Les Belles Dames Sans Merci
Crabs in a bucket, and the 80s implosion of the sex positive femmedom
My publishing partner Debi handled money pressure different than I did. I always wanted to throw in the towel, give up, throw ourselves at the public mercy.
If we could hire an ordinary press to print On Our Backs, it would have cost us $5000 in 1980’s money. But because we were women, printing a radical feminist erotic magazine, there was only one printer who would “take the risk”— they produced gay men’s sex magazines too— and they charged $1 apiece for a 48-page black and white magazine. That’s before you even get them bundled into trucks.
I would call up printers, looking for a reasonable quote, and urge them to look at the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe in the New York Times1— to no avail. On Our Backs’ taste in photos was more “avant-garde feminist art show” than “Times Square back-room”— (though hopefully we found the perfect synthesis)— but we were treated like a racketeering bust waiting to happen.
Joani Blank, my old boss at Good Vibrations, had warned me this would happen. She wold put together serious sex education books like Jack Morin’s Anal Pleasure and Health— no photos, something that could be used as a textbook by med school students. She would be stopped in her tracks because she couldn’t find a bindery to glue it together. “Some Christian at the bindery has objected to anal sex.”
We were too obscene to glue together. All of us, the women in erotica and sex education, ended up paying what amounted to enormous bribes.
And the printers’ risk? Zero. The American attorney generals’ office, to this very day, has the same attitude towards women’s sexual potential as Queen Victoria. They really don’t believe lesbians have sex.
I’ve seen my FBI file, three inches thick, and it’s all labor and civil rights organizing— they wanted the big boys. They weren’t going to press charges against a press involved in something as ephemeral as “feminist pornography”— that would be a contradiction in terms for them.
It never ended. We couldn't open up a business bank account or get a credit card to process customer orders because we were considered “a risky business.” We couldn’t get fire insurance— why? Do lesbian pornographers burn down their cubbyholes often? Everywhere we went, men who bought whores every day turned us down because of “the nature of your business.”
Debi was pissed too, but she considered it a “tax” for being in business at all—A potentially lucrative business. I never saw the lucre; I only feared being marched out of the office at gunpoint because we hadn’t paid our rent in three months.
Debi liked to say, “What would Steve Jobs do?” Steve Jobs were her Number One favorite man in the whole world. She had me fooled for a year that she knew him personally because she quoted him so extensively I thought they had just met in the Copenhagen Room at the O’Farrell Theater for a lap dance.
“We’re not going to pay for typesetting anymore,” Deb announced one day. “It’s too expensive and it’s irrelevant. Steve Jobs has a computer for us that’s going to change all that; we’ll do it right here in the front room.” She said this pointing at their living room which had been transformed into our pasteup and layout den.
A computer? I imagined “Hal” in Space Odyssey. Impossible! I couldn’t man a rocket; I only knew how to write, edit, wax down copy, use a proportion wheel.
Debi came home with an enormous beautiful white box that looked like it belonged on a Milan runway. In it was a computer and a keyboard. The 1984 Macintosh desktop computer.
I started sniveling. “I can’t do it; you don’t understand . . . I barely passed ninth grade algebra.”
She took a tape cassette out of the package and put it in her boom box. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Flute music started up on the tape as if we were about to attend a New Age seminar. I felt as though someone had placed an egg or a bomb over my head, but I couldn't tell which.
A woman’s voice came over the speaker. She sounded beatific. “Take the monitor out of the box,” she said. She patiently explained how to insert the plug on both ends. Debi rolled her eyes.
The disembodied Apple Goddess said, “Press the Power Button on.”
It was like a priest declaring, “Body of Christ.” A heavenly tone came out of the computer, as if something was being born. The screen flickered and a smiling little “box face” appeared on screen. It twinkled at me. It said, “I don’t care if you didn’t understand ninth grade algebra.”
I blew my nose in my wet Kleenex one last time and Debi said, “So how fast can you type?”
Debi wanted everything Steve Jobs had— like investors. Giant loans. People clamoring at our innovation.
I felt she was ignoring political reality. “People don’t think Steve Jobs is a pervert,” I said. “No one’s trying to take him away in leg irons for frightening the horses.”
“He IS frightening the horses,” Debi said, cupping her face in her palm like she and Steve had just spent all last night in pillow talk. She was going to be Doris Day to his Rock Hudson.
On Our Backs was embraced, at first, by San Francisco’s commie and anarchist bookstores. Modern Times, and Bound Together. They loved us. They were good for about hundred copies in sales. We were a big hit on the emerging Internet too, circa “800 baud” modems. There was no World Wide Web. We picked up devoted Star Trek fans on Usenet.
Finally, the gay men’s bookstores, like A Different Light, opened their arms to us— they loved us, too. That meant a few thousand dollars— a glimmer of hope.
There were large women’s bookstores in every major city, the heart of feminist publishing, but each one took a different position on us. —Mostly “against.” Some, like the Toronto Women’s Bookstore or a Room of One’s Own in Wisconsin, issued press releases where they accused us of virulent racism, anti-Semitism, female genocide, white slavery, pimps masquerading as women.
When I spoke on the topic of female orgasm in Western Massachusetts, I got bomb threats at two different campuses.
There was one rumor that “Susie Bright” and sex theorist “Pat Califia” were one and the same person, who was not actually a woman at all but a pimp hired by the Mitchell Brothers and a Japanese porn syndicate who were selling women as sex slaves overseas. Ha!
We got “Letters to the Editor” with such conspiracy theories.
This swell of protest against “lesbian pornographers” had two main charismatic leaders, both of whom were loathe to mention our names in public. But we said theirs all the time: Catherine MacKinnon, a legal scholar, and Andrea Dworkin, a poet and writer.
I was fascinated by Dworkin because she was truly radical, a poet who took her manifesto into philosophical deep water. She wasn’t content to just whine about porn or “traitors” like On Our Backs. No, she questioned the very nature of penis-vagina intercourse itself. It didn’t make much physiological or psychological sense— her impression of intercourse was biblical rather than scientific. But she had . . . flair. It’s like arguing with Freud but being happy he took you for a ride.
When I read Dworkin’s novel, Ice and Fire, I thought, “Look at this: she’s recreated De Sade’s Juliette.” She was De Sade’s most brilliant student. She could write sadistic sex scenes and vicious critiques of the bourgeoisie like few of her peers.
If I could get Dworkin to sheath her sword, I would’ve loved to sit down for a conversation. Unfortunately, she didn’t have time for most women’s minds— not mine, not anyone’s. She was a patriarchal opponent who preferred the company of the most cerebral male scholars.
MacKinnon, on the other hand was a square, a non-original. She had sterling judicial provenance from her family; her father was a judge and former congressman.
The same year I was editing my first issue of On Our Backs, MacKinnon and Dworkin went to work for the Minneapolis city government to draft an anti-pornography civil rights ordinance which deemed “pornography” as a civil rights violation against women. It would have allowed women who claimed “harm from pornography” to sue the producers and distributors for damages.
And that “pornography” and “harm” was whatever you said it was. After all, we all know it when we see it, right? They pursued the same strategy in Indianapolis. Most influentially of all, Andrea and Catherine’s activism completely revamped the Canadian Customs code for what kind of literature could enter their nation.
Let me give you an example of how that worked out in practice: I would submit a story for a feminist erotic publication…. about two lovers who have a conflict but then make up and live happily ever after.
Not to the Canadian Customs department! Our publication would be stopped and seized at the border because no woman can have an argument in an erotic publication— that is “violence against women.” No one could have “anal sex” because that is “violence against women.” No woman could masturbate a sex toy because that is “violence against women.”
Of course, this was only, and exclusively enforced against small presses. If I wrote or edited a story with the same elements for a major New York publisher, it sailed through through the border.
Catherine and Andrea were not naive about the consequences imposed on lesbian, queer, and feminist presses. Their slippery slope was greasier than a leather boy’s bathhouse. Both women’s efforts in Minnesota and Indiana attracted the support of Christian conservatives whom they joined in coalition to drive their legislation through. They didn’t always win in the courts— but the link between Bible Thumpers and Porn-Bashers was made perfect.
As traditional Puritans like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Phyllis Schlafly adopted “feminist” rhetoric about “the degradation of women”— any thought of eviscerating the patriarchy blew away like so much dust. Whatever Mackinnon’s plans were for women’s liberation, she ended up erecting a chastity belt around the First Amendment.
Of course, I took it personally. How could these leaders and their shock troops think they had more in common with crooked televangelists than they did with me, someone who drew pictures of clits on walls? I started to feel like the “crooked” part was what they had in common.
Either that, or they were grudges so old we couldn’t fathom their origin.
In 1997, I got an invitation to speak in Madison, Wisconsin, with a slideshow of lesbian photography from On Our Backs. It was work featured in Jill Posener’s and my book, Nothing but the Girl.
Curiously, our picture show was sponsored by A Room of One’s Own, one of the bookshops that had declared a jihad against OOB when we debuted in 1984. When I got to meet the bookstore staff, I was curious to meet them— and they were so happy to see me. Hugs and kisses all around.
“I don’t get it,” I explained to them. “I don’t mean to be rude, but you never carried On Our Backs before; you led the protest against us. It was like Andrea Dworkin’s marching orders. Who died?”
I was trying to keep it light.
The five women who’d greeted me looked down at the floor, guilty. My host adjusted her paperclip necklace and tried to keep her voice steady. “Eh, one of our founders died, actually. She’d been fighting cancer for a long time, and…”
That’s what it was like.
The “investors” we thought we’d be best friends with, our feminist foremothers, had made up their minds they were going to die before they let us in the door.
And Main Street America? Well, we were just whores to them; they didn’t talk to us during business hours. It didn’t matter what the Constitution said, how the Miller v. California SCOTUS case Statute established non-obscene speech, what Henry Miller or D.H. Lawrence had accomplished in the courts. We didn’t have lawyers and civil rights leaders pressing our case.
Most of our audience was, no matter how sympathetic, a group of men and women who didn’t admit their sexual preferences in public. They only dreamed of being out of the closet. They weren’t going to make a phone call.
One day, laying out our second issue, Nan was on the office phone with Barbara Grier from Naiad Press. Grier published hundreds of lesbian romances— sapphic Harlequin’s— and made a handsome living selling to an audience the rest of the world didn’t even know existed. Their top title was about lesbian nuns.
Barbara didn’t mince words. “I don’t have a problem with you,” she said. “We’ve known Honey Lee for years.”
Translation: “We are old-gay butch/femme — we could give a shit about the feminist sex wars.”
“But,” Barbara continued, “everyone we know thinks y’all should be assassinated.”
And who did she know? Their little sisters included all the feminist bookstore owners, the “wimmin’s” music festival producers, the Tarot card printers, the separatist land communes, the money makers and key holders of the lesbian womb-acracy. They were the economic and political capital of lesbian feminism. They’d made a dollar and set a tone.
Nan’s eyes flitted over our dildos, latex lingerie, and lube lying on the floor from last night’s photo shoot— “We don’t fit in anymore.”
We knew the feminist world; we created it. How could we be the enemy, how could there be a split?
Barbara’s description of “assassinators” wasn’t rhetorical; our adversaries never gave us a moment’s peace. We got hate mail every day, largely unsigned. The anonymous furies who reminded me of the students in Muriel Sparks’ novel, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” who’d follow their charismatic guru anywhere, even if it meant over a cliff. In Spark’s story, a schoolteacher named Miss Brodie whips her little girls into going to fight for Mussolini, which is little more than an exercise in her narcissism. Tragedy and scandal result.
In our case, everything was there except for the swastikas and a railroad wreck. The anonymous anti-porn-warriors put everything they had on the line to STOP us. While the “Grown-Ups” at Dworkin-MacKinnon Headquarters barely acknowledged us by name— their acolytes came at us with knives, baseball bats, legal threats, fake buckets of blood, in bars, on the street, at literary conferences. They talked to each other in code. On Our Backs supporters were considered the gender equivalent of “race traitors.”
The most eloquent among the feminist anti-censorship crowd: Ellen Willis, Patrick Califia, Gayle Rubin, Nan Hunter, Lisa Duggan, Dorothy Allison, Carole Vance, Amber Hollibaugh — they made the case for sexual expression and women’s demand to articulate their desire. It was lofty, it was deep—it changed the social sciences and humanities in academia forever. A book came out in 1992, called Caught Looking,Feminism, Pornography & Censorship, that was so eloquent and rational it would have made Rousseau swoon. But Rousseau was not active in most Women’s Studies departments.
For all our influence, the On Our Backs staff weren’t creatures of academia. We were artists, sex workers, activists, and publishers. We were “in the trade.”
If I had a gold coin for every one of the “Anti-OOB Feminists” who had a dildo or whip in their closet, I’d be Midas. I couldn’t fathom their duplicity.
The people who tried blacklist or beat me in my teenage years, in The Red Tide, they were actual white supremacists. Strike-breakers. Cops on the take. Mafia goons. Whoever heard of a woman your own size and political persuasion determined to drown you in the bathtub?
In the beginning, I thought our feminist critics only needed a sensitive explanation, a bit of sex ed— much like my old customers in the vibrator store. “The Try-Out Room won’t bite you!”
But the bullies weren’t our customers or students— they were our competition. We were fighting over scraps— the oldest bitch game in the world.
I ended up in bed— or erotically adjacent— with some of my so-called political enemies.
One spring, the first year of On Our Backs, I was seeking the attention of a longshoreman bulldagger, Annie, a known stone butch who made me weak in the knees. She was a Stonewall-decade older than me. I’d look at her well-worn hands, she’d stare at my cunt, and my stomach would start to churn.
I saw her flirting with other women. When she wanted you, you could barely stand on your feet. When she worked security for a queer event, she could drive away straight men, cops, and poseurs with one flinty glance. Between her threatening disposition toward adversaries and her appetite for pretty women was a hair trigger I couldn’t wait to tease out.
I found out where she lived in the neighborhood. She had an apartment on Potrero Hill sporting some of the most best graffiti in town: ‘Women’s Liberation gonna get your momma, gonna get your sister, gonna get your girlfriend.”
One day I passed her apartment building from my bus stop, dawdling. I had such a girlish crush that I entertained the notion, “What if she’s coming home from work; what if we run into each other? What if I said I was selling Girl Scout cookies?”
And then, she did come home— just as I was dreaming of Thin Mints.
My butch dreamboat hustled across the street holding the arm of a slim blonde woman in a scarf, neither of them noticing me at all. I watched the door slam behind them, heard their quick steps up the stairs.
I imagined them dropping to the bed, the floor, my dream butch peeling off Miss Veronica Lake’s trench coat and scarf. My imagination was making me sick.
I ran home and phoned Margie, my friend at OOB. She was taking a break from packing boxes. I knew she used to drink at Maud’s Bar with my crush, back in the ‘60s. Maybe she’d calm me down.
“Margie, what’s the matter with me?” I was sweating all over. “I need to get laid instead of mooning around. My crush thinks I’m just a little girl.”
“Oh, she put her eye on you, little girls are just her thing. But she’s fucking Kitty MacKinnon right now; who’s a man-eater— there’s no time to fuck anyone else.”
What? Veronica Lake was Kitty MacKinnon? And Kitty wanted to get plowed by a stone butch who’d pull her hair and make her moan? How could that be true? How could someone as straitlaced as Miss MacKinnon afford to do anything in her bedroom besides keep a goldfish?
Margie had no further time for me: “That’s what I heard; I gotta go back.”
The rumors continued… but they were the stock stereotypes that enveloped our debate. The “anti-porn feminists” were all supposed to be ascetics and celibates. They weren’t— they did everything in bed, just like normal kinky people everywhere. The On Our Backs staff, by contrast, was supposedly acting out De Sade, page by page. It was all nonsense. When I thought about Kitty or Veronica getting laid and making bank when I was eating government cheese and lying alone with a ratty old pillow, I could just scream. It was easier to go back to work.
People ask me today, “So, who won? What happened? Are you happy now?”
I am, and was, always happy when I’m creating— that was the best part of On Our Backs. The stories and pictures we got from our readers “split the world open” with their honesty, as Muriel Rukeyser predicted so well.
How often do you hear women tell the truth about sex? Never! OOB was for me, six years of truth-mongering. It had the flavor of rock and roll.
Madison Avenue took the sizzle of the lesbian feminist sex wars and put it in their own steak. How do you get from Patti Smith to Spring break softporn videos of Girls Gone Wild? Well, that’s the question I’m left with. It wasn’t our plan. I don’t give a shit if anyone buys anything for a personal sexual revolution— you can’t purchase your way into it.
Straight women never got the power they wanted to come clean about sex. Instead, they got shoe-buying orgies and vibrator-tittering on romantic comedies like Sex and the City. The whole point was, “find romantic and financial fulfillment with the right man.”
Sex for the sake of self-knowledge, ecstasy, or communal connection? No.
Naiad Press’s founders retired to the Gulf Coast a few years after that warning phone call. Good Vibrations was purchased by one of the traditional novelty companies that Joani Blank and I used to laugh about, the dinosaurs.
Kitty MacKinnon and Andrew Dworkin formed political and legal coalitions with the Christian right. The bedsheets really stunk. The people who came out on top, materially speaking, were not the pioneers or the innovators.
Would you like fries with that?
In 2009, I asked Gayle Rubin to come down to the University of California in Santa Cruz to speak about the legacy of the feminist sex wars. She said, “Oh, Susie, I don’t know if I want to go back to this subject. It’s been so many years.”
“I know what you mean. After all the lynchings, you wonder what the point was. That’s why I want you here… ‘cause we need to do the forensics.”
She came down, with boxes of books and old documents that no other library possesses… there is very little microfiche on the ephemera of radical feminist history.
Rubin gave a lecture to the young undergrads and showed notable examples of women, who in defending radical sexual liberation, found themselves cast out of Eden. They were decried as Tools of the Man— instead of the founders of contemporary feminism. Gayle pointed out that the accusations were absurd.
But instead of being laughed at, the censors were taken seriously. People were drummed out for using the wrong word, being a “sympathizer” of sexual minorities. Being a “SM practitioner” (whatever that meant) was conflated with fascism. One bright white line, over in an instant.
I remember the day I crossed over that line. It was the year before On Our Backs debuted. I was at a founding meeting at UCLA of a political coalition that was dedicated to answering the Christian-style homophobia of the Moral Majority. Gay activists came from all over the state.
I had quite accidentally been assigned to write an amendment to the mission statement, from our San Francisco contingent, in which we said, “as gay people—” cough, cough— we express our solidarity with all sexual minorities.” I named names: prostitutes, transsexuals, the leather community— anyone who is singled out and persecuted for their sexual life.
There was a loud hiss on the floor when I read the resolution, then a stampede. Robin Tyler, a stand-up comic who’d become a major producer of women’s music festivals, headed up the warpath with her girlfriend, Torie Osborne. They were not going to tolerate us San Francisco types ruining their coalition.
I wasn’t ready for this. I knew the kind of queer dive clubs Robin Tyler had come up through in comedy clubs. She must’ve spent more time in stripper dressing rooms than I had! Cross-dressers and hookers surely were part of her extended family. But now “The First Wives Club” was determined to drum us out. They had their eye on me because I was wearing fuchsia lipstick and a studded leather collar around my neck, along with my horn-rimmed eyeglasses.
I was asked point blank by one of their young acolytes, a girl in a “Holly Near” t-shirt, if I had been paid off by the “leathermen” to do this.
Yeah, right, guys with black paddles just gave me thousands for a shopping spree.
I told her, “You know, my friends and I brought Holly Near to our high school in 1973 and the Boys Dean pulled the plug on her when she sang about Vietnam. But she kept singing and we sang with her and we wouldn't shut up all afternoon.”
Holly Junior glared at me. She didn’t believe me.
The debate over ‘the San Francisco amendment” raged on in the stuffy empty classrooms we’d rented at UCLA’s spring break campus. I knew my dad was working in his office over in the Linguistics department and I wanted to get away from all the bitterness. I hiked over to Campbell Hall in my controversial outfit, feeling more normal with each step. There were kids my age all over campus with ragged kilts, multiple ear piercings, Johnny Rotten undershirts. My lipstick did not distinguish me.
Bill laughed when he saw me. “Your short hair… the lipstick… you look so much like your mother.” I had been such a hippie girl only a year before, with my long hair and overalls.
Maybe he’d like to tell Robin Tyler about my mom’s style.
Christ, if my mom saw a butch woman like Tyler, her eyes would turn into slits: “What the hell does she think she’s trying to prove?” A good match-up.
I sat on top of Bill’s old oak desk. “Look, is there something really, ethically, morally wrong with S/M that I don’t know about? Am I naive? What are these people so worked up about? —No, don’t laugh!”
“Let me see your amendment.” He couldn’t wait to get his red pen out of his shirt pocket.
“All these people think I’m in a back room whipping someone to death! I haven’t done anything! They won’t stop making stuff up!”
Bill took his pen and moved my document’s commas inside my quotation marks. “You know, this kind of thing has been going on forever,” he said. “Of course, you’re right to defend the persecuted. Most people know very little about sex, and you’re dealing with that all the time now.”
He handed my copyedited amendment back. “This stuff you’re hearing is the same kind of things they said about “homosexuals” when I was in college. “
He gestured to a photo propped up behind one of his desks. It was of all the young men in his UC Berkeley dormitory. All homosexual.
“You remember Jules; I’ve shown you photos of him in drag before.” Bill got out his big white handkerchief he always kept in his pocket. “He was the only one who refused to go to psychoanalysis or try to kill himself.
“He used the word “gay,” — he said it all all the time: ‘Thank god I’m gay— the straights can kiss my ass.’ We would sit around the coffee house on Telegraph Avenue and think he was… unbelievable. No one else talked like him.”
“Daddy, can I blow my nose?” I said. I loved using his handkerchiefs. I hated to say goodbye.
I went back to the conference and our amendment was trounced in a final vote.
My dominatrix friend Tina in Texas wrote me a year later after a particularly rough political battle in her state, an election rigged by evangelical zealots. She said, “I’m not spanking Republicans anymore, I’ve had it.”
That’s what I wish I’d done. I wouldn’t have tried to argue with the Carrie Nation blacklisters— I only titillated them, after all. I provided the red meat.
Have I been guilty of femme-on-femme destruction myself? Why did it blindside me?
In The Red Tide, I was surrounded by close women friends and we never got mad about sleeping with each other, each other’s boyfriends, or anything else. We talked about the serious problems we faced, and they weren’t each other.
The answer to my self-interrogation is . . . hard to spit out. The one young woman to whom I have been unconscionably bitchy, whom I have intimidated when it didn’t suit my tune, is my daughter. My baby. My maternal ills in action! The occasions I’ve competed with her or crossed her in anger, make me hang my head in shame. There’s no defense for it. I’d leech it out of my system if I could.
I’d look like a frickin’ feminist saint if I hadn’t become a mother.
And yet, loving my daughter right, delighting in her surpassing me, has been a healing kiss, if there ever was one. All the good women I knew, who did love me and mother me, they made a big difference. A huge difference. I have been loved well by most women in my life.
We don’t know Snow White Stepmother’s name, do we? She, Miss Queenie, was a nobody. She hired the henchmen, spread the ill words. But she had no real power. Just a mad vest-less consort, gazing in a mirror, her pitiful kingdom of shattered glass. Poor you. I know her now, La belle dame sans merci. She has cost us so very dearly.
This Times story features a photo from a series by Catherine Opie that we published in On Our Backs, only to have our magazines seized, and reported to the police. Our British publisher removed them from our book publication. And so it went.
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