like so many aspects of our culture targeted by outsiders, it’s been claimed as necessarily feminist to quit those quaint rituals of supposed heteronormativity, once again conflating butch and fem identity with typical straight male/female roles.
the codes of ofos were, of course, already old-fashioned by the 80s, but as our culture began to crumble under the weight of the sex wars and the rise of the queer community, ofos became a term of resistance against the loss of our traditions and a refusal to accept them as oppressive. ofos spaces were usually strictly lesbian as well, devoted to honouring butch identity as capable of occupying multiple dimensions of gender without the need to transition, and affirming that butch identity can exist wholly separately to trans male identity.
there is so much stigma attached now to the idea of ofos. fems who enjoy ofos are characterised as spoiled, entitled, ungrateful princesses. butches who adhere to ofos are perceived as sexist, patronising, predatory chauvinists. overall it’s seen as outdated and regressive. the greatest objection is laid on the basis that these rituals resemble heterosexual interactions, but that they are anti-feminist runs a close second. the real problem, of course, is that all these detractors are contexualising it within a heterosexual framework. therefore they continuously miss the point, as they have always done when it comes to the butch-fem dynamic.
ofos is not an obligatory and inhibitive code of propriety, nor does it rest on the idea that fems are delicate and weak and must be catered to, or that butches see fems that way. nor does it contradict principles of feminism – these behaviours are occurring between lesbians. the footing is equal. gender presentation doesn’t change that.
these rituals of old-fashioned courtesy and chivalry, like so much else about traditional butch-fem culture, are about romance, courtship and – significantly – an explicitly erotic language that adds potency to our dynamic.
butch and fem identities have never been about conforming to heteronormativity. when has a visible lesbian couple ever been acceptable? the notion that butch-fem partnerships have ever been more tolerated by the heteropatriarchy is ludicrous – it was an act of bravery and resistance for butch women to blaze the trail they did, for being visibly lesbian increased the potential risk of violence from straight society. and it still does. fem women are perceived as straight and so therefore ‘stolen’ when we are with butch women, perverting nature by preferencing an imitator of maleness rather than the real thing. a defining element of the eroticism inherent to our dynamic lies in our polarity to each other, and our contradiction of the roles set out for us by society.
this polarity is charged with a sensuality and desire that is an intoxicating aspect of the butch-fem dynamic. inherent to it is the mutual respect and appreciation both butch and fem have for each other, as well as the deep affection and attraction we feel for the way we express ourselves and our identities. the practices of ofos are fuelled by love, reverence, kindness and carnality.
the sexual element of butch-fem culture is often disregarded in favour of contriving ways to equate it with heterosexual culture. but the intense eroticism of it has always been critical to butches and fems, blatant desire for each other intrinsic to the very nature of our community.
tenderness and nurturing are also key elements of butch-fem partnerships. in earlier times when oppression was much greater and the risks of being out much higher, butches and fems protected each other passionately against a brutal world, each taking care of the other in ways uniquely manifested for women in a rigidly heterosexual society. now, in contemporary times, butch-fem relationships are further complicated by isolation from lesbian community as well, strengthening the bonds of loyalty and devotion between us.
in this context it becomes clear then that ofos practices compose part of our erotic exchange, serving as a psychological foreplay that is about constantly reinforcing both care and desire. when a butch opens a door for her fem, placing a hand gently on the small of her back, it may look to others as though she is ushering her through, but the fem feels the warmth of her butch’s touch, the way her fingertips curl gently against her, and recognises the promise of passion to follow. when a fem reaches out and adjusts her butch’s collar, she may look to others as though she is fussing, but the butch feels the lingering of her fem’s hand near her pulse, how tangible her desire even through the stiff material, and knows her passion will later be matched. butch and fem seduce each other through these silent exchanges, long before anything more overt occurs. it is a language of exquisitely drawn-out anticipation, of tease and enticement, of subtle promises of carnal pleasure and spiritual understanding.
even other elements of ofos lifestyles play into this dynamic of seduction and devotion. heteronormative household roles become depoliticised when practiced by two women, and butch-fem partnerships rarely, if ever, have rigid delineations anyway. roles will blend and overlap – but even still, certain zones will be claimed by one or the other. the practice of caring for each other through acts and gestures that feel most natural to each increases intimacy – and it’s not just for the sake of our partners that this is important. ofos butches and fems give each other the space and support to be true to ourselves without oppressiveness or resistance – but with acceptance and affirmation. when your lesbianism and womanhood is constantly under attack from external forces, this is vital.
ofos practitioners are often stone as well, and the language then becomes more loaded still. the butch’s assertive chivalry towards her fem indicates her sexual prowess; the fem who graciously accepts this chivalry demonstrates her eager receptiveness. erotic potential has complex intersections with lived experience; the butch, who is so often ridiculed and reviled for her gender expression, finds her natural self honoured and craved by the fem. the fem, who is demeaned and scorned for her more conventional femininity, finds that the butch treasures and admires it. these elements have traditionally fuelled desire between stone butches and fems, the evidence that our own inclinations have their natural match and can find fulfillment together.
the restraint of these public behaviours only makes the tension more irresistible, more erotic, giving away nothing of the enormity of our passion and sexual hunger when we are alone together. when a butch is impeccably courteous and devout to her fem on a date, it is not because she believes women need chivalry, but because she enjoys making her fem feel adored. it also serves to increase the fem’s anticipation of her unrestrained lust later on, how her butch will fuck her fiercely and not politely at all, satisfying at last the agony of desire that only compounded the longer their courtship played out. when a fem waits for her butch to make the first move, it is not because she lacks sexual assertiveness, or because she thinks it would be unseemly for her to do so, but because she enjoys the experience of the butch’s heightening desire for her, of frustrating it with flirtatious looks and her hands primly folded in her lap, concealing her own yearning with thighs pressed tight together. her butch knows that later it will be the fem tugging the buttons of her shirt undone, yanking down her fly, uninhibited and insatiable in her lust. both butch and fem are excited and aroused by the other’s specific desire for them, the validation and celebration of two very different types of womanhood.
and although we are very different, there is lots that we share too, significantly lesbianism. we are attracted to the ways we are different and seek to celebrate them – not by imitating heterosexual culture, but by imparting it with new significance as a means through which we as gay women can express love, romantic intent and erotic desire, in a way that upholds what we value about ourselves and fosters an environment of mutual respect and self-realisation. ofos bears a tenderness that is inextricable from the practice; the fem provides the freedom for the butch to express her masculinity – without the repression usually urged on her by everyone else, but with admiration and encouragement. fems feel cared for and adored by butches, in contrast to straight society in which feminine women are broken down into consumable parts, exploited and discarded, all the while being expected to care for everyone around them. equally, butches and fems can be vulnerable with each other without having their very personhood questioned or challenged. both experiences are uplifting, cultivating sexual and romantic passion.
ofos is not about imitating heteronormative roles or repressive ideas about appropriate male and female behaviour, but about an exchange of erotic desire and romance between lesbian women in a way that honours the unique identities of butch and fem. don’t dimiss it as a relic of more sexist times reflected in our interactions, but recognise instead that it has become a way for certain lesbians to communicate in a sensual, meaningful manner our affection, acceptance and active sexual desire for other women.