A Review of Macho Sluts
by Pat Califia
Boston: Alyson Publications
Review Copyright © 1989 by William A. Henkin
Originally published in Spectator
Call out the Fire Department! Hell, call out the Meese Commission this book is hothothot. Pat Califia, author of Sapphistry, editor of The Lesbian S/M Safety Manual, principal contributor to the Samois anthology Coming to Power, and advice columnist for The Advocate, is back in full leathers. As she warns in her Introduction,
This book will be accused of being pornographic and thus misogynistic.... So let me say explicitly, at the risk of sounding foolish, that this is a valentine in its original form, a cunt held open by a woman's trusting fingers. It is a visible act of love, written for any woman who is not a traitor to her own cunt.... It was meant to generate some of the hope that leather dykes need as much as they need raw courage to survive in a hostile world. I want more of us to make it to adulthood without being driven mad or driven normal or driving off a cliff. And I want more of us, period. So this book is also a recruitment poster, as flashy and fast and seductively intimidating as I could make it.
And honey, as they say downtown, she can make it. Macho Sluts is one of those rare collections of truly pornographic literature, sweaty and salty as Henry Miller's opus, thoughtful and imaginative as Anais Nin's. Its eight stories are as nasty, as uppity, as politically incorrect, and as unremittingly wet as words on a page can be; yet each of them is as artfully crafted and carefully composed as your favorite lover's best Christmas whipping. This is a dirty book people will still be reading when your children's children's children are learning to masturbate.
"Jessie," the opening story, concerns a baby S/M dyke who picks up a local rock-n-roll star at a party and is treated to a night of serious erotic discipline that may go on for years after the fiction ends. During the drive to Jessie's home from the party where her band The Bitch has played, she asks Liz, our heroine, to explain her braided leather collar and bracelets. Liz responds with a short history of her coming out and its culmination as a slave-in-training to a professional bisexual dominatrix. The permanent jewelry had been a reward for satisfactory performance.
But in the morning, as Liz kneels before her, Jessie
fished a pocket knife out of her Levis and unfolded its longest blade. I don't know what I expected. The crazy thought flashed through my head that she was going to carve her initials on me, like a tree. I didn't dream of protesting.
She ran her thumb along the edge of the blade. "You are wearing the tokens of another woman," she said. Her words were carefully measured out. I find that ... distracting. May I?"
She lifted one wrist and cut the band of leather.
"I don't need anything as crude and obvious as this to set my mark on you. Do I?"
She cut my other wrist free.
She paused before severing my collar, her thumb holding it to the knife, to look into my face. "If I call you, you'll come to me, won't you?" she demanded.
"Yes," I whispered.
A loop of leather fell onto my thighs. When she brought me to my feet, it fell to the floor. I rubbed my wrists. They felt curiously light without the bracelets. And my neck I was more acutely aware of where my collar had been than I ever was of its actual presence....
Her confidence created an intangible bond between us. A determination was kindled in me to justify that confidence she had in her own power....
"Jessie" is a warm exposition of the loving connections that can be engendered between adults in safe, sane, consensual S/M. It also includes a taste of another sort of erotica. When Liz tells Jessie how she appeared on command at the dominatrix's door, she explains that she was not wearing her "punk duds [which I left] in a pile on the floor of my closet." She showed up, rather, in "a dress I'd worn to my sister's wedding, a white dress with a high neck and long, tight sleeves [that] made me feel repressed and virginal." The lovely moment and this tale-within-a-tale prefigure the book's second story, "The Finishing School."
"The Finishing School" is classic, sweet, Victorian S/M with an incestuous lesbian twist. Berenice, a stern, loving dominatrix in her forties, is preparing her pubescent charge, Clarissa, for their first separation, a six-month stint at a distant boarding school. he night before the child's train departs she sits on the floor at her mistress's feet with a tear-streaked countenance while Berenice strokes her hair.
Her little beauty was wearing a black velvet corset, cinched just tight enough to set off her small waist and plump up the perfect round cheeks of her behind. It also held her breasts, which were just beginning to bud, up and together. The nipples were so tiny and pink that they were barely visible. A pair of black silk stockings encased her coltish legs, trimmed with lace garters with black rosettes, and disappeared into a pair of black velvet high-heeled shoes. Each shoe had a tiny silver ring in the back, just above the heel. A fine silver chain ran from ring to ring, constraining the length of steps Clarissa could take and the postions she could arrange her limbs in when at rest. In addition, a silver chain was looped in a figure-eight about each instep and heel, securing the shoes to Clarissa's feet.
The two speak lovingly to each other, then move on to spend Clarissa's "last night home together, in the discipline chamber." In the morning, after Clarissa admires the welts and stripes on her thighs and buttocks, Berenice's maid, Elise, tells her a going-away story. It is an old tale to Clarissa, but one she is eager to hear repeatedly: how Elise came to be submissive to her own elder sister Berenice, and how mother and aunt now look after Berenice's own daughter, Clarissa, in their
"simple country estate with excellent drainage, adjoining tenant farms, and a high resale value, where we can practice our love as the fancy takes us and provide a home for you...."
Clarissa applauded. "Oh, what a beautiful story," she said....
When I first read "Jessie" in a slightly different form in Coming to Power I thought it was the hottest sex fiction I'd ever come across. It now takes second place in my mind to a newer Califia offering, "The Calyx of Isis." This mistresspiece is a benchmark by which all future pornographic literature lesbian, gay, straight, S/M, or otherwise may be measured. It is a classic in its genre.
The calyx in question is not just whatever sepals may spread at the feet of the Egyptian goddess of fertility: here it is also a nightclub designed to accommodate the hedonistic fantasies of all women's lusts, "though not on the same floor." Tyre, the Calyx's fabulously wealthy albino owner, claims her property has "a place for everyone and everyone in her place," and features a weekly show of gay male porn films. "Serving the Goddess in You," the secretary sings when she answers the telephone.
Into this den of erotica strides a big young motorcycle top named Alex, who wants Tyre's help in devising a sexual production that will test the depth of her lover's commitment while simultaneously surprising her with a bottom's most lurid fantasy.
"I want a gang, a pack, a bunch of tough and experienced top women. I'll leave the exact number up to you, but I don't want just a threesome in warm leatherette. I would rather it not be women Roxanne already knows. And no novices, they would just get in the way. Once you get that group together I want to give them Roxanne, and if she makes me proud I want her to belong to me, wear my rings. If she still wants me. She might decide it's too much, or maybe she'll tumble for one of the other tops. I have to know where she's at before I fall any more in love with her. I want somebody I can perfect with hard, constant training. A living work of art I can take out and show off on Folsom Street as my counterpart. So pretty and so alive and responsive to me it will make all the other tops, boys and girls, gnaw on their arms. It's makin' me crazy, what I want. What do you think?"
Tyre thinks she can help realize Alex's fantasy, and in her huge and fabulously well-equipped dungeon she gathers together a cast of leatherwomen that would make Marvel Comics mogul Stan Lee go gasp! zap! pow! and strangle on his tongue: there's Kay and EZ, a biker couple accustomed to hanging out in men's leather bars; Anne-Marie, a grey-haired English nurse who happens to be Roxanne's former mistress, and whose precision with the cane is equaled only by her stamina with the enema bag; Chris, drummer for a band called Mutilation, who wears throwing knives in each of her boots and whose bandoliers full of Chinese throwing stars obscure her utterly tatooed torso and distract attention from the eight-foot bullwhip she carries in her hand; Joyous Day, a fur-and-leather skin-clad Jamaican photographer who sculpts with clothespins and is given to throwaway lines such as "You got a dirty mind in a healthy body, that means you're definitely my kind of woman," and "Just give me the flesh and the mind will follow," and "You seriously twisted, girl, I like that ver' much, just don't try to straighten out now, or you break"; and, of course, Tyre herself.
Roxanne is delivered to the dungeon party in manacles, hood, and a zipped-up mummy bag by Tyre's chauffeur, Michael an ex-Marine who wears a moustache and packs a load so large and so sincere that the story was almost over before I felt reasonably certain he was the she the women called him. Of course, she sticks around for the party as well.
Sixty nonstop pages later read em and weep, Genital Reader; as Joyous Day says, "Aside from getting a high colonic, being fisted, pissed on, tied hand and foot, turned into a pin cushion, whipped ragged, fucked some more, called a whole lot of bad names, and pierced repeatedly, nothing much has happened to you" sixty pages later,
Roxanne pressed her face into Alex's knee. Her eyes were shining. "Psst!" she said. Alex gave her a look. "I know you have to be brave for both of us," she said humbly. "I tell you I can take anything before it actually happens. I'm afraid of pain, so I struggle and call you bad names, and I lie. But I gave tonight everything I had, and I really do want to be your best girl. You're always asking me to trust you, Alex. When I wear your rings, will you finally trust me?"
Alex caressed her head, took her gently by the hair. "You're wonderful. And it's been beautiful to watch you. I thought my heart would be ripped in two when I heard you scream, and knew it was somebody else who was making you suffer. But I've watched these women discover abilities that I didn't know you had."
Roxanne shivered. "I wonder if I could really love any woman who held my leash and threatened to whip me."
"Well, at least we know you honestly love to be abused," Alex said. "You're lucky you have somebody who will dish it out with a careful hand...."
Does Roxanne get her rings? Reader, Reader, we're talking Macho Sluts.
Speaking of macho sluts, bear in mind that Califia is famous for endorsing every manner of sexual weirdness. She advocates consensuality when the perversion is real, but in the fantasy world of literature, holds need not be barred. Though her characters practice safer sex, in deference to her publisher's desires, the themes of Califia's stories would give Andrea Dworkin nightmares.
In "The Hustler," for example, a leather street walker in a feminist-fascist futuristic state mourns the death of her tough street buddy, and finds a new buddy who needs her to be tough in turn. In "The Surprise Party" a woman hits the pavement only to be busted by three macho cops who, though gay, take her to a private room and force her into every sort of degradation that can be devised for this combination of sticks and holes. On the story's last page, three levels of surprise are revealed at once: no, I won't tell you what they are, read the book. "The Vampire" is a quickie lesbian leather look at the old equation between the passion for blood and the passion for erotic love. "A Dash of Vanilla" is an S/M-less monologue that takes place entirely in the mind of a woman while she goes down on her difficult-to-make-come lover.
Then there is "The Spoiler." This story is somewhat disjointed, as the interiors of Califia's tales can be. It reads as if two fictions, each with its own philosophy, were fighting over the use of a choice flogger with some rebellious piece of didactic politics, and all three factions are so well matched that no one of them clearly comes out on top. Having said that much I must add that "The Spoiler" is the most unusual piece of erotica I've ever seen and it's especially engaging coming from a woman's hand. I think I am not making such a statement simply because I'm male, but it's true that there isn't a single woman in this radical lesbian's very cool story. The nameless central character sleeps "in a pile of dirty socks and soiled jockstraps, souvenirs of the men he adored, sometimes acquired without their permission." When on the prowl he wears sleek, expensive leathers, but he is not conspicuous. His
appearance was so neat, his lines so clean, his bearing so modest that he often passed through crowds of the bourgeoisie without changing the topic of their conversation. He ... was rarely noticed unless he chose to be. Nearly every leatherman in the city had been elbow to elbow with him in some club or alley, but few recognized him on sight.... You might call him a voyeur since he spent most of his time looking and listening. But he was a watchdog, not a spectator.
The spoiler is looking for someone very rare: the best possible master, whom he can seduce through the offices of some unimportant bait. The spoiler's
selection was made for him by a signal that socked directly through his eyes or ears or nose into his gut. His balls would roll as their pouch shrank, pumping blood into his dick so fast that it started leaking even before he got hard. Any number of things could trigger that signal. It could be the inborn authority in a tone of voice, a certain sure grip that revealed a talent for handling objects and men who wanted to be objects, an offhand way of revealing esoteric abilities and interests. An expression of the mere need to control or dominate was not enough to throw this punch into his guts; too many people try to act like lifeguards because they are drowning themselves.
In this story the spoiler uses an inexperienced bottom to gain access to a true masochist who has, by necessity, fashioned himself to be the perfect sadist: the image of the man he himself wanted to please. Only after the master has had his way with the sacrifice, and the spoiler has modestly demonstrated some of his own skill, does he risk moving in on his true prey by seeking lessons and advice.
"Why do you think," the spoiler said quietly, "some men can take heavy pain and others cannot?"
"Well, masochists and submissives are not at all the same thing...."
The spoiler nodded. This was his own observation, though he would have had to extrapolate from the difference between sadists and dominants. "Why is there such a difference?" he asked to keep [the master] talking.
"Damned if I know.... Submission is a deep-seated psychological need.... But masochism is inbred, almost biological...."
Ahh. A little more shop talk and the spoiler asks the master to critique his whip technique.
He touched [the master's] arm deferentially and said, "You could tell me how you think it feels."
Oh, why the hell not? It was the kind of thing you'd do for a friend who wasn't sure he wanted to buy something he'd just spotted at The Noose....
"That's fine," the man said, getting a grip on the rings in the pillar. "Do your worst." If he had known how long he would be clinging to those rings, he would have recoiled from them as though they were white-hot.
The work the spoiler did now made his flagellation of the pawn look like a hatchet job.... The first blows were like kisses, kisses for a virgin turning into kisses for a whore, passion kisses, rape kisses, kisses becoming bites.... When the abrasion stopped, the pelting began, like snow, then like rain, then hail. Denting his back. Cosmic rays, flecks of sand, pellets of iron, then whole meteors fell, pocking his skin like the surface of the moon. The weight of the quirt seemed to increase.... Then the direction and speed of the blows changed, and instead of penetrating him they sliced blade-like across his skin. It was like being slapped by a tiger or seized by an eagle.
It had been so long! The master screwed his eyes shut and pressed his forehead hard across the beam, trying to halt a flood of regret and bitterness. His body shuddered with joy. He prayed that the stranger's arm would not wear out too soon.
All her wonderful fiction notwithstanding, Califia would not let people concerned with sexual liberation forget that she is a fine expository writer and one of the most articulate spokeswomen for humane radical lesbian feminism. Expressly attending to the needs of some of her own, she concludes with "A Note on Lesbians, AIDS, and Safer Sex." But for all of us, her Introduction to this book alone is worth the price of Macho Sluts. In it she once again addresses the issues of pornography, literature, sexuality, and lesbian feminism among other topics. "Under the guise of keeping you entertained, Reader Mine, I wanted to get some social criticism flowing as well as some j/o grease."
And social criticism she offers resoundingly, because what she has to say derives so clearly from her own courageous experience.
Women especially lesbians exist under conditions that make us frightened to step out of line, frightened to challenge the status quo, almost unable to imagine what bold and brassy, peacock creatures we could be if we were free.... Sex may seem like a trivial part of a radical, futuristic vision, but if we are not safe to indulge in this playful, vulnerable and necessary activity ... how safe can society be for women?....
The power of the censor within is awesome. The only way I could write some of these stories was to pretend I wasn't going to publish them.... But if enough of us speak out about our dreams and obsessions, a body of genuine knowledge can accumulate, and make all of us feel less crazy and less alone with what we cannot live without. When you are dealing with an area as permeated with ignorance and superstition as sexuality, it is more important to be honest than it is to be correct; to say "I want this now" before rushing to assert, "I will want this when I know and accept what is best for me."....
Seen in this light, lesbian pornography is "just" dyke entertainment, but I have never understood why anybody would think entertainment was trivial. If you live in a society that wishes you didn't exist, anything you do to make yourself happy disrupts its attempts to wipe you out.... There is no easier, faster way to transmit information or a system of values than by presenting it in a format that makes people laugh, dance, get turned on, or just feel good.
I suspect that what is really being protected by censorship, anti-abortion and homophobic campaigns is the self-image of the so-called majority. Consider how narrow the range of acceptable sexual behavior is. Nobody comes out looking normal once you know the whole truth about how they fuck and what they think about when they jerk off....
Amen, say I. And when we jerk off, with or without Califia's aid, may we all be so lucky as to turn out to be macho sluts.
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