The movement away from a dichotomized construction of lesbian sexuality as either impotent or dangerous has provided images of the sex­ually agentic lesbian that are largely divorced from the heterosexist nar­rative. In the pages of On Our Backs, Bad Attitude, Girljock, and other similar lesbian owned and created erotic publications are images unavail­able within a heterosexist discourse, or within earlier lesbian attempts to combine social conformity with erotically charged images of sexual agency. This is a narrative of sexually potent, passionate women who take sexual risks (although always safely where sexually transmitted diseases are con­cerned) and experiment with sexual possibilities, that is, dangerous women. Yet at the same time these are women who are also mothers, care-givers, loving, neither impotent or nice, or dangerous or agentic, but powerful, passionate, and compassionate. The work of Susie Bright (1990, 1992, 1995) stands as one of the best examples of this development in the lesbian discourse on sexuality, as she describes the powerful sexual arousal deriving from pregnancy, childbirth, and her postpregnant bodily state as a sexually active lesbian (her “lesbian-mommy-as-sex-goddess” piece makes especially enlightening and entertaining reading, as she suggests, using her own ex­periences to illustrate her points, that the pregnant lesbian is the most highly sexually charged person around). Bright’s work, and that of others who are redefining lesbian sexuality outside of the dominant narrative, combines images that are forbidden in the heterosexist discourse; woman, absent man, with pregnant belly or child, or both, and powerful sexual appetites, all in one.

The many women who do not identify with either polarized position emerging from the sex wars often continue to feel uncertain as to how to incorporate these new socially constructed lesbian sexualities into their own sexual selves and identities. JoAnn Loulan (1990), who has conducted the most extensive research on the sexual attitudes and practices of North American lesbians to date, describes the collective sexual self of lesbians as we entered the 1990s as a confused one, uncertain of what is right while behaving in ways that both mirror and belie the public discourse. Her work is mandatory reading for anyone attempting to understand lesbians’ strug­gles to sexually self-define in a positive energized manner, and is a best­seller among North American lesbians. In her findings, which emerge from formal research, anecdotal data, and clinical practice of sex therapy with lesbians, the emerging tendrils of resistance to heterosexist narratives can be seen.

For example, although it continued to be somewhat suspect in some lesbian social networks to subscribe to or appear to practice butch and femme roles, most of the lesbians that Loulan surveyed could clearly iden­tify themselves as one or the other, and had a well-defined construct for each term. Loulan herself has been quite public about being a sexually potent lesbian femme, appearing at her lectures dressed in flowery, frilly clothing, long curly hair, and makeup, then speaking directly, amusingly, and erotically of lesbian’s rights to sexual joy and pleasure.

In the face of disempowering and stigmatizing social constructs, les­bians have been challenged to invent our sexuality in a vacuum. As I have commented earlier (Brown, 1989), there are both advantages and problems in having to draw your own maps of territories that are not supposed to exist, in this case the territory of the sexually potent woman who has or desires no man. As was true of the maps carried by the early European invaders of this continent, these maps can promise that which is absent, or fail to reveal essential features of the landscape. Or, as did those pre­Columbian maps, they can threaten the presence of dragons, frightening off those who must, for their own survival, engage in exploration. But such maps also can develop into accurate representations that serve as useful guides. JoAnn Loulan (1990), who has been one of the premier sexual map-makers for today’s lesbians, describes what she calls a “lesbian erotic dance.” Here, lesbians begin to try out combinations such as those de­scribed by Bright and discover that they can indeed fit within one woman’s personal and sexual identities. New categories of lesbian sexual selves have begun to emerge and are observable in lesbian popular fiction and erotica. This trend is one in which lesbians define ourselves as both agentic and decent, sexual and maternal, powerful and orgastic, as well as altruistic and politically concerned.

A good example of this is what has happened to the social status of the dildo among lesbians. The dildo has been reclaimed in many quarters, no longer seen as a male-identified penis substitute, or something only used by outlaw sadomasochism practitioners, but as one tool available to the sexually agentic woman for her pleasure, by herself or with another woman.

The parallel emergence of woman-owned and operated dildo manufactur­ers, with dildos in designer colors such a lavender, pink, light blue, and gray, and in shapes such as dolphins and ears of com as well as the tradi­tional penis, sold in stores owned and operated by lesbians, bespeaks the power of reclamation and transformation. The phallus need no longer be a penis; the woman wielding the phallus in no manner resembles a man, but is a sexually agentic woman, down to the color coordination of phallus with bed linen.

For lesbians, this current map-making project into the realm of a nonheterosexist sexuality has been a source of interesting difficulties and challenges in constructing a sexual self. Struggles develop between that which is descriptive (“some lesbians like deep kissing”) and that which is prescriptive (“a real lesbian likes deep kissing”). Activities once defined as the province only of certain groups (“only sadomasochistic lesbians do sexual role-playing”) become the property of many (“I can play sexual roles if I like without doing any form of sadomasochism”). Many of these strug­gles toward consensual definitions of lesbian sexual identities surface within lesbian relationships, as each woman is likely to bring a different socially constructed sexual self with her to the relationship. Because there is so little shared public discourse on lesbian sexuality, each woman’s experience is likely to be greatly at variance from the other’s. Because of the great price that lesbians must pay to develop our sexual selves, each woman will bring powerful emotions about her sexual self with her as well. Each one will have a different version of what lesbians do; not infrequently, the differences become opportunities for polarization and dysfunction of the sort that lead to therapists’ offices, in large part because there yet exist few public norms that can serve to depersonalize the argument.

The available, still somewhat skewed public discourse within lesbian communities as the struggle continues to develop nonheterosexist images of the sexually potent woman can at times add to this kind of difficulty between lesbian partners. If one woman in a couple adheres to the pre­scriptions of the “lesbian-sex-is-gentle-and-egalitarian” construct, and an­other is aroused by scenes and role-playing, their differences may not be felt to simply be personal. Rather, the public debate may be brought into the relationship; the former may be accused of wanting only vanilla sex, the latter of being oppressive and male-identified. If one woman has come out to herself in a context of shame and degradation, possessing the agentic and dangerous stereotype as the dominant voice in her inner discourse on her lesbian sexuality, and the other has developed her sexual self in tune with images of lesbian sex as impotent but uplifting and healthy, the con­flicting social images may be expressed as failures of empathy or connection within the relationship. How do two lesbians communicate sexually when one is shouting danger and the other invisibility at each other in their actions? Many lesbians have still had so little nondistorted information about ourselves sexually that it becomes difficult for many women to be­lieve Loulan’s (1984) saner and highly subversive early vision that “lesbian sex is what lesbians do sexually.” But encouragingly, many wish to embrace this vision, or so the standing-room only crowds at Loulan’s public lectures and the rising sales of lesbian-centered erotica would suggest.

There is also the problem of what the lesbian who is not acting overtly sexually with another woman calls herself, and of how she defines her sexual self. When the public discourse on lesbians is one that defines us by our sexual behavior, it can be difficult to break through this hetero­sexist construction to ask if we can still find the sexually agentic woman in the picture, even if her agency is not turned to the overtly sexual and erotic in this moment. Is the celibate lesbian still a lesbian? Is the woman who has never made love to another woman aside from herself a lesbian? Is a single, unpartnered lesbian still a lesbian (a question posed to me on more than one occasion by lesbian clients in the throes of a relationship breakup who find themselves questioning their sexual identities because they are about to relinquish the only legitimate proof of its existence). If a relationship between women has no sexual component (Rothblum &. Brehony, 1993), can we argue that these women are lesbian if we also wish to argue for a lesbian sexual identity that is powerful, potent, agentic? All of these women may doubt the legitimacy of their internal experience of self-as-lesbian, or have it doubted by other people, lesbians and otherwise. It is interesting to note that it would appear that the sexual identity of a celibate or temporarily unpartnered heterosexual woman is only tarnished, rather than put into question, by her unattachment to a man. It is unlikely that someone will suggest that she is not really heterosexual if she is not actively behaving heterosexually, only that she cannot get a man.

However, in the problems also lie the solutions. Lesbians are now faced with the unique opportunity of seizing control over the discourse and determining how our sexuality shall be socially, and consequently, inter­nally, constructed. JoAnn Loulan’s (1984, 1987, 1990) work is one of the better examples of this phenomenon in action. Loulan has become a tire­less chronicler of the sexual experiences of lesbians; her books are snatched up hungrily and her public lectures attended by overflow crowds. Loulan gives lesbians pictures of what our sexuality is based on our own stories; she details the extraordinary diversity of lesbian experience, just as the diversity of heterosexual experience has been detailed. She serves the func­tion of a benign external parental introject for U. S. lesbian culture, en­couraging lesbians to see our sexuality as good for what it is, rather than in comparison with heterosexual norms and visions.1 Loulan’s work also

‘Ironically, since this chapter was written, Loulan has publicly declared herself to be in a relationship with a man, to whom she then became married. She continues to identify herself as lesbian, but is no longer a benign figure for many lesbians, some of whom have expressed feelings of profound betrayal by her public embrace of a heterosexual relationship.

takes the public discourse on lesbian sexuality out of the polarized positions found among the sexual radicals and antipomography activists, although she is rejecting of neither. From a younger age cohort, Susie Bright’s (1990, 1992, 1995) picaresque tales of life as a sexual expert, author, radical, and student are examples of what lesbians can do when their imaginations, rather than heterosexist constructions, inform their notions of sexuality. There is also an outpouring of published collections of wonderful, salacious, funny, steamy lesbian erotica beginning to be available, written by lesbians who define themselves from a lesbian center.

Some lesbian feminist commentators have found Loulan’s or Bright’s stances, and that of other lesbian sex writers, to be overly liberal and permissive (Kitzinger & Perkins, 1993). These authors argue against the notion that it is time to “let a thousand flowers bloom” sexually, and sug­gest that there are certain ways of sexual relating (for example, sadomas­ochism or butch and femme) that are inherently and irretrievably bound into patriarchal modes of being, thus incapable of being reclaimed or trans­formed satisfactorily by lesbians. Others, myself among them, argue that the positions taken by Loulan or Bright are entirely feminist and empow­ering to women in our resistance to patriarchal deadening, in that these authors resist the urge to be prescriptive and deny women authority over the value of their experiences. These writers provide a descriptive position, resisting the urge to become authoritative: “here are all the things that lesbians tell me that they do sexually, and thus this is what constitutes lesbian sex, and lesbian sex is fun, powerful, erotic, variable, and good” is the message of this work.

For lesbians whose sexual self-definition is painful or problematic and who bring this distress into the therapy office, the introduction of the social constructivist analysis of lesbian sexuality can an essential aspect of treat­ment (Brown, 1986; Nichols, 1987a, 1987b). Aside from the usual factors affecting sexual functioning in women (e. g., histories of sexual victimiza­tion), lesbians with difficulties in sexual functioning often are uncertain as to the degree of their problem, the appropriate attributions for it, and the criteria for successful outcome of their attempted change process. That is, if you have no picture of normal lesbian sexuality and are still powerfully affected by either or both of the impotent or dangerous images of lesbi­anism, it is difficult to know if what one is experiencing is a problem, or if the problems have to do with what one has been told about the nature of one’s desires. Lesbians with sexual problems are often suffering the results of the heterosexist social discourse regarding their sexuality, seeing them­selves as invisible or perverted simply for having their own desires (Brown, 1986).

Most lesbians who are neither sex radicals, philosophers, nor sex ther­apists have not had the opportunity to think consciously and carefully about how they experienced the social construction of lesbian sexuality,

although I believe that most have intuited it and enacted it. Engaging in this level of analysis of conscious awareness and inspection can be enlight­ening, empowering, and often enraging, because it exposes the manner in which lesbians, both qua lesbians and qua women, have been misinformed by the heterosexist discourse. Lesbians learn how we came to noncon­sciously experience our sexuality as invisible and absent, or as sick and dangerous; how we were encouraged to assume that problems in lesbian sexual functioning were indicators of a latent heterosexuality, that impo­tence must simply be a symptom of the absence of a man in the sexual exchange.

This increased awareness of the impact of the social construction of our sexuality on our actual sexual functioning creates a broader range of options for lesbians trying to reinvent our sexual selves. If healthy lesbian sex is that which lesbians do and receive pleasure from, and if lesbians become free to define themselves as sexually present, powerful, and valu­able as women with women, eschewing the heterosexist discourse requiring the presence of a man for its completion, then a lesbian in sexual diffi­culties has increased degrees of freedom within which to define a non­problematic sexual functioning.