Racy or Racist? The Problem with Lesbian Smut

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Lesbian erotica has an underlying racist problem. Don’t lesbians of color have enough going on without racism taking away yet another one of life’s pleasures?

We all have our rituals. For those of us who do not live alone or with a partner, it might involve waiting until everyone else has gone to sleep for the night. Some of us prefer a fantastic bit of plastic, and others are into more traditional methods. Some wax or shave beforehand, others keep it natural. Whatever floats your boat.

For me, it’s erotic fiction. Having been an enthusiastic reader from an early age, it seems natural that books should be part of another passion altogether. Like a great many teenage girls, I spent my adolescence reading smut on fanfiction.net (rated M for Mature). To be fair, it was a far more reliable form of sex education than anything they gave us in Catholic school. I then graduated to filth on AO3 (you don’t have to waste precious time on chapters of preamble before getting to the good stuff). Finally, as an adult woman of independent means and in possession of a Kindle, I started my own collection of lesbian erotic fiction, aka lesbian erotica.

For the most part, exploring lesbian erotica has been a positive experience. Beyond the obvious delights, it normalizes lesbian sex and relationships. I hadn’t fully considered how much stigma is attached to lesbian women’s sexuality until I began reading lesfic. And it’s difficult not to internalize that shame – did I mention Catholic school? It wasn’t until I found communities of women who also read sexy lesbian books that I started to think of it as something normal and, eventually, stop feeling embarrassed.

At Glasgow Women’s Library, there are whole shelves of such books – clearly marked out with a helpful label that reads ‘LESBIAN BOOKS’ – periodically, the Women’s Library has book sales where it’s possible to pick up whole anthologies of lesbian smut for as little as 50p. A friend who was clearing out her bookshelves once, ever so casually, gifted me with a stack of lesbian erotica – undeniably one of my favorite presents to date. And I devoured all of these books quite happily. There was just one problem, now and then: racism.

Most published lesfic writers are white women, which means most available books are by white women – it’s hard to be choosy when you’re seeking representation that the mainstream publishing industry has already decided is niche, and so it’s pretty much impossible to read lesbian erotica without finding bits of racism. The same old tropes, time and time again: hypersexual Black women with insatiable sexual needs, submissive Asian women who passively submit to their white lovers, mysterious Arab women looking for liberation in the arms of a white saviour…. and so on. I’d recommend avoiding any books with the words “travel” or “adventure” in the title because they’re invariably a catalogue of stereotypes.

In the worst story I have ever read, lesbian or otherwise, a white woman spends her birthday party fantasizing about her white friend’s Black girlfriend. The birthday cake is layered chocolate and vanilla, an unsubtle metaphor for the swirl yet to come. The white friend offers the sexual favors of her Black girlfriend, a “Ghanaian Goddess” who is apparently incapable of speaking for herself, as a birthday present. The world’s most excruciating threesome begins. It was bad. And, real talk: there is no way to make racism sexy. Racism pretty much guarantees that a vagina will mimic the Atacama Desert by becoming the driest place on earth.

I’m not naming writers or books for two reasons. Firstly, I’m not trying to put anyone on blast here. The lesbian writing community is a small world. Besides, the problem goes beyond rogue bits of casual racism – it’s to do with how women of color are viewed by white women, how white women depict us in their view of sexuality. It is to do with the white gaze, which wasn’t just brought into being by a few authors. The white gaze is a real problem in lesbian fiction.

Feminists of all stripes are critical of what we call the male gaze – a way of showing women from a straight, male perspective that reduces us to sexual objects with the purpose of providing pleasure to men. Lesbian feminists, in particular, have been strong opponents of the way inequality between the sexes is fetishized by mainstream media – think of the Fifty Shades phenomenon, the recent burst of ‘love’ stories where embracing male dominance is treated like the gateway to a fulfilling sex life. Sheila Jeffreys argues that instead of romanticising power disparities, we should instead eroticise sexual equality. I think that it’s time for lesbians to build on her suggestion and eroticise racial equality too.

I have a dream – although mine is far less noble than anything Martin Luther King came up with. I dream of a world where lesbians of all ethnicities, not simply white women, can pick up some gay trash to read without stereotypes ruining sexytime. Lesbians of color have enough going on without racism taking away yet another one of life’s pleasures.

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