PASSION, POLITICS, AND POLITICALLY INCORRECT SEX: TOWARDS A HISTORY OF LESBIAN SADOMASOCHISM IN THE USA 1975-1993
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This thesis is an exploration of the largely underexamined history of lesbian sadomasochism (SM) in the United States between the mid-1970s, when the first organised lesbian feminist SM groups were founded, and 1993, by which time public debates about lesbian SM were becoming less visible. I engage with feminist discourses around lesbian SM within the so-called feminist sex wars of the 1980s, tracing the sometimes dramatic rise to prominence of lesbian SM as a feminist issue. Entwined in this web of controversy, I assert, is the story of a perceived fundamental split in the feminist movement between those who believed SM was patriarchal, abusive and violent, and those who saw it as a consensual expression of sexual freedom and liberation. This thesis draws upon extensive original archival research, and contains close readings of letters to the editor from lesbian publications and sex magazines of the time, as well as and the personal papers of key figures and organisations, such as Dorothy Allison (founder of the lesbian SM support group LSM) and Shelix (a woman-to-woman SM group in Northampton, MA). My study charts the trials and tribulations of lesbian feminists, anti-pornography feminists, and lesbian sadomasochists of different stripes in 1980s America as they grappled with notions of identity, desire, consent and how exactly to best embody the classic feminist statement that the personal is political. I show that new, related identities of “lesbian sadomasochist” and “pro-sex feminist” emerged during the “sex wars” through conflicts over what makes a “good” feminist and a “good” lesbian.