THE STRUGGLE TOWARD TRANSFORMATION
The addition of feminist analysis to the social construction of women’s sexuality has proven to be a mixed blessing for lesbians. On the one hand, the second wave of the U. S. White women’s movement provided, after some initial prodding, a place for many White and (usually) middle-class lesbians to encounter one another in a public way, and to see more positive images of one another in both feminist and dominant media. Feminism has set the stage for the end of the pervasive invisibility of White lesbians, although lesbians of color continued to be unseen most of the time in the feminist narrative. The increased visibility of lesbians to one another has been an important development in movement toward resistance and transformation of heterosexist narratives of lesbian sexuality.
Yet feminism also developed early on a criticism of earlier lesbian ways of sexual relating, and in the process may have temporarily undermined some forms of resistance by seeking too much to leave the position of sexual outlaw and occupy that of the sexually respectable woman. Butch and femme, the archetype that dominated the discourse between and among lesbians regarding our own sexuality, was derided by many early feminists as imitative of the worst of oppressive heterosexuality (Nestle, 1987). This critique reflected both a pervasive class bias among feminists (Kennedy &. Davis, 1993) and an unspoken pressure in the feminist community toward the assimilation of lesbians into the larger female population.
The attempts by some lesbian feminist authors to free lesbianism from sexuality emerged during this period; Rich’s (1980) concept of the “lesbian continuum,” the idea that a variety of behaviors (e. g., friendship between women) carried lesbian meanings, although popular with many lesbians by asserting that any woman could be lesbian, also carried the meta-message that lesbianism had nothing in particular to do with making love and sexual self-definition. Similar assertions can be found in the work of lesbian philosophers such as Janice Raymond (1986) or Mary Daly (1983). These authors prescribed resistance to and separation from patriarchy rather than assimilation and acceptance, but they also portrayed the lesbian as spinster, virgin, or friend of the heart rather than passionately erotic and sexual. Although this new imagery of the desexualized lesbian had the effect of conveying that lesbians were now in the social category of women to be respected in patriarchy (e. g., women who lacked sexual agency), this removal of stigma did not occur without a sexual cost.
A careful feminist analysis of the idealization of women demonstrates how such idealization is also a disguised but potent form of degradation. The ideal functions to punish those women who cannot attain it, and to constrain and stigmatize the woman who does not conform (Pheterson, 1989). Thus, as valorized and impotent images of lesbian sexuality began to emerge within the lesbian-created social discourse, so too did the image of lesbians as sexually dysfunctional, of lesbianism as “a closet for celibacy” (Frye, 1990). Lesbians began to measure our sexual functioning yet again in terms that failed to depict lesbian realities, and found ourselves wanting. The friendly but asexual lesbian described in Nichols’s example above came again to be contrasted to male, heterosexual orgasmic frequency and potency, and lesbians were sexually problematic in a whole new way.
As noted by lesbian philosopher Marilyn Frye (1990), lesbians writing and reading about lesbian sexuality used criteria for evaluating the quality of lesbian sexual experiences that derived directly from heterosexist imagery. One example was that of measures of sexual frequency that were derived from models of heterosexual intercourse, and which were in turn used as indexes of good sexual functioning. From what data were available, lesbians were said to have low sexual frequency (e. g., Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983). But first, there were definitional problems; when speaking, for example, of how frequently lesbians had sex, what was being referred to? Since the heterosexist construction of lesbian and women’s sexuality defined almost all sexual activity without a man as other than sex, were lesbians having any sex at all? Or, as Frye suggested, was a 2-minute episode of heterosexual intercourse as modeled by cinema, not to be made functionally or numerically equivalent to several hours spent together by two women who were sharing sexual pleasures with one another? And why was frequency of sex (whatever that was; usually agreed on to be something involving direct contact by one partner with the genitals of another partner, thus ruling out nongenital and nonpartner activities as forms of sex) an important variable for assessing quality of sexual functioning?
Furthermore, what sense did lesbians make within lived lesbian experiences of our apparent shortcoming on the sexual frequency scale? Too often, the infrequency numbers were used to convey a message of lesbians as less than, and consequently, of women as asexual in the absence of a man. As other commentators have recently noted, this application of a frequency standard for measuring sexual adequacy can be perceived as an assaultive act in which lesbian sexuality is theorized from a hostile perspective (Magee & Miller, 1995).
In the 1980s the discourse regarding lesbian sexuality was fueled by the sex wars, (Rubin, 1984), debates among public advocates of particular positions regarding sexuality. Many of these debates had their roots in feminist responses to pornography; highly polarized positions developed between lesbians who were developing radical expressions of sexuality, such as sadomasochism or a revived butch and femme erotic, and those lesbians who saw such perspectives as oppressive or violent, but who were themselves seen by the sexual radicals as anti-erotic and over-focused on women’s experiences of victimization.
These debates functioned as yet another doubled-edged sword for les
bians attempting to write a sexual narrative free of heterosexism. They opened up public dialogue on sexuality between and among lesbians and made it possible for many lesbians to learn about what other lesbians think, feel, and do sexually. For example, out of this debate there arose several lesbian owned and operated erotic magazines and many lesbian-made erotic videos that directly reflect the experiences and eroticism of lesbian sex radicals from within. There also has been a recent outpouring of explicit lesbian erotica, much of it produced by women in their 20s and early 30s who grew into a lesbian identity when lesbians were visible, and who have created a medium in which an effective and joyful resistance to heterosexism prevails (Gomez & Taormino, 1997). In the remainder of this chapter I will discuss this resistance movement in the world of lesbian sex.