A Vision of Lesbian Sexuality

by Janice Raymond

Published in All The Rage: Reasserting Radical Lesbian Feminism, Lynne Harne & Elaine Miller, Editors (Teachers College Press, New York, 1996), pp. 227-230.

Mary Daly has outlined several elements of radical feminism (Daly 1984 pp. 397-8; Daly 1987 p 75). In a similar fashion, I would highlight several commonly held values of lesbian feminism that allow us to say we again. If we are lesbian feminists, we have clear and present knowledge that the boys, and some of the girls, are not going to like us, and that we just might run into trouble along the way.

If we are lesbian feminists, we are radically different from what the hetero-society wants us to be. It is not a fake difference, but a real difference. For example, lesbian sexuality is different, rooted in the lesbian imagination. It is not the same old sexuality that women must submit to in hetero-reality. It is not pornography, it is not butch and femme, and it is not bondage and domination. It is, for one thing, a sexuality that is imagination rooted in reality. As Andrea Dworkin has written, ‘Imagination is not a synonym for sexual fantasy…’ Fantasy can only conjure up a scripted bag of tricks that are an endless repetition of heterosexual conformist practices. ‘Imagination finds new meanings, new forms, values and acts. The person with imagination is pushed forward by it into a world of possibility and risk, a distinct world of meaning and choice’ (Dworkin 1987 p 48), not into the heterosexual junkyard of lesbian libertarian and lifestyle activities that get recycled to women as fantastic goods. Lesbian lifestylism puts fantasy in place of imagination. Have you ever noticed how everyone talks about their fantasies and not about imagination?

If we are lesbian feminists, we feel and act on behalf of women as women. Lesbian feminism is not a one-issue movement. It makes connections between all issues that affect women—not only what affects this particular group, class, nationality, and not only what affects lesbians. We feel and act for all women because we are women, and even if we were the last ones to profess this, we would still be there for women.

If we are lesbian feminists, we keep going, even when it’s not popular. Even when it’s not rewarded. Not just yesterday. Not just today. Not just a couple of hours on the weekend. Lesbian feminism is a way of life, a way of living for our deepest Selves and for other women.

And those who think the objectification, subordination and violation of women is acceptable just as long as you call it lesbian erotica or lesbian sado-masochism—they’re not lesbian feminists. And those who think that it’s acceptable in the privacy of their own bedrooms, where they enjoy it, where they get off on it—especially sexually—they’re not lesbian feminists either. As Mary Daly has said, they’re lesbians "from the waist down."

And to those who say, how dare we define what feminism means, I say—if we don’t define what feminism means, what does feminism mean?

For years, we fought against the depiction of lesbians in hetero-pornography. We said, ‘That’s not us in those poses of butch and femme role-playing. That’s not the way we make love. That’s not us treating each other as sadists or masochists. That’s not us bound by those chains, with those whips, and in those male fantasies of what women do with other women. That’s a male wet dream of what a lesbian is and what lesbians do,’ we said. And we didn’t only say it. We fought it. So now what happens. We have lesbian pornography appearing in US ‘women’s’ porn mags such as Bad Attitude and On Our Backs. And we have the FACT Brief. And all of this ‘feminist and lesbian literature’ tells us that straight pornography, that hetero-pornography, is right. We are butches and femmes, we are sadists and masochists, and we do get off on doing violence to each other. We’ve come full circle—unfortunately back to the same negative starting point.

So I want to end by talking about a vision and a context for lesbian sexuality. For those who want how-to-do-it guidelines, this ending will be a great disappointment. I want to suggest what sexuality might look like rooted in lesbian imagination, not in the hetero-fantasies of lesbian pornography. This is a vision, a context, an end note that is really a beginning.

This vision of sexuality includes the ‘ability to touch and be touched.’ But more, a touch that makes contact, as James Baldwin has phrased it. Andrea Dworkin, building on those words of Baldwin, writes about sexuality as the act, the point of connection, where touch makes contact if self-knowledge is present. It is also the act, the point of connection, where the inability of touch to make contact is revealed and where the results may be devastating. In sexuality, intimacy is always possible, as much as we say that sex is sex—that is, simple pleasure. In sexuality, a range of emotions about life get expressed, however casual or impersonal the intercourse—feelings of betrayal, rage, isolation, and bitterness as well as hope, joy, tenderness, love, and communion (Dworkin 1987 pp. 47-61). All, although not all together, reside in this passion we call sexuality. Sexuality is where these emotions become accessible or anesthetized. A whole human life does not stand still in sex.

Libertarian and lesbian lifestylism simplifies the complexity of that whole human life that is present in the sex act. Abandoning that totality—that history, those feelings, those thoughts—allows for wildfire but not for passion. ‘All touch but no contact…’ (Baldwin 1962 p 82).

Passion, of course, allows for love. Its possibility, not its inevitability. Passion is a passage between two people. Love is an extension of that passage. Passion can become love, but not without the openness to it. Sex as passion, and perhaps as love, not merely as wildfire, is a radical experience of being and becoming, of excavating possibilities within the self surely, and within another perhaps, that have been unknown.

I began this talk by stating that, although the lesbian lifestylers talk about sex constantly, they are speechless about its connection to a whole human life, and, therefore, they are speechless about sex itself. The presence of a whole human life in the act of sexuality negates any reductionistic view of sex as good or bad, sheer pleasure or sheer perversion. Dworkin reminds us that when sex is getting even, when sex is hatred, when sex is utility, when sex is indifferent, then sex is the destroying of a human being, another person perhaps, assuredly one’s self. Sex is a whole human life rooted in passion, in flesh. This whole human life is at stake always.

This extract is taken from Putting the Politics Back Into Lesbianism which was originally a talk given at the Lesbian Summer School at Wesley House, London, July 1988. It was later published in Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol 12, pp. 149-56, USA 1989.


Baldwin, J. Giovanni’s Room. (Penguin, London, 1990).

Daly, M. Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy. (Women’s Press, London, 1984).

Daly, M. in cahoots with Jane Caputi. Webster’s First New Intergalactic Wickedary. (Women’s Press, London, 1988).

Dworkin, A. Intercourse. (Secker & Warburg, London, 1987).

FACT (Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce et al), Brief Amici Curiae, no. 84-3147 1985. In the US Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit, Southern District of Indiana.