“The key to understanding the butch-fem erotic system is to grasp that it both imitates and transforms heterosexuality.
The obvious similarity between butch-fem and male-female eroticism is that they are both based on gender polarity: in lesbian culture, masculine and feminine appearance was central to erotic attraction. In addition, there are also more subtle parallels. Even the butch’s concern with pleasing her fem did not originate in lesbian culture. The middle-class marriage manuals of the thirties and forties emphasised the importance of husbands pleasing their wives.
On the whole, these books treated women’s sexuality as mystical and hidden, having to be awakened by a loving man. They urged husbands to satisfy their wives and extolled the virtues of mutual orgasm. Although part of heterosexual culture, these ideas never fully challenged male sexual practice; most men still emphasised their own satisfaction and rarely expended the energy necessary to learn the complexities of the female body and regularly satisfy their wives. Furthermore, the ideal of the untouchable bears a striking resemblance to male sexuality’s exclusive focus on the penis’ power, ignoring the sensuality of the entire male body.
Despite these similarities, several features of lesbian erotic culture distinguished it sharply from the heterosexual world. First, the butch-fem erotic system did not consistently follow the gender divisions of the dominant society. The active, or “masculine”, partner was associated with the giving of sexual pleasure, a service usually assumed to be “feminine”. In contrast, the fem, although the more reactive partner, demanded and received sexual pleasure and in this sense might be considered the more self-concerned or even more “selfish” partner.
The polarity of active and passive does not adequately capture the butch-fem dyad. Although the butch was more aggressive, the fem was not passive. Her responsiveness showed that she actively wanted to be desired, and to offer her experience of pleasure to her butch. Second, the butch’s pleasure was always connected to the act of giving; her ability to pleasure her fem was the key to her own satisfaction. This was not true of men. Rather, the advice books and columns were aimed at “taming” the “true” male sexuality, usually felt to be brutish and uncontrolled, by emphasising the woman’s pleasure. The unique sexual desire of the butch opened the pathway for women to explore and enjoy their sexual potential.
Third, and finally, the butch-fem erotic culture contained few sanctions against women’s expression of sexuality: sexual expression was associated primarily with pleasure. The dangers inherent in sex for heterosexual women in a male-supremacist society – loss of reputation, economic dependency, pregnancy, and disease – were absent in the lesbian community. Butches challenged rather than reinforced patriarchal rules about women’s sexual expression.”

Elizabeth Laposvky Kennedy & Madeline Davis, “They Was No One To Mess With: The Construction of the Butch Role in the Lesbian Community of the 1940s and 1950s”
The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch Reader, 1992

stone behaviour, of course, existed prior to the cultural establishment and naming of it as an identity, but history matters: how butchxfem culture developed and why has a lot to say in response to accusations against us of being regressive or imitative of heterosexuality.  the fact that butches of this era were appropriating material meant for heterosexual couples, learning it and enthusiastically practicing it in a truly sincere and whole-hearted way (in contrast to their male counterparts) is significant, and incredibly poignant and meaningful.

I can imagine that the framing of butchxfem erotic exchange in this manner was also critically important to stone butches because of the validation it would have provided for being stone. the expectation for women at the time was to be receptive, and to be without boundaries.  in this way a stone butch’s experience of desire was quite unique and without any cultural point of reference. but in these books, as interpreted through the eyes of butches – gender non-conforming women – there was a conceptual framework for their desires and for the boundaries around their bodies which were so central to those desires. a way of situating themselves as sexual partners and lesbian women that upheld and affirmed their preferences and let to the formation of a unified understanding. desires that ultimately, through these community practices, came to be crystallised as a lesbian sexual identity called stone.


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  1. Pingback: Lesbian Historian Icons: Dr. Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy & Madeline D. Davis | persistently fem

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