Growing up in rural upstate New York in the late ‘90s, it never really occurred to me that being homosexual was an option. I didn’t know any out queer women in real life and I’d certainly never read any books about them. The only lesbian I saw on TV was Original Cindy on Dark Angel, and… that’s all I can remember, really. Any other exposure to lesbians was either: “jokes about how turned on men are by lesbians” or ”titillating kisses between non-LGBT-identified female characters that never seemed to appear again once sweeps weeks passed.”
Now that I’m older, it weirds me out that an internet search on lesbian + anything turns up with porn. Massive amounts of it. And most of the stuff that comes up is terrible. Why does the internet equate “lesbian” with “explicit sex”? Why does so little of that content actually seem to be directed at queer women? And why do I feel so gross and weird about it?
Instead of my habitual response of sending my eyeballs spinning in their sockets, this time I’m turning to Audre Lorde for answers. I’ve been doing this a lot lately, and so far, it’s been a pretty good approach. Even though Lorde died of cancer in 1992, so many of the issues she wrote about then are relevant today.
In “Uses of the Erotic,” Lorde discusses the idea of pornography vs. eroticism. For her, eroticism is more than just a sexual thing; it’s any creative energy deployed in pursuit of an internal sense of satisfaction. It’s being in touch with ones feelings and using them as a source of power and information. Pornography, on the other hand, is superficial eroticism that emphasizes trivial sensation and suppresses true feeling. Lorde believes that the two are often confused and misnamed, particularly by those who oppress women. Understanding the distinction can be a useful tool for empowerment.
“On the one hand, the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority; on the other hand, women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence.” Later she continues, “To share the power of each other’s feelings is different from using another’s feelings as we would use a Kleenex. When we look the other way from our experience, erotic or otherwise, we use rather than share the feelings of those others who participate in the experience with us. And use without consent of the used is abuse.”
Applying this to the issue at hand, I think a lot of the weirdness I’m experiencing is in reaction to this distinction — or rather, how the internet at large seems to make no distinction. When I search for lesbian content, what I’m looking for is content by individuals expending creative energy to build strength and power in the queer community. Instead, what I see is a glut of superficial content meant to excite people without making any real connection. And let’s be honest, most of it is aimed at heterosexual men. It perpetuates negative stereotypes and exploits lesbian identity to provide a profit for people largely outside the queer community.
Now, is the answer to this problem to censor all sexy queer lady stuff? I certainly hope not. If we go back to Lorde’s definitions, sexual content by itself can fall under either of those categories. While it’s easy to disparage the content itself, the root of the problem has much more to do with motivation and authenticity — something search engines, at this point, are not equipped to judge. I have difficulty with this myself sometimes.
So for now, I guess we just keep being awesome, building community, and reading Audre Lorde. Search engines will follow in time.
Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” column exists for individual queer ladies to tell their own personal stories and share compelling experiences. These personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.