“We don’t have to imitate straightness because by definition, we exist to oppose and critique it.”
What is sex? Is it something we can define, or is it too personal and variable depending on who you ask? As I was beginning to conduct research for this paper, I asked some of the people around me if they could define sex, and got a wide array of answers from “stimulating another person” to “achieving orgasm” to “the giving or receiving of pleasure between one or more people”. What this made immediately clear to me was that sex is very abstract and variable, definitely not something that we can define absolutely, yet I began to realize upon further questioning that people were much quicker to determine what they didn’t consider to be sex: For many people I spoke with, masturbation was not considered sex but the same act with another partner was, or manual stimulation with another partner was considered sex in some cases and foreplay in others depending on the genders of the parties involved. This idea that gender determines what kind of sex ‘counts’ and what doesn’t led me to this research — I want to examine the ways that lesbians and queer women have been invalidated sexually in heteronormative society and how they find ways to expand the boundaries of sexual pleasure through subcultures. In this paper, I will begin by analyzing the dominant narrative surrounding “legitimate sex” by looking at virginity and the ways that it invalidates non-heterosexual, non-reproductive sex, and then move forward to examine the way that lesbian and queer sex is considered more valuable the closer resembles it heterosexual sex and what that means for the lesbian and queer communities and their presumed gender performativity. Using this knowledge and understanding of mainstream society in the United States, I will move into an examination of the ways that lesbians and queer women have found subculture communities in which the backbone of sex does not rely on the gender binary but rather on sexual preference (i.e. top/bottom, dom/sub etc), and how these subcultures have allowed them to push the boundaries of what normative society considers to be sex, resist heteronormative partner standards and generate pleasure in alternative ways.
When trying to pull apart what people view as ‘real sex’ or ‘acceptable sex’, one place to begin is by examining how we conceptualize virginity. In our society, female virginity is, for the most part, viewed as the loss of presence of a tiny piece of skin, one that could be shattered with fingers, phalluses, objects, stretching, etc, and associated with this loss is deep, personal growth and change, an ideology that is not nearly as strong when discussing male virginity (Carpenter 345). Yet when discussing the loss of a hymen, only penile penetration is considered to be able to shatter this, and consequently, take one’s virginity (Carpenter 348). Not only does this dominant language lead people to believe that the hymen can only be broken by a penis, but it also reinforced the idea that the only kind of sex that ‘counts’ is penetrative, penis/vagina sex, which in turn reinforces heterosexuality. If a queer woman has never had sex with a man, society tells her that she is still a virgin somehow because she has not yet been penetrated by a man, as if all of her past sexual experiences with women are invalidated unless she has had heterosexual sex. It also subconsciously leads queer women to believe that they are missing out on something that is essential to human existence, and places lesbians and queer women in a position where they are constantly having to justify their existence and identity to the world.
In a 2016 survey done by Laura Carpenter, author of Virginity Lost, and analyzed by Broadly, Vice’s feminist website and digital video channel, 22 gay and bisexual men and women from around the United States were asked what constituted loss of virginity. 21 of them agreed that a person could lose their virginity by engaging in oral and/or anal sex (Squires), however, none of them considered manual stimulation to result in loss of virginity. So if a hand is doing nearly the same motion as tongue, but the tongue can cause someone to lose their virginity and the hand can’t, then are we to assume that virginity is not about the person experiencing sex for the first time, but what object they are experiencing it with? With this logic, there is a line drawn between penetrative and oral sex and every other kind of sex, which does not hold up when you look at the heterosexual perspective, with one study stating that only 25% of heterosexual identified people deemed oral sex to be ‘having sex’ (Squires). Clearly, the definition of sex varies depending on who you ask, yet we can state that certain sexual acts are considered, for the most part, to be ‘sex’ and others are not. For example, we know that penetrative sex that involves a penis and a vagina are considered sex almost resoundingly, yet two women having sex with a dildo and a vagina is contested. This leads me to believe that the definition of sex is so rooted in misogyny and sexism that I would argue that any sex involving a man and a woman would be considered by many to be ‘real sex’, where the same acts between two women would be invalidated.
In mainstream media and society, we see images of lesbians and queer women, however scarce, that create a socially constructed idea of what a lesbian should look like. The same rings true for what lesbian sex should look like — the mass-market pornography industry has capitalized on lesbian sexuality for decades, carefully crafting a lesbian subject that is appealing to the male gaze (Dolan 170). This lesbian fantasy usually includes two women who seem to be existing not to give pleasure to their partner, but to solely take pleasure, which is pleasing to the male viewer because the concept of women giving other women pleasure is somehow threatening and dangerous to many straight men. Yet I will argue below that lesbians are taking this heteronormativity and turning it upside down by divorcing gender roles and sex, creating a space that is uniquely queer and lesbian. This will be the basis for many of the queer subcultures that I will examine during this paper, this concept of a distinctly lesbian space in which lesbianism is assumed and, with that in mind, gender can be bended and shifted (Dolan 170).
Butch Lesbian Subculture
“So what do you do in bed, then?” they always ask, but what they mean is “I think I already know what you do in bed because you’re a butch who likes femmes, so I’ve made assumptions on your behalf.” What they mean is “You’re ‘the man’, right?” What they mean is “You use a strap-on, right?”
Kate. “Butch Please: Sticks and Stones.” Autostraddle. N.p., 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2016
The butch/femme dynamic has been a staple of lesbian and queer culture for years, and has even been adopted by heteronormative society and turned into an ‘acceptable’ form of lesbianism because of its apparent ties to the heterosexual model of partnership (one dominant, masculine partner and one submissive female partner ( Ciasullo 578). Throughout much of history and feminist thought, the butch lesbian has been accused of reinforcing the patriarchy, assuming masculine traits that demean women, such as objectifying women’s bodies, treating sex as a conquest, etc (Nguyen 672). There is also a common assumption that butch lesbians are envious of men and constantly trying to emulate the male figure and mannerisms, including sexually. Yet the politics of identifying and presenting as a butch lesbian are much more complex, and involve a direct stab at the patriarchy and male masculinity — being a butch lesbian directly resists the idea that masculinity is the domain of men only, and as a butch body rejects femininity and subordination it is threatening normative gender roles (Nguyen 673). Mignon Moore argues that performances of gender within the lesbian community, and specifically the black lesbian community, are in place to subconsciously dictate to potential partners what to expect in a relationship (Moore 114), and while this may be true in some cases, the reality is much more complicated.
Within the subculture of butch lesbians, there are many facets of butch that exist, each with different cultures and social connotations, a fact that is not acknowledged by the heterosexual community, which likes to neatly place identities that they are not familiar or comfortable with in rigid categories (Ciasullo 581). Like any other identity, there is no one way to exist within the butch subcultures — the dominant narrative surrounding butch lesbians is that they typically date femme women, or women who present as very feminine. This same assumption is used in heteronormative society to conceptualize butch lesbians’ sex practices as well, with the idea that butch lesbians are the ‘top’, the dominant, the penetrator etc in a relationship because they embody masculinity. This assumption is, however, oversimplified because it relies on the idea that all butch women are interested in femme women, which is not the case, and the idea that all butch lesbians prefer to be the ‘top’ sexually, which is also untrue.
Despite the fact that there are so many existing ways to express both masculinity and femininity (or any combination of the two), butch lesbians are stereotyped as “brawny, overbearing and badly dressed . . . performances of masculinity central to normative male identity” (Jain), which also stereotypes butch lesbians as desiring penetrating a female partner sexually, usually with a dildo. This stereotype does ring true for a lot of lesbians who enjoy penetrative sex using sex toys such as dildos, strap ons and other objects, yet the misconception lies in the fact that women do not engage in these acts to recreate heterosexual sex in any way, and the presence of a dildo in no way labels someone as ‘masculine’ (Findlay 566). The only reason that we associate penile penetration with men is because our society has determined that anyone with a penis should and will embody certain traits sexually — aggressive, penetrator, powerful — all of which are associated with the term ‘masculine’, which is conflated with the term ‘man’. Under this extremely rigid understanding of gender, any person who penetrates another person with any object or body part is inherently masculine, which is simply not the case. Butch lesbian sexual desire and practice as well as gender presentation are examples of the lesbian identity existing as a resistance to normative gender roles, and the sex that butch lesbians have is no more similar to heterosexual sex than two femme women performing oral sex. I would like to think of butch identity not as a performance of masculinity necessarily, but rather a performance of acts commonly associated with masculinity.
The identity of a stone butch is a fantastic example of the ways that lesbian sexual pleasure is expanded and able to flourish within certain subcultures. A stone butch is a butch lesbian who takes pleasure in pleasing their partner, and usually prefers not to be touched on certain body parts. There’s a very common narrative within both the lesbian community and the mainstream heterosexual society that stone butch lesbians do not want to be touched because of past trauma, but again, this ignores the complexity of different identities. Stone butch lesbians are no less in control of their bodies than any other lesbian, they simply receive sexual pleasure in a different way that challenges normative concepts of what sex should be. The pressure from partners to allow them to reciprocate ‘sexually’ is common as well, and is illustrated in Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, which depicts the first sex scene between Leslie and her partner, Angie, with Angie stating “I just with I could make you feel that good. You’re stone already . . . It’s OK if you find a femme you can trust in bed and you want to say that you need something, or you want to be touched” (Feinberg 76). When considering this identity, which relies on the lack of normative ‘sexual’ touching for one person, one would not be able to locate its existence in mainstream heterosexual society, and I would argue that this identity could only exist within the queer community, a place where the entire concept of sex is queered. Within the queer community, especially the butch lesbian community, the stone butch identity has a strong presence, and is not a shocking or revolutionary identity, but simply another way for a butch lesbian to express their sexuality and identity. Were a scenario similar to the one Feinberg described to be enacted within a heterosexual partnership, I would argue that it would be met with significantly more confusion and rejection of the person’s identity as a ‘phase’ or something trauma related. This is not to say that this type of response is absent in lesbian and queer partnerships — as Kate explains in a personal Autostraddle essay, “When I explain that I’m a stone top, I know from the reactions, even from the things that are said outright, that it’s assumed this comes as a result of trauma, abuse, or another dark place” (Butch Please). I believe the difference here is in the fact that there is a community of people within the larger LGBTQ community that identifies as a stone butch, and therefore people within the LGBTQ community are aware of these identities and perhaps more respectful of them.
There is a common stereotype that the way that butch lesbians present their identities seems to be seen within the lesbian community as an indicator of what they enjoy sexually and in intimate relationships (Moore, 114). In the article Lipstick or Timberlands, Moore discusses the ways that the black lesbian community differs slightly in the assumptions made based on gender presentation by analyzing the location of black women within the second wave feminist movement and then discussing how this has shaped black lesbian gender presentation today. In her analysis, Moore describes a group of women in the black lesbian scene in New York City that she calls “transgressive”, defining this as people who “use the female body as the site for signifying masculinity” (Moore, 125). Many of the women in this community do not like the term butch, as it is a term mostly used within the white lesbian community, yet they identify with terms like “aggressive” or “assertive” similar to white women who identify as butch (Moore 126). Moore ascertains that “black lesbians in New York use gender display to
structure social interactions, and the order of these social interactions maintains social control in the community”, illustrating the ways that gender presentation has different connotations for people of different racial identities (Moore 129). Moore also explains that these transgressive black lesbian do typically generate intimate relationships with femme presenting women, and unlike the white lesbian community, this is recognized and accepted rather than fought against — these gendered identities are carefully construed and maintained in order to generate a particular social as well as sexual aesthetic.
BDSM and Power Dynamics
“My BDSM practices are definitely informed by my queer sensibilities — I am ever aware of the heteronormativity and cissexism in the BDSM worlds, and I think queers are doing amazing things to call attention to, work on, and transform what it means to explore gender, or explore power dynamics.”
Sexsmith, Sinclair. “Sinclair Sexsmith on “Say Please: Lesbian BDSM Erotica”: The Autostraddle Interview.” Autostraddle. N.p., 2014. Web.
Within heteronormative society, BDSM and sadomasochism is seen as deviant and is commonly associated with violence against women and sexual assault. People who practice “vanilla”, or normative, mainstream sex criticize BDSM for its ties to pain and physical harm, as well as for the supposed way that it normalizes male dominance over women. This is a misconstrued notion because while BDSM definitely relies in large part on dominance and submission, these two categories are divorced from the categories “male” and “female”, which I will discuss further in this section. For heterosexual S&M practitioners, their sexual preferences are pushing into the margins due to the imagined “fine line” between consenting s&m sexual acts and assault, which is more likely a discomfort with non-normative, non-reproductive sexual pleasure. While this in itself is harmful because it misinterprets BDSM at its core, the problem is magnified when we examine the ways that lesbian SM practitioners are stigmatized and marginalized within mainstream society. In this case, not only are the sexual practices considered non-normative because of their associations with physical harm and violence, but they are doubly deviant because the sex is between two people who identify as the same gender. The mere existence of lesbians and queer women challenges mainstream notions of what sexual pleasure means because of the lack of focus on genital penetration (Raj 123), and adding alternative forms of pleasure involving pain to the mix complicates the dominant heteronormative idea of what sex should look like because it is dually deviant.
During the ‘Sex Wars’ of the 1980s, sadomasochism became a contested term and practice, with many people voicing their opinions and concerns about practices that they knew little to nothing about in many cases. Those who supported and advocated for BDSM ascertained that the backbone of the practice was consent, and therefore is not debatable in terms of credibility and acceptability. Other thinkers criticized sadomasochism for its apparent reinforcement of male violence against women, and argued that it was another way for the patriarchy to assert dominance and power over women. While the latter view appears to be driven by feminist motives, it is wildly misconstrued and provides an uninformed analysis of what BDSM and sadomasochism is. Throughout this section, I will focus addressing the ways that BDSM works to dismantle normative sexual ideas of male dominance and female submissiveness by allowing dominance and submission to be characterized not by gender but by preferred role during sex, or other factors depending on individual preference. With this in mind, I will discuss how lesbians and queer women are able to find alternative forms of pleasure that are not restricted to normative sex practices, more specifically genital penetration, and the ways that this shift the normative definition of what sex is.
In order to further examine BDSM, we have to set up a basis of understanding and define the major roles included in BDSM practices. BDSM relies on roles, specifically dominant and submissive roles, yet as I stated previously, those roles are not inherently masculine or feminine. In one study of dominant and submissive BDSM roles, the participants were asked to explain and classify which of their personality characteristics outside of BDSM led them to their current role as either a dominant or submissive (Hébert, 51). For many of the people involved in this study, their role was an extension of their personality and the way they act and move through space in their everyday lives, which seems to be a common though about roles in BDSM — if someone is a natural leader in their everyday live, it makes sense that they would prefer to be dominant in BDSM play. However, there were many participants in this study who felt that the roles they play in BDSM are completely different than the roles they play in their day to day lives, and who use BDSM as a way to access a part of themselves that they are not able to access outside BDSM play and the BDSM community (Hébert 52). Both dominant and submissive identified participants agreed that in BDSM play, there is equal power between those participating, and although scenes frequently display power exchange, this is only temporary and is not lasting power or control over another person. Many used versions of the phrase “subs have the power, dom(me)s have the control” ( Hébert 52), meaning that though it would appear that the dominant person has the power over the scene, the sub has the power to end it or shape it at any time, while the dom is keeping the scene in control. This is essential to understand when discussing lesbian BDSM practices as a way to reject the patriarchal system of power and control, as well as the ways that sexual pleasure is given and received in the context of BDSM in contrast with normative sexual practices.
When addressing normative, heterosexual definitions of sex, there is a definite focus on genital pleasure, romantic intimacy and orgasm (Raj 124). Because this abstract definition of sex has been so normalized and reproduced, we as a society have come to only classify an act as sexual if it includes one or more of these categories — this is the same dominant narrative that causes many people to refuse to consider an act to be ‘legitimate’ sex if neither partner is able to achieve orgasm, or that stigmatizes loveless sex and somehow more deviant than sex that involves romantic interest. We are taught that violence should not and can not be associated with intimacy in a positive way, and that sexual pleasure can and should only be achieved by engaging in very specific sexual acts involving specific body parts. This assumption about sex is relevant to ‘vanilla’ lesbian sex as well as BDSM lesbian sex in that lesbian sex frequently involves body parts that are not used in normative heterosexual sex to begin with, and does not always look the way we are taught that sex should look. When you combine the ‘deviance’ of coupling pain and pleasure with the ‘deviance’ of queer sex, we can see a double bind for lesbian in which they may not be accepted in normative society if they engage in ‘vanilla’ sex, and may not be accepted within the lesbian community if they engage in BDSM, leaving this community in an interesting liminal position in which the sex that queer women involved in BDSM are having is deviant in every normative sense of the word, and they are therefore pioneering new definitions of sex within the community.
Queer sex involving BDSM allows for the cultivation of a different definition of pleasure, one which is not necessarily rooted in the classic, heteronormative, romantic ideologies of sex and intimacy. By allowing concepts like intimacy, pain, aggression, etc to exist within the realm of sexual pleasure, BDSM is expanding the boundaries and parameters of sex. Lesbian women who practice BDSM are challenging this further because there is no power involved relating to gender — because there is a lack of the “one man and one woman” stereotype about sex, it is more difficult for people to conceptualize and classify the sex that women are having with each other. Lesbian BDSM practices allow women to abandon traditional narratives of male aggression and female submission completely and break down some of the backbones of sex as we know it. Our society is socialized and taught that the female body is a receptacle for male desire and male pleasure, so the idea that two women are involved in this kind of power play absent of men is deviant in more ways than one. Outside of the BDSM community, dominance and submission is not something that is predetermined by consenting participants and able to be stopped at any time, and for queer women in the BDSM community, having the ability to explore sexual pleasure without the boundaries of normative sex can be liberating (Raj 124).
There are many ways that lesbians involved in BDSM get sexual pleasure that are non normative, and while many do not involve penetration at all, some do. The concept that acceptable penetration can only involve a vagina and a penis remains a strong force in our society, and within the BDSM community, this reigning concept is almost completely abandoned. BDSM allows for lesbian women to embrace a wide array of penetrative sex practices, from manual penetration to use of toys to use of other body parts. Many BDSM practitioners enjoy the way they can use body parts for sexual pleasure that have been ‘rejected’, or not seen as typically pleasure giving (Raj 126).
One of the most important way that BDSM provides a safe space for queer women to explore their sexualities is that the building blocks of the BDSM community do not rely on the gender binary and stereotypical gender roles. As normative society has two roles, man and woman, where the man is dominant and the female is submissive, BDSM has dominant and submissive roles, neither of which are reliant on gender in any way. So for queer women who are dominant, there is not necessarily an association with masculinity. This can be very liberating, especially in a society that, for the most part, associates dominance with masculinity, and while many women embody masculinity, within this community there should be no reason that a person would be identified as masculine by a third party based solely on their sexual preferences. The dominant/submissive dynamic is more of a way to demonstrate preference and difference, rather than power. Furthermore, though there is a power dynamic involved in much of BDSM play, there is also safety. For queer women engaging in play that could be potentially triggering for them, there is always a safe word and always consent, where in normative sexual society this concept is not practiced.
In an article written by Alaina, a queer, non binary black person, they discuss a scenario where their partner asked them to be in a relationship where Alaina would be a ‘slave’ and their partner would be a ‘master’, and Alaina expresses their discomfort with this term and attempts to dissect how another black person could propose this. Alaina refused this offer, and was able to express to their partner why this was not comfortable for them, and their partner did not feel the same way, but did not pressure them at all (Bottoms Up: Nope). This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of BDSM that makes it a safer space for queer people — the fact that Alaina’s partner proposed something and Alaina was able to give a resounding no as an answer and this was not questioned. Although this particular article also opens BDSM to criticism as a place where hierarchies are not free from those that exist in normative society, the fact that people feel comfortable saying no is extremely important, and this comfort stems from the fact that the BDSM community revolves around consent.
Exploring polyamory for me is almost like exploring a new kind of queerness. It’s acknowledging that there’s more than one or even two ways to look at what a relationship can be. It’s not monogamy vs. polygamy just like it’s not gay vs. straight. It’s various personal experiences and interpretations of how we feel about love and sex
–Katrina. Autostraddle. N.p., 2016. Web.
Within the queer community, there is a large population of polyamorous queer women who push the boundaries of normative sex and sexuality by engaging in non-monogamous partnerships. Polyamory means “many loves”, and polyamorous people have loving, intimate relationships with more than one person. Our society reinforces the idea that women should be solely monogamous with a male partner, and this creates a limited window in which women, especially queer women, are able to openly explore their personal sexual identities (Ritchi 143). Furthermore, queer women who exist mostly within heteronormative society are very often valued based on the extent to which they imitate heterosexual partnerships, and the normative heterosexual partnership is monogamous. The polyamorous subculture allows queer women to resist this normative idea of what relationship and sex should look like from within a community that already exists on the margins of normative society.
For this section of my research, it was difficult to find scholarly sources and peer reviewed material covering queer polyamorous sexuality, most likely due to the fact that the community has not received a lot of attention in the wake of gay marriage, etc. This is a common phenomenon, and polyamorous queer women often face having their identities completely invalidated because of their non-monogamy — not only are they queer but they are also not palpable, legible queers, and because of this, their sexuality is often glossed over. I turned to dialogues from queer website Autostraddle, in particular the “Poly Pocket” series, which features Carolyn Yates exploring polyamory with various queer women who are involved with the community. I think that by analyzing these narratives of people’s lived experiences, we can see the true extent to which the polyamorous community allows queer women to push the boundaries of sex.
The first dialogue that I will analyze is between Carolyn Yates, the NSFW editor of autostraddle, and her partner Shannon, with Shannon identifying as as polyamorous gay white butch cis woman, and Carolyn identifying as a polyamorous queer white femme cis woman (Making Relationships Up As We Go). One of the most important aspects of this article revolves around the fact that these two women are not restricted by the sexual preferences of their primary partner, in this case, eachother. Sex with multiple partners allows for queer women to explore all facets of their sexual identity, and challenge the norms of what a sex life has to look like.
They could be engaging in different sexual acts with different partners, experimenting in ways which monogamous people may not feel comfortable doing unless both partners had the same sexual interests, which takes a lot of pressure off of people who are in relationships where both partners want different things, both sexually and romantically. Shannon and Carolyn both identify as kinky, and consider it to be an important aspect of their relationship as well as their personal identities, yet Shannon is currently dating people who are vanilla, meaning that they do not practice kink or BDSM. Shannon explains, “maybe I just couldn’t see having another serious submissive. I’m too devoted to that dynamic between [Carolyn] and I” (Making Relationships Up As We Go). Carolyn does not want to engage in vanilla sex at all, but Shannon is at liberty to have any kind of sex she wants, which actually strengthens her relationship with Carolyn. Being able to explore other aspects of one’s sexuality is a huge part of polyamory, and it relies heavily on being able to express one’s wants and needs to both one’s primary and secondary, etc, partners. Most of the dialogues and blog posts that I read from this website as well as others ascertained that this concept is something that is distinctly absent in monogamous relationships, including queer ones, and is something that polyamory provides that is comforting and welcoming to people who don’t identify as heterosexual, cis, etc. In a similar dialogue between two queer writers Lauren and Katrina, Katrina states “It’s important to us not just as queer women, but as WOMEN. Men have monopolized the idea of multiple sexual partnership for all of time: from the pre-feminist acceptance of men having mistresses . . . it’s not fair to ignore this desire in women. Sex does matter to us. It’s not an obligation and it’s not for procreation, and we do it for love, yeah, but we do it for fun too. ‘Cause it feels good, ’cause we wanna, and ’cause we can” (Why We Have an Open Relationship). This quote synthesizes many important reasons why queer women feel validated within this community — it is a space where people of all genders are able to express their desire to have sex with or have intimate romantic relationships with more than one person, and there is no stereotype about who is able to do this and who isn’t. This community also focuses heavily on sexual pleasure and achieving the pleasure that one desires, and being a part of a community that relies on conversation and expression of desires and feelings is really helpful for people who feel like their pleasure has been erased or silenced by mainstream normative society.
This community can also provide an outlet for bisexual, asexual and pansexual folks and their partners. In an interview with Linh, who is a 22 year old Vietnamese-American woman who identifies as bisexual, poly, and gray ace, she explains how her unique sexuality and multifaceted identity are able to coexist within poly in a way that was uncomfortable for her in normative relationships. Gray ace, or gray asexuality, is an identity that exists somewhere between sexuality and asexuality, and refers to people who exist on the spectrum between the two. For her, poly is less about sexual relationships and more about personal ones — she states “When people think of polyamory, they usually imagine a huge orgy or someone who’s having sex with a lot of people. In my case, that’s not what’s happening at all . . . I just know in my heart that I am capable and willing to love more than one person — sex or no sex” (Gray Ace, Bi and Poly). While she ascertains that for many people polyamory is primarily or in large part about sex, what Linh’s narrative makes clear is that polyamory can be about whatever one wants it to be about, and that is part of what makes it such a welcoming identity for queer who don’t fit into to hegemonic society.
Polyamory is not a fixed identity; it can be for some people, but it can also be fluid and practiced in many different ways. Linh, for example, is in a relationship with her partner and is not dating anyone else but hopes to be, Shannon and Carolyn are married but each have many other relationships, Zaynab Shahar, who identifies as a queer, black, Muslim (Sufi), fat, femme, cis woman, practices solo poly, which she describes as not having “a primary partner nor . . . dating with the goal of placing people on a hierarchy of primary/secondary/etc. I’m dating multiple people to have relationships and see where it goes and not really focus on having hierarchy right now”, which contrasts with many partnerships that have clear primaries, secondaries, etc (Solo Poly Without Hierarchy). For Zeynab, as well as many others, poly is also about resisting oppression and creating a relationship in which identities are respected and celebrated, stating that she has ended relationships because her partners have not been willing to work to make her safe as a black femme woman (Solo Poly Without Hierarchy).
Within all these narratives, we can see that polyamory is not easily defined, and does not look the same for all people involved, but it is clear that this is a community where LGBTQ identities are able to express their sexuality due to the high level of communication which is a backbone for this community and those who identify as polyamorous as well as the open exploration of sexual practices that do not necessarily mirror what one typically does with one’s partner. I would argue that this community is especially important for women who identify as pansexual or bisexual because for many people, monogamy can feel like an erasure of their more complex identities.
For queer women living in the United States, sexual pleasure is something that is so regulated and normalized by heteronormative society that we are taught from a young age that our sexuality is something fixed, rigid and not open for exploration. The media, education system and colloquial dialogue all provide very specific images and ideas of what sex can and should look like, and for queer women and lesbians, this can be extremely restrictive. Subcultures within the lesbian and queer community allow for many different forms of sex to be practiced and praised, challenging the idea that there is a ‘normal’ or ‘good’ way to have sex. Though these subcultures exist within the larger hegemonic structures and institutions, they are able to reject and resist them by generating a culture of exploration and celebration of difference. Queer subcultures allow queer women to explore their sexuality from spaces that are safer than the spaces presented by heteronormative society, spaces where the norm of sex is already shifted from mainstream society’s norm. From there, lesbians and queer can push the boundaries on the mass market definition of sex and generate and give pleasure in alternative ways.
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