ‘Sexual Practice and Changing Lesbian Identities’ (1992), considers the politics of ‘authentic’ and feminist lesbian identities, emphasising the complexity of same-gender eroticism. She argues that we need to denaturalise heterosexuality as part of destabilising the powerful homo-hetrosexuality opposition. Martin seeks to contextualise lesbian and gay identity and politics within the right-wing backlash in the early 1990s in the US. As she notes,
The effort to open up the public realm to a discussion and appreciation of sexual diversity and variation challenges the epistemological and political terms in which homosexuality and other ‘perversions’ have been closeted for the benefit of ‘the ambient heterosexual population’, or what Cindy Patton, in Inventing Aids, calls ‘a repressive administrative state’.
Drawing on a lecture by Susie Bright, editor of the lesbian porn magazine On Our Backs, Martin ponders how this provided an interesting opportunity ‘to further consider changing lesbian identities’. Martin expresses the problematics of sexual identity framed by the rigid sexual categorisation of ‘the right’, but also from within the lesbian community itself, through its demand for stability and internal coherence and the ‘uniqueness of lesbian identity’. She argues that not only has this obscured sexual differences, but it has also ‘generated an active resistance to knowing what we fantasise, desire, do and think’ (1992:97).
A range of different positions including lesbian feminist, sex radicals and ‘queer identities’ represented debates around identity and sexuality in the 1970s and 1980s. The lesbian feminist position represents a model of identity where the categories of sex, gender and sexual identity are inextricably linked, with clearly defined ‘sexualities’. Women’s ‘essential feminine identity’ is cast in terms which clearly distinguish it from the masculine identity. The collective and unitary identity of the lesbian feminists led them to identify not with their sexuality but with their gender. This led them to reject any sense of identification with gay men or ‘sex radicals’. Thus women’s sexual, and specifically lesbian, identity is framed in opposition to masculine sexuality. The authenticity of women’s and lesbian identity was seen as distorted and denigrated by pornography. The work of Adrienne Rich and Catherine MacKinnon convey slightly different views within this anti-pornography position.
Adrienne Rich (1980:650) held that lesbianism is a ‘profoundly female experience’ which has a parallel in motherhood and is linked to clearly identified characteristics of ‘womanhood’;. This emphasis on the ‘essential‘ characteristics of femininity—for example, ‘emotional’, ‘gentle’, ‘nurturing’— can be seen as repressive of both sexuality and ‘desire’. Biddy Martin (1992:10) maintains that the ‘collapse of sexuality and gender’ appears to remove the importance of desire and replaces it with the desexualised concept of ‘identification’. The collapsing of sexuality and gender in Rich (1980:648) is significant for her objective, which is to erode any potential differences between lesbian women and feminist women by establishing a ‘lesbian continuum’ which includes ‘women identified women’ and heterosexual women. Modleski (1991:151), drawing on what Bersani calls ‘the pastoralizing’ and ‘domesticating’ of sexuality, claims that Rich’s analysis presents a desexualised model of lesbian identity. (Kemp 1994:3)
MacKinnon (1989), while dealing with the issue of power and pleasure, defines these categories as the prerogative of men and used by men to sexualise hierarchy. MacKinnon (like Rich) collapses the categories of sex and gender, making little distinction between the ‘sexuality of men’ and ‘male sexuality’. As Kemp (ibid,) notes for Mackinnon, sexuality is about the dominance of men over women as she indicates, ‘dominance eroticized defines the imperatives of its masculinity, submission eroticized defines its femininity’ (1989:318). She thus elides sex, gender and sexuality and this is clearly extended to her analysis of pornography.
The essentialist model of identity as theorised by Rich and MacKinnon’s position was clearly a problematic one for both lesbian sexuality and identity. However, the work of Rich, MacKinnon and others should not be totally dismissed. Martin (1992:101) shows how Adrienne Rich’s writing in the 1970s challenged traditional conceptions and definitions of lesbianism. Martin argues that the revisiting of a number of discourses around sexuality, and sexual identity, such as the ‘renewed emphasis on sex, on alignments with gay men, and on sexual practices such as “butch-femme” roles does not represent a simple return from women identification to minoritizing models of gender inversion’. She indicates that the now much criticised work of lesbian and feminist writers of the 1970s has made it possible for lesbian writers and theorists to engage with a wide range of ‘sexual, textual and theoretical explorations’ as part of the increasingly contested nature of lesbian identity and politics.
It would be mistaken to convey a model of broad-based agreement within feminism or lesbian feminism in the 1970s. The model of ‘sexual essentialism’ was challenged by writers such as Gayle Rubin (1984). Rubin is representative of the lesbian sadomasochistic position and stressed the separation of sexuality from gender. She calls for the re-evaluation of radical lesbian identities and the construction of new queer identities, advocating the ‘appreciation of erotic diversity and more open discussion of sexuality’, and as Kemp (1994:5) shows, Rubin claims that ‘variation is a fundamental property of all life, from the simplest biological organisms to the most complex human formations’ and she challenges the concept of ‘sexual essentialism’ with ‘benign sexual variation’ (1984:303).
In stark contrast to lesbian feminists such as Rich and MacKinnon, who stress the repressive nature of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ and female submission, Modleski (1991:152) claims that ‘the sex radicals tend to emphasize the individual “free choice” in matters of sexual behaviour, including such activities as lesbian sadomasochism, which many women denounce as acting out oppressive patriarchal relations of dominance and subordination’.
The position of sex radicals such as Rubin leads to a defence of most sexual practices (including paedophilia). As Modleski comments, this leads them to identify more with ‘stigmatized erotic populations’ than with radical feminists. Rubin (1984:305) advocates s/m (sadomasochism) as legitimate practice and argues that s/m practice is based on consensual agreement. Modleski (1991:157) claims that ‘lesbian sadomasochism enacts a complex dynamic in which existing gender arrangements are simultaneously contested and preserved – preserved partly in order to be contested’. She claims that there is thus a one-sidedness in the debates around sadomasochism, whether these are from the position that understands ‘lesbian sadomasochism as replicating existing gender inequalities’ or from the position held by those, such as Parveen Adams who, Modleski maintains, hold that ‘the lesbian sadomasochist has entirely succeeded in separating sexuality from gender’ (ibid.). One of the difficulties for lesbian sadomasochists is that, while they criticise the strict binary conception of male power and oppression typical of the lesbian feminist position, they appear to ignore the issues of power and control intrinsic to their own position. The implications of s/m debates for postfeminism will be considered more fully below.
The deconstruction of the reified and prescriptive nature of lesbian sexuality as developed in these debates opened up feminism to a recognition and articulation of difference represented in a range of critiques emanating from within and outside feminism. For writers and theorists such as Susie Bright and Judith Butler, and for others working in the same area, lesbianism cannot be understood as an ‘absolutely separate identity with separate foundations and internal homogeneity’ (Martin 1992:105). The implications of such a position would mean, as Martin notes, complicity ‘with the repressive, even deathly operations of normalization and exclusion, even of lesbians’ own fantasies, pleasures and practices’ (ibid,).
What becomes clear is that Martin is challenging the same totalising tendencies, based on a seemingly fragile coherence, that she implies characterise lesbian identities, as women of colour and lesbian feminists did of second wave feminism. The crude binary opposition, a characteristic feature of the uncritical use of terms such as ‘patriarchy’ and ‘oppression’, is replaced in Martin’s work by the critique of homo-heterosexual opposition. Drawing on Bright’s lecture, Martin highlights how ‘investments in sexual identity categories become stumbling blocks in current discussions of sexual practices and pleasures’ (Martin 1992:97). In this context, Martin argues, the construction of homosexuality and lesbianism as marginal, leaves the naturalising tendencies of heterosexuality unchallenged and contains ‘difference in a third static category’.
Martin (1992:98) goes on to note that the need for uniformity of identity and claims to authenticity based on ‘separate foundations in a world outside of heterosexuality, operates as a defence against the continued marginalisation, denial and prohibition of women’s love and desire for other women’. Martin asks whether this strategy is the best one ‘to challenge heterosexism and misogyny, or an effective strategy to defend against annihilation’ (ibid). She claims that the constant effort needed to maintain the category intact clearly highlights both its instability as a ‘unitary category, and its lack of fixed foundations’ (ibid,.: 98-99), and this emphasis on unity makes for difficulties in terms of understanding ‘the complexity of social realities, fantasies, desires, pleasures and practices’ (ibid,). Debates within lesbian feminism around pornography, sadomasochism, etc. have been late in ‘surfacing’, due to the attempt to maintain internal coherence. Martin cites Greta Christina’s work on bisexuality, Drawing the Line, which
[points] to important ways in which the politicization of bisexuality and appropriation of the term ‘queer’ opens up new alignments, or realignments across categories of gender and sexual identity. These new alignments coexist and contend with other constructions of lesbian identity, including those that emphasise the gender specificity of lesbians’ experiences and oppression and the differences between lesbians and gay men.
As Martin shows, questions of the contested nature of lesbian identity have become more visible, as part of the more contested nature of identity within feminist theory and politics. Martin notes that heterosexist and anti-homophobic readings of homosexuality have, on one level, been characterised by contradictions, but ‘contradictions that remain available for manipulation in the service of power/ knowledge’ (ibid.).
Debates around the proliferation and diversification of identities and representations can be seen to have coalesced around the area of gay/lesbian politics. In this context there has been an opening up of a series of new debates around the area of political theory and practice. Moynihan (1994:17) contends that the ‘gay movement and the more recently declared “queer nation” share political objectives around resistance to the marginalisation of homosexuality as excluded and demonic Other’. She claims that after that their political projects diverge, and the gay movement is primarily associated with ‘the assertion of difference on the basis of rights assumptions: that people have the right to be accepted regardless of sexual preference’ (ibid,). Moynihan distinguishes between this position and that of the ‘queer nation’, who she maintains ‘reads that implicit desire to become part of the mainstream as a form of cooptation. In contrast, they identify as “queer” ie., with the transgressive, and as “nation” as separate and autonomous’ (ibid.).
The issue of identity is a crucial part of the politics of both gays and the queer nation. Moynihan, drawing on the work of Cindy Patton (1993), shows how the emphasis on a ‘rights based polities’ implies a concept of identity and acts to constrain difference. The queer nation rejects these constraints and understands itself in terms of performativity. As Moynihan (1994:17) notes, this ‘location of identity in performance is an important move, both politically and theoretically for it entails a refusal to be individuals or subjects of liberal, Western homosexuality’. For the queer nation, as Moynihan shows, ‘identity belongs to “nation” as a collective, formulated through collective alliance. It also moves the political away from acting subjects to the performative.. .to what people do rather than who they are’ (ibid.).
This becomes important in the issue of gay and lesbian sexual practices such as ‘drag’ ‘butch-femme roles’ and sadomasochistic practices. Joan Nestle’s work A Restricted Country (1987) highlights some of these issues. She considers butch-femme roles in the 1950s and sees them not as ‘“phony heterosexual replicas”, but “complex erotic statements” that signalled erotic choices’ (Nestle 1987:100, cited in Martin 1992:107). Martin notes that in her account of butch-femme roles Nestle does not understand them ‘as expressions of some underlying gender core or identification, or as imitations of heterosexual gender complementarities, but as the thoroughly performative construction of a public erotic culture in defiance of the injunction to be normal heterosexual women’ (Martin 1992:111). Nestle contextualises this view within a model which aims to ‘restore queerness to lesbianism’. As Martin states,
Nestle writes about choices and modes of survival, about erotic and social competencies, about concrete struggles and pleasures, and about political alignments among lesbians, gay men, sex workers (including prostitutes and porn writers) and other sexual minorities that have been effaced by the emphasis on lesbianism as gender identification.
The rearticulation of the erotic into sexual politics around lesbianism can also be seen in the increasing focus on s/m practices among lesbians. Martin (1992:99) notes that in her lecture at Cornell, Susie Bright claimed that ‘lesbians’ anxieties about penetration and its potentially heterosexual or male implications are now old news’. Lewis and Adler maintain that the shift in acceptance of s/m practices within lesbian relations has partly led to, and partly been the result of, changes in lesbian culture and identity (1994:433-4). Kemp (1994:7) shows that they maintain that s/m practices have reinscribed power into lesbian relationships and they provide a feminist critique of these relations and practices. Modleski (1991:149) claims ‘that powerlessness and masochism have different ideological valences for women than for gay men’. Drawing on the work of Kaja Silverman, Modleski, while recognising that Silverman ‘overstates the case for the subversive potential of even male masochism, observes that since masochism is so close to the norm for women, it is unlikely to have the radical force it has for men’ (ibid.).5 She goes on to comment that there is a qualitative difference in lesbian s/m relations and heterosexual relationships, commenting that the former do not carry the ‘weight of male physical and economic power behind them’ (1991:154).
While recognising the importance of the new ‘militant’ politics of sexuality, Martin maintains that some of the patterns of exclusion, which were apparent in feminism’s ‘exclusive focus on gender’, are emerging in the new politics of sexuality. One of the casualties is ‘gender’ itself. Martin maintains that the new radical politics of sexuality is often ‘formulated against feminism’, rather than in relation to it. She argues that ‘to define a politics of sexuality as if gender were no longer a social marker or as if feminist analysis and politics had not been critical to current developments seems willfully blind’ (Martin 1992:117). As Martin comments in referencing the work of Nestle, Lorde, Goldsby and Bright, to ‘put desire back into history’, as Nestle advocates, ‘means refusing to abstract it out of the complex relations through which sexuality is constructed and enacted’ (ibid.).6
Martin considers a range of erotic literature and maintains that both literature and pornography are potentially positive in their implications: first, in terms of proliferating the range of representations and practices available; second, in terms of understanding these representations and practices as challenging binary models of sex and sexuality; third, as a means of subverting dominant cultural forms and establishing new discourses, representations and identities.