Home Up

The Culture of Radical Sex

By Pat Califia

< http://patcalifia.exit.mytoday.de/ >

 It Is Always Right to Rebel

Public Sex represents the bulk of my nonfiction work from 1979 to the present. That's a decade and a half of fuming and fussing about sexual repression and censorship, bragging about my search for an ever more forbidden way to have an orgasm, struggling (with many others) to form and preserve the modern leather community, making alliances with other sexual minorities, and incurring the wrath of Big Brother, Big Sister, and a lot of other people who have too much power and no sense of humor. I've been pretty busy.

The subtitle of this book, The Culture of Radical Sex, raises a definitional question. By “radical sex,” I do not simply mean sex which differs from the “norm” of heterosexual, vanilla, male-dominant intercourse. People whose erotic practices are deviant do tend to acquire an outsider's critical perspective on marriage, the family, heterosexuality, gender roles, and vanilla sex. But being a sex radical means being defiant as well as deviant. It means being aware that there is something unsatisfying and dishonest about the way sex is talked about (or hidden) in daily life. It also means questioning the way our society assigns privilege based on adherence to its moral codes, and in fact makes every sexual choice a matter of morality. If you believe that these inequities can be addressed only through extreme social change, then you qualify as a sex radical, even if you prefer to get off in the missionary position and still believe there are only two genders.

It seems appropriate to trace the history of my own personal and professional development as a sex radical to give you, the reader, some background to these pieces and some idea of where they fit in an overall scheme of radical sexual politics.

The oldest article in the book, “A Secret Side of Lesbian Sexuality,” was published in The Advocate in 1979. The process of writing this single article and dealing with public reaction to it had a great impact on all the work I did after that. It created an ecological niche for me as a journalist whose work was simultaneously pornographic, political, and educational.

This was one of the first pieces to appear in the gay press about


women who do S/M with other women. I was terrified when I wrote it. I kept getting up in the middle of typing to lie down until my nausea subsided and my hands stopped shaking. When that issue of The Advocate hit the newsstands, it was days before I could actually look at my words in print. Why write and publish something that felt so dangerous? Because I was pissed off. I was tired of reading lies about my sexuality, tired of being told I didn't exist—and if I did, it was only as a distant cousin to a rapist or a chainsaw killer. I was tired of being alone, and I knew there would never be a leatherdyke community if somebody didn't announce that one already existed. I figured if I was public enough about being into leathersex, either I would get squashed and my misery would be over, or other perverse girls would find me, and then I wouldn't be so lonely.

There was another reason to come out. After watching the destructive impact the “feminist” antiporn movement had on the lesbian community here in San Francisco, I was dying to write a critique of its inflammatory tactics and circular reasoning. But members of that movement fought really dirty. They attacked anybody who argued with them as an advocate of violence against women, a child molester, or (gasp) a sadomasochist. They weren't above calling employers, publishers, or dissertation committees to inform them of the “perverts” in their midst. These storm-trooper tactics had intimidated most mainstream feminists from fighting head-on the Bay Area's Women Against Violence in Pornography and the Media (WAVPM).

Mainstream feminists were also reluctant to get down in the muck and wrestle with WAVPM's more successful New York City heirs, Women Against Pornography (WAP). They were embarrassed by WAP's frank focus on sexually explicit material and uncomfortable with the idea of championing pornography. The divisive issue of lesbianism had done so much damage to the women's movement in this country that there was very little chance feminist leaders would risk an even dirtier debate about S/M, which could result from their taking a strong stand against WAR So in the beginning, only leatherwomen were willing and able to take on WAP and its satellite organizations. We did it because we didn't have much choice. We either had to find vehicles for public criticism of these people or resign ourselves to being drummed out of the women's movement and stand helplessly by while it was turned into a single-issue campaign for moral purity.

It wasn't until members of WAP, Women Against Violence Against Women, and New York Radical Feminists organized a picket of the Scholar and the Feminist IX conference “Towards a Politics of Sexuality”


in 1982—known now simply as the Barnard conference—that more respectable feminists began to realize they had to mount some opposition to the “feminist” antiporn movement. The picketers handed out leaflets that denounced invited speakers as immoral, antifeminist, and beyond the pale of academic discourse or progressive activism. Anonymous informants contacted Barnard College, who was hosting the conference, and the college administration seized the conference program as suspected pornography. The brouhaha caused the Helena Rubinstein Foundation to withdraw funding for the conference series. Coverage of the conference in off our backs (oob) and other feminist newspapers basically took the side of the protesters. As part of their smear of “Towards A Politics of Sexuality,” oob featured detailed coverage of a totally unrelated event, a women's S/M play party, and published the names of attendees. The collected papers of the conference appeared in Carole S. Vance's anthology, Pleasure and Danger (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), only because she is a very brave and stubborn woman who could not be turned aside by slander.

But in 1979 none of that had happened yet. No one had said publicly, “I don't think pornography causes violence against women. I don't think feminists should be trying to ban pornography. This is a rightwing, homophobic, misogynist ideology. I think the only problem with pornography is that there's not enough of it, and the porn that does exist reflects the sexual fantasies of aging Catholic gangsters. I do some of the things that you find so scary when they are depicted in pornography, and I refuse to be tarred and feathered and ridden out of the lesbian ghetto on a rail.” This was pretty much my position, and I knew I was not the only lesbian feminist in the world who felt this way.

The history of the '50s and McCarthyism made it clear that you cannot save yourself by keeping your head down and hoping the people who made you a member of a proscribed class will not ferret you out. If I was going to be called all those had names anyway, I might as well be the first one to spread the good news. When you come out, you make yourself vulnerable to disapproval, criticism, and discrimination. But you also get to define your own terms. You get to go first and be the one to say who you are and what that means. And after you've already admitted in public that you're a hopelessly twisted slut, what are your detractors going to do? A whisper campaign of slurs and innuendoes doesn't have much power if the object of the campaign has already given the general public abundant details about her sexual practices.

The immediate consequences of publishing “A Secret Side of Lesbian Sexuality” could hardly have been more dire. I got a call at two


o'clock in the morning from Barbara Crier of Naiad Press, threatening to cancel the publication of my first book, Sapphistry, a lesbian sex-education manual. It was hard to tell which upset her more: the fact that I had publicly revealed my identity as a leather person (“You might as well tell people you are a murderer!”) or my statement that S/M was so important to me I would rather be marooned on desert island with a male masochist than a vanilla dyke (“We do not publish books by bisexual women!”).

Sapphistry did hit print, and it went on to garner wheelbarrows full of vicious reviews. (“Sapphistry: Striking Out At Feminism 'Til It Hurts,” read the headline in Big Mama Rag.) The feminist press was incensed because I focused on lesbianism as a way that two women could give pleasure to one another rather than as the paradigm for a feminist relationship. Not only did the book defend S/M, it also talked about butch/femme as a viable language of lesbian passion instead of as an embarrassing anachronism eschewed by enlightened modern lesbians. And casual sex! And dildos! And.. .well, there was also all that stuff about disabled women.. .and how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. ..and it was pretty hard to bitch about that. Nevertheless, Sapphistry got maybe two positive reviews.

But real dykes, both feminist and nonfeminist, didn't care what their self-appointed leaders thought. They bought Sapphistry. If their local women's bookstores wouldn't carry it, they mail-ordered it. In 1992 this book was still one of Naiad Press's top thirty sellers.

These early publishing experiences taught me several things. First of all, I found out that the dyke on the street wanted to talk about sex. She might have a lot of questions, she might want to argue about whether or not it was okay for women to use pornography or tie each other up or strap it on. But she was willing to talk about it. And she most definitely did not want feminist newspaper editors or bookstore owners telling her what she could and could not read, think about, talk about, or perform as a sexual experiment. Women did not want to be protected from controversy or from new ideas. Most lesbians were really clear that sex was an important part of their lives, and they were happy to hear anything that would make sex easier, more fun, more available, and less terrifying.

While coming out as an S/M dyke and looking for kindred souls, I found out that lesbian life was a lot more diverse than the stock portrayals of our community in the lesbian-feminist fiction of the '80s. There was no such thing as a typical or average lesbian. There were bar butches, femmes who came out in the '50s, lesbian sex workers, couples


who had been monogamous for forty years, bikers and their babes, girls whose sex partners outnumbered the population of Alaska, transgendered lesbians, lesbians in cross-generational relationships, and a hundred more “types.” We came in all colors, classes, ages, and physical (dis)abilities. This rich, complex body of interlocking social networks never got portrayed in print because, I believe, our writers were ashamed of us.

Even in the '80s, many lesbian authors, in bids for literary legitimacy, chose to remain closeted and write about things other than their own lives. Even novelists, journalists, and academics who were ostensibly out of the closet could only bear to write about lesbian reality in sanitized, strained, and compartmentalized ways. It was almost as if on some level they were still hoping to have Mom or the parish priest pat them on their heads and say, “There, there, I understand now. Being a lesbian is a good thing. You're not a sexual misfit. You're a freedom fighter.”

Many of the women whom this assimilationist literature rendered invisible were the most visibly lesbian members of our community. Most of them had never had to come out because people had started telling them they were queers when they were just little kids. They could not and would not hide their dyke identities. They were committed to living in the company of and for the good of other women. They had kept a lesbian community alive through very hard times. They defended the bars where women's-studies majors who despised them went cruising. Their physical and emotional scars from those battles frightened middle-class white girls who formed their lesbian identities over books by Ti-Grace Atkinson, Kate Millett, and Shulamith Firestone. But Amazons always have scars. It drove me crazy that these women, who were my ancestors and heroes, were being written off and ignored. Not only did they get beaten up, ridiculed, and pathologized by straight society, but their own elite, their own intelligentsia, wanted to deny them a place in our history. This was just plain wrong.

Adrienne Rich's essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” which originally appeared in a special sexuality issue of Signs in 1980, is a perfect example of this approach to lesbian history. 1

Rich outlined a “lesbian continuum” which included “a range.. of woman-identified experience, not simply the fact that a woman has had or consciously desired genital sexual experience with another woman. 2 This concept was necessary, Rich believed, because “Any theory.. .that treats lesbian existence as a marginal or less 'natural' phenomenon, as mere 'sexual preference'...is profoundly weakened...whatever its other contributions.” 3 Rich says, “As we delineate a lesbian continuum, we


begin to discover the erotic in female terms: as that which is unconfined to any single part of the body or solely to the body itself; as an energy not only diffuse but, as Audre Lorde has described it, omnipresent in 'the sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic,' and in the sharing of work; as the empowering joy which 'makes us less willing to accept powerlessness.' ” 4

Thus Rich found it possible to include in the lesbian continuum many women who she believes opposed the institution of heterosexuality without necessarily being dykes (Chinese marriage-resistance societies, female trading societies and secret sororities in Africa, the Beguines' lay religious movement in Europe, and just about any form of “female friendship and comradeship 5 ). However, she excluded lesbians whose sexual practices she believed were antifeminist: butch/femme lesbians and sadomasochists. She also excluded lesbians who allied themselves with gay men. (Rich cautioned us not to view lesbianism as merely the female version of homosexuality. She objected to “the patterns of anonymous sex among male homosexuals, and the pronounced ageism in male homosexual standards of sexual attractiveness.” 6 ) A footnote says, “The issue of 'lesbian sadomasochism' needs to be examined in terms of dominant cultures' teachings about the relation of sex and violence [nota bene: in the original published version of this essay, in Signs, Rich added, “and also of the acceptance by some lesbians of male homosexual mores”]. I believe this to be another example of the 'double life' of women.” 7 (In Rich's theories, the double life of women is “apparent acquiescence to an institution founded on male interest and prerogative 8 ). And in another footnote she writes, “I would suggest that lesbian existence has been most recognized and tolerated where it has resembled a 'deviant' version of heterosexuality – e.g., where lesbians have, like Stein and Toklas, played heterosexual roles (or seemed to in public) and have been chiefly identified with male culture.” 9 The same footnote assigns female Berdaches (crossdressing Native American women warriors and shamans) and by implication all passing women, to the same ash heap.

Rich's essay is a brilliant explication of the way our society denies, punishes, and ruthlessly eliminates lesbianism. But she seems every bit as afraid of lesbian lust as the people and institutions who hunt us down. Why can sexual preference be dismissed with the adjective “mere”? Is it such a little thing to know in every fiber of your being that only a woman's touch will ignite your body and heart and make your life whole? Why can't sex be honored for its own sake, instead of being prettified by the euphemism “the erotic” and blurred with human experiences


that are necessary and worthwhile, but not orgasmic? Do we really need to look so far afield from the lesbian community to justify the value of our lives? Women can resist male domination and even the institution of heterosexuality without being lesbians. We should honor them for that costly and difficult effort. But don't we lose more than we gain when we elevate them to the status of rote models and excommunicate huge segments of our own community? Why is it that butch/femme and S/M dykes are dismissed as the products of sexism and misogyny while, for example, a religious order of celibate, Christian women is not? Rich even has room within her roster of feminist heroes for women who bound their daughters' feet or excised their clitorises. She refers to them as “token torturers” who were forced to carry out the wishes of their husbands, fathers, and religious leaders. 10 She swallows this, but strains at a spanking or a crewcut?

The work of Caroll Smith-Rosenberg (“The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs, Autumn 1975) and Lillian Faderman (Surpassing the Love of Men: Romance between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, New York: William Morrow & Co., 1981) also shifted the attention of lesbian-feminist academics toward female relationships that were not necessarily sexual. If we lived in a world where heterosexuality was not, in fact, compulsory, I would be more willing to rejoice at the existence of scholarship which extended the boundaries of lesbianism to nonsexual female bonding. Since women have been killed, mutilated, imprisoned, and suffered a hundred other dire penalties for seeking erotic gratification with one another and rejecting men, it seems cruel and incomprehensible for feminist scholars to dismiss any form of lesbianism as a tool of the patriarchy.

And so I decided that my own work would take a different tack. It would be about disenfranchised people and topics, even if that meant I would stay poor and be widely hated. Even if that meant nobody would take my work seriously. Even if that meant I'd have trouble getting published or never make it to graduate school and never teach at a university. Like a '5Os stone butch or a male-to-female transsexual in the '60s, I didn't have any place to hide. I decided if I could simply clear some ground for myself and other women like me, where we could live with less fear and more freedom, that would be enough. I didn't have to accomplish anything else in this lifetime.

My experience with the volcanic beginnings of the lesbian S/M community made me curious about how other communities (including the early gay community) had come into being, had grown, and had


changed. The works of Jonathan Katz and Jeffrey Weeks were especially helpful and informative. By including crossdressing women and many others whose lesbian identities were been questioned by 1980s feminists, Katz showed me who my dyke ancestors were. His first book, Gay American History (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976) tracked the progress that gay men and lesbians had made from being isolated freaks and psychiatric case histories to members of an above-ground, powerful subculture that lobbied for increased protection and civil rights. The message of this book was that pride, self-esteem, and self-disclosure were the building blocks of that progress. Nobody ever built a community by going into therapy, tackling somebody else's causes, or pretending to be something they were not.

Weeks authored several books on gay history and sexual politics: Coming Out (London: Quartet Books Limited, 1977), Sex, Politics and Society (Essex: Longman Group Ltd., 1981), and Sexuality and Its Discontents (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985). This body of work is too large to summarize here. But common themes emerged from all three books. Weeks made it clear that there was more than sex going on in the sexual fringe. He put struggles for sexual freedom within the context of class differences. He was always suspicious of the state even when it ostensibly liberalized sex law, and he saw gay sexual minorities as being important for challenging the status quo. This was a big improvement over simplistic theories that explained butch/femme sex, S/M, public sex, or cross-generational relationships as oppressive recastings of abusive heterosexual institutions or the result of internalized homophobia. Weeks was also critical of socially progressive movements for being willing to back down on their radical agendas, and he was scathing about the notion of “natural' sexuality. He justly pointed out that if any sexual identity (even heterosexuality) was natural, it would not need to be supported by such a powerful system of reinforcement for those who could produce the desired behavior, and punishment for those who could not. Weeks also described the ways that sexual identity and the meanings assigned to certain specific sex acts had changed from Victorian times to the present. He observed that the meaning assigned to an act by the dominant culture is not necessarily the same meaning assigned by those who perform the act; from this insight came the possibility that the dominant culture is not entitled to say which sexuality is healthy or unhealthy, loving or vicious. Power, Weeks reiterated, comes from insisting on the right to say what your sex means. (And wisdom, I might add, comes from asking other people what their sex means before you jump to any conclusions.)


Battles over freedom of expression thus have implications far beyond the mere ability of print to circulate without being hampered by agents of the state. The line between word and deed is a thin one. A desire that cannot be named or described is a desire that cannot be valued, acted upon, or used as the basis for an identity.

The process of coming out as a kinky dyke forced me to question many of my own assumptions about gender, sexuality, identity, and oppression. It was woefully obvious that simply coming out as a lesbian had not eliminated my sexual prejudices or given me any special insight into the way other marginalized people dealt with their stigmatized status. Hence my curiosity about virtually every sexual variation, whether gay or not, and my willingness to support transgendered people, boy-lovers, sex workers, bisexuals, tearoom cruisers, straight swingers, and just about anybody else who gets treated badly because most people are afraid of sex and politicians can get elected by sponsoring moral panics. This position has been as controversial within the S/M community as it is outside of it. Unfortunately, most people's sexual tolerance ends at their own bedroom (or dungeon) door.

“A Secret Side of Lesbian Sexuality” was followed by a series of articles about the antiporn movement, public sex, prostitution, the age of consent, fetishism, and crossing the boundaries of gender and sexual orientation. During this period, most of my work appeared in The Advocate because the paper was willing to pay me for it, and the editors did not subject me to the endless rounds of wrangling that more politically correct and impoverished publications expected from their authors. I was fortunate indeed to have the support of editor-in-chief Robert McQueen, a former Mormon who shared my missionary zeal for speaking one's mind. Perhaps because of his fundamentalist upbringing, McQueen was outraged by any suggestion of prudery. He belonged to an earlier generation of gay activists who had spent their whole lives battling the cops to keep gay bars and bathhouses open and gay publications on the newsstands. He had first-hand knowledge of the repressive power of the state. And he was perfectly comfortable with editing a biweekly magazine that was widely perceived outside the gay community as a piece of homo porn.

It's tempting to take the soothing view that progress is inevitable, and things are better now than they were ten years ago. But as far as the gay press is concerned, I don't think that's true. One of the major consequences of the AIDS epidemic has been a retreat from sexual politics. The gay movement has been transformed from a broad-based attempt to address several issues (sodomy laws, antigay discrimination,


homophobia in religious institutions, military witch-hunts, porn laws, police crackdowns on public sex, registration of so-called “sex offenders, the age of consent, child custody, etc.) to a crusade for a cure. Our agenda has pretty much shrunk to one item.

True, the gay press is almost completely above-ground these days. You can buy a copy of Out or The Advocate or 10 Percent at almost any big-city magazine rack, and you don't have to look over your shoulder or hide it in your bag. The local cops will rarely confiscate gay news magazines, and the post office won't detain them and charge them with obscenity. But it seems to me that the gay press has traded censorship by the chief of police or the postmaster general for a more subtle form of social control by Absolut Vodka. We are like a white-trash family who doesn't mention the uncles and cousins who are in jail, pretends that car up on blocks is going to be fixed any day now, and scrimps and saves to have one nice suit of clothes to wear to church so the neighbors (who are also impoverished) won't be able to run us down. We are pretending we have already arrived, achieved legitimacy, and taken our place at the Thanksgiving table.

What pathetic crap. What we do in bed is illegal in about half of the states. There are only a few tiny parts of the country where we are legally protected from discrimination. Young, working-class gay people who try to escape their families and get a college education by enlisting in the military still have a good chance of being caught in a witch-hunt and dishonorably discharged. In small cities and towns and even in big cities, there are still many, many gay men and lesbians who don't know how to find our community. Most of us can't get a date, much less a domestic partner.

Most of the pieces in this book would never appear in today's version of The Advocate. The advice column I've written for ten years can't even appear in the main book. It has to be relegated to the Advocate Classifieds, a separate publication that features sex ads (as opposed to ads seeking long-term, committed partners), nude photos, and erotic fiction. During the '80s, the owners and editors of The Advocate made a political decision to keep the classified ads in the main book because they thought part of their job as publishers of a gay paper was to create a gay community. They succeeded in part by helping men find each other for sex, friendship, and love. Now the owners of the magazine have chosen to distance themselves from the sex ads (while still taking the advertisers' money) so they can devote advertising space in the magazine to things that are much less dangerous than casual sex, i.e., booze. Personally, I'd rather be funded by buggery than delirium tremens.


I was told that my column couldn't remain in the main book because letters about foreskins did not belong in a serious news magazine. I'm not sure why foreskins were singled out for Jeff Yarbrough's opprobrium, and since I have no absolute knowledge on this point, I will refrain from speculation. Of course, The Advocate proper still runs advice columns—about AIDS. It seems that the only way we can legitimately talk about our sexuality is under the rubric of death and disease. We can't celebrate, defend, or describe queer pleasure even though it was the quest for pleasure that made so many of us HIV-positive. This hypocrisy and prissiness robs the gay press of much of its old feistiness, earthiness, and power to rock the world.

More than ten years into the epidemic, I no longer believe a cure or a vaccine or even a treatment for AIDS will be found, no matter how much money the government throws at this problem. For a decade now, we've been beating ourselves up because we can't seem to force the government and pharmaceutical companies to take AIDS seriously and to save our precious lives. Sadly, the resources it takes for medical research on this scale is beyond the scope of individuals. We're like ants trying to turn over a car. The state is not going to save us, and we should stop wringing our hands and hoping it will come to our rescue.

We have the means at hand right now to save our own lives. Prevention will be the key to ending this epidemic. If every one of us used latex barriers every time we had any kind of sex and did not share needles, within ten years there would be no plague. Implementing this strategy would require us to talk a whole lot more about sex and drugs. We need more information about what it is that people really do. We need to know what kind of risks they take, and why. Each of us needs to become a peer sex educator and defend our loved ones' health. We need to stop indulging in the ridiculous fantasy that if we could just get legally married like heterosexuals, we could all be monogamous, and then we would be safe.

The gay movement also needs to throw its weight behind needle-exchange programs. Drug abuse is a gay issue because drugs work even better than orgasms to ease the pain of being different. Activists have ignored the politics of drug trafficking and narcotics laws in this country at their own peril. Needle cleaning is not an effective way to prevent transmission of HIV and other blood-borne diseases. The right to a clean syringe should be as inalienable as the First Amendment or the right to an abortion. But have you ever read about a gay civil-rights organization taking on the defense of a needle-exchange volunteer?

We don't want to take responsibility for our pleasures. It's not just


the barriers and the way it feels to use them that make safe sex cumbersome and unattractive. It's the fact that you have to talk about it and think past your inflamed genitalia to the consequences of letting it run free like wild mustangs. There's something even sadder than that: we won't do it because some of us stilt hate ourselves. We're guilty about being queer. We can't get rid of all that programming that says we are inferior, filthy, disgusting, godless, and pathological. We need the euphoria of orgasm the way a junkie needs a fix, to kill some of the pain of being outcasts. And so we keep on dying and killing each other before we die. Because we believe we deserve it.

If we cannot be our brothers' and our sisters' keepers, then we do not deserve to live in the sunlight. Until we can pass this enormous test, we won't be a free and loving people because we will not have earned the right to live with pride. We did not create this heritage of shame and hate. But shifting it from our shoulders will take the most enormous outpouring of sex-positive propaganda that this world has ever seen. We are going to have to fall in love with lust and defend it, claim it, and make it a source of affirmation. I don't know anybody in the gay press or in our national organizations who is qualified to champion this drive, but the cool part is that we don't need anybody to lead us. This is something each one of us can do on her or his own recognizance.

So I continue to write my advice column: For the sake of those who are so freaked out about being gay that it doesn't occur to them to just buy a gay guide and find out where the nearest gay bar or community center is. For the sake of teenagers who are suicidal because they think they might be gay and believe that means they are just going to die of AIDS anyway. Because there are still grown men out there who need to be told to go to public-health clinics to ask the doctors about those nasty-looking things on their peters. And well-meaning guys who are confused about what safe sex is, exactly. And people who think masturbation will damage their genitals or make them sick. And couples who are in danger of splitting up because one of them cheated, or one of them has just revealed that she or he has some unconventional sexual tastes. Promoting fag lust is a weird career for a dyke. Perhaps it's just my bad karma for being a biphobic, transsexual-hating separatist for so many years.

Ironically, much of my work has found a new haven in the straight press. Without magazines like The Spectator, Skin Two, and Gauntlet, the table would be pretty bare. So I continue to write think pieces about sex and the law, the antiporn movement, and sexual variation from a lesbian-feminist perspective—for a heterosexual audience. I guess it isn't any more strange than giving gay men advice about fellatio and crabs.


It's sad that the majority of the feminist press remains under the control of women who think a dyke in a leather jacket is a bigger threat to their movement than a fundamentalist Christian legislator who's just dying to pass the Pornography Victims Compensation Act or some other harebrained blue law a lŕ Catharine MacKinnon.

I would not want you to think that being a sex radical has ruined my life. I've gotten a lot more out of my chosen path than an opportunity to become a workaholic or the demon goddess of profligacy. Thanks to my many readers and a handful of enlightened editors, I've been able to make a living at my keyboard. There are probably about ten gay writers who can make this claim. Okay, maybe by now there are a dozen of us. This has given me more freedom to think, read, and play than most people ever experience. When my partner became ill with chronic fatigue syndrome, I was able to schedule my work around taking care of her. I am convinced that the five-day work week is truly evil. If we can't have a world without bosses, we should at least have a world with flex time, day care, six-week vacations, six-hour work days, and three-day weekends.

My insides and my outsides match. I do not have to hide my identity or my feelings. The stress that I experience around my sexual difference is manageable because it comes from other people's prejudices, not from self-hate or self-doubt. Without this consistency, I would never be able to live more freely in the world or have an intimate relationship. You can t love or let yourself be loved if you're busy juggling lies and papering over your libido. Because my life is so weird, I have no shortage of things to think or write about. I have been blessed with the friendship of some exceptional men and women who compose a family that is more loving and more supportive than any of those dreadful people I was saddled with at birth. I even made it into graduate school.

And I have seen progress. There is a nascent industry that promotes lesbian passion. Dykes who come out today are much more likely to read On Our Backs than they are to read off our backs. Despite all the campaigns to close the baths, irrepressible fans of public nudity and sex (including dykes) continue to organize sex parties or open clubs where responsible casual sex is encouraged. The women's bookstores that refuse to censor dissident voices have flourished for the most part, because they meet their customers' needs. Today there is a National Leather Association that sponsors an annual conference. There are support groups for S/M people all over the country. We are beginning to acquire enough critical mass to make some serious changes. And that's a good thing, because the next decade is going to see major legal battles


over images and descriptions of S/M sexuality and even the freedom to practice S/M without police interference. The quality of life for almost every sort of pervert everywhere is much better than it was ten years ago. Transpeople are organizing a protest for this year's Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Bisexuals are forcing both gay and straight people to listen to their issues. Heterosexuality is getting more recreational, less procreational. The only sex radicals who are worse off now than in the late '70s are boy-lovers and sexually active youth.

The new frontier of the fight for freedom of expression is in the realm of virtual reality. Computerized information services are often guilty of imposing censorship upon their customers, which hampers the potential of telecommunications to form international networks of people, including gay men and lesbians, with many different common interests. The U.S. government has used the pretext of looking for kiddy porn to institute a wide-ranging campaign of on-line surveillance and entrapment. Recently, the Canadian government tried to ban all Usenet groups from the state-funded university system. And Great Britain may try to prevent all Internet newsgroups from the “alt” hierarchy from being transmitted into that country. These groups include discussion of kinky sex, but they also include medical information, rock 'n' roll fandom, sci-fi readers, political rebels, and a bunch of other interesting conversation. If this effort succeeds, an antiporn rationale will have been used to cut off British citizens from a rich culture capable of generating many kinds of social change.

* * *

There are some holes in this book which I regret. An entire book should be written just about the issue of who controls cyberspeech. There's also no comprehensive article on sex work, transgenderism, or narcotics laws.

Nor does Public Sex reflect many of the changes that have happened in my life since I got clean and sober three years ago. Sobriety has made it necessary for me to develop the spiritual basis of my life and publicly acknowledge it. If the Goddess does not exist, we must certainly invent Her. The current fascination with goddess imagery and mythology is important not to locate objective archeological proof that there were once matriarchal societies, but to create that possibility for the future. By picking over the ambiguous relics of the past, we dream ourselves into a world where women wield power and create peace and justice. We need the sage counsel of the female archetypes who speak from the collective unconscious because our own mothers did not teach us how to be warriors. These new, fierce voices are on our side; they want us to


win. All those legends about Amazons may simply be tales about men's fear of the unleashed rage of women. If so, it is inevitable that those fears will take on flesh and women will learn to polish their weapons, keep them sharp, and wield them as a disciplined unit. The force of women united to defend one another and shape a society closer to our hearts' desire is a world-shaking power. and if that does not qualify as a sort of divine energy, nothing can.

In a roundabout way, I have come back to some of the separatist principles that I espoused when I was coming out as a lesbian in 1971. I don't intend to give up any of my male friends or stop learning from the gay men's community. But it is necessary for women to have some space where we can spend time only with each other and create a culture that is as free as possible from the influence of male domination. While I support full civil rights for everyone, I also think that lesbians have a right to participate in events and institutions that are for lesbians only. It seems strange to me that every other group in society is automatically accorded the right and privilege of self-definition and association, but dykes who want to hook up with other dykes are inevitably trashed.

This modified separatism has been fueled by my concern over the huge appropriation of women's time and energy that has occurred as a response to the AIDS pandemic. While the health crisis is a dire emergency that every thinking, caring person must address, it alarms me to see gay men blindly absorb women's caretaking without making much of an effort to reciprocate. The majority of gay men remain woefully ignorant about feminism, and too many are contemptuous of women's bodies and hostile toward lesbians. When I see a mass movement among gay men to raise money for breast-cancer research, or a volunteer army of gay men who are taking care of women with chronic and life-threatening illnesses, this resentment will be appeased.

Despite the fact that I had to quit consuming drugs and alcohol, I still believe that laws that turn intoxicating substances into contraband are self-defeating. When being an addict means committing illegal acts, people become more reluctant to seek treatment. The price of drugs is inflated, the quality of the product is compromised, and the result is increased street crime and mortality. The U.S. prison population has tripled since 1980. In California the increase has been more than fivefold. We lock up a larger portion of our own citizens than any other nation: 455 out of 100,000. The old South African government came in second to us, at 311 per 100,000. The Bureau of Justice Statistics attributes half of this growth to increases in the number of drug criminals entering prison. In 1992 drug offenders made up 30 percent of the


prison population, compared with 7 percent in 1980. There is no evidence that imprisonment is a workable strategy to eliminate drug abuse or the crimes that people commit to purchase drugs. This prison system is funded by your tax money. It would be cheaper to send every incarcerated drug addict to treatment and then to college than it is to keep all of them in jail. The cost is not merely economic. A disproportionate number of those incarcerated are people of color. The damage done to their lives and communities corrodes the soul of America. The invisible men and women in prison have made each of us into a jailer and a prisoner of fear.

But this and other topics will have to wait for another book. I can't imagine that there won't be another book, just as I once couldn't imagine living past thirty. Today, at the amazing age of forty, I am trying to cause just as much trouble as I did when I was twenty-five. Fifty should be awesome, and sixty incendiary.

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  1. This essay originally appeared in Signs (vol. 5, no. 4, 1980) and was reprinted in Rich's book, Blood, Bread, and Poetry (New York: W W Norton, 1986). Since the newer version is the one most accessible today, all page citations refer to the reprint. [Back]
  2. Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Blood, Roses, and Poetry (New York: W W Norton, 1986), 51. [Back]
  3. ibid., 27.  [Back]
  4. ibid., 53.  [Back]
  5. ibid.   [Back]
  6. ibid.   [Back]
  7. ibid.,40.  [Back]
  8. ibid., 60.   [Back]
  9. ibid., 50.  [Back]
  10. ibid., 37.   [Back]



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