Look On the Bright Side

by Anna Livia

In Unleashing Feminism: Critiquing Lesbian Sadomasochism in the Gay Nineties edited by Irene Reti

I arrived in California in August 1990 and everyone I knew had just left for the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. When they came back they regaled me with stories of the goings on. Apparently while sadomasochists had their own camping area, they had not been allowed to perform sadomasochist acts on stage. They had protested vehemently, hiring a low-flying plane to spray the area with fliers to explain their position. My friend E said she was concerned that some of the fliers might have been picked up by the wind and blown beyond the Festival grounds into the gardens of the local population. Thus outsiders would find out what was going on and the Festival would be endangered. I was not up to this sophisticated level of analysis and stood there going, “Yuk, do they have to do that to each other? I mean, doesn’t it hurt?” Whereupon another woman, a therapist, said, “Hell, Anna, can’t you think of anything good to say about sadomasochists?” I racked my brains accordingly and wrote this story for E’s birthday a month later.


Once upon a time in the state of Michigan, in a part of the country so hot in summer that the shedding of clothes and flesh and skin would still not cool the bones, so cold in winter that skin sticks to ice, splits and peels like skin on fire, there lived a happily married woman, mother of two fine sons. The house was well supplied with dishwashers and microwaves and electric ovens and walk-in refrigerators, so there was nothing for the happily married woman to do but cook and clean and wash and freeze and mother her two fine sons, as well as providing hand relief for her inestimable husband who was scared of contracting AIDS and had interesting ideas about causes.

One day the happily married woman was washing dishes, in the sink the old way because it made her feel virtuous, when a piece of paper landed in the soap suds. It was mauve. It was covered with words. She threw it in the trash, but clumsily and it landed on the floor where her inestimable husband slipped on it, soapy as it was.

“Goddamn stupid bitch,” he observed, and she set about pouring him a beer, and one for herself while she was at it. She put his on a little tray, with a second bottle so he could get a refill as and when, and brought it out to him in the garage. Her own she sipped at the kitchen table, for the first three sips, after which she chucked it back and reached for another. The mauve paper with the words was sitting on the top of the trash can as she passed.

“…Lesbian…,” it said, and “…Michigan…,” and “…Sadomasochist…” The happily married woman began to read, but one of her two fine sons came in to find out when dinner would be ready, so she had to put the paper down.

But the seed had been sown and that night the happily married woman sneaked down to the trash can to consider the evidence by dint of flashlight. There was in the State of Michigan a land where only women lived, and listened to music; a lesbian civilization so well-established that special facilities were provided for each of the many different kinds of woman. Except one, apparently; couples in which one woman hit another for sexual pleasure. These women were excluded, hence the mauve paper with the words which they had dropped from a low-flying plane to express their dissatisfaction.

Tick tick tick.

And a year later and in another country, though only an hour’s drive from her inestimable ex-husband’s house, the much happier, no longer married woman said, “Thank heavens for sadomasochists, without them I never would have heard of the land where women live, a land where there are no fine sons and no inestimable husbands.”


Once upon a time in a far off country where they strip to the blade to keep cool in summer, where they pack snow round nails to hurl in the frozen winter, and hurling them keep warm, there lived a small lesbian stretched taut as skin. If you held her to the light you would see only unsunned flesh and blue veins sharp as a right angle. And yet she breathed and her body was visited by the woman she loved.

The small lesbian put on her clothes, brushed her teeth and took public transportation to her place of work, the place where she worked for the woman she loved. For who else would employ a small lesbian with no skill and much silence? It was not a question the small lesbian dared ask. Fortunately the woman she loved asked for her.

“Where would you be without me, silent as you are?” “Who would employ you who cannot add or subtract or divide by nine, who make so many mistakes and cost more than you earn?”

“Why do you find it so hard to make friends, don’t people like you? All our friends are my friends, who would you have if I left you?”

The woman she loved was an activist in many important campaigns to create a lesbian civilization while, simultaneously, purifying it of undesirable elements. “What undesirable elements?” asked the small lesbian, eager for political insight. “There are women,” said the woman she loved, “who do terrible things to each other. Couples where one woman hits another for sexual pleasure, humiliates her partner and calls it consensual.” “Well at least we don’t do that,” said the small lesbian with a stab of half-forgotten humor. “What?” “You don’t ask my permission before you humiliate me.” “What do you mean?” “Nothing.”

The small lesbian went to the toilet. There was nowhere else to go. She sat and cried bitterly. She was not naturally small, she had been flattened inside a small perspex box whose only communication link was with the woman she loved.

“What are you doing in there? Communing with the devil?”

The small lesbian flushed the toilet, washed her face and went back to the woman she loved. There was nowhere else to go.

But the seeds had been sown and the small lesbian in her small solitude had many hours to think. There were women who deliberately humiliated their lovers because it gave them pleasure. These women were undesirable and nice lesbians steered clear of them. Even the woman she loved said humiliation was a terrible thing.

Tick tick tick.

And a year later and in another country the small lesbian, who was now quite large, said, “Thank heavens for sadomasochists, without them I never would have known you could consent to humiliation and therefore,” she said, “withhold consent.”