THE BODY POLITIC September 1984, No. 106. Chris Bearchell
"I was prepared to see women having sex in public and to enjoy that without worrying about whether I should."
The occasion referred to was a dance, part of Toronto's first lesbian-sexuality conference, held at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), June 8 to 10. It was funded by participants' fees and a grant from the Gay Community Appeal, and organized by Branching Out: Lesbian Cultural Resource Centre. Registration was limited to 200 women; the event included a keynote address by Broadside collective member Susan Cole, as well as 27 workshops spread out over two days.
Several seeks later, in a gloomy, inner-city basement, three anonymous dykes met to trade speculations on Toronto's first lesbian sex conference. They wish to remain anonymous because of their particular perversions and not simply because they are perverts. Each is politically active in part to secure the space to lead a sexual life none is willing to risk the sex she enjoys today by putting it on the line for politics. Their experiences have taught them to fear the censure of their own community, the scrutiny of the forces of authority and the moralistic outrage of the world at large at least as much as the threat of unconsenting sexual violence which was alluded to in the keynote address.
Since talking about sex with lights on is still risky, on behalf of TBP I present some early whispers about tripping the switch, with apologies for what seems sadly necessary defensiveness.
F: The conference was basically a very positive experience, but there seemed to be a lot of difficulty, in some of the workshops, with women unable to talk about sex specifically, explicitly. Partly it's got to do with the fact that we feel vulnerable talking about sexual experiences admitting we have sexual experiences we enjoy. But it's also due to how we use language and what we think words mean.
M: Like the woman who talked about her lover telling her, "Now that this kind of sex is called s/m I don't want to do it any more." Here was a woman who'd been investigating
F: Perversions? Bondage?
M: Whatever. As soon as they named it s/m, she had a massive fear of it, even though she had been enjoying it. It's funny: it seemed in a lot of the discussions women were talking about power and passion, about what I would call s/m, and yet they didn't call it that.
C: Was there a workshop on cruising?
M: There was one on flirting.
F: And one called "Coming On," in which women who identified themselves as "cruisers," as opposed to "cruisees," were deluged by desperate questions from those who didn't feel they could come on to someone.
C: Did you put your hand up as a "cruiser"?
F: Of course I did.
C: Just seeing how honest you were.
F: But of course I couldn't say exactly how I do it. I don't have a set of written rules it's just a matter of attitude.
At one point that discussion involved women who talked I thought rather courageously about how "pillow buddies" or "fuck buddies" got them through times between monogamous relationships. A couple of others just couldn't believe it. "You what? How could you do this?" Then it polarized into a debate over monogamy versus non-monogamy.
C: Can't anyone ever use the word "promiscuous" in a positive way?
F: There was at least one woman who talked about how much she enjoyed picking up different women in bars. There wasn't much said about anonymous sex, but some women talked about wanting it and the possibility of baths was often discussed, although those who wanted them for casual contacts were probably in a minority. Most women seemed to want more than just casual contact why? You could analyze it to death but they still wanted exciting sex.
A number of women said they weren't really satisfied with the sex they were having now; they wanted something more. The women who were satisfied with the sex they were having who thought it was the best sex they'd ever had were women who were into either "rough sex" or s/m. The women who were most pleased with their sexual experiences at the moment wanted lots of toys, hot sex and sex for fun.
M: The more fun they were having, the more they seemed willing to say, too.
C: The introductory issue of the new lesbian-sex magazine On Our Backs has a lot of butch/fem content in it. That's a subject that seems to work as a catalyst in some discussions of lesbian sexuality in the US.
F: Some women at the conference questioned why we had to talk about butch and fem. "Aren't we past that? Haven't we all reached some kind of androgynous middle ground?"
C: Was that challenged?
F: Yes, people were frothing at the mouth.
C: Women who defined themselves as butch or fem? Or people defending it as part of our history?
C: What about intergenerational sex?
F: There were lots of stories about being young and being seduced by an older woman. And then of the dire consequences; there weren't very many happy endings. Dire consequences like not being able to see their beloved any more, or being kicked out of home or school.
C: What aspect of the conference was the biggest turn-on?
M: Actually, for a conference about sex, it was pretty dry except for the dance on Saturday night, where there was an outdoor courtyard; you could be open and raunchy under the night sky in this safe, enclosed space.
F: Yeah, the dance was raunchy. Women were taking clothes off or were into outrageous costumes I really enjoyed it.
M: A lot of women are getting back into dresses
F: And makeup and doing things with their hair, and using glitter. There was lots of leather, different things it was so nice to see women playing with their appearance. More of them could have taken their shirts off, though. I was prepared to see women having sex in public and to enjoy that without worrying about whether I should. But if it happened, I didn't see it. I wondered what these women looked like without clothes.
M: Here we were at a sexuality conference with our clothes on. We vowed to work on that in future conferences.
F: There were these women from Quebec who had developed fascinating ideas of what sex could be. Instead of confining sex to a couple of times a week, they wanted to take the energy generated in sexual encounters between women and percolate it through our entire lives. That's a tremendous amount of energy that could be used to change our lives for the better: orgasm-powered lesbians take over the world.
I was also really impressed with the way the s/m workshop was handled. I don't remember the rest of the conference as well as I should because of all the energy expended anticipating that Sunday-afternoon session.
M: Going to the workshop was a real focus for us. Right up until it started we had qualms about it. We'd each come up with our little monologue for non-s/m women we figured they would be there to heckle about how they were not supporting our right to our own space. We were ready to tell them to get out and leave us alone. It was so nice to get there and find out it wasn't necessary: the organizers had anticipated the problem and the workshop was "closed" restricted to women for whom it was personally relevant. There were about 20 of us, some novices but no tourists, and other women really respected that it was closed.
F: It's possible that the conference organizers actually learned something about s/m, to be able to go through the changes to make the break from the way it's always been handled to understanding it the way they did. Or they maybe were just being another form of politically correct "All right, we'll let you have your space" it's impossible to tell. But the important thing is that what came out in that workshop was much more than I had expected. It was a positive experience: a feeling out of who was there, what they were doing, starting to trust each other, taking stock of allies. Out of that came a statement to the closing plenary (which wasn't plagued by endless resolutions you know, "be it resolved to have more orgasms") about how nerve-wracking it had been for all of us to come to the conference expecting to be trashed. And, best of all, there was the idea for an ongoing support system.
There were a couple of times during the conference when I found myself getting aroused by what someone was saying or intimating, or by the way a woman looked. But it was only a few instances. I had this idea in the back of my mind, "I'm here to get turned on, so turn me on. I paid my money; let's go." I expressed this to a couple of women who asked, "Really? You expected that to happen? Wow." Nobody comes to a lesbian sexuality conference to get turned on, right?
It was typical in a lot of ways. I wasn't quite satisfied, I wanted more but it was a great tease.