Professor Sara Mills -- Research Material


This version of this essay appeared in Keith Harvey and Celia Shalom’s ed. Language and Desire, Routledge, London, 1997

Discursive categories and desire:

Sara Mills and Christine A. White

This chapter analyses the way that feminists negotiate the discursive categories of sexuality and desire to which they are assigned or which they consciously adopt.[1] We have chosen to focus primarily on lesbian and heterosexual feminists, since we consider that feminists are, in general, very aware of the constraints of living under heteropatriarchy, and have analysed the problems entailed in identifying oneself within a sexual category, given the debates within feminist theory of the last five years [See Feminist Review, No.31 for an overview]. [2] We aim to challenge the current polarised view that heterosexual feminists feel guilt and discomfort with their categorisation as heterosexual, whereas lesbian feminists embrace the way that they have been categorised and feel comfortable within that categorisation. Rather than posing lesbianism as a magical zone, where subjects can be truly themselves and express their sexual natures outside the confines of institutionalised heterosexuality, as some lesbians and heterosexuals have tended to do, we argue instead that the process of categorisation is a difficult negotiation which all subjects engage in, and that subjects learn to experience and express their desires within and against the constraints of these categories. The negotiating process is different for heterosexuals and lesbians, given that many feminist lesbians choose to describe themselves as such as a political choice, whilst for feminist heterosexuals naming oneself is less of an issue, because of the normalisation of heterosexuality, and because of the absence of institutional and social discrimination against heterosexuals. We wish to question the notion that lesbians necessarily feel more comfortable than heterosexuals with the labels that they have been given or which they have chosen for themselves. We tested out some of these ideas through discussions with two groups of feminists, heterosexual and lesbian, in order to examine the way that feminists inhabit the categories used to describe them, and try to come to some conclusions about the process of the construction of desire within the constraints of discursive categories. We organised two sets of discussion group: one, largely heterosexual, in Loughborough University’s Feminist Research Group, and the other, consisted of discussions with lesbians and bisexuals in three groups: the Lesbian and Gay societies at Goldsmith’s College, London University; the GLINT group (Gays and Lesbians in Theatre); and teachers in an inner city school. All members of the groups were largely white, European, working and middle class. The sessions were recorded and followed up with a questionnaire. [see end] Since we aimed to analyse the way that feminists inhabit categories, it was important for us to explore this in these discussion groups; we therefore intersperse reference to these discussions throughout the theoretical sections of the chapter.

The White Heterosexual Feminist Subject

There has been a noticeable shift in recent feminist politics: those in the so-called mainstream grouping have been considering the politics of their seemingly neutral position. [Mills et al, forthcoming] For some time, Black feminists have confronted white women with the implicit racism of their universalising theorising which implicitly excludes Black women from the category `women'. White feminists have begun to analyse `race' as a variable which constructs their own sense of identity, rather than assuming that `race' concerns only Black feminists. [see, Ware, 1992; Frankenberg, 1993a and 1993b; Wetherill and Potter, 1992; McClintock, 1995] This critical work has led to many white feminists beginning to consider both the material benefits which accrue to them on account of their whiteness, and their own unthinking participation in the perpetuation of racism at an institutional and a personal level.

This critique of white feminism and its universalising tendencies has led to constructive work by Black and white feminists alike on the nature of the problem of identity categories. For example, June Jordan states: `We have been organising on the basis of identity, around immutable attributes of gender, race and class for a long time and it doesn't seem to have worked...I think there is something deficient in the thinking on the part of anybody who proposes either gender identity politics or race identity politics as sufficient, because every single one of us is more than whatever race we represent or embody and more than whatever gender category we fall into.' [Jordan, cited in Ware, 1992:249.] What Jordan is arguing here is that a focus on race or gender as defining categories for our sense of self is insufficient. Race is always a gendered and classed category, and gender is always racial and classed. Anne McClintock has argued that it is precisely this superimposition and interlinking of categories that we should be analysing rather than assuming that gender, class or race are `distinct realms of experience, existing in splendid isolation from each other; they [cannot] be simply yoked together retrospectively like armature of Lego. Rather, they come into existence in and through relation to each other - if in contradictory and conflictual ways.’[McClintock, 1995:5].

This discussion of `race' and white feminism bears interesting analogies to some of the theoretical work currently being undertaken by lesbian feminists, who have consistently critiqued white heterosexual feminism for its failure to consider questions of sexual orientation in formulating its theoretical frameworks concerning women in general. They have also criticised the tendency to assume that heterosexuality is the norm from which lesbianism is the deviation.[Bell et al, 1994] Thus, to some extent, mainstream feminists have moved away from the tendency to make universal statements about women in general based on their own experience and the experience of those like them, (these have tended to focus on stereotypical white, heterosexual and middle class experience). [Butler, 1990; Fuss, 1989; Wittig, 1992] Lesbian theorists have demonstrated that the positing of a feminist subject in order to gain visibility and representation for women as a whole often results in only a particular type of woman being represented. Monique Wittig in particular argues that lesbians cannot be classified as women, because the term `women’ implies sexual and social servitude to men; since lesbians reject this relation to males, they cannot therefore be women. However, whilst this destabilises the category `women’ and foregrounds its assumed heterosexual nature, Stevi Jackson argues that it is necessary to analyse `woman/women’ in more materialist terms, seeing it as a social rather than a natural category: `Lesbianism [as well as heterosexuality] by virtue of its location in relation to patriarchal heterosexuality ... has a real social existence. This does not mean as Wittig would have it, that lesbians are not women - we are all defined by our gender and there is no escaping the patriarchal hierarchy within which we are positioned as women.’[Jackson, 1995:20]

This critical work has also entailed some destabilising of the category `lesbian’, particularly in the light of Queer theory; as Lynne Pearce argues, writing about the term `lesbian’ in the context of literary criticism: `Although there have been some persuasive attempts to argue for the strategic preservation of the category `lesbian’, I have little doubt that the radical de-centring of the term will make it increasingly difficult to identify a body of literature and/or criticism under that heading.’[Pearce, forthcoming] Perhaps `Queer will be everywhere' in the future, making this analysis of categorisation unnecessary, but at present, it seems rather ironic that, just at the moment when the term lesbian is one which can be inhabited with pride and one which can be viewed with envy by some heterosexual feminists, the term itself is called into question.

Perhaps rather than simply assuming that categories such as heterosexual and lesbian have disappeared, we might consider Judith Butler’s notion of the performativity of gender, which has been at the root of much of this work on the instability of sexed identity. She states quite clearly that `if I were to argue that genders are performative, that could mean that I thought that one woke up in the morning, perused the closet...donned that gender for the day, and then restored the garment to its place at night. Such a wilful and instrumental subject, one who decides on its gender is clearly not its gender from the start and fails to realise that its existence is already decided by gender.’[Butler, 1993:x] Thus the destabilising of identity which the notion of performativity entails does not mean that the categories `lesbian’, `heterosexual’ and `bisexual’ are meaningless, nor does it imply that we can simply choose to belong to whatever sexual category we desire; rather it means that the process of being gendered is one which is achieved only through the `ritualised repetition of norms’[Butler, 1993:x] She goes on to say `that this reiteration is necessary is a sign that materialisation is never quite complete, that bodies never quite comply with the norms by which their materialisation is impelled.’ Butler, 1993:2] Thus, critical analysis of the process whereby gender identities are formed does not mean that lesbians and heterosexuals do not exist, but simply that we are forced to be more aware of the process through which those identities are precariously achieved. Discomfort within the categorisation within which one is positioned is therefore the norm.

Disidentification and Feminist Heterosexuality

Basing our work on this critical material, we would like to consider the possibility of feminists negotiating in productive ways with the identity categories, heterosexual and lesbian. We are aware here that the `desire for’ identity is more important than proving or disproving its existence. But this desire for an identity might be more complex than at first envisioned, for subjects want not simply any position which seems close to their own desires, pleasures and experiences, but rather an identity category which is positively viewed by others. For feminists, this can mean that they want to inhabit a category which has some general approval, or that they want to inhabit a category oppositionally, that is, to use Foucault’s term, to disidentify with the category. This will have two results: firstly, it will clear a theoretical space for heterosexuality to be analysed and inhabited in a process of disidentification. Secondly, it will be possible to examine some of the difficulties which lesbians experience when trying to negotiate with identity categories. Thus, rather than guilt being induced in heterosexual feminists because they are not lesbian, a form of political heterosexuality could be developed, which might be termed feminist-heterosexual. This cannot be the same type of political identity category as that developed by lesbians, since heterosexuality has a different institutional status, and a different set of histories, but it may be possible to map out a space within heterosexuality from which feminists can make choices about the type of heterosexual practices they will `buy into’, at the same time as resisting oppressive practices operating beyond heterosexuality. [Spraggs, 1994] Dorothy Smith has shown that discursive categories should be more usefully thought of as a set of practices which are negotiated, rather than fixed identity positions. [Smith, 1990]

Celia Kitzinger and Sue Wilkinson's [1993] work on heterosexuality is an important step in beginning to analyse the often unacknowledged benefits that heterosexuality brings, which ultimately is at the expense of lesbians. For example, Mary Crawford, one of the heterosexuals interviewed by Kitzinger and Wilkinson, notes that she is not treated in the same way as a lesbian is: `No one hassles me at my child's school, at the doctor's office or at work. No one tells me I'm an unfit mother. Because I am legally married, my job provides health care benefits for my partner and family...Wills and mortgages, taxes and auto insurance, retirement pensions and school enrolment for the children - all the ways that individuals ordinarily interface with social structures - are designed to fit people like me and my partner.' [Crawford, 1993 in Kitzinger and Wilkinson: 10] A feminist heterosexual might be one who would not simply wear a red ribbon to show token support on issues of AIDS awareness, but who would actively campaign on issues of gay and lesbian rights, and who would interrogate and challenge the privileges which heterosexuality confers.( for example, in pension rights, immigration laws, child custody disputes, job security and so on).

However, it is not enough to carve out a disidentified political position for heterosexual feminism, since this would seem to bring the focus back onto heterosexuality again. We would rather focus at the same time on the constraints also operating on lesbians when they identify themselves, and suggest that a similar process of disidentification is at work even though this is often not acknowledged for political reasons. For as one of our lesbian respondents argued: `I resolved some time ago that I would never write on sexuality per se. This is doubtless to do with my own ambiguities ( my present inclination is to retreat back into whatever closets are available ). What I couldn’t stand about the lesbians I have met recently was how it had become not only an `identity’ but a life-project - like one’s house was full of lesbian kitsch and art and culture - and this was the centre of everything all day long !!!’. This sense of lesbian disidentification is something which Butler sees as essential: `Although the political discourses that mobilise identity categories tend to cultivate identifications in the service of a political goal, it may be that the persistence of disidentification is equally crucial to the rearticulation of democratic contestation. Indeed it may be precisely those practices which underscore disidentification with those regulatory norms by which sexual difference is materialised that both feminist and queer politics are mobilised. Such conceptual disidentifications can facilitate a reconceptualisation of which bodies matter, and which bodies are yet to emerge as critical matters of concern.’[Butler, 1993:4]

Some theorists have discussed the possibility of avoiding the binary split of heterosexual/homosexual by the use of the term `lesbian continuum' whereby women who identify as feminist and are heterosexual can still assert some solidarity with lesbians. [Rich, 1980] This is a position which many feminist heterosexuals initially welcomed, because it enabled them to continue with their heterosexual relations and yet to foreground the importance of their relationships with other women. As Kitzinger and Wilkinson point out, whilst this does have some benefit since it marks out a political position from which heterosexuals can critique institutional heterosexuality and politically align themselves with lesbians, it nevertheless may result in the erasure of the specificity of lesbianism, and mask much of the discrimination suffered by lesbians. Perhaps what is more useful than emptying out the significance of certain categories is the critical analysis of heterosexuality in order to differentiate between a range of different practices. We need to distinguish between: firstly, having sexual relationships with males; secondly, the formalising of that sexual practice to constitute an identity, thus entering into narrative schemata for the `progression' of such relationships, what we will call the narrative of conventional heterosexuality; and thirdly, institutional heterosexuality which is the set of varied discourses which implicitly cast heterosexuality as the norm and make `ordinary' the privileges which heterosexual women enjoy. By distinguishing between these three elements it will be possible for us to emphasise that these choices about sexuality are more than merely sexual choices. [Jackson, 1995]

We feel the need to make these distinctions because it is clear that heterosexuality as a practice has changed greatly. Whilst it is still the case that many heterosexual women do remain in relationships which are sexually and physically abusive and do suffer great oppression at the hands of their `lovers' and husbands, it is also true that far fewer women tolerate such treatment. As Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey argue, because of feminist work and other factors, heterosexual relationships have come under pressure and have been transformed as a result. [Pearce and Stacey :1995:35] Many of the women interviewed by Shere Hite had much higher expectations of their relationships with men, especially concerning equal share of housework and concern for the workings of the relationship; these women also stressed that they would be more willing to leave their husbands/partners if their relationship did not meet their expectations. [Hite, 1987; Ehrenreich, 1986]

Whilst there has been a significant shift in what women expect from heterosexual relations, there has also been a change in the way that heterosexuality as a whole is viewed by feminists. Many heterosexual feminists feel that their choice of sexuality is under critical scrutiny: firstly, the choice of a male lover when they could have (should have) chosen a female one, because heterosexuality oppresses women; remaining straight means that the progress of heterosexuality as an institution continues unchecked. Secondly, having a male lover is not seen as very hip. For example, many of our female students see the choice of a female lover as something that you simply have to do, as a certain way of presenting oneself. This is not about being gay or even being bisexual, but just part one’s image - streetwise, competent and in control. Having relationships with males does not have this sense of adding to one's street credibility. However, whilst heterosexuals may see an occasional lesbian relationship as an attractive option, one lesbian respondent noted that there was no tangible gain in the wider world for lesbians, for example, no tax benefits, no security, no funeral rights. Thirdly, the choice of a male lover entails the progression along the romance narrative pathway which results in choices being made in relation to having children. Because of a great deal of early feminist work, children are often not seen in a positive light, and are viewed as problems in relation to feminist self-fulfilment. [Freely, 1995]

The sense of unease which many heterosexual feminists experience when discussing their own sexual identity has resulted from lesbian and gay theorising; in a sense, heterosexuality was simultaneously created and destabilised when homosexuality and lesbianism were asserted as positive sexual choices and ways of life. As Ward has shown we can think of heterosexuality as having been invented in the late nineteenth century, by Victorian sexual science, as `a mark the thoroughfare from which ...bizarre enormities diverged. [Ward, 1987: 146] But Ward goes on to show that the currency of the term heterosexual is in fact much more recent, and developed only after the 1960s when ` homosexuality, already unique among the perversions in manifesting a viable subculture, proclaimed for itself the legitimacy reserved for married love.' [Ward, ibid.] Heterosexuality presents itself as having no nature, in stark constrast to homosexuality and lesbianism which are simply socially constructed; however, under pressure from gay and lesbian theorising, and from the sheer numbers and visibility of lesbians and homosexuals, heterosexuality has become the category which now feels most social constructed and most unstable, at least for feminist theorists. [3] As one heterosexual respondent said: `For many women (both feminist and non) much of life appears to be a balancing act between resistance and compromise. For many feminists, however, room for resistance appears to be always available in some form. How, or if this can be measured and in what form I'm not sure. I'm not sure that all women don't constantly resist/revise definitions of themselves.’

The responses from the heterosexual discussion group are in stark contrast to work done by Sue Wilkinson and Celia Kitzinger (1993); they sent a questionnaire to a large number of heterosexual women and asked them to describe the impact their sexuality had made on their feminism. The women they interview are overpoweringly defensive, and Kitzinger and Wilkinson describe the responses as `a long grey stream of heterosexual misery’. As Jan Parker states: `many heterosexual feminists are offended by the notion that they are victims of compulsory heterosexuality. After all, doesn’t it deny the principle that every woman's experience is valid and real and that women have the capacity and the right to make their own choices ? I can do without listening to how good and different their man is, but don't think there's any harm in heterosexuals being under pressure to assert their happiness after we've been pushed into years of shouting almost banal slogans such as "Glad to be Gay".' [Parker, 1987: 141] In one of the lesbian discussion groups, however, one respondent remarked that there was a strong possibility that, `had the individuals we surveyed included the general public, as opposed to a highly educated bracket of workers, to identify oneself as heterosexual would have been seen as an extremely positive category, rather than be defined as the "perverse" and deviant lesbian or bisexual’.

In order to examine the process whereby feminists negotiate with identity categories, we will now examine prototypes, narrative schemata and naming.

Prototypical Categories

George Lakoff's work on categorisation and thought has revealed that categories do not simply represent `reality' but that they are themselves constructed in a way which Lakoff terms `imaginative', that is, they contain an element of negotiation and play between bodily experience, cognitive devices such as metaphor and metonymy and the categories themselves. Further, he has shown, drawing on Eleanor Rosch's work on prototypes, that within categories there are so-called `best examples' which stand for elements within that category, unless their use is questioned. [Lakoff, 1987:7] Lakoff states: `prototypes act as cognitive reference points of various sorts and form the basis for inferences,'[Lakoff, 1987:45] that is, unless we distance ourselves from those presumptions. Lakoff's work is important in much the same way that Foucault's is helpful here, because he stresses the way that the existence of categories encourages us to assume that there are pre-given differences between members of two category groups, as he states: `Since we understand the world not only in terms of individual things but also in terms of categories of things, we tend to attribute a real existence to those categories.' [Lakoff, 1987:9]

Heterosexual prototypes: Heterosexuality is a category which contains a diverse range of behaviours and emotions but which has as its `best example' or prototype which stands for heterosexuality as a whole, a very conservative set of practices to which most heterosexual feminists do not subscribe. [Langford, 1995] Many of the respondents from the heterosexual group stated that whilst they felt quite comfortable within certain circles of friends to be assumed to be heterosexual, that often within the `outside world' they were treated as prototypical heterosexuals with assumed power-differentiated relationships with men. Most of them wanted to make a clear distinction between institutionalised heterosexuality which they felt that they were constantly at odds with, and their own negotiation of heterosexuality within their own relationships with males. Several mentioned the difficulties that they had trying to combat the assumption that they were married and found it difficult to constantly refuse to be categorised as Mrs. or Miss. Several of the group mentioned their decisions not to marry or not to be married within the conventional frameworks as a way of working against assumptions of stereotypical heterosexuality. Others mentioned the fact that they felt it necessary not to act as a couple; for example, one stated that by not going to parties with her husband and so on, she was felt that she was resisting stereotypical versions of heterosexuality. Many of the group recounted anecdotes where they were not taken seriously because they were with males, and that when they were trying to perform tasks, for example, hiring a car, if they were accompanied by a male it was assumed that the male was in fact hiring the car, even though it was the female who was paying for it. One lesbian in this group recounted an anecdote where she was in a garage buying petrol accompanied by a male friend; she realised that to the outside world she was categorised as being in a heterosexual relationship with her friend, and she described the fury that she felt at the assumptions which were being made about her. Many of the group remarked that they were aware of the benefits they accrued by being heterosexual, but they also mentioned the potential problems that they encountered from the assumption that they were or should be a particular type of heterosexual; they mentioned the difficulty of `others expecting you to have children, be domestic, to not manage your own finances, etc'. Whilst it is possible to resist heterosexual categories and ways of living, one person noted that this did not seem a very visible resistance, particularly when parents and relatives made assumptions about her and her partner simply on the basis of them being heterosexual. She also mentioned that she felt the pressure of the conventional narrative of heterosexual relationships, because she and her partner do not live together, and there is an assumption that if the relationship is serious it will `progress’. Indeed one of the group mentioned that she found her feminism to be always at odds with her heterosexuality in personal and political terms. Another mentioned that she felt `very unhappy with the assumptions by non-feminists that my heterosexuality somehow cancels out my feminism', or that her `nice' feminism is being set against `nasty' lesbian feminism in some way.

Lesbian prototypes: Lesbians also measure themselves against stereotypes of what they assume certain types of lesbian really are. That is not to suggest that these prototypes are equally as conservative as the ones in play for heterosexuals, but that they are no less effective in forcing subjects to evaluate their own position within a category in relation to a proposed norm. It is clear that there are a range of prototypical notions of what lesbians are. In Sexual Inversion [Ellis, 1897] true lesbians are defined as transvestites who cross-dress as ‘butches’ in order to define themselves more visibly as genuine lesbians. This form of blatant display is a reaction to the dominant culture which forces women into heterosexual patterns, but all lesbians do not see themselves in this way nor define themselves against a heterosexual norm. Feminist lesbians are as diverse a group as any other and balk at being grouped together because of some perceived shared life experience. The reason for this grouping is the dominant culture’s hatred of perceived sexual deviance. The groups themselves have little choice as to how they are viewed when the media present them in this way. As Phyllis Nagy states about lesbian characters in the theatre: `It is much easier for audiences - both straight and gay - to accept lesbian and gay characters who obsess and fret about gayness as an issue (and who, as a result, enable an audience to feel they are on solid ground) than it is to accept lesbians and gays who sometimes misbehave, and do not present themselves as sexless, vaguely martyred but politically hip individuals who manipulate empathy and equate it with victimhood.’[Payne, 1994:1]

A further lesbian prototype is that all lesbians are radical. Lesbianism, by its very existence is a challenge to heterosexuality, as Dolan comments: `The lesbian subject is in a position to denaturalize dominant codes by signifying an existence that belies the entire structure of heterosexual culture and its representation....The lesbian is a refusor of culturally imposed gender ideology, who confounds representation based on sexual difference and on compulsory heterosexuality.’ [Dolan,1988:116] However, at the same time, most lesbians in the groups we interviewed expressed concern with the generalisation of a collective identity, rather than an awareness of the differences within a category.

Narrative Schemata

A study of narrative schemata can help us to consider the way that narratives seem to structure the forms that sexual and emotional desires take. Schema theory developed in studies of artificial intelligence; there are presumed to be models or narrative formats which individuals use to structure their thought and action sequences, and these sequences are entailed to some extent with the use of categories. [see Brown and Yule, 1983; Mills, 1994; Semino, 1995] The way schema theory is conventionally viewed is that `we make sense of new relating the current input to existing mental representations of entities and situations that we have experienced in the past.' [Semino, 1995:82] Where schema theory can be used by feminists in productive ways is when we attempt to trace the way that it is not simply our own experiences in the past which condition the contents of the schemata enlisted, but that there are preconstructed schemata with which we engage in the construction of our own narratives. [Mills, 1995] Thus, the classic example of a narrative schema is the restaurant schema or scenario, where there are opening moves such as entering the restaurant, being greeted by the waiter/manager, asking for a table, and further moves such as being given a menu, ordering, consuming and paying for food within the constraints of behaviour considered appropriate in restaurants. Whilst this is a useful general framework for considering the way that people negotiate stereotypical action sequences, there is a sense in which it is too simplistic to deal with the complexity of the range of schemata entailed by the use of the categories `heterosexual’, `lesbian’ and `bisexual’. However, as Semino has stressed, narrative schemata are not rigid structures; `schemata are dynamic and flexible structures that are not just imposed on incoming information, but are constantly being changed and adapted in the light of new experiences.'[Semino, 1995:83] Indeed, one of the integral elements of schemata is the notion of `schema refreshment' that is the disruption of conventional narrative schemata by new information, which may result in `the destabilising of old schemata, the creation of new ones and new links being made between existing schemata’. [Cook, 1990, cited in Semino, 1995] It is this sense of acting on discursive categories as well as within them which we would like to retain here, since this disruption of schemata is a necessary part of our negotiation with identities, in order for us to recognise these categories as useful and as real rather than as simple roles that we play. It is precisely this process of schema refreshment which is currently under way with the narrative schemata of heterosexual and lesbian relations and identities, and which is setting out new disidentified positions.

Schema theory can be useful in considering heterosexual and lesbian relations since, for example, as we mentioned above, in a heterosexual relation, there is a constant pressure to progress along a particular narrative pathway or schemata, (`we have been seeing each other for several months, therefore we should be thinking of living together, etc'...; `we have been living together for two years and therefore we should be thinking of having a child together, or getting married, or both, etc...') One of the narrative schemata of the progress of conventional heterosexuality is romance. As the collection of essays entitled Romance Revisited demonstrates,`individuals are educated in the "narratives of romance" from such an early age that there is little hope of immunity.' [Pearce and Stacey, 1995: 12] However, what the essays in this collection stress is that feminists can gain some critical purchase on these narratives and engage with them in order to negotiate a position for themselves. Precisely because romance is a narrative and hence textual in nature, it is subject to revision and rewriting.

This unthought-out nature of this narrative pressure, which Rich [1980] termed `compulsory heterosexuality' often means that heterosexuals are unable to think beyond the narrative frameworks which to them seem self-evident, and which are ratified by others. There are also narrative schemata which lesbians are subject to which are often modified versions of these heterosexual narratives; these narrative pressures entail that lesbians work within similar constraints to heterosexuals, but that the narrative closure seemingly achieved through marriage is not available. One of the discussions which took place in the heterosexual group was around whether heterosexual feminists should refuse marriage and refuse to name their partner in terms of gender because this possibility of marriage was not available to lesbians. Lesbians within the group found it rather ironic that heterosexuals were using silence about their relationships as a sign of solidarity with lesbians, when lesbians often had no choice about whether to be open about their sexuality. One respondent from the lesbian group stated: `I would find it the height of hypocrisy to resist identifying myself as lesbian, since I have spent most of my adult life in relationships with women. For me, to identify as a lesbian is a decision which I have no choice but to make - but further to identify publicly as a lesbian is a political choice, made in the teeth of pressures on lesbians to stay invisible and silent. But on the other hand lesbian carries with it stereotypes I cannot identify with at all, and scripts I am less and less interested in acting out.'


Serious relationships: A significant part in the mapping of narrative schemata for relationships is played by the naming of those with whom we have relationships: lover, friend, partner, husband, wife, fiancé and so on. Heterosexuals have a wide range of terms to describe the `progress' of their relationships along a narrative schema which begins in friendship and ends in marriage or a settled relationship, and it is necessary to signal the type of relationship, (progressive or conservative) through the choice of terms like partner/lover as opposed to boyfriend/fiancé/ husband). Many heterosexual feminists are only too aware that the majority of the population defines their relationships along a pathway leading to marriage, and feminist relationships are defined in opposition to this. Many of the heterosexual group explicitly stated that this was a perpetual problem, for example: `On the phone, when I am asked if that is Mrs X (my partner’s surname) I have to make difficult decisions about whether I can be bothered to say no, this is his partner (and give my name) when I know that the caller really doesn’t care about our marital status, but just wants to get through to my partner.’

Despite the lack of specificity involved in the use of the word `partner’, there is a sense in which `partner’ has come to mean a long-term relationship, usually where the couple live together. Both lesbians and heterosexuals use the term to refer to relationships of this type. Nevertheless, it is still difficult to find terms for those relationships which are more fluid and less clearly defined than those which follow the compulsory heterosexuality narrative: for heterosexual feminists who are over sixteen, the term `boyfriend' seems juvenile, whilst `friend' seems overly asexual. For many lesbians the choice of the word `lover’ is crucial in foregrounding the fact that a heterosexual narrative schema is not being engaged with, and that the nature of the relationship is sexual.

There are limited means to refer to those we have relations with: within heteropatriarchal definitions of sexuality, it is only sexual relations which define a relationship as serious. All other relationships are categorised as simply friendship, i.e. if same-sex, then peripheral to `real’ relationships, or if opposite sex, then only the procursor of a `real’ relationship. There are few terms for love relations which are not overtly sexual or physical. This poses problems for non-sexual heterosexual and lesbian relations, and also for those who have intense relations with others which involve desire but not sexual relations. Lillian Faderman's (1981) work on female friendship in the nineteenth century is important here for she argues that desire and sexual relations need to be disentangled when discussing same-sex relationships in the past. It is not appropriate to assume that all those women who expressed passionate desire for one another were lesbians in the sexual sense that we have imposed on current models of sexuality. We should be aware that when we currently debate whether a couple is lesbian or not we are drawing on a narrative schema of conventional heterosexuality which assumes that a relationship is only valid if it is sexual.

Self-categorisation: Indeed, one’s decision to identify as lesbian was an element of discussion in the Loughborough Feminist Research Group : a feminist lesbian stated that she did not believe in lesbianism as such, but that political expediency forced such categorisation. She went on to state: `I think for an awful lot of people sexuality is a pretty fluid thing and if choice of sexual partner were more socially neutral I'm pretty sure it would be more fluid. Maybe if heterosexual feminists were to abandon heterosexual privilege and argue publicly for a less static reified concept of individual sexuality the line would disappear.' Another feminist in the group stated that she totally refused all categorisation: `I won't label myself, because I don't know what I am. I don't have sexual relationships these days.' This respondent, whilst having been attracted to both males and females, found it a relief not to be in a relationship and valued the `space, time and choices' which living alone gave her. This decision to live alone and to be celibate were political choices. However, within one of the lesbian groups, an ex-lesbian, bisexual pointed out that: `Being single is not a statement it’s a bloody pain in the arse, and it’s also a blissful relief on occasion. Others might see it as a statement and find it threatening e.g. wives of male friends, family members at a wedding!’ However, another respondent stated `I sometimes think that I don’t want to identify as celibate, or as lesbian, but the desire to identify as something is also so very strong (maybe not sexuality though).’

One bisexual defined herself as bisexual based on her sexual history but found the meaning of the term in relation to her identity a mystery. She also stated that she rarely spoke of herself as a bisexual and was more likely to express her sexuality as being important only to the person she was partnering at that time. The bisexuals canvassed felt under threat and criticised for their definition of themselves as bisexual. They felt that bisexual still has connotations of `not having made up one’s mind’, or of not really being aware of their true sexuality. Bisexuals who change their sexual orientation as they meet someone they wish to be sexually active with said that they may well change again in the future. One woman stated that, `I don’t think my sexual orientation is the whole picture, and for me not sum uppable (sic) in a handy latin phrase. I think the current terms available for describing sexuality are limiting and for me they feel uncomfortable and don’t work.’

Perhaps this sense of unease with categorisation can be summed up by one of the feminists in the lesbian group: `I feel very uncomfortable with identifying myself as heterosexual/ bisexual, lesbian etc, because at different times I am all of the above. I think these labels only work for me in terms of relationships at any given point. i.e. I was a lesbian, I am now heterosexual because that describes the nature of those relationships - I guess this would mean that in lifetime terms I am bisexual. But I hate the word for some reasons. I don’t know why. I also hate saying I am heterosexual because that description excludes a big and important part of my life. I suppose to summarise I use these terms to describe my relationships, not the essence of me.’

Dominance and passivity: Within heterosexuality, there does not seem to be a great variety of sexual experience in categorisation terms - you're either in a sexual relationship or not ( living with, going out with, married, engaged, etc); heterosexuals do not generally define the type of relationship - i.e. female dominant, male dominant, or whatever. Within the lesbian context, these are issues which are clearly marked in relationships and which are signalled to others, by dress and other elements. Members of so-called `deviant' groups such as lesbians may focus on sexual categorisation and sub-categorisation as collective celebration, whereas heterosexuals do not have the sub-categories to use to easily refer to their sexual preferences, nor is this process of detailing sexual preferences one which brings street-credibility. It is rare to find feminist heterosexual sado-masochists identifying openly. But it is also rare to find any celebration of heterosexuality as a form of sexuality. It is significant that not one of the heterosexuals in our survey brought up the question of the type of sexual relationship they had and those who responded to the questionnaire left these questions unanswered. For heterosexuals, questions of activity and passivity within sexual relationships are categorised as private matters and difficult to discuss even in anonymous questionnaires.

Within the lesbian groups, there was a great deal of discussion of the nature of dominant and passive practices. Some lesbians see these roles as affirming and as a way of separating these practices from seemingly similar practices within heterosexuality which are tabooed ( or which in the case of masochism, are almost seen as a pathological prerequisite for certain types of female/male relationship). [Haug, 1987] However, one of the lesbian feminist respondents stated that she thought she would probably be categorised by sado-masochists as a `vanilla’ lesbian, but she said that she was very resistant to defining herself in this way, since she saw it as an insult. This position of open discussion of sexual practice is also a response to the general homophobic trend of assuming that lesbians are either on the one hand, sexual and only sexual, or on the other hand, completely asexual (for after all, what do lesbians do?).

Within the lesbian groups, there was a certain amount of debate about the lack of `fit' between these categories of dominance/passivity and women's relationships with each other. As Susan Ardill and Sue O'Sullivan have shown, the labels `butch/femme' are ones which many lesbians do not feel comfortable with: `What appears to be happening is a definition of who's butch and who's femme through trial by clothing, or haircuts or makeup. All of us tarted up femmes running around in cocktail dresses, and all of them butches dressed a la Radclyffe Hall. Or black leather or whatever. A great big mess of dress style, top-bottom terminology - and what else?' [Ardill and O'Sullivan,1990:79] What Ardill and O'Sullivan point out is that in this display of fixed identity positions, the flexibility and freedom of lesbian sexuality, in contrast to the seeming constraints of heterosexuality, is lost. Many lesbians in the groups commented that labels such as butch and femme do not in fact reflect a predisposition to a certain type of personality or sexual practice, but rather they signify a range of exchangeable sexual roles. These roles are open to change and experimentation within relationships, either on a daily basis or in the longer-term. Thus the roles which are seemingly signified through dress-codes are not necessarily ones which subjects adhere to in their sexual practices and in the acting out of their desires. This on-going nature of sexual identity is highlighted by Jan Parker when she states: `Despite the stereotype of lesbians, changing your sexual/political identity is not like changing your clothes or getting your hair cut. Most of us who are/have come out as lesbians have been through a difficult, complex and often painful process of change that doesn't suddenly stop.'[Parker, 1987: 140]

Many lesbians in the groups drew attention to the fact that how you identify depends on the company and context you are in (see Keith Harvey's chapter in this volume). One's level of butchness, aggressiveness or femininity is measured in relation to other individuals. As the condemnation of ‘mannish’ lesbians is so widespread in society generally, it adds to the acceptance of ‘femininity’ being male defined. The use of the word ‘mannish’ is used to describe some lesbians and by its very nature is a derogatory description of a woman ‘wanting to be like a man’. ‘Butch’ falls into a similar category but it has been reclaimed as a positive display of lesbianism. But the context will in practice define what roles are attributed to an individual. Thus in a lesbian couple, one partner may be considered butch, because the way they split the household tasks means that one does the more `manly' tasks such as carpentry. However, that same person, in groups of predominantly butch lesbians, will be categorised as `femme' because of the way she behaves and looks in relation to them. One respondent in one of the lesbian groups spoke of being categorised differently when in different company. For example amongst a group of lesbians, the more butch the group, the more the individual felt ‘femme’, but when in a group of heterosexuals the same individual appeared ‘butch’. Within gay relationships it is also often assumed that the partner who performs the more `feminine’ tasks is passive sexually. What all of the members of the lesbian discussion groups argued for forcefully was the necessity of rethinking sexual relationships, and lesbian and gay relationships in particular, so that un-thought-through prototypes of male and female roles within conventional heterosexual relationships were not simply imposed onto lesbian and gay relationships.

What is also required here is a consideration of the way that we categorise sexual activity, since the terms `top/bottom’ `active/passive’ used to define polarities of sexual behaviour, and hence subject-roles, assume a purely receptive and agentless position for the `bottom/passive’ subject. This again stems largely from conventional heterosexual narrative schemata where the role marked out for women within heterosexual relationships is one of non-agency and in effect non-participation, as Shan Wareing [1994] has shown. Although the receptor position is one which this narrative marks out for women, it does not map onto women’s experience of sexuality.[Mills, 1994b] It is interesting that, for the general public, the prototypical and stigmatised category for lesbians is that of the butch active sexual participant, whereas perhaps for gay men both the `passive’ role and the `active’ role are equally stigmatised. This maps onto prototypical categories for males and females where passivity is considered the norm for females and activity for males. Thus a `femme’ is not stigmatised to the same degree as a `butch’. As one of the members of one of the lesbian groups put it: ` If you look butch, you are considered a Lesbian and dealt with accordingly by society, whether or not you would wish to be so defined. In this respect choosing to be a Lesbian is sometimes not a ‘choice’, - one is, simply that and seen as that; women who look ‘Butch’ have no choice as to how they are categorised.’

Although these categories `butch’ and `femme’ developed within lesbian politics in order to define such relationships as active in the same sense as heterosexuals, there has been a more recent move to avoid comparison with heterosexual partnering, to avoid defining lesbian and gay relationships in terms of their similarity or difference to heterosexual marriages. This has led to a tendency for some lesbians to feel that they should therefore avoid long term relationships and commitment because this does not challenge stereotypes of relationships; it feels as if politically you have `sold-out', in much the same way that feminist heterosexuals feel that they have `sold out' through continuing relationships with men. For lesbians, being involved in a long-term relationship may mean aping the heterosexual-norm but only feeling like a pale imitation of the original, whilst avoiding long-term relationships means slipping into the stereotype of the promiscuous deviant, condemned to an eternity of pick-ups.

It is clear that for lesbians the power-relations within a relationship are different to those within heterosexual relations because the distribution of power is not sanctioned by an institutional base, as is heterosexuality. Within the lesbian groups, the question of power differences wasmet with some dismay - mainly because for some the point of being in a lesbian relationship was that there were fewer power differences. One lesbian noted that they were both more likely to be overlooked in competition with men.

David Bell et al. [1994] have written about the way that lipstick lesbians and gay skinheads should also be seen as very particular types of identity category because they represent less a fixed identity position than a parody of heterosexuality. Although these are categories which have been invented to describe groups of which one is not a part, they have nevertheless become terms which subjects choose to adopt oppositionally. Bell et al claim that within these categories: `The excessive performance of masculinity and femininity within homosexual frames exposes not only the fabricated nature of heterosexuality but also its claim to authenticity. The "macho" man and the "femme" woman are not tautologies, but work to disrupt conventional assumptions surrounding the straight mapping of man/masculine and woman/feminine within heterosexual and homosexual constructs.' [Bell, Binnie, Cream, Valentine, 1994:33] Thus, if certain lesbian and gay identity categories are performative and parodic, then they cannot be taken as having the same status as heterosexual categories. That is not to say that heterosexuality is not performative, but simply this political form of identity category is clearly of a different order. Bell et al. go on to describe the different histories of the gay skinhead and lipstick lesbian categories, seeing these histories as determined by a conflictual relation with heterosexuality and stereotypes of gay and lesbian sexual behaviour. They show how the butch category developed as a response to conventional inability to understand women's desire for each other except in masculine terms: `By differentiating in this way between "men in women's bodies" and "real" women sexologists were able to explain the impossible - women's sexual desire for each other.'[Bell et al:1994:39] But lesbians questioned this masculinisation of lesbianism, as Nestle states: `None of the butch women I was with...ever presented themselves to me as men; they did announce themselves as tabooed women who were willing to identify their passion for other women by wearing clothes that symbolized the taking of responsibility. Part of this responsibility was sexual expertise.’[Nestle, cited by Bell et al: 1987:40] Nestle goes on to describe the way that she played with butch-femme dress codes and lifestyles and comments that most heterosexuals miss the parodic and playful nature of butch-femme precisely because they are looking for fixed identity categories, such as the prototypical categories within heterosexuality and homosexuality. For Bell et al., lipstick lesbianism has the effect of demonstrating that the performance of femininity is not restricted to heterosexual women, and hence it forces both heterosexuals and lesbians to redefine their own notions of femininity and passivity: `Lipstick style thus has the potential to make heterosexual women question how their own appearance is read, to challenge how they see other women.' [Bell et al,1994: 42] They assert that lipstick lesbianism can be a productive space within which embracing femininity with enthusiasm can mean that a woman can become a sex object for herself, and can reclaim lesbian sex as an issue of desire rather than of politics.

Furthermore, as Lynne Pearce has shown, drawing on Judith Butler's work in Bodies that Matter, there are problems with the identity category `lesbian' itself since `although it may be a useful term around which to organise personally and politically, it is only at the expense of other identities (like class, race and national identity) which become marginalised and excluded.'[Pearce, forthcoming] As Pearce states: `The question "What is a lesbian?" is answered by the provocatively cynical "Why do we need to know?"'[Pearce, ibid.]


Thus what emerges from these group discussions and the responses to the questionnaire is that these feminists inhabit heterosexuality and lesbianism in very critical and politically active ways. Many of the heterosexuals were very critical of the power dynamics within their relationship but did not feel that these were simply male/powerful, female/powerless. The limitation of the sexual label ‘heterosexuality’ is due in part to it being such an amorphous title, it denotes only sexuality - sex with men, and does not suggest a struggle or politics. The difficulty for feminist heterosexuals is linked to the need for an inherent politics overshadowed by the individual `giving in’ to sex with men. Many of the lesbian respondents disidentified with a unified prototype of lesbian existence. The differences between various sexualities is taken by the members of Gays and Lesbians in Theatre to its ultimate conclusion once the naming and categorisation is over. `We at GLINT, while recognising our difference as lesbians/gay men/ queers, dykes and bisexuals, not to mention personal idiosyncrasies, continue to work together believing that creating alliances rather than getting deadlocked in separatism is the way forward.’ [Rapi,1994:1] Perhaps a similar sense of alliance amongst feminist heterosexuals is not achievable because of the different contexts within which feminist heterosexuality is positioned, but it is evident from our discussions with these groups that the position of disidentification which we have located in the lesbian, heterosexual and bisexual communities is the starting point for radical critiques of categorisation. This sense of discomfort in relation to categories is a productive stage in the process of rethinking the boundaries of what we see as our identities.


1. [RETURN] We would like to thank Gill Spraggs, Lynne Pearce, Tony Brown and Keith Harvey for their detailed and constructive comments on drafts of this chapter. Thanks are also due to Elaine Hobby for discussions on this topic.

2. [RETURN] We decided against identifying ourselves as lesbian, straight, bisexual, celibate - being up-front about `where we are coming from', etc. We both felt that this sense of having to come clean about the category which we have been allocated/have chosen to describe our sexual choices constituted an undermining of our argument.

3. [RETURN] However, many of the respondents also mentioned the fact that institutional heterosexuality continues relatively untroubled amongst the wider population.


Ardill , S and O'Sullivan, S. (1990) `Butch/femme obsessions', Feminist Review, 34, 79--85.

Bell D, Binnie J, Cream J, Valentine G. (1994) `All hyped up and no place to go,' Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 1, 1, 31--49.

Brown , G & Yule, G. (1983) Discourse Analysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1993) Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, London: Routledge.

Christie, C. (1995) `Theories of textual determination and audience agency: an empirical contribution to the debate’, in Mills, S. (ed.) Gendering the Reader, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester/Wheatsheaf, 47--66.

Dolan, J. (1988) The Feminist Spectator as Critic, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Ehrenreich, B. Hess, E. Jacobs, G. (1986) Remaking Love; The Feminisation of Sex, Glasgow: Fontana/Collins

Ellis, H. (1897) Sexual Inversion, with J.A. Symonds, London: Macmillan, withdrawn before publication at the request of Symond’s executors. Later published as Sexual Inversion (Studies in the Psychology of Sex), volume I, Watford: The University Press, 1897, reprinted from an earlier edition excluding Symond’s contributions.

Faderman, L, (1981) Surpassing the Love of Men:: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, New York: Morrow.

Feminist Review, No 31, Spring, 1989, The Past Before Us: Twenty Years of Feminism.

Feminist Review, No 34, Spring, 1990, Perverse Politics: Lesbian Issues.

Frankenberg, R. (1993a) White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness, London: Routledge.

Frankenberg, R. (1993b) `Growing up white: feminism, racism and the social geography of childhood’, Feminist Review, 45, Autumn, 51--84

Freely, M. (1995) What about Us ? An Open Letter to the Mothers Feminism Forgot, London: Bloomsbury, and also (1995) `Keeping Mum’, Everywoman, November, 10--12

Fuss, D. (1989) Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference, London: Routledge.

Kitzinger, C. and Wilkinson, S. (eds.) (1993) Heterosexuality, London: Sage.

Hanscombe, G. and Humphries, M. (eds.) (1987) Heterosexuality, London: GMP.

Hobby, E. and White, C. (eds.) (1991) What Lesbians do in Books, London: The Women's Press.

Jackson, S. (1995) `Gender and heterosexuality: a materialist feminist analysis’, in Maynard, M. and Purvis, J. (eds): (Hetero)sexual Politics, London: Taylor and Francis, 11--27.

Langford, W.(1995) `Snuglet puglet loves to snuggle with Snuglet piglet: Alter personalities in heterosexual love relationships,' in Pearce, L. and Stacey, J. (eds.): Romance Revisited, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 238--251.

Lakoff, G. (1987) Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Maynard, M. and Purvis, J. (eds.) (1995) (Hetero)sexual Politics, London: Taylor and Francis.

McClintock, A. (1995) Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Imperial Contest, London: Routledge.

Mills, S. (1994a) Feminist Stylistics, London: Routledge.

Mills, S. (1994b) `Close encounters of a feminist kind: transitivity analysis and pop lyrics', in Wales, K. (ed.) Feminist Linguistics in Literary Criticism, Woodbridge: English Association/D.S. Brewer, 137--157

Mills, S. et al. (forthcoming): `Feminist theory’, Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory, Vol.3, (review for 1993 ), Oxford: English Association/Blackwell.

Nagy, P. (1993) Weldon Rising, London: Nick Hern Books. Weldon Rising was performed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 3rd-19th December 1992.

Norden, B. (1993) ‘Weldon Rising’, Gay and Lesbians in Theatre Journal, GLINT 2, January,1, p.5

Parker, J. (1987) `The tables need turning', in Hanscombe, G. and Humphries, M. (eds) Heterosexuality, London: GMP, 137--143

Payne, B. (1994) ‘Between the Glitter and the Gutter’, Gays and Lesbians in Theatre Journal, 2,1, Winter, 1--4.

Pearce, L. (forthcoming) `Lesbian criticism', Chapter 7 in Mills, S. and Pearce, L. Feminist Readings/Feminists Reading, second edition, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Pearce, L. and Stacey, J. (eds.) (1995) Romance Revisited, London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Rapi, N. (1994) Gays and Lesbians in Theatre Journal, editorial, 2, 4, Winter, p.1.

Rich, A. (1980) `Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence', Signs, 5,4, 631--660

Semino, E. (1995) `Schema theory and the analysis of text worlds in poetry', Language and Literature, 4,2, 79--109

Spraggs, G. (1994)`Coming out in the National Union of Teachers’, in Epstein,D. (ed.) Challenging Lesbian and Gay Inequalities in Education, Buckingham: Open University.

Smith, D. (1990) Texts, Facts and Femininity: Exploring the Relations of Ruling, London: Routledge.

Ward, J. (1987) `The nature of heterosexuality', in Hanscombe, G. and Humphries, M. (eds.) Heterosexuality, London: GMP, 145--169

Ware, V. (1992) Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism and History, London: Verso.

Wareing, S. (1994) `And then he kissed her: the reclamation of female characters to submissive roles in contemporary fiction’ in Wales, K. (ed.): Feminist Linguistics in Literary Criticism, Woodbridge: English Association/D.S. Brewer, 117--136

Wetherell, M. and Potter, J. (1992) Mapping the Language of Racism: Discourse and the Legitimation of Exploitation, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester/Wheatsheaf.

Wittig, M. (1992): The Straight Mind and Other Essays, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.


Questionnaire: Feminists and Identity Categories

1. How would you identify yourself ? (Homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, other ?)

2. Are there other categories which are equally important in identifying yourself ? ( political categories; mother/guardian; race/ethnicity categories; class ?)

3. How do others categorise you ? (i.e. people who do not know you and people who know you)

4. How comfortable are you with being categorised ? Does it matter to you that you are seen in this way?

5. Are there sub-categories within this category which describe you?

6. What room for resistance is there within this category ?

7. Are you currently in a stable relationship ? On your own ? How important is this to you ?

8. If you are in a relationship, how important od you think power differences are ?

9. Are power differences a part of the sexual dynamic of the relationship ?

10. Is your choice of sexual category also a political choice ?

11. Do you feel that you accrue benefits from being categorised in this way ?

12. Have you ever wanted to change your sexual orientation ? Why? Have you ever done so ? Do you think you will in the future ?

13. Do you feel that your desires are met within this sexual category ?