Why Does My Identity Require Turning SafeSearch On?: “Lesbians” vs. Pornography

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.”


Remember that time on Friends when Rachel kissed her former sorority sister and Phoebe?

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?

OMG threesome! Check out all that pussy. Rawr.

OMG threesome! Check out all that pussy. Rawr.

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.

Lorde says,

“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.”

Audre Lorde = epic, amazing badass.

Audre Lorde = epic, amazing badass.

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.

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Laura Mandanas

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Boston. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair. Follow her: @LauraMWrites.

Laura has written 210 articles for us.


  1. I like this post because I am constantly having to point out the difference between pornography and eroticism. When I write about lingerie, I’m sometimes tempted to strip out all references to sex or erotic subjects because somehow the wider world lumps that in with pornography, which is the opposite of what I want to talk about. So I share your frustration.

  2. Preach!

    I tried searching for lesbian artwork on deviantArt to illustrate a blog post of mine, and all it turned up was the same mainstream porn masquerading as art. This on a site that, imo, has a fairly strong queer presence. Regardless, you’d think artists at least would break away from social conditioning…

  3. Thank you for this! This makes me think of another quote by Audre Lorde that seems fitting for this:

    “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

    let the connections be made.

  4. When I first realised that lesbian sex might be something I’m interested in (age: 13/14), I wanted to inform myself.
    I wanted to know “how all that” works and how two women have safe sex…
    So I did my research, typed “lesbian sex” into googles search bar and was hit by a gigantic wave of porn…
    + no usefull information were found.

  5. I think about this also from a teachers perspective. I work with high school students and occasionally a student wants more queer information or to find an online community and sending them towards search bars is a a horrible move! But often its all they have or all they are comfortable with because the internet feels private from behind our screens. WIthout a real human guide to say “go to autostraddle,” search this tag on youtube, or here are some identity words that might help narrow your searches, the students can feel quite lost.

    To me this is just a reminder to reach out to younger generations because even though they have queer images on tv or the internet in a way many of us never did, the technological world is not always enough to help form an identity and answer hard questions.

  6. My immediate response to this is ‘Yeah! This is why I can’t open my tumblr in public.’

    Then I remembered that’s because I follow a lot of porn blogs.

  7. This is an incredibly well written article. For several years, I’ve been trying to “figure out” my sexuality, despite deep down knowing. I’ve wanted to sign up for autostraddle for ages, but now finally have the courage (I attempted to sign up once before but was having internet issues.) This website has brought me lots of laughs, and some crying with certain things. Thank you for the articles, and thank you for the openness of this community. I’m glad to be a part of it. Really good article.

    • I’m so happy you finally joined up! We’re glad to have you here. :)

      *hugs through the internet*

  8. This article is sooo good. The first time I wanted to inform myself about lesbian sex , I did what most of we have done ….I GOOGLE IT . Big mistake. I was like 15 at the time , so obviously what i see there had nothing to do with reality , almost all lesbian porn is made for well..men .
    There is still no much information out there so thank you for bring usefull information to all the lesbians out there :)

    ( sorry for my english but my first language is german).

  9. Was feeling this issue the other day when my best mate and I were joking around about lesbian witches turning people gay (think it was a gay agenda joke or something) and we mentioned the phrase “lesbian magic wand”. I said I really wanted one to which she said, ‘if you type that into google it will definitely be porn’. Challenge accepted. It was. Every single hit on the first page was to a mainstream porn site and from the brief descriptions google gives you I’m assuming it was all made with men behind the camera and the computer screen. Is it too much to ask for the power to bop people on the head and enlist them into the gay agenda without my fantasy turning into a sex toy used in creepy porn?

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