by Gillian Hanscombe
In An Intimate Wilderness: Lesbian Writers on Sexuality Judith Barrington, Ed. (The Eighth Mountain Press, 1991), pp. 216-220.
It’s passion, not mere sex, that is the sure foundation of lesbian identity. And it’s passion, in my opinion, that drives a truly lesbian woman all the days of her life. Yes, I know, we’ve had it all explained, how falling in love is a patriarchal ploy to keep women enslaved; how freedom involves divesting sex of its signifiers, its imagery, so that we can all see it for what it is: just plain sex. Then, the explanation continues, we can throw off the traps of our sentimental gushings and have sex that is “fun,” or “friendly,” or invigorating (like cold showers?), or positively alienating, having had its human significance demythologised.
This originally feminist argument had just cause: it was founded in a critique of heterosexual propaganda whose tradition set women up, through a dazzle of fripperies and social image pressure, to fall prey to the myth of romantic courtship and marriage. Scrupulously feminists first analysed, and then denounced, the hidden agenda of such romance: enforced dependence, enforced inequality, and enforced servitude. Romance was out, they advised: autonomy, liberated sex, self-determination were in.
For lesbians this–like all heterosexual feminist commentary–carried oblique ironies. Lesbians never had been enjoined (let alone permitted) to marry each other; nor had lesbian romance been conceived as a relationship between unequals. Nevertheless, many lesbian women took heart from this kind of feminist analysis and began to explore, both in life and in theory, what demythologised sex might mean. Some soon became aware of an obvious truth: that no human action can be divested of myth, of symbolism, of significance. What happens when a myth is successfully challenged is simply that another myth takes its place. And the myth currently being implanted in what some lesbians call lesbian erotica is a far more degrading one than anything the myth of lesbian passion might have invented.
Other lesbians, despite the feminist call for autonomous sex, have persisted in searching for “the real thing” or, having found it, have persisted in throwing everything else aside in order to keep and protect it. The real thing is lesbian passion: a fully expressed and reciprocated celebration of our femaleness, its flesh, words, perceptions, judgments, feelings, hopes; its past and its future, everything that has been ours and will remain ours.
“The sure foundation of lesbian identity,” I said. But should I rather say–given the current lesbian sex industry hype–the sure foundation of lesbian-feminist identity? Simple-minded sex: monocular-visioned, alienated from feminist aims, tediously described, packaged in cheap writing and tawdry images, is now sold for profit into a mostly young, mostly undiscerning and deliberately created market. This market is often described as postfeminist, but is actually antifeminist, since its stated values do not attempt to challenge patriarchy and do not promote egalitarianism between women. Lesbian antifeminists who make and consume what they call lesbian erotica variously present themselves as happy and well-adjusted appreciators of “soft” porn (can any porn actually be “soft”?); or as converts to the liberating delights of sadomasochism (liberated to what ends and purposes?); or as intelligent opponents of censorship, supporters of free speech (but have we ever supported free speech when it came to expressions of racial hatred or incitements against lesbians?) And in any case, material defended as lesbian erotica, as “being open about sex,” is not demythologised at all: on the contrary, it promotes a new and vicious fantasy in which a woman may excuse anything she does by asserting that it has “liberated” her.
The imaging of so-called erotica created from such decadent lesbian imaginations finds itself comfortably placed within the culture arising from the corruption of Anglo-American social values instanced by unbridled market forces and their accompanying ideology. This means that some lesbian media makers have responded to the new fantasy by saying, in effect, “If this is what lesbians want, then they should have it”; and “If this is what lesbians want, then it must be right.” It isn’t a long leap, then, to say, “If this isn’t what lesbians want, then they ought to want it, or they’re not real lesbians.” More sinister is the implicit argument from market forces: “If lesbians want this, then we should sell it to them and make a lot of money.”
Some of us who have been watching all this rather silently, now need to stand up and be counted and to say clearly what we think decent lesbian sex is really about: decent meaning satisfying; and decent also meaning ethically defensible. Decent lesbian sex, first of all, can’t be traded; and decent lesbian relationships can’t be successfully commercially packaged.
Sex as outlined by enthusiasts for sadomasochism (empty-headed, wrong-headed, disreputable, disrespectful, decadent), or as recommended by exponents of half-baked therapies, is not what most of us ever went to the barricades for; is not why we came out; is not the source of our strength in resistance to the patriarchy; is not the hope for development and renewal we offer to all women everywhere. Sex in its degraded modes as defiance, titillation, cruelty, blackmail, dishonesty, or childish indiscipline is not what tempts a mature woman to leave an established relationship, to suffer estrangement from family, friends, and neighbourhood, to change jobs, or to cross oceans. And sex as an expression of boredom, discontent, or petty frustration is insufficient to deceive a woman who knows she’s more than the sum of her parts.
It’s when two women fall in love with each other that lives are transformed, mountains moved, dormant strengths discovered, enhanced and magnified. And falling in love can’t be manipulated, either by one’s own will, or by a culture of erotica. Falling in love has little to do with what is outside us. Nothing falls on me from above. I do the falling; and so does she. We fall towards one another, trusting in trust, believing that the nakedness of the body indeed images the nakedness of the dreams and theories, the tempests and the narratives, that we are prepared to reveal. And the mystery of the continuity of passion lies in the capacity of the other, the partner, and in oneself, to be endless, to be never completely claimed, to be never utterly known. That capacity for endlessness, for change, is what is energised by passion. Truly shared sexuality changes us, over and over, more powerfully than almost anything else.
None of this is really new. These are things lesbians have always known and they are the things that have always sustained us, whether or not we had books and theories, bars and discos, friends or enemies. We didn’t build a movement on the shallowness of one-night stands or on the poverty of sex for fun. We didn’t make our arts and literature out of alienated sleeping around. We’ve built on richer things and they’re things that can’t be bought, sold, bribed, or bartered.
I don’t think I mind if women cavort, or write a lot of rubbish, or swan around bars, or boast about their affairs, or flirt with each other, or invent bravados, or take up odd fashions, or give in to various unworthinesses. I’ve done it all myself, anyway. And the world is big enough. And none of it kills anyone. But when I see two women in love, then I’m moved. And now that I’m forty-six, I can see more of them than I used to.
I’m aware, as I write this, that my views can be brushed aside as old-fashioned, staid, boringly vanilla, even puritanical; that in my forty-seventh year I can be dismissed as a kill-joy by the vibrant, energetic young as easily as I can remember dismissing views held by my mother and her contemporaries. I’m at a vulnerable age, after all. There is the body’s perceptible, inexorable giving-way to the signs of female ageing we’ve been taught to hate. There is the patriarchal pressure oozing from magazines and television screens that insinuates–cunningly, quietly–how undesirable we are, how tasteless and embarrassing we shall become if we attempt a presence in the world of the erotic. There are the personal dreads: to be an elderly lesbian (how to live? on what?); to be a displaced dyke, depressed or diseased or distressed, without the comfort of community on marches or demos, the heat of debate at conferences, even the seedy glamour of discos.
So mine may be merely the feeble chronic cry of the middle-aged railing against the generation gap. Much in the lesbian social scene reinforces such a view. Sexuality is for the young, it’s everywhere asserted: dress codes, haircuts, genre fiction, bar scenes–the burgeoning commercial pull of designer lesbianism that says sex is easy, sex is simple, sex is liberating, sex is fun, and sex is for the young. But in middle age we know for sure–even if we didn’t when we were younger–that what blows the mind, and what threatens the patriarchy, isn’t two women in bed together, but two women in love together. Two women in love can do anything: make contracts, or break them; leave children, or have them; buy houses, or sell them; start careers, or give them up; provoke all manner of mayhem for those around them and yet release an intensely creative energy in the ordering of their lives. Two women in love can invent a new reality, making and remaking a world where lesbian lives are central.
My age makes it possible, of course, to mistake some important revolution or other for a wearisome minor debate. But I don’t think so, in this instance. I don’t think those now writing and photographing what they call lesbian erotica have discovered anything new or that they are presenting anything artistically authentic. Lesbian eroticism has always been perfectly safe and genuinely accessible to any of us who truly wanted it: in the work of writers we’ve searched out, in the diaries, letters, and journals we’ve excavated, in the stories we’ve told about the great and famous, or about the women we’ve known personally. But always what excited us was the discovery that so-and-so loved so-and-so, rather than whether they used sex aids or wore leather or rubber in bed.
Now, what remains, among our other tasks and pleasures, is the continuing and renewal of the tradition we’ve inherited: a faithful reporting and recording of how we’ve loved and why, giving due attention to the contexts we’ve inhabited and invented; and to the signifiers and metaphors for the emotional, existential, and metaphysical dimensions from which our sexual modes–feelings and practices–acquire meaning and resonance. That can’t be done through menacing rhetoric or lazy art, through following male pornographers down well-trodden paths of explicit descriptions of sexual acts. Pornography, irrespective of who produces it, leaves predictable after-images of brutalised flesh; in the mind of the consumer, objectified women become just that: objects. On the contrary, a true rendering of lesbian sexuality as it is experienced and lived is a very complex activity. It demands lesbian-feminist reciprocity: twoway interaction, comment, discussion, and evaluation between artists and audiences, utterers and listeners. It demands ethical clarity, shared between a lesbian spokeswoman and her community, about what is to be valued in lesbian experience and what is to be modified or rejected. It demands integrity of insight and accuracy in presentation. It demands willingness, to accept the hardships of genuine innovation and experiment: misinterpretation, unpopularity, even rejection; not to mention negligible financial rewards for work done. But above all it demands fidelity to those in the past, and those in lives to come, for whom lesbian passion is the cornerstone of a decent life.