I did not expect, either, that in less than 40 years after the Second World War, when knowledge about the holocaust should still have been priming minds to recognise antisemitism as a problem, it would be eroticised in the practice of sadomasochism by lesbians and gay men. But this was what happened. In 1984, the confrontation between the sadomasochists and lesbian feminists came to a head around the London Lesbian and Gay Centre (LLGC). The Centre, which officially opened in 1985 and closed six years later as a result of internal wrangling over a different issue, was well funded by the Greater London Council which considered itself to be fulfilling its responsibilities to lesbians and gay men. They neither knew nor cared that the interests of lesbians and gay men were likely to be in direct conflict because the men would promote male sexuality and the lesbians would seek to escape from its thrall. The result was conflict from the start. SM Dykes put in an application for meeting space and the management committee was forced to embark upon a fraught dispute as to whether this should be allowed. The gay men saw no problem with it and by this stage of the development of male gay culture and politics, sadomasochism had been normalised as the dominant form of male gay sex. As I argued in much of my work, gay men were as likely as women to have a masochistic sexuality because they were forced by a gay-hating, patriarchal culture to see themselves as inferior in relation to real, macho, dominant, masculine men and therefore in some way as ‘feminine’. Masochism dominated their porn and their culture, from Tom of Finland to the costumes of the pop group, Village People as I describe in my 2003 book, Unpacking Queer Politics.
In response to the encroachment of sadomasochism at the LLGC, some of us formed a group called LASM (Lesbians Against Sadomasochism) to encourage other lesbian feminists to join the Centre to fight against the development, and to protect the integrity of the whole floor that was women-only. Lesbian feminists wanted the lesbian floor to be for the enjoyment of all lesbians including those who did not want to be confronted by the stigmata of eroticised cruelty. LASM’s position statement in a leaflet titled ‘What is this big fuss about sadomasochism?’, explained the lesbian feminist objections to the practice, “Sadomasochistic sex is the eroticisation of power, pain and humiliation in a relationship based on domination and submission. It glorifies the very oppressions many people are trying to struggle against.” A special meeting of members was arranged in order to vote on whether the SM Dykes should have space at the centre. Many lesbians brought their children to the debate to illustrate the need to make the centre a space in which their children would not have to see handcuffs. A group calling itself, North London Lesbian Mothers Group, wrote a letter to the LLGC explaining these concerns. It said that they did not want to bring their children to a place where, ‘tolerance’ means “the freedom to oppress others; where it’s considered fine to wear dog collars or Nazi uniforms.” They pointed out that a child custody dispute with an ex-husband which lesbians were not at that time likely to win, would not be aided by a statement that the mother “took child to gay Nazi club.”
A central problem of discussing sexuality politically became clear in the debate. Arguments about equality, male domination and racism were drowned out every time a speaker stood up to describe sexual practices that turned them on, because many members of the audience would then vote with their groins instead of their reason. The vast majority of the gay men present voted in favour of SM meetings at the Centre along with a small group of lesbians who were mostly therapists and alternative health practitioners committed to a broad non-judgmental liberalism. The vast majority of the lesbians who were present voted against, but we were outnumbered. As a result, many lesbian feminists determined to ‘girlcott’ the Centre thenceforth. We heard at the time that the sadomasochists involved with the Centre were receiving advice and support from a European gay men’s leather organisation called ‘Spreadeagle’, which promised to enable a legal challenge had the lesbian feminists been successful in excluding SM practitioners. The fascist associations were alarmingly clear to us.
For the rest of the 1980s, lesbian sadomasochists fought feminist politics and acted to disrupt feminist marches, campaigns and activities. They drew their strength from the fact that ‘progressive’ male, sexual freedom politics loved them. Malestream and Lefty newspapers and magazines promoted them, such as City Limits, Time Out, Gay Left, The Guardian, all of which considered lesbians in black leather chaps much more interesting than feminists in jeans and T-shirts. Occasionally, lesbian feminists got the chance to reply but it was clear where the sympathies of ‘progressive’ male dominance lay. In 1986, the sadomasochists set up a ‘debate’ with lesbian feminists, i.e. me and Linda Bellos, at Wesley House, the London Women’s centre. I arrived intending to speak but withdrew on seeing a large group of lesbians dressed in black leather dismounting from motorbikes at the entrance. Linda went on to speak and found the inability of attendees to understand why wearing swastikas could be seen as antisemitic most disturbing. We later heard that some of those attending the ‘debate’ abused Black women users of Wesley House as they passed them on the stairs on the way up to the meeting.
On another occasion, a group of us met to discuss how to deal with the SM activism which was putting so much of what we had gained in peril. As the meeting got underway at A Woman’s Place, twelve women in black leather entered. They told us that we had no right to discuss sadomasochism without them and they intended to ensure that we could never do so. One effect of SM activism was to bring to an end, in 1987, the Lesbian Strength marches that had been set up for lesbians who felt increasingly unwelcome at the Gay Pride marches that served gay men and were exhibitions of gay male culture. The sadomasochists insisted on bringing their banners promoting the practice and making their presence felt, and this made the continuation of what had been a lesbian feminist event untenable. The issue of whether women should be admitted to events such as discos at the end of marches, whilst wearing sadomasochist costumes, became salient at this time. Lesbian feminists organising events tended to impose a ‘dress code’ which had to be checked at the door as women arrived. We had been so committed to and enthralled by the creation of an alternative world for women based on equality in personal and political life, that the dashing of our dreams by SM activists created crisis and huge distress as well as controversy that split groups and friendship networks.
I started writing about lesbian sadomasochism in response to the SM movement. I wrote a piece called ‘Sadomasochism: the erotic cult of fascism’ which explored the racist and fascist symbolism and practice involved in SM. It was published in the US journal Lesbian Ethics in 1986. I was observing and hearing about numerous incidents in London in which skinheads associated with protofascist organisations attacked gay men, including a disabled gay man, in clubs, particularly in the bathrooms where they could not be observed. I have a series of reports in my archive from gay organisations describing the attacks and the necessity to move or close community discos because of them. The excitements of fascism were not just cerebral or confined to the bedroom, but included serious violence in the gay community. I argued in my article that SM fantasies were the result of growing up and learning love and sex under oppression and concluded the article with the stirring rallying call:
We can fight back against all the pressures that encourage us to love the boot that will kick us into submission. We can decide not to conduct a romance with our oppressors. We can have a sexuality which is integrated into our politics of resistance and not into our oppression.
This piece became the afterword of my third book, The Lesbian Heresy, in 1993.
There was little awareness amongst gay men that sadomasochism which eroticised real life political oppression was a problem. I remember going to a ‘Gay Workshop’, one of a series of discussions organised by the Gay Left around this time. The workshop showed a movie about sadomasochism in which a man in black leather urinated into a gutter and ordered another man to lick it up. When I protested, I was met with real surprise. What, the organiser asked, was the problem because this was all about fantasy and no one could be hurt by that. The point of the practice of SM, however, was precisely to hurt. Practitioners did not just act out symbolic scenarios based on misogyny, fascism, slavery, and racism. They went much further than purely psychological punishment and included cutting and piercing with knives and razors and breast cutting in the case of lesbians. The magazines that promoted the practice, such as On Our Backs from the United States, suggested action plans for what could be done. Lesbian SM parties, for instance, might include many different scenarios taking place simultaneously such as a woman having the bottoms of her feet beaten, alongside routine sexual humiliation and blood sports.
Those of us who were fighting against sadomasochism at the time were concerned that the SM Dykes targeted young and vulnerable lesbians, often those with experience of sexual violence in childhood, and wooed them with attention until they were prepared to attend the SM club Chain Reaction and take part in activities there. One young woman who came to stay with my partner Ann and I in 1987 explained how she was targeted and what went on in the club. She was required to engage in ‘dirty dancing’ with other women, and at some point throw them against the wall so that it hurt. As she did more of this activity she was ‘blooded’ into the cultlike community of sadomasochists. Instead of receiving support for the traumas of male violence, often incest, that the young women had suffered, they were embroiled in practices of humiliating other women which offered no solutions for their problems.
At some point after the development of the Internet in the late 1990s, I was surprised to find that a story had been concocted and circulated that I had gone to Chain Reaction with a group of cronies armed with baseball bats and beaten up women attendees. That never happened of course, and I did not even know where Chain Reaction was, but it is an interesting example of the way in which I was set up as a kind of conscience of the movement. On another occasion, a dance took place in a Town Hall at which women wore very gendered clothing such as tuxedos and ballgowns. I did not go to it, and in fact was out to dinner with a friend. I immediately heard rumours that I had been there, that I arrived, got a glimpse of the costuming and left in high dudgeon. Those creating the rumour were right, I would not have felt comfortable at the occasion because of my views on lesbian roleplaying. But I suspect that at the root of such rumours about me lay a deep anxiety on the part of the practitioners about the ethics and politics of what they were engaged in. Their concerns were projected on to me as a way of coping with their own internal conflicts, creating an external ethical authority whom they could get angry with.
In more recent decades, sadomasochism has become less niche and ‘revolutionary’, so that it is now a staple not just of gay porn but of heterosexual porn. The practices which might once have seemed daringly liberating such as cutting and piercing, anal sex, choking and humiliation have become malestream in films such as Fifty Shades of Grey, to the extent that women are suffering serious injury such as incontinence caused by damaged anal sphincters. All of this has taken place alongside a burying of the feminist radical/revolutionary critique so that any idea at present of the need for an egalitarian sexuality is likely to seem exotic and alien, as well as just anti-sex and prudish. In July 2019, UK Women’s Aid provided figures to show that one woman was strangled to death by her partner every two weeks, and the murderers regularly use a ‘rough sex’ defence, i.e. the woman really wanted to be choked and things just went too far. We were entirely right to struggle against sadomasochism but we failed, and it has been malestreamed.
Extract from Trigger Warning by Sheila Jeffreys by kind permission of Spinifex Press.
Trigger Warning is available to buy from Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Trigger-Warning-Lesbian-Feminist-Life-ebook/dp/B08CK6PJYF/ref=sr_1_2 qid=1613383449&refinements=p_27%3ASheila+Jeffreys&s=books&sr=1-2