THE BODY POLITIC May 1983, No. 93. Chris Bearchell

p. 29.

Art, trash & titillation: A consumer's guide to lezzy smut

Overheard in the locker room: "Penthouse lesbian spreads are the pits, all right, but mostly because they aren't very hot."

"Yeah, but what else is there?"

Is it true that women don't really get turned on by visual representations of sex? Do the made-for-men fantasies about lesbian sex vary so much from our own? Or is there, as the woman in the locker room suggests, something not quite arousing enough about two women pretending to be into one another when they really aren't.

The fact that lesbians go looking for reflections of our passion in places as unlikely as Penthouse or Playboy suggests that the urge to find these reflections is a powerful one. That doesn't necessarily mean that all seekers are using the pictures to masturbate by. But some of us certainly are.

The worst first

Porn collecting begins after the appeal of National Geographic and the lingerie section of the Eaton's catalog has worn off. Most likely, you will acquire the first item of your collection at the end of a boring day as you head home from work exhausted but horny, and with no prospects between the bus stop and your front door except the local corner store. If you can bring yourself to flip through one of the three major "men's" magazines in search of women loving women while you're waiting to pay for your quart of milk, a carefully displayed clit or two (preferably two) may tickle your fancy enough to get the juices flowing. Enough to get you to put out the $3 or so that it costs to take the full-colour delights home with you. Where, chances are, Playboy, Penthouse or Hustler (each of which regularly runs "lesbian" spreads) will let you down before they do the trick. The occasional "specialty" magazine devoted entirely to lesbianism (called things like Woman to Woman) is only more of the same. You may wish you'd invested in new batteries for your vibrator instead.

A quick survey of the fantasies available for consumption shows they're a pretty standard lot — what is porn, after all, if not slight variations on predictable themes? From food orgy to sex with juicy cunts by candlelight amid the silver and the crystal. Bored, frilly housewives turning to kinkiness (ie, each other) by the poolside. Frothy pink confections sugary enough to make your teeth ache. Photographer explores model. Maid serves mistress. And endless interpretations of two or more punk rockers diddling with s/m paraphernalia. Some of the more imaginative scenarios that have turned up in recent months include: some colourful manoeuvres on the squash court; a weird cross between body painting and mud wrestling (which works as a turn-on surprisingly well, actually); the standard crotch full of strawberries and whipped cream — but tasteful, honest; and the high-flying shenanigans of a couple of slinky silver astronauts.

Yes, you did detect some murmurings of approval in all of that. Despite the obvious shortcomings of these mags, most dykes I know — beggars one and all — still have Penthouse, et al, in their collections. Sometimes the model is appealing; sometimes the fantasy itself is. Usually there are only one or two shots per "story" that convey sufficient verisimilitude: a tatooed butterfly balances enticingly on one woman's shoulder; a jet of water teases another's stiffening nipples. If you're really lucky one or two photographs might convey — or, who knows? capture — a sense of humour, an apparently real caress, hints of butch/femme interchange, the stance or gesture or facial expression of an independent woman or two. All of these things exist, of course, in the eye of the proverbial beholder. Happy hunting.

Dressed up as art

When you tire of the slim pickings of corner-store trash, you will (if you are — or are becoming — a determined enthusiast) probably venture further afield in your quest for that one mouth-watering, cunt-watering picture. Your average well-stocked bookstore probably has at least one title in its art or photography section that features explicit lesbian fantasy. With any luck, your favourite second-hand bookstore will have a couple at half the price.

Often the text accompanying corner-store trash pics is about as much of a turn-on as a bucket of cold water: Marsha really digs getting it on with her roommate Paula when there isn't a man around to fuck her brains out." A welcome relief, then, is the photographically illustrated Sappho: The Art of Loving Women, published by Chelsea House (with real translations of you-know-who's poetry). A review of it was one of the first Playboy features I ever collected. The text is an improvement on the mags, but the photos are standard — which is to say uneven. Fantasies range from young-mother-with-child-and-female-lover to trios of nymphs to fully clothed "literary lesbian" types; credibility varies with taste with women and fantasy.

A small paperback offspring of Sappho is Sappho by the Sea, photographed by the same man, J Frederick Smith. This book, subtitled An Illustrated Guide to the Hamptons, contains shots of two of the many women who appear in the earlier work, and is, as the subtitle suggests, a strange hybrid. Instead of the fragmentary lyrics of the poet of Lesbos, we are treated to a travelogue liberally sprinkled with quotes from Walt Whitman. The book allows a most elaborate fantasy — every detail of a lust-filled weekend — and that is where it departs from its corner-store cousins. The popularity of such art books among real live lesbians may have to do with the fact that the length and detail of them allow for greater credibility. The same women appear in a variety of circumstances, as we do in our relationships in the real world, including some that are less overtly sexual (this is photography, after all, and our only motive for looking at it is art appreciation).

One artist in particular deserves mention in this category. David Hamilton gets the girls before they're grown up enough for Frederick Smith. Hamilton's famous soft-focus European girl-women seem to be between fourteen and seventeen years of age, which will render his widely available art illegal if Justice Minister Mark MacGuigan's proposed kiddy-porn law (outlawing anything in which the models appear to be younger than eighteen) ever gets passed. Despite their schmaltzy romanticism, or — horrors — because of it, Hamilton's books got relatively high marks from many of the lesbians I polled. Could there be that many lesbian chicken-hawks, I wondered. "Well," said a friend who denies it but might qualify if she were being more honest, "so many of my fantasies are of my own girlhood, I love to remember those first few times, that special feeling of childhood sexual exploration."

Another specialty of the art category, a little harder to find (and, as usual, with only particular appeal) is historical material. Most of what I have seen originated in France and spans the fifty-year period between 1880 and 1930. One fascinating set of photographs is apparently made up of stills from a lesbian s/m film, dated 1900. Drawings have much greater freedom to dictate their reality than do photographs. Distinctions between the real and the simulated disappear, focus is created and the subject of the work is more easily stamped with the feelings of its creator. Enter conjecture. This is the Paris of Natalie Barney and her friends, when struggling lesbian artists and prostitutes picked one another up on the streets of Montmartre. Photographs of Barney's masquerades are every bit as daring as many a French postcard of the day. Many of the photographers and subjects are unknown, with images surviving in private collections. At least some of the drawings are by women. It is impossible to tell if other drawings or photographs might be as well.

It's not just my lack of the necessary historical context that makes it difficult to judge which works are produced by women. Much commercial photography exploits erotic elements to some degree and some of it is certainly produced by women. The work of women professionals, whether in the sex industry, commercial or purely artistic endeavours, is indistinguishable from the work of their male colleagues, if one can judge from Women on Women, an art book celebrating the achievements of a dozen female photographers. Much of it is breathtaking, some of it quite erotic and even funny. But not, strictly speaking, designed to tease and please. It holds out the promise of what might result if the best of talent and technology could be devoted to the noble cause of turning us on.

Lesbian-created porn

Images created by and for lesbians obviously have the greatest potential for turning us on. And yet equally obvious are the limitations of such works. Full-colour glossy pics shot in exotic locations or versatile studios cost a lot of money. Since women in general — and lesbians in particular — have never constituted a market for the sex business, our own erotica comes in the form of low-budget alternative media. Often smaller than a magazine format, always black and white and never with more than a few photos and drawings per volume, most cannot compete in the fantasy scenario-creating department where multiple images, variety of angle and perspective and relative size of image combine to convey plot lines, such as they are, and to create mood.

Unencumbered by the dictates of the market and profit motive, our own alternative porn is not obliged to conform to standard scenarios; nor does it pander to the silliest myths and most dangerous misconceptions about lesbianism. On the other hand, like us, it is pressured by a legacy of disapproval, suppression and denial, and by the accommodations we, as a community, have had to make to that legacy to survive it. And so our erotic imagery, which should be permitted to be daring, to laugh at us, to explore the old limits and surpass them, is always tempted to justify itself by redefining the territory of our erotic lives as safe, respectable, wholesome. Not that it isn't all of these things — some of the time. But it needn't be, to be claimed and celebrated and, above all, to be sexually exciting. Earnest explanations make for self-consciousness, not spontaneity. The subject's conveyed awareness of the camera, and indirectly the viewer, can heighten the power of an image: "I'm not just turned on because I'm doing it with a woman, but also because we're having sex for and with the camera." But more likely the subject seems to say: "This isn't easy." However truthful, it's probably not what you want to hear or see when you have your heart set on being washed away on a tide of countless orgasms.

Our own images are not perfect yet, but they're getting better all the time. The authenticity of most of the sex is beyond dispute and that is not to be sneered at. I know what those tongues are tasting, how those fingers feel, why that back is arched, and so will you. As in so many things, the more we do it the better we get.

The earliest contemporary dyke-generated erotica were probably the how-to manuals. Among the earliest of them were Loving Women and What Lesbians Do. The first edition of Loving Women contained idealized line drawings of lesbians having sex; the second edition used more realistic drawings but it was more concerned with educating than arousing. What Lesbians Do was concerned with education through provocation, which is more susceptible to use as a turn-on. The book relied heavily on bold drawings of uppity cunts. "Why so many cunts?" the introductory page wonders. "Would you ask 'Why so many faces?'" the uppity cunt retorts.

With a good nose for a market, the Joy of people finally followed their two het success stories with The Joy of Lesbian Sex in 1977. It's full of line drawings relieved by imitation Chinese paintings and some passably pleasant pastels.

Not until the 1981 publication of Sapphistry, however, was there anything in this genre that was really worth getting excited about. The book is illustrated with drawings (they must be easier than photographs, or safer, or both) by contemporary lesbian-erotica pioneer Tee Corinne. Each one is a tribute to a woman who produced erotic drawings of women: Mariette Lydis (1894-1970), an Australian-born painter and illustrator; Margit Gaal, an illustrator active around 1921; Gerde Wegner (1885-1940), a Danish artist who worked in Paris; Suzanne Ballivet, who was active around 1945; Leonor Fini (born 1908), a painter who works in Paris; and Clara Tice (1888-1973), an American illustrator. Why have we been deprived of these women and their work all these years? And where can we find out more about them?

Another opportunity lesbians have taken to share sexual experience, information, fantasies and sexually arousing work, written and pictorial, is in a series of anthologies. The 1981 "Sex Issue" of Heresies is feminist and contains both gay and straight material, all of it interesting. My favourite photograph, for no reason I can explain, is "Leg over Cactus."

A Woman's Touch was published in 1979 in Eugene, Oregon. About half of the eighteen photographs are by Tee Corinne. A dozen of the images are line drawings, some fun, some effective.

Coming to Power, writings and graphics on lesbian s/m, is brought to us by Samois, the lesbian-feminist s/m support group based in San Francisco. The new version has been updated and expanded. It includes an even larger selection of photographs and drawings, which seem intent on testing limits — and which work.

Sapphic Touch, a journal of lesbian erotica, began publishing out of San Francisco in 1981. Volume one includes six drawings and nine photographs It's not quite bawdy, but a quirky sense of humour keeps sticking its tongue out at me from odd corners of this volume. As far as I know, no further editions have appeared. (Please say it ain't so.)

No doubt the cost and hassle of production and distribution of the work of individual lesbian erotic artists are usually prohibitive, but several volumes do exist. Tee Corinne's The Cunt Coloring Book (just what it says it is, but unfortunately the name has been laundered in more recent editions — it's now called Labiaflowers) is an old favourite.

Corinne's new book, Yantras of Womanlove, is the most recent, well-produced (by Naiad Press, who else?), predominantly photographic book of lesbian erotic images available. Accompanying a seven-part erotic prose poem by Jacqueline Lapidus, these are no ordinary photographs. The book defines a Yantra as a diagram of energy — energy that is both sexual and spiritual. The photos are solarized (an eerie distortion that blends negative and positive images) and multiplied, like reflections, two or four or more times. The end result is often labial — cunt of cunts. But the viewer has to work to get her jollies, untangling the endlessly entwining thighs to find the single act of tribadism that determines the collage's rhythm.

Do they work, these indisputably artistic and spiritual diagrams? That of course, depends on what turns you on and how you use images to get turned on. Anyone who rejects spiritualism as a legitimizer of sex (as I do) may have difficulty with Yantras. And yet there is a tradition of the worship of sexuality and sensuality that legitimately calls itself spiritual. And Yantras fits as well within this tradition as it does the "this-isn't-lust(dirty)-it's-spiritual(clean)" school of lesbian sex. So much for categories.

The poem (potentially a bad sign for the lusty) does not talk about fruits and flowers, but about tits and clits, more or less:

I lay down naked
on the rock ledge with my buttocks in the tide pool, my
arms and legs outstretched. The women leaned over me.
Their cool fingers stroked my hands and feet, then my
nipples and clitoris. One woman slid her tongue slowly
into my cunt, and I felt a great wave surge through my
entire body.

Another much smaller collaboration is Graphic Details, photographs by Patti Patton and words by Bev Balliet of Phoenix, Arizona. The dozen images are produced on peach-coloured paper with brown ink — nice combination, but with the unfortunate effect of rendering some of the images murky. Nevertheless, the book is an inspiration. Every average-sized lesbian community should be able to produce a work as enticing as these forty-eight pages from "the lewd and lascivious women in Phoenix" who encouraged and shared in this book.

Much lesbian-created sexual imagery doesn't make its way into books, journals or magazines. Early photographs by JEB (Joan E. Biren) appeared on a calendar; the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival has provided mouth-watering material for at least one other wall calendar. Gay and feminist picket calendars have been a staple of the European movements for years, and recent editions are more sexual. The 1983 lesbian agenda from Berlin is chock-full of erotic and provocative graphics, mostly with a new-wave bent. There are always postcards and greetings cards, of course.

And, when all else fails, you can spend your life savings on a camera, some darkroom equipment and a few photography lessons. If you have yet to see something that sends a direct impulse to your joy button, then homemade porn may be the only solution for you — and not a bad one for the rest of us.