This short essay reflects on the material history of lesbian-produced adult media as well as the institutional and methodological problems that attend researching it. Denied entry into established adult entertainment markets, lesbian pornographers had to create their own adult media economies and infrastructures. Using archival objects as a point of entry into this history, this essay considers the material dimensions of women's labor as well as the immaterial cost of that labor, ultimately arguing that current approaches to adult media history fail to capture lesbian-produced texts or their unique modes of production, circulation, and reception.
The box of pornographic photos was something of a mystery.
According to the photo collections coordinator at the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA), it simply showed up one day; nothing is known about its provenance. While the box has been kept, it has never been catalogued, and so it does not appear in searches of their holdings.
The Lesbian Herstory Archives is an idiosyncratic archival space.1 Founded in 1975 by a group of queer feminist activists, the small, grassroots archive has since survived as a result of the dedication and perseverance of the women who run it. It has, over the years, fought to maintain its autonomy, consciously resisting institutionalization and refusing to seek funds from outside the lesbian community. Because the LHA is run almost entirely on volunteer labor, it does not have permanent staff to oversee researchers' comings and goings. It was from such a volunteer that I learned about the box of pornographic photos that would start what was to become a yearlong process of searching, finding, failing to find, grasping, then losing again the very particular material history of lesbian pornography. Whether in large, institutionally supported collections such as the one at Cornell University or small, grassroots queer archives like the LHA, lesbian adult media is too often either missing or impossible to access. These barriers are the result of several overlapping institutional, cultural, and political factors, which further marginalize what is already a deeply precarious historiography of lesbian involvement in adult film production and consumption.
Whereas in some cases an implicit masculinist bias has resulted in an archive that marginalizes women's cultural history, in others the historical baggage of the feminist “sex wars” has produced collections of lesbian material culture that do not include sex media. The result is that the rich history of lesbian sexual self-determination and entrepreneurship that is intertwined with lesbian-produced pornography is elusive, even to those who seek it out. In what follows, I offer some of my experiences of pursuing lesbian adult media, both in and out of archives, as an invitation for reflection on how our current approaches to adult media history fail to capture these texts and their unique modes of production, circulation, and reception. As a result, a variety of media and cultural histories have been impoverished by their absence.
On my first day at the LHA, a volunteer casually mentioned an uncatalogued box of pornography somewhere in the archives' four floors. The sheer amount and variety of material in the archives is overwhelming. Room after room in the Park Slope brownstone is stuffed full of records, personal papers, periodicals, and ephemera with historic significance for the lesbian community. Yet while the archives are clearly organized around and run according to a sex-positive feminist ethos, its collection of sex materials is actually rather small. Over the course of the next three days I continued to ask archive volunteers if they knew of the box's whereabouts, and while many knew that it existed and had perhaps seen it once, no one knew where it was now. “For all we know,” I was told, “it could be some guy's collection.” Finally, on my next-to-last day in the archives, I happened to cross paths with the coordinator of the photography collections, who obligingly fetched the box from the basement for me to examine.
Over the next two hours as I looked through the box, it seemed increasingly clear that its photographs were not at all “some guy's collection.” Rather, they seemed to be the collection of at least two lesbians who had amassed a vibrant, varied pornographic archive over a period of roughly fifteen years (from the mid-1970s to the 1980s) through correspondence most likely established through personal ads or correspondence clubs.2 The photographs, which range from the mundane (candid photos of women around the house) to the explicit (photos of women displaying their vulvas and masturbating with vibrators, hairbrushes, or other implements), come from all over the United States and Europe, including Illinois, Indiana, Colorado, Maryland, Sweden, and Italy. Inscriptions on the backs of the prints suggest that they were traded as part of a long-distance exchange, as a way for a sender to show a recipient what she looked like. One photo that suggests this is of a white woman sitting at a kitchen table, whose reverse reads: “This is a more recent picture of me. This is what I look like. But my hair is more blond in person.”
Many of the photographs are addressed tenderly to either “Suzanne” or “Nancy,” and despite the LHA's ambivalence about their lesbian status, inscriptions by the various senders and recipients invoke lesbianism. In one instance a woman dedicates her photograph to “Nancy, my sweet lesbian.” One of the most intriguing pictures in the collection (a woman propped up in bed, legs open, holding a vibrator to her vulva) was clearly ripped out of a photo album, as there are still traces of black cardstock stuck to the back, obscuring some of the original writing. What can be made out, however, is the signature from “a distant … gay correspondent” (fig. 1). Looking at the photograph, it is difficult not to ponder the album it came out of. What, precisely, was the nature of such an album that it would contain this photo?
The LHA is right that, as a result of their decontextualization, these pictures resist easy explanation and as a result cannot be ascribed definite meaning. Making sense of them as historical objects is further complicated by the ethical questions that arise from their being archived at all. They were, it seems, meant to be private pleasures, sent from one woman to another to mediate intimacy across physical distance. But their availability within the LHA makes them, according to the archives' mission, the common property of all lesbians. The LHA consciously rejects institutionalization and the barriers to access that institutionalization creates, instead conceptualizing the archives as housed within the lesbian community and open to that community without qualification. The LHA's principles and mission theorize the archival space as domestic, alive, and shared by all lesbians. Yet particularly because of the sexually explicit nature of so many of the photographs, their archivization seems a transparent violation of their subjects' right to privacy. As a result, the LHA is justifiably protective of them, having removed them from general access and disallowed any kind of digital reproduction of their pictorial content.3
Despite the various challenges that the collection raises, it nevertheless contributes something to our understanding of lesbian adult media. For one thing, it shows that lesbians and other queer women were producing and circulating visual pornography among themselves as early as the 1970s, well ahead of the more formal production of lesbian/feminist pornography in the mid-1980s. Furthermore, these women were drawing upon both old and new media in order to do so, as print-based lesbian media networks created the conditions for the formation of a community of both producers and consumers of sexual imagery. Indeed, in collapsing the distinction between producer and consumer (as the photos were made by women whose erotic relationships were facilitated by the circulation of images of their own bodies), this collection anticipates the professionalized “dyke porn” of the late 1980s, which often consciously cultivated an “amateur” aesthetic in order to support paratextual claims to authenticity. Even though some of these projects were quite polished and had high production values, they nevertheless emphasized that they featured nonprofessional, “real-life” dykes and couples.
If we take this box of photographs as a case study in archival practice and its implications for a historiography of queer women's sexuality, two important structuring dynamics emerge. First, because of the LHA's rootedness within the lesbian and feminist politics of the 1970s, it is fundamentally what Laura L. Doan calls an “ancestral genealogy” project, which seeks to recover and save an obscured, hidden, or lost history that precedes but also determines the present. Ancestral genealogy projects, according to Doan, are invested in “discovering” historical queer subjects within the archive as a means of establishing a continuous history of queer existence and resistance.4 And in order to save lesbian material culture from the dustbin of history, the LHA must circumscribe the “lesbian” for reasons both political and pragmatic. It must insist on lesbianism as a coherent and valid transhistorical sexual identity and practice both because this identity is perceived to be constantly assailed and also, more mundanely, because space is at a premium. Periodicals and other media that speak to a general “queer” history are deprioritized to save the available space for a lesbian cultural history that is rarely preserved elsewhere.
As a result, for the LHA staff, lesbian pornography is determined by its proximity to a known identity, namely “lesbian.” Because no one knew anything about the box of photos, it couldn't clearly be brought within the scope of the archives' collections. Second, the archives' commitment to lesbian/feminist politics makes it particularly sensitive to issues of privacy and consent, as well as the potential negative consequences for women who might be recognized in the photos and, by extension, “outed.”5 So, in one sense the box of photographs is made inaccessible by the archives' mission, but in another sense the photographs' queer subjects are protected by it. Thus the box occupies a liminal space within the archives: it is protected but not incorporated into the larger holdings that represent twentieth- and twenty-first-century lesbian history.
While it is easy to perceive the LHA's mission to “uncover and collect our herstory denied to us previously by patriarchal historians in the interests of the culture which they serve” as itself a historical object, the abysmal state of lesbian pornography in most archival collections actually speaks to the ongoing need for such recuperative projects. Whether large and institutionally backed or small and grassroots, many of the best-known repositories of queer adult media have very few lesbian materials. In these cases, “queer” serves a kind of generalizing function that allows for the overrepresentation of certain forms of queerness and the occlusion of others.6 Reflecting on this, media historian Cait McKinney remarks:
Most community archives practice what is called “passive collections policy,” meaning they take in whatever materials donors offer, rather than actively building under-represented areas of a collection. In other words, creating a robust archive of lesbian pornography requires volunteers with a strong interest in finding lesbian porn collectors who could become donors, showing them that their collections are valuable, and convincing them that an LGBTQ archives is the right place to house those videos (in many cases, it may not be).7
In these comments, McKinney invites us to consider the process of archivization as more than a technical or scientific project; rather, she points to the affective dimensions of the archive as a space that is also curated according to personal investment in and passionate attachment to particular histories. Simply put, what is in the archive is, in many ways, determined by who is the archive.
The methodological challenge of writing about materials you cannot view is one that many scholars in a variety of fields will recognize and identify with. However, lesbian adult media provides an important point of focus in our consideration of how various cultural, institutional, and intellectual trends intersect, compounding the problem of ephemerality and, as a result, putting particular histories in jeopardy of being really and truly lost. Sex media are particularly fragile historical objects, as their low cultural status and politically transgressive nature render them susceptible to dismissal or, in the worst cases, destruction. This fragility intensifies when the sex materials in question are not only queer texts but also women's texts, thereby doubly marginalized. Whereas queer studies still suffers from masculinist bias, traditional archival practices are often not equipped to capture sex materials at all, much less queer cultural practices that tend to proliferate at the edges of society, as dyke pornography does.
All of this is to say that while all material history is precarious and in danger of being lost if not archived or properly preserved, not all material histories are equally precarious. Some objects more than others are likely to be sought out, saved, or prioritized for preservation. This is true even in the specific case of lesbian adult media. For while the quantity of available archival material related to lesbian sex media is altogether relatively small, what is out there is overwhelmingly white. The reasons for this are the same as the reasons for dyke pornography's own marginality, namely the systemic, intersecting dynamics of multiple modes of social and institutional oppression. Just as a generalized “queer” identity framework is not sufficient for capturing or explaining lesbian sex media, nor is a race-neutral lesbian framework equipped to capture or explain the sex media made by and for women of color. While some archives do have certain lesbian-of-color-produced sex materials, such as the Black lesbian sex magazine Black Lace, there is still much more to be known about how lesbians and other queer women of color have mediated their sexuality over time.8
While there are a number of ways to write about texts that one cannot readily view, I think it's important that we hold in mind the political and ethical implications of what it means to write a history of women's filmmaking that does not include the aesthetic objects that women have struggled and sacrificed to create. While clearly the “missing archive” entails a host of methodological and theoretical problems for historiographers, these problems ramify differently where queer women's texts are concerned. These objects are not missing only because material artifacts degrade, are lost, or cannot be preserved; they are missing because the operations of sexism, racism, and homophobia have, at every point in their history, worked against their coming into being.
For instance, because dyke pornographers were denied entry into both mainstream heterosexual and gay male porn markets, as well as many feminist markets, they had to create their own distribution channels. Of course this meant a higher cost of doing business, greatly reducing the number of women who were able to enter the infant industry and/or remain within it. The economic consequences of having to fund both the production and distribution of one's product, of course, fell most heavily upon women of color; Black Lace only ran four issues before it came to an end. Even the most prolific and expansive of these dyke pornography projects, Blush Productions, faced constant cash flow problems, at times being supported almost entirely by its founder's sex work as an erotic dancer at the legendary Mitchell Brothers' O'Farrell Theatre in San Francisco.
While there are some Blush records, donated by Melissa Murphy, at Brown University, the majority of the existing documentation of the company's history is in the Susie Bright Papers housed in Cornell's Human Sexuality Collection. The papers contain documents related to Bright's illustrious career as a lesbian “sexpert” and to all of Blush Productions' various commercial and political endeavors. Owned by Deborah Sundahl and Nan Kinney from 1984 until around 1993, the San Francisco–based company attempted to create an expansive lesbian sexual entertainment empire that included the magazine On Our Backs, the production and distribution company Fatale Video, as well as BurLEZk, a traveling strip show. The Susie Bright Papers are a rich collection of official records and ephemera relating to these various erotic projects, containing anything from On Our Backs editorial meeting minutes to Sundahl's own journal, filled with to-do lists, personal fantasies, and notes to her lovers.9
As an archive, the Bright Papers are both forthcoming and reticent, forward yet bashful. At times they offer an incredibly intimate look into the private lives of the women at the heart of the dyke porn movement, which gained significant momentum from their romantic, erotic, and intellectual relationships with one another. This history could be written as a history of couples, as a series of erotic and creative partnerships that pushed lesbian sexual representation into new territory time and again. However, it can also be written as a history of sex work, as the women producing these materials were often quite literally using their own bodies to do so, appearing in the sexually explicit photo spreads and pornographic videos that they were producing and distributing. Indeed, as previously mentioned, one of the aesthetic hallmarks of dyke pornography is its reliance on real-life dykes as models and performers. By creating a product that featured the community to which it catered, dyke pornography sought to cultivate an aesthetic of authenticity that would differentiate it from “faux” lesbian scenes in heterosexual hardcore film. As a result, some of the most revealing historical documents in the Bright Papers are not institutional records but rather eclectic assemblages of the material and immaterial dimensions of intimacy and labor that drove the production of dyke pornography both literally and figuratively.
One particular example of this structuring dynamic in the archive of dyke porn is a box of costumes worn by Sundahl during her celebrated career as an erotic dancer (figs. 2, 3). In interviews, Sundahl has explained that at times Blush Productions was sustained almost entirely by her sex work, but this work takes on new, bodily significance through the archivization of her stage gear.10 Folded neatly into a small document box, the costumes include bras, garters, scarves, gloves, and a pair of high heels that, altogether, seem to comprise from one to three coordinated outfits. One outfit is a cream mesh, with sweet applique flower accents. Another is a striking red and black number, covered with sequins. Looking through the costumes, I was struck by how impossibly small they were, how they gave real dimension to the body I had seen in On Our Backs pictorials or Fatale Video releases. In places the fabric was discolored by her skin's oil and sweat; there were even strands of Sundahl's trademark curly, strawberry-blonde mane still clinging to aged sequins.
While these costumes bring the material dimensions of Sundahl's sex labor into the real, tangible present, other archival documents point to its past, immaterial dimensions. In notes left to her then-partner Nan Kinney (“going in to work tonight because I have to”), I was able to see the personal sacrifices that supporting Blush entailed. At the same time, they invoke the quotidian intimacies of domestic relationships, as I imagined such a note being left on the kitchen table to be found upon waking. A letter written by Kinney speaks of her desire to become financially stable enough to support Sundahl, allowing her to quit dancing and focus on her artistic and professional goals for their company. Through these pieces of ephemera, one comes to realize the kinds of personal and professional negotiations these women had to make as they attempted to essentially create a lesbian porn market without the benefit of male economic or cultural capital.
One of the most intriguing pieces of ephemera in Sundahl's effects is a customer complaint sent to the Mitchell Brothers personally, bemoaning the presence of “lezzie” dancers at the O'Farrell Theatre, who after finishing their shifts would (according to the author) sit in the audience to hit on the other women working (fig. 4). “The straight customers want to leave your theater with wonderful thoughts about your beautiful women,” he writes, “not memories of lezzies hitting on each other.” This complaint was, apparently, passed on to Sundahl, who kept it perhaps because it gave her a laugh (as it did me). From a historiographical point of view, the small, typewritten complaint places lesbian bodies into one of the most famous (male-oriented) adult entertainment establishments in the country, not only as producers of such entertainment but also as consumers. As such, it is a small but important link between center and margin, one that serves as a poignant (and delightful) reminder that queer women have always been on the stage of history, often in ways that are unruly and disruptive of a variety of cultural norms.
As I sorted through these various notes, love letters, objects, and photos, a narrative about intimacy, sex, labor, and lesbian sex media began to come together. Furthermore, because of their historical and physical proximity to Sundahl's laboring (and loving—its own kind of labor) body, they foreground the gendered realities of pornographic media production. By funneling the profit from her sex work into her own adult media production company, Sundahl redirected heterosexual male capital toward the erotic and political needs of lesbian communities. At the same time, the fruits of Sundahl's labor became a resource for other women who sought to follow in her footsteps by creating their own erotic media products. In 1997, after leaving On Our Backs, Sundahl spoke in an interview with Jill Nagle about this labor and its subsequent role in nurturing a younger generation of would-be dyke pornographers:
This effort deserves historical recognition: that the women's erotica industry was created on our backs. … So many women came through and learned all these skills: editing, erotic fiction writing, designing, distribution, publicity, marketing, management, publishing, all facets of video production, acting, selling—a huge labor pool to grease the wheels of the women's erotic industry was groomed there. … The wonderful part as mother of this is to see it continuing to grow—my dream unfolding. The hard part is feeling pushed aside and sometimes unnecessarily stomped on by other women.11
Given Sundahl's enormous influence on what has, in subsequent years, become a flourishing micro industry of feminist and queer adult media, it is interesting to consider the relative difficulty of accessing the fruits of her labors. While On Our Backs can be found, usually in incomplete runs, in many archival collections dedicated to women's or adult media, very few archives—even those dedicated to queer and/or video pornography—have copies of Fatale Video releases.
Even at Cornell, despite the availability of her costumes for researchers wanting to catch a whiff of that fleeting historical moment in lesbian sex culture, the videos that she was passionately invested in making are not. I had gone to Cornell primarily for the videos, but I was ultimately unable to view them, as Cornell library policy restricts access to magnetic media. Currently, researchers are only allowed to view items that have been digitized. Because almost nothing in the Susie Bright Papers had yet been digitized, I was only able to view a single film during my time there. While there are plans to digitize all of the magnetic media in this collection, it is unclear when exactly that will happen. Encountering this obstacle halfway into my two-week trip was a blow—and a confusing one. My need to view these materials felt urgent, and yet I was also passionately committed to their preservation as important historical artifacts. This was the first time I experienced what I have since learned is common among scholars working in archives, namely the asynchronous temporalities of research and preservation. While scholars need access to materials now in order to complete their projects on time and within budget, archives are committed to the continued existence of their artifacts well into the future.
In discussing this impasse with other scholars working on pornographic video, I have realized that best practices in magnetic media preservation have outpaced the scholarship on them, as the research methods modeled by senior scholars are no longer available to those of us coming up in the field. Viewing this media is now more, not less, difficult as we transition between or among technologies. This is particularly problematic where dyke pornography is concerned because there were so few videos produced and so few of the videos have been archived at all. While scholars of straight or gay male video pornography may be able to view a duplicate copy of a popular film in a more permissive archive (or see a bootleg copy on a tube site), some of the videos in the Susie Bright Papers cannot be found anywhere else.
However, also at stake here are questions of materiality. For while digitization is a crucial step in the preservation of these important material artifacts, a digitized version of the 1991 Fatale Video release Bathroom Sluts, which is available on the streaming site HotMovies.com, is a fundamentally different object than a VHS cassette of the same film. When discussing my experience at Cornell with video historian Lucas Hilderbrand, he suggested that there is “an argument to be made that VHS is the appropriate format for a particular era of porn and that it should be seen in that format if at all possible because form does matter. A digitized file changes the text and its interface.”12 This question of the specificity of form and the importance of the material media object is more than an abstract aesthetic problem, especially when contextualized within the very particular history of dyke porn production, whose genesis and aesthetic is deeply rooted in the material conditions of its creation. The reduced cost of production and the privacy of home viewership that was made possible by video technology is the history of dyke video porn. Furthermore, because dyke pornographers were denied entry into both mainstream porn distribution and feminist media networks, their products were often difficult to access for consumers outside of major North American urban centers, who had to get them through mail order. As such, digitized reproductions of these texts can be seen as belonging not to their original historical context but rather as remediations to a different, more contemporary era of queer sex culture, where even vintage representations of nonnormative sexuality are readily available to stream on any device with an internet connection. Such remediation has the effect of erasing the labor involved in making and consuming these videos and runs the risk of further deferring the historical recognition of that labor.
In laying out these various “archival troubles,” it is not my intent to vilify archivists or librarians who are, by all measures, doing very important, complex work with fewer resources than they deserve. Rather, I hope to make clear how various institutional and cultural norms, as well as the competing imperatives of access and preservation, converge on lesbian adult media, making it a constantly receding object of knowledge. At every point in this project, as I've chased dyke pornography across nine archives in two countries, it has always seemed just out of reach, just around the corner, just fading from view. Even as I pull it close in the forms of its material traces, it retreats into the shadows cast by the archive and its often-esoteric mechanisms and agendas.
However, while the institution of the archive has often been opaque, it has nevertheless offered me connections and dialogues with the women working within it. These connections have, in the best cases, turned into moments of shared sense making. One such moment came when I began drafting this article and contacted Saskia Scheffer, coordinator of the photography collection at the LHA, to ask if she might provide me with a scan of certain inscriptions in the box of photographs. She kindly obliged and sent, along with the photographs, a little note:
I learned something about it [the box of photographs] today, by looking at all of it, because I had to look at front and back. Not sure what I learned, except that there is more to be seen than meets the eye.13
Scheffer's comment about learning something new by looking at both the front (photograph) and the back (inscription) is an apt metaphor for the historiography of lesbian adult media. In order to fully understand these texts—diverse, complex, and ambiguous as they are—we must fully understand how this production community confronted, negotiated, and resisted the cultural and economic forces that delimited what was possible for lesbian sexual self-representation in the late twentieth century. This requires the archival preservation of both the “front” and the “back”—the texts these women produced as well as the traces of the labor required to make them. And we need to know the real human cost of that labor, which is part of this story too.