Profile of a sex radical.
So writes author Pat Califia in the preface to her book of erotic fiction, Macho Sluts. Califia describes herself as a "sex radical" and argues that gender and class injustice "are based mostly on sexuality--hatred of the body, the state's interest in controlling our pleasures."
Califia is in the tradition of philosophers Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, the gay pioneer Harry Hay, the poet Allen Ginsberg, the journalist Ellen Willis, and the novelist Dorothy Allison, who calls Califia's essays "lucid, intelligent, brave, and true." This tradition holds that sexual liberation is indispensable to true freedom, and that the repression of sexual pleasure is one of the oldest of the master's tools. "There is no task more radical, more in keeping with a vision of a free society, than changing sexual relations," writes Willis in her book Beginning to See the Light. "But for the most part, the left has refused to take sexual politics seriously."
Califia stretches the boundaries of this tradition with her defense of sadomasochism and her controversial critique of age-of-consent laws. Her work raises a central question for leftists: Does the goal of sexual liberation conflict with our goal of eliminating exploitation?
Califia sees no conflict.
"We need the forbidden and the unspeakable not only because it has intrinsic worth, but because it reminds us that we live in a digitized culture where we're taught to crave food that does not nourish us, cookie-cutter relationships, cliches disguised as inspiration, religions without ecstasy, second-hand violence, third-hand sex, two-dimensional lives that are three sizes too small," Califia writes in Macho Sluts.
Califia says frank talk about sex is particularly important for women--it gives women access to their own pleasure. And for Califia, pleasure comes in many forms. "The minority culture controls us by limiting our vision and denying us all possible images of the women we might become," she writes in the introduction to her first book, Sapphistry.
Califia is an original in the gay community. For sixteen years, "I've been standing on the tails of sacred cows, ringing a very large bell," she says. As a lesbian sadomasochist, a minority within a minority culture, she has repeatedly defended gender outlaws. Her essays assert the political importance of sex workers, butch/femme lesbians, and sadomasochists. Califia has aligned herself with "disenfranchised people and topics, even if that meant I would stay poor and be widely hated," she writes in Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex.
Califia has been widely hated, but she has also been widely loved. Sapphistry garnered "wheelbarrows full of vicious reviews," largely because it treated sadomasochism and butch/femme role playing as acceptable forms of sexual expression, she notes. But since its first printing in 1980, the book has been one of Naiad Press's top sellers. And the advice column Califia has written for The Advocate since 1981 is immensely popular.
"I've had more people stop me on the street to say, `Thank you for your work. You saved my life,' than I've had people who hiss and say, `Get out of my way,' and make it clear that they don't approve," she says.
Along with her other battles on behalf of sexual freedom, Califia has fought against the censorship of all forms of pornography. And she has had some intimidating foes. "A system of domination and submission, pornography has the weight and significance of any other historically real torture or punishment of a group of people because of condition of birth," writes anti-pornography feminist Andrea Dworkin.
"As a social process and as a form of speech, pornography promotes not freedom but silence" writes author and lawyer Catharine MacKinnon. "Rather, it promotes freedom for men and enslavement and silence for women."
Unlike feminists who see pornography as inherently degrading to women, Califia has consistently defended it. She does so not only because any censorship violates the First Amendment, but because she believes pornography, like other disdained pleasures, is a form of resistance.
"Pornography is as unpopular with most governments as seditious rhetoric because it has a similar function," she writes in the introduction to Forbidden Passages: Writings Banned in Canada. "Political dissidents voice their discontent with business-as-usual; they say out loud that the emperor has no clothes. Pornography is the great brawling voice of sexual frustration and panic."
Califia insists that the current, popular anti-porn ideology is not just a theoretical issue: "Anti-porn activists like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon don't just want to picket porn shops and organize Take Back the Night marches. They want to codify their philosophical position and turn it into state law and fact. In Canada, we have an example of what would happen if feminist anti-porn theory became law."
Canada's Supreme Court ruled in the Regina v. Butler case that free speech did not include pornography; the Court based its decision largely on the work of American anti-pornography feminists. But since the Butler ruling in 1992, the banned books have been predominantly the literature of sexual minorities.
Canadian customs seized Califia's books--along with S/M magazines, issues of The Advocate and Deneuve, the writings of Dorothy Allison, bell hooks, David Leavitt, and Marguerite Duras, a chilipepper cookbook with the title Hot, Hotter, Hottest, and the anti-pornography writings of Andrea Dworking herself, who had quoted long passages from the books she advocates censoring. Califia, in support of Vancouver's Little Sisters bookstore (a gay and lesbian business repeatedly targeted by Canadian customs), successfully defended her own work in Canadian court.
"I wound up going through my work and justifying it almost page by page," says Califia. "It's hard to smell your books burning in one corner of the courtroom and to talk about trying to save their lives in the other."
"She defended her work in a way that only Pat Califia could: unflinchingly," says Janine Fuller, the manager of Little Sisters.
"Unflinching" is the perfect word for Califia. "To be radical, to be an activist, you have to give up the idea that your life is going to be safe or comfortable," she says. "You have to go out and buck the system. And that is hard. They will make it expensive. They will make you pay."
I meet up with Califia at the National Women's Music Festival in Bloomington, Indiana, where she is a featured speaker for the festival's sexuality series and in high demand for book signings, lectures, dinners, and readings.
When I arrive for the interview at 6:30 P.M., Califia is on the phone. She motions me to the most comfortable chair in the cramped dorm room, wraps up her call, kicks off her boots, and props herself up on two pillows.
I ask what influenced her to become who she is.
"I come from a bunch of people who left everything they had behind, piled their clothes and some seeds in wooden carts, and dragged them across the entire length of the continental United States to go start something new," she says. "And it shows. Certainly on a moral level, there's nothing about my life that the Mormon church could ever approve of. But in terms of how I live, I'm very much in touch with where I came from--a little leather missionary."
When I ask how long she has been a sex radical, Califia tells me one of her earliest memories, of a hot afternoon when she was supposed to be taking a nap, but woke up and opened the door to her parents' room. "When I pushed open the bedroom door, my father was standing there without any clothes on. He glared at me. I stood there. He finally snapped, `Do you think it's all right for little girls to stare at their fathers when they are naked?' "
This event marked the beginning of a schism, Califia says, between what felt natural and what her family, and the world, would tell her was right. "I thought, `I'm doing something wrong here, but I don't know what and I don't know why.' That was one of the first clues that I couldn't trust my own sense of what was right or wrong when it came to my body and the things that grown-ups called `sexual,' and that I would have to study other people for cues and hide my own beliefs and my own behavior if I was going to make it into adulthood."
Califia's early recognition that her feelings lay outside what society considered proper had a profound influence on her. "That outsider position makes you a radical if you start thinking about `why am I on the outside?' and if you have a strong sense of self--which I, for some reason, have always had. I had a strong investment in figuring out why so many people were so twisted about sex, and why there was so much shame about something that seemed to me to be pretty straightforward."
At age seventeen, Califia left high school a year early and enrolled herself in college, where she first met out lesbians, and realized she, too, was gay.
Her family responded by attempting to confine her to a mental institution, but she had dropped out of school and they couldn't find her. "I was smart enough not to tell them where I was," she says. By the time they located her, she had turned eighteen.
In the early 1970s, Califia involved herself in separatist lesbian culture, but soon grew dissatisfied with the movement. She also realized that her sexual fantasies were S/M-oriented.
This second coming-out cost her many of the friends she had gained as a lesbian feminist.
"The first time I came out, I lost my nuclear family. The second time, I lost my gay family. To say in 1975 that you were a lesbian who wanted to do S/M was absolutely outrageous, intolerable. I had people call me threatening to kill me, threatening to beat me up. I had people who would spit at me, walk out of restaurants if I walked in."
How did she respond?
"My strategy then was what my strategy has been my whole life," she says. "I want my inside and my outside to match. I want to be consistent with the world. I know that there is so much hate and opposition out there that if I act with self-hate or self-doubt, I will be swept away. If I'm out, I get to define my terms. I get to tell people who I am and what it means."
Califia's defense of sadomasochism has offended critics inside and outside the gay community. Some say S/M imitates the oppressive relationships men traditionally have had over women. Claudia Card, professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has summed up the arguments against S/M in her book Lesbian Choices.
"The difficulties for nonsadomasochists have been primarily with sadism and with psychodrama that appears to make light not only of rape and incest but also of histories of oppression," writes Card. "Feminists tend to regard masochism as an example of the damage inflicted by oppression. Many also think of it as passive, whereas sadism appears active, more easily identified with oppressors."
Card also argues that the sadomasochistic urge derives from an oppressive society. Card sees "sexual sadomasochism as enacting, in eroticized and often playful make-believe fashion, roles of dominance and subordinance that characterize not only authoritarian adult-child relationships within the family or authoritarian religious relationships, but, more generally, the norms of a patriarchal, misogynist society.... On this understanding, sadomasochistic desires have roots not simply in individual psychologies but in society at large; they are not mysterious givens, but social constructions."
Califia's critics are disturbed by the linkage of pain and sex and by the possibility of inflicting harm. Card asks: "How can it be right to cause unnecessary suffering deliberately?"
Sadomasochistic sex, says Califia, is by definition consensual--a definition that separates it from nonconsensual sex, which she says sadomasochists consider an abuse of power and a form of violence. "Because sadomasochism is usually portrayed as a violent, dangerous activity, most people do not think that there is a great deal of difference between a rapist and a bondage enthusiast," she writes in Public Sex. "But sadomasochism is not a form of sexual assault. It is a consensual activity that involves polarized roles and intense sensations."
Califia vehemently denies that S/M is about a death wish, is abusive, or replicates oppressive real-life situations. "S/M is premeditated erotic blasphemy," she writes in Public Sex. "S/M recognizes the erotic underpinnings of our system and seeks to reclaim them.... In an S/M context, the uniforms and roles and dialogue become a parody of authority, a challenge to it, a recognition of its secret, sexual nature."
Califia challenges people to overcome their preconceived notions of S/M. "You can't know what any sex act means until you talk to the participants and find out how they feel about it," she says. "I am interested in something ephemeral--pleasure--not in economic control or forced reproduction," she writes.
Ethics, Califia tells me, is one of her preoccupations. "I'm obsessed with ethical issues. I do these things because I have respect for my partners. I am willing to hear them tell me what they want, even if it's shocking or difficult to empathize with.
"I'm a loving person. The sex that I have from the outside may not look compassionate. But at its heart it is, or I wouldn't do it. It wouldn't be ethical."
According to Califia, sadomasochists teach each other safe ways to produce intense physical sensations without endangering anyone's well-being. "Sadomasochists wind up educating each other about physical and emotional safety and helping one another to avoid abuse," she says. "If you walk into a typical S/M party, you are going to see a lot more communication about people's desires and limits, negotiation about exactly what will take place, care in the performance of sexual activity, and nurturing care afterwards than you would ever see at the typical singles bar or suburban cocktail party. I truly wish others would adhere to the same high standards of consent and consideration that sadomasochists uphold."
Califia understands that S/M practitioners are under assault. "Police in this country take it for granted that they have a right to walk into leather bars and harass people, or try to close the place down," she says. "We're a community that is under state attack. We're organizing politically not to shock or titillate people but for the purpose of self-defense. We have a right to be here. And there are certainly very powerful institutions in our society that would like us not to exist."
The government is one of those powerful institutions--especially in Britain. Britain's "Operation Spanner," begun in 1989, was one of the most expensive investigations ever undertaken by Scotland Yard. Spanner led to the arrests of forty-two gay men. Sixteen were eventually charged. The evidence against them: video footage a group of friends had shot of themselves at private S/M parties.
Throughout the case, the British authorities acknowledged that the "assaults" had occurred with the full consent of the men involved, that the activities in question had occurred in private, that the injuries had not been permanent and had not required any medical treatment, and that no one had complained to the police. Even so, most of the men who had acted as sadists were charged with assault. Their partners were charged with conspiring to assault themselves.
A number of those arrested lost their jobs, and two committed suicide. Eight received prison terms of up to four and a half years.
After the Spanner ruling, police cracked down on S/M bars and parties nationwide. According to Countdown on Spanner (a political group formed in response to Operation Spanner), a married couple was prosecuted for engaging in S/M; another man lost his job after police raided his home, removed the sex toys they found there, then showed a video of the police search to the local social-services department, the headmaster of the school where he was employed, and the local board of governors. The police ultimately decided that they did not have enough evidence to prosecute him.
But Spanner has also led to activism among sadomasochists worldwide. "It's been the leather community's Stonewall," says Califia, recalling the 1969 rebellion by gay activists in Greenwich Village. People who practice S/M have come together across international lines to assist the group in appealing the decision to the European court. The court has agreed to hear the case, acknowledging that Operation Spanner may have violated the right to privacy.
"So it looks like we may be able to gain protection for ourselves, at least in England," Califia says.
Califia's most controversial stance--her opposition to age-of-consent laws--has provoked heated debate. Her critics are dismayed by her belief that society should suspend rules that say minors do not have the capacity to consent to sex with an adult.
"In most cases what we see are big power differentials--a power difference based on age, so the word `consent' doesn't make much sense," says Mark Haag, clinical director of the Oasis Program, based in Madison, Wisconsin, a treatment center for families where there has been sexual abuse. "I might take issue with the word `consent."
So does Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law. "I personally consider that when a guy who's twenty-six gets involved with a fourteen-year-old, that is by its nature exploitative," he says. "It's offensive to society's obligation to protect children."
But Califia believes young people can be sexually active without being exploited, and she says we need to stop regarding young people as "the property of their parents." Her position comes out of her own experience.
"As a young person, I faced continual ridicule and physical violence because I was not a feminine, giggly girl," she says. "It was pretty clear that I was not going to grow up to be one more Mormon house-wife and mother. I ran a gauntlet every day at school, where I was lucky if I avoided getting beaten up, and a similar rain of harassment and blows at home."
She credits her adult sexual mentors with giving her an opportunity to imagine, and create, a better life. "I did not wait until I was eighteen to be sexually active," she says. "What I got was a few minutes of sanctuary away from my family, a vision of another reality, and it saved my life and my sanity."
In a 1980 essay, Califia argued that we should not confuse "the issue of violence against children with the issue of children and sexuality." Nonetheless, age of consent is one area where Califia's politics have changed during the past sixteen years, although she still opposes age-of-consent laws and "probably always will."
Califia is less inclined now to believe that our society is ready to make sexual freedom safe for minors.
"We're not even able to give kids the kind of sex education they need to protect themselves from AIDS," she says. "In that kind of world, it's really hard to emphasize increasing sexual freedom for youth. I still say that children have their own sexuality. In a just society, where children were given the kind of sex education that they ought to be entitled to, and support from their adult caretakers, kids would express their sexuality more instead of less. That sexuality might sometimes include exploration with older people."
Califia's gay critics have voiced anxiety that sadomasochists, transvestites, and other sexual minorities make all gay people appear extreme, thus providing fodder for the Christian right. These critics wish people like Califia would go away--or at least keep quiet. But this sort of self-policing goes on at great risk to gay liberation, says Califia.
"I think it's sad that the lesbian and gay community has abandoned critical analysis of heterosexuality as an institution," she says. "Instead we all seem to be trying to mainstream and to pretend that `if the government would just leave us alone, we'd be exactly like straight people.' I don't think so. I know I wouldn't be. There's not a lot of room for me in that kind of lavender utopia."
Califia's utopia is anything but boring. "Many theoretical utopias are dreamed up by people who are afraid of diversity and deeply conservative about sex," she writes. When I ask her to explain what her utopia would look like, Califia describes a world that in some ways resembles the utopias she has criticized. Hers would have a worker-controlled economy, and full equal opportunities for men and woman. There, the similarities end.
"I think it's interesting that one of the dreams of many social engineers on the left and on the right has been, `if we had a utopia, then this kind of natural sexuality would emerge' that ostensibly would be free from things that are now called perversions. There's an incredible range in human sexual expression. That variation is benign. We are sexually a very creative species."
Califia believes that in a society with more equality, those things now called perversions would multiply. "If there are no penalties for engaging in certain sex acts, more people do it," she says. "And in an egalitarian society, people would need markers for whom they found attractive. Masculinity and femininity might become disengaged from gender. They might become erotic vocations instead of being linked to chromosomes."
But Califia has not written a utopia, and says she probably never will. Instead, she has written a piece of fiction, Doc and Fluff, that she calls a dystopia--a grim depiction of sexual repression in America's future. The gains we have made "are fragile," she says.
Still, she does not despair. "We shouldn't forget that there have been times in human history when people did come together for whatever reason," she goes on. "It always feels like a miracle to me. But there was a Paris Commune. There was a Stonewall riot. People felt like they had nothing to lose and they fought back. New things come out of that. It's really hard to predict when those magical moments in history will come."
For all the controversy that has surrounded her writings, Califia upholds herself as a defender of individual liberty. At the heart of movements for sexual freedom, she says, is the position that the state does not own people. "We are not the property of our employers. We are not the property of our families. We are not the property of the state."
Pleasure, she argues, is a basic human right. "Pleasure returns our sense of wonder about the world," she says. "It's one of the ways that we celebrate our most courageous and lovable selves. I can't think of anything that gives people more energy or more heart or more hope when they need to face opposition and get through parts of their lives that are difficult and frightening."
Though she sees herself as battling the more censorious wings of American feminism, Califia is still proud to call herself a feminist.
"You betcha," she says. "As long as men and women are unequal, I will be a feminist. That is the moving passion of my life." She gives me a sly look. "I'm the most politically correct person I know."
When I begin to laugh, Califia leans toward my portable recorder and speaks directly into the microphone. "Note that only the interviewer is laughing, not the interview subject. She is totally serious."
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|Title Annotation:||lesbian, sadomasochist author Pat Califia|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1996|
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