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Lesbian Choices. By Claudia Card. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 March 2020

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Book Reviews
Copyright © 1996 by Hypatia, Inc.

Many of us have waited a long time for Claudia Card to write this book, anticipating that it would be a thoughtful and probing analysis of a range of lesbian issues. Lesbian Choices is such a book. It is a well crafted and carefully reasoned work of deep philosophical intelligence, not light reading to be sure, but calling forth real engagement on the part of the reader.

From the first chapter forward, we have an excellent model of writing in which an author uses personal experience, not in a confessional way, but to reflect on some of the larger issues that occupy lesbian lives. In an age that has become mired in an often unreflective style of both personal politics and confessional writing, Claudia Card's study is an example to us all. I would also maintain that some of her most personal writing is conveyed through her most seemingly non-personal ideas. It is the enterprise of philosophy to ponder, distill, and invent, and Claudia Card does philosophy with a discernment seldom found among academic philosophers. It is in this mode that Lesbian Choices addresses key issues of lesbian culture, choosing lesbianism, lesbian ethics, lesbian friendship, horizontal violence, homophobia, closeting, outing, and sadomasochism.

Card's analysis of “choice” as an “option” and as an “(intentional) act of choosing” is a real contribution to the nature/nurture discussion, challenging the simplism of the biological orientation argument for homosexuality and lesbianism. Her point that we need to distinguish different levels of the exercise of choice seems so obvious but has never been made so clearly in quite this context before.

Likewise, her discussion of homophobia lends clarity to a much misused word and reality. That homophobia is not so much about fear as about socially sanctioned hatred, scorn, and contempt toward lesbians and gays, gives meaning to the real oppression imposed by those who hate and exercise that hatred. Yet Card is not content to consider homophobia simply from the outside; she also examines the range of the real fears of lesbians and gay men, from being or becoming lesbian or gay in a same-sex hating world, to internalizing and acting on those fears. Bending this concept of homophobia further, as a prism bends light in different directions, Card treats genuine homophobia as a response to oppression and questions the popular view that it is a basic cause of oppression.

In this context, Card's echoing model is a felicitous one. Stepping off from Max Scheler's description of emotional infection, Card transforms the infection into an echo, thus avoiding the medical metaphor. Using the example of homophobia, she asks whether much of it reproduces the feeling, hostilities, and hatreds of others “where the underlying reasons, if any, are not communicated with the feeling.” This echoing model has the virtue of maintaining that when the resonant source of homophobia is made to disappear, the homophobic behavior and acts, while perhaps not also disappearing, fade in amplitude. Here, the political point is that “insofar as they are disconnected from conviction and choice, echoes and resonance to them may not be stopped simply by education,” but by institutional strategies of resistance or counterechoes.

I would also argue that insofar as antilesbian hatred is connected to conviction and choice, it may not be stopped simply by education. Hannah Arendt's explication of the “banality of evil” did not erase her earlier insightful analysis about intentional or designed evil, but added dimension and clarity to the why of the Nazi atrocities and genocide. Card's echoing model performs a similar function in explaining the why of homophobia. In classroom discussions of the educational model versus the political model of social change, I find students rather naively assume that a little bit more education would change the minds and hearts of, for example, rapists and racists. The transformation occurs when they realize that it takes political power—not simply education—for social change to occur.

Lesbian Choices has all the virtues but also some of the faults of the philosopher. It is philosophy at its finest, but it also struggles too much in the recesses of Plato's cave. I rather fancy the cave myself, but like any cave, it deprives its inhabitants of a certain light and mobility. There is also an otherworldly quality to philosopher Card's cave that lacks a lens on a this-world lesbian sex industry, for instance. Missing in the important chapter Consensual Sadomasochism, to cite the clearest example, is an analysis of the role of institutionalized economic and political power in the generation of a lesbian sadomasochistic subculture.

There are smaller examples of this missing dimension, such as Card's rendition of the Lesbian Nuns book debacle. While it is clear that it was not Card's intention to discuss this book and its aftermath at length, my objections center on several not-so-trivial points. First, she describes Forum magazine as owned by Penthouse but not as a pornographic publication itself. In quoting Barbara Grier, the publisher of Naiad Press and of Lesbian Nuns, there is no acknowledgment that Naiad Press deliberately sold several of the more explicit sexual pieces in the book to Forum for economic gain, knowing that they would appeal to so-called male prurient interests. Grier's disclaimer to the contrary, why would a pornographic magazine be interested in Lesbian Nuns unless it had such “prurient” value? Card seems unaware of the letters from contributors to Lesbian Nuns which appeared in Off Our Backs protesting Naiad's decision to make these three selections from the book into pornography by selling them to Forum.

My more substantial criticisms, however, center on the Consensual Sadomas-ochism chapter. This chapter is an enlightening attempt to dissect consent, but almost everything hinges on an analysis of consent as if consent doesn't hinge on an analysis of everything else. Like the phrase “forced prostitution,” which focuses on whether women “choose” it—and not why men “choose” sex over the bought bodies of women and children, and certainly not on the global sex industry that “chooses” more exotic markets of women to traffic and trade in—Card discusses sadomasochism almost entirely within the context of women's consent to it.

There is too much that is unaccounted for in this analysis, such as the institutionalization of lesbian sadomasochism and its values and practices in what can only be called a lesbian sex industry. That this industry has expanded considerably in the last fifteen years, alongside the mainstream sex industry, seems not to preoccupy many lesbians as an ethical and political problem. As evidenced in lesbian pornography, magazines, bars, and clubs, the role of the lesbian sex industry has been to industrialize, normalize, and diffuse sexual exploitation as sexual pleasure in a substantial part of Western lesbian culture. Its operative philosophy is that lesbians have the same right to uninhibited sex that men have always had, as long as it is consensual. But this right to choose is actually a right to consume—to consume the same kind of sex that has been the privilege of men, and to consume the accoutrements of pumping one's self up for sex.

From where I stand as a lesbian activist who is also the co-executive director of the Coalition against Trafficking in Women, what is happening in lesbian culture with its increasing preoccupation with lesbian sadomasochism, lesbian stripping, lesbian pornography, lesbian prostitution, and lesbian sex businesses is not terribly different in kind from what is happening in the world at large. As the larger sex industries expand in various countries with the exponential increase of sex “entertainment” clubs, sex tourism, pornography, and prostitution, sexual exploitation becomes sexual pleasure. And anything that “people” consent to supposedly goes. Consent becomes the big word. An unfathomable omission in Lesbian Choices is any mention of Sheila Jeffreys's brave and brilliant book, The Lesbian Heresy, in which she made the crucial point that consent in the context of sadomasochism is a tool for negotiating inequality. In lesbian SM practices, consent becomes a series of negotiations to get one person to do what the other wants, where part of the thrill is based on pushing the boundaries of the consent decree.

The kind of book that Claudia Card writes, with its title of Lesbian Choices and its probing discussion of lesbian sadomasochism, cries out for an analysis of why consent has even become the major issue of the day. This would require at least an analytical confrontation with the lesbian sex industry as both background coach and foreground cheerleader for not only lesbian sadomasochism, but for prostitution, pornography, and the range of sexual “products” that women are increasingly being encouraged to consume. The way in which consent and choice function as smoke screens for consumption have been the mainstay of many an industry, and, in this, the lesbian sex industry has numerous precedents.

As I write this review, the Eastcoast Lesbian Festival has arrived in the neighboring town of Northampton. The local hip newspaper reported that a major draw of the festival was Annie “Post-porn Modernist” Sprinkle's show at the Northampton Center for the Arts. Sprinkle's planned “performance art piece” was about her love and hate of stripping. Quoting Sprinkle, the paper wrote: “How can I do a piece about stripping if I don't strip.” Another reported highlight of this year's festival was that, for the first time, it was open to men.

Unfortunately, these are the images of lesbianism that dominate both the mainstream and lesbian media. More unfortunately, this image reflects the reality of what a substantial part of lesbian life has become. Many lesbians, for too long, have remained silent and tolerant of such sexual practices because they are performed by lesbians.

Claudia Card's final words advocate that “the most important social intervention for critics is not into consensual sexual sadomasochistic activity but into the oppressive norms that sadomasochism eroticizes.” And where do these norms reside if not in activities?“Norms of servitude, cruelty, misogyny, racism, and so on” do not exist in the stratosphere. They exist in the real activity of real people, lesbians included. Claudia Card knows this. All the more surprising that such an intelligent book ends with this advice.

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Lesbian Choices. By Claudia Card. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
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Lesbian Choices. By Claudia Card. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
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Lesbian Choices. By Claudia Card. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
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