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Strapping It On in the Third Wave

Recently, my girlfriend (I'll call her "Clair") asked me to fuck her with a strap-on dildo — a request that had never before been asked of me. As a sex-positive dyke, I truly wish that I could write about having enthusiastically opened my sex toy cabinet, all the while inquiring about her preferred diameter, length, color, and material. However, after having come out and spent most of my adult life in the butch-femme lesbian subcommunity, I found the thought of wearing a strap-on myself very very wrong — a boundary into the land of masculine gender identity that I did not want to cross. Wishful sex-positive thinking aside, in reality, I freaked out, I cried, then I freaked out some more. Clair, whose ex's included several dildo-wearing self-identified femmes, was baffled by my reaction, and recanted her request. But it was too late; the damage was done. I had to confront my fear of wearing the strap-on. Being the analytical, heady type, I quickly eschewed any notion of examining my feelings on a therapist's futon, and instead endeavored to unravel the meaning that this particular sex act and sex toy held for me, a third-wave feminist whose introduction to feminism and whose Women's Studies degree were steeped in second-wave feminism.

At the risk of overstating, I want to reiterate that Clair was not asking me simply to penetrate her with my hand or a hand-held dildo or vibrator, all acts that I was perfectly capable of completing (and enjoying) without triggering a gender crisis. The issue was wearing a harness to attach the dildo to my pubic area — an act which signified, to me, an enormous affront to my femme sexual mystique. Since my reaction was based in gender identity — rather than in, say, the feminist implications of penetrative intercourse as pondered by Andrea Dworkin — I began my inquiry by considering third-wave butch-femme sexual dynamics.

Most of the writings about butch-femme gender dynamics and sexuality were published in the 1990s — overlapping with the birth of third-wave feminism.

Butch-Femme and the Waves
Butch-femme gender dynamics and sexuality cannot be contained within either second- or third-wave feminism, or even within feminism more broadly. Butch-femme, as a set of distinct lesbian social mores, predated second-wave feminism, and is generally traced to pre-Stonewall working-class bar culture. While second-wave lesbian feminists are often described as having been opposed to butch-femme dynamics, seeing them as heterosexual mimicry or even internalized patriarchy, most of the very first writings about butch-femme dynamics were penned and edited by second-wave feminists, such as Joan Nestle and Dorothy Allison. Notably, however, these second-wave women did not write about butch-femme dynamics during the crest of second-wave feminism; instead, most of the writings about butch-femme gender dynamics and sexuality were published in the 1990s — overlapping with the birth of third-wave feminism.

Butch-femme gender identities are not solely a second-wave phenomena, as self-identified third-wave feminists have also been involved in the butch-femme renaissance. One of the first third-wave anthologies, Rebecca Walker's To Be Real, published in 1995, includes an essay entitled "Femmenism", where the author states that "femmenism is where the third wave of Western feminism and the third wave of American lesbianism intersect." In this essay, as is the case with many coming-out-as-femme narratives, the author makes a claim to her inherent femme-ness by emphasizing her childhood gravitation towards Easy Bake ovens, frilly dresses, and all sorts of other markers of conventional femininity. She daintily skirts around any explicit discussion of her sexual practices with her butch partner — perhaps another nod to stereotypical good-girl femininity — and cryptically states only that, "If my girlfriend and I choose to split up our household chores fairly evenly, the division of labor in our bedroom is more complex."

Hmmmm. That did not really help me. I wasn't a girly-girl as a child, and even if I had been, would that make me secure enough in my gender identity to comply with Clair's request decades later? No, I wouldn't be able to work through this via claims to some sort of femme purity from birth.

As I read on, I found a passage in "Sex, lies, and penetration: A butch finally 'fesses up" (from Joan Nestle's The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader) that made me gasp: "The myth of the stone butch says that we don't need, that the sexual gratification we get is from doing the fucking. Girls, we lied to you for years. We knew you wouldn't want it any other way....We have a horror of the pity-fuck...the thought of the contempt in our partners' eyes when we have allowed them to convince us that they really do want to touch us, to take us." The raw intensity of the author's vulnerability was powerful, but her experience itself was so fucking sad. What were this author's lovers thinking, doing, wanting; were they so wrapped up in their own identities, their own genders that they couldn't truly see their partners? Was I?

How could I consider myself an empowered, sex-positive feminist if I couldn't proverbially rise to the occasion?

I wondered what it had taken Clair to make this request of me, and how she was dealing with my freaked-out reaction. When asked, she explained that it was difficult for her to accept that she wanted this kind of sex; in general, she doesn't feel like a woman, but as the receptive partner during strap-on sex, she is acutely aware that she is female-bodied — a feeling that isn't entirely comfortable for her. Yet despite her gender-dysphoric discomfort, Clair still wants the enjoyment and pleasure that comes from engaging in what her body wants. How could I consider myself an empowered, sex-positive feminist if I couldn't proverbially rise to the occasion?

Prior to this experience, I had grown increasingly uncomfortable identifying as a "femme", feeling that it was too loaded a term, too heavy with other people's histories and experiences, and that I kept having to justify, to others and to myself, how I could _______ (e.g., drink dark beer, know how to drive stick, fix a flat tire, stand up to men) and still be a femme. While there are undoubtedly femmes out there who aren't "pillow princesses" or "do-me queens" — and I count myself among them — my own historical sense of being femme was very tied to butch-femme, which for me, and for the butches I had dated, had very sharp, very clear sexual boundaries. Although I had eroded most of those boundaries over time, one hard boundary remained: my lovers and I did not "take turns wearing the strap-on"; rather, they "had" a dick — an energetic dick that was grounded and embodied in silicone — and I did not. By transgressing the strap-on boundary — the lingering vestigial remnant of my own sexual binary — I felt that I was transcending "femme", rather than once again wrestling with my femme identity, expanding or redefining it. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and if the label didn't fit anymore, to hell with the label. Other self-identified, strap-on wearing femmes could certainly have different experiences and reach different conclusions. Nonetheless, that was mine.

Although both second and third-wave feminists claim butch-femme dynamics, there are significant differences in the two waves' notions of gender. Both within the lesbian communities and within the broader American culture, in the 1970s feminists and lesbians were struggling against a narrower range of appropriate female gender expression than their third-wave counterparts were facing in the 1990s. What began as butch, femme, and androgynous during the second wave exploded during the third wave — thanks to queer theory — into butch, femme, androgynous, hard andro, soft andro, soft butch, high femme, boi, genderqueer, transgender, intersex, drag king/queen, bio king/queen, male-to-female transsexual, female-to-male trannsexual (pre-op, post-op, non-op), bi-gendered, third gender, two-spirit, and infinite other variations. If I were going to craft a feminist understanding of my strap-on issues, I would have to graduate from straight-up butch-femme analyses, and wade into the fluid waters of queer theory.

I began looking at dildos and harnesses on-line.

Queer Theory
In Allison Bechdel's comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, Mo is confronted by her new lover's "seven-and-a-half inch 'cyborgasm' with the 'vegan desperado' 100% nylon harness". When a confused Mo stutters that Sydney said she was a femme, Sydney — a professor of queer theory — replies, with a gesture towards her strap-on, that she is "disarticulating the epistemological foundation of gender through deferral and deconstruction of fixed sexual signifiers". I loved this particular strip, and remember tacking it up on my bulletin board in the late 1990s — long before I had to face disarticulating gender with my own strap-on.

In brief, queer theory posits that both sex and gender are social constructs — rather than an inherent binary system — which can, and should, be deconstructed. Riki Wilchins gives an everyday example of this deconstruction of supposedly fixed gender symbols in Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender:

I'm standing outside looking around and I spot someone walking down the street with tight blue jeans, a cute butt, and long swaying blonde hair. Nice set of signs there: visions of soft, young genderbunnies dance in my head. Suddenly, the person turns the corner and I see the full beard and lean chest. The genderbunny vanishes, only to be replaced with the thought of a neo-hippie guy... What happened? The symbols stayed the same. The tight jeans, butt, and hair remained unchanged, but the meaning of these symbols has shifted for me. Put another way, I'm performing a different set of meanings on that body. And if I'm later introduced to that person as a female-to-male transsexual, chances are I'll reorganize the meaning yet again. For that matter, if he/she turns out to be Jennifer Miller, who performs as 'The Bearded Lady', doubtless I'll go through yet another reorganization...then fall to the floor in a postmodern frenzy."

Third-wave feminism, depending on the theorist, is more or less influenced by and overlaps with queer theory. From a third-wave perspective, even traditional gendered displays — such as short hair, male attire, or frilly, pink clothes — are not necessarily associated with the same gender meaning — or gender at all — for different individuals. The very nature of the term "queer" defies attempts at discrete categorization; queer has as many definitions and understandings as there are people who claim the identity. Since there is no core understanding of queer gender or queer sexuality, the beauty — and the challenge — is figuring out how to understand, negotiate, and respect everyone's individual queer gender/sexuality. A queer theory influenced third-wave feminism would certainly give me the theoretical framework to experience both Clair's (and my past masculine/butch lovers') sense of their strap-on as their "dick", and my wearing of a strap-on dildo as a sex toy, with no connection to my gender identity.

I finally ordered a sparkly pink vinyl harness and a mostly matching fuchsia dildo. Clair's comment upon seeing the harness was that it was "quite feminine" — exactly the look I was hoping for. I was very clear with Clair that this was a dildo — not my dick — and that we would not share the pink dildo or the pink harness. I will not "pack" with it — i.e. wear it under my clothing — or use it as any sort of other gender display, even though queer theory/third-wave feminism would certainly back up any claim I might want to make to being a girly-girl with a big, sparkly, pink dick. And while I would certainly back-up any other queer's claim to being a girly-girl (or girly-boi, or girl-boy, or boi-boy) with a big, sparkly, pink dick, that's not my gendered construction. Unlike Sydney, my intention and motivation are not — queer theory and feminism aside — the deconstruction or disarticulation of gender. My intention is to get Clair off — not as a femme, but as a third-wave, sex-positive, queer girl.

Graphics Credits

  • sparkly strap-on, sketch.© 2006, Sage Starwalker.
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