The Lesbian Heresy
by Sheila Jeffreys
Published by Women's Press, 262 pp. £8.99
Sheila Jeffreys has failed to change the world; she has also failed to understand it. The project to which she has devoted her academic and polemical life, and her previous books, is a feminism stripped of everything she perceives as a celebration of inequality, notably sexual lust whether for men or for women; she does not begin to understand why this project, which for a few years in the early Eighties looked to her as if it might succeed, has failed, and failed ignominiously.
She devotes her new book to an attempt to describe why and how this happened, and predictably comes up with almost every answer except the correct one. Her answer is a variant of the stab in the back theory that, in the arena of power politics, right-wing nationalists come up with every time. We were robbed, they cry; victory was ours until a conspiracy came along and took it away from us. It was the intellectuals whoring after postmodernism, says Jeffreys; it was the Sheba Press producing erotic anthologies or a group of Finnish anarchists starting a lesbian SM nightclub or women who felt more in common with dying gay men than they did with Sheila Jeffreys.
She catalogues deadly sins - in the 80s lesbians started playing with roles or using toys and pornography; they went to therapists who had decided all this was OK and decided that lesbianism was often innate rather than a choice of existential virtue; they read Foucault and hung around in low bars and looked at the virtues of gay male culture. Sometimes, without discarding their sense of themselves as lesbians, they occasionally diverted themselves with male lovers. It is all true, you know; lesbians did this in the 80s and much of it was quite a lot of fun at the time. Women needed fun in the 80s, with the Thatcher/Reagan backlash to contend with, and the epidemic, and unemployment, and, come to that, Sheila Jeffreys, who was a barrel of laughs all by herself, not.
Actually, the retreat from the positions Jeffreys advocates was less a stab in the back than a shot in the foot; her sort of lesbian feminist made themselves disliked, not least for the sort of sanctimonious utopian arrogance that is on display throughout this book. Jeffreys' experience of the 80s was different from yours and mine, even when we were in the same place at the same time; there are lessons she failed to learn then which it would be optimistic to expect her to learn from a hostile review by a known political opponent. One should, however, always try, because then they cannot say that they were not told.
I was not present, by a margin of about twenty minutes, when a group of women, disguised with ski masks, smashed up Chain Reaction, the lesbian SM London night club with crowbars and injured the women who got in their way - in the name of opposing violence against women; I was present a few weeks later at the Hackney Empire for an International Women's Day cabaret when a group of lesbian feminists were jeered by the queue, among whom were almost no SM women, with a cry of 'Where's your crowbars?' I saw women from Sheila Jeffreys' circle at the picket outside Chain Reaction a few weeks earlier and, if she did not know the women who attacked the club with physical violence, one may assume that she knows a woman who does.
When, as she does in almost every chapter of this book, Sheila Jeffreys complains about the badmouthing of her sect by its opponents, she never for a second considers the possibility that there might be a karmic debt which those opponents are keen to see paid. When they have had the power, lesbian feminists of her stamp have broken sexual relationships and friendships, or got people sacked from jobs or thrown out of their homes. This in addition to the abuse and defamation which they regularly confuse with debate; Sheila Jeffreys is as free with accusations of crypto-fascism in this book as she was with accusations of child abuse in her last.
When, by contrast, one of the London sex toy collectives teases her by naming a dildo after her, she gets very pompous about having been sexually harassed by this act. Does she really not understand that naming a dildo after her is a rather tame form of vengeance given the offenses against human, let alone feminist, decency which people wish to requite and which she still defends. What she describes as a backlash consists not of lesbian feminists being sacked or evicted or attacked by other lesbians; it consists of other lesbians refusing to listen to their prescriptions and proscriptions, and not letting them continue to hurt and harass other women for simple dissidence. Oh, yes, and mockery; I am afraid there has been quite a lot of that.
Most of what Sheila Jeffreys is worried about is a matter of people refusing to allow her to interfere with them; she seems to hate the idea of people doing things without her permission. Of course, that is not what she says - she goes on about the harm they are doing to themselves by failing to understand their own needs as well as she does. She also claims, regularly, that any white woman who fails to listen to the views of those particular black women who agree with Sheila Jeffreys are being racist if they do not do precisely what they are told to. This was a tactic that worked a couple of times in the early 80s, and then commitedly anti-racist women suddenly realized that they did not become racists just because the likes of Audre Lord felt like calling them names in the course of arguments about SM. When black women do not agree with Sheila Jeffreys and defend SM, it is of course quite a different matter; poor darlings, she says, they don't understand their own oppression properly. It is the elitism and knowing better than anyone else as much as the polemical tantrums and self-portrayal as a victim that make Sheila Jeffreys the Violet Elizabeth Bott of feminism.
Let us talk, for a moment, about victimization and manipulation. This book is dedicated to the admirable Sandy Horne, a woman correctly highly regarded both as a survivor of psychiatric torture in the 50s and for her hard work on Gaia's Guide ever since. I too like and admire Sandy - improbably, we became friends as a result of having to share a table in a dim sum restaurant and agreeing to put politics aside for a moment. When things were hard for her, I, like Sheila Jeffreys, was supportive over the phone or a drink - friendship is about that, whether you claim it as a feminist principle or just regard it as humane behaviour.
Because I was a transsexual, and a pervert, Sheila Jeffreys took it upon herself to allege that any kindness I might show was merely an attempt to claim female virtue. She and her clique eventually managed to destroy my friendship with Sandy, who had invested enough in those politics herself to feel she had to break with me when it was demanded of her. This is not just a matter of a particular bad turn done to me - they had their reasons and I have my faults; it is a particular example of the sort of malicious action that Jeffreys' sect felt justified in carrying out when ever they had the opportunity, which was often. If the personal is political, one is entitled to take this sort of thing personally.
Jeffreys gets very upset in this book at being called an essentialist, claiming that she regards sexual behaviour as socially constructed. Were this the case, her line on transsexuals would seem a little odd, unless she really does believe that we are Trojan horses of the patriarchy, CIA agents prepared to go that little bit further into deep cover; when she really gets down to it, she does not like the idea of sharing toilet facilities with me, let alone friends. If a belief that I necessarily pass water or give good advice in a sinister and unsisterly manner is not essentialism, I do not know what is.
She is also an essentialist in another, broader sense. Sheila Jeffreys is incapable of understanding irony or ambivalence or polysemousness even when she has them in front of her eyes; everything is one thing, and one thing only, and nothing has more than one meaning. This, let it be remembered, is the woman who, in Anticlimax, read Nabokov's Lolita as if it were a book in favor of child abuse; one might, just might, construct an argument that Nabokov's use of the technique of the unreliable narrator to expose the moral loathsomeness of his abuser protagonist is an irresponsible way to handle an important issue, but Jeffreys claims it as a pro-abuse text. She has a historian's ability to accumulate evidence, but shows remarkably little ability to interpret it.
It is, of course, interesting that in the course of writing this book it never occurred to her to speak to any of the people on whose work she draws and whose views she traduces and misinterprets, all of whom, save alas Tessa Boffin, are alive and well and open to questions. It never occurs to her that Gayle Rubin and Pat Califia and Della Grace might have something to tell her which would be worth the listening to; it is worrying to read a feminist book which is so much concerned with the reading of other texts and so little with listening to other women. Her beliefs close off debate and dialogue; it is only in reviews that her opponents are able to communicate with her at all.
The truth is, of course, that Sheila Jeffreys long ago decided that a lot of people were not women - transsexuals were easy, but she has moved on a long way since then. The trouble with her politics is that it further becomes progressively easier to pretend that the people who disagree with you do not in fact exist; this is the book of someone who has locked herself into a coterie and a library.
Sometimes, as I have said, she maliciously misinterprets. More often, I suspect, she genuinely fails to understand that people not besotted with utopianism are often still trying to work out their positions; she is hot on exposing contradictions in other people's work, but fails to understand that they are inevitable and forgivable in what do not claim to be total systems.
Women experimenting with role play and with SM went through a utopian period when they denied that there were any problems at all. Having to some extent learned better, they are now busy working out mechanisms for dealing with occasional abuses of interpersonal power without discarding sexual practices they continue to find both empowering and hot. It is hard, I suppose, for someone who lives inside a total system to understand the free play of ideas, which of necessity includes the free play of mistaken ideas.
Jeffreys is hot on condemning postmodernism for making it hard to deal in moral absolutes; one of the odder moments in this book is the passage in which she rebukes a young black gay man for failing to be constant in his original hostile reaction to various Mapplethorpe photographs, which at once objectify black men as disembodied receptacles for lust and force them onto the white agenda of fine art. He ended up ambivalent; Jeffreys has no problems, which is itself a problem. She gets very upset when people call her a fanatic, but her readiness to discard lust, art, and anything else which might get in the way of her project of utter purity is something it is hard to call anything else.
When you consider all that went on in the 80s by way of real political backlash against all that had been gained, for women and people of color and lesbians and gays and working class people, in the 60s Sheila Jeffreys is so prepared to condemn as a false promise, it is very hard to like this fanaticism. Reagan and the Ayatollah Khomeini and Norman Tebbit and the Pope were all sure that the 60s had been a colossal mistake, and here, yet again, is Sheila Jeffreys agreeing with them. The trouble with her sort of simplifying essentialism is that you are forced to believe that things are either good or bad; the sixties and the eighties were both the worst of times and the best of times. The fundamental truth about this book is that Sheila Jeffreys made the existential choice to be entirely miserable in both decades and cannot forgive anyone who found moments of cheerfulness creeping in.