EXCERPT: Whipping Girl (chapter 10): Experiential Gender


I was prepared to post the entire text of the chapter because I thought it might be unfair to take this section out of context…but then I thought that it was unfair to post such large sections of the book. So, I don’t know. Here’s the full pdf. Please let me know if you’d like the full text.




Of course, body feelings are not the only facet of my being that has contributed to my identity as a woman. As I alluded to earlier, the changes in my social gender-how other people relate to and interact with me-were at least as dramatic as (if not more so than) the physical changes to my body. While being treated as a woman felt foreign to me at first, over time it simply became my everyday life. My identity as a woman grew out of positive experiences, such as feeling comfortable with my own female body. Yet it also arose out of negative ones, such as the regularity with which other people placed unsolicited attention upon my body, whether it was the catcalls and sexual innuendos strangers would sometimes hurl at me or the occasional comments people started to make insinuating that I could stand to lose a little weight (even though I weighed the same as I did before my transition, and nobody saw my weight as a problem back then). My identity as a woman grew out of my frustration over being called a “bitch” any time I stood up for myself, or having others make remarks about my hormone levels any time I became legitimately upset or angry about something. My identity as a woman grew out of my experiences at parties and other social occasions when I would come across a group of men talking and laughing, and witness them suddenly fall silent when I approached. My identity evolved out of a million tiny social exchanges where others made it very clear to me that my status in the world—my class, if you will-was that of a woman and not a man.


Not surprisingly, no aspect of my social transition has been more difficult for me to adjust to than the way I am treated by some (but certainly not all) men. Granted, this was not entirely unexpected. Before my transition, I had often asked my female friends about their experiences living as women in a male-centered world. On an intellectual level, I knew that I would sometimes be dismissed or harassed once I started living as female, but I underestimated just how frustrating and hurtful each one of those instances would be. Words cannot express how condescending and infuriating it feels to have men speak down to me, talk over me, and sometimes even practically put on baby-talk voices when addressing me. Or how intimidating it feels to have strangers make lewd comments about having their way with me as I’m walking alone at night down dark city streets. And while I had numerous run-ins and arguments with strange men back when I was male-bodied, I’d never before experienced the enraged venom in their voices and fury in their faces that I sometimes do now-an extreme wrath that some men seem to reserve specifically for women who they believe threaten their fragile male egos. It became more and more difficult for me to see the point in identifying outside of the male/female binary when I was so regularly being targeted for discrimination and harassment because I was a woman, when I so frequently had to stand up for myself as a woman in order to make sure that other people did not get away with it.





Filed under Uncategorized

Whipping Girl (chapter 12)- Bending Over Backwards: Traditional Sexism and Trans-Woman-Exclusion Policies

An excerpt from Julia Serano’s book, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Published in 2007 by Seal Press.

PDF here.



Bending Over Backwards: Traditional Sexism and Trans-Woman-Exclusion Policies

Prejudice usually can’t survive close contact with the people who are supposed to be so despicable, which is why the propagandists for hate always preach separation.

-Patrick Califia

OVER THE LAST SEVERAL YEARS, a major focus of my trans activism and writing has been the issue of trans-woman-inclusion in lesbian and women-only spaces. I first heard of the issue back in 1999, around the time that I was beginning to call myself transgendered-about two years before I began my physical transition. At the time, I was voraciously reading everything I could get my hands on related to trans experiences and issues. As I read, I kept stumbling upon past instances of anti-trans-woman discrimination from within the lesbian and feminist communities. These included derogatory antitrans- woman remarks by influential feminist thinkers such as Mary Daly, Germaine Greer, Andrea Dworkin, Robin Morgan, and of


course Janice Raymond (who, in addition to writing the anti-trans screed The Transsexual Empire, tried to convince the National Center for Health Care Technology to deny transsexuals the right to hormones and surgery); stories about transsexual “witch hunts,” in which committed lesbian-feminists like Sandy Stone and Beth Elliot were publicly outed, debased, and exiled from the lesbian community solely for being transsexual; and of course, transwoman- exclusion policies, such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival’s euphemistically named “womyn-born-womyn-only” policy, which was retroactively instated in the early 19905 after an incident in which a woman named Nancy Burkholder was expelled from the festival when it was discovered that she was trans.2

While I found it disappointing that people who identified as lesbians and as feminists would come down so harshly on another sexual minority, I cannot say that I was really surprised. After all, practically every facet of our society seemed to hate or fear trans people back then, and these incidents seemed more like a symptom of society-wide transphobia rather than something unique or specific to the lesbian community. And as I was giving thought to becoming involved in trans activism myself, there seemed to be plenty of other, more practical and relevant issues for me to take on.

But in the years that followed, I experienced a number of changes in my life that would considerably reshape my views on this matter. For one thing, there was my physical transition and the countless social changes I experienced as a result of being perceived as female. But for me, being trans didn’t merely involve learning how to navigate my way through the world as a woman. I have the privilege of being appropriately gendered as female, so in my day-to-day life, when I am forced to come out to someone,


nine times out of ten it is not as a transsexual, but as a lesbian. It happens every time somebody asks me if I am seeing someone and I reply, “Actually, I have a wife.” It happens every time Dani and I dare to hold hands or kiss in public. It happens when Dani is not around, but someone assumes that I am a dyke anyway because of the way that I dress, speak, or carry myself.

After my transition, I began to write not only about being transgendered, but about my experiences living in the world as a woman and a dyke after years of being perceived as a straight man. Not surprisingly, most of what I wrote had a definite feminist bent. It seemed impossible for me, as a trans woman, to discuss my journey from male to female without placing it in the context of the differing values our society places on maleness and femaleness, on masculinity and femininity.

Unfortunately, many people tend to artificially separate feminism from transgender activism, as if they are distinct issues that are in no way related. However, I have found that much of the anti-trans discrimination that trans women come across is clearly rooted in traditional sexism. This can be seen in how the media Powers That Be systematically sensationalize, sexualize, and ridicule trans women while allowing trans men to remain largely invisible. It’s why the tranny sex and porn industries catering to straight-identified men do not fetishize folks on the FTM spectrum for their XX chromosomes or their socialization as girls. No, they objectify trans women, because our bodies and our persons are female. I have found that many female-assigned genderqueers and

FTM spectrum trans people go on and on about the gender binary system, as if trans people are only ever discriminated against for breaking gender norms. That might be how it seems when the


gender transgression in question is an expression of masculinity. But as someone on the MTF spectrum, I am not dismissed for merely failing to live up to binary gender norms, but for expressing my own femaleness and femininity, And personally, I don’t feel like I’m the victim of “transphohia” as much as I am the victim of trans-misogyny.

This idea-that much of what is commonly called transphobia is merely traditional sexism in disguise-moved to the forefront of my mind as I began to be invited to do spoken word performances at various queer women’s events around the San Francisco Bay Area. While I was welcomed very warmly by most of the women who attended these events, I would sometimes come across certain women who would act dismissively toward me, who seemed bothered by me being there, who acted as if they were granting me a special favor by tolerating my presence, who would make offhand and inappropriate comments about my trans status as if to remind me that I was not a real woman like they were. This sense of ownership and entitlement about being a woman or being lesbian seemed hypocritical to me. After all, as soon as we would walk out the door, all of us would face similar discrimination for being women and for being dykes. But what was most frustrating about the way that many of these women dismissed me was the fact that they seemed to have no problems at all with female-bodied folks expressing masculinity and with trans people on the FTM spectrum attending their events. In other words, they didn’t have much of a problem with transgender people per se, just so long as they were male- or masculine- identified rather than female- or feminine-identified. This privileging of trans men over trans women is not merely a bias held by certain individuals, but rather one that is often


institutionalized within queer women’s culture and organizations. These days, it is not uncommon to see the word “trans” used to welcome trans men (but not trans women) on everything from lesbian events to sex surveys and play parties. And even at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, women are no longer defined based on their legal sex, appearance, or self-identification, but on whether or not they were born and raised a girl. And while-some performers who identify as transgender and answer to male pronouns are invited to take the festival stage each year, someone like myself-who identifies 100 percent as female-isn’t even allowed to stand in the audience.3

As with most forms of prejudice, trans-woman-specific discrimination within the queer women’s community seems to proliferate even more in the absence of trans women than in our presence; this is no surprise, as bigots are typically too cowardly to dare have their views openly discussed or debated with the very people they despise. While anti-trans-woman sentiments are generally expressed outside of my view, I still hear about them all the time from my trans male and queer female friends, who often tell me about self-identified dykes in their community who openly discuss lusting after trannybois and trans men one minute, then in the next, deride trans women for being “creepy” and “effeminate.”

The popular spin given to this preferential treatment of trans men over trans women states that trans men have been raised female and therefore should have a place in women’s and lesbian communities, whereas trans women have experienced male privilege and remain physically male on some level, and therefore should be excluded. However, this argument makes little sense when examined more closely. After all, how can someone who identifies as


female and currently lives as a woman have less in common with women than a male-identified person who has male physical attributes and currently benefits from male privilege? The premise that trans women should be singled out because we “used to be men” is highly suspect. Rather, I believe that this preference for trans men over trans women simply reflects the society-wide inclination to view masculinity as being strong and natural, and femininity as being weak and artificial. In other words, it is a product of traditional sexism.

My appreciation for the ways in which traditional sexism shapes popular assumptions about trans women started to really take shape during 2003 and 2004, as I became involved in Camp Trans, an organization that works to end the exclusion of trans women from women-only spaces, most notably the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. In my work on this issue, I learned firsthand how the occasional anti-trans-woman sentiment I would come across in the relatively trans-friendly Bay Area was just the tip of the iceberg. Some of the women who travel from all over the country to attend Michigan think nothing of wearing their suspicion or hatred of trans women on their sleeves, and they will often make extraordinarily ignorant and insensitive comments about trans women in their attempts to justify our exclusion. I am sure these women believe that they are protecting the values of lesbian and women’s space by opposing our inclusion at all costs, but in reality the specific points they make generally undermine feminist goals and beliefs rather than support them. After all, at its core, feminism is based on the conviction that women are far more than the sex of the bodies that we are born into, and our identities and abilities are capable of transcending the restrictive nature of the


gender socialization we endure during our childhoods. I have yet to meet the person who can explain to me how refusing trans women the right to participate in women’s spaces and events is consistent with this most central tenet of feminism.

Indeed, some of the most common arguments used to deny trans women the right to participate in women-only spaces also happen to be the most antifeminist. For example, many argue that trans women should be barred from women’s spaces because we supposedly still have “male energy.” But by suggesting that trans women possess some mystical “male energy” as a result of having been born and raised male, these women are essentially making the case that men have abilities and aptitudes that women are not capable of.

Another popular excuse for our exclusion is the fact that some trans women have male genitals (as many of us either cannot afford or choose not to have sex reassignment surgery). This “penis” argument not only objectifies trans women by reducing us to our genitals, but propagates the male myth that men’s power and domination somehow arise from the phallus. The truth is, our penises are made of flesh and blood, nothing more. And the very idea that the femaleness of my mind, personality, lived experiences, and the rest of my body can somehow be trumped by the mere presence of a penis can only be described as phallocentric.

It’s distressing that such phallocentric arguments, along with related arguments that harp on the idea that trans women “physically resemble” or “look like” men in other ways, are so regularly made by lesbian-feminists, considering that they are based in the society-wide privileging of male attributes over female ones. In what is now considered classic research, sociologists Suzanne Kessler and


Wendy McKenna showed that in our culture, when people (both women and men) gender others, we tend to weigh male visual cues as far more significant than female ones, and almost invariably consider the penis as being the single most important gender cue of all [i.e., its presence trumps all other gender cues; the presence of a vagina does not elicit a similar effect].4 In their words, “There seem to be no cues that are definitely female, while there are many that are definitely male. To be male is to ‘have’ something and to be female is to ‘not have’ it.” 5 Kessler and McKenna view this privileging of male cues as resulting from male-centrism (similar to how people often favor using the pronoun “he” when speaking generically). Taking this into account, it becomes rather obvious that when cissexual women deny trans women the right to participate in women only spaces because of their own tendency to privilege any “mannish” or “masculine” traits we may have over our many female attributes, they are fostering and promoting male-centrism.

Of course, trans-woman-exclusion cannot be justified solely on the basis that some of us look or act “mannish” or “masculine”- otherwise, butch women would have to be excluded as well. Indeed, in recent years, as feminism itself has shifted away from gender essentialist theories and toward more social constructionist ones, the basis for trans-woman-exclusion is more frequently our male socialization rather than our male biology. This approach also provides convenient intellectual cover for those who wish to include FTM spectrum folies (who were socialized female) in women’s spaces. But once again, such an approach runs counter to the precepts of feminism. After all, feminists regularly insist that women are capable of doing anything men can despite having been raised as girls and encouraged to take a subordinate position


to men. Thus, women Can (and often do) transcend their female socialization. It remains unclear why these same feminists would paradoxically insist that trans women are unable to similarly transcend our male socialization.

The fact that socialization is a specious argument became obvious to me during an exchange I had with a trans-woman exclusionist who insisted that my being raised male was the sale reason in her mind for me to be disqualified from entering women only spaces. So I asked her if she was open to allowing trans women who are anatomically male but who have been socialized female– something that’s not all that uncommon for MTF children these days.” She admitted to having Concerns about their attending. Then, I asked how she would feel about a person who was born female yet raised male against her will, and who, after a lifetime of pretending to be male in order to survive, finally reclaimed her female identity upon reaching adulthood. After being confronted with this scenario, the woman conceded that she would be inclined to let this person enter women-only space, thus demonstrating that her argument about male socialization was really an argument about biology after all. In fact, after being pressed a bit further, she admitted that the scenario of a young girl who was forced against her will into boyhood made her realize how traumatic and dehumanizing male socialization could be for someone who was female-identified. This, of course, is exactly how many trans women experience their own childhoods.

Another popular reason used to justify trans-woman-exclusion is cissexual women’s fears that we will somehow make women only spaces unsafe. For example, it’s common for trans-woman exclusionists to express concerns over the possibility that we might


assault other women-an accusation that is entirely unfounded, as there is no credible evidence to suggest that trans women are any more violent or abusive than women as a whole. Even in San Francisco (the U.S. city most likely to have the highest percentage of trans women per capita), there has never been a single police report of a trans woman harassing another woman in a bathroom.’ Others argue that trans women could potentially trigger those who have survived physical or sexual violence at the hands of men-a suggestion that is offensive not only because it is rooted in the male-centric tendency to view trans women as “men” (which is the result of privileging male attributes over female ones), but because it denies the fact that many trans women ate physically violated and sexually assaulted for being women, too. But what I find most dumbfounding about lesbian-feminist arguments that trans women might somehow threaten cissexual women’s safety is how eerily similar they are to the arguments some heterosexual women have made in the past in their attempts to exclude lesbians from women’s spaces and organizations.8

This is why it’s so disappointing for me to see members of my own dyke community practically bending over backwards, embracing hypocrisy, in a last-ditch effort to prevent trans women from entering lesbian and women-only spaces. Women who are appalled by the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding homosexuality seem to find no fault with Michigan for enforcing a similar policy regarding gender. Women who have struggled against patriarchal ideals of what makes a “real” woman think nothing of turning around and using the word “real” against trans women. Women who would be outraged if an all-male panel were to discuss women’s or lesbian issues in Newsweek or Time magazine see


nothing wrong with the fact that, in the last few years, several of the largest lesbian and feminist magazines have run articles and roundtable discussions on the issue of Michigan and trans-woman-inclusion without inviting any trans women to participate.” It’s sad to see women so desperate to prevent trans women from attending Michigan that they will actually try to make the ridiculous case that this “womyn’s” festival was never actually meant to be an event for women, but rather for those who were born and raised as girls.

I am sure that a lot of the same people who support Michigan’s trans-woman-exclusion policy, or who sit on the fence on this issue, would have a very different opinion if it were their own inclusion that was being debated. Can you imagine how angry these very same women would be if the largest annual women-only event in the world was run by straight women who decided to exclude queer women from attending? Can you imagine how insulted they would feel if they were told that they were not allowed to enter women-only space because they were not “real” women, or that their attraction to women might threaten the safety of other women? Can you imagine how condescending they would find it if straight women talked to them about being queer-positive one minute, then turned around and purchased a $400 ticket to a “queerfree” women’s event the next?

As much as I am bothered by the long history of trans women being expelled from the lesbian community during the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s, I am willing to chalk that up to the fact that the transgender movement hadn’t fully come into its own yet, and there were few people who were able to articulate a clear message for transgender rights and inclusion at the time. But now, in 2007, there is no legitimate excuse for trans-woman-exclusion in lesbian


and women-only spaces. Most LGB groups have long since added Ts to the ends of their acronyms. And while there was a time when trans-inclusion debates only took place on the outskirts of the queer community, they now take place in workplaces and courthouses all across the United States. In the last twenty years, nine states (Minnesota, Rhode Island, New Mexico, California, Maine, Illinois, Hawaii, Washington, and New Jersey) and scores of cities and counties across the country have extended their nondiscrimination laws to explicitly include transgender people.” It’s downright embarrassing that so many folks within the queer women’s community, who generally pride themselves on their progressive politics, have managed to fall behind Peoria, Illinois, and El Paso, Texas, in recognizing and respecting trans people’s gender identities.

But trans-woman-exclusion in lesbian and women-only spaces is not merely a trans rights issue-if it were, I would consider it to be important, but I probably would not have devoted so much of my time and energy to it. The main reason why trans-woman-exclusion evokes such passion and frustration in me is precisely because it is both anti-trans and antifeminist. And as a feminist, it gravely disturbs me that other self-described feminists are so willing to overlook or purposefully ignore how inherently sexist trans-woman-exclusion policies and politics are: They favor trans men over trans women, they rampantly objectify trans female bodies, and they privilege trans women’s appearances, socialization, and the sex others assigned to us at birth over our persons, our minds, and our identities. And what saddens me even more than the irrational transmisogynistic fear and hatred displayed by the vocal minority who most adamantly oppose our inclusion is the apathy of the silent majority of queer women and feminists who enable that prejudice: those


who continue to attend women’s events that exclude trans women; those who excuse or choose not to confront antifeminist/anti-transwoman comments and actions made by members of their own community; those who tacitly give credence to antifeminist/anti-transwoman rhetoric by referring to the issue of trans-woman-exclusion as a “controversy” or a “debate.” I would submit to them that there has never been a legitimate debate regarding this issue, as the overwhelming majority of dialogues and discourses on this subject have taken place among cissexual women in the absence of any trans women.

Perhaps the most naive and condescending refrain apologists for the trans-woman-exclusionists make is that these apologists are working hard to change these women-only organizations and spaces from within. This is a seriously flawed notion. If you look back at history, there has not been a single instance where people have overcome a deeply entrenched prejudice without first being forced to interact with the people they detest. Mere words cannot dispel bigoted stereotypes and fears; only personal experiences can. The queer rights movement would not have made the progress that it has if activists merely relied on queer-positive straight people to lobby on our behalf, to speak as our proxies. Social progress was only made through both the frontline work of outspoken activists shouting, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” and that of committed straight allies who absolutely refused to tolerate antiqueer remarks and discrimination from members of their own communities. Similarly, I entreat all feminists and all queer women to recognize that the divisive issue of trans-woman-exclusion will continue to be with us as long as we fail to directly confront and repudiate antifeminist/anti-trans-woman policies and rhetoric wherever they exist.




Filed under Uncategorized

Disability and the male sex right by Sheila Jeffreys

I decided to publish this article after reading Miska’s brilliant comparison of transsexualism and “Body Integrity Identity Disorder” at FAB Matters. Please do take the time to read Miska’s contributions to the subject.

PDF download here.

Sheila Jeffreys, 2008. “Disability and the male sex right”, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 31, Issue 5, (September-October), pp. 327- 335

Disability and the male sex right
Sheila Jeffreys
School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne, Victoria 3101, Australia
Access to prostituted women is increasingly justified by disability charities and services on the grounds of the sexual rights of the disabled. In Australia, for example, disabled men form a niche market for the legalised prostitution industry. Male sexuality is constructed out of male dominance and is likely to manifest the eroticisation of hierarchy and the idea that males should have the sexual right to access the female body. This model of sexuality poses problems for all women in the form of sexual harassment and violence, pornography and prostitution. It poses particular problems for women with disabilities who are more vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment from carers and disability fetishists. The sexual rights idea does not generally take gender into account. Thus sexual rights for men with disabilities can include the right to pay for or demand sexual servicing from women in prostitution, nursing or caring work. This article seeks to disaggregate the notion of sexual rights according to gender.

In this article I will look in an exploratory way at several issues concerning disability and sexual exploitation that might seem at first to be distinct. They include the sexual abuse of women with disabilities and the prostitution of women with disabilities, the exploitation of prostituted women by men with disabilities, and men’s sexual fetishising of women with disabilities. The connecting factor is the sexuality of male dominance. In relation to sexuality, disabled men may pursue interests that are in stark contradiction to those of disabled women. Organisations supporting men with disabilities campaign for their sexual rights which may mean using pornography and prostituting women. These forms of sexual exploitation teach and represent an objectifying sexuality. It is precisely this form of sexuality that disabled women suffer from, in the form of unwanted sexual contact and the fetishising of disability. It is important to disaggregate the interests of men and women when considering the issue of disability and sexuality.

Feminist disability theorists have been working for three decades to provide an understanding of disability which takes gender into account (Morris, 1989; Fine & Asch, 1988; Matthews, 1983). They have pointed out that women with disabilities can be seen as at least doubly disadvantaged i.e. by discrimination on the grounds of gender and disability, and often by a third form of exclusion and discrimination in the form of racism as well (Begum, 1992). They have shown that the model of rehabilitation of people with disabilities that the medical model of disability promotes, has a male body and male sexuality in mind. Rehabilitation programmes seek to cultivate ‘competitive attitudes’ and address ‘concerns about male sexuality’. They are about ‘enabling men to aspire to dominance notions of masculinity’ whilst ignoring the needs of disabled women (Begum, 1992: 72). Feminists have criticised the understanding of sexuality that is applied to women with disabilities by doctors, in which they are seen as functional if they have a usable vagina for a male partner’s satisfaction. This is a very masculine model which does not countenance women’s pleasure, the clitoris, and more imaginative approaches which do not have to be focused on penis in vagina sex, or even heterosexual (Titchkosky, 2000). Feminist approaches to disability have given little attention, however, with the notable exception of the work of Amy Elman, to the need to disaggregate the concept of the sexual rights of the disabled (Elman, 1997).

Feminist theorists have also criticised the limitations of the ‘social model’ of theorising disability. This article starts from the understanding that disability is to a large extent socially constructed (Oliver, 1990), an approach that has been termed the ‘social model’ of theorising disability (Lloyd, 2001). According to this approach the problems that women with disabilities face are not the sad but inevitable result of a biological or acquired flaw, and an individual responsibility. The disabled experience problems such as violence and penury because the societies in which they live do not acknowledge persons with disabilities and want them to be‘out of sight, out of mind’ (DVIRC, 2003). The values of capitalist societies based on male dominance are dedicated to medical model of disability promotes, has a male body and male sexuality in mind. Rehabilitation programmes seek to cultivate ‘competitive attitudes’ and address ‘concerns about male sexuality’. They are about ‘enabling men to aspire to dominance notions of masculinity’ whilst ignoring the needs of disabled women (Begum, 1992: 72). Feminists have criticised the understanding of sexuality that is applied to women with disabilities by doctors, in which they are seen as functional if they have a usable vagina for a male partner’s satisfaction. This is a very masculine model which does not countenance women’s pleasure, the clitoris, and more imaginative approaches which do not have to be focused on penis in vagina sex, or even heterosexual (Titchkosky, 2000). Feminist approaches to disability have given little attention, however, with the notable exception of the work of Amy Elman, to the need to disaggregate the concept of the sexual rights of the disabled (Elman, 1997). Feminist theorists have also criticised the limitations of the ‘social model’ of theorising disability. This article starts from the understanding that disability is to a large extent socially constructed (Oliver, 1990), an approach that has been termed the ‘social model’ of theorising disability (Lloyd 2001). According to this approach the problems that women with disabilities face are not the sad but inevitable result of a biological or acquired flaw, and an individual responsibility. The disabled experience problems such as violence and penury because the societies in which they live do not acknowledge persons with disabilities and want them to be ‘out of sight, out of mind’ (DVIRC, 2003). The values of capitalist societies based on male dominance are dedicated to warrior values, and a frantic able-bodiedness represented through aggressive sports and risk-taking activities which do not make room for those with disabilities. Feminist critics have pointed out, however, that the social model can reproduce a form of mind/body split, by downgrading the lived experience of the body which is not merely a social construction. It can serve to obscure the very real experiences of pain, for instance, that women with disabilities face (Titchkosky, 2000). Women’s physical experience of impairment will affect the ways in which they are vulnerable to men’s violence, and the forms that this takes. But sexual violence against women with disabilities is also a classic example of how the problems of disability are socially constructed. This violence is founded on the male sex right, a construction of male dominance, and enabled by economic, mobility and emotional factors that women with disabilities suffer as a result of the obstacles placed in the way of their integration into an able-bodied world.

The sexuality of male dominance is based upon what the political theorist, Carole Pateman, calls the ‘male sex right’ (Pateman, 1988). This is the privileged expectation in male dominant societies that men should have sexual access to the bodies of women as of right. Such societies organise delivery of this access to men, and the removal of obstacles, in various ways. This can be through the provision of legalised prostitution or the tolerance of illegal prostitution. It can be through enabling the creation of other aspects of the prostitution industry such as pornography, strip clubs and sex phonelines (Jeffreys, in press-a). It can be through child marriage in traditional societies or the early sexualisation of children in the west (Moschetti, 2006).
In relation to disability this law of the male sex right leads men and boys to sexually abuse women, girls and boys made vulnerable to them by virtue of their dependence on male carers, or through institutionalisation. It leads to the provision of prostitutedwomen tomenwith disabilities (see Sullivan, 2007), the provision ofwhat are euphemistically called ‘sex surrogates’, or even the requirement that nurses and carers masturbate men with disabilities, which is called ‘facilitated sex’ (Earle, 2001; Davies, 2001). It also leads men who fetishise and get sexually excited bywomen’s disabilities to harass women amputees and seek sexual access to women with disabilities through various forms of exploitation and trafficking, the mail order bride business, prostitution and pornography (Elman, 1997).
The fetishising of disability comes from the way in which, under male dominance, male sexuality is constructed to eroticise hierarchy and to objectify. As the radical feminist legal theorist, Catharine MacKinnon, points out, gender is a hierarchy, and it is the eroticising of male dominance and female subordination that forms the foundation of what is commonly understood as sex in male dominant culture (MacKinnon,1989; Jeffreys, 1990). The eroticising of hierarchy by men is not restricted to gender. Other forms of hierarchy are eroticised too, such as age in paedophilia, race in relation to the racist sexual stereotyping that underpins the male interests of using exotic prostituted women, such as those who have been trafficked or are available in sex tourism destinations (Jeffreys, 1997). Disability provides another hierarchy for eroticisation. Women with disabilities offer the double delights of gender inequality and disability as sources of sexual satisfaction to dominant male sexuality. Thus some men come to fetishise women’s disability (Elman, 1997).
Some of those men who sexually fetishise disability seek to become disabled themselves, usually through amputation of limbs (Elliott, 2003). This condition is commonly called amputee identity disorder or BIID (Body Identity Integrity Disorder). The power and influence of the male sex right is indicated in the fact that a movement to get amputation of healthy limbs available to such men is under way with the support of respected psychiatrists and surgeons, such as the editor of the US Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Michael First (First, 2004).

Despite the rather clear differences in the ways in which male and female sexuality are constructed under male dominance, when disability studies have approached the issue of sexuality they have not usually disaggregated the interests of women with disabilities from those of men with disabilities. When sexuality is addressed in the literature this often fails to mention the problem of sexual exploitation that women with disabilities face. The definition of sexual  exploitation that I use comes from the United Nations Draft Convention Against Sexual Exploitation (1991) in Defeis (2000, p. 335). Sexual exploitation is a practice by which person(s) achieve sexual gratification, or financial gain, or advancement, through the abuse of a person’s sexuality by abrogating that person’s human right to dignity, equality, autonomy, and physical and mental wellbeing. (For discussion of this Draft Convention and the text see: Defeis, 2000). Prostitution and pornography are included in this understanding as sexually exploitative practices. In this article sexual exploitation means gaining access to sexual use of a person’s body by means of any form of unequal power e.g. payment, force or its threat, emotional manipulation by someone in a position of power, superior age or knowledge. It is distinguished from wanted sexual interaction with equal desire and pleasure for both partners, freely entered into.

Unwanted or coercive sex in relationships and from carers

International research suggests that women with disabilities suffer significantly more from sexual violence than othe women (Elman, 2005). In general women with disabilities are ‘assaulted, raped and abused at a rate of at least two times greater than women without, yet are less likely to receive assistance or services if they experience violence’ (DVIRC, 2003,p. 12). Some forms of abuse are unique to women with disabilities. Sexual abuse of a woman with a disability may include, for example, forced sterilisation or forced abortion (DVIRC, 2003: 12). Lack of sex education for girls with disabilities can contribute to their vulnerability to male sexual use. Also women with disabilities, ‘face alarming rates of violence from paid and non-paid carers’ Feminist scholars have paid considerable attention to the problem of unwanted sex in the relationships of able-bodied women in the last decade (Jejeebhoy, Shah & Thapa, 2005; Gavey, 2005; Phillips, 2000). The difficulties for women with disabilities, however, are likely to be greater than those of girls and women without for several reasons. These include self esteem and body image problems which may make them more easily manipulated emotionally (Hassouneh-Phillips & McNeff, 2005). Physical or intellectual disabilities, mobility problems or dependence upon carers, make it more difficult for them to protect themselves against unwanted touch and
sexual contact. Women with high degrees of physical impairment, may suffer disproportionately low ‘sexual and body esteem’ (Hassouneh Phillips & McNeff, 2005: 227).

A study of women with high degrees of physical impairment found that they were vulnerable to ‘getting into and staying in abusive relationships over time’ because they saw themselves as sexually inadequate and unattractive (Hassouneh-Phillips & McNeff, 2005: 227). These women are less likely to marrythan other women with disabilities and this may make them more likely to suffer abuse rather than face loneliness and lose the person who cares for them ‘For some women, these disadvantages translate into an increased tolerance of abuse in intimate partner relationships out of fear that no one else will want or care for them’ (Hassouneh-Phillips & McNeff, 2005: 229). Research shows that 40–72% of women with physical disabilities ‘have been abused by an intimate partner, family member, caregiver, health care provider, or other service provider’ (Hassouneh-Phillips & McNeff, 2005: 229). These statistics cover abuse in general and make no special mention of sexual abuse, for which figures are difficult to obtain. But one particularly poignant quote from the 2005 study suggests that women with disabilities might allow men to engage in abusive sexual behaviours towards them out of a desperate desire to hold onto the relationship, ‘my main thing that I
thinkmy relationship with my men is to pleas emy man…and so I do everything that I can do to please. Because it’s constantly in my head — am I pleasing him sexually?’ (Hassouneh-Phillips & McNeff, 2005: 237).

The prolonged exposure to abuse that some women with disabilities suffer because of the restrictions to mobility and lack of alternatives they suffer in a society which is not organised to ensure their integration, leads to increased risk for ‘negative health outcomes including injury, chronic pain, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, homicide and suicide’ (Hassouneh-Phillips & McNeff, 2005: 237). Douglas Brownridge’s study in Violence Against Women on partner violence against women with disabilities found that the women had a 1.4 to 1.9 times greater likelihood of physical violence than other women over the previous 5 years, with the greatest disparity in relation to ‘more severe forms of violence’ (Brownridge, 2006: 812). But sexual violence was much the most common form of violence they experienced. Women with disabilities were three times more likely to report ‘being forced into sexual activity by being threatened, held down, or hurt in some way’ (Brownridge, 2006:812). The research found that the male partners of women with disabilities were 1.5 times more likely to ‘engage in proprietary behaviors’ than those of other women (Brownridge, 2006: 818). The increased risk of violence suffered by the women with disabilities in this study is attributed to ‘ideologies of patriarchy and male sexual proprietariness which were particularly strong in these relationships’ (Brownridge, 2006: 818). Brownridge’s research focused on partner violence and the researcher was careful to point out that women with ‘developmental disabilities’ and the most severe forms of disability, were less likely to be partnered, though research suggests that they receive a particularly severe degree of violence. As Amy Elman, whose earlier work was the first to examine the issue of men’s sexual fetishising of women with disabilities (Elman, 1997) has commented in her more recent work, it is important to pay attention to distinguish the ways in which women and girls are sexually exploited in relation to different forms of physical, mental health and intellectual disability (Elman, 2005).
Another recent study echoed Brownridge’s conclusions, finding a high rate of sexual assault amongst women with disabilities (Martin et al., 2006). This study, too, found that there was a considerable discrepancy between the rates of physical violence, which were not significantly more than for women without disabilities, and the rate of sexual assault, which was 4 times the rate of other women. It found thatyoung and non-white women, unmarried women and employed women were more likely to be assaulted. The sexual abuse of women with psychiatric disorders or intellectual impairment, however, is not just perpetrated by carers or other residents in care homes or institutions. It can take the formof sexual exploitation in the prostitution industry.
The feministmovement has been split in recent years between those who see prostitution as violence against women (Barry,
1995; Jeffreys, 1997; Stark & Whisnant, 2004), and those who use the language of neo-liberalism to normalise that form of men’s behaviour by defining prostitution as ‘sex work’, speaking of women’s choice and agency in entering prostitution, and describing prostituted women as entrepreneurs (Pattaniak, 2002; Lisborg, 2002). My perspective is that prostitution is harmful to all women. But prostitution depends upon the
exploitation of the most vulnerable and marginalized of  women, indigenous women, trafficked women, as the business can find it difficult to attract women who have other opportunities to earn a living. As a result, women with mental health problems and intellectual impairment are vulnerable to exploitation in the industry.

The prostitution of women with disabilities

In legalised prostitution systems, such as those in most states of Australia, women with psychiatric disorders or intellectual disabilities are exploited in brothel prostitution. InAustralia the legal brothel and strip club industry was worth 2 billion Australian dollars in 2006 according to an industry report (IBISWorld, 2007, p. 4), though the illegal industry,much of it in the grip of organised crime, stillmakes up around 80% of the industry (Sullivan, 2007, p. 202). There is no evidence to suggest that women with disabilities are being deliberately employed in prostitution but there are indications that women suffering intellectual impairment are particularly vulnerable to being exploited in the industry. Prostitution may offer the only form of ‘work’ that a woman with a disability is able to access, especially if a woman is subject to periods of psychological wellness and periods of illness and unable to hold down regular employment. Women with intellectual disabilities may be particularly susceptible to the inducements of pimps and easily manipulated in prostitution.
Sexual exploitation of women with disabilities is not necessarily understood to be a problem in relation to the legal industry. Under the Australian state of Queensland’s criminal code, however, it is an offence to have carnal knowledge of someone who is defined as having an ‘intellectual impairment’ (Carrick, 2006). Participants in a discussion about the issue of prostitution and disability on Australia’s National Radio (see Carrick, 2006) argued that this was an abuse of the rights of people with disabilities. The prohibition on women with intellectual disabilities being exploited in brothel prostitution was unfair, Delaney and Candy, from SSPAN, Sexual Service Providers AdvocacyNetwork, considered.When asked whether a woman with the mental age of 10 should be allowed to work in a brothel, however, Delaney said she thought not. But the SSPAN spokeswomen pointed out that the prohibition also potentially prohibited women suffering mental illness from
being prostituted in brothels. Someone with bipolar disorder, for instance, ‘who may get psychotic from time to time,
somebody with severe depression, who may be good for some periods, not so good at other periods, who may be
stabilised on medication’ (Carrick, 2006). This raises the question of whether prostitution is a good work choice for women suffering depression when the rates of depression in prostituted women or those who have managed to leave prostitution are so high, and many other mental health
conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder have been identified in prostituted women (Farley, 2003).
Evidence about the exploitation of girls and women with disabilities in prostitution is anecdotal at present. No research has been conducted into the percentage of prostituted women who fall into this category. But the anecdotal evidence suggests that girls with disabilities are being prostituted. In April 2007 a convicted double police murderer named Bandali Debs appeared before a court inMelbourne charged with the murder of an ‘intellectually disabled teenager’ whom he shot after ‘having sex’ with her (Jenkins, 2007, p. 5). Kristy Mary Harty’s bodywas foundin undergrowth in thebush andshe is described as having been ‘working as a masseuse and was prostituting herself to drivers at Dandenong the day she died’ (Jenkins, 2007, p. 5). Evidence of such exploitation is only available when media reports of court cases related to prostitution choose to mention the disability, as in a case from New Zealand, which decriminalised prostitution in 2003. In 2005 a male illegal brothel
owner was prosecuted for employing two underage prostituted girls in a brothel, supplying drugs, and paying for sex with a
minor. The 14 year old girl is described as being drug addicted and the 16 year old as having ‘severe learning difficulties’ (Henzell, 2005, p. 3). The offence was underage prostitution since there is nothing in the NewZealand legislation to prohibit the prostitution of those with intellectual disabilities.

When women with disabilities are used in the prostitution industry in Australia this is incidental and the disabilities are not highlighted so as to appeal to disability fetishists. Male disability fetishists, however, do deliberately target women with disabilities. In the age of the Internet, the male sexual interest of fetishising disabilities inwomen has expanded and been normalised by websites offering pornography and
services such as the ordering of mail order amputee brides.
Disability fetishism

All manner of women’s disabilities are offered to ‘devotees’ on sites such as ampulove. The range of pornography on offer demonstrates that there are men who get sexually excited about everything from braces on teeth and braces on legs to amputation (Elman, 1997). Amputation is the most common interest and offers three sub-specialisations. Devotees are those men who get sexual satisfaction from women’s disability, particularly limb amputation. Pretenders are those who pretend to be amputees or disabled themselves by tying one leg up behind them or using wheelchairs. Wannabes are those who seek actual amputations, preferably in hospitals and through public health services. The latter two categories, though overwhelmingly male, may include somewomen. The male behaviour of disability fetishism originates in the construction of male sexuality to eroticise power difference. Men’s expectation that they may pursue, approach and stalk women with disabilities, make them into pornography and sexually exploit them in prostitution and as mail order brides, is an aspect of the male sex right.
It is the devotees that create the most difficulties forwomen with disabilities. They may harass amputee women in the street, join organisations and attend conferences that support amputees in order to derive sexual satisfaction from seeing stumps and getting close to them, or even become prosthetists. Material from the Amputee Coalition of America shows how this latter form of sexual abuse works. According to the ACA,
women amputees are harassed on the Amputee Web Site, which is a facility set up to serve amputees. They are stalked by
‘devotees’ (Amputee-online, n.d.). The result is that ‘Many amputees fear revealing the fact that they are amputees in case a devotee without moral fibre sexually harasses themvia e-mail’ (Amputee-online, n.d.). They are advised, ‘if a person starts asking you various questions about crutches, clothing, do you go to bars, shoes and other habits, BE SUSPICIOUS!’ (Amputeeonline,
n.d.). The website held a debate on the issue of devotees. Members of ACA wrote about their response to devotee interest in female amputees in the organisation. Gracie Rossenberger, board member of ACA, when asked what her concerns were about devotees, responded, ‘These are individuals who are enamoured with the maimed bodies of human beings. They repulse me’ (Amputee-online, 2000). Sheworries that the presence of devotees will keep members away from the ACA. They should not have to ‘work up the courage to come to a meeting’ and have to worry about ‘unaccompanied women … walking to their room unescorted, going to the pool and having deviants take their pictures’ (Amputeeonline, 2000). She is concerned as more and more children become involved in the organisation that devotees will attempt to ‘interact with the children’. She worries that they get into ‘professional positions’ where they can ‘use us to feed their fascination on a daily basis’ and does not want to have to ‘question and squirm every time a prosthetist touches me because I don’t know if he is or isn’t a devotee’. She asks, ‘How
safe can we feel standing there partially dressed, totally vulnerable and exposedwondering if there is a hidden camera taking our picture that will end up in next month’s “new attractions” on the internet.

There are so many women whose pictures have been taken without their awareness that are now being viewed and used for fantasies by this population and we have no way to stop this hideous invasion of our privacy’ (Amputee-online, 2000).
In the same discussion Carol Wallace wrote ‘Attending conferences these days feels like being in a “meat market” as they hang around the sidelines hoping to catch a “glimpse” of our stumps’ (Amputee-online, 2000). Some women, she says, ‘unknowingly wear clothing that exposes their stumps’ which provides the ‘turn on they are looking for’ to the point of excess. As she reports, ‘“Over-stimulated to the point of emotional shutdown” is how one devotee so aptly describedhis experience of seeing so many of us in one place. How nice to know our loss is someone else’s “overload”’. She asks ‘What level of trust can you have in a man who might leave you for a “prettier” stump?’ (Amputee-online, 2000). She explains the involvement of some amputee women in the creation of pornography for devotees by the fact that they have ‘no other way to earn a living and there is big money in the selling of pictures’. There is even trafficking in amputated women, she states, ‘Foreign women are a target of devotees, who bring them to the United States and set them up as prostitutes for their population to use. For many of these women their new lifestyle is a step above theway they were living before coming here’ (Amputee-online, 2000). Men’s amputee fetishism is, thus, a source of harassment and distress to women amputees.
The infiltration of fetishists into amputee networks makes places of potential safety and support into places of danger. The sexual interest that devotees have in women with disabilities is, in some cases, transferred onto their own bodies with the result that they become ‘pretenders’ or
‘wannabes’. ‘Pretenders’ go around in wheelchairs or with one leg constantly bent upwards simulating disability, whereas ‘wannabes’ seek to have limbs amputated. The desire to have limbs amputated is overwhelmingly a male preoccupation. Recently, ‘wannabes’ have created a political movement to demand toleration, and limb amputation on the public health service (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2000; Furth &
Smith, 2002; Elliott, 2003). The desire for limb amputation\ is called body identity integrity disorder (BIID) by those campaigning for recognition (First, 2004). As several commentators have pointed out, it is similar to transgenderism (Jeffreys, 2005, in press-b). One similarity is the fact that both interests of men appear to be sexually motivated and forms of masochism (Lawrence, 2006). In both cases the fetishists themselves proclaim that their disorder has nothing to do with sex, but is rather an issue of ‘identity’, which can only be resolved through surgical removal of healthy limbs or sexual characteristics i.e. legs or penises.
Both psychiatrists, such as Michael First, and wannabes, such as Greg Furth, are involved in discussions as to whether BIID should be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the US encyclopedia of psychiatric conditions which is edited by First (Furth & Smith, 2002). Such an inclusion would enable limb amputation to be recognised as a form of therapy and mean that it could be performed with public health service funding. In the context of the serious obstacles that people with disabilities have to overcome in their lives in order to find love and sexual pleasure, it might be hard to establish full sympathy with a population of largely male disability fetishists which is seeking state support to become amputees for sexual purposes. The fact that this proposal receives any support reflects the importance attached in male
dominant societies to men’s desires, however unreasonable.
Men’s sexual desires, which are developed out of their unequal power relations with women, are regarded as legitimate and accommodated by male dominant states with the provision of legalised or tolerated prostitution and pornography industries. Men’s problematic sexual behaviour
in buying access to women and girls causes serious mental and physical harms to the women involved (Jeffreys, 2004; Farley, 2003), as well as social harms such as organised crime, destruction of relationships and of social amenity (Sullivan, 2007). One unfortunate result of the normalisation of this industry is that disability organisations and activists, such as Disability Now in the UK, seek access to the same masculine
privilege that other men possess, of sexually exploiting women in prostitution (Disability Now, 2005). The legalised industry in Australia markets prostitution to organisations for people with disabilities, their carers and men with disabilities as a way to ‘educate’ men with disabilities sexually, enable them to realize their sexual rights, or reduce their aggression.
Prostitution and the sexual ‘needs’ of men with disabilities
Disability is an important niche for expansion by prostitution industries. The sexual rights of the disabled are employed as a way to make prostitution respectable and to suggest that it serves a noble purpose. Thus the sex industry lobby group, Sexual Freedom Coalition, in the UK, staged a demonstration of disabled men against proposed legislation that would have restricted men’s rights to access prostituted women in February 2008 (Sexual Freedom Coalition, 2008). A 2008 documentary, aired on Channel 4 in the UK and SBS in Australia, is described in an Australian newspaper review as a ‘charming documentary on the sexuality of disabled people’. A disabled man who was taken on a trip to Spain by his parents to access prostituted women in a special brothel for ‘people with various disabilities’ is filmed making a return trip with two other disabled men (Schwartz, 2008).
This normalisation of prostitution in the interests of servicing disabled men’s ‘sexual rights’ is supported by the rhetoric about the sexual rights of people with disabilities that is common to much academic and practitioner literature on disability (Earle, 2001). Much of the material on sexuality and disability is composed of reasonable arguments for information and training to be supplied to persons with disabilities so that they may understand sexuality, pleasure themselves, develop relationships, and, in the case of men and boys, learn not to engage in unacceptable behaviours such as masturbation in public. But the sexual rights argument goes further and leads to demands that men with disabilities,
though gender is never referred to in this literature which is carefully neutral, should not only be able to access pornography and prostitution, but be helped by their carers, including nurses, to do so. The argument has gone so far, under the title of ‘facilitated sexuality’, that it appears that nurses may be expected to become adjuncts to the sex industry or even a part of it, by directly ‘sexually facilitating’
men with disabilities themselves (Earl, 2001).

Manifestos of sexual rights have come from several quarters onto the international stage and into human rights discussions in the decades since the sexual revolution. The  manifestos are gender neutral, which is problematic when, under male dominance, male and female sexuality are
constructed in such different ways. As Jennifer Oriel (2005) has pointed out in her study of the implications of sexual rights arguments forwomen, not only is sexuality constructed around the male sex right, with its assumed right to access women, but sexual pleasure for men is often specifically constructed out of the subordination ofwomen, through rape, pornography and prostitution. Thus any concept of women’s sexual rights must be based upon recognition of the inequality of men and women, of women’s vulnerability, and specific understanding of women’s right to bodily integrity and not to be sexually exploited. Based on this understanding, the United Nations Convention on Disability, which came into force in 2008, usefully states that ‘Every person with disabilities has a right to respect for his or her physical and mental integrity on an equal basis with others’ (United Nations, 2008: Article 17). A gender neutral concept of sexual rights, on the other hand, leads directly to the idea that men with disabilities should be able to abuse women in prostitution in the same way as men without disabilities do, despite the fact that rights should be positive in their effects and not bring harm through the infliction of a ‘right’ upon another. The normalisation of sexual exploitation in relation to men with disabilities is revealed in a 2005 survey by the UK organisation, Disability Now (Disability Now, 2005). This revealed the importance of disaggregating the interests of women from those of men since the survey found that it was men with disabilities that were using and wished to use prostituted women. It found that just over one-fifth of men
with disabilities in the UK (22.6%) have used sexual services, despite the fact that brothel prostitution is illegal. This figure is double the national male average of 11%. The male respondents would almost all consider doing so if there was a legal, regulated service. The figures were rather different for women, with less than 1% of women having used ‘sexual services’, although 16.5% had considered it and 19.2% would
think about using a legal, regulated service. Disability Now used the survey in support of its call for prostitution in the UK to be legalised. Pornography, too, is argued by some disability rights advocates to be vitally necessary to the sexual rights of the disabled. Thus Tim Noonan, in an article on ‘Netporn and the Politics of Disability’ states that, ‘access to online porn resources is even more crucial and significant for people with disability, often being THE ONLY — rather than ONE of SEVERAL options for consumption and participation’ (Noonan,n.d.).

In the state of Victoria in which I live, which has legalised brothel prostitution, brothels specialise in offering ‘services’ to people with disabilities (Sullivan, 2007). This is a money spinner for the prostitution industry. Also, by promoting itself as offering education and needed sexual relief to people with disabilities, the industry normalises itself and improves its image. Sexpo, the trade show of the prostitution and pornography industry which is held in state capitals all over Australia to promote prostitution, has a section of the display area dedicated to charities for people with disabilities, such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and advertises itself as educating people for sex and lifestyles. The cause of ensuring men with disabilities access to prostitution is well advanced in Australia. In Victoria service providers have an obligation to support the sexual lifestyles of ‘people’ with disabilities and this obligation may include access to prostitution (Sullivan, 2007: 176). Two Australian organisations exist that are dedicated to enabling men with disabilities to gain access to prostitution. One, Accsex/Access Plus, receives Federal Health Department funding. Another is Touching Base which was created in New South Wales through the support of the prostitution industry in that state and People With Disabilities to ‘facilitate the links between people with a disability, their support organisations and the Sex Industry’ (Touching Base, n.d.). Mainstream health and disability organisations support Touching Base, such as Family Planning Association NSW and The Spastic Centre of NSW. It offers ‘professional development’ to prostituted women through training them to work with men with disabilities, and promotes prostituted women as ‘sex therapists’ who can offer specialised services to people with disabilities such as teaching men with intellectual disabilities how to do sex. It advises that disability service providers should institute Sexuality Lifestyle Assistant
to provide transport, positioning and other services that will enable men with disabilities to prostitute women.
Touching Base sees residential aged care as another potential niche market for the prostitution industry. According to an article on their website, aged care services arrange for their male clients to access prostituted women. As a ‘lifestyle coordinator’ in nursing homes commented, carers provide sexual intimacy to elderlymen, ‘If male patients are fit enough, some homes send them to brothels’ (Gray, 2005). A spokesperson
for the Daily Planet brothel, commented, ‘It happens all the time. Several of our girls have nursing backgrounds and often still work in aged care…Some homes send men in small groups, so they can chat about it all afterwards, just like the boys…If people are treated with dignity, they feel dignified’ (Gray, 2005). The Touching Base website features a discussion on the question, ‘How does the right that individual sex worker’s (sic) have to decline a client, sitwith the right of people with disability to access commercial sexual services without
experiencing discrimination on the basis of their disability?’.
George Taleporos wonders whether brothel managers would find themselves in breach of the Disability Discrimination Act if they failed to provide access to a prostituted woman. Being refused access would, Taleporos considers, ‘have a devastating effect on that person’s self esteem’ (Touching Base, n.d.). The fact that such a question can be raised suggests that legalised prostitution educates men in the idea thatwomen are products to be used rather than as personswith a right not to be sexually exploited.
Prostitution is posited as a way that men with intellectual disabilities could be dissuaded from sexually assaulting other persons with intellectual disabilities. This form of sexual assault, predominantly in institutions, and in many cases consisting of repeated abuse of the same victim, is emerging as a worrying issue (Bazzo, Nota, Soresi, Ferrar &Minnes, 2007). Thus Anthony Walsh from Family Planning in the Australian state of Queensland says that ‘our experience at Family Planning Queensland, suggests that many men with significant intellectual
disabilities, are perpetrating sexual offences’ (Carrick, 2006). The answer, he considers, is ‘sexuality education and appropriate support’ which could help in ‘decreasing the risk of sexual assault against vulnerable people in our society’ (Carrick, 2006). The worrying possibility is that service providers might consider prostituted women as the appropriate deliverers of this form of ‘education’, especially when brothels set themselves up as specialists in the field and specially train their workers, as is happening in legalised brothel prostitution in Australia.

The sexual use of prostituted women, who are paid to dissociate emotionally whilst their bodies are entered, is not an appropriate means of sex education, or of reducing men’s sexual violence. Rather than teaching boys and men with disabilities about mutual sex, respect for the personhood of women, relationships and intimacy, prostitution teaches the exact opposite. The other implication here is that if men with disabilities are not given access to prostituted women into whom to ejaculate, they may attack others, as if there were a biological sexual drive which, if not satisfied, would naturally lead men to such violence. Prostituted women are already being used as a means to calm down sexually aggressive men with disabilities in Australia, as the stories about clients on the Touching Base website make clear. ‘Andy’ engaged in problematic behaviour such as stealing women’s clothing. He was supported in forming the idea that he wanted to access prostituted women, despite cultural inhibitions that he experienced towards this idea. He began, and continued, to visit prostituted women though he could not remember the visits (Touching Base, n.d.). ‘Bill’ was violent and aggressive and sexually harassed his carers after an accident affected his speech and the left side of his body. The visit to a prostituted woman that his carers arranged was unsatisfactory because he experienced premature ejaculation. His aggressive behaviour continued (Touching Base, n.d.). The idea that the prostitution of some women will lead to a reduced rate of sexual aggression towards others, the catharsis argument, is a myth which feminists have long sought to dispel in relation to men without disabilities, so it would be hard to see why it should deserve a revived currency in relation to disability (Jeffreys, 1997).

Some of those writing in the field of disability studies express the forms of sex education that boys with intellectual disabilities need in ways that would preclude sexual exploitation such as, ‘how to express positive attitudes towards their sexuality and their body, share rules promoting
self-respect and respect of others, enjoy the greatest degree of autonomy possible, live with one’s sexuality within satisfying social relationships, adequately practise safe sexual acts and defend themselves from possible aggressors’ (Bazzo et al., 2007, p. 111). This approach is more likely to be effective in changing sexually exploitative behaviour than the provision of prostituted girls and women, some of whom, after all, may
themselves have disabililties.
In countries where prostitution is not legalised and ‘sex therapy’ cannot be offered in brothels, such as the USA, men with disabilities may have to make do with ‘sex surrogates’ who can only be obtained through a regular therapist. Sex surrogates are paid, as in prostitution, but are promoted as subtly different. They are recommended in some disability studies literature (see Aloni & Katz, 2003). In one article by a man with a disability who decided to access a ‘sex surrogate’ for his first sexual experience, the ‘services’ offered sound remarkably identical to those of prostitution. Mark O’Brien, who is paraplegic, wanted to be ‘held, caressed and valued’(O’Brien, 1990). But, unfortunately, he was unable to find
anyone to have a loving relationship with him. Surrogacy/ prostitution was his recourse. The ‘surrogate’ undressed him, after his carer delivered him to a friend’s home for the experience, and then sucked his penis, instructed him to kiss her breasts and on the second visit managed to get his erect penis into her vagina. There was no ‘therapy’, just the usual practices of prostitution.
The supposed differences between prostitution and surrogacy are detailed in a document from ‘The Sex Institute’
in New York (Noonan, 2002). Sex surrogates provide ‘sex therapy’ we are told, and are ‘mostly female working with heterosexual males’. The difference lies in intent. Thus ‘the prostitute’s intent’ was to immediately ‘gratify localised on genital pleasure’ whereas the surrogate’s intent was ‘longterm therapeutic re-education and re-orientation of inadequate capabilities of functioning or relating sexually’ (Noonan, 2002: 3). There has to be a ‘supervising therapist’ and the ‘usual therapeutic approach is slow and thorough…Exercises are graduated and concentrate on body awareness, relaxation and sensual/sexual experiences that are primarily nongenital.’ (Noonan, 2002: 3). Where appropriate, the surrogate also teaches ‘vital social skills and traditional courtship patterns which finally include sexual interaction.’ (Noonan, 2002: 3) None of this happened with Mark O’Brien above, who seems to have got old-fashioned prostitution instead. Men with disabilities are likely to have difficulties accessing the exploitation of women in pornography and prostitution because of mobility issues or intellectual disabilities.
In male dominant cultures where these forms of abuse of women are considered an ordinary expression of men’s sexuality the argument has arisen that it is just and fair for the carers of such men, including nurses, to enable this access and thus ensure that men with disabilities have their ‘rights’. This is called ‘facilitated sex’. This concept creates a conflict of interest between such men with disabilities and their largely female carers, who may have very good reasons for not wanting to supply pornography, help their patients to masturbate, deliver them to brothels or help to position them for sexual intercourse. The carers are likely to be poor migrant women who will be in no position to defend themselves against demands by their clients for such services (Lyon, 2006). This conflict is not necessarily well recognised in the literature. Thus Sarah Earle, a UK nursing studies academic, criticises the ‘overriding concern with risk and prevention of sexual abuse and exploitation, to the cost of patients’ sexual needs’ in literature on sex and disability (Earle, 2001: 434). Earle is not sympathetic to the fact that carers, or personal assistants, may be unenthusiastic about recognising the ‘sexual needs’ of men with disabilities, and tend to see their clients as expressing ‘wants’ rather than ‘needs’ (Earle, 1999).
An article in Learning Disability Practice, gives an indication of the kind of sexual harassment carers experience in one UK setting. The article explains that ‘sexual harassment by service users is seen as “part of the job” in many day centres’ (Parkes, 2006: 35). One focus group participant ‘described howa male service user targeted her sexually. “He just became completely obsessed…bit like a love/hate thing, you know what I mean, sort of very…er masturbating, you know what I mean? It was quite stressful”’ (Parkes, 2006: 35).
The discussion of facilitated sex in the UK takes place in a context in which local government funding is ‘available to disabled people as direct payments for personal assistance’ (Earle, 2001: 436). Earle defines ‘facilitated sex’ as ‘ranging from the provision of accessible information and advice to the organisation of sexual surrogacy’ (Earle, 2001: 437). It might  she says, include assistance to ‘negotiate the price when using
the services of a prostitute’ (Earle, 2001: 437).More specifically, a person might be required to ‘facilitate sexual intercourse between two or more individuals, to undress them for such a purpose, or to masturbate them when no other form of sexual relief is available’ (Earle, 2001: 437). Earle uses gender neutral language and may be thinking of female nurses masturbating men with disabilities, a form of unwanted and potentially highly distasteful activity but onewithin the ordinary expectations in male dominated societies that women should be accessible to men and sexually service them. She does not comment on whether female nurses would be expected to masturbate women with disabilities, or whether male nurses would be expected to do so, or whetherwomenwith disabilities would want any of this kind of contact. She does not comment on whether male nurses would wish to masturbate men with disabilities, or whether there would be any demand for such aservice. One problem here is that male carers might be able to use the justification of facilitated sex for sexually abusing women in their care. Themajor problemis that expecting carers to sexually service men is just another form of sexual exploitation. As women in many occupations are developing
sexual harassment codes and understandings that they do not, as employees, have to sexually service their bosses, fellow
workers, or clients, it seems that some disability rights advocates may be seeking to sexualise nursing and caring in ways that are in direct contradiction to this progress. Earle (2001: 438) explains that ‘for some disabled people, facilitated sex is qualitatively no different to other forms of assistance, such as help with washing, dressing and elimination needs’ and suggests that if ‘the nursing profession was able to
appreciate this lack of distinction, it might be possible for facilitated sex to play a greater role within the provision of holistic care’ (Earle, 2001: 438). The provision of ‘facilitated sex’ such as masturbating men with disabilities will enrich the role
of the nurse, Earle argues, by offering nurses ‘an opportunity to develop their skills in nursing the whole person. Furthermore, the inclusion of sexualitywithin a holistic frameworkwould be intellectually and emotionally rewarding andwould ‘add value’ to the role of the nurse’ (Earle, 2001: 439).
In the last half of the 19th century, Florence Nightingale, recognised as the founder of the nursing profession, worked to relieve nursing of the stigma of prostitution so that it could become respected (Woodham-Smith, 1950). Nursing was associated with prostitution because nurses touched men’s naked bodies and respectable women were not supposed to do such a thing. Nursing did become a respected profession, but in the twenty first century sexual rights campaigners look set, if they are successful, to make prostitution part of a nurse’s job and undo all that good work. There is a fundamental contradiction involved in the way that disability politics approaches sexual exploitation. Rhetoric about sexual rights which gives men with disabilities the right to prostitute women, and even to demand sexual servicing from carers and nurses, is contradicted by the need to free women with disabilities from sexual exploitation. Prostitution and ‘facilitated sex’ teach a depersonalised, objectifying form of sexuality to  menwith disabilities which requires that awoman suffers emotional and/or physical abuse. The issue of the sexual demands that are made of personal carers is an area that is greatly in need of feminist research, to discover how women who are often vulnerable by virtue of financial desperation or even debt bondage, language problems and illegal status are dealing with the expectation, in some cases, that they are available to be prostituted. The discussion of disability and sexuality needs to incorporate feminist understandings of what constitutes sexual exploitation and, where appropriate, disaggregate the interests of women with disabilities from those of men with disabilities.
Aloni, Ronit, & Katz, Shlomo (2003). Sexual Difficulties After Traumatic Brain
Injury and Ways to Deal with It. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas.
Amputee-online (2000). http://www.amputee-online.com/amputation/sept00/
sept00wissues.html downloaded 14/11/2006. The Devotee Issue: Part II —
The Opposing View).
Barry, Kathleen (1995). The Prostitution of Sexuality. New York: NYU Press.
Bazzo, Giussepe, Nota, Laura, Soresi, Salvatore, Ferrar, Lea, & Minnes, Patricia
(2007). Attitudes of social service providers towards the sexuality of
individuals with intellectual disability. Journal of Applied Research in
Intellectual Disabilities, 20(2), 110−115.
Begum, Nasa (1992, Spring). Disabled women and the feminist agenda. Feminist
Review, 40, 70−84.
British Broadcasting Corporation (2000). Horizon: Complete Obsession.
Brownridge, Douglas A. (2006, September). Partner violence against women
with disabilities: prevalence, risk, and explanation. Violence Against
Women, 12(9), 805−822.
Carrick, Damien (2006, 26 September). Sex and Disability in the Sunshine State.
Law Report. ABC Radio National, http://www/abc.net.au/rn/lawreport/
Davies, Dominic (2001). Sex and Relationship Facilitation Project For People
with Disabilities (SARFP). http://www.touchingbase.org
Defeis, Elizabeth F. (2000). Draft convention against sexual exploitation. In Kelly
D. Askin & Dorean M. Koenig (Eds.),Women and International Human Rights
Law, Vol. 2 (pp. 319–348). New York: Transnational Publishers, Inc.
Disability Now (2005, May). Prostitution should be legal. Accessed 5/9/2007.
DVIRC (Domestic Violence and Incest Resource Centre) (2003). Triple
Disadvantage. Out of sight, Out of mind. Melbourne: DVIRC.
Earle, Sarah (1999). Facilitated sex and the concept of sexual need: Disabled
students and their personal assistants.Disability and Society, 14(3), 309−323.
Earle, Sarah (2001). Disability, facilitated sex and the role of the nurse. Journal
of Advanced Nursing, 36(3), 433−440.
Elliott, Carl (2003). Better than Well: American medicine meets the American
dream. NY: Norton.
Elman, Amy (1997). Disability pornography: The fetishization of women’s
disabilities. Violence Against Women, 3(3), 257−270.
Elman, Amy (2005, January). Confronting the sexual abuse of women with
disabilities. Applied Research Forum. VAWnet. National Electronic Network
on Violence Against Women, 1−11.
Farley, Melissa (Ed.). (2003). Prostitution, Trafficking, and Traumatic Stress.
New York: The Haworth Press.
Fine, Michelle, & Asch, Adrienne (Eds.). (1988).Women with disabilities: Essays
in psychology, culture and politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
First, Michael B. (2004).Desire foramputation of a limb: Paraphilia, psychosis, or
a new type of identity disorder. Psychological Medicine, 35, 919−928.
Furth, Greg, & Smith, Robert (2002). Amputee Identity Disorder: Information,
Question, Answeres and Recommendations about Self-Demand Amputation.
Bloomington, IN: 1st Books.
Gavey, Nicola (2005). Just Sex? The Cultural Scaffolding of Rape. London:
Gray, Sharon (2005, 15 November). Carers with the healing touch — of sex.
Australia: The Age. Melbourne.
Hassouneh-Phillips, Dena, &McNeff, Elizabeth (2005,Winter). “I thought Iwas
less worthy”: Low sexual and body esteem and increased vulnerability to
intimate partner abuse in women with physical disabilities. Sexuality and
Disability, 23(4), 227−240.
Henzell, John (2005, 2 August). Employing under-age prostitutes alleged (pp. 3).
Christchurch: The Press.
IBIS World (2007). Sexual Services in Australia. Q9528. IBISWorld Industry
Jeffreys, Sheila (1990). Anticlimax: a feminist perspective on the sexual revolution.
London: The Women’s Press.
Jeffreys, Sheila (1997). The Idea of Prostitution. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
Jeffreys, Sheila (2004). Prostitution as a harmful cultural practice. In Christine
Stark & Rebecca Whisnant (Eds.), Not For Sale. Feminists Resisting
Prostitution and Pornography. Melbourne: Spinifex.
Jeffreys, Sheila (2005). Beauty and Misogyny: harmful cultural practices in the
west. London: Routledge.
Jeffreys, Sheila (in press-a). Keeping women down and out: the strip club
boom and the maintenance of male dominance. Signs. Forthcoming.
Jeffreys, Sheila (in press-b). Body modification as self mutilation by proxy. In
Hearn, Jeff & Burr, Viv (eds), Sex, Violence and the Body: The Erotics of
Wounding. London: Palgrave MacMillan. Forthcoming.
Jejeebhoy, Shireen J., Shah, Iqbal, & Thapa, Shyam (Eds.). (2005). Sex Without
Consent. Young People in Developing Countries. London: Zed Press.
Jenkins,Melissa (2007, Tuesday 17 April). Debs is accused of teen’smurder (pp. 5).
Melbourne: The Age.
Lawrence, Anne A. (2006). Clinical and theoretical parallels between desire
for limb amputation and gender identity disorder. Archives of Sexual
Behaviour, 35(3), 263−278.
Lisborg, Anders (2002). Bodies across borders: Prostitution-related migration
from Thailand to Denmark. In Susanne Thorbek & Bandana Pattanaik
(Eds.), Transnational Prostitution. Changing Global Patterns (pp. 100−120).
London: Zed Press.
Lloyd, Margaret (2001). The politics of disability and feminism: Discord or
synthesis? Sociology, 35(3), 715−728.
Lyon, Dawn (2006). The organisation of care work in Italy: Gender and
migrant labor in the new economy. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies,
13(1), 207−225.
MacKinnon, Catharine (1989). Towards a Feminist Theory of the State.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Martin, Sandra L., Ray, Neepa, Sotres-alvarez, Daniela, Kupper, Lawrence L,
Moracco, Kathryn E., Dickens, Pamela A., Scandlin, Donna, & Gizlice, Ziya
(2006, September). Physical and sexual assault of women with
disabilities. Violence Against Women, 12(9), 823−837.
Matthews, Gwyneth (1983). Voices from the Shadows.Women with Disabilities
Speak Out. Toronto: The Women’s Press.
Moschetti, Carole (2006). Conjugal wrongs don’t make rights: international
feminism, child marriage and sexual relativism. Phd Thesis. Department
of Political Science, University of Melbourne.
Morris, Jenny (Ed.). (1989). Able Lives: Women’s Experience of Paralysis.
London: The Women’s Press.
Noonan, Tim n.d.: Netporn and the Politics of Disability. Accessed 5/7/2007.
Noonan, Raymond J. (2002). Sex Surrogates:AClarification of Their Functions. Sex
Quest/The Sex Institute, NYC. http://www.sexquest.com/surrogat.htm 1012/2006
O’Brien, Mark (1990, #194). On Seeing a Sex Surrogate. The Sun. www.
pacificnews.org/marko/sex-surrogate.html d.l. 10/12/2006
Oliver, Michael (1990). The Politics of Disablement. Hampshire, UK: The
MacMillan Press, Ltd.
Oriel, Jennifer (2005). Sexual pleasure as a human right: Harmful or helpful to
women in the context ofHIV/AIDS?Women’s Studies International Forum, 28,
Parkes, Neville (2006, April). Sexual issues and people with a learning
disability. Learning Disability Practice, 9(3), 32−37.
Pateman, Carole (1988). The Sexual Contract. Cambridge: Polity.
Pattaniak, Bandana (2002). Where do we go from here? In Susanne Thorbek
& Bandana Pattanaik (Eds.), Transnational Prostitution. Changing Global
Patterns (pp. 217−230). London: Zed Press.
Phillips, Lynn M. (2000). Flirting with Danger. Young Women’s Reflections on
Sexuality and Domination. New York: New York University Press.
Schwartz, Larry (2008, 10 April). For One Night Only. Melbourne: The Age.
Sexual Freedom Coalition (2008). Demo of Disabled People challenging The
Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. http://www.sfc.org.uk/news-demo.
Stark, Christine, & Whisnant, Rebecca (Eds.). (2004). Not For Sale. Feminists
Resisting Prostitution and Pornography Melbourne: Spinifex.
Sullivan, Mary (2007). Making Sex Work. A failed experiment with legalised
prostitution. Melbourne: Spinifex.
Titchkosky, Tanya (2000). Disability studies: The old and the new. Canadian
Journal of Sociology, 25(2), 197−224.
Touching Base (n.d.). About. http://www.touchingbase.org/about/html. Accessed
United Nations (2008). Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Woodham-Smith, Cecil (1950). Florence Nightingale 1810–1920. London:

For non-commercial, educational purposes only. Copyright Sheila Jeffreys 2008.


Filed under Uncategorized

Female Chauvinist Pigs: (chapter 4) Womyn to Bois

Female Chauvinist Pigs, by Ariel Levy.

Chapter Four; PDF here. Text supplied here for ease of reading only, any formatting or other errors are not in the oringial. Please refer to the PDF version for actual published material.




If you were to put the last five or so years in a time capsule, womanwise, it would look like a period of ex­plosive sexual exhibitionism, opportunism, and role re­definition. These were the years of Sex and the City, Brazilian bikini waxes, burlesque revival, thongs-the years when women learned how to score, or at least the years when popular culture spotlighted that behavior as empowering and cool. Lesbians are women too, and this trend has hit the young gay women’s world-lithe scene”-with discernible impact. In the scene, the New York to San Francisco back-and-forth migratory ladies’ pipeline, sex is taken so lightly there is a new term for it: “playing.” In the scene, people say things like, “I played with her,” and they go on “playdates.”

This freewheeling nonchalance about sex is evi­dent on the Internet. Craig’s List, a site that started in 1995 as an e-mail newsletter founder Craig Newmark sent to his friends in the San Francisco Bay area about local happenings, is now a Web site used by millions of people looking to buy things, sell things, and meet each other across the country, and the women-seeking-women section of Craig’s List is the scene’s favored cyber pickup joint. A typical posting reads: “Looking for something noncommittal? Hi! I am a fun, cute girl, white, with short red-blond hair. Looking for someone who wants to exchange pictures and hook up … right away!” It was listed under the heading, “Playdate?”

The sense of purient sexual opportunism doesn’t abate offline. You can feel it at the girl bars in San Francisco; at the Lexington Club, someone has written “SF rocks. I get more pussy than I know what to do with,” on the bathroom wall. You can feel it in New York, where on a cold fall night at a lesbian bar called Meow Mix, a girl in a newsboy cap and a white T-shirt with rolled-up sleeves said to her friend, “Some femme … just some fucking femme. I met her at a party three weeks ago and I fucked her and that was cool. But now she’s like, e-mailing me and I’m just like, chill out, bitch!” Her chest was smooth and flat: She’d either had top surgery-a double mas­tectomy-or, more likely, she bound her breasts down to achieve the look. She thrust her forearm in front of her face as if she were rapping as she spoke: “Some of these chicks, it’s like you top them once and then they’re all up in your face. It’s like, did I get you off? Yes. Am I your new best friend? No. You know what I’m saying, bro?”

Her friend nodded and kept her eyes on the blonde go-go dancer in tiny white shorts undulating on a tabletop near the bar. “Bois like us,” she replied, “we’ve got to stick together.”

There was a point at which lesbianism seemed as much like a fringe political party as it did a sexual identity. What better way to declare “a woman with­out a man is like a fish without a bicycle” than to be a woman without a man, a woman with other women? “Lesbianism is a women’s liberation plot,” was how the group Radicalesbians put it when they comman­deered the mike at NOW’s Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970. The first installment of The Furies, a publication put out by a lesbian feminist collective of the same name in 1972, proclaimed, “Lesbianism is not a matter of sexual preference, but rather one of political choice which every woman must make if she is to become woman-identified and thereby end male supremacy.” Lesbianism was the ultimate in disman­tling the dominant paradigm, resisting the heteropa­triarchy, and all the rest of it, and sex seemed kind of secondary.

But in the scene, what you like and what you do and who you do it to are ‘Who you are. Sexual prefer­ences and practices are labeled with a great deal of precision. Within the scene, “lesbian” is an almost empty term and “identifying” requires considerably more specificity and reduction, as in: “I’m a femme” (a traditionally feminine-looking gay woman), or “I’m a butch top” (a masculine-identified, sexually domi­nant gay woman), or most recently and frequently, “I’m a boi.”

It is tempting to pronounce the syllable “bwah,” as in “framboise,” but actually you just say it “boy,” the way in years past you pronounced womyn “woman.” Throwing a y in woman was a linguistic attempt, how­ever goofy, to overthrow the patriarchy, to identify the female gender as something independent, self­-sustaining, and reformed. Being a boi is not about that. Boihood has nothing to do with goddesses or sister­hood or herbal tea, and everything to do with being young, hip, sex positive, a little masculine, and ready to rock. Even in an entirely female universe, there are plenty of women who want to be like a man.

But bois want to be like a very young man. It’s no coincidence that the word is “boi” and not some version of “man.” Men have to deal with responsibili­ties, wives, careers, car insurance. Bois just get to have fun and, if they’re lucky, sex. “I never really wanted to grow up, which is what a lot of the boi identity is about,” said Lissa Doty, who is thirty-seven but looked more like twenty-four when we met for a beer in San Francisco at the Lexington Club, which everyone calls the Lex. She wore a baggy T-shirt and jeans and had gelled her bleached hair into a stiff fin, like the raised spine of a Komodo dragon. “I want to go out and have a good time! I want to be able to go out to the bar at night and go to parties and go to the amusement park and play. That sense of play-that’s a big difference from being a butch. To me, butch is like adult. If you’re a butch, you’re a grown-up: You’re the man of the house.” Doty is smart, well read, and well educated, and was working as a courier for FedEx because, she said, “I want to have a job where at the end of the day I walk away and I don’t have to think about it.”

Doty liked to play, and she also liked to play. “It used to be if you flirted with somebody, that was it: You were set for life; U-Haul’s waiting out back,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s the whole boi thing or if it’s a little sexual revolution that’s happened where you can go home and have a one-night stand, just like the gay boys. Before, things were more serious: If you flirted with somebody, you better be getting her number and buying that house and getting those dogs. Otherwise, lesbian community is coming down on you. Now, it’s more … playful.”

That sense of play, of youthful irreverence, in­forms the boi approach to sex and to life. “I think non-monogamy is a part of it,” said Sienna, a grace­ful boi in her mid-twenties with close-cropped kinky hair and a face that flashed back and forth between beautiful and handsome depending on her expres­sion. “To me, a boi is someone who doesn’t have so much to prove. Bois are kind of dirty. Sexually dirty, but also we’re not in the clean, pressed, buttoned-up world . . . we’re like little urchins. A lot of us are artists.” Sienna lived at the dUMBA Queer Performing Arts collective in Brooklyn, a place they described on the Internet as “run by a loose-knit collective, usually made up of visual artists, media artists, writers, song­sters, dance fanatics, flirty bohemians, political and cultural activists, and otherwise socially boisterous girls and boys.” They had sex parties and art shows, and above the bathroom door, instead of GIRLS or BOYS, it said TRANNIES.

When I met her, Sienna was working as a some­time runway model for Hermes and Miguel Adrover and making big, bright collages at the collective. She had recently moved to Brooklyn from San Francisco, where she’d dated “black women who drove Harleys and were college-educated and loved punk rock. Girls who were maybe butch … my whole vision about butch got shattered, though. When I first came out, I felt comfortable wearing a skirt and I had a really big afro, so I looked sort of girly. Because of that, I had all these butch girls after me and they were always pushing me to be more girly and I’m not into that; I’m not into all that princess shit. I’m from Alaska, where women are all just pretty tough, and I grew up hunt­ing with these sixty-or seventy-year-old women. So to see all these women who are identifying as butch and acting with all this bravado doesn’t mean jack shit to me,” Sienna said in her low, quiet voice. “I think of a boi as someone who’s not trying to put on airs about being masculine … someone a little smarter. Basi­cally we threw the term around in San Francisco, and the last couple years I’ve heard it more here. It’s new.”

So new that most people-most lesbians-over the age of thirty have no idea what a boi is. Deb Schwartz, a thirty-eight-year-old New York City butch who had been out for fifteen years and had, at vari­ous points, worked as an activist for groups like Fed­Up Queers and ACT UP and as an editor at Out magazine, said, “It’s just wild to me that there’s this whole phenomenon out there that is completely news to me. Here I am, a bulldagger of a certain age, and when I first heard the term-recently-I had a con­versation with an equally butch friend of mine and she was completely in the dark, too. What’s new is seeing these kids who really seem to be striving for a certain kind of juvenilia, not just masculinity. They really want to be kids. This hit me when I saw this girl-this boi, I guess-barreling out of a store in Chelsea in huge, oversize jeans, a backpack, and a baseball cap pulled down low. And she was running as if she were late for the school bus … her whole aura was so completely rough-and-tumble eight-year­old that I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had a slingshot in one pocket and a frog in the other.”

“When you think about teenage boys, [that’s] who bois are modeled after,” said Lissa Doty. “Teenage boys are sort of androgynous themselves and playing with identity and the world is open to them.” When Doty came out in the eighties, militant feminism and lesbian separatism were still at the forefront of dyke culture. “There was this whole movement of womyn s land and womyn building houses on womyn s land and insulating themselves from the rest of the world,” Doty said, smirking. “I felt like I should be a separatist if I was going to be a good lesbian, but I liked guys as people; they were my friends. It was a whole different world from where we are now.”

Where lesbian separatists of years past tried to cleave away from men, bois like Doty are more inter­ested in dissolving fixed ideas of man and woman in the first place. “Bois are a little more open and fluid. I don’t want to try and speak for the trans[sexual] community, but I think there are a lot of trannybois who are not going all the way, who are not thinking I need to {it into this gender mold. They’re saying Its ok if I don’t take hormones, or Its ok if I don’t have surgery. I can still call myself a boi. That’s great. I think it’s cool that a label can be so flexible. I like it as a spectrum instead of one specific model.”

Being a boi means different things to different people-it’s a fluid identity, and that’s the whole point. Some of the people who identify as bois simply think it means that they are young and cool and probably promiscuous. Some, like Doty, date other bois and think of themselves as “fags,” whereas oth­ers date only femmes. Others are female-to-male transsexuals-also referred to as trans or FTMs or trannies-who are in various stages of the gender transition process, ranging from undergoing top surgery and taking testosterone (“T”) to simply adopt­ing the pronoun he. Consider this posting from Live­Journal, a Web site on which members keep running diaries of their lives for other members to peruse: “So my story reads that I’m a butch (or whatever) living in Minnesota. Mostly I claim the trans label, but it’s not my intention to transition to male from wherever I’m at now. I’m surprisingly comfortable in this gray muck . .. it makes life easier when I live it instead of trying to box it up like take-out.” Next to the post there is a close-up picture of a young, shirtless person’s head and shoulders. The person has freckles and short, messy strawberry blonde hair and could be a male or a female, anywhere between the ages of eighteen and thirty. The person looks happy.

Many bois, including many FTMs, consider themselves part of a “genderqueer” movement in­vested in dissolving the “gender binary.” They don’t feel that dividing the world up into men and women or, for that matter, butches and femmes is a particu­larly sophisticated way to conceive of gender roles. “I’m so against the whole butch-femme dichotomy,” said Julien (nee Julie) Rosskam, a good-looking twenty-four-year-old documentary filmmaker and the associate producer of Brooklyn-based Dyke TV.

Rosskam, who had been taking testosterone for sev­eral months, will correct you if you say “she,” which creates an interesting reality: One of the three people in charge of Dyke TV is a “he.” Rosskam was getting the money together to have a double mastectomy.

Despite the hormones and the impending surgery and the mandatory “he,” Rosskam found the idea that there are two distinct genders and nothing in between constricting and close-minded. “I just feel really defensive; I don’t like when people feel the need to put people into categories like that. If you had a line of women we could put them on a spectrum from the most femme to the most butch, but every­thing in our world is set up as a dichotomy and I just feel like that’s so limiting.”

The confusing thing, of course, is why somebody would need serious surgery and testosterone to mod­ify their gender if gender is supposed to be so fluid in the first place. But “transitioning” is very popular. The transformation of women to men is so prevalent within the scene they have a name for it: “butch flight.” This is to say that women who don’t feel the traditional definition of femininity fits them, who in another lesbian era would have considered them­selves butch, are more and more frequently thinking of themselves as transsexual, and doing whatever they can to actualize that self-conception medically.

“I’ve noticed a lot of different levels of trans, and frankly think there are A LOT of confused lesbians out there,” an FTM named Ian wrote to me in an e-mail. When I went to meet Ian in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, I had difficulty picking him out of the crowd. I was expecting him to look like the other FTMs I’d met: like butch women with something somehow off. But Ian looked and sounded utterly and seamlessly male . . . a real boy, as Pinocchio would say. He had been taking testosterone for eight months, and had undergone top surgery a year before our meeting. “I went to this guy named Reardon up on Park Avenue” for the operation, Ian said. “It’s.kind of like a hobby for him, doing sex changes. You walk in and there’s all these really, really rich women in there for implants, and then there’s me.”

For a transsexual twenty-two-year-old-for any twenty-two-year-old-Ian was remarkably uncon­flicted about his identity. “I’ve felt like this since I was three,” he said. “I’ve never felt like a lesbian; I always felt male.” Ian’s sense of unambiguous manliness is anomalous within the scene. He discovered this when he first arrived in New York City and started attend­ing meetings for FTMs at the Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender Community Center in the West Village. “I only did that group on and off because I really had a hard time identifying with a lot of the people in there,” Ian said. “Because some people, you’re just looking at them and you’re like, Your issues are not in this area … you’ve got issues all over the place. I mean, the spectrum is broad and gender is fluid or whatever,” Ian said, rolling his eyes, “but there are some people who I think are latching onto this term-this ‘trans’ term and this ‘boi’ term-and you have to wonder. Like I go on all these Yahoo groups for trans men? And the other day I was reading it and the thing that was being discussed was Is trans be­coming the new vogue thing? And you have to wonder if it might be.”

A butch friend of mine told me recently that for a while, she had been seriously contemplating getting top surgery, as many of her other friends already had. She said, “If you’re hanging out with a bunch of trannies it’s going to influence you .. . it’s like if you’re hanging out with people who all have tattoos, you know?” Then she pointed to her tattoo.

Because there are so many people identifying as trans or bois or FtMs, and because these terms can mean so many things, when Ian used Craig’s List or other Web sites to meet women, he felt the need to be extremely precise about his identity and his body. “It seems like I have to put it up front, like, Listen: This is what I am and this is what I’ve done. Rather than just saying I’m trans, which people could think means Ok, yeah, you identify as male and you probably look like a prepubescent boy and you’re running around hooking up. Part of why the boi lifestyle is so appealing to some people is the non-monogamy. There’s less attachment, a lot of NSA”-Internet shorthand for a playdate with No Strings Attached. “Alot of NSA. There isn’t really a commitment issue when you’re so fluid.”

Despite all the talk of fluidity and the investment people like Lissa Doty and Julien Rosskam have in reimagining gender, there is another camp of bois who date femmes exclusively and follow a locker­room code of ethics referenced by the phrase “bros before hos” or “bros before bitches,” which means they put the similarly masculine-identified women they hang out with in a different, higher category than the feminine women they have sex with. This school of bois tends to adhere to almost comically unreconstructed fifties gender roles. They just reposi­tion themselves as the ones who wear the pants-they take Female Chauvinist Piggery to a whole different level.

Alix, a boi from Brooklyn, said we could meet at an East Village gay bar called Starlight for an inter­view on a Sunday night. After she didn’t show up, Alix sent an e-mail explaining her reasoning: “I didn’t see you, but I’d be lying if I said I was there. It was raining and I need to know what I’m getting if I’m going out in the rain for some chick and she better be slammin’. And anyway, I should be the one calling the shots.”

During an interview, Sarah, a twenty-eight-year­ old market analyst, showed me an e-mail she’d re­ceived from an Internet acquaintance named Kelli regarding a femme they both knew from the scene. It read: “I hope she’s not a big deal, that you’re just rid­ing her or whatever. Do you want me to keep an eye on her? Bros up bitches down.” Kelli’s peroration was a play on a catchphrase borrowed from sex traffick­ers: pimps up, hos down.

Sarah told me she had met “maybe thirty” femmes over the Internet-on Craig’s List and Nerve.com and through the personals on the Web site PlanetOut-and occasionally she’d used the heading “boi seeks girl” instead of “butch seeks femme” just to mix it up, and because it’s the cooler term. But she wasn’t crazy about all of its implications. “I’m not en­tirely comfortable because so many people I’ve met consider boi to mean transgendered or faggot,” by which she meant butch-with-butch or boi-with-boi. “I definitely do not want my name attached to those de­finitions. I don’t understand the faggot culture . .. I think it’s disgusting,” she said, and her face crumpled with distaste. “What I like about women is feminin­ity,” she said. “I’m interested in women who look like women, who have womanly gestures and smell and feel, and I don’t understand the appeal or the sense of two faggot dykes riding each other.”

Sarah had smooth, icy pale skin and very short black hair shot with little patches of silver. She was wearing big jeans and a pinstripe shirt with rolled-up sleeves under a navy-blue vest, and sat with her legs wide apart and her big arms crossed over her chest, making her body a sculpture of toughness. “Femme-­on-femme is stupid to me, too. It’s air. It’s air on air. It just seems like Cinemax fluff … long nails, you know. In a butch-femme dynamic, it’s not mirror images. One thing I hear a lot of people say about lesbianism and gayness in general is that it’s narcissistic. I’ve heard so many people say that, and not just my mother.”

Though Sarah’s dating MO was fairly lupine, her ultimate aspirations were quite a bit more conven­tional: One day she planned to give up her swinging bachelor’s life and settle down. “I’ve got this model of a household that’s probably sick to a lot of people that makes perfect sense to me,” she said. “What I want is to have a job, and have a life, and I want a partner with a job and a life to come home to, and a high standard of living, and I want us to have kids that go to school and do their homework and go on trips with their par­ents.” She smiled for a minute with the self­ satisfaction of an athlete about to cream his opponent. “And, you know, at the end of a hard day, I would like to come home from work and have my wife suck my cock.”

San Francisco is a good town for bicycles and les­bians. Both roam the streets as if they own the place, as if it were built just for them. Cars and het­erosexuals are tolerated. In the area around Dolores Park, there are lesbians with baseball caps, with atti­tude, with their noses pierced like a bull’s, with ba­bies, with Subarus, with motorcycles, with money. As one local put it, “It doesn’t matter if you’re pink with purple polka dots: If you’re gay and you come to San Francisco, you’ll find community.”

On a warm fall night, Diana Cage, the editor of the lesbian magazine On Our Backs (a sexed-up play  on the title of the longest-running feminist journal in  the United States, off our backs), and her friend Kim  were waiting to be seated at an Italian restaurant  about a block away from the Lex. They ran into Gib­son, Diana’s ex-girlfriend, and their other friend Shelly, who had just come from football practice for  their team, the Bruisers.

“How’d it go?” Diana asked. She had long hair and long eyelashes and wore a skirt and lipstick and toenail polish.

“Football! Hoo-ah!” Gibson said, half kidding. Shelly, a big girl in a sleeveless ‘t-shirt, offered a dou­ble-armed flex to emphasize the point. On one bicep she had a tattoo of a heart with the word “mom” spelled over it. Diana pulled out a Galois and Shelly lit it almost instantaneously. “We’ll see you later at the Lex,” Gibson said and walked off with Shelly.

Diana watched the butches strut away and said, “I only date cliches.”

When they sat down to eat, Kim was feeling anx­ious about the evening ahead. Clara, the boi she was seeing, was supposed to meet up with them later, and things had been very touch-and-go. “Clara’s biggest fear when we started dating was that I was going to try and fuck her,” said Kim, a pretty, punky twenty ­four-year-old who resembled the actress Rachel Grif­fiths. She defined herself as “femme of center” but didn’t wear much makeup or jewelry except for a tigers-eye stud in her chin. “I find bois the most attractive. I like the young, andro[gynous] look, but I’ve dated across the board: butches, femmes, trannies. And that really bothers Clara. All her girlfriends in the past have been pretty much straight.” Kim offered a rueful little laugh. “It also threatens her that I’m not totally vapid and vain .. . her big relief was when she found out I wear a thong.”

“I sort of orchestrated Kim and Clara dating,” said Diana. “Clara is someone who I would definitely call a boi, totally, although she wouldn’t claim it for herself because she’s too cool. See now it’s like retro cool to be butch, because there are so many bois and because of the whole butch flight thing.”

“Clara’s got this intense thing, her and her friends have a really strong distaste for this whole trans trendy explosion that’s going on,” said Kim. “But the more I hang out with her the more I’m com­pletely convinced she’s a closet trans case: She’s ob­sessed with operating sexually as a male. Completely obsessed. She doesn’t make any reference to being queer or lesbian at all. And she sees all of her lesbian traits-either emotional or physical-as completely negative. I’ve never met anyone who wishes that she was a guy so much.” Kim thought about it for a minute and concluded, “Whereas a butch is some­body who is, I guess, a little more comfortable with the fact that she actually is female.”

“I don’t have the patience for any kind of a bros­ before-hos mentality,” Diana said, “and I associate that with bois. For bois it’s like in high school; they’re all worried about how they look, and maybe if they have a girlfriend that’s not cool, and will their friends  approve?”

Kim was looking increasingly forlorn and push­ing her pasta around her plate. “This all ties into their kind of approach to women in general-they are so very predatory about it. Clara won’t just touch on it like That girl’s hot. She will talk and talk and talk about how she wants to get them home and fuck them.” She looked at Diana. “I’m nervous to see her now because I’m not dressed up. And then all of a sudden it’s like I’m trying to please a guy. It’s like I’ve come full circle.”

Later, at the Lex, a woman in a trucker hat with greasy gray hair and a long, gray Fu Manchu beard was trying to give her dog a sip of her beer. There were a lot of Mohawks and a confusing amount of fa­cial hair on several of the women, and there was a pool table.

Gibson and Shelly were sitting in back, drinking beer and looking at their football playbook, and Diana was on her cell phone with Clara. She snapped it shut and said, “She’s being an asshole. She’s not coming.”

“What did she say?” Kim was crestfallen.

“She’s just being an asshole.”

Kim went home.

“What did she say?” Shelly asked after Kim was gone.

“She said she wasn’t coming here unless she knew she could get laid.” Diana’s phone rang again. “That was her. Now she’s coming.”

“I worry about that one,” said Gibson, rolling her eyes. “Then again I worry with every twenty-one-year ­old I meet that they’re gonna get their tits lopped off.”

When Clara arrived at the Lex, she looked too young to be in a bar and too small to be allowed on a roller coaster. Diana pulled Clara onto her lap and said, “See, she’s nice to me because we’re not going out, but if I were your girlfriend I’d think you were a dick!”

The next night was chilly but sweet-smelling and Gibson was riding her motorcycle, whipping around the curves and up the hills. At around ten she went to Club Galia to see “In Bed with Fairy Butch,” the bur­lesque cabaret show a woman named Karlyn Lotney has been putting on since 1995.  Lotney is a short, hefty butch who uses Yiddish phrases and has a sort of les­bian Nathan Lane vibe. She gives regular seminars like “Femme/Butch Sex Intensives” and “Dyke Sex: Nuts & Bolts,” but she is best known for these shows. She called an audience member up onstage and asked her, “What kind of girl or boi are you into?”

“That one,” the woman said, pointing at her date.

“What, have you moved into some weird, monogamous, non-San Franciscan zone?” Lotney asked. She called the date up onstage and the couple made out for several minutes in front of the hooting audience. “Okay! Enough with the processing! Who wants to get laid?” Lotney shrieked.

A gay guy in his twenties came up onstage and agreed to get his first kiss from a woman. “A real dominant one,” he said.

Lotney smiled. “Why don’t you show him what we’re doing these days, ladies?” A muscular girl with a shaved head leapt onstage, grabbed the man, and kissed him with a truly impressive show of ferocity. “Yeah!” Lotney yelled. “This is San Francisco! This is what we do!”

When they were finished, a dancer, chunky and lipsticked, stripped down to her underpants on stage before going into the audience and shaking a dildo at them, which she ultimately put in her mouth.

Gibson headed out into the night.

She pulled her Honda Nighthawk in line with a row of other bikes and went into the backyard garden of her favorite bar, the Eagle, a place that shows gay men’s S&M porn on television monitors. She pointed to a dark area behind the cement fire pit. “I had mad sex with this girl there one night,” she said. “The next morning I was like, What did I do? How old was she? I ran into her a few weeks later on the street and we went for beers. She was one of these arty types who won’t give you a direct answer, but I kept asking her until finally she told me she was twenty-eight. So we had mad sex again. But this time inside.”

Gibson said that she would have nothing against settling down. “I keep trying to grow up,” she said. “But it never seems to happen.”

There are aspects of life in the lesbian community that are distinct and not really comparable to life in the heterosexual mainstream, and of course the young New York/San Francisco scene is only one small slice of lesbian America. But despite the differ­ences between the scene and, say, spring break in South Beach, there are also meaningful similarities in the ways young women across this country, gay and straight, are conceiving of themselves, their bod­ies, sex, and each other. Women are invested in being “like a man,” and in the case of FTMs, women are ac­tually becoming men. There is contempt and conde­scension for “girly-girls” or “bitches” or “hos,” confusingly coupled with a fixation on stereotypically feminine women (especially if they are stripping or dancing on tabletops). Elective cosmetic surgery­implants for straight women, mastectomies for FTMs-is popular to the point of being faddish. Non­committal sex is widespread, and frequently prefig­ured by a public spectacle: a coed group pumping their fists at the strippers onstage at a CAKE mixer in New York; a drunk girl heeding the call of Girls Gone Wild to show her tits in Miami; a room full of les­bians hooting at a dildo-wielding dancer at “Fairy Butch” in San Francisco.

This isn’t about being a lesbian, it’s about being a woman. Or a girl.


Filed under Uncategorized

The Mythic Mannish Lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the New Woman

The Mythic Mannish Lesbian:

Radclyffe Hall and the New Woman

by Esther Newton

[Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1984, vol. 9, no. 4)

© 1984 by Esther Newton. 557 558 Newton The Mythic Mannish Lesbian

Original format PDF here. Please excuse formatting errors, etc. The text posted here is strictly for ease of reading and may contain minor errors that do affect the sequence, meaning, or intent of the article.



This essay grew out of an earlier one called “The Mythic Lesbian and the New Woman: Power, Sexuality and Legitimacy,” written with Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and presented by us at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Vassar College, June 16, 1981. A revised version of that paper has appeared in French under the title “Le Mythe de la lesbienne et la femme nouvelle,” in Strategies desfemmes (Paris: Editions Tierce, 1984). The French collection is forthcoming in English from Indiana University Press. Smith Rosenberg’s further use of this material will appear as chap. 9, “The New Woman and the Mannish Lesbian: Gender Disorder and Social Control,” in her book The New Woman and the Troubled Man (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., in press). Developing the Radclyffe Hall material independently, I drew conclusions that do not represent Smith-Rosenberg’s thinking and for which she is in no way responsible. But we worked jointly for two years, and I am in her debt for all I learned from her as historian and for her unflagging support. I am also indebted to the members of the Purchase women’s studies seminar, particularly Mary

Edwards, Suzanne Kessler, and Louise Yellin, who read drafts and made helpful suggestions, as did David M. Schneider, Carole Vance, Wendy McKenna, and especially Amber Hollibaugh. I thank the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York, where I did early research, and Jan Boney for technical help. And for another kind of insight and support, without which this paper might never have been written, I thank the women of the B. group.


I hate games! I hate role-playing! It’s so ludicrous that certain lesbians, who despise men, become the exact replicas of them! [Anonymous interview in The Gay Report, ed. Karla Jay and Allen Young]

Because the proposition that lesbianism is an intensified form of female bonding has become a belief, thinking, acting, or looking like a man contradicts lesbian feminism’s first principle: the lesbian is a “woman-identified woman.”! What to do, then, with that figure referred to, in various times and circumstances, as the “mannish lesbian,” the “true invert,” the “bull dagger,” or the “butch”? You see her in old photographs or paintings with legs solidly planted, wearing a top hat and a man’s jacket, staring defiantly out of the frame, her hair slicked back or clipped over her ears; or you meet her on the street in T-shirt and boots, squiring a brassily elegant woman on one tattooed arm. She is an embarrassment indeed to a political movement that swears it is the enemy of traditional gender categories and yet validates lesbianism as the ultimate form of femaleness.

Out of sight, out of mind! “Butch and femme are gone,” declares one lesbian author, with more hope than truth.” But what about those old photographs? Was the mannish lesbian a myth created by “the [male] pornographic mind'” or by male sexologists intent on labeling nineteenth- century feminists as deviant? Maybe the old photographs portray a few misguided souls-or perhaps those “premovement” women thought men’s ties were pretty and practical?

In the nineteenth century and before, individual women passed as men by dressing and acting like them for a variety of economic, sexual, and adventure-seeking reasons. Many of these women were from the working class.’ Public, partial cross-dressing among bourgeois women was a late nineteenth-century development. Earlier isolated instances of partial cross-dressing seem to have been associated with explicit feminism (e.g., French writer George Sand and American physician Mary Walker), although most nineteenth-century feminists wore traditional women’s clothing. From the last years of the century, cross-dressing was increasingly associated with “sexual inversion” by the medical profession. Did the doctors invent or merely describe the mannish lesbian? Either way, what did this mythic figure signify, and to whom? In addressing these questions, my paper explores and speculates on the historical relationships between lesbianism, feminism, and gender.

One of the central figures in this debate is British author Radclyffe Hall (1880-1943). Without question, the most infamous mannish lesbian, Stephen Gordon, protagonist of The Well of Loneliness (1928), was created not by a male pornographer, sexologist, legislator, or novelist but by Hall, herself an “out” and militantly tie-wearing lesbian. And The Well, at least until 1970, was the lesbian novel.” Why is it that The Well became famous rather than all the others? Why does this novel make so many lesbian feminists and their allies squirm?”

Unable to wish Radclyffe Hall away, sometimes even hoping to reclaim her, our feminist scholars have lectured, excused, or patronized her. Radclyffe Hall, they declare, was an unwitting dupe of the misogynist doctors’ attack on feminist romantic friendships. Or, cursed with a pessimistic temperament and brainwashed by Catholicism, Hall parroted society’s condemnation of lesbians. The “real” Radclyffe Hall lesbian novel, this argument frequently continues, the one that ought to have been famous, is her first, The Unlit Lamp (1924). Better yet, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) should have been the definitive lesbian novel. Or Natalie Barney’s work, or anything but The Well,’

560 Newton The Mythic Mannish Lesbian

Heterosexual conservatives condemn The Well for defending the lesbian’s right to exist; lesbian feminists condemn it for presenting lesbians as different from women in general. But The Well has continuing meaning to lesbians because it confronts the stigma of lesbianism-as most lesbians have had to live it. Maybe Natalie Barney, with her fortune and her cast-iron ego, or safely married Virginia Woolf were able to pooh-pooh the patriarchy, but most lesbians have had to face being called or at least feeling like freaks. As .the Bowery bum represents all that is most feared and despised about drunkenness, the mannish lesbian, of whom Stephen Gordon is the most famous prototype, has symbolized the stigma of lesbianism and so continues to move a broad range of lesbians.8 A second reason for The Well’s continuing impact, which I will explore briefly at the close of this paper, is that Stephen Gordon articulated a gender orientation with which an important minority of lesbians still actively identify.

By “mannish lesbian” (a term I use because it, rather than the contemporary “butch,” belongs to the time period I am studying) I mean a figure who is defined as lesbian because her behavior or dress (and usually both) manifest elements designated as exclusively masculine. From about 1900 on, this cross-gender figure became the public symbol of the new social/sexual category “lesbian.” Some of our feminist historians deplore the emergence of the mannish lesbian, citing her association with the medical model of pathology. For them, the nineteenth century becomes a kind of lesbian Golden Age, replete with loving, innocent feminist couples.9 From the perspective of Radclyffe Hall’s generation, however, nineteenth-century models may have seemed more confining than liberating. I will argue that Hall and many other feminists like her embraced, sometimes with ambivalence, the image of the mannish lesbian and the discourse of the sexologists about inversion primarily because they desperately wanted to break out of the asexual model of romantic friendship. Two questions emerge from this statement of the problem. First, why did twentieth-century women whose primary social and intimate interest was other women wish their relationships to become explicitly sexual? Second, why did the figure of the mannish lesbian play the central role in this development?

* * *

Signs Summer 1984 561

The structure and ideology of the bourgeois woman’s gender segregated world in the nineteenth century have been convincingly described.10 As British and American women gained access to higher education and the professions, they did so in all-female institutions and in relationships with one another that were intense, passionate, and committed. These romantic friendships characterized the first generation of “New Women”-such as Jane Addams, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Mary Wooley-who were born in the 1850s and 1860s, educated in the 1870s and 1880s, and flourished from the 1890s through the First World War. They sought personal and economic independence by rejecting their mothers’ domestic roles. The battle to be autonomous was the battle to stay single and to separate from the family sphere. Ironically, they turned to romantic friendships as the alternative, replicating the female world of love and commitment in the new institutional settings of colleges and settlement houses.

Whether or not these women touched each other’s genitals or had orgasms together, two things seem clear: their relationships were a quasi-legitimate alternative to heterosexual marriage, and the participants did not conceive of them as sexual. Their letters generally do not use the acknowledged sexual language-medical, religious, or pornographic of the nineteenth century. Nor do the letters exhibit shame, in an era when lust was considered dirty and gross. On the contrary, the first generation had nothing to hide because their passionate outpourings were seen as pure and ennobling.

The bourgeois woman’s sexuality proper was confined to its reproductive function; the uterus was its organ. But as for lust, “the major current in Victorian sexual ideology declared that women were passionless and asexual, the passive objects of male sexual desire.”!’ Most bourgeois women and men believed that only males and declasse women were sexual. Sex was seen as phallic, by which I mean that, conceptually, sex could only occur in the presence of an imperial and imperious penis. Working women and women of color’s low status as well as their participation in the public sphere deprived them of the feminine purity that protected bourgeois women from males and from deriving sexual pleasure. But what “pure” women did with each other, no matter how good it

562 Newton The Mythic Mannish Lesbian

felt, could not be conceived as sexual within the terms of nineteenth century romantic discourse. Insofar as first-generation feminists were called sexual deviants, it was because they used their minds at the expense of their reproductive organs.

* * *

The second generation of New Women were born in the 1870s and 1880s and came of age during the opening decades of the twentieth century. This was an extraordinarily distinguished group. Among them we count critics of the family and political radicals Margaret Sanger and Crystal Eastman; women drawn to new artistic fields, such as Berenice Abbot and Isadora Duncan; and lesbian writers such as Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather, Margaret Anderson, Natalie Barney, and Radclyffe Hall. For them, autonomy from family was, if not a given, emphatically a right. Hall’s first novel, The Unlit Lamp (1924; hereafter The Lamp) is a sympathetic analysis of the first generation from the perspective of the second. The novel portrays a devouring mother using the kinship claims of the female world to crush her daughter’s legitimate bid for autonomy. 12 Hall understands that, for the first generation, economic and social separation from the family and home was the first and necessary condition of freedom.

Joan Ogden is the competent, ambitious daughter of an upper middle- class family living in an English provincial town. Young Joan is tutored by Elizabeth Rodney, a Cambridge graduate, whose dream is to see Joan escape from Seabourne and become a doctor. But Mrs. Ogden, Joan’s hypochondriac mother, wants to keep Joan with her at all costs. When Elizabeth proposes to live with Joan in Cambridge while Joan studies medicine, Mrs. Ogden frustrates their plans by appealing successfully to Joan’s guilt. Joan reflects on her wish to leave her mother in first-generation language: “‘Good God’ she thought bitterly, ‘can there be no development of individuality in this world without hurting oneself or someone else?’ She clenched her fists. ‘I don’t care, I don’t care! I’ve a right to my life …. I defy precedent'” (pp. 247-48).13

But unlike M. Carey Thomas and other successful members of the first generation who used romantic friendships as an alternative to the domestic circle, Joan fails to assert her individuality. Family ties are an “octopus” (which was the novel’s original title), squeezing life from the

Signs Summer 1984 563

daughters. In contrast, romantic friendship with Elizabeth offers Joan “companionship … understanding … help in work and play … freedom and endeavor” (p. 245). But Mrs. Ogden prevails; Elizabeth finally gives up, marries a wealthy man she does not love, and moves to South Africa. Joan is left to care for her mother as an unpaid nurse and companion.

Hall uses the family in The Lamp to symbolize society, the imposition of traditional gender divisions, and the subjugation of female fulfillment to traditional bourgeois norms. The family stands for bourgeois proprieties: proper dress, stifling garden parties, provincial gossip. Colonel Ogden is a stuffy tyrant, Mrs. Ogden the homebound woman. Fearful of alternatives, uncreative and unimaginative, the mother seeks to bind her daughter to an equally banal and confining life.

Conversely, Hall uses a masculinized body and a strong, active mind to symbolize women’s rejection of traditional gender divisions and bourgeois values. Joan wants to be a doctor. Her mind is swift, intelligent, her body large, strong, healthy. She and Elizabeth hike on cold winter days, talking about science and a life away from the enclosed world of Seabourne and domesticity. As an adolescent, Joan had been “large-boned and tall for her age, lanky as a boy, with a pale face and short black hair” (p. 11). She reminds Elizabeth of a young “colt.” After Joan loses her battle for autonomy, however, her body changes, her health deteriorates, her ability to move freely, to see clearly is impeded. At forty-three she is an old woman, given to hysteria and hypochondria: “Constantly assailed by small, annoying symptoms … she had grown to dread the pulling up of the blind, because her eyes felt sensitive…. If she read now it was novels of the lightest kind, and she really preferred magazines” (p. 268).

Hall does not strongly develop male body and clothing imagery in The Lamp. But in a momentous confrontation near the novel’s conclusion, masculine clothing is unambiguously used to symbolize assertiveness and modernity. Second-generation women are described as “active, aggressively intelligent women, not at all self-conscious in their tailor-made clothes, not ashamed of their cropped hair; women who did things well, important things . . . smart, neatly put together women, looking like well-bred young men” (p. 284). When two such women see Joan, now faded and failed, they ridicule her old-fashioned appearance: ” ‘Have you seen that funny old thing with the short gray hair?’ ‘ Wasn’t she killing? Why moire ribbon instead of a proper necktie?’ ‘ I believe she’s what they used to call a New Woman,’ said the girl in breeches, with a low laugh. ‘Honey, she’s a forerunner, a kind of pioneer that’s got left behind. I believe she’s the beginning of things like me'” (p. 284).

Though gender ambiguity is positively associated with autonomy, there is no explicit discussion of sexuality. Joan tells a male suitor, “I’ve never been what you’d call in love with a man in my life” (p. 302), without a

564 Newton The Mythic Mannish Lesbian

trace of embarrassment. Joan and Elizabeth’s passionate relationship is described in the traditional language of sentiment, never in a language of lust. Sexuality is not the problematic issue for Joan Ogden, nor is her ambition symbolized in sexual terms. The Lamp is a novel about autonomy.

* * *

For many women of Radclyffe Hall’s generation, sexuality-for itself and as a symbol of female autonomy-became a preoccupation. These women were, after all, the “sisters” of D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce. For male novelists, sexologists, and artists rebelling against Victorian values, sexual freedom became the cutting edge of modernism. Bourgeois women like Hall had a different relation to modernist sexual freedom, for in the Victorian terms of the first generation, they had no sexual identity to express. Women of the second generation who wished to join the modernist discourse and be twentieth-century adults needed to radically reconceive themselves.

That most New Women of the first generation resented and feared such a development, I do not doubt. But many women of the second welcomed it, cautiously or with naive enthusiasm. (One has only to think of Virginia Woolf’s thrilled participation in Bloomsbury to see what I mean.) They wanted not simply male professions but access to the broader world of male opportunity. They drank, they smoked, they rejected traditional feminine clothing, and lived as expatriates, sometimes with disastrous results. But if modernism and the new sex ideas entailed serious contradictions for women, many wrote daring novels and plunged into psychoanalysis and promiscuity anyway. After all, this was what the first generation had won for them-the tenuous right to tryout the new ideas and participate in the great social movements of the day.

It was in the first two decades of the twentieth century in Britain, with perhaps a ten-year lag in the United States, that due to both external attack and internal fission the old feminist movement began to split along the heterosexual/homosexual divide that is ancestral to our own. If women were to develop a lustful sexuality, with whom and in what social context were they to express it? The male establishment, of course, wanted women to be lusty with men. A basic tenet of sexual modernism was that “normal” women had at least reactive heterosexual desire.” The sex reformers attacked Victorian gender segregation and promoted the new idea of companionate marriage in which both women’s and men’s heterosexual desires were to be satisfied. IS Easier association with men

Signs Summer 1984 565

quickly sexualized the middle-class woman, and by the 1920s the flapper style reflected the sexual ambience of working-class bars and dance halls. The flapper flirted with being “cheap” and “fast,” words that had clear sexual reference.

But what about the women who did not become heterosexual, who remained stubbornly committed to intragender intimacy? A poignant example is furnished by Frances Wilder, an obscure second-generation feminist. 16 Wilder had inherited the orthodox first-generation views. In a 1912 letter to the radical Freewoman, she advocated self-restraint, denouncing the new morality for encouraging the “same degrading laxity in sex matters which is indulged in by most of the lower animals including man.” She herself, aged twenty-seven, had “always practised abstinence” with no adverse effects. But just three years later she was writing desperately to homosexual radical Edward Carpenter: “I have recently read with much interest your book entitled The Intermediate Sex & it has lately dawned on me that I myself belong to that class & I write to ask if there is any way of getting in touch with others of the same temperament” (p. 930). Wilder was aware of the price tag on the new ideas. “The world would say that a physical relationship between two of the same sex is an unspeakable crime,” she admits, but gamely reasons that, because of the “economic slavery” of women, “normal sex” is “more degrading.”

The New Woman’s social field was opening up, becoming more complex, and potentially more lonely. Thus, along with their desire to be modern, our bourgeois lesbian ancestors had another powerful reason to embrace change. Before they could find one another, they had to become visible, at least to each other. What they needed was a new vocabulary built on the radical idea that women apart from men could have autonomous sexual feeling.

* * *

“I just concluded that I had … a dash of the masculine (I have been told more than once that I have a masculine mind …),” Frances Wilder had confessed to Carpenter in 1915, explaining her “strong desire to caress & fondle” a female friend.” Like most important historical developments, the symbolic fusion of gender reversal and homosexuality was overdetermined. God himself had ordained gender hierarchy and heterosexuality at the Creation. The idea that men who had sex with other men were like women was not new. But in the second half of the nineteenth century, the emerging medical profession gave scientific sanction to tradition; homosexual behavior, the doctors agreed, was both

566 Newton The Mythic Mannish Lesbian

symptom and cause of male effeminacy. The masculine female invert was perhaps an analogous afterthought. Yet the mannish lesbian proved a potent persona to both the second generation of New Women and their antifeminist enemies. I think that her image came to dominate the discourse about female homosexuality, particularly in England and America, for two reasons. First, because sexual desire was not considered inherent in women, the lesbian was thought to have a trapped male soul that phallicized her and endowed her with active lust. Second, gender reversal became a powerful symbol of feminist aspirations, positive for female modernists, negative for males regardless of whether they were conservatives or modernists. 18

It was Richard von Krafft-Ebingwho articulated the fusion of masculinity, feminist aspirations, and lesbianism that became, and largely remains, an article of faith in Anglo-American culture.” Krafft-Ebing categorized lesbians into four increasingly deviant and masculine types.” The first category of lesbians included women who “did not betray their anomaly by external appearance or by mental [masculine] sexual characteristics.” They were, however, responsive to the approaches of women who appeared or acted more masculine. The second classification included women with a “strong preference for male garments.” These women were the female analogy of effeminate men. By the third stage “inversion” was “fully developed, the woman [assuming] a definitely masculine role.” The fourth state represented “the extreme grade of degenerative homosexuality. The woman of this type,” Krafft-Ebing explained, “possesses of the feminine qualities only the genital organs; thought, sentiment, action, even external appearance are those of the man.’?’ Not only was the most degenerate lesbian the most masculine, but any gender-crossing or aspiration to male privilege was probably a symptom of lesbianism. In these pathological souls, “The consciousness of being a woman and thus to be deprived of the gay college life, or to be barred out from the military career, produces painful reflections.’:” In fact, lesbianism is a congenital form of lust caused by and manifested in gender reversal, as Krafft-Ebing makes clear in discussing one case:

Signs Summer 1984 567

“Even in her earliest childhood she preferred playing at soldiers and other boys’ games; she was bold and tom-boyish and tried even to excel her little companions of the other sex …. [After puberty] her dreams were of a lascivious nature, only about females, with herself in the role of the man…. She was quite conscious of her pathological condition. Masculine features, deep voice, manly gait, without beard, small breasts; cropped her hair short and made the impression of a man in woman’s clothes.”23

Havelock Ellis simplified Krafft-Ebing’s four-part typology.” He kept the notion ofan ascending scale of inversion, beginning with women involved in “passionate friendships” in which “no congenital inversion is usually involved” and ending with the “actively inverted woman.” Ellis’s discussion of the former was devastating; it turned the value that first generation feminists had placed on passionate friendships upside down. A “sexual enthusiast.’?” he saw these “rudimentary sexual relationships” as more symptomatic of female sexual ignorance and repression than of spiritual values. At the same time, his inclusion of such friendships in a discussion of inversion inevitably marked them with the stigma of “abnormality.”

When Ellis got to the hard-core inverts, he was confounded by his contradictory beliefs. He wanted to construct the lesbian couple on the heterosexual model, as a “man” and a woman invert. But his antifeminism and reluctance to see active lust in women committed him to fusing inversion and masculinity. What to do with the feminine invert? His solution was an awkward compromise:

A class of women to be first mentioned … is formed by the women to whom the actively inverted woman is most attracted. These women differ in the first place from the normal or average woman in that they are not repelled or disgusted by lover-like advances from persons of their own sex …. Their faces may be plain or ill-made but not seldom they possess good figures, a point which is apt to carry more weight with the inverted woman than beauty of face … ; they are of strongly affectionate nature … and they are always womanly [emphasis mine]. One may perhaps say that they are the pick of the women whom the average man would pass by. No doubt this is often the reason why they are open to homosexual advances, but I do not think it is the sole reason. So far as they may be said to constitute a class they seem to possess a genuine, though not precisely sexual, preference for women over men.”26

568 Newton The Mythic Mannish Lesbian

This extraordinary mix of fantasy, conjecture, and insight totally contradicts Ellis’s insistence that “the chief characteristic of the sexually inverted woman is a certain degree of masculinity.?” No mention is made of “congenital” factors in regard to this “womanly” invert, and like most examples that do not fit pet paradigms, she is dropped. Gender reversal is not always homosexual, Ellis contends, exempting certain “mannish women” who wear men’s clothes out of pragmatic motives, but the “actively inverted woman” always has “a more or less distinct trace of masculinity” as “part of an organic instinct.’:” Because of her firm muscles, athletic ability, dislike of feminine occupations, and predilection for male garments, “because the wearer feels more at home in them,” the sexually inverted woman, people feel, “ought to have been a man.’?”

Thus the true invert was a being between categories, neither man nor woman, a “third sex” or “trapped soul.” Krafft-Ebing, Ellis, and Freud all associated this figure with female lust and with feminist revolt against traditional roles; they were at best ambivalent, at worst horrified, by both.” But some second-generation feminists, such as Frances Wilder, Gertrude Stein, and Vita Sackville-West, associated themselves with important aspects of the “third sex” persona. None did so as unconditionally and-this must be said-as bravely as Radclyffe Hall did by making the despised mannish lesbian the hero of The Well of Loneliness, which she defended publicly against the British government. Hall’s creation, Stephen Gordon, is a double symbol, standing for the New Woman’s painful position between traditional political and social categories, and for the lesbian struggle to define and assert an identity.

In The Well, Stephen Gordon’s parents want a son; when a daughter is born her father names her Stephen and permits her much of the freedom boys enjoy. She grows up resembling her father physically and emotionally, despising feminine pursuits and clothing. In her late teens she rejects a sympathetic male suitor because she has no sexual feeling for him. At twenty she develops a passion for a neighbor’s wife, who ultimately betrays Stephen to save her own reputation. In the aftermath, Stephen’s mother forces Stephen to leave Morton, the family estate, and Stephen discovers, by reading Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis in her dead father’s library, that she is an “invert,” an identity she instantly but painfully accepts.

Signs Summer 1984 569

During World War I, Stephen works in an ambulance unit and falls in love with Mary, who is young, innocent, and “normal.” On holiday together after the armistice, Stephen is tormented by moral scruples. Hesitant to lure Mary into an outcast life and fearful of rejection, she struggles to remain chaste. But Mary, “no coward and no weakling,” forces a confrontation; they become lovers, abandoning themselves to “what can be the most relentless of human emotions,” passionate sexual love (p. 312).31 But life in Paris, where they make a home, becomes increasingly problematic. Stephen’s absorption in her writing leaves Mary bored and unhappy. Both hate being excluded from bourgeois heterosexual society. Finally, to release Mary, Stephen pretends to have an affair; Mary reluctantly leaves with Stephen’s old suitor, Martin, and Stephen is left alone.

Both The Lamp and The Well deal with autonomy, power, and legitimacy. In The Lamp, the family traps first-generation New Women. But in The Well, the female body itself becomes the nemesis of the second generation. Accordingly, the relative importance and resonance of these symbols shift from one novel to the next. In The Lamp, the family is realistically drawn and personified in Joan’s mother, Mrs. Ogden, who dominates the novel. The family is female, retentive, and destructive. Mrs. Ogden stands for the guilt, respectability, and subjugation of individuality that destroy Joan.

Stephen Gordon must also leave the family to realize herself. But here, the family is aristocratic and romanticized. Instead of crushing Stephen in its embrace, it denies her patriarchal legitimacy solely because she is born female. Though her father gives her his looks, his intelligence, his money, and a boy’s name, tragically, she cannot be his true heir. As heroic female, she is inherently illegitimate, only at home in the pages of Krafft-Ebing. Stephen’s mother Lady Anna, like Mrs. Ogden, restricts individuality. But the mother is no longer the chief antagonist-the female body is. In The Lamp, mother and daughter war over issues of self-fulfillment; in The Well, over issues of gender and, ultimately, sexuality.

Even newborn, Stephen’s body is mythically masculine: “Narrow hipped and wide shouldered” (p. 13). She grows and her body becomes “splendid,” “supple,” “quick”; she can “fence like a man”; she discovers “her body for a thing to be cherished … since its strength could rejoice her” (p. 58). But as she matures, her delight degenerates into angst. She is denied male privilege, of course, in spite of her masculine body. But her physical self is also fleshly symbol of the femininity Stephen categorically rejects. Her body is not and cannot be male; yet it is not traditionally female. Between genders and thus illegitimate, it represents Every New

570 Newton The Mythic Mannish Lesbian

Woman, stifled after World War I by a changed political climate and reinforced gender stereotypes. But Hall also uses a body between genders to symbolize the “inverted” sexuality Stephen can neither disavow nor satisfy. Finding herself “no match” for a male rival, the adolescent Stephen begins to hate herself. In one of Hall’s most moving passages Stephen expresses this hatred as alienation from her body:

That night she stared at herself in the glass; and even as she did so, she hated her body with its muscular shoulders, its small compact breasts, and its slender flanks of an athlete. All her life she must drag this body of hers like a monstrous fetter imposed on her spirit. This strangely ardent yet sterile body…. She longed to maim it, for it made her feel cruel: it was so white, so strong and so self-sufficient; yet withal so poor and unhappy a thing that her eyes filled with tears and her hate turned to pity. She began to grieve over it, touching her breasts with pitiful fingers, stroking her shoulders, letting her hands slip along her straight thighs-Oh, poor and most desolate body! [Pg 187]

Stephen’s difference from Joan Ogden, her overt sexuality, is also represented by cross-dressing. But if male writers used cross-dressing to symbolize and castigate a world upside down, while Virginia Woolf and other female modernists used it to express “gleeful skepticism” toward gender categories,” Stephen’s cross-dressing asserts a series of agonizing estrangements. Stephen is alienated from Lady Anna as the New Woman often was from her own mother, as the lesbian was, increasingly, from heterosexual women. Unlike Orlando, Stephen is trapped in history; she cannot declare gender an irrelevant game. She, like many young women then and now, alternately rebels against her mother’s vision of womanhood and blames herself for her failure to live up to it. Preferring suits from her father’s tailor, she sometimes gives in to her mother’s demand that she wear “delicate dresses,” which she puts on “all wrong.” Her mother confirms Stephen’s sense of freakishness: “It’s my face,” Stephen announces, “something’s wrong with my face.” “Nonsense!” her mother replies, “turning away quickly to hide her expression” (p. 73).

Cross-dressing for Hall is not a masquerade. It stands for the New Woman’s rebellion against the male order and, at the same time, for the lesbian’s desperate struggle to be and express her true self. Two years exiled from Morton, Stephen, now her own woman with a profession, wears tailored jackets, has nicotine-stained fingers, and keeps her hair cropped “close like a man’s.’?” No matter how “wrong” she seems to the world, Stephen herself grows “fond of her hair” (p. 210).

Signs Summer 1984 571

The New Woman’s modernity and aspiration to male privilege already had been associated with cross-dressing in The Lamp. But in The Well, Hall, like the sexologists, uses cross-dressing and gender reversal to symbolize lesbian sexuality. Unlike the sexologists, however, Hall makes Stephen the subject and takes her point of view against a hostile world. Though men resented Stephen’s “unconscious presumption,” Hall defends Stephen’s claim to what is, in her fictional universe, the ultimate male privilege: the enjoyment of women’s erotic love. The mythic mannish lesbian proposes to usurp the son’s place in the Oedipal triangle.”

Hall had begun to describe an eroticized mother/daughter relation several years earlier, in The Lamp, where presumably the nonsexual framework of the novel as a whole had made it safe:

The mother and daughter found very little to say to each other; when they were together their endearments were strained like those of people with a guilty secret. …Joan knew that they never found what they sought and never would find it now, any more…. She wanted to love Mrs. Ogden, she felt empty and disconsolate without that love. She longed to feel the old quick response when her mother bent towards her, the old perpetual romance of her vicinity. She was like a drug-taker from whom all stimulant has been suddenly removed; the craving was unendurable, dangerous alike to body and mind. [Pg 75]

In this respect only, The Lamp is a “closet” novel. Hall, hiding in the old language, describes what is, I believe, a central component of lesbian sexuality-mother/daughter eroticism.” I write “eroticism” because sexual desire is distinct from either “identification” or “bonding.” A woman can be close to her mother (“bond,” “identify”) in many ways and yet eroticize only men. Conversely, one can hate one’s mother and have little in common with her, as did Radclyffe Hall, and yet desire her fiercely in the image of other women. In my view, feminist psychology has not yet solved the riddle of sexual orientation.

As bold as Hall was, she could not treat mother/daughter eroticism directly in The Well; instead, she turned it inside out. Stephen is strangely uncomfortable with all women, especially with her mother. Lady Anna is not a flesh-and-blood woman who, like Mrs. Ogden, can feel “guiltily

572 Newton The Mythic Mannish Lesbian

happy” when her daugher kisses her, “as if a lover held her” (p. 13). Anna is a servile mother of the patriarchy; her daughter’s ambiguous gender and explosive sexuality repel her.” Stephen, in turn, rejects her mother’s role and values, identifying instead with her father (thereby making herself so unpopular with feminist critics). In Hall’s terms, one might say that Stephen is so like her father that she assumes his sexuality.

The Oedipal drama is played out, as it often was for boys of the same class, with the maid standing in for the mother. At seven, Stephen’s intense eroticism is awakened by Collins (who, as working-class sex object, never gets a first name), in an episode infused with sexual meaning. Collins is “florid, full-lipped and full-bosomed” (p. 16), which might remind informed readers of Ellis’s dictum that the good figure counts more with the “congenital invert” than does a pretty face. When the enchanted child reaches out “a rather uncertain hand … to stroke [the maid’s] sleeve,” Collins exclaims, “What very dirty nails!” (p. 17). The invert’s hand is a sexual instrument, but it is polluted. Stephen responds by running to scrub her nails. After this episode, thinking of Collins makes Stephen “go hot down her spine,” and when Collins kisses her on impulse, Stephen is dumbfounded by something “vast, that the mind of seven years found no name for” (p. 18). This “vast” thing makes Stephen feel like a boy. She dresses as “young Nelson,” causing Collins to say, “Doesn’t Miss Stephen look exactly like a boy?” to which Stephen answers, “I must be a boy, ’cause I feel exactly like one.” When Collins snubs her she is “deflated,” dons the hated girls’ clothing, and torments her dolls, “thumping their innocuous faces” (p. 20).37 The end comes when the child sees the footman roughly kiss Collins on the mouth. In a rage she throws a broken flower pot and hits the footman’s cheek. Stephen’s sympathetic and protective father resolves the situation by firing the domestics.

For modern readers, by this point in the novel the nature of Stephen’s feeling is evident. But writing in 1928, Hall had to go farther. She shows us Sir Phillip reading sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and making notes in the margins. Later, after her disastrous passion for a scheming American woman, Stephen reads Krafft-Ebing in her dead father’s library and recognizes herself as “flawed in the making.”

A high price to pay for claiming a sexual identity, yes. But of those who condemn Hall for assuming the sexologists’ model of lesbianism I ask, Just how was Hall to make the woman-loving New Woman a sexual being? For example, despite Hall’s use of words like “lover” and “passion”

Signs Summer 1984 573

and her references to “inversion,” her lawyer actually defended The Well against state censorship by trying to convince the court that “the relations between women described in the book represented a normal friendship.” Hall “attacked him furiously for taking this line, which appeared to her to undermine the strength of the convictions with which she had defended the case. His plea seemed to her, as her solicitor commented later, ‘the unkindest cut of all’ and at their luncheon together she was unable to restrain ‘tears of heartbroken anguish.’ “38

How could the New Woman lay claim to her full sexuality? For bourgeois women, there was no developed female sexual discourse; there were only male discourses-pornographic, literary, and medical-about female sexuality. To become avowedly sexual, the New Woman had to enter the male world, either as a heterosexual on male terms (a flapper) or as-or with-a lesbian in male body drag (a butch).

Ideas, metaphors, and symbols can be used for either radical or conservative purposes.” By endowing a biological female with a masculine self, Hall both questions the inevitability of patriarchal gender categories and assents to it. The mannish lesbian should not exist if gender is natural. Yet Hall makes her the breathing, suffering hero (not the villain or clown) of a novel. Stephen not only survives social condemnation, she also argues her own case. But she sacrifices her legitimacy as a woman and as an aristocrat. The interpersonal cost is high, too: Stephen loses her mother and her lover, Mary. The Well explores the self-hatred and doubt involved in defining oneself as a “sexual deviant.” For in doing so, the lesbian accepts an invidious distinction between herself and heterosexual women.

Men have used this distinction to condemn lesbians and to intimidate straight women. The fear and antagonism between us has certainly weakened the modern feminist movement. And that is why lesbian feminists (abetted by some straight feminists) are intent on redefining lesbianism as “woman-identification,” a model that, not incidentally, puts heterosexual feminists at a disadvantage.” Hall’s vision of lesbianism as

574 Newton The Mythic Mannish Lesbian

sexual difference and as masculinity is inimical to lesbian feminist ideology.

Like Hall, I see lesbianism as sexual difference. But her equation of lesbianism with masculinity needs not condemnation, but expansion. To begin with, we need to accept that whatever their ideological purposes, Hall and the sexologists were describing something real. Some people, then and now, experience “gender dysphoria,” a strong feeling that one’s assigned gender as a man or a woman does not agree with one’s sense of self.” This is not precisely the same thing as wanting power and male privilege-a well-paid job, abortion on demand, athletic prowess-even though the masculine woman continues to be a symbol of feminist aspirations to the majority outside the movement. Masculinity and femininity are like two different languages. Though each of us knows both, most suppress one system and express only the other.” Many lesbians, like Stephen Gordon, are biological females who grow up speaking parts of the “wrong” gender language.

Obviously, the more narrow and rigid gender categories are, the more easily one can feel “out of role.” And, of course, if there were no more gender categories, gender dysphoria would disappear (as would feminism). However, feminist critiques of traditional gender categories do not yet resolve gender dysphoria because, first, we have made little impact on the deep structures of gender and, second, it appears that

Signs Summer 1984 575

individual gender identity is established in early childhood. Although gender dysphoria exists in some simple societies,” it may be amplified by the same socio-historical processes-radical changes in the economy, in family structure and function, and in socialization-that have given rise to feminism. Why should we as feminists deplore or deny the existence of masculine women or effeminate men? Are we not against assigning specific psychological or social traits to a particular biology? And should we not support those among us, butches and queens, who still bear the brunt of homophobia?

Hall’s association of lesbianism and masculinity needs to be challenged not because it doesn’t exist, but because it is not the only possibility. Gender identity and sexual preference are, in fact, two related but separate systems; witness the profusion of gender orientations (which are deeply embedded in race, class, and ethnic experience) to be found in the lesbian community. Many lesbians are masculine; most have composite styles; many are emphatically feminine. Stephen Gordon’s success eclipsed more esoteric, continental, and feminine images of the lesbian, such as Renee Vivien’s decadent or Colette’s bisexual. The notion of a feminine lesbian contradicted the congenital theory that many homosexuals in Hall’s era espoused to counter demands that they undergo punishing “therapies.” Though Stephen’s lovers in The Well are feminine and though Mary, in effect, seduces Stephen, Hall calls her “normal,” that is, heterosexual. Even Havelock Ellis gave the “womanly” lesbian more dignity and definition. As a character, Mary is forgettable and inconsistent, weakening the novel and saddling Hall with an implausible ending in which Stephen “nobly” turns Mary over to a man. In real life, Hall’s lover Una Troubridge did not go back to heterosexuality even when Hall, late in her life, took a second lover.

But the existence of a lesbian who did not feel somehow male was apparently unthinkable for Hall. The “womanly” lesbian contradicted the convictions that sexual desire must be male and that a feminine woman’s object of desire must be a man. Mary’s real story has yet to be told.”

Division of Social Science, State University of New York College at Purchase


1. Two key texts are Radicalesbians, “The Woman Identified Woman,” reprinted in Radical Feminism, ed. Anne Koedt, Ellen Levine, and Anita Rapone (New York: Quadrangle, 1973), pp. 240-45; and Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,”Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5, no. 4 (Summer 1980): 631-60. The best analysis of how these ideas have evolved and of their negative consequences for the feminist movement is Alice Echols, “The New Feminism of Yin and Yang,” in Powers of Desire, ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983), pp. 439-59.

2. Sasha Gregory Lewis, Sunday’s Women (Boston: Beacon Press, 1979), p. 42.

3. Andrea Dworkin, Pornography and Silence: Culture’s Revenge against Nature (New York: Harper & Row, 1981), p. 219.

4. On passing women, see San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project, “She Even Chewed Tobacco”: Passing Women in Nineteenth-Century America (1983), slide-tape distributed by Iris Films, Box 5353, Berkeley, California 94705; Jonathan Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976), pp. 209-80.

5. “Most of us lesbians in the 1950s grew up knowing nothing about lesbianism except Stephen Gordon’s swagger,” admits Blanche Wiesen Cook, herself a critic of Hall; see Cook’s “‘Women Alone Stir My Imagination’: Lesbianism and the Cultural Tradition,” Signs 4, no. 4 (Summer 1979): 719-20. Despite Stephen Gordon’s aristocratic trappings, her appeal transcended geographic and class barriers. We know that The Well was read early on by American lesbians of all classes (personal communication with Liz Kennedy from the Buffalo Oral History Project [1982]; and see Vern Bullough and Bonnie Bullough, “Lesbianism in the 1920s and 1930s: A Newfound Study,” Signs 2, no. 4 [Summer 1977]: 895-904, esp. 897). The Well has been translated into numerous languages. According to Una Troubridge, in the 1960s it was still steadily selling over a hundred thousand copies a year in America alone; Troubridge was still receiving letters of appreciation addressed to Hall almost twenty years after Hall’s death (Una Troubridge, The Life and Death of Radclyffe Hall [London: Hammond, Hammond & Co., 1961)). Even today, it sells as much as or more than any other lesbian novel, in straight and women’s bookstores (personal communication with Amber Hollibaugh [1983], who has worked at Modern Times Bookstore [San Francisco], Djuna Books, and Womanbooks [New York City)).

6. Hall deserves censure for her possible fascist sympathies, but this is not the focus of feminist attacks on her. In any case, such sympathies developed after she wrote The Well; see Troubridge, pp. 118-24.

7. For the anti-Well approach, see Cook; Lillian Faderman and Ann Williams, “Radclyffe Hall and the Lesbian Image,” Conditions 1, no. 1 (April 1977): 31–41; Catharine R. Stimpson, “Zero Degree Deviancy: The Lesbian Novel in English,” in Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 243-60; Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1981), pp. 322-23; Vivian Gornick, “The Whole Radclyffe Hall: A Pioneer Left Behind,” Village Voice (June 10-16, 1981). Only Inez Martinez, whose approach is quite different from mine, defends Hall: see “The Lesbian Hero Bound: Radclyffe Hall’s Portrait of Sapphic Daughters and Their Mothers, “Journal of Homosexuality 8, nos. 3/4 (Spring/Summer 1983): 127-37.

8. Many lesbians’ connection to the mannish lesbian was and is painful. The relation of any stigmatized group to the figure that functions as its symbol and stereotype is necessarily ambiguous. Even before lesbian feminism, many lesbians hastened to assure themselves and others that they were not “like that.” Lesbians who could pass for straight (because they were married or appeared feminine) often shunned their butch sisters. I have dealt with these concepts at length in Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979); I argue that the effeminate man is the stigma bearer for gay men.

9. See esp. Faderman.

10. See Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” Signs 1, no. 1 (Autumn 1975): 1-30; and Faderman. On the contradictions within the romantic friendship system, see Martha Vicinus, “‘One Life to Stand Beside Me’: Emotional Conflicts of First-Generation College Women in England,” Feminist Studies 8, no. 3 (Fall 1982): 602-28.

11. George Chauncey,jr., “From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: Medicine and the Changing Conceptualization of Female Deviance,” Salmagundi, nos. 58/59 (Fall 1982Winter 1983), pp. 114-45, esp. 117. He has reached the same conclusion I have regarding the “necessary” masculinity of the early lesbian persona.

12. For a related approach, see Carolyn Burke, “Gertrude Stein, the Cone Sisters, and the Puzzle of Female Friendship,” in Abel, ed. (n. 7 above), pp. 221-42. Gertrude Stein shared the second generation’s frustration with “daughters spending a lifetime in freeing themselves from family fixations” (p. 223).

13. All page numbers cited in the text are from Radclyffe Hall, The Unlit Lamp (New York: Dial Press, 1981).

14. See Paul Robinson, The Modernization of Sex (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), pp. 2, 3, and chap. 1.

15. Christina Simmons, “Companionate Marriage and the Lesbian Threat,” Frontiers 4, no. 3 (Fall 1979): 54-59.

16. Ruth F. Claus, “Confronting Homosexuality: A Letter from Frances Wilder,” Signs 2, no. 4 (Summer 1977): 928-33.

17. Ibid., p. 931.

18. Sandra Gilbert has developed this idea in the context of modernist literature in “Costumes of the Mind: Transvestism as Metaphor in Modern Literature,” in Abel, ed. (n. 7 above), pp. 193-220. 19. Chauncey argues that medical opinion began to shift from an exclusive focus on “inversion” as gender reversal to “homosexuality” as deviant sexual orientation in the 1930s. The change has had only limited effect on popular ideology.

20. A similar section on the sexologists was first developed by Smith-Rosenberg in our joint paper and has been worked out further in her forthcoming book (see unnumbered note above).

21. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis, trans. Franklin S. Klaf (1886; New York: Bell Publishing Co., 1965), pp. 262-64.

22. Ibid., p. 264.

23. Ibid., pp. 278-79.

24. Havelock Ellis, “Sexual Inversion in Women,” Alienist and Neurologist 16 (1895): 141-58.

25. See Robinson (n. 14 above) for a balanced appraisal of Ellis’s radicalism in sexual issues vs. his misogyny.

26. Ellis, pp. 147-48.

27. Ibid., p. 152.

28. Ibid., p. 148.

29. Ibid., p. 153.

30. Freud’s analysis was by far the most sophisticated. He rejected the trapped-soul paradigm and distinguished between “choice of object” and “sexual characteristics and sexual attitude of the subject.” However, his insights were distorted by his antifeminism and his acceptance of a biological base for gender. See esp. “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman,” in Freud: Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Collier Books, 1963), pp. 133-59.

31. All page numbers cited in the text are from Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness (New York: Pocket Books, 1950).

32. Gilbert (n. 18 above), p. 206.

33. For the New Woman of the twenties, cutting off traditionally long hair was a daring act with enormous practical and symbolic implications. It was never a neutral act.

34. My use of Freud’s concept indicates my conviction that it does begin to explain sexual desire, at least as it operates in our culture. Hall rejected or ignored Freud, presumably because of the implication, which so many drew from his work, that homosexuality could be “cured” (see Faderman and Williams [no 7 above], p. 41, n. 11).

35. Ruth-Jean Eisenbud asserts that “primary lesbian choice” occurs at about age three, resulting from the little girl’s “precocious eroticism” directed toward a mother who is excluding her (“Early and Later Determinates of Lesbian Choice,” Psychoanalytic Review 69, no. 1 [Spring 1982]: 85-109, esp. 99). Martinez (n. 7 above), whose theme is the mother/ daughter relationship in Hall’s two novels, ignores the concept of mother/daughter eroticism, rejecting any relevance of the psychoanalytic model.

36. Hall makes the mother’s fear pretty explicit: when Lady Anna says goodnight to adolescent Stephen, she kisses her quickly on the forehead “so that the girl should not wake and kiss back” (p. 83).

37. In another notable minority novel, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (New York: Pocket Books, 1972), the black child heroine hates and torments her white doll. In The Well, the heroine hates her doll simply because of its femininity.

38. Vera Brittain, Radclyffe Hall: A Case of Obscenity? (New York: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1969), p. 92.

39. The sexologists’ discourse, itself hostile to women, “also made possible the formation of a ‘reverse’ discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified” (Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction [New York: Vintage Books, 1980], p. 102).

40. Superficially, cultural feminism reunites lesbians and straight women under the banner of “female values.” As Echols points out, hostility still surfaces “as it did at the 1979 Women Against Pornography conference where a lesbian separatist called Susan Brownmiller a ‘cocksucker.’ Brownmiller retaliated by pointing out that her critic ‘even dresses like a man'” (Echols [no 1 above], p. 41).

41. Sexologists often use the concept of “gender dysphoria syndrome” synonymously with “transsexualism” to describe the “pathology” of people who apply for gender reassignment surgery. Of course the effort to describe and treat transsexualism medically has been awkward since gender is a cultural construct, not a biological entity. My broader use of “gender dysphoria” is in agreement with some sexologists who limit the word “transsexual” to people who actually have had surgery to alter their bodies. Gender dysphoria, then, refers to a variety of difficulties in establishing conventional (the doctors say “adequate” or “normal”) gender identification; intense pain and conflict over masculinity and femininity is not limited to people who request reassignment surgery. See Jon K. Meyer and John Hoopes, “The Gender Dysphoria Syndromes,” Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery 54 (October 1974): 447. Female-to male transsexuals appear to share many similarities with lesbian butches. The most impressive difference is the rejection or acceptance of homosexual identity. Compare The Well to the lives described in Ira B. Pauly, “Adult Manifestations of Female Transsexualism,” in Transsexualism and Sex Reassignment, ed. Richard Green and John Money (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969), pp. 59-87. Gender dysphoria could very fruitfully be compared with anorexia nervosa, a more socially acceptable and increasingly common female body-image problem. As feminists, we need a much more sophisticated vocabulary to talk about gender. Sexologists are often appallingly conservative, but they also deal with and try to explain important data. See, e.g., John Money and Anke A. Ehrhardt, Man & Woman, Boy & Girl (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972). For a radical scholarly approach, see Suzanne J. Kessler and Wendy McKenna, Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1978). One of the best recent pieces on gender reversal is Pat Califia, “Gender-Bending: Playing with Roles and Reversals,” Advocate (September 15, 1983).

42. See Money and Ehrhardt, pp. 18-20.

43. Harriet Whitehead, “The Bow and the Burden Strap: A New Look at Institutionalized Homosexuality in Native North America,” in Sexual Meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender and Sexuality, ed. Sherry B. Ortner and Harriet Whitehead (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 80-115.

44. Two impressive beginnings are Joan Nestle, “Butch-Fern Relationships,” and Amber Hollibaugh and Cherrie Moraga, “What We’re Rollin’ Around in Bed With,” both in Heresies 12 3, no. 4 (1981): 21-24, 58-62. The latter has been reprinted in Snitow, Stansell, and Thompson, eds. (n. 2 above), pp. 394-405.


Filed under Uncategorized

Philosophy Is Not a Luxury

This essay was published in the book Feminist Ethics, edited by Claudia Card. Please see this pdf. And this .doc. Download. Print. Discuss.

In seeking more information about the author (no connection to Ruth Bader Ginsburg), I found this.




Philosophy Is Not a Luxury




Western androcentric philosophy has positioned itself as a hallmark of civilization: It is conceived as culture, an enrichment of human life that has the opportunity to flourish only after basic survival needs are met. For women in an androcentric and misogynistic world, the option of embellishing a life in which basic survival already is assured has not been available. This is because our basic survival is not assured in the ways construed as preconditions for culture, civilization, philosophy, and-presumably-ethics.

Androcentric culture-including philosophy, we are told-arises within the context of a hierarchy of needs. Of these, the bodily needs come first: air, water, food, shelter, physical integrity. On the next level are needs for interaction with others: communication, cooperation, mutual assistance, reproduction. Without reasonable assurance of those in the first tier, questions about needs arising in the second tier are presumed to be moot. Societies in which virtually all efforts are directed toward meeting these first two tiers of basic needs commonly have been characterized as “primitive.” Further up in the hierarchy come things that are seen as enhancements but not fundamentally necessary, the things that constitute human flourishing, which typically has been contrasted with survival: happiness, intimacy, leisure, freedom, reflection, comfort, recreation. The pinnacle of flourishing is posited to be civilization: science, history, art, politics, literature, philosophy. The ordering of this hierarchy is roughly (I) individual bodily well-being, (2) community well-being, (3) psychological and spiritual well-being, and (4) intellectual and aesthetic well-being, each level depending on the attainment of those preceding it before it can emerge as a “need.”

The nature of oppression is such that no form of survival is assured to those who are oppressed. Indeed, total oppression occurs when those who are oppressed are dead; they do not survive on any level of the survival hierarchy, including the most basic level-that of individual bodily well-being. In other forms of less totalizing oppression, other levels of the hierarchy of survival are denied. What the various sorts of oppression have in common is that to some extent or another, each compromises some type of well-being, including individual bodily well-being, community well-being, psychological and spiritual well-being, and intellectual and aesthetic well-being. What it means for such well-being to be compromised is that there are coercive circumstances in which one or more types of well-being are “allowed,” insofar as they occur at all, contingent on the benevolence or convenience of oppressors.

Given the hierarchy of needs, it would seem to follow that those groups who are oppressed do not and cannot have civilization. Women are oppressed. We lack the basic conditions of cultural agency; often we lack even the basic conditions for individual survival. Thus it would follow that women are unable to reach the highest level of this hierarchy, to concern ourselves with the ideas and artifacts that constitute civilization-that is, science, history, art, politics, literature, philosophy, ethics.

Indeed, under this description of civilization we are especially unable to reach these higher levels of civilization qua women. That is, to whatever extent we manage to concern ourselves with the ideas and artifacts that constitute civilization, it is, at very least, because of our identification as “humans” rather than as women and thus as participants in the civilizations of man (sic ). On more sinister readings women are seen as co-opted, captured, enslaved by, or artifacts of, rather than participants in, such civilizations.’

Women, as many have pointed out, historically have been associated with the body, the lowest level of this hierarchy. More than one philosopher has noticed that the “mind/body” split actually is a gender split as well. That which is “of the mind”2 gets assigned to masculinity and thus to men, whereas that which is “of the body”3 gets assigned to femininity and thus to women. [see discussion questions at end]

It is interesting to note that, collectively, as women have worked to liberate ourselves by “developing” beyond “mere” bodily concerns, we became interested in community. The notion of women as the caretakers of community and its concerns is now similarly well entrenched in feminist as well as in non-feminist theory. Indeed, recent conceptions of ethics that have been associated with women or with feminism have been noticeably community-oriented in flavor, in part because researchers and theorists find that women “think” or “speak” in terms of community once we move beyond conceptions of ourselves as “mere” bodies. This is not surprising when we still see our project as that of struggling to climb the ladder of needs.

Theorists who want to move “beyond” questions about women and community often find themselves focusing on the next level of this hierarchy: psychological or emotional well-being, posited as a sort of mental life that sits atop an already-jelled structure of body and community. Out of this notion is born the so-called “postfeminist” gender scholarship, which erroneously assumes that women’s survival is already assured and which claims to concern itself with questions about women’s flourishing instead. One feature of this postfeminist view is that it is no longer desirable, necessary, or even acceptable to define women in terms of oppression. This is thought to contribute to the perpetuation of the oppression. While some theorists work at constructing “positive” accounts of what it means to be a woman on the one hand, postmodem theorists work at deconstructing concepts, notions, terms, and ideas that serve as anchors for meaning on the other. Essentialism seems to move to the foreground of the philosophical scenery, appearing now as a critically important philosophical mistake.

In this milieu, relatively comfortable white, middle-class academic women attend to this philosophical mistake with renewed passion, working to deconstruct the ontology of the social and political “worlds” in which we struggle, refocusing attention toward the role of identity in creating meaning. The result is a renewed attention toward personal happiness, intimacy, leisure, freedom, reflection, comfort, and recreation-the part of the hierarchy thought to encompass “flourishing” rather than “survival”-much to the disappointment of those women who feel unprivileged enough not to be able to concern our/themselves with this level of the hierarchy yet. Fights break out between and among those who ought to be allies. We align ourselves in more and more fragmented groups, accusing one another of unself-consciously enjoying too much of some privilege: white privilege, heterosexual privilege, academic privilege, middle-class privilege, ableist privilege, postrevolutionary privilege (“Well, when I was growing up [going to school, looking for a job, coming out, having children, being battered, writing a book, and so on], I didn’t have . . . .”) We even suspect each other of having (or granting) “marginalist” privilege, of attributing more credibility to those who can claim “many” and “severe” forms of oppression rather than “just a few minor ones.”

At times it looks as though, collectively, we must continually find or claim or create additional forms of oppression just for the purpose of interrupting the endless tug “beyond” strategies for survival toward strategies for flourishing (where “flourishing” is applicable only to those who’ve moved beyond “mere” survival). Many times it is true that we, or those around us, genuinely don’t appreciate or acknowledge the privilege we and/or they enjoy. Sadly, we find ourselves struggling for epistemic and moral authority-philosophical authority, as it were-through the destructive process of repeatedly “calling” one another on newly detected moral inconsistencies or unacknowledged epistemic privileges.

However, there is a problem here. By construing the philosophical enterprise as an artifact of culture that emerges only at the “highest” stage of civilization, and by construing civilization as that which occurs when the highest stages in a hierarchy of needs are attained, the very definition of the conditions under which philosophy occurs precludes the possibility of a prerevolutionary gynocentric philosophy. We wind up believing that we must choose from a smorgasbord of unsatisfactory choices.

Some attempts to create gynocentric philosophy give us moral theory for a utopian sort of postrevolutionary gynocentric world.” Other attempts offer what some feminist critics call “victimologies,” theories that describe us wholly in terms of our predictable responses to conditions of oppression.” Some supposedly gynocentric ontologies look suspiciously as though they embed dubious, quasi-biologistic assumptions about women (not to mention lesbians, feminism, the world, knowledge, truth, and so on].”The suggestion is afoot that theory is itself androcentric and that anthropology is the best we can do. 7 Many of us feel positioned precariously at the edge of some postmodern abyss where “construction crews” and “deconstruction crews” alternately build and tear town every imaginable conception of meaning. Such weirdness serves not only to divide us against one another. It also suggests that the fault lies with the conception of philosophy as part of “flourishing” as opposed to part of “survival.”


For women, survival is a fundamental issue. Until we put survival at the center of our philosophical thinking, we are constantly at risk of having our theory-creation process lose sight of how fundamental is survival, rendering our theory irrelevant to our survival.

Women must constantly concern ourselves with how to survive batterings, rapes, wars and other violence, racism, homophobia, depression, mother-blaming, poverty, hatred, isolation, silencing, rupturing of our communities, exhaustion, spiritual co-optation, conceptions of health that view us as diseased in ways that we are not and that do not address or even acknowledge our actual suffering, indoctrination in patriarchal thinking in the place of genuine education, demands on us to do more than our share of the work of the world, trivialization of our knowledge, and destruction of those things that are beautiful and that nourish our souls. None of these things is of our own doing. They are the results, and the evidence, of our oppression. In one way or another, we often find ourselves not knowing whether, or how, we will survive. When we do survive, we often suffer survivors’ guilt. No level of the posited survival hierarchy is assured: not our individual bodily well-being, or our community well-being, or our psychological well-being, or our intellectual or aesthetic well-being.

Yet we struggle to formulate conceptions of gynocentric morality under these conditions of oppression without questioning the androcentric conception of philosophy as a part of culture, where “culture” emerges only after survival is assured. We must conceive ethics-indeed, I suspect, all of philosophy-as a part of our survival. We have no choice. For so long as we don’t take that step, we are still doing androcentric philosophy with a “feminist twist.”

Of course there is a way in which survival seems as though it ought to be assured. There is something very disquieting about thinking of survival as eternally intertwined /with the summum bonum; it is seductively appealing to be able to hope to transcend the sort of life in which survival is constantly at issue. Nevertheless, history shows us repeatedly that survival cannot be taken for granted. It is an accomplishment “just” to survive. No woman is exempt, despite our apparent abilities to more-or-less “pass” or otherwise “make it” in a still mostly hostile patriarchal environment. That we are taught to see our mere survival as a personal failing of some kind is an insidious aspect of the very social and political arrangements that endanger our survival. We might otherwise see it as an accomplishment, as a piece of political action. Instead, we find ourselves thinking that we want or need to assure our survival first and that then we can embellish our lives with culture, philosophy, or civilization later. We see ourselves as still at the “lowest level” when we notice that we are still struggling to survive. Yet survival is neither an underachievement nor an embarrassment. It is an act of political resistance (not just a personal strategy] to survive, and it is another act of political resistance to refuse to see “mere” survival as failing. Both of these are important acts of political resistance.


Audre Lorde identifies the erotic as “a considered source of power and information within [women’s] lives” that “rises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge.”8 The erotic, she claims, provides “the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person,” as well as “the open and fearless understanding of … [the] capacity for joy.” This is important because “the sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.” 9

This is a political claim, not a claim about hedonism or “rights” to pleasure. When Lorde asks the question, “Why would the erotic be a good thing?” she answers it quite differently from those who would claim the main benefit to be some sort of pleasure. She sees the erotic as an epistemic force that tempers the individualistic sense of self; it is the source of both power and information, which encourages resistance to atomism and unchecked individualism and which leads to understanding. 10 Thus the suppression of the erotic constitutes a primary interpersonal harm [see discussion questions at end]. Lorde further claims that this is one of the major social arrangements that has perpetuated the oppression of women.

I suggest that there is a conception of moral philosophy emerging from the writings of Audre Lorde and other lesbian feminist theorists that is based in the very acts of surviving rather than in culture. This is not accidental. That a philosophical system be based in the very acts of surviving is, I claim, one of the inevitable features of a gynocentric philosophical framework. This is also what links gynocentrism with a radical refusal of other forms of oppression: racism, class oppression, imperialism, heterosexism, species-chauvinism, even “man-hating,” for example. Rather than separating survival from “flourishing” or “culture” in order to position philosophy as part of either “flourishing” or “culture” (or both], philosophy is conceived as part of survival in a conceptualization in which all forms of well-being are taken to be part of survival. Audre Lorde is explicit about this when she writes that “For women-poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change.” 11

Survival, so positioned, is central to any conceptualization in which the summum bonum (ifthere is such a thing) is not taken to be something that transcends physically, psychologically, and socially embedded life but rather that is taken to be just exactly that. The sketch that emerges is that of an immanent rather than a transcendent philosophical theory, in which survival is not transcended but embraced.


In such an immanent philosophical theory, survival occupies a niche similar to that which is occupied by knowledge in androcentric philosophy. Because of this, it makes sense to claim that gynocentric philosophical theories are based in ethics rather than in epistemology. Survival is arguably a moral concept. It is surely not merely an epistemic one.

The gynocentric framework unfolding in the work of lesbian feminist theorists finds its roots in a fundamental assertion of the importance of nondomination rather than in a foundational assumption of the importance of distinguishing knowledge from nonknowledge. This nondomination, I claim, emerges from the centrality of survival. What remains yet to be shown, but which seems intuitively obvious, is that when survival is reconceived as not “that which is a precondition for the emergence of culture” but rather as “that which infuses every aspect of well-being,” it is going to turn out that any form of domination inhibits some sort of well-being and therefore is antithetical to survival in its fullest meaning. Thus a philosophical system in which survival is central necessarily will be one in which domination holds the position of an inconsistency.

Although the details of such a scheme remain yet to be fully articulated, the nature and position of the erotic within the androcentric and gynocentric frameworks give us a clue to understanding their different groundings. Audre Lorde’s sense of the erotic is a subjective, affective sense of yearning to join that which seems subjectively separate.  This, it is important to note, is not the much-maligned “urge to merge.” Ontologically, “merging” makes two things become one, and for eros to exist, there must continue to be more than one. For example, if my erotic enjoyment of you actually causes me to lose track of the fact that you and I are separate, then it is not really erotic enjoyment, at least not in Lorde’s lesbian feminist sense of erotic, but rather it is some other form of self-centered hedonism.

This sort of self-centered hedonism is what continually crops up in the position of the erotic in androcentric frameworks. But this is because androcentric frameworks ‘ define the erotic in terms of knowledge, where knowledge is conceived to be fundamentally a property or attribute of, or somehow attached only to, single, clearly individuated “knowers.” Thus within androcentric frameworks, the erotic turns out to be some kind of intentional state (as it were) that relates a single mind to some particular intentional object (the erotic object). This turns out to be a domination relation (or a quasidomination relation) because of the relation of mind to intentional object: They are not equals. The mind “targets” or “penetrates” the thing-to-be-known in ways that are not even plausibly symmetrical.

But there is no such claim about the erotic within the gynocentric framework; indeed, one of the things about the lesbian-feminist conception of the erotic is that it cannot be a property or attribute of a single thing held or perceived or encountered by another single thing (for example, a single mind). When the erotic, like everything else, is defined with respect to survival rather than with respect to knowledge, it emerges as the “glue” that brings seemingly separate things to a shared commonality. Indeed, the paradigmatic erotic connection within such a gynocentric framework is that of being as committed to your survival as I am to my own.

This is not the same as conflating your survival with mine (or vice versa), or conditioning your survival on mine (or vice versa), or being unable to distinguish your survival from mine. These conflations arise when the relation of the erotic to survival is defined in terms of knowledge, as occurs in the androcentric framework. Thus the erotic-rather than political necessity, coercion of some sort, contractual arrangements between negotiating parties, or the like becomes the primary source of moral community.


In survival-centered ethics, grand theory seems out of place. This is not to say that we want, or ought to want, to abandon theory. But the majority of our moral judgments are contextual, involving a pretty small group of folks, most of whom we already know: Should I call my friend or leave her alone? Should I picket with my union? Should I let my neighbor with repulsive politics use my extra parking space? Should I hassle my teenager about doing her homework? Should I go to the trouble to recycle this odd piece of plastic?

In androcentric ethical theories, as a member of “the” community of moral agents in good standing, I am presumed to be able to exercise my own judgment about most of these things without needing to consult all those who might be affected, and-for the most part whatever decisions I make will be accepted by others as being my business or my decision. Indeed, if I do not have the agency necessary to make or act on such decisions, then I am presumed not to be a member of “the” community of moral agents in good standing. Folks may disagree with my moral judgments on such issues but usually not on the basis that I’m not a qualified moral agent. They also don’t usually disagree with my judgments on the basis that I haven’t properly consulted a large enough moral community.

But when someone does call into question the size and scope of the moral community affected by, or owed accountability for, my decision or act, it turns out to be a devastating sort of challenge. This is because in andocentric theories, it is exactly in calling into question the size and scope of the moral community to which I owe accountability for my decision to act that the key to claiming a sufficient stake to complain about my moral decisions lies. A common way to claim a moral right to influence a decision or act is to claim to be a relevant member of the moral community affected by, or owed accountability for that decision or act.  For example, anti-abortion proponents claim the right to influence a woman’s decision about the fetus in her uterus by contending that the morally relevant community is larger than just the woman and her doctor: They claim that the rest of the world has a stake in whether the fetus is born or not and that the fetus has a stake in it as well. Thus they seek to expand the relevant moral community to include themselves and the fetus, and this is what purports to give them a right to participate in the decision. Indeed, this claim is not wholly false-thus its appeal. The rest of the world does have some stake in how populous a world we inhabit and with which particular people or potential people we share our talents or skills, troubles, toils, joys, and resources. The argument is similar to that which claims that the rest of the world has a stake in whether or not I commit suicide. Or wear a seatbelt. To move a question from the realm of “personal choice” to the realm of “accountable moral choice,” androcentric philosophy argues that the decision is political or has a political impact on a broader moral community.

For feminist philosophers who have come to believe that the personal is political, this renders communitarian sorts of moral theories simultaneously and paradoxically appealing and problematic, for “moral community” is, among other things, conceived as those to whom we hold ourselves to be accountable. We come to wonder what decisions if any are truly “personal”; indeed, every decision becomes political by virtue of its being connected (through ourselves and our connections) to some moral community greater than ourselves. [see discussion questions below] A paradigm example of this is radical lesbian separatists’ challenge to all women to rethink heterosexuality; the challenge itself is to the notion that with whom I sleep is not a “personal” as opposed to a “political” choice. That is, I am responsible and accountable to a larger community than just myself and my partners for the decisions I make about with whom I am sexually involved, and the scope of my accountability is greater than just a question of to whom I might transmit any germs I may carry.

This sort of move is particularly compelling to those of us trying to conceive a gynocentric ethics without first divesting ourselves of the notion of philosophy as transcendence of survival issues. The reason it is so compelling is that it rightfully challenges the idea that community survival has been “taken care of” already.

Survival of lesbian or gynocentric communities is not assured. In the hierarchy of needs, I would not yet be in a position to move “beyond” survival issues unless I were willing to abandon my responsibilities or accountability to those lesbian or gynocentric communities whose survival is not yet assured. This sets up a dichotomy between evincing disloyalty to my still-oppressed sisters or joining them in their moral community. But this dichotomy is only apparent, because it results from the ways in which relatively gynocentric moral community has been conceived by feminists still within a hierarchy of survival and needs relations.


The dichotomy becomes more salient when we ask what constitutes moral courage under conditions in which the personal is political. The type of moral courage on which I want to focus is the courage to dissent. The line between moral courage and moral irresponsibility is blurred by the positioning of ethics as the transcendence of survival issues.

For those who have come to believe that the personal is political, it is easier to make moral judgments that are in accord with one’s moral community than to dissent. Androcentric individualistic moral theories provide an easy outlet for dissent: Many moral judgments can be chalked up to the “personal” and taken out from under the scrutiny of the moral community. Indeed, a final and sufficient reason for a moral judgment might well be, “I just did what I had to: I was true to my own conscience.” If a liberal individualist with similar-minded friends constituting her moral community decides to leave or join or start a church, love a man or a woman or both or neither, gestate or abort or prevent or use donor sperm to induce a pregnancy, work for a university or teach on street comers, marry or divorce or remain single or lesbian, join the army or join the demonstration, smoke marijuana or abstain, vote Republican or Democrat or Communist or Peace and Freedom or not vote at all-these conveniently can be written off as “personal” decisions, ones in which her moral community has considerably less stake than she. This is because among liberal individualists, it is understood that she had to transcend issues of community survival in order to get to be a bona fide moral agent in the first place. If her survival or her moral community’s survival actually is at stake, then she “regresses” back to survival issues. To the extent to which this is so, she is not yet “civilized.” The preconditions for moral agency haven’t been met. Thus she is not a moral agent accountable to a moral community for those decisions. She is accountable only to herself, perhaps including her own sense of personal integrity, “and” (as it were) her individual survival “instincts.”

But under conditions in which the personal is political, liberal individualism falters. Any decision, by virtue of being political, is fair game for being held accountable by and to my moral community. It is also fair game for becoming grounds for my exclusion from a moral community. This is where the conditions differ markedly from those of liberal individualism.

This milieu, for example, is illustrated by the positions of some separatists. What under liberal individualism is counted as “guilt by association” (a bad thing to be avoided) becomes valued as the legitimate concept of attending to access (to one’s energy, ideas, and so on). For example, the black separatist moral community does not want me as a member if I am not a black separatist, no matter how sympathetic I might be. It objects to shoring me up with its information, ideas, energy, enthusiasm, care, concern, and attention just so that I can be replenished enough to survive as a white person under conditions of white racism.

As we rethink the ontology of persons and of communities, moral courage takes on new dimensions. For example, in the lesbian feminist reading of “the personal is political,” membership in one’s moral community turns out always to be at issue. This often has been experienced and expressed as pressure on members of such communities to behave in ways that are “politically correct.” The pressure to be “politically correct” is especially strong for those who construe moral decision-making in this connected, contextual, particular way. [see discussion questions at end] For if one is expelled or shunned by one’s moral community, what context is there in which to make moral judgments? I risk genuine “demoralization” when my moral judgments differ enough from those of my moral community for me to be excommunicated, for if I am expelled from my moral community, some piece of my moral agency itself is at stake.

I say “some piece of” my moral agency is at stake because most of us are simultaneously members of a number of moral communities. One rarely loses one’s membership in all of one’s moral communities at once. For example, my household might be one moral community; my five or ten closest friends might be another; my religion might be another; my AA group another; my union, neighborhood, town, or indeed my country might be others. When I am expelled from one moral community, I am rarely expelled from all moral communities of which I am a member. (Even if I am deported, my friends are still my friends. They may even try to help me return.)

But many times those moral communities serve different functions in my life; they serve to facilitate different kinds of, or just different, moral judgments. Perhaps I joined my AA group because my friends and my office coworkers did not or could not provide a moral community in which I could be satisfied with my moral judgments and actions surrounding alcohol. If my AA group expels me and I now have to look toward my family, my friends, and my office coworkers (and “the world”) for a particular context in which to make judgments about drinking, I may make different decisions than I would if I were still in AA. The pressure to avoid rejection, expulsion, or excommunication from one’s moral communities is high. Groups such as AA use this as a compelling force; I may not remain in AA if I continue to drink and encourage others in the group to get sauced with me. So in virtue of wanting to remain part of that moral community, I abstain. The pressure of the community “helps” me to do that.

This sort of pressure occurs in other moral communities surrounding other issues as well and is the phenomenon reported as pressure to be “politically correct.” For example, it is difficult to be both a deeply concerned member of a feminist moral community and a believer in fetuses’ rights to be born. One is strongly urged to change one’s views capture the force of it-to say that it takes moral courage to resist doing or not doing something that is “politically correct” just because that is so under such circumstances. Furthermore, obviously not all such resistance is appropriately seen as moral courage.

It could hardly be called “moral courage,” for example, except by stretching the definition beyond recognition, for a fourteen-year-old to become hooked on cocaine despite the disapproval of her moral community. On the other hand, one might want to say that many other sorts of instances of refusing to be bullied by pressure from one’s moral community are indeed acts of moral courage. Under conditions of contextualized moral decision-making though, in which the personal is the political and the moral community is the context, those very acts of moral courage may jeopardize membership in one’s moral community, thus putting one’s moral agency at stake when one disagrees with that community. When “moral agency” means, at least in part, maintaining and attending to one’s embeddedness in a moral community, then acts of both moral courage and moral irresponsibility are equally alienating; indeed, in some ways the two begin to look quite indistinguishable. Both are instances of ignoring community context.

This scheme embraces a conservatism and a pressure toward maintaining the status quo while at the same time encouraging the splintering and factionalization of moral communities. For when I dissent in a way that risks my membership in my moral community, one thing that helps me decide if I am being morally irresponsible or morally courageous is whether I can find or create a new moral community in which to find context. If I am in solidarity with only myself, my moral community is so small that I may be forced to change my views, for I cannot create enough of a moral context to function in a community of only one. On the other hand, if others join me in my dissent, we may form a new moral community. Under this description, politics becomes not the creation and shaping of ideas and beliefs through interaction but the creation and shaping of moral communities themselves. 15


To avoid the problem of continually having the shape of moral communities to be at stake rather than the moral issues for which community provides the context, consensus-making has been an important part of feminist (and other relatively communitarian) theories of contextualized moral agency and judgment. Dissent is problematic within a context in which consensus is constitutive. In theory, when members of the community aren’t in agreement they remain in dialogue with one another until consensus is reached. There is a commitment all the way around to remain in open communication on the points of disagreement until agreement is reached through nonadversarial interaction. Most folks agree that this sometimes may take a very long time. But that’s acceptable; process is as important as product.

This may be true and even workable in some situations. But in situations in which disagreement is too fundamental, the dissentient risks excommunication rather than simply an added time commitment to reach consensus. What she risks is alienation, not being late for dinner. Separatist theories have made this point explicit. Zionist separatists, for example, do not welcome non-Zionists into Zionist moral communities and indeed tend to excommunicate folks who become non-Zionists, What comes to be at issue, then, is who a “Zionist” might be, and, in fact, separatist moral communities spend much time debating such things: Who is a real feminist? A real lesbian? A real Jewish Zionist? My merely calling myself a feminist does not make it so; I need to be in agreement with certain principles if the rest of the feminist community is to agree that I am a feminist. This is the old problem of “who counts” in a moral community. It is not a new but rather a very old question the question of what, minimally, one must have in common with others in a moral community in order to be a full participant.” 16

The problem is not unique to feminist attempts to conceive moral community. Vigorous dissent in moral communities posited by androcentric theory also has the possibility of putting membership at stake. If one dissents too vigorously in a moral community in which “rationality” is the basis for membership, for example, one eventually risks being labeled “irrational,” in which case one’s membership expires. But that is different because it is not for one’s views that one loses membership in one’s moral community but rather for one’s capacities (or perceived capacities). If one can follow the rules for reasoning and communication, then one can stay and continue the dialogue no matter how divergent one’s views are from those that prevail.

One’s membership in feminist moral communities is determined not by what one knows or by what capacities one has but by what moral judgments one shares. This is one feature that makes dissent particularly problematic, for what one dissents about within a moral community is, in fact, moral judgments. If moral communities were merely monolithic single-issue political organizations, this might not be too bad (that is, I could just leave the pro-X community when my views change and join the anti-X community or even the no opinion- about-X community; no peripheral loss here, because the only thing at issue in the context of such a community is X),but they are not. For example, it might be difficult to articulate the constellation of moral principles and judgments and support that I share with my family of origin, a typical moral community. But my dissent about, for example, acceptable choices of “lifestyle” could easily cause my family to disown me. If this happens, I lose not only my family’s conversation, debate, and general moral community surrounding matters of lifestyle; I also lose those things with respect to patriotism, religion, money, sex, promise-keeping, work, friendship, and a whole host of other moral axes, many of which are probably pretty central to my survival.


In feminist conceptions of morality, it seems we have various moral communities to which we are responsible for our judgments and actions. The acknowledgment of this is already a step away from most androcentric moral theories, which postulate “the” universal moral community. Conceptions of moral theory as part of civilization invoke at this point concerns about relativism. The same insights from which pluralistic notions of civilization or “culture” or moral community emerge also yield worries about moral relativism. The problem experienced by those actually trying to live this way, though, is not that of relativism between distinctly different moral communities but that some of one’s own moral communities overlap and-ereating moral dilemma-eonflict.

For example, if “the world” is the relevant moral community, then many would agree that Karl Marx did the right thing in devoting his life to his work. The world and many folks in it are certainly better off for having his writings in it. But three of his children died of poverty related conditions, and his wife quite literally went crazy. To what family? Both? What happened when those conflicted? He was unable to be true to both communities at once. Did Marx make the right choice? Would we think that he had made the right choice had his talents been less, had his work not been read, had he remained another obscure, unemployed writer whose family suffered tremendously from the poverty brought on by his stubbornness? Should he have chosen between the workers of the world and his family, forgoing membership in one moral community so that he could be part of the other? If so, how should he have chosen?

One possible description of moral conflict is that which occurs when overlapping moral communities require incompatible moral principles or judgments for sustaining one’s membership or solidarity.

One might think this situation to be the mark of inconsistency or hypocrisy in one’s life, but it is not so simple. There are so many possible scenarios in which this might occur; I rather believe it IS the norm. Indeed, this sort of situation seems to be constitutive of moral dilemma in contextualized moral decision-making. It is the parallel of moral dilemma brought on by “conflicting rules” in rule-based moral systems. The difference, though, is that the dilemma of conflicting rules is thought to be resolvable, at least theoretically. This is a problem of inconsistency; if the rules are just evaluated and revised carefully enough, with particular attention toward eliminating inconsistency, then eventually there will be a system of rules that has no conflicts. 17

But what possible parallel solution could there be for the problem of overlapping and conflicting moral communities? The analogy with the expectation of consistency in rule-based systems IS the utopian hope for a single moral community in context-based systems. But how can there be a single moral community when one’s moral community is based in actual particular connections and interactions with others? We do not have such actual particular connections and interactions with all others. To whatever extent connections with all others exist, they are largely abstract, not particular.


The question of whether a single moral community can actually exist is too important to leave unaddressed. It is a strength of gynocentric moral theory that we consider such “practical” problems right along with “theoretical” problems. We have made no progress if we still imagine “the” moral community and don’t address the fact that there could be no single moral community in a contextual conception of ethics.” 18 Much of our moral anguish arises out of our conflicting senses of responsibility and accountability to multiple moral communities. We do not worry about the theoretical problems associated with relativism. We worry about de-moralization. We worry about staying sane or getting sane. We worry about survival.

But this, I would like to suggest, is a clue to how we might proceed, not an occasion for pessimism. These worries need not be considered pre-philosophical. This approach takes our moral anguish to be full-fledged philosophy. It provokes and energizes work on at least such philosophical themes as the erotic, knowledge, community, courage, dissent, conflict, and alienation-and this philosophical work can emerge from the actual experiences of our everyday lives.

For feminists, philosophy is not a luxury.


My thanks to Terry Winant, without whose friendship and collegial support this essay would not have been written. She posed just exactly the right philosophical questions at the right times, commented on numerous prior draft s without ever making me feel embarrassed, and prevented me from littering this paper with sentences as long and unwieldy as this one. Thanks also to Claudia Card, Elise Springer, Naomi Scheman, and members of the summer 1990 feminist reading group at Wesleyan University, and a grateful nod in the direction of Audre Lorde for the title.

1.This, for example, was the argument made by Susan Griffin in Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (New York : Harper and Row, 1978).

2. That is, “culture”: religion, intellectual life, problem-solving, inquiry.

3. That is, “survival”: birth, death, food, cleanliness.

4. For example, Sarah Lucia Hoagland, Lesbian Ethics: Toward New Value (Palo Alto, Calif. : Institute of Lesbian Studies, 1988).

5. For example, Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politic s of Peace (Boston : Beacon, 1989); and Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1982).

6. For example, ecofeminist theories about what women are “really” like outside of patriarchy. See Judith Plant, ed., Healing t e Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1989); and Irene Diamond and Gloria Feman Arenstein, eds., Re-Weaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990).

7. For example, Joyce Trebilcot, “Dyke Methods,” Hypatia 3, no. 2 (Summer 1988): 1-13.

8. Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in Lorde, Sister/ Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Trumansburg, N.Y.: Crossing Press, 1984), 53. First presented at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Mount Holyoke College, August 25, 1978. Also published as a pamphlet by Out & Out Books (available from Crossing Press).

9. Ibid., 56.

10. This sort of understanding appears to be what Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule refer to as “connected Knowing,” in Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind, ed. Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (New York: Basic Books, 1986). Belenky et al. found that “connecte knowers seek to understand people’s ideas in the other people’s terms rather than in their own terms” and that these connected knowers “were attached to the objects they sought to understand: they cared about them” (124).

11. Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” in Sister/Outsider, 37.

12. For example, the United States claimed (finally) that it needed to become involved in World War II by contending that the morally relevant community was “the world.” But before it became involved, it justified its noninvolvement by contending that the relevant moral community was “Europe.” Similarly, this is how the world gets to claim that individual (minor) Nazis “shouldn’t have done that.” The claim is that their relevant moral community was not merely their elected government and its official decisions and policies.

13. Note that these are two conclusions of the sort that have gained favor recently as political sentiments favoring liberal individualism have lost ground to conservative, paternalistic attitudes. Note too that although radical lesbian feminist moral, political, and epistemic theories also oppose liberal individualism, it is vastly different from conservative, paternalistic opposition to liberal individualism. Unfortunately, on too many occasions these two very differing perspectives have tried to foster political coalitions (for example, the antipornography movements) by blurring this distinction- not, in my view, a good strategy for the long run.

14. However, there certainly is a way of construing drug experimentation by teenagers under these conditions as inexperienced attempts to experiment with moral courage in the form of resistance. After all, fourteen-year-oIds are not exactly experienced moral agents; they are still learning, indeed just beginning to experiment, with the concept of moral agency itself.

15. I first proposed this idea in a paper (unpublished) I wrote in 1985 entitled “Art and Morality: A Feminist Perspective.” In that paper, I argued that art (by defining or identifying moral communities) served the parallel function to that of law, except that law functions within rule-based moral systems and art functions within non-rule-based moral systems.

16. John Stuart Mill tried to solve this problem with respect to utilitarianism in a way that relied on ethics’ being based in culture. This is where gynocentric ethics departs from utilitarianism. Mill claimed that one only became a full participant in the moral community by being educated which, of course, presumes a culture. Survival is not subject to the problems of cultural relativism in the same way that knowledge or education is.

17. This is the somewhat naive hope behind some conceptions of what a codified legal system can provide.

18. This, for example, is one of the serious shortcomings of Sarah Hoagland ‘s Lesbian Ethics. Despite her brilliant and creative efforts to develop a new moral sensibility, she steadfastly refuses to address the question of multiple moral communities. In her world, the lesbian moral community is “the” moral community.


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS (please refer to numbers when responding)

  1. Are you convinced that philosophy is NOT a luxury? Why or why not?
  2. Is female separatism a survival-based gynocentric philosophy? What other aspects of survival does separatism account for? What does it miss?
  3. More than one philosopher has noticed that the “mind/body” split actually is a gender split as well. That which is “of the mind”2 gets assigned to masculinity and thus to men, whereas that which is “of the body”3 gets assigned to femininity and thus to women. Is this true? What do you think about it? And how can we resist such gendered categorizations?
  4. Thus the suppression of the erotic constitutes a primary interpersonal harm.” Do you agree? Is such a belief contrary to the commitment of feminist spinsters?
  5. Can the EROTIC be re-framed as central to our philosophy? If so, what should it look like? Is sex required?
  6. We come to wonder what decisions if any are truly “personal”; indeed, every decision becomes political by virtue of its being connected (through ourselves and our connections) to some moral community greater than ourselves. A-HA! The private vs. public distinction! (see redmegaera’s analysis here) If you leave it to UP, I’m gonna use aesthetic femininity as an example of a decision that has very different implications on the public versus private spheres of moral community!
  7. Relatedly, the pressure to be politically correct: do you feel it? About what? Have you changed your views or remained silent for fear of the community’s wrath? About what?
  8. MODERATION RULES: does this resonate with anyone? Should this or something like it be part of the commenting guidelines for FRG?

In theory, when members of the community aren’t in agreement they remain in dialogue with one another until consensus is reached. There is a commitment all the way around to remain in open communication on the points of disagreement until agreement is reached through nonadversarial interaction. Most folks agree that this sometimes may take a very long time. But that’s acceptable; process is as important as product.


Filed under Uncategorized