Lesbian sex wars in the 1980s

This rather titillating title comes from chapter 10 of Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers by Lilian Faderman, where she documents the conflict between lesbian feminists and s/m lesbians in the 1980s.

The chapter opens with the contrast between straight, gay male, and lesbian sexualities in the 1980s. Everyone was in “the throes of sexual exploration,” as evidenced by the proliferation of adult films and books and sexually explicit personal ads, except for the lesbians. Faderman provides some reasons why lesbians are less sexual:

“Because most lesbians had been socialized first and foremost as female, they were no more able than most heterosexual women in the past to form relationships primarily on the basis of sexual lust. And unlike heterosexual women in the 1970s, lesbians generally did not have partners who would prod them on to greater sexual looseness.”(p187)

“One explanation for the relative infrequency of lesbian sex may simply be physiological. Because there is no visible erection that must be dealt with between two women, affectionate holding or petting is easily substituted for more demanding sexual performance once the first heat of passion has subsided. But the relative paucity of sex between lesbians is certainly aggravated by socialization. Since both individuals in the couple have been raised as female, there is no trained sexual initiator who will automatically make the first move over a period of time. Often each woman waits upon the other to initiate. Female sexuality has been socially constructed around reacting rather than acting, and lesbians as women have generally not been able to transcend with ease what they have been taught. Lesbian sexuality within committed relationships is further complicated because, according to various psychological studies, relationships between women are stronger when background, status, and commitment are approximately equal between them. When one partner feels that her lover holds more power, her capacity for intimacy is diminished. Yet sexual desire requires some kind of “barrier”—some taboo, tension, thrill of conquest, or disequilibrium. A difficulty is created because two women who are “well suited” to each other tend to merge in an intimate relationship; barriers that are often present between men and women break down between two women. While such fusion promotes affection, it diminishes sexual excitement. It leads to what came to be called in the 1980s “lesbian bed death”—the oft-observed phenomenon of the disappearance of sex in ongoing lesbian relationships.”(p188)

This paragraph is just full of controversial points for discussion. Is it true that there is no trained sexual initiator in a lesbian couple? I see what she means by this—men are socialized to believe that they have to be the initiator to be real men, and women are trained to be passively accepting. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to there being no sexual initiator in a lesbian couple. We are more than our socialization, and lesbians are already breaking free of the sexual mold just by being lesbians. I think lesbians are entirely capable of initiating sex.

Faderman makes a pretty bold statement when she says: “sexual desire requires some kind of “barrier”—some taboo, tension, thrill of conquest, or disequilibrium.” Like, really? I experience sexual desire without the use of taboos or disequilibrium all the time. It sounds like what she’s saying is that lesbian couples are too nice and equal and need some sort of power imbalance to bring a sexual thrill. This is essentially what the sexual radicals of the 1980s argued.

The lesbian feminists generally thought that men placed too much emphasis on sex and that it wasn’t as important as they were making it seem. They were generally against masculine/feminine roles, sexual “violence” (whether real or in play), and pornography.

“The cultural feminists were unimpressed by the argument of lesbian sexual radicals that until women are free to explore their own sexuality any way they wish, they will never be truly free. Such freedom came at too great a cost, cultural feminists said. They believed the sexual radicals’ pursuit of ways to “spice up” lesbian sexuality, such as pornography and the sexual role playing of s/m or butch/femme, validated the system of patriarchy, in which one person has power over another or objectifies her. They insisted that such pursuits were counter to the vision of the world that feminists had been striving to create and that it was the responsibility of lesbians to help build the new world upon a model of equal power such as is, anyway, the most “natural” to lesbian relationships. Cultural feminists believed that lesbian sex must be consistent with the best of lesbian ethics. They acknowledged that images of domination, control, and violence, which have been men’s sexual stimuli, have become a part of everyone’s cultural environment and thus have shaped women’s sexual fantasies and desires. But they also insisted that lesbians should permit themselves only those sexual interests that reflect superior female ideals. They wished to deconstruct harmful desires that were socially constructed, instead of giving in to them by wanting to “explore” them. . . The cultural feminists were particularly annoyed at the sexual radicals’ argument that their sexual pursuits were feminist because they encouraged women to fight repression by examining sexual feelings that had been taboo for women. Feminism must be about more than exploration of feelings, they 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. They accused the sexual radicals of refusing to consider where those feelings originated and the ways in which they perpetuated the values of the patriarchal ruling class. (p190)”

I generally agree with the lesbian feminists here (Big surprise!). Twisty Faster once called BDSM “patriarchy-reenactment boinking.” (I wish I were as hilarious as she is!) When you act out a power play where one person is in charge and the other has to obey, you are acting out the relationship between men and women in a patriarchy, and the chances are pretty good you’re acting out a rape scene. I totally understand that this is arousing for people—we are all taught to eroticize dominance and submission and it’s no surprise that people learn what they’ve been taught—but that doesn’t make it okay. I get annoyed, too, when people want to simply indulge in this without examining where it’s coming from or what the implications are. I get especially annoyed when people call it feminist. How can you liberate the female sex class from oppression by getting off while acting out oppression? (Spoiler alert: you can’t!) I do think that sex needs to be subject to a standard of ethics, and I don’t think that anything at all is permissible just because someone enjoys it.

The sexual radicals saw the feminist ethics as another form of repression and wanted to free lesbians from it.

“In response to what they considered the antisexual censoriousness of the cultural feminists, the lesbian sexual radicals were happy to create a public debate around the issue of lesbian sex. They criticized the cultural feminists for reinforcing traditional concepts of gender instead of encouraging women to try to gain access to what has historically been a main bastion of male privilege—freewheeling sexuality. . . The lesbian sexual radicals of the 1980s believed that too many women who loved women had been deluded by the movement into suffering boring, “politically correct” sex. They sought to create an alternative to the tame sexuality of lesbian-feminism, which denied lesbians those experiences that heterosexuals and homosexual men had claimed as their right. Politically correct sex they characterized as being obsessively concerned with not “objectifying” women and with promoting humdrum “equal time” touching and cunnilingus; they found absurd the “politically correct” notion that any kind of penetration was heterosexist. Such dogmas produced “vanilla sex,” the sexual radicals said. They insisted that there neither is nor should be any automatic correspondence between lesbian-feminist political beliefs and lesbian sexual practices and that it was time that lesbians freed themselves to enjoy sexuality without any of the restraints inculcated in them as women or imposed on them by the movement.” (p191)

Of course, feminists are vanilla prudes—I’ve heard that one before! You know, I consider myself positive toward sex, but I’ve never understood the claims of the sex-pozzies. For example, how can sex ever be boring? The only time I’ve ever had boring sex is when I did it with men. I’ve been having vanilla, politically correct sex with women for years and enjoying it very much. I don’t know how it could possibly bore anyone to be lovingly touched by a lover that they’re attracted to—I can think of almost nothing more exciting than that. I love the sentence in that last quote about “humdrum “equal time” touching and cunnilingus.” How can equal touching and cunnilingus be humdrum? That sounds great to me! The entire point of the sex-pozzies is to make normal sex sound boring even though it’s not, and to make abusive sex more accepted. This strategy sounds downright anti-sex to me, which is why I refuse to call them sex-positive.

The lesbian sexual radicals of the 1980s created sexually explicit materials, held workshops on lesbian s/m and opened shops that sold leather and toys. These were popular for a few years and then their popularity dwindled.

“Typically, in a 1987 survey among lesbians in Boulder, Colorado—a liberal, trendy university community—fewer than 10 percent had ever experimented with sexual activities such as s/m or bondage, 75 percent said they had never been involved in sexual role playing, and only 1 percent thought casual sex was ideal for them.”(p192)

The lesbian feminists were quite angry with the sexual radicals, but perhaps they didn’t need to worry about it so much—most of the sexual practices they were promoting didn’t catch on with many women. Lesbians still have a tendency to be serial monogamists, and lots of us are still having that “boring” egalitarian sex.

Faderman describes some of the work of the sexual radicals, for example, some of their films, their burlesque shows, lesbian bath houses, etc. I found that I wasn’t against most of the things they created, but I disagree with their general attitude that more sex and more orgasms are part of the revolution. Orgasms are great, but they won’t liberate us from oppression.

She also talks about the influence that feminism had on the sexual radicals. Lots of them did have a sense of ethics in the work they created that resembled the ethics of the feminists. For example, burlesque shows had a variety of women of different races, ages, and body types, in order for all women to be represented. One of the films she mentions was so adorable that I’m going to quote the description here:

“Generally the lesbian film companies emphasized the erotic rather than the pornographic. Lavender Blue Productions, for example, produced Where There’s Smoke in 1986, in which the sex is even politically correct: two women drink tea and have gentle conversation before they make love orally, with soft guitar music in the background.”(p195)

This made me laugh so hard! Of course when lesbians make porn movies, they start out with women drinking tea and having gentle conversation! When I read this, I thought that sounded lovely, and then I laughed at myself for thinking that it sounded lovely.

Both of these groups, feminists and sexual radicals, have had an influence on the culture that persists today. I carry the best of both worlds in my beliefs. I do think women should be free to explore their sexuality and act on their lust, but I think sexual practices need to have a sense of ethics that are rooted in an understanding of female oppression.


8 thoughts on “Lesbian sex wars in the 1980s

  1. Funnily enough, I was just thinking about this the other day after reading something about butch/femme where the author didn’t even mention the whole bdsm factor, but instead framed the “sex wars” as being an assault on butch/femme identities. Thanks for confirming that my recall wasn’t entirely off base.
    I am also interested in how Sheila Jeffreys in “Unpacking Queer Politics” brings the influence of gay male sexual practices/pornography (multiple casual sexual partners, bath houses, bdsm role play, leather queens, etc) into the conversation about the Sex Wars. I think she makes some very pertinent points with regard to this, particularly in the context of how patriarchy shapes and influences sexuality and in the process marginalises women, even within what was known then as the “gay liberation” movement.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I haven’t read Unpacking Queer Politics but that is on my (very long) reading list. I have read Anticlimax though and she does an analysis of the way same-sex couples create power imbalances on purpose, particularly gay men.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes I agree..that if a Lesbian is going to explore Leatherdyke sex she should be aware of the implications and ethics involved. I LIVED through the Lesbian Sex Wars and I was one of the Leatherdykes talked about. Boulder was too tame for my tastes and in 1981 so in December of 1983 I left for San Francisco to meet other Leatherdykes.

    But that community is not enoufh for me because I VALUE the consistent Female identification of Cultural Lesbian Feminist culture.And I strongly feel that culture created many of allof our Lesbian institutions, the bookstores, the Festivals, the womens spirituality movement which I highly value, the Tradeswomen Movement to get Dykes and women into good paying jobs with benefits, even Osento hottub run and staffed by Lesbians which by the way was structly patrolled and NEVER a sexual environment, but a place for dykes to connect and calm our weary bones.

    As a LeatherDyke, I am too kinky for most Separatists, but I am WAYYYY too Separatist and Radical Feminist and Dyke identified for most Leatherdykes.

    However when I hit San Francisco I DID meet a handful of Separatist radicsl feminist leatherdykes who did not sgree with either Pat Califia or Gayle Rubin and split off and had their own group. Completely Lesbian positive, strongly Feminist, with strong ethics and often fluid, not entirely caught up in role polarities but moving between them.

    Safe, sane and consensual was and still is our motto and Lesbians and women first. Sheila Brush..a Jewish LeatherDyke Separatist, a Red diaper baby was one of them and she has since passed(from Alzheimer’s). I honor her.

    Her and my first partner and I both had LeatherDyke groups in the 80s..hers in San Francisco, ours in the East Bay, and men, bisexuals and trans mtfs tried to get in and we were VERY CLEAR with a NO, and they ALWAYS tried both groups but we’ call the other and keep tabs. Nor did we allow sex professionals..strictly 100% Lesbians.

    Even then in the 80s it was hard to keep ANY strictly Lesbian only group going, but some of us did. By the 90s most of tge Lesbian groups either allowed bisexuals in, and eventually trans, and Lesbian only space was almost unheard of. Thoughthere still were Lesbian dances, potlucks and events and the SF Dyke March.

    But the death knell was when.our independent womyns bookstores started closing, Butches started FTMing in larger numbers, the putdowns of Michfest and the installation of Camp Trans, and the disappearance of more and more lesbian businesses with nothing to take their place and the insistence of both sides of trans in all Lesbian and womyns spaces.

    Commitment inmrelationship.is important to me, though I am not nor could be 100% monogamous, I amnin fact, and honest with my partner.
    Mere sexual conquest without feelings and emotions is for the young exploring and men. I did my share, but AS a Lesbian, I always had feelings there
    Its just that not everyone is or should be relationship material.

    I am all for Lesbians exploring their sexuality freely and ethically and safely…especially safe sex with casual partners which.many nonleather lesbians felt spoiled it. Till they came down with herpes. Yes Lesbians have and get stds, even as the lowest risk group. We CAN prevent them.

    But I also honor Lesbians being able to committ to longterm relationships and the depth. emotion and feeling in Lesbian sexuality, and Lesbian Sexual Magic. Autonomous male free Lesbian sexuality is unlike ANYTHING ELSE on the Planet, that is why men fear it so and so want to control it, and us. As womyn WE are multi orgasmic Beings, no man can even come close to satisfying a woman the way a knowledgeable Lesbian could..and on so many levels if there is a deep connection. And no fear of pregnancy either.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. You might remember that you are a child of your times and our time was different. I had two long term relationships with Leather/BDSM dykes and I was quite happy to let them go play especially at the West Coast Music Festival. The 70’s and 80’s dykes were raised in the 50’s and 60’s and had a completley different socialization than you. Faderman is basically correct on all points

    Liked by 1 person

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