Sunday, 13 March 2011

The gift of the femme: exchange and reciprocity in butch-femme sex

For example, this paper that I gave at the femme conference a few months ago..

I had my first sexual encounter when I was 17; I think the boy was 18.  He was a nice enough young man: obviously he knew nothing about sex or relationships, but neither did I, so we were well-matched in that regard.  And I remember afterwards, he asked, ‘did you come?’
I looked at him in amazement.  
I was very excited, because I’d attained this signifier of desirability that seemed terribly important at the time.  But it was hardly an erotic experience.  In fact, it was as much as I could manage not to laugh, which I thought might make him feel bad.  ‘’  I replied.  Being clearly less sensitive to that possibility, he asked,
‘Why not?’
His question, probably well-meaning and innocent, nonetheless, in its very asking, positioned my experience as aberrant and deficient.  This set the tone for my sexuality and a sexual career which, while hardly prolific, has over the last 25 years taken me around a world of straight, lesbian and queer genders and sexualities, with their various mores and discourses – a time in which so much has changed, and yet so little.
A third of that time was spent with or, more often, in the vain pursuit of, femmes, which is obviously who I’m interested in talking about today.  I’m interested in the delicate sexual ethics of butch femme relationships, particularly between stone butches and femmes - a subject around which there is virtually no discussion in Australia.  I’m interested in changing that, because I think that some people stand to benefit from that discussion.
In saying that, obviously I’m acutely aware of the context in which I write.  Much of this social context should go without saying here but it’s worth remembering that we live in a society which remains profoundly sexist and homophobic, and that the lesbian and queer communities that my experience is based in are products of that society.  Lesbian and queer communities are not immune to sexism and homophobia or transphobia (or racism, for that matter), though these often take different forms and find their expression in relation to different issues. 
Lesbian and queer cultures and communities are marginalised in the broader community, and butches and femmes are marginalised within both straight and non-straight  communities.  That said, I think it’s obvious that the relationship of butches, transmen and femmes to both the heterosexual community and to GLBT communities is very different.  I don’t think I’ve ever met a femme, for example, who doesn’t carry some level of anger about her invisibility as a lesbian.  They tell me, often quite eloquently, of having to come out as a lesbian over and over, including, and most painfully, to other lesbians.  By contrast, I haven’t come out to anyone since I was 19.  The concept is simply irrelevant to my life: everyone that I meet – straight or otherwise - assumes that I’m a butch dyke, and my experience is that most of them will continue in that assumption regardless of what I say, do, or even who or how I fuck.  This is because those assumptions are primarily attached to gender than to sexuality per se.  The L Word aside, the dominant reading of any butch woman remains that she is a lesbian, and the de facto expectation of any lesbian is that she will be butch. 
One of the effects of this is a recurring erasure of, or hostility towards butch-femme relationships.  I’ve talked to an awful lot of lesbians and I don’t have any illusions about their attitudes towards butch-femme relationships, which tend to range from a benign ignorance at best to outright contempt at worst.  It’s important to emphasise that I’m referring here to categories of self-identification: many – probably most - people who I might consider to be butch or femme or trans don’t identify themselves that way and they’re often actively hostile to such an identification.  That’s entirely their prerogative, but I think the reluctance to identify speaks to the power of negative perceptions of these categories and more importantly, to their interests as they perceive them.  They don't see butch as a positive thing – why they should identify as butch, for example – and they don't see anything in it for them; it won't help them to pull a root, among other things. 
In this context, it's hardly surprising that those who do identify with these categories rarely choose to talk about themselves in public forums, and even less about the messy and fraught subject of sex.  This is not helped by the silence of one of the parties to that discussion, the butch.  Given the prominent place that the butch dyke occupies in the popular imagination of the lesbian, I find this deeply ironic.  Though the butch is the de facto figure of what constitutes a lesbian in western culture, she is curiously silent on the subject of sex. 
Now, I think there’s a whole range of reasons for this but there’s a couple that I’d like to speak to here.  The first is the strange gendering of butch as not quite male and not quite female; a gendering that works to silence butches.  Butches, in my experience, are usually too macho to talk about sex in a serious way; that would make them vulnerable.  Moreover, it’s not ‘respectful’ to talk about the ladies; an imperative that often doesn’t seem to apply in reverse.  So it’s usually the chicks who do the talking, if there’s any to be done. On this point, I recently had cause to re-read Leslie Feinberg’s novel ‘Stone Butch Blues’, a book that is often lionised in butch-femme communities.  Being written from the perspective of its butch/trans hero, ‘Stone Butch Blues’ would seem to go against my argument in this regard.  It includes a number of sex scenes which the various femme characters enjoy fulsomely at the tender hands of the butch hero, Jess.  But Jess doesn’t get off once in that book.  Whether that’s because Jess is above such base needs, or just doesn’t like to talk about it, I don’t know, but I couldn’t help thinking, ‘God, no wonder he has the blues’. 
The other issue, which I think is the most important, is the pathologising of stone sex.  This is pervasive and I’ve never talked to a stone who wasn’t deeply affected by it in some way, whether they were wreathed in shame and self-hatred or just carrying a dirty big secret.  I’ve never heard anyone, for example, adopt the subject position of ‘stone’ in a public forum in this country, and they are usually pretty reticent in private, too.  And why would they, when many lesbians – particularly those under 35 – don’t even know what the term refers to and even if they do, they understand it solely in terms of pathology.  Must be something wrong with them.  I remember talking to a dyke once who said, quite unprompted, ‘stone butches?  I’ve got one word for them: therapy.’  Charming. 
Stone butches have an honourable history in lesbian culture and while butches aren’t the only people in the world who are stone (femmes and straight people can and do identify as stone, though it’s rare), it’s fundamentally a butch thing.  Without butches, the concept of stone would not have emerged.  It’s not, in my experience, much of a trans thing.  This is based on my completely dodgy sample of the people I talk to, I might add.  While some female-identifying butches are stone, and male-identifying butches often seem to be, very few trannyboys who are on T seem to be stone. Whether this is because transguys come from a different group, or transitioning changes the way that people feel about sex, or a shot of testosterone every fortnight makes you so horny that you just can't help yourself, I really have no idea. 
Now, I identified as stone for a long time and it was one of the most liberating periods of my life, because it was the first time that I had any kind of language with which to talk about my desire and my experience of sex that didn’t come straight from a psychology textbook.  But it pretty soon goes there, because of the kind of pervasive pathologising that I just referred to.  And it gets worse if you’re stone and you’d rather not be, because all roads out of stone tend to lead to the shrink’s office.  In making light of this, I really don’t want to trivialise the experience of people in those situations, at all.  It’s really hard shit that causes some people a lot of distress, and I’ve been one of them.
Much of this distress would be unnecessary if stone sex itself wasn’t so pathologised.  People can be stone or not, and cool with that or not, for whatever reason, but the ruling assumption of lesbian culture, that there is something wrong with stone sex, simply does not follow.  There’s something wrong with it, I’m told, because it’s not 'equal’, which is the word that comes up almost every time. 
Now, I don’t know what equality might mean in the context of sex but after hearing this about 500 times I think I have a pretty good idea about what it means to the people who say it, and that’s something about repetition.  Like, I fuck you and then you fuck me, I go down on you so then you go down on me.  We take turns in giving each other pleasure and we both enjoy it and if not, why not?  I have had sex like this in my time, but it wasn’t memorable enough for me to write about here.  I do remember that question, though, because I’d heard it before.
There’s something rather repugnant about the attitudes that this simplistic ethic of ‘equality’ generates. These attitudes find their expression in the pressure that can be applied to butches to have sex that they don’t want (because there must be something wrong with them if they don’t want it) and conversely, in the sexist responses towards the femmes that they have sex with, who are guilty of nothing except that they like to get fucked. 
But it's this notion of 'giving’ pleasure that I'd like to explore here.  In sex between women (and between women and transmen as well) fucking someone is typically understood as ‘giving’.  This gift is gendered, and its gendering is different to that of the gift given in heterosexual sex.  I don’t think that the young man I mentioned at the beginning of this paper saw himself as giving me anything, for example.  If anything, he was taking.  But this works differently in butch-femme sex, where the one who fucks is the giver.  On this topic, I talked to a femme friend while I was preparing this paper and she said, ‘I sleep with a bio-guy one night and I’m giving him something, and then I sleep with some other sort of guy the next night and I’m taking something, and yet I do pretty much the same thing on both nights.’
What is unspoken about the gift is that it is never given freely: it always functions in an economy of exchange.  When you give a gift, you expect something in return, even if it’s just an appropriate grateful acknowledgement of your generosity. This language of giving necessarily places the one who ‘receives’ the gift - which, since the butch is silent, is invariably the femme - in a position of debt and obligation. Derogatory terms like ‘pillow princess’ and ‘do-me queen’ are responses to this position, as the one who receives without giving in return is interpreted as selfish and so on.  I once read a butch’s account of being stone, which he experienced as a wound – an image that I found quite moving.  But he went on to question the ethics of femmes whose investment in their own pleasure meant an investment in that wound remaining open, as it were.  Such a reading of femmes places them in an impossible position - they’re really damned whatever they do.  On this point, I remember an exchange I had years ago with a very astute young woman who said, 'I feel like I’m in a minefield, and whichever way I step something is going to blow up in my face’.  
Against this is the ideal of the femme who will ‘melt’ the stone - a nonsensical metaphor if ever I heard one.  This femme exercises her magical feminine powers of healing on the sexuality of her partner, and my own experience of stone sex is that this desire for melting usually  informs at least one partner in the exchange.  And I’m sure that it happens, in the mysterious, private exchanges of desire and trust that go on in people’s homes.  In fact, I know it happens, because I melted some stones myself in days gone by, but it’s a big ask.
I find this language of giving deeply problematic, for two reasons.  First, it fails to recognise the pleasure of pleasuring someone else, which is certainly not the same as experiencing your own sexual pleasure but is surely something that we should recognise and celebrate – this is at the heart of stone sex and I suspect it underlies much of the sex in 'Stone Butch Blues', for example. 
The second reason is that it obscures the economy of exchange that goes on around and outside sex.  By this I mean all those other exchanges - usually unspoken - that go on in relationships, like, we have hot sex and you’ll tell me I’m the best shag you’ve ever had and that will make me feel better about myself, or, we have hot sex and maybe you’ll agree to come with me to my mother’s house tomorrow.  It’s such an economy of exchange, I suspect, that lay behind the elaborate social organisation of butch-femme relationships of the past, in the public displays of deference to butches and so on.  This social organisation has disappeared, though explicit kink relationships usually seem to manage this stuff a bit better, I think, because the expectations are clearer and the negotiations can take into account a whole range of needs that aren’t strictly sexual.  I suspect a lot of the relationships that forty years ago may have been butch-femme relationships are now articulated as Daddy-Girl or Master-Slave relationships. 
Having said this about the economy of the gift, I don’t believe that it’s possible to get outside or beyond this language entirely and I’m not even convinced that it is desirable, because using different words for things doesn’t make them go away.  Similarly, I’m not sure that talking about these issues will necessarily have positive effects – there’s too many examples of the damage that speaking can cause.  But there has been so much silence about stone sex that I think the alternative is worth trying.

October 2010

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