Patrick Califia, the controversial author who first wrote and published Macho Sluts in 1988, writes in a new Foreword for the 2009 edition, of his awareness that most mainstream readers, and a great number of the queer ones too, will find more reason to reject, rather than embrace, this landmark text. As Califia asks in the opening sentence of the essay, “Why should anybody buy a book of lesbian S/M smut… especially if the author is now using male pronouns and sporting a rather impressive beard?”
“Vanilla” readers, a term that Califia and his characters like to bandy about, may run from the violent content of the sexually explicit material, not ready to confront the notion that pain and pleasure can be found at the same time.
Feminists may shun the purposeful and demeaning subjugation of many of the characters, labeling it a pathological result of the dominant patriarchal ideology that churns through our society.
Even the segment of lesbian S/M culture that Califia attempts to give voice to may turn from the new edition of the work, given the author’s “disloyal” transition from lesbian woman to bi-sexual man in the late 1990s. Who, then, is this work for? And why has it endured?
As difficult as it is to step back from the sexual and social political wars in which “Macho Sluts” finds itself enmeshed, it is important to do so. It is only then that the work can be fully appreciated for the important historical document, and biting commentary on gender roles, that it actually is. As Califia writes, “This is no ordinary book of X-rated fiction. Its continued existence and popularity alone prove that.”
A Preface written by Mark Macdonald acts as a brief history of the book’s battle with Canadian censorship. A protracted legal skirmish between Canadian Customs and importer Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium in Vancouver, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, rewrote the script in terms of speaking out against the illegal suppression of ideas.
Macdonald writes that the right to distribute the book initially fell victim not only to overzealous customs officials, but also, “a camp of neo-Victorian, right wing feminists who felt that sexual expression itself was to be scrutinized with suspicion.” From the perspective of the clinical evaluation of the book as an important tool in the battle for free speech, “Macho Sluts” is worth a look.
As for the stories themselves, even if one does not find the idea of lesbians tying and beating each other up to be a personal turn-on, Califia’s writing is a cut above the swill you would encounter reading “Penthouse Letters,” or other over-the-counter, mainstream erotica. Califia isn’t just trying to titillate. He is trying to write–and he has plenty of value to say.
“Macho Sluts” is not simply a collection of stories about people on the fringes of society trying to get themselves off. They are real, with lives, and most importantly, feelings.
One of the stories, “Jesse” contains this insightful musing on the loneliness that often accompanies a hardcore S/M lifestyle: “The next time I called up a few of my other old friends, they treated me with what I thought was distaste… So I gave up calling anybody I used to know.” These lines touch on the despair that accompanies the fight for understanding, even within the “safe” confines of your own minority group.
This idea is continued and further developed in “The Hustler,” a futuristic fantasy where Califia envisions a dominant matriarchal society. Yet, even amongst the female population, there are still outsiders. Califia’s character, the titular Hustler, wonders, “why so many of us have not profited greatly from the women’s revolution, despite the fact that we are women. Perhaps it’s because I’m not the right kind of woman.”
“The Spoiler,” details the adventures of a man (another marked transgression for some in a work of lesbian pornography), who, like Califia himself, violates the norms, even in the left of center world of S/M. Califia writes, “We are raised to think that everything in the world occurs naturally as a set of paired opposites. It is almost impossible for us to know what anything is if we cannot locate and define its counterpart. The spoiler was an anomaly.”
All of this is not to say that the primary mission of Patrick Califia’s “Macho Sluts” isn’t sexual excitement. The author provocatively asks the reader to consider his or her answer to the following question: “Are you more afraid that you won’t have any fun–or that you’ll be thrilled to pieces? Which is it? Be bold.”
Be that as it may, one should not bypass this text out of a knee-jerk distaste for S/M pornography. No matter what your sexual orientation, fetishes or fantasies, the work offers important cultural and historical lessons that are still very much relevant in a post-Proposition 8 fight for human understanding and equality.