Warning: this might get a little mature, vague references to sexual content here
Some women get confused about whether they are attracted to other women because they find it awkward to think of applying the term “hot” to women. They are stuck in the male construction of attraction, which is very different from our own. Artificial, even.
“Hot” is cultural conditioning. Men are conditioned to view women as “hot” and what this means implicitly is that he’s having a sexually charged temptation to dominate her, as though it is a reflex she caused him to have. Meanwhile, women are conditioned to internalize this about themselves. It is not a patriarchal norm for men to be described as “hot”.
I don’t think authentic lesbian sexuality is pornified like this. Under patriarchy, women are the objects to be desired, not subjects who desire others. Coming out as a lesbian requires rebellion by having the courage to become a desirer. You can choose to become a desirer and then internalize the porn culture around you, or you can become a desirer only and reject porn culture.
If you’re attracted to women you might internalize a sense of what consists of the proof of whether you’re attracted to someone. And women are bombarded with the manipulations of compulsory heterosexuality, to the point that when they feel attraction, they can’t identify it and they don’t identify the feeling as attraction. Women actually have to stop and think about it. Women’s (lesbian’s) attraction to women is made invisible, so we are invisible to ourselves.
However, there is another way in which we are made invisible to ourselves: it is much more difficult to say no to dick than it is to say yes to women. Women who refuse male advances may be punished with harassment, beatings, rape, and even murder. The daily torture of living under male rule masochistically orients women towards men. As a result, lesbians come out later in life on average compared to gay men.
I identified as a lesbian in my mid twenties. I want to help other women find her way, so I’m offering my story in the hopes that she’ll have an easier time coming out of the closet than I did. Some of us have to claw our way out.
I had to think back to when I was a teenager and a child and how I related to the sexes. I was lucky because I was always very contemplative and reflective, and I still had and have strong memories of struggling with experiences that I couldn’t name. My early experiences cause me to believe that all women have a tendency towards loving women, but that it gets conditioned out of us through compulsory heterosexuality, a tool to reinforce patriarchy. Don’t know whether this is because my experiences are fundamentally different from a straight woman’s, if she really does exist — and sometimes I have to admit there is evidence that she seems to exist, even though it makes no sense to me, especially the whole being-attracted-to-men part.
It wasn’t enough to just come to understand in my early 20s that I find women attractive, and in some sense have always been entranced by women. When it became acceptable to be out as bisexual, I claimed that. That was the period during which I grappled with my feelings towards women. But experience would tell me that this label didn’t fit. I was also one of those annoying bisexuals who described herself as “lesbian” as though “lesbian” is just this catchall term for women who are into women (okay, only once or twice, and was quickly reprimanded). This was mere ignorance rather than any political agenda. You could say that “bisexual” was a filler label in absence of self-knowledge, during the stage of coming to terms with an undeniable attraction to women and what that means.
I never examined the acceptance of dick until my mind was opened to the possibility of a life and a world without it. Time came for me to encounter women who were actually in, for all intents and purposes, what I saw as “lesbian” relationships. Which brings to the fore the excruciating truth that for all the world’s vast knowledge and media, there was practically nothing but PORN and recycled memes when it comes to understanding “lesbians”. There was NO living example of what it was to be a lesbian. The media has not shown true and genuine lesbian life. Actually spending time around women in lesbian relationships made it impossible for me to ignore how I felt — how deeply I wanted to love a woman — to the exclusion of all men. Only women, not men. How inadequate, hairy, sweaty, and anatomically awkward men are.
I realized I had resisted the exclusive reality of the word “lesbian” because I didn’t want to “exclude” men. I was bending over backwards to avoid upsetting people, and provoking men’s rage. What horseshit. What destructive self-betrayal.
When I finally committed to being a lesbian, in other words renouncing bisexuality, I became aware of how dissociated I had been. Over time, this would fade and be replaced with feeling and reunion with self. I committed because I knew it was true. I was overcome with joy — and deep, deep regret, and mourning. And panic and terror, because what did it mean to others that I had come to it this way? On the one hand was this realization that I’d been living a lie. On the other hand was this emerging sense of imposter syndrome at the thought of having to prove my truth to others. I feared I’d find out I was not a “real” lesbian.
If you’re ever struggling with this, you shouldn’t get into a relationship. Just a little advice. Take your time. It’s the right thing to do, to wait it out. You don’t need to go out and prove it, the truth is found within you. Don’t use women to prove it to yourself — women resent that.
Time would prove me right. I merely needed to pay attention and get in touch with myself. And radical feminism was an important part of that — overcoming the dissociation of all the lies.
This whole process was filled with regret. The regret lingered for over a year. I regretted not figuring it out sooner. But analyzing my social environment made it obvious how compulsory heterosexuality had duped me. I couldn’t believe myself but I somehow knew I was right. I realized there was no way to “prove” it theoretically, but the theory didn’t matter because I was right either way, or acknowledging a fact, rather. Either I have always been a lesbian, or I always would have been if I only had the chance. I don’t look upon my attempts at heterosexuality as any real, legitimate orientation at all — rather, a lie, a big fat lie. Horrifying, really.
I spent some time getting in touch with my body and working through my self-objectification issues which were closely tied to this capitulation to men via taking “care” of them and including them in everything. Part of this was realizing that this enthusiastic consent was a coping mechanism to deal with the fact that every time I’d put up resistance to men, it was torn down, at times violently. I mean, I knew that I hated putting up this act, all in order for what, to obtain some semblance of an emotional intimacy with another human being?
The slave mentality is to submit willingly rather than suffer the indignity of being beaten into submission. So if I could keep them happy, then I would do it. And if I could get something out of it, then I would do it. And self-objectification is what made me feel like I was getting something out of it, by ‘using’ myself just as much as being used, numbing the humiliation by making it out like it was a fair deal. Grooming. The easy way out of not examining internalized misogyny.
The “fair deal” business was examined as well. I realized I did not like PIV and then I realized I did not like penis. I demolished the myths that vaginas are penis-shaped holes — this was important, because biology tends to persuade me.
Before all of this theorizing, there are facts about the past that are undeniable. I knew what love and pleasure felt like right up until I became involved with men. And the reasons I finally became involved consisted of normalcy, “necessity”, and convenience. I did not enjoy “sex” (PIV), never did, often felt depressed about it, never wanted it as a kid, was groomed into it as a young adult in no small part due to the pornography that male peers shared with me.
“Sex” positivity was all the rage in my generation: all the ways in which you’re not enjoying sex because you’re doing it wrong, and here is how we can make you enjoy it more, basically. Yet when I was alone, I would think about women. And I tried many times, actually, to explore these feelings and thoughts: but all I ever found was unsatisfying dead ends that often led me back to men. Have you ever noticed how lesbians die in movies and exist only for the male gaze or as sinners under the patriarchal religions? Have you ever noticed how culture treats lesbians as though they don’t even exist, especially the whole saying-no-to-dick aspect? Have you ever noticed how lesbians are symbolically cut up into a thousand little pieces and stereotypes and freeze-dried for mass media consumption? Have you ever noticed how the media has tried to hide what lesbians look like? These days, thanks to the feminist movement, lesbianism is a lot easier to access and explore — lesbianism, my lesbianism, clearly floundered as a result of the backlash on feminism in the decades before. I know full well that had radical feminism still been around, I would have named myself a lesbian much sooner, sparing myself years of anguish.
There are certain truths that could not be denied, but only intended to be fixed. I couldn’t feel love for men, or anything much really. I tried hard and I thought there was something wrong with me. I always felt disgusted by muscley doods, so that meant that I must like the “small, sensitive” doods. Uh, no. I didn’t like men’s bodies, actually. They were quite…lacking. I aggressively wrote off the thoughts about women as “objectification” (wasn’t any kind of a feminist, but this was in my vocabulary) and felt like a pervert, which due to porn culture is in some sense true that I’d absorbed the pornsickness of my male peers.
After coming out to myself I would later find, I had stuffed down all my disgust with men’s bodies because I have an iron stomach to most things, and this is a learned response. But it wasn’t hard to allow the repulsion to come back.
One significnt epiphany was that: what I was enjoying with this PIV and pornsickness shit was not PIV but rather objectifying myself and in particular a hyper-feminized version of myself that did not exist in real life. I was not making love with a man, I was imagining myself being the man of some imaginary woman. And self abuse was a thing. Because rather than be a chronic victim, I would be the one directing my own abuse. And this was all rather a headfuck. I was acting out heterosexuality in order to avoid processing trauma (adding more traumas along the way) and avoid knowing myself.
I not only had to come to terms with myself as a lesbian, but as a butch, all at once, and the disconnect of thinking I’m physically more feminine than I really am. It’s not that I have ever tried to be, it’s that having seen images of women I had a skewed idea of what I was. I had to see myself in someone else. — And I did. A butch woman. That was hugely influential… Butch women are beautiful and they don’t fit this porn culture. But not only that, I saw myself in butch women. Flashback to all the drawings I’d ever made and the struggle to resist femininity. The hatred of all things “feminine” was part of who I am not because of misogyny, but because it was thrust upon me by sex roles I resented and resisted.
I don’t know what a femme is and I don’t subscribe to any kind of roles. But “butch” is what I am because it’s identifiably gender non-conforming and being true to myself all the way back to childhood, and it’s what I am because I would’ve been transed if I was born in a later generation. It’s what I am because I get asked for my pronouns. It’s what I am because people assume I’m a trans man. It’s what I am because I’ve been sir’d, especially while wearing particular outfits. It’s what I am because I see myself in other butches. It’s what I am because I’m not faking or acting.
The butch part answered why I didn’t fit in, not even with whatever lesbian stuff was out there. It wasn’t really for more than a few years that this whole self-annihilating butch issue happened so I don’t think I sustained too much damage, but it gives me some insight on the motivation of people in LGB culture to take delight in the ritual of feminizing butches so as to ‘eradicate’ them. Being working class and having to wear uniforms for work was quite an opportunity to wake up and think about why even as a rebel I loved wearing uniforms so much, and why I envied ties. (I have a huge collection of ties now.)
I hear it reported frequently of people saying stuff about having very early sexual experiences…and I feel like an outlier. Having not “explored” sexuality (perhaps this is healthy, even) until adulthood, how can you know until later?
It’s tough to cut through the bullshit but once you do, everything is so clear.
I don’t subscribe to the “genetic” explanation for homosexuality, because as much as it was exciting to measure the distance of my ring finger and my index finger to get a little confirmation bias, I acknowledge the huge social dimension of women coming to find that they are lesbian. I mean, personally I think all women are (often unconscious) lesbians but also, of course that’s what I would say — that’s what a lesbian would want to believe. If any woman can become a lesbian, then that means we’re not doomed to a tiny dating pool. So I don’t know. I don’t think I was simply straight and then became a lesbian. I think I was a closeted lesbian, fortunate enough to come out. I think it was always there. It was just dormant. Who am I to say who is or isn’t a dormant lesbian? It says nothing about where it came from but that’s certainly my coming out story. Sorry it’s grim but that’s honestly how I figured it out.
But political lesbians are evil! \ Born-this-way is reactionary!
I could fall on either side of this… I want to stick up for the underdog though, who is clearly the social constructionist lesbian. No matter what your opinion on the origins and mechanisms of lesbianism (a SCIENTIFIC, empirical question, not a question to be answered by fighting with other women about whose opinions are “better”), lesbophobia is not inherent to radical feminism and it wouldn’t be radical or feminist if it didn’t include and uphold lesbians.
I mean, this is an actual waste of time to jockey for either side of the debate as though it actually matters — because it doesn’t. It’s a scientific question. It’s an empirical question. And maybe the answer is really somewhere around the middle, or maybe it’s not. It is ultimately incidental as to how to behave ethically.
Let’s put it this way — real lesbians are not threatened by these theories because these theories are about understanding the origins of lesbianism, which our enemies will use against us no matter what is the case. They will use any and all means to control and eradicate us. The real reason why lesbians are heated about these questions is because they are afraid of being eradicated, and rather than fight they want to go on academic rambles as if that will save us from the death blows of male supremacy. Au contraire, the only thing that will save us is us defending ourselves.
There are two sides to it, both sides have appreciable points. Yes, the “political lesbians” — if they exist — who actually like dick and actually should be calling themselves spinsters are being ridiculous. I mean, if you have any lesbian in you, you can’t like dick. Maybe try unlearning that first, and especially don’t talk to lesbians about it: more than likely, they don’t want to hear it. They don’t owe you the emotional labor, either. Lesbians have already written books (and essays, like this one, written for you) about it — go read them, or just go away.
That being said, please read this. Watch this. And read this, which includes essays describing examples of “lesbians” whose belief it is innate did not stop them from partaking in and even reinforcing compulsory heterosexuality.
It really cuts both ways. I think that unless we do all we can to actively fight compulsory heterosexuality, then even self-described “born this way” lesbians are not going to be equipped to fight off the years of constant grooming to get lesbians to accept dick. If they can’t peer into the social realm of what is actively trying to undermine their sexuality then they can’t fight it and will undermine themselves by allying with male-supremacist queer theorists, BDSMers, pornographers, and so on, just like they already have (if you read up about lesbian history). I am way more interested in erring on the side of casting a wider net for potential lesbians rather than making this out to be some kind of lottery ticket, especially when all there is at stake for me is siding with an underdog and like most anarchists I tend to do that, so it’s no skin off my back when the worst that could happen is some women decide they aren’t really lesbians after all.
Women are people, and some people just act really dumb. But I’m not threatened by that. I mean, color me naive. But I’m more worried about the men in this society.
I will take this more seriously when compulsory homosexuality becomes a thing. But it’s not. Compulsory heterosexuality reigns and serves patriarchy women on a silver platter, pre-groomed for the pickings. What do women gain from pretending to be lesbian, if it’s not for the male gaze? I am unconvinced that this will become a systemic issue: there is no foundation for it to take root. Are straight women just going to start pretending in droves to be lesbians? What does she gain from having sex with us? Why would she pretend to like it?
On a personal level, if my girlfriend starts talking about dicks, I will cut her loose. If she doesn’t have sex with me, she’s not a sexual partner. Simple as that. You’re not ready to date me if you haven’t figured out your sexual orientation, and I don’t care what the theory is behind it whether it’s social constructionist, biological constructionist, or both.
I also have reasons to suspect hypocrisy on the other side of the debate — the born-this-way assumption, which is often served up as an argument-from-ignorance. I have seen members of both sides of the debate behave really embarrassingly, claiming to be lesbian but not behaving in ways consistent with that by inviting men into the picture.
We can and should be able to disagree about political theories without drawing fault lines between women and playing respectability politics.
How do we do it? Even in the face of a heterosexist society, lesbians find each other. We’re in the street, on the job, in music, in books and poetry. It is said that we have always existed. We’re in the caring professions, in activism, in healing, and teaching. We’re in the struggle, or in the park. We’re in the prisons, homeless shelters, and bread lines.
We’re often alone. Perhaps being unaccompanied by a male, yet standing as strong and unphased Amazons — perhaps this gives us away.
But how can we pick each other out in other ambiguous situations? When we lock eyes, we know. We know, but others don’t seem to. We know without saying words that we are kin. Is it magic? Is it pheremones? Whatever it is, this is lesbian magnetism.