How do we talk about our sexuality as it is? How do differences converge and collide and make us who we are? How can concepts central to sadomasochism, like openness and exchange, be useful in talking about the politics of any type of sex? In 1981, Coming to Power: Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M attempted to answer these questions and examine sex and power through poetry, drawings, short stories, and personal essays submitted by women who participate in S/M and relationships with other women. It sold out.
Coming to Power, its three subsequent editions, and its sequel, The Second Coming: A Leatherdyke Reader, were published by Samois, a lesbian-feminist SM collective that politicized sex without demonizing women for how they wanted to have it with each other. Founded in 1978 by self-identified lesbians who were members of the Society of Janus, Samois (and successor group The Outcasts) offered community to kinky queer women and broadened conversations about including S/M in lesbian-feminist discussions around the politics of sex.
The 1996 sequel The Second Coming: A Leatherdyke Reader, edited by Pat Califia and Robin Sweeney, coins “leatherdyke” to “carve out an area for ourselves in the world of identity politics in which the leather community currently finds itself,” and then picks up where Coming to Power left off. It features more stories from trans women, bi women, fat women, disabled women, and women of color. It also skews more theoretical. While Coming to Power feels intimate, The Second Coming loses some of that intimacy in exchange for intellectual rigor.
Coming to Power and The Second Coming made a huge statement when they were published. Lesbian sex was politicized in the ’70s and ’80s as a feminist issue. People were joining groups not only to build community with other lesbians, but to build community with lesbians who had similar politics.
And many of those communities thought that sex that included anything considered “more masculine,” such as penetrative sex/power exchanges like those in S/M play, were inherently harmful to women (this was also rooted in some deep transphobia). In practice, this meant some lesbians were kicked out of the only communities they had because they were open about using a strap-on in bed. It also meant that in both academic and public discourse, kinky lesbians were called perverts or seen as protecting and furthering misogyny and the patriarchy. For example, in 1986, a group of feminist activists hosted Feminism, Sexuality and Power, a conference at Mount Holyoke College.
In a report on the conference, Margaret Hunt wrote about her discomfort with the discourse that happened throughout, and noted: “My personal [objections] revolved around the frequently-heard claim that women who engaged in S/M were condoning violence against other women … [and] assuming simplistic or overliteral correspondences between consensual sex acts and personality types, politics, or social mores.” Hunt notes that the people who held these ideas, who called themselves “radical feminists,” were also the ones who had control in lesbian-feminist organizing communities. Ideas such as these were so commonly held in lesbian-feminist circles that a lot of what was submitted to Coming to Power and The Second Coming was done so only under the promise of anonymity — S/M was so divisive that many women feared being ostracized by their local queer women’s communities if it was widely known that they were practitioners.
By publishing these two books, Samois and the Outcasts added the voices of actual kink practitioners to the conversation about feminism, lesbianism and S/M. Regarding the publishing of Coming to Power in the introduction to The Second Coming, Pat Califia and Robin Sweeney wrote,
“Its commercial and critical success and popularity made it clear that women wanted to read books about sexuality that did not advocate censorship or speak merely to victimhood. The success and popularity of Coming to Power also encouraged women’s presses to consider pleasure as a topic and created a safer space for women (whether they were S/M dykes or not) to be open about their sexual practices and question the simplistic and repressive moral values of ’70s-style radical feminism.”
The books helped women feel less alone; it made women all over the world feel like they had a community before the days of internet sites like FetLife. They offered hundreds of pages of resources, education, and camaraderie for folks who otherwise had little way to access them.
The work that Samois and the Outcasts did for the queer women’s S/M community was vital. Without them, the conversations we have about kink and queerness would be totally different. While there are still queer who hold anti-SM positions, for the most part, we exist in a culture where we can celebrate, or at least have civil discussions about, lots of different kinds of ways people have consensual sex.
Earlier this year, on September 27, the Exiles, the successor to the Outcasts, hosted a 20th anniversary party coinciding with Folsom Street Fair. They’ve continued the work their predecessors began, and are now a group that’s “an inclusive and sex positive space for all people whose gender self-identification is other than male.” The work that lesbians before them did by expanding the conversation about the politics of sex has grown to include conversations of sexuality and gender. They made it okay to not only talk about sex, but offered lesbians the opportunity to seek out the sex that made them feel fulfilled.
YES!!! I am so grateful that you brought your research into the autostraddle world. I’m in awe of how kink has been perceived over time, especially in queer spaces. Thank you for this GEM!
I appreciate reading this because it confirms my own impressions of that time. I mean, could the world really have changed that much since I came out during the late’70s ? Wow ! Things are spectacularly different now.
Those early years being out weren’t much fun in many ways, so many restrictions on how we could behave, and so much judgment around our sexuality and our appearance, practically everything ! I ended up identifying more happily as a punk rocker than as a lesbian.
I went through my baby dykehood in the ’80s, then in the early ’90s I went into a deep committed relationship. For over two decades I let the world go by and cocooned like crazy, oblivious to pretty much everything but the most obvious in Gay.
I’ve only now just resurfaced and wow, it’s like coming out as a lesbian all over again, but this time, in true rainbow colours ! It’s fantastic. So very useful to see how far we’ve come (pun intended I think). We’re still political, in fact we’re more political, because we’re less shaming ? This is all new to me, my glasses are probably still very rosy…
Thank you for this reporting? I take by radical feminists they mean the more modern term, and not trans woman inclusive groups like the Lesbian Avengers?
so, surprisingly, lesbians in the 70s and 80s who were terfs were calling themselves radical feminists. i def thought it was a more contemporary term, but it’s roots seem to be deep. it seems like a split probably happened though, because for some it did just mean politically radical, but somehow that politics got merged with a distaste of anything “male” and so most folks who still hold onto that identifier are terfs now.
Oh good grief I have so much catching up to do… Terf. Huh. Sounds like a throwback indeed.
Yes in my day (groan), radical feminists, lesbian separatists, it was all very anti-patriarchy, anti-male, a complete rejection of anything remotely connected to the Y chromosome.
But at the same time, there was very strong role-play among lesbians, with clear-cut, never-to-be-crossed boundaries between butch and femme. I suppose in a way, everything was pushed to extremes.
Now we seem to have opened up like one of those flowering teablooms. We probably had to go all the way _there_ so that we could finally expand in all directions and make our own definitions.
It’s all so glorious I want to scream. I love how we celebrate who we are. Butch and femme don’t mean what they used to, and I’m very glad to be changing my internal reference points to match the new Us. Sorry about the terfs though, hopefully that will change too.
And as you can see I’m very new, I still have a binary mindset. Working on it…
Thank you so much for this <3
The 80s were a lot more oppressive than people can imagine today. Dildos and other penetrative sex were an absolute no-go for lesbians, as was bisexuality. Trans women were violently kicked out of all women’s space at least from the late 70s until the mid 90s, internationally. That included physical violence. Most lesbians called themselves radical feminists, and that meant radical in the Terf sense, i.e. everybody in lesbian communities read Transsexual Empire by Janice Raymond, and GynEcology by Mary Daly. There was no other type (apart from *very* rare exceptions).
When Pat Califia’s books were sold in the local women’s bookstore around 1984 that caused a major conflict. This was the same bookstore where male toddlers were not allowed in, and had to wait outside. I’m not making these things up, it was common all over Europe and the US.
Ironic that Pat Califia is now Patrick Califia, which would have confirmed the worst nightmares of her/his enemies.