I have to start off with a disclaimer. I’m so old-school, I remember when the term old-school didn’t exist. I have lived and loved through androgyny, sex wars, the reclamation of butch and femme, queer, LGBTT*, the birth of a widespread trans culture, and probably a few other liberatory twists and turns I have forgotten. All of which is to say, I’m shaped by my history.
And through it all, I’ve always believed whatever turns you on, go for it. I remember when I went into therapy in my 30s, I told my psychiatrist there would be two things we wouldn’t discuss under any circumstances: my artwork and my sex life. My art has to remain wed to my unconscious. Unravelling it will break it. And my sex can be as weird and wonderful as I like it — who cares about the why? It is mine.
That said, I have always wondered about the relationship between sexuality and social culture. Obviously we don’t get off in a vacuum. For example, I’ve always been turned on my women who remind me of the men in my family. Weird, but there it is. For example, it didn’t surprise me at all when I showed up at a family dinner with my then-lover, and she and my dad were wearing exactly the same outfit. As a femme and a feminist, I can’t help but ask myself where the eroticization of this “patriarch” comes from? How does it play out in the gendered dynamics of my lesbo relationships? Not that I’m problematizing my desire. I couldn’t change my tastes if I wanted to, which I don’t. But it is curious.
I remember reading somewhere about really old-school butch/femme relationships of the 1950s. It was difficult for butches to find employment as masculinized women. So often femmes worked outside of the home to support the couple, while also performing the traditionally female duties at home. Seemed like a raw deal to me.
Even by the ’80s and ’90s, with the reacceptance of butch/femme dynamics, something felt a little less than equal. A butch was always on hand to make me feel less capable (“Step aside little lady. I’ll open that jar/cut that board/tell you how it really is”), while we femmes did more than our fair share of the emotional heavy lifting in relationships and most of the work in bed as well. Butches had a hard time being vulnerable, saying “I want”. We took control (took them) so that they got what they wanted without having to ask. And if they were very, very good they could touch us in return. It was a mutually satisfying arrangement, but it did bear some parallels to straight culture, where men were accorded the illusion of being more powerful, while in reality women were still doing most of the work.
Which brings me to now, and a phenomenon that has recently blown my mind. Over the past month, several dear butch friends have mentioned that they have younger girlfriends who are femme bottoms. My butch friends end up topping. They make their lovers come but are not touched back. And these bull-dykes would love to be touched — they’re not stone.
I cannot tell you what dissonance the pairing of these two words — femme and bottom — creates in my mind. I’ve never heard of such a thing. A passive sexual femme? Or, as my friends describe, a femme that expects to be sexually served and assumes her lover will get off in the process? A femme who doesn’t ask what her lover wants? Or rather doesn’t simply take control and make her partner come? What gives?
Part of me wonders if feminism isn’t finally playing itself out in the bedroom. Maybe this is a sign that femmes (and the feminine in our culture) are confident enough to say “I want what I want. Give it to me. Your needs are your problem.” And why not? You go girls!
And another part of me thinks maybe, just maybe, celebrity culture and consumerism have convinced us if we buy enough and are pretty enough, we are entitled to be the star of our own show, to get everything we want and not be responsible for giving anything back. Maybe we are all passive these days, made so by (and you know the list) media overload, global warming, a disintegrating economy, war….
I hate it when writers ask a bevy of questions that they don’t begin to answer, but I’m so befuddled, I don’t have answers! Most of all I wonder, where is the power? How is power being played out?
I cling to my old-school ways. It is what works for me. I can put up with butch posturing, from arm-wrestling to generalized bravado, when it is weighed against making a butch beg and want and cry. For me as a femme, that is power — an active power. Maybe not a perfect dynamic, but one in which both parties actively participate. And get off.
It is very possible the phenomenon of femme bottoms isn’t a trend or a sign or anything. And obviously it is a sexual paradigm so outside my experience I can’t begin to appreciate its nuances. Maybe the same way the androgynous back-to-the-land lesbians were appalled by my generation’s adoption of pain and props and roles, I’m just having a middle-aged moment. Ultimately sex is not sociology. As I told my psychiatrist, who cares about the why? And yet I can’t help but thinking that a sexual dynamic that I have never encountered in my long dyke life might somehow indicate some kind of seismic shift. I am surprised by femme bottoms and, like everything weird and wonderful in the world (including my own sexuality), it makes me wonder.