The stereotypical image of lesbians back in the Eighties was that of a woman in North Face pullover, ill-fitting jeans, with short, neatly cut hair and velcro trainers. That’s why the Rebel Dykes stood out. They would walk the streets head to toe in black leather, resplendent with clanking chains, handcuffs clipped to their belts, huge bunches of keys like prison officers swaying with each step. They wore heavy biker boots, tattoos, nose rings, lip piercings, shaved, bleached hair and peaked leather-studded caps pulled down over mirrored sunglasses, whatever the weather.
They were from a particular subculture within the lesbian movement, known for flaunting their predilections for sadomasochism, pornography, and public sex. They were outrageous by most people’s standards — including my own. These women argued that the practice of S&M was rebellious and liberatory; that it allowed women to break free of the expectation to be sexually submissive.
Memories of it all came flooding back as I watched Rebel Dykes, a film about that particular tribe. It follows a group of close friends who met at Greenham Common peace camp and became part of that significantly rebellious lesbian subculture. There are clips of the women having public sex shows at BDSM nightclubs; marching in full regalia on anti-Thatcher rallies, and joining forces with gay men to demand action around AIDS.
Of course, my tribe of lesbians was at odds with the rebel dykes. We campaigned against male violence and abuse of women, and, like the US feminist Robin Morgan, believed that “pornography is the theory; rape is the practice”. We railed against acts of sexual sadism and fought hard to dispel the misogynistic myth that women enjoy being abused and degraded during sex. In my view, the S&M that the Rebel Dykes celebrated was simply a re-enforcement of the way violent men treat women.
For their part, they painted us as dull and sexless, dismissing us as joyless prudes. Roz Kaveney, a transwoman involved in the ‘kink’ scene back then, would mock my tribe, saying that lesbians like me thought that “holding hands in 20 different positions” was hot sex. That’s another thing that struck me about the film: the parallels between now and then. Lesbians and women who are critical of porn and S&M and sexual exploitation today are treated in exactly the same way as we were back then: portrayed as anti-sex prudes.
The talking heads in the film have great fun re-visiting their youth, spinning tales of drunkenness, sex with multiple partners, and direct action. They talk about Greenham Common women’s peace camp, where a group of them broke into the squaddies’ bar and stole all the booze. But the film mainly focuses on the squatting culture in London, and the so-called “lesbian sex wars” that raged through the UK in the early to late Eighties. Those wars were fought over the turf of porn, kink, S&M, and public sex.
In April 1985 I went along to the very first extraordinary general meeting (EGM) of the newly founded Lesbian and Gay Centre in London. The centre should have been a haven for the entire community, with its café, bar, bookshop, creche, meeting rooms, media resource, offices for rent to lesbian and gay projects and enterprises, and a regular disco. It could not have been more perfect, on paper. But its management committee was involved in a huge dilemma. Who could use the centre, and for what, and which views would be acceptable to be aired in the premises? At that stage, the management committee was an all-white group of men and women, and they were keen to make it more accessible to a diverse crowd.
The main item on the agenda at the EGM was the S&M issue. Although the Management Committee had initially allowed groups advocating for and practicing S&M to meet at the centre, they had reversed that decision following complaints from the Lesbians Against Sadomasochism (LASM). These women objected to the sight of leather, chains and Nazi regalia in a space that was supposed to be protective of persecuted minorities. The packed meeting was extremely tense, and nothing was resolved.
The film includes fascinating, grainy footage of the event. One clip shows Linda Bellos, a black, Jewish, working-class lesbian opposing S&M ideology, while a young S&M dyke in the audience, also black and working-class, was being nudged by white women to speak up “as a black lesbian”. The attempt by both sides to use identity politics as a way to claim more credibility and ‘right to speak’ was counter-productive, as each time a Jewish woman, for example, said how offended she was at symbols of Nazi Germany (such as the peaked leather cap) being used in S&M role-play, one from the other side would claim she was ‘subverting’ its meaning.
In a subsequent meeting, the extremely polarised issue of dress codes came up. A group called the Sexual Fringe, which represented the S&M contingent, wanted an “anything goes” policy whereas the hard-core feminists wanted to ban leather jackets (something I was opposed to, on the grounds that leather jackets per se were not in any way offensive). The main topic of conversation was whether certain items of clothing and accessories could be seen as racist, fascist or antisemitic. There were some sadists who liked to lead women (who identified as masochists) around on all fours on a leash. There were others who liked to wear chains, swastikas, whips and handcuffs. This was an unusual meeting in that certain things were resolved, for once. It was agreed that the swastika should be banned, and it was also agreed, albeit grudgingly, that leading a woman around on a chain on all fours should also be banned.
Generally, though, neither side saw eye to eye. When the fetish club Chain Reaction was opened by the S&Mers in London in 1987, home to everything from mud wrestling to exhibitionist sex shows, and strippers. LASM picketed the club. We handed out leaflets explaining why, as far as we were concerned, eroticising pain and humiliation was the very antithesis of women’s liberation. Our leaflets read: “there can be no defence of a practice which is racist, anti-Semitic and woman hating. How is this different from what men do to women?” But the party went on inside. Nothing was resolved.
At another meeting, in 1988, Joan Nestle, a “sex positive” lesbian heavily into butch/femme role play spoke. There was a massive debate between the feminists and the pro-S&Mers during that meeting, and I could see why so many were captivated by Nestle. Funny, charismatic and honest, she appealed to so many of the working-class women in the audience who felt judged by the hard-core feminists. More than once in the film, references are made to how middle class the anti-S&M feminists were in contrast to the Rebel Dykes, but this gives an inaccurate impression. I was one of many working class protesters against S&M, and the sexual libertarian movement that inspired much of the Rebel Dyke standpoint was rooted in French post-structuralism — hardly a topic for down The Dog and Duck.
The Rebel Dykes loved being provocative and bad taste riffs were common, verging on harassment. For example, when Lisa Power, a Stonewall founder who is interviewed in the film, started the lesbian sex-toy business, Thrilling Bits, she named “our smallest and most inoffensive vibrator ‘the Sheila’” after anti-porn feminist Sheila Jeffreys, which was a pretty ugly move. The black dildo in the Thrilling Bits collection was named “the Whitney”, (after Whitney Houston) but interestingly this was not mentioned in the film.
The arguments over S&M, public sex and anti-Semitism raged in America, too. I visited San Francisco in 1985, having been told that a new magazine, aimed at lesbians, had been launched into this crucible. It was called On Our Backs. The title itself was poking fun at the feminist magazine, Off Our Backs (meaning “women, there is no need to be on our backs for the patriarchy”). On Our Backs took a pro kink, pro porn stance, and featured S&M content.
I requested an interview with the editors of On Our Backs, and turned up looking like something out of Bunty magazine. In my pale blue linen trousers and white cotton blouse and Birkenstock sandals, I exuded an air of innocence that sharply contrasted with the image of the leather-clad editors. Looking me up and down, one of the women told me that she had considered asking me to pose for the magazine, but had now decided against it. I was not offended, merely relieved.
During the conversation I asked the women if they had a line in the sand that they would not cross in terms of pornographic and sadomasochistic content. One of them gave me an example: “We had a story submitted by a woman to fantasised setting fire to her I lover, and it was very graphic, but we couldn’t decide between us whether or not it was too extreme to run it, so it is still sitting in our in-tray.” If it was not already obvious to me that there could be no peaceful coexistence between feminism and S&M practitioners, that moment crystallised it.
The film, rather than draw any conclusions about the Rebel Dyke scene is a nostalgic trip down a particular memory lane. A number of the interviewees, including Roz Kaveny and Lisa Power, are still actively campaigning to discredit feminists — in particular those of us who critique pornography, kink, and extreme trans ideology.
That’s what struck me particularly forcefully: that not much has changed. Today, feminists who oppose porn and prostitution as forms of violence against women are seen as anti-sex and ‘whorephobic’; the Queer movement is enthusiastically embracing kink as an identity as part of the alphabet soup of LGBTQQIA+. But the Rebel Dykes did not have the institutional support that the feminist hating Queer Isis of today does.
For all the S&M lesbians saw themselves (and clearly still do, going by the views expressed by the talking heads in the film) as edgy, progressive and sex-positive, they were anything but. Buying in to the misogynistic myths that women love to be hurt and humiliated during sex — that pain is erotic; that pleasure can be derived from the steel-capped boot on the neck — is nothing short of capitulating to patriarchy. I will continue to fight for the liberation of women from sexual violation, because for me, the true rebels are those who refuse to see masochism as anything to celebrate.