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[whitespace] On Our Backs Pro-Porn Read: Lesbian porn zine 'On Our Backs' pretty much stuck to its guns when it came to challenging accepted beliefs about female and lesbian sexuality.



After a two-year hiatus, the lesbian porn zine 'On Our Backs' is back on magazine stands

By Jenn Shreve

Much has changed since anti-porn activists-turned-erotica-proponents Nan Kinney and Debbie Sundahl published the first issue of On Our Backs in 1984. At that time, most feminists and lesbians were railing against pornography as anti-woman, and lesbians were seemingly light years from macking on prime-time television. Kinney and Sundahl, who met at a "Take Back the Night"-type rally with plans to bomb an adult bookstore, were considered nothing short of turncoats when they decided to embrace sexuality in all its splendor instead of demonizing it.

On Our Backs came onto the scene with its "goals of sexual freedom, respect and empowerment for lesbians" and took not just mainstream beliefs but radical feminism for a joy ride with its pro-porn, pro-"transgressive sex" stance. Women were fucking, liked fucking and wanted the world to know it. They were using vibrators, whips, creams and strap-ons. Ladies were into dirty pictures; they masturbated; they used words like cunt and could readily ID their G-spots. Andrea Dworkin could kiss their collective female asses. At the time it was big news.

The magazine changed a great deal in its 13 years in print, but it pretty much stuck to its guns when it came to challenging accepted beliefs about female and lesbian sexuality. And it successfully launched the writing careers of many of its contributors--including sexpert Susie Bright and acclaimed novelist Dorothy Allison, whose story "Demon Lover," published in On Our Backs 10 years ago, is reprinted in the current issue.

The magazine stopped publishing in 1996 due to problems with a new publisher, according to the magazine's new editor, Athena Douris. Douris was working for Girlfriends, another lesbian magazine, with former On Our Backs editors Heather Findley and Diane Anderson-Minshall when they decided to revive the magazine.

"Girlfriends actually started out as a more sexual magazine, but it ended up changing its focus," says Douris of the decision. "We're not just setting it in motion because we can, but because we really believe in it. There's a dearth of lesbian erotic images."

But while lesbians don't have the variety of porn that heterosexual or homosexual men can choose from, others in the dirty pictures business say there's hardly a dearth anymore.

"I think that there is an increasing amount of lesbian porn out there each year, and the quality gets better and the quantity gets better, but we can always use more," says Rebecca Suzanne, marketing manager for the female-run sex shop Good Vibrations.

"I think there's a lot more acceptance in society as well as in the lesbian and women's community for pornography and the varying types of pornography," explains Suzanne. "There's good porn and bad porn. Anything that's sex-positive and women-positive is a good thing. As long as it's not denigrating anyone--within that there's a huge range and various tastes."

It's true: The idea of girl-girl sex is starting to take hold in the mainstream--whether it's a lipstick-lesbian-turned-hetero basket case in Chasing Amy or the much ballyhooed coming out of Ellen. Sure, these versions of lesbian sexuality are watered down for mass consumption, but it's a huge improvement over the mid-'80s and even the early '90s, when lesbian sexuality was virtually nonexistent in the public eye. And even hard-core feminists, excepting stalwart bores like Gloria Steinem, are slowly coming around on issues of sex and porn.

The more tolerant fin de siècle sexual climate presented a new problem for On Our Backs. How do you present challenging, transgressive editorial at a time when, at least in San Francisco, anything goes?

"We're still going to feature photos that are S&M, but at the same time it's not the big issue that it used to be; it's not as controversial," Douris says. "So when we're thinking of things to make our magazine controversial, that won't be the only thing."

Clearly what counts as controversial needed to be redefined.

"It's something Dorothy Allison said in the interview with On Our Backs years and years ago," Douris says. "She was talking about when you have so much [transgressive material], sometimes showing sex that has emotions in it, or romance in it, weirdly enough can be transgressive. So it's about having a diversity of images and scenarios."

As I flip through the pages of the new issue, the words controversial and transgressive don't come to mind--that is, unless you're radically opposed to porn. There's no political statement here, but there are some sexy photos and some fun, though unsubstantive, articles.

Nina Hartley, the famed porn star most recently seen opposite William Macy and most of the cast in Boogie Nights, has an advice column. Sex therapist JoAnn Loulan advises on "Going Down on a Woman for the Advanced Student," in language best described as naughty-and-nice morphed: "Make your tongue work her like a beautiful lizard drinking water off a flower. ... Spend a lot more time licking her cunt than you spend looking for a parking place." It's your standard girl-sex editorial fare, and, quite frankly, Bust did it 10 times better last winter with its raucous sex issue.

But content isn't the main thrust of the new On Our Backs, says Douris. "We have three pictorials, one that's six pages, two that are four pages. We also have a two-page sex spread," she says. "We have substantial long features, news and departments, but we also really are putting a lot of time and energy into our pictorials."

And the pictures are pretty damn cool. They successfully present lesbian erotica in all its various expressions: from soft-focus lovemaking in the shower, to tie me up and nail me to the wall, to "Hi. My name is Dawn. I'm from Ohio. I'm hot. I ride motorcycles." And there are the ubiquitous and always fascinating labia shots sprinkled throughout. Unfortunately the photos are in black-and-white, which can be gorgeous but also limiting. One can only hope for a bigger budget and some color spreads in future issues.

The one real disappointment, though, is the lack of more quality fiction writing. Comparing Dorothy Allison's reprinted "Demon Lover" ("Kate always said she wanted to be the Demon Lover, the one we desire even when we know it is not us she wants but our souls") to Carol Queen's excerpted Orgy Night ("I felt like they both had cocks in me, and I couldn't do anything but rock on them"), you get a sense that--well--subtlety is often preferable, even in erotic writing. It seems that great pictures to masturbate to are about all you're going to get in this zine--look elsewhere for the quality writing and conversation that made the old On Our Backs outstanding.

When you think about it, it makes sense. Now that the anti-porn feminists such as Steinem and Dworkin are more likely to be called out of date than "bleeding edge" and lesbians are taking greater strides toward mass public acceptance, perhaps it's appropriate that On Our Backs should step back from the pulpit and into the choir room for some guilt-free, no-holds-barred erotic play.

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From the June 15-28, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.


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