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Thinking Kink: Lesbian BDSM and the Male Gaze

"As a butchy dominant leather woman I am used to being vilified in the media" – Arsenic Alyss, Bitch commenter.

Whenever I encounter a BDSM-curious feminist, I point them toward the intelligent and articulate writings of lesbian BDSM-advocate Gayle Rubin. One of the "original" S/M lesbians writing in the '70s and '80s, Rubin and peers such as Patrick (formerly Pat) Califia met with fierce objections from lesbian feminists who viewed BDSM as a horrendous re-enactment of patriarchal power dynamics. In Deviations, her collection of essays on alternative sexualities, Rubin spends a great deal of time answering back to those who assume that "S/M lesbians suffer from false consciousness." Tired of feminist writing which condemns lesbian S/M because "the erotic preferences of the writer are assumed to be universal," Rubin lays it on the line: "people who have different sexual preferences are not sick, stupid, warped, brainwashed, under duress, [or] dupes of the patriarchy...the habit of explaining away sexual variation by putting it down needs to be broken."

"Hear, hear," cry various feminist and lesbian kinksters. So since we've done our academic reading, can now we see some great representations of lesbian BDSM in pop culture? Uh, well...

Unsurprisingly, I struggled to find representations of lesbian BDSM that went beyond two women doing craaazzzyyy stuff to each other for the pleasure of the male gaze. 30 Seconds To Mars' "Hurricane" video (which I looked at in a previous post) was a perfect example of how any depiction of lesbian BDSM action is obliged to include thin, white, cisgendered femme women in sexy underwear, or it won't make the cut. I hoped I'd be able to prove Arsenic Alyss (see above) wrong by finding an example of lesbian BDSM that showed—in a non-pejorative, non-mocking light—a butch or dominant women playing with female partners. Instead, I struggled to even find the first part. Rihanna does have some fun with a large cropped-haired lady in her S&M music video, and of course Madonna was in there long ago, writhing with drag kings and shaven-haired women in the video for Erotica. But in the two decades since then, lesbianism in pop culture seems to have gone from an act of subversion to a man-pleasing spectacle. Whenever we see any lesbian action on our TV screens, BDSM or none, it's likely to be between stereotypically high-femme women who would be more at home on a catwalk than in a dyke bar. 

So I turned to literature to see if I could find something a little more complex and classy. In Anne Rice's kinky twisting of a fairy tale, The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, hostage Beauty mostly plays slave to the Prince who has awakened her from her sleep, but women take a fancy to her too: "Ah, what a darling," said Lady Juliana. "Give me an hour with her." The Prince's mother, the Queen, is the typical sadistic dominatrix figure: "She is not so bad," said the Queen, and Beauty could feel the iron in her voice, her cruelty." As a woman, to be strong, to inflict pain, instantly makes you the baddie in any fairy tale—and if you're inflicting pain on another woman, it must be because you're a jealous hag who's losing her looks (see also Cinderella, Snow White). I guess we can't expect much from centuries-old stories, but the modern re-writing of one presented an opportunity for smashing stereotypes about girl-girl action, which was sadly not taken.

With that, I moved on to notorious kinky read The Story of O. Plenty of lesbian action in here, but again, it's against the background of a controlling/voyeuristic male. O's first encounter with a woman is because her "owner" Sir Stephen admits "I desire to see you embrace and caress a woman" and it is with the ulterior motive of luring the other woman into Roissy, the den of iniquity where O has already been "trained" by various men. Later, O is restrained and whipped by dominatrix Anne-Marie, then pierced and branded by women, but again, all at the orders of Sir Stephen. There are scenes of tenderness and eroticism between Anne-Marie and her "charges" O and Yvonne, but the overararching purpose of Anne-Marie's domination mostly seems to be preparing the women for sexual slavery to men.

So where are the representations of lesbian BDSM that take place with women, for women, with no men in sight? Where are the women who are non-white, non-slim, non-femme, indulging in kinky behavior with each other for no one's pleasure but their own? I know they're out there, but in pop culture they're thin on the ground. I look to you, trusted readers—pick up the gauntlet and tell me about the representations of lesbian BDSM I've missed. There must be some, right?

Previously: Safewords, Is Vanilla Sex Boring?

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Comments

19 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Sex-Positive Photo Project

Great article. It's going to take a lot of activism to make images of "women who are non-white, non-slim, non-femme, indulging in kinky behavior with each other for no one's pleasure but their own" more mainstream, but they do exists. I am the Editorial Director of Shilo McCabe's Sex-Positive Photo Project and we have those images for you. We are not-for-profit and see creating this content and making it available a form of activism. Come check us out. From our site, you will find links to other projects with authentic representations of sexuality. We are really, really proud of the work we are doing.

http://thesexpositivephotoproject.blogspot.com/

Pink and White productions

Pink and White productions (directed by Shine Houston) has some great skin flicks that include some degree of bdsm kink. Definitely non-typical performers, all female-bodied. Super hot, geared towards a non-male audience. I love this series. It's not mainstream, but the production is great, it's funny, sharp, real, and the performers are fantastic.

I second Pink & White

I second Pink & White Productions for a queer photo/video source of great queer kink. However, not all of the performers identify as female (some are trans men or genderqueer folks and even some cis guys). However, I would say that the bulk of the content on the site is scenes between two women with most of the scenes containing some kind of kink such as spanking/chest slapping, breath play, crops, toys, dom/sub talk, etc.

I don't know if anyone hs

I don't know if anyone hs mentioned this already, but in Laura Antoniou's Marketplace series, you have Ken Manderin who is definately non-white, and non-femme.

pick up the gauntlet and tell

pick up the gauntlet and tell me about the representations of lesbian BDSM I've missed. There must be some, right?

Um, you manage to mention Patrick Califia in the first paragraph and then turn around and ask this question? Just sayin.'

fwiw, there are dozens of mostly out of print anthos of lesbian BDSM stories (ObDisclaimer: I edited one of them. ObPromo: I have another that's in print, though! ObShame: I will mention neither title here.). They're out of print and hard to find, of course, precisely because they do not cater to the larger imperatives of male-gaze-driven pop culture. The Leatherwomen series by Laura Antoniou is about to be reprinted, I hear. Some Circlet Press titles might appeal.

There's visual porn, too. Perhaps Maria Beatty and Bleu Productions?

And the wonderful world of e-books, which I can't even begin to scratch the surface of at the moment.

I'm writing it and Xcite

I'm writing it and Xcite books are publishing it. I grew up on Pat Califia, Laura Antoniou, Carol Queen, Red Jordan Arobateau... Those are big boots to fill. I'll do my best.

Queer BDSM Erotica

I love that you are reminding us of our roots - Gayle Rubin, Patrick Califia. I have my own worn copies of their early guides. I remember reading Califia's Sapphistry over and over - the very completeness of it ensuring that I felt 'normal' in my own desires.

I am more drawn to words than video. Mr. Sexsmith (http://sugarbutch.net) writes an amazing blog filled with Queer BDSM writing. The personal nature of the posts is almost overwhelming because of the brave vulnerability presented there.

I also write, not as openly personal, with many of my posts having a BDSM flavor, always between two women and often with a butch/femme dynamic (http://bdswain.com).

There needs to be more. I agree. It's important to examine the fear surrounding women exploring these dynamics sexually. What's really under that fear? How can we be released by digging deeper and being less afraid of what turns us on? One of my readers commented that what I write is really 'existential smut' and I agree. I am not just turned on by what I write. I believe in the power of pushing our sexual imaginations beyond the comfortable boundaries that exist in order to feel braver and more alive.

Our film has representations

Our film has representations of queer BDSM between women of color and also between white gay men. When making the movie it was more important to be true to the story than to worry about the male gaze. As once a film gets made, you cannot really influence the audience response. People will always bring their baggage to the film whatever their gender, sexuality, ethnicity or body image. And the film has divided audiences. Here is our trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVygCAcbJbU

Sinclair Sexsmith also edited

Sinclair Sexsmith also edited a fantastic anthology of lesbian BDSM erotica called Say Please. HIghly recommended! I reviewed it on Cuntext, but if you already like them, you'll probably like it.

and where are the bisexual women at?

This is a difficult question, especially since one might think that a bi woman into kink would be wholly okay with "the male gaze" in media portrayals of lesbian action. Er, no. Well, maybe... But no, still not okay (See why this is hard?). Bisexual women are also looking for genuine portrayals of two women "indulging in kinky behavior with each other for no one's pleasure but their own." That doesn't mean that bisexual submissives can't enjoy "The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty" or "The Story of O" without being shamed. So, where do we belong?

The memoir, "The Chronology of Water," has beautiful writing, but can be a tough read because of the writer's troubled life. I bring it up because it is an example of a bisexual writer who does depict same-sex relationships without a male gaze. Among other things, it has a very moving chapter describing the writer's relationship with a domme.

Courtney Trouble's films are

Courtney Trouble's films are frequently BSDM and power exchange-tinged. She features a great range of body types, gender expressions, and non-white actors. The actors are not exclusively lesbian (there are trans* and genderqueer participants, as well as some cis men), but the sexual dynamics are super erotic and devoid of any hint of "male gaze". She has a ton of different websites (I first encountered her work at www.nofauxxx.com), but they're all linked to from www.courtneytrouble.com . Happy researching!

What about "Preaching to the

What about "Preaching to the Perverted"? I remember it being a great surprise in how it depicted motives and (various forms of) relationships of BDSM-practitioners, male/female, heterosexual/homosexual/bisexual alike. I especially remember how in the end it turns out that one of the female "slaves" runs the whole place. Furthermore, hegemonic concepts of family, motherhood and sexuality were questioned in this film.

Thank you for all your suggestions!

People have named so many interesting things here I can barely keep up! Thank you for bringing all these examples to my attention.

Check out Pat Califia's MACHO

Check out Pat Califia's MACHO SLUTS (1987), Samois's COMING TO POWER (1981) and THE SECOND COMING (1996) for that "non-white, non-slim, non-femme, indulging in kinky behavior"classic lesbian-BDSM lit you're looking for.

other ideas for lesbian kink fiction

Hello,

Commenters have already mentioned a bunch of things I would second, including: Coming To Power, The Second Coming, the Leatherwomen anthologies, Pat Califia (esp. Macho Sluts and Melting Point), Sinclair's new book Say Please (which has a story of mine in it).

I would also like to mention the following additional places to find lesbian BDSM stories:

-Best Lesbian Erotica collections (esp. post 1997) have consistently included kinky stories
-Salacious Magazine (http://www.salaciousmagazine.com/)
-There are quite a few lesbian stories in Pat Califia's anthology Doing it for Daddy
-There are some lovely kinky stories in Sometimes She Lets Me: Best Butch/Femme Erotica, ed. by Tristan Taormino

Some in my personal library that are out of print/hard to get except used
-Tough Girls: Down and Dirty Dyke Erotica, ed. by Lori Selke
-Faster Pussycats: Live Girls After Hours ed. by Trixi
-Kate Allen series of 4 Alison Kaine mysteries (about leather dykes in Denver): Tell Me What You Like, Give My Secrets Back, Takes One to Know One, and Just a Little Lie

One of the early leatherdyke stories I fell for is by Robin Sweeney, called "Picking Up Daddy" and was printed in Best American Erotica 1999. I say that to point out that there can be awesome stories in non-lesbian specific collections. If you look by writer instead, you can track down amazing stories.

On Our Backs magazine had all

On Our Backs magazine had all kinds of women in it!

She Must Be Seeing Things

The film She Must Be Seeing Things, about the relationship between a lesbian of color and a bisexual white woman, might be worth a look. While it's by no means the center of the story, the couple becomes interested in BDSM. Portrayal-wise, it has its problems (the bisexual character, well, see for yourself), but there's a lot to unpack. And of course there are Bettie Page's spanking scenes with other women, but that's not quite male gaze-free.

By women for women

There is plenty of high quality bdsm created by women for women. Just spend a few minutes and you will find all you can imagine!

I just got done reading your

I just got done reading your article, and really enjoyed it, thank you. You can see some fun books at www.fun2readbooks.com where you can also hear the girls read the stories for the same price as a paperback book, but they are reading exotic sexy stories that will get you going!