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Erotic and Pornographic Art: Lesbian  
 
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Frank sexuality begins to appear in the 1970s in the work of lesbian feminist photographers, such as Cynthia MacAdams, whose Rising Goddess series of nudes manages to express both sensuality and desire. However, MacAdams' work is often (not always) derivative, and her nude studies of young girls, innocent in the context of the time, would cause outrage if published today.

The undoubted star of lesbian feminist erotic art is Tee Corinne, whose defiant insistence that lesbian liberation must include sexual liberation broke new ground.

Sponsor Message.

Corinne's detailed and loving visual exploration of women's genitals, genuinely shocking at the time, made a powerful statement in a context where such images were taboo, and offered lesbians an unfamiliar opportunity to enjoy the desiring "gaze" in freedom. Corinne's Yantras of Womanlove, published by Naiad Press in 1982, was the first ever book of lesbian sex photographs, predating Della Grace's Love Bites by nine years.

Lesbian Erotic Iconography

In contrast to such attempts to devise a uniquely lesbian erotic iconography free from patriarchal contamination, some lesbians responded to the pornography debate by consciously reworking established pornographic codes.

Since these "sex-radical dykes" largely identified with the sadomasochistic community, the codes used depended heavily on S&M iconography, including leather, basques, stilettoes, suspenders, and bondage paraphernalia. Critics insisted that such imagery could not be divorced from its sexist, often racist, origins. Nevertheless, whether because it "works" politically or sexually, or because it appeals to heterosexual white men, this genre has recently become the dominant one in lesbian pornography.

Adopting Established Codes

Artists who adopt the established codes from either gay or straight men's pornography may do so in ways that strive to wrest control of the gaze from men.

Photographer Della Grace, for example, conscious of the exploitation of women in heterosexual pornography, has explored different ways of confronting this problem in her work. One exhibition of her staged sex photographs featured audio tapes of the models talking about their feelings during the shoot, and she went on to photograph herself in explicit sexual scenarios, shutter-release bulb visibly in shot.

Others may parody the traditional codes of male pornography, may use them ironically, or may attempt to subvert them by incorporating them into butch-femme role play. For example, English photographer Tessa Boffin reworks the classic tale of the sex-hungry sailor and the tart, by reversing the gender of the protagonists.

Morgan Gwenwald's photographic sequence of a lesbian couple in butch-femme drag, playing out staged sex scenes in New York's Central Park, exploits the iconography of sleazy heterosexuality. Similarly, her shot of a femme in lacy bra unzipping the fly of her butch to reveal a disconcertingly life-like silicone penis is both an ironic comment on the "lesbian phallus" and a knowing reference to lesbian sexual pleasures.

Politics and the Sex Wars

The contextual problems of lesbian erotica mean that it seldom attains the unselfconscious raunchiness of gay men's pornography. Much sexually explicit lesbian art is intellectual, ironic, or overtly political in a way that is not the case for other pornographic traditions.

Lesbian erotica must also be seen in the context of the "sex wars," which split feminists into two groups: those who believe sexually explicit imagery to be irrevocably contaminated by sexism and others who insist that sexual exploration is central to women's liberation. This conflict led to the development of a unique phenomenon that might best be described as "agit-porn," whereby lesbians used painting, photography, and performance to push the boundaries of representation of lesbian sexuality and challenge pro-censorship feminists.

The best example of this phenomenon is the Canadian collective Kiss & Tell. This trio of lesbians, Susan Stewart, Persimmon Blackbridge, and Lizard Jones, set out deliberately to challenge both feminist and state-sponsored censorship by producing explicit photographic images exploring lesbian sexuality.

For their participatory exhibition, "Drawing the Line," which toured Canada, the United States, and Australia in 1988, Kiss and Tell asked viewers to write comments on the walls alongside the images (men wrote theirs in a book in the center of the gallery), and these comments were then published with a selection of the photographs in a pull-out postcard book.

The last card in the book was self-addressed to the collective, and encouraged readers to contribute their own comments. This combination of encouraging sexual arousal along with democratic participation in political debate is unique to lesbian sex art.

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