ON OUR BACKS
AN ESSAY BY JEWELLE GOMEZ
Back in 1984, when I was asked to submit an erotic story to the magazine, On Our Backs I’d never written one before. Of course, I had fantasies like most people (I was, after all raised Catholic, a religion full of gothic imagery and cinematic miracles!); but as for writing them down — it never occurred to me. As a lesbian feminist of colour I wasn’t against erotic literature; I was just not sure how one constructed a juicy story that wasn’t based on exploitation. But I was already formulating the ideas for my vampire novel, The Gilda Stories, a story told through a feminist lens, so I had begun to think about how to tackle a traditionally exploitative genre without traveling down the easy road of tradition. So I figured I might as well give erotica a go too. The challenge of finding the ‘sweet spot’ while creating engaging, multi-dimensional women who are not taking advantage of each other (unless that was mutual) really was a challenge I enjoyed.
The other part of wanting to write the story was a response to a call to action by the Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce (FACT) which, in the 1980s, was providing a sex-positive political alternative to the very loud voices of conservative, anti-porn activists. Women’s relationship to sexuality was and remains a complex territory. No matter how hip and powerful we feel as women, we have been and continue to be seen as the sexual receptacles for men. Male produced images in popular culture still define us so narrowly it would be impossible for an extraterrestrial being to land on earth from outer space to actually recognise a female unless the being had landed in the offices of a fashion magazine where the women are size 0, wear 6 inch heels, and all look white even when they have brown skin. Female images in popular media are crafted to peak the desire of middle aged white men. And any women that seem to deviate from that are quickly slapped down…see ‘journalists’ comments about English actress, Kate Winslet or US singer, Kelly Clarkson being ‘fat.’ Notice how few African American women with dark skin or Asian American women appear on magazine covers or on television series. This lack of representation and distortion of our reality affects how we treat ourselves and our desire.
Mainstream pornography simply follows mainstream commercial images to their logical conclusion women are not people….we’re soylent green. That is—like the eponymous movie—we are a packaged edible, human commodity to be used, abused and discarded at the whim of male consumers. The famous picture that anti-porn activists used most often was that of a porn magazine cover in which women were being fed into a meat grinder; legs and high heels the only remaining indication that we were humans. There is no question that these images cause damage. But I’d venture to say that numerical-speaking many more people have their poor ideas about women shaped by going to auto shows, watching the Kardashians, the Dallas Cheerleaders and/or children’s beauty pageants. All of the above being alarming cases where women contribute to their own objectification or that of their children, usually without a thought about the pornographic quality of their acts. All of it supports the idea that women are disposable and interchangeable items as easily killed off as changing the tires on your truck.
THAT SAID it is just as dangerous for women to tamp down our sexuality in response to exploitation and that is what conservative lesbian feminists of the 80s were insisting. Should we don the not-so-gay apparel of the cloister? Never enjoy our fantasies? Never experience orgasm because it frightens the horses? When the US President Ronald Reagan sent Attorney General Edwin Meese on a fact finding mission, Meese traveled the country, holding public meetings trying to convince local municipalities to shut down ‘porn’ operations. The commission engaged ‘experts’ who emphatically declared that if we didn’t fight this scourge we were Nazis. A group of us—mostly lesbian–activists went to a court house hearing of the commission in New York City, smuggling in signs that said ‘CENSORED’ and whipped them out at one point and sat quietly so they would look really bad if they tried to drag us away. The resulting Commission report didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know already, and told us a lot that was totally untrue. The result of the Commission, its report and the so called ‘porn wars’ was not a lessening in the profits of porn magazines or increase education about sexual objectification in our schools. The primary result of the Commission’s misinformation was the clamping down on and sometimes ban of gay and lesbian literature (erotic and not) crossing borders. In Canada even some bookstores were closed.
I know the history of the abuse of female sexuality. African women were used by slave masters as if they were one of the mules on the plantation; Native women were raped and eviscerated for sport; and every day in the news we see the reports of only a fraction of the domestic beatings and rapes that occur in public, on campuses and in the US military. In the 1980s I too went through my phase of wearing bulky shirts and heavy boots, discouraging the predatory impulses of the men who lay in wait. And I know that they are still out there. Yet I refuse to hide myself under layers of clothes to help them control their impulses.
Women do have a right to sexual expression that we control and we have to be suspicious of any authority attempting to maintain control over our bodies whether it’s about what we wear in public, what we do in bed or what we do or do not carry in our wombs…these things are connected.
It’s no accident that lesbians have been at the forefront of that activism trying to hold on to our right to be sexually active and exploratory. We have been declared outlaws for our sexual desire; or worse told we (as women) didn’t have any real desire. One of the last things I did before I moved from New York to California was participate in a collective that created a one day conference (1992) called Lesbians Undoing Sexual Taboos – LUST. It featured panels, readings, demonstrations (a lot of women found Annie Sprinkle’s g-spot that day) and it culminated in a dance at the Clit Club complete with a back room for sexual experimentation. The women who engaged me to participate in FACT and LUST are forever in my debt for expanding my understanding of the significance of desire in our political lives.
I want to remind us of this history so that we don’t forget how easily and self-righteously some would take away our right to speak of sexuality out loud; and so that young lesbians learn to embrace being a ‘lesbian’ which implies being a sexual outlaw and making change. Being a generic ‘queer’ is not quite the same as being a lesbian, which has a heroic tradition. Writers like Audre Lorde, Joan Nestle, Cheryl Clarke; singers like Ferron and Gwen Avery; activists like Katherine Acey, Kate Kendell and Pamela Ki Mai Chen are lesbians who pushed all the boundaries—some by doing outrageous things others by trying to do every day things that would exclude lesbians. It is in knowing our history and listening to each other that we protect ourselves.
Women and lesbians are not having an easy passage into liberation and there are men who continue to believe our bodies are their own personal colonies; and some women who won’t acknowledge this is true. There are lesbians who feel more comfortable blending in rather than blazing trails. But even if we learn that US astronaut Sally Ride was a lesbian only after her death, that knowledge is a gift to us. And it’s a reminder that we have still work to do so the next girl with aspirations for the stars won’t have to keep the core of her life a secret.
The title of the magazine, On Our Backs, was a play on the title of the groundbreaking lesbian feminist newspaper called Off Our Backs. The newspaper correctly attempted to move women from the prone position into action. But the erotic magazine, On Our Backs, insisted women’s sexuality could not be shut down because of the danger of exploitation both past and future. On our backs we are not helpless like the crab or turtle; we are open and moist, ready for fulfilment. At the same time we’re ready to spring up to show the power of our desire. As Audre Lorde said, “Our visions begin with our desires.”
Artwork © SARA RISLEY / www.sararisley.com