Lillian Faderman’s chapter on the lesbian sex wars of the 1980s begins with two quotes, one by Ti-Grace Atkinson, who says, “I do not know any feminist worthy of that name who, if forced to choose between freedom and sex, would choose sex.” The second is by Pat Califia, mocking cultural feminists. We are supposed to identify with the latter. The first is supposed to be laughable in its closed-mindedness and repressiveness.
I don’t think I disagree with the quote. Certainly, the dichotomy is false, although it is ambiguous whether the writer recognizes it as such, however, if those are the battle lines drawn, I know where I come down. Were we to rephrase the dichotomy as being between lesbians having better wages vs. better sex, where would you stand?
Now, obviously, things aren’t so simple. But they aren’t as simple as Faderman posits them to be, either. She constructs the argument as being between cultural feminists, rigid, boring women who like rigid, boring sex, and sex radicals, who she sees as a revolutionary vanguard in empowering women through their sexuality. She’s right on a number of things, such as that the essentialist attitude cultural feminists held toward sex is exceedingly confining, however, she can’t really seem to engage the cultural feminist argument that “Feminism must be about more than exploration of feelings, [the cultural feminists] declared: feminist thought stresses analysis of the political significance of feelings, which the sexual radicals had failed to do in their enthusiasm for ‘improving’ lesbian sex lives.” She is relatively uncritical in her extolling of sex radicals for trying to “…gain access to what has historically been a main bastion of male privilege—freewheeling sexuality.” I find this problematic for a number of reasons.
Obviously, I will not side with cultural feminists in their disdain for promiscuity, for casual sex or multiple sexual partners—but I will share their concern about the gender implications of lesbian objectification of other lesbians. Uncritical investigations of sexual desire, like Faderman’s, conceptualize sexuality as some kind of self-contained, unchanging thing. It is neither. Desire is, at least in part, about where you place yourself in the world, your relationship to social constructs such as gender, race, etc, and the various implications of said constructs. It changes as your relationship to the above changes—for example, many gay men I have known have remarked that they were always only interested in being a ‘top’ before coming to a critical understanding of their own gender and distancing themselves from masculinity. It is also problematic to see sexuality as something fully self-contained—sexuality is simply an intimate and private form of expression. It should be seen as such. For example, I have just as much of a problem with people who express racial prejudice in the bedroom, such as white people who explain that they’re simply “not into” black men or women, as people who express it in other spheres of life. This is why I tend to be cautious of an uncritical understanding of bondage and S/M. In the gay male community, which is my own primary means of understanding these issues, I find it troubling when men desire to dominate other men, as it is so often a problematic assertion of hypermasculinity. I am also uncomfortable with men being only able to see themselves as sexually desirable when tied up and whipped. This general feeling extends to lesbian and heterosexual analogues. I do not find it surprising that the men who go to pride parades dressed in full leather regalia are often the same men who berate and even sometimes spit on men who seem too effeminate. It’s not universal, certainly. But the implications of a sexual fetishization of violence, denigration or other forms of dehumanization I find potentially disturbing for any community.