THE BODY POLITIC November 1984, No. 108. Chris Bearchell
"I want them harder." My body hears and flesh changes form. Her fingers squeeze my nipples and I do not drop my eyes. The pain is sweet: it destroys the years of numbness. I want her to squeeze harder. The message is exchanged in silence and her hands take fuller control of my breasts."
"The Gift of Taking,"
by Joan Nestle, in On Our Backs
If Penthouse's tasteful shots of Vanessa Williams in the buff and making it with another woman don't provide you with enough incentive to come out as a lesbian porn-consumer, take heart you may get another chance, courtesy of two new publications.
The San Francisco-based On Our Backs, printed in black and white on high-quality paper in a 48-page magazine format, bills itself as "entertainment for the adventurous lesbian." Hot on OOB's heels comes Boston's Bad Attitude (as in "Young lady, you've got a "), an uppity 12-page newsprint tabloid. Both aim to be more or less quarterly and both promise to be provocative to turn on, rather than preach at, their audiences. A number of friends who are fans of fiction-to-get-off-by give them both top marks.
"She found my clit and began moving back and forth. A gasp escaped my mouth and I opened my legs wider. Her middle finger slipped in past the soft outer lips so gently at first I didn't feel it. Then she pushed inside and I felt the dam burst. I opened my mouth and tried to swallow my screams of pleasure. Ella's tongue filled me and sucked me up with joy." "A Piece of Time"
by Jewelle Gomez, in On Our Backs
I talked to OOB publisher Debbi Sundahl the day after she'd put the Fall 1984 issue, the second, to bed. She explained that it took her and her colleagues nine months to launch the magazine and that they had been inspired to take up the project "by the way the anti-porn analysis of sex that is so prevalent in the lesbian and feminist press was stuck on the victimization aspects of sex and was unwilling or unable to go beyond that to exploring and celebrating the positive aspects of sexuality." She says she's not personally that happy the magazine's name is a parody of the feminist publication off our backs, although she acknowledges it's a clever joke. But she shares her staff's determination to "differentiate ourselves from that style of lesbian publishing" no boring polemics for OOB.
The closest thing the magazine has to a predecessor is the now-defunct journal Sapphic Touch, which published only one issue in 1979. Sundahl sees OOB as part of the same tradition one that "includes such things as the Samois [lesbian-feminist s/m group] book Coming to Power, the ex issue of [the feminist cultural journal] Heresies and the Barnard [Feminist and the Scholar] Conference on Sexuality." It's a movement that has questioned many of our preconceptions about the relationship between sex and power issuing a challenge that has sent many people scurrying for cover.
In Toronto, and probably elsewhere, On Our Backs has the honour of continuing the tradition. When a preview issue of the magazine was received at the Toronto Women's Bookstore, the staff, who had been worried by complaints in the store's suggestion box about Coming to Power, met to discuss what their policy should be on "s/m material." After reviewing a line of greeting cards, OOB and two lesbian s/m newsletters, The Power Exchange and Outrageous Women (Bad Attitude is still available here only by subscription), they issued the statement that accompanies this article. While the statement doesn't describe the nature of the material examined, bookstore owner Patti Kirk explained to TBP that the cards and publications are now on the store's prohibited list, and that Coming to Power, which the store has sold since it came out, "is still under review." In not explaining what material was under consideration, the statement is particularly misleading for instance, the concerns about racism and the commercial exploitation of women were only in reference to the greeting cards." Kirk says the store won't be carrying On Our Backs because of its s/m bent and because of its ad content.
"She felt small and alone in the middle of the room; her cheeks burning, her crotch aching painfully. Their eyes slithered up her body and made her shudder. Straining for her breath she hissed in a soft whisper, 'Well, butchy, are you a gentleman or just a punk in drag?'"
by Fanny Fatale, in On Our Backs.
"The s/m content in this issue was really minimal, according to my definition of s/m," OOB's Sundahl sighed, "but our focus is on getting OOB out to those women who want it rather than putting energy into convincing those who are hesitant; we hope the magazine itself will do the convincing for us, and that it will contribute to a climate where women will feel freer to express themselves sexually."
Unlike the women at the Toronto Women's Bookstore, most of the women I consulted were favourably impressed by the number and type of ads in OOB ads for leather gear; dildos; sensuous soaps; erotic videos, prints and comic books; a bar that features lesbian strip shows; sex workshops; oils and lubricants; vibrators including a fuckable duck; books; organizations; sexologists; graphic artists. And the beginnings of a promising classified section.
The OOB women figure their detractors would prefer to be protected from the reality conveyed by the ads; that there are a lot of businesses owned by lesbians or women, or oriented to women, that support the idea of a lesbian sex magazine and are part of the sex industry themselves. "They've never had a place to advertise before," says Sundahl. "This magazine speaks for, and reaches, a part of the lesbian population that has been silenced or censored until now."
Of the hundreds of letters and calls On Our Backs has received, only one has been hostile and moralistic. But while they haven't yet received much of the criticism they expected, reader response has not been uniform, either. Fanny Fatale's short story "Phantom Knights" is probably one of the most controversial pieces in the magazine. In it, three dykes on gay (a butch who likes butches), one straight (a fem who likes butches) and one bi (a butch who likes either) get together for a mad threesome. One woman I talked to found it pornographic because it "reinforced stereotypes of women and used sex to keep women in their place." Sundahl called it a "particularly sophisticated piece of butch-fem writing" and said that about half of those readers who reacted to it liked it, while the other half didn't like it or didn't understand it. OOB's only limits, in terms of acceptable subject matter, are those imposed by law.
"She kept a finger in my asshole and pushed the dildo inside of me. I felt the fullness and moaned even louder. She began to move the dildo, and her finger, in and out of me waiting for my moans each time. She also placed a finger on my clit and soon I could not tell what she was touching or where. All I knew was that my cunt was burning up."
by Lavender Ties, in Bad Attitude
Like On Our Backs, Bad Attitude is a forum for otherwise silenced lesbians. It contains fiction, features, poetry and photographs. The two short stories of definitely pass the wet test. But, from their first issue, sex-related features seem to be BA's forté.
In "A Dyke in the Combat Zone," Peggy Morgan, who works Boston's strip and prostitution circuit, asks, "Is a naked woman in high heels and make-up inherently more degrading than a woman in a designer suit and high heels and make-up? What sets the nude woman apart? I don't trust any discussion of pornography that does not also include extensive discussion of other cultural images of women."
Venetia Porter, in "The Complex Maze," writes, "I am a black lesbian. My power is inherent and indivisible. What I want from the world is what my slave sisters wanted. Freedom. Does that word turn you on? Oh good." A Jewish dyke in search of her heritage, a lesbian behind bars and the two editors themselves are among the other voices in the first issue's provocative, sometimes experimental and sometimes sexy non-fiction.
Both BA and OOB contain poetry, which seems to have gone unnoticed by all the women I canvassed for opinions on the two magazines, but I found some of it, in each periodical, quite effectively erotic. In the humour department, OOB includes a comic strip and a piece of satire; Bad Attitude is generally funnier in tone, though. There are more and more explicit photographs in OOB. But BA get the award for the riskiest photo (if comments I've collected are representative), for a shot of a knife blade through a ring piercing a nipple. My own reaction to Bad Attitude is that it is cruder, more irreverent and more defiant than almost anything I've ever seen before, and that makes it just plain delightful.
"In one movement I turned, tripped her forward and sloshed my hand into the KY vat. I fell down behind her and quickly worked three fingers into her asshole. She cried out from the pressure, but when I pulled them out her greedy asshole begged for more. Two fingers slipped easily in and out. I worked her ass for a while, massaging her inner thighs with my other hand. I reached under her to caress her clit and forced my two fingers up her ass as far as felt comfortable. Debbie moaned and I just rested my two fingers inside her, feeling the blood vessels dilate. A shiver ran up my spine taking her pulse from four inches up her ass thrilled me, I wanted to become her, I wanted to stop thinking."
(Where Debbie Learns the Finer Points of Journalism),
by Cindy Patton, in Bad Attitude
Bad Attitude's Amy Hoffman confesses that the gay and feminist press's timidity in dealing with controversy about sex in our own movements led her to the following editrix fantasy: "the phone rings; it's Ms magazine; the voice on the other end begs me, 'We'll give you a year and all the money you need, just make this rag interesting.'" Hoffman and co-editor Cindy Patton are both on the staff of Gay Community News, which was the first mixed gay group Hoffman was involved with. She and other women who joined GCN at about the same time saw their challenge as "educating the faggots" about sexism. "Something else happened as well," she writes, "although in my righteousness I was embarrassed to admit it at first: the gay men were also educating me, especially through their enthusiastic, open discussions of sex." The reciprocal influence seems to have been a fruitful process that included the production of the pilot issue of Bad Attitude with the assistance of Boston's radical gay-male magazine, Fag Rag.
"The contributors to Bad Attitude," writes editor Patton, "are taking a big chance in sharing their secret feelings and articulating, criticizing and analyzing what they may be afraid to discuss at the average lesbian pot luck supper. I believe that out of these renegade voices we can reach a better appreciation of and respect for the richness of our diverse sexualities."
"With the advent of On Our Backs," proclaims San Francisco's Bay Area Reporter, "a new era in lesbian publishing has begun." OOB's editors say the most common comment they've received so far is that "it's long overdue." The feeling seems to be widespread indeed.
There can be no doubt that these projects are and will be politically stimulating. The real test, of course, will be whether they grab enough women by the clit to keep them coming back for more. Although I'm positive I won't be able to wait three months between treats, I, for one, am already hooked.
But not at the Toronto Women's Bookstore
September 28, 1984
Dear friends at The Body Politic:
The process of making decisions for a feminist bookstore is often difficult and fraught with many political considerations. To define who our customers are and how we can best meet their needs is much more complicated than it might appear. One would think that when ordering books our guiding criteria is simple: if it is a feminist book, carry it; if it is anti-feminist or anti-woman, don't carry it. This general rule serves us 90 per cent of the time.
Recently new material that is best described as lesbian pro-sadomasochistic has arrived at our store. After reviewing this material carefully, we found it to be anti-feminist, anti-woman, anti-Semitic and racist. The material often utilizes traditional pornographic format in that it stereotypes women as enjoying violence and degradation and perpetuates an industry that exploits all women. This tendency brought home to us the fact that not every idea thought by a feminist is indeed a feminist idea. We as a bookstore will not promote the commercialized exploitation of women. We currently feel that the material that we have been asked to carry fits into this category.
Decisions made in this store are not carved in store. Our process are not carved in stone. Our process is continuous and is affected by community response. As a feminist bookstore it is our responsibility to consider your opinion regarding our position. However, the ability of those of us at the front desk to effectively respond to your verbal comments is limited. The best vehicle for your ideas is a letter so that all of us will have the opportunity to consider them. Please address any correspondence to: The Toronto Women's Bookstore, 73 Harbord St., Toronto, Ontario M5S 1G4.
The women at the Toronto Women's Bookstore
This letter is not to be edited.