One issue I have noted since pursuing feminism as both an academic enterprise and life praxis is the irritation many feminists experience when analyzing or discussing a concept presented within a postmodern framework. Within this realm, words are oftentimes perceived as fluid rather than fixed, thereby making it difficult to attain clear definitions that can then be used to construct arguments for or against any given idea. For example, gender is oftentimes now thought of as an abstract concept that exists in the head rather than constituting a material reality. Words like “she” or “woman” can then be construed as signifiers indicating the epistemological framework within which an individual conceptualizes female personhood rather than a reference to concrete actualities such as whether a person has a “vagina.” The fact that these gender-related terms frequently appear within quotation marks demonstrates the role that postmodern ideology and praxis plays in abrading the idea that there is a universal, incontrovertible meaning for which words stand. Rather than advocating this view, postmodernism has led to the idea that one word can mean multiple and disparate things, with the meaning oftentimes being subject to ongoing evolution based on whose mind is contemplating or using the given term.
While I think there is validity to the postmodern mode of using and interpreting language, it is problematic in the sense that advocating a polysemic approach to interpreting reality can foreclose the development of understanding and consensus regarding what a word references and whether the idea it pertains to is something that feminists should advocate or abhor. The most salient example of this in my mind is the word (and reality behind) rape. In the hetero-reality constructed by the phallus, rape and sex exist in confluence such that men sexually assaulting women is not rape but rather sex. This (re)construction of “reality” works because hetero-reality creates a world in which male domination and female submission is sex. Yet as feminists, many women understand that a woman saying “no” to a male’s sexual advances means that the “sex” that subsequently transpires is not sex but rape.
The aforementioned example is just one of many that can be cited to demonstrate how postmodern and/or phallic thought is capable of obscuring or convoluting reality such that feminists experience difficulties when attempting to understand or explain concepts for the purpose of advancing women’s rights. Like rape, the term “lesbian” is one to which many meanings have been applied. The multiple and often disparate meanings applied to (or derived from) the term have given rise to much contention regarding who is a “real” lesbian and which form of lesbianism is most conducive to female emancipation from-or at least the problematizing of-phallic power. Since this is the case, I think it is important to enumerate and explicate some of the more prevalent definitions for the word.
Because I find Monique Wittig’s discourse on lesbianism to be particularly profound and powerful, I will begin with her suggestion that lesbians are those who have escaped the political regime of heterosexuality “which rests on the submission and appropriation of women” (xiii). As such, the lesbian can be viewed as “an escapee” or “a fugitive slave” (xiii). Yet this rejection of and ongoing resistance to the political regime does not entail immunity from its subjugating power for, as Wittig argues in juxtaposing the sociocultural situation of so-called prostitutes and lesbians (xv), members of both groups are the object of heterosexual oppression even though they are not privately appropriated by it in the way that married women are. Wittig further distinguishes and defines lesbians by noting that they are not women. Specifically, she notes that a lesbian is a “not-woman” (13) given that she refuses to be heterosexual. As Wittig notes, “The refusal to become (or to remain) heterosexual always meant to refuse to become a man or a woman, consciously or not” (13). Lesbians thus refuse to activate and energize hetero-reality by becoming “women” who are such because they make themselves available to men for sexual and reproductive purposes. (Many feminists have made this point about the ultimate signification of the signifier “woman” within hetero-reality. For example, the Radicalesbians accurately argue that “…in popular thinking, there is really only one essential difference between a lesbian and other women: that of sexual orientation-which is to say, when you strip off all the packaging, you must finally realize that the essence of being a “woman” is to get fucked by men.”)
I like Wittig’s definition and have no qualms with it, particularly because she does not reduce lesbianism to a sexual practice/orientation and rather centers the politically revolutionary import of the subject position. I think her argument also has the effect of revealing that a heterosexual woman’s identity position within patriarchy is that of object given that personhood is defined in terms of what the woman must allow to be done to her body. (Of course, women are not really objects at all in my mind. They are subjects-turned-into-objects within hetero-reality. Thus I suppose they occupy the paradoxical position of subject-object when operating in context of a heterosexual relationship. Their essential, immutable position is that of subject, but their identity is continually perverted into the object realm for the purpose of energizing the patriarchal regime.)
Like Monique Wittig, Marilyn Frye’s discourse on lesbianism provides the reader with important insights regarding the contiguities and disparities that exist between heterosexual and homosexual women. For example, Frye discusses the way that lesbianism is defined as a divergence from the heterosexual “norm” upon noting that “Popular images of the lesbian and the gay man are images of people who do not fit the patterns of gender imposed on the sexes. She is seen as a female who is not feminine and he as a male who is not masculine.” In detailing what this divergence from the “norm” involves, Frye notes that the lesbian woman “does not love men; she does not preserve all passion and significant exchange for men. She does not hate women. She presupposes the equality of the female and male bodies, or even the superiority or normativeness of the female body.” Frye goes on to point out that the lesbian “has no interest in penises beyond some reasonable concern about how men use them against women. She claims civil rights for women without arguing that women are really men with different plumbing. She does not live as the complement to the rule of heterosexuality for men.” To crystallize the reader’s awareness of how being a lesbian distinguishes homosexual women from heterosexual women, Frye notes that “She is not accessible to the penis; she does not view herself as a natural object of fucking and denies that men have either the right or the duty to fuck her.”
As with Wittig’s analysis, Frye’s interpretation of lesbianism centers the role that rejecting heterosexuality-which is ultimately a euphemism for female sexual submission-plays in giving shape and substance to the identity position/praxis. However, Frye’s explication offers a more explicit, unequivocal explanation of lesbian sexuality insomuch as she openly explains that the literal penis (and the abstract system of phallic power it represents) is absent from the woman’s emotional/erotic life. Another key insight that Frye draws attention to is that the feminist lesbian does not hate woman. Woman-hating is common amongst heterosexual women for many reasons, including the fact that heterosexuality forces women to compete with other women for the attention of men. Yet lesbianism oftentimes emerges or exists within feminist contexts where women grow conscious of how patriarchal regimes pervert their perceptions of themselves and other women. This consciousness may enable them to relate to one another in more humane, egalitarian ways. The practice of a woman loving another woman might also contribute to the reality of lesbian women not hating members of their own sex. Irrespective of the cause and outcome of the stance, Frye’s assertion that lesbians don’t hate women underscores how the regime of compulsory heterosexuality can induce the opposite (and unwanted) effect.
Just as Marilyn Frye’s discourse on lesbianism provides the reader with important insights regarding how women relate to self and other women as well as how lesbianism empowers them to mitigate or abrade the self-deprecating realities that result from phallic ideologies and praxis, the Radicalesbians provide readers with radical commentary that contributes to the consciousness-raising process that can demobilize patriarchy. In defining the term “lesbian,” the Radicalesbians argue that she “is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.” They go on to note that she is oftentimes the woman who grows painstakingly conscious of how patriarchy operates during adolescence and, in rejecting the imperial and self-alienating impositions of the regime, pursues autonomy and independence. This attempt to operate from a position of subjectivity entails a war with the outside world because the social system is grounded on the belief that women are slaves to men.
In addition to pointing out that the lesbian is oftentimes the woman who experienced substantive alienation in adolescence due to her unwillingness to embody patriarchal norms, the Radicalesbians go on to point out that the term “lesbian” is used as an accusatory signifier which “holds women in line.” Specifically, they argue that the term indicates that a woman has abandoned her sex role and has dared to be the equal of a Man by extricating herself from the system which reduces women to objects of exchange amongst men. They also argue that sexist societies construct reality such that “for a woman to be independent means she can’t be a woman-she must be a dyke.” This explanation leads to their understanding that, within hetero-reality, “women and person are contradictory terms.” Another important insight provided by the Radicalesbians is that lesbianism is not a side issue that can be dismissed as feminists concern themselves with other activities designed to thwart the imperial project. Rather, lesbianism is a central issue which must play an integral role in feminist discourse if one is serious about the success and fulfillment of the women’s liberation movement. As they accurately argue, “As long as the label “dyke” can be used to frighten a woman into a less militant stand, keep her separate from her sisters, keep her from giving primacy to anything other than men and family-then to that extent she is controlled by the male culture.” In other words, if women are afraid of being called lesbians or actually being lesbians, then the woman-to-woman system of relations designed to thwart patriarchy and empower women as independent agents who do not need men to survive or thrive will always be in peril. The rightfully legendary Gloria Steinem drew attention to this reality when she pointed out how one woman being accused by the patriarchy of being a lesbian generated the following consciousness-raising experience amongst other women: “Women who hadn’t seen lesbianism as a feminist issue before wrote to say they now understood that all women could be stopped or divided by this accusation until we all succeeded in taking the sting out of it by making lesbianism an honorable choice” (26). Here, both feminists and lesbian feminists can see the value in ridding “lesbian” of the scatological import it acquired in hetero-reality.
While the Radicalesbians make numerous important points about what it means to be a lesbian and how this identity position can be used to metabolize the woman-identified modality which destablizes the patriarchy, I disagree with their assertion that a woman has to consider her commitment to other women as involving a sexual love. Specifically, I don’t think women have to have erotic interactions with one another to maintain strong, committed relationships which preclude them from falling back into the slave status of male-identified woman. (Nor do I believe that women have to interact erotically with other women to be a lesbian, because one can adopt the identity position of an asexual lesbian.) Emotive and/or intellectual woman-woman interactions can carry the same unifying weight as erotic modes of relating, thereby making the latter schema an unnecessary (yet indeed desirable) element of woman-identified experience.
The ongoing discussions and debates regarding what a lesbian is are important. While some argue that an individual must be born lesbian to identify as one, others (including me) believe that the identity position can be acquired through the course of time and experience or consciously adopted for the purpose of rejecting compulsory heterosexuality. Any of the aforementioned explanations could be viewed as offensive or somehow off-putting to individuals within and outside the lesbian community, and it is not clear to me whose opinions and ideas regarding lesbianism are ultimately authoritative. However, I think the fact that lesbianism is being openly discussed in the fields of feminist theory and within consciousness-raising circles is important and advantageous.