HART, 'THAT WAS THEN: THIS IS NOW: EX-CHANGING THE PHALLUS', Postmodern Culture v4n1
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THAT WAS THEN: THIS IS NOW: EX-CHANGING THE PHALLUS
Department of English
The University of Pennsylvania
_Postmodern Culture_ v.4 n.1 (September, 1993)
Copyright (c) 1993 by Lynda Hart, all rights
reserved. This text may be used and shared in
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medium, requires the consent of the author and the
notification of the publisher, Oxford University
 In _A Taste for Pain_, Maria Marcus recounts an
anecdote about a women's studies conference in 1972.
Germaine Greer, the keynote speaker, was interrupted by a
young woman from the audience who suddenly cried out: "But
how can we start a women's movement when I bet
three-quarters of us sitting in this room are masochists?"
Greer replied: "Yes, we know women are masochists--that's
what it's all about!"^1^
 Twenty years later, I am more likely to hear the
complaint that all women are masochists in the context of
lesbians lamenting the scarcity of tops in the community.
Whether they are "real" butches, or the newly popular femme-
tops, a good top is hard to find; most lesbians prefer being
 While feminists continue to debate the pros and cons of
lesbian sexual practices, "masochism," the term that has
become synonomous for some feminists with internalized
oppression, has undergone a theoretical renaissance in which
the erotics of submission have been reclaimed by a diverse
group of scholars as an emancipatory sexuality for men.
Indeed if we are to follow Leo Bersani's argument, which
strikingly concludes that "sexuality--at least in the mode
in which it is constituted--could be thought of as a
tautology for masochism," anti-s/m feminist arguments would
be tantamount to barring women from sex altogether.^2^
 For feminists who are struggling to articulate a sexual
subjectivity that does not submit to the psychoanalytic
imperative of an exclusively masculine libido, which
ineluctably consigns femininity to a masculinized fetish,
Bersani's theory might be welcomed since it takes us out of
the discourse of the symptom into a "nonreferential version
of sexual thought." Parental identifications, which
inevitably reify Oedipus, are no longer constitutive; and
the "lost object," which is relentlessly relegated to a
feminized fetish, is diffused so that any object and any
part of the body can become an erotogenic zone.^3^ This
theory does not of course undo the historical/social
attribution of masochism to women, but it does suggest a
psychic model in which the sexual positions one takes up are
not necessarily gendered. Nevertheless, Bersani implicitly
assumes the now privileged masochistic position as a male
preogative, and hence claims sexuality itself for men. This
presumption is clearer in his essay, "Is the Rectum a
Grave?" when he describes the dominant culture's revulsion
at the sight of a man seductively and intolerably imaged
with "legs high in the air, unable to refuse the suicidal
ecstasy of being a woman."^4^
 This is a graphic enactment of Freud's third form of
masochism, "feminine masochism," which he also presumes to
be occupied by a male subject in a feminine situation. The
male subject in this space signifies "being castrated, or
copulated with, or giving birth to a baby."^5^ Since women
presumably already experience one or more of the above, the
notion of a feminine "feminine masochism" is redundant at
best, if not impossible. In short, linguistically masculine
feminine masochism is performative; feminine feminine
masochism is constative. The latter merely reports an
adequation; it corresponds with the "facts." The feminist
campaign to free women from their masochism was never then
about giving up something that they had, but extricating
women from something that they were.
 Although Kaja Silverman acknowledges that
psychoanalytic sexual difference relegates female masochism
to a virtually ontological condition when she defends her
focus on male subjectivity by explaining that the female
subject's masochism is difficult to conceptualize as
perverse because it represents "such a logical extension of
those desires which are assumed to be 'natural' for the
female subject," she nonetheless accepts and repeats the
terms of a psychoanalytic symbolic in which there is only
one libido and it is masculine.^6^ Women are denied sexual
agency because they are incapable of mimesis. Their options
are to take up the position of passive "normal femininity,"
or to reverse the position and appropriate masculine
subjectivity and its desires, in which case they can
"perform" sexuality, but only through their "masculinity
complex." Bersani's desire is aimed at the pleasures gay
men might experience from an alignment with femininity, as
is Silverman's, though her project is to produce a
revolutionary subject in a "feminine" yet heterosexual man.
Both of these analyses add weight to feminist arguments
against sadomasochism, for following their logic the lesbian
masochist is either enacting the dominant culture's
degradation of women or she is playing out the desire to be
a man. Even if she psychically occupies the position of a
man with another man, she is still only a "fag hag" within
the terms of sexual difference. These theories that posit
male masochism as emancipatory thus continue to depend on
the impossibility of desire between women. In this context,
truth claims about lesbian sexuality such as this one made
by Jan Brown,
We practice the kind of sex in which cruelty has
value, where mercy does not. What keeps those of us
who refused to abandon our "unacceptable" fantasies
sane is the knowledge that there are others like us
who would not leave because we scream "Kill me," at
the moment we orgasm. . . . We lied to you about
controlling the fantasy. It is the lack of control
that makes us come, that has the only power to
move us . . . .^7^
would easily fall prey to the argument that lesbian
sadomasochists are merely reproducing heterosexist models,
or at best, male homosocial ones. The referent for Brown's
"lies" can be located in earlier rhetoric by s/m
practitioners who justified the acting out of their
fantasies by claiming they were means of exorcising their
real hold on the individual. Tacitly accepting the
feminist contention that s/m lesbians had internalized
cultural misogyny, these defenses asked for a tolerant
reprieve, a period of playing through the fantasies in order
to transcend them. S/M then, ironically, became
therapeutic, like a homeopathic cure.
 Theatrical metaphors were central to this defense.
Susan Farr, for example, described s/m as "pure theatre," "a
drama [in which] two principals . . . act at being master
and slave, play at being fearsome and fearful." She cites
the clues to the drama in the interchangeability of the
roles and the repetitive, scripted dialogue. Even though,
she acknowledges, much of the scene may be "pure
improvisation," it is still "theater."^8^ This dialectic
between the scriptural and the spontaneous is prevalent in
early pro s/m accounts. On the one hand, there is the
insistence that the scene is rigidly controlled, with a
decided emphasis on the bottom's mastery of the limits. On
the other hand, the eroticism depends on the anticipation
that the limits will be pushed to the breaking point, that
the "scene" will cross over into the "real."
 To a certain extent, the controversy about whether s/m
is "real" or performed is naive, since we are always already
in representation even when we are enacting our seemingly
most private fantasies. The extent to which we recognize
the presence of the edge of the stage may determine what
kind of performance we are enacting, but willing ourselves
to forget the stage altogether is not to return to the real,
as s/m opponents would have it; rather, this will to forget
is classical mimesis, which, as Derrida points out, is "the
most naive form of representation."^9^ Nevertheless, it is
precisely this most naive form of representation that would
seem to be the most desirable of sexual performances.
Bersani's objections to the frequent theorization of such
things as "the gay-macho style, the butch-fem lesbian
couple, and gay and lesbian sado-masochism" as . . .
"subversive parodies of the very formations and behaviours
they appear to ape," rather than, "unqualified and
uncontrollable complicities with, correlatively, "a brutal
and misogynous ideal of masculinity" [gay macho], . . . "the
heterosexual couple permanently locked into a power
structure of male sexual and social mastery over female
sexual and social passivity" [butch-fem], or "fascism"
[s/m], are clearly based on his contention that these sexual
practices are not performative. Parody, Bersani states
emphatically, "is an erotic turn-off, and all gay men know
this."^10^ Although Bersani audaciously speaks for all gay
men, I would have to agree with him and add that many
lesbians know this too. Self-conscious mimicry of
heterosexuality is a side show; when the main act comes to
town, we all want the "real thing," or, more precisely, we
all want the Real thing. That is, sexuality is always, I
think, about our desire for the impossible-real, not the
real of the illusion that passes for reality, but the Real
that eludes symbolization.
 Lesbian s/m erotica has become increasingly assertive
about claiming dildoes as the "real thing." Although strap-
ons are advertised as "toys," inside the narratives and
testimonials of lesbian s/m practitioners references to an
outside or a "model" are most often discarded in favor of
descriptions that simply occupy the status of the real. So,
for example, it has become common to speak of "watching her
play with her dick," or "sucking her off," or "your dick
find[ing] its way inside of me."^11^ As one contributor to
_Quim_ puts it: "When I put on a strap on I feel male. I
feel my dick as real otherwise I can't use it well."^12^
Rarely if ever does one find lesbian erotica that refers to
the dildo as a joke, an imitation, or a substitute, whether
these narratives are explicitly in an s/m context or in the
more prevalent accounts of butch/femme vanilla erotica. On
the contrary, the erotic charge of these narratives depends
on both tops and bottoms, butches and femmes exhibiting
nothing less than respect for the "phallic" instrument.
 Bersani's argument about gay macho depends on this
notion of respect for masculinity as a model. But the slide
from gay macho to lesbian butch-fem and s/m is too facilely
made. Whereas gay macho's "mad identifications" are between
gay and straight men, which he argues is a "direct line (not
so heavily mediated) from excitement to sexuality,"^13^ the
identifications made by b/f and s/m lesbians follow a more
circuitous route in which the condensations and
displacements are more complex. Most obviously, gay macho's
relationship to straight masculinity remains a homo-sexual
affair; whereas lesbian b/f and s/m, as long as we are
caught within the logic of this binary, would be hetero-
sexual. In both cases, however, the erotic charge can only
be articulated within the terms of a symbolic order that
depends for its coherency on maintaining the distinction
between homosexuality and heterosexuality. Nonetheless,
even within the terms of this symbolic order, which I
presume is what Bersani refers to when he speaks of sex "as
we know it," there is already dissidence, rather than
resemblence, in the image of a woman penetrating another
woman with a dildo. Although both might be interpreted as a
yearning toward "masculinity," in the gay man's case it is a
masculinity that the dominant culture at least marginally
assigns to him and that he thus might willingly surrender.
In the lesbian top's case, it is a "masculinity" that she
aggressively appropriates without any prior cultural
ownership only then to give it up. If we look at it from
the bottom's perspective, there is quite a difference
between the gay man who cannot "refuse the suicidal ecstasy
of being a woman," and the lesbian who is presumed by the
dominant sexual order already to be a woman.
 Over a decade ago, Monique Wittig implicitly enjoined
us to write The Symbolic Order with a slash through the
article, just as Lacan writes The Woman, when she made her
then startling announcment that "Lesbians are not
women."^14^ The straight mind, she pointed out, "speaks of
the difference between the sexes, the symbolic order, the
Unconsious . . . giving an absolute meaning to these
concepts when they are only categories founded upon
heterosexuality . . . ."^15^ Returning to this article, it
is interesting to remember that the example Wittig chooses
to demonstrate the material oppression effected through
discourses is pornography. Pornography, she argues,
signifies simply that "women are dominated."^16^ Thus
Wittig might be aligned with Mackinnon when she argues that
pornography "institutionalizes the sexuality of male
supremacy, fusing the eroticization of dominance and
submission with the social construction of male and
female."^17^ It is this position that Bersani perversely
asks us to reconsider when he temporarilly allies himself
with Mackinnon and Dworkin only in order to argue for the
necessity of proliferating pornography rather than banning
it. However, if the ultimate logic of the radical feminist
argument for the realism of porn is "the criminalization of
sex itself until it has been reinvented,"^18^ whether one
takes up a position for or against pornography on this
basis, are we not then already acceding to the "straight
mind" that can only think homosexuality as "nothing but
 What has fallen out of these discussions is
heterosexuality as a social contract, one that as Wittig
argues can not only be but already is broken by practicing
lesbians. For when we hear of "sex as we know it" or the
ultimate logic of anti-porn feminists as the
"criminalization of sex," this "sex" is always already
heterosexuality, and implicitly, a relationship of identity
between the phallus and the penis. Lacan seems to free us
from this difficulty when he argues that the Phallus is a
signifier (without a signified), not a body part, nor a
partial object, nor an imaginary construct.^20^ However, in
her recent reading of Lacan's "The Meaning of the Phallus,"
back through "The Mirror Stage," Judith Butler shows that
Lacan's denial of the Phallus as an imaginary effect is
"constitutive of the Phallus as a privileged signifier."^21^
At the risk of reductively summarizing her nuanced argument,
what Butler's essay seems to conclude is that the Symbolic
is always only a masculine imaginary that produces the
Phallus as its privileged signifier by denying the
mechanisms of its own production.
 Lacan's move to locate the Phallus within the Symbolic
presumably breaks its relation of identity with the penis
since symbolization "depletes that which is symbolized of
its ontological connection with the symbol itself."^22^
Just as Magritte's painting of a pipe is not a/the pipe, so
the penis and phallus are not equivalent.^23^ But, as
Butler points out, they do retain a priveleged relationship
to one another through "determinate negation."^24^ If
symbolization is what effects ontological disconnection, we
might ask what happens to those "pipes" that are excessive
to representation. Would not those things that cannot take
place within any given symbolic end up accorded a
radically negative ontological status? Would they not, in
other words, become that which is real, and therefore
 When Wittig argues that rejecting heterosexuality and
its institutions is, from the straight mind's perspective,
"simply an impossibility" since to do so would mean
rejecting the "symbolic order" and therefore the
constitution of meaning "without which no one can maintain
an internal coherence,"^26^ she seems to suggest that the
straight mind simply denies the possibility of lesbianism.
But phallocentrism/heterosexism does not merely secure its
dominance through a simple negation. Rather, it needs
lesbianism as a negative ontology. It needs its status as
both radically real and impossible.
 That this is the case can be seen in Silverman's
reconceptualization of the borders of male subjectivity in
which her analysis at once ignores lesbian sexuality and
persistently depends on it as yet another instance of a
constitutive outside. Determined to undo the tenacious
assumption that there are only two possible sexual subject
positions, Silverman ends by positing three possible "same-
sex" combinations: 1. two morphological men 2. a gay man and
a lesbian [both occupying psychically masculine positions]
3. a lesbian and a gay man [both occupying psychically
feminine positions].^27^ Given Silverman's sophisticated
psychoanalytic rendering of the body's imaginary production,
it might sound naive to suggest that the latter two
positions are morphologically heterosexual, i.e., one of
each. Yet she retains the category of two morphological
men, so there is obviously still some recourse to a
materiality of the body outside its imaginary formations.
 Silverman concludes her book by asserting that her
third paradigm for male homosexuality has the "most
resonance for feminism," which she claims to represent
politically.^28^ But what is striking is that this is the
only place in her analysis where lesbianism is represented.
For it is in this most politically productive model of male
homosexuality that the "authorial subjectivity" can be
accessed "only through lesbianism."^29^ What could this
"lesbianism" be if not two morphologically female bodies,
which oddly do not appear in her liberating models for
"same-sex" desire? The feminism that Silverman speaks for
politically is once again a heterosexual feminism; for her
ability to make cases for imaginary gay sexualities is only
intelligible through the assumption of a lesbian sexuality
that remains stable and constitutively outside her
recombinations of the relationships between psychic
identifications and imaginary morphologies. Thus she
depends on the orthodoxy of the impossibility of lesbian
desire in order to challenge and break with the other
orthodoxies that limit sexual choices for (heterosexual)
 The model that proposes the impossiblity of lesbian
desire, constructed as two morphological females with
psychic feminine identities, is impossible within
psychoanalytic terms precisely because there is no desire
without a phallic signifier. In order for lesbianism to
escape from its stabilizing function as the place-holder of
a lack, Butler's fictive lesbian phallus would seem to be
indispensable. Yet there is still in this formulation a
submission to psychoanalytic orthodoxy; and lesbian sado-
masochists have thought of much more interesting ways to
practice dominance and submission.
 Suppose we agree with Bersani's argument that
phallocentrism is "above all the denial of the value of
powerlessness in both men and women,"^30^ and consider what
value women might find in powerlessness. I would agree with
Tania Modleski that from a heterosexual woman's perspective
there might not be much to value in powerlessness.^31^ But
from a lesbian perspective things look different.
Powerlessness, in Bersani's argument, seems to mean little
more than submitting to penetration. When he takes
anatomical considerations into account, he refers to the
"real" of bodies which are constructed in such a way that
"it's almost impossible not to associate mastery and
subordination with intense pleasures."^32^ If the value of
powerlessness is equivalent to being penetrated, note that
the "woman" in Bersani's imaginary must be either a
heterosexual female or a gay man. Not only does Bersani
then retain an equivalency between the phallus and the
penis, but he also reinforces a morphological conflation of
the vagina and the anus. At the same time, he insists upon
a fantasmatic gender distinction that depends on these
anatomical parts as referents. Bersani's argument, then,
surely exceeds his intentions. For while he means to value
the powerlessness of both men and women, it is paradoxically
between these two penetrable orifices, which are at once the
same and different, that on their front/to/back axis the
illusion of an impermeable male body is sustained. As D.A.
Miller puts it: "only between the woman and the homosexual
together may the normal male subject imagine himself covered
front and back."^33^
 If, as Butler argues, Lacan retains a relationship of
identity between the phallus and the penis through
"determinate negation," it is also possible to understand
the valorization of a masochism that is explicitly male as
further consolidation of this relation of equivalence. For
male masochism, which presumably relinquishes the phallus by
occupying the being of woman, would necessarily assume that
she is the one who does not "have it." In other words, it
is only by giving it up that one gets it. Hence the
continuing postulation that female masochism is impossible
depends on the assurance that she has nothing to give up.
The female masochist would have to give up something that
she does not have; and if she were represented as giving it
up, then it would have to be admittted that the phallus is
nothing more than an imaginary construct. According to
Freud's narrative, women are presumed to have once "had" the
penis. The phallus/penis as "lost object" always refers us
to the past of a woman's body and the dreaded future of a
man's body. Hence the cultural horror associated with
"becoming a woman."
 Lesbians who regard their strap-ons as the "real
thing" instigate a representational crisis by producing an
imaginary in which the fetishistic/hallucinatory "return" of
the penis onto a woman's body goes beyond the "transferable
or plastic property"^34^ of the phallus to other body parts
by depicting a phallus that has no reference to the "real"
of the penis. The lesbian-dick is the phallus as floating
signifier that has no ground on which to rest. It neither
returns to the male body, originates from it, nor refers to
it. Lesbian-dicks are the ultimate simulacra. They occupy
the ontological status of the model, appropriate the
privilege, and refuse to acknowledge an origin outside their
own self-reflexivity. They make claims to the real without
submitting to "truth." If the phallus was banned from
feminist orthodoxy because it was presumed to signify the
persistence of a masculine or heterosexual identification,
and butch lesbians or s/m tops who wore strap-ons were thus
represented, as Butler points out, as "vain and/or pathetic
effort[s] to mime the real thing,"^35^ this "real thing" was
at least two real things, which were only each other's
opposites. There was not much difference between the
straight "real thing," and the lesbian "real thing," since
the latter was only the absence of the former. Both these
prohibitions converged on the assumption of an identity
between the phallus and the penis. Without that
identification, the top who wears the strap-on is not the
one who "has" the phallus; rather it is always already the
bottom who "has it" by giving up what no one can have. In
the lesbian imaginary, the phallus is not where it appears.
That's why so many butches, as most lesbians know, are
^1^ Maria Marcus, _A Taste for Pain: on Masochism and
Female Sexuality_, trans. Joan Tate (New York: St.
Martin's Press, 1981), 181.
^2^ Leo Bersani, _The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis
and Art_ (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 39.
^3^ Ibid, 45.
^4^ Leo Bersani, "Is the Rectum a Grave?" in _AIDS:
Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism_, ed. Douglas Crimp
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), 212.
^5^ Sigmund Freud, "The Economic Problem in
Masochism," _The Standard Edition of the Complete
Psychological Works_, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth
Press, 1966) vol. 19, 162.
^6^ Kaja Silverman, "Masochism and Male Subjectivity"
_Camera Obscura_, 17 (1988), 52.
^7^ Jan Brown, "Sex, lies, and penetration: A Butch
finally 'fesses up," _The Persistent Desire: A Femme-Butch
Reader_, ed. Joan Nestle (Boston: Alyson Publications,
^8^ Susan Farr, "The Art of Discipline: Creating
Erotic Dramas of Play and Power," _Coming to Power:
Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M_ (Boston: Alyson, 1981)
^9^ Jacques Derrida, "The Theater of Cruelty and the
Closure of Representation," _Writing and Difference_, trans.
Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978),
^10^ Bersani, "Rectum," 208.
^11^ _Quim_, Issue 3 (Winter 1991), 10 and 13. Similar
language can be found in almost any issue of _On Our Backs_
or _Bad Attitude_. And, in fact, in periodicals such as the
now defunct _Outrageous Women_ (which was published during
the 80's) one also finds such references to "lesbian dicks,"
sometimes without the qualifier. What is apparent is that
s/m dykes have always considered their dildoes to be the
^12^ Anonymous, _Quim_ Issue 3 (Winter 1991), 36.
^13^ Bersani, "Rectum," 208.
^14^ Monique Wittig, "The Straight Mind," _The
Straight Mind and Other Essays_ (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992)
^15^ Wittig, 27-28.
^16^ Ibid, 25.
^17^ Catherine A. MacKinnon, _Feminism Unmodified:
Discourses on Life and Law_ (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard
University Press, 1987), 3 and 172.
^18^ Bersani, "Rectum," 214.
^19^ Wittig, "The Straight Mind," 28.
^20^ Jacques Lacan, "The Meaning of the Phallus,"
_Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the ecole
freudienne_, trans. Jacqueline Rose (New York: W.W. Norton,
^21^ Judith Butler, "The Lesbian Phallus and the
Morphological Imaginary," _differences_, "The Phallus
Issue," 4, no.1 (Spring 1992), 156.
^22^ Ibid, 157.
^23^ Michel Foucault, _This is Not a Pipe_, trans. and
ed. James Harkness (Berkeley: University of California
^24^ Butler, 157.
^25^ If the "realesbian" of lesbian-feminism was a
socially impossible identity, so in the psychoanalytic
symbolic are lesbians only possible in/as the "Real," since
they are foreclosed from the Symbolic order--they drop out
of symbolization. If they can be signified at all it is
only as an algebraic x. Given that the "Real" is, in part,
the brute, inscrutable core of existence, the "Real" lesbian
is in this sense coincident with the "realesbian." Hence as
both real/Real, these figures make her "identical with [her]
existence--self-identical--raw, sudden, and unfettered," but
impossible to "see, speak or to hear, since in any case
[she] is always already there." See Catherine Clement's
illuminating discussion of the Lacanian "real-impossible" in
_The Lives and Legends of Jacques Lacan_, trans. Arthur
Goldhammer (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 168-
^26^ Wittig, "The Straight Mind," 26.
^27^ Kaja Silverman, _Male Subjectivity at the Margins_
(New York: Routledge, 1992), 381.
^28^ Ibid, p.387.
^29^ Ibid, p.383.
^30^ Bersani, "Rectum," 217.
^31^ Tania Modleski, _Feminism Without Women: Culture
and Criticism in a 'Postfeminist' Age_ (New York: Routledge,
1991), 145-158. I agree with Modleski that Bersani loses
the sympathy of a feminist reader when he "declines to
factor in the 'history of male power'" (148). However,
though she acknowledges that lesbian sadomasochists'
arguments must be taken seriously and points to the
unresolvable contradiction between the acting out of power
and the presumption of consensuality, I take exception to
her assertion that the "defining feature of s/m [is] the
infliction of pain and humiliation by one individual on
another" (154). As her own discussion indicates, the s/m
relationship resists that definition. I have taken up these
questions at length elsewhere. What is important to point
out here is that Modleski subtly posits the same distinction
between "the feminist" reader and the "lesbian" that
Silverman holds. The former is a heterosexually-gendered
subject, the latter is something like an "exception" to the
feminist "rule." Thus, once again, the "lesbian" becomes
that (constitutive) "outside" that facilitates "the
^32^ Bersani, "Rectum," p. 216.
^33^ D.A. Miller, "Anal Rope," _Inside/Out: Lesbian
Theories, Gay Theories_, ed. Diana Fuss (New York and
London: Routledge, 1991), 135.
^34^ Butler, p. 138.
^35^ Ibid, p. 159.
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