Lust Horizons


In 1972, Karen Durbin showed some passages from her journal to a friend who was writing a book about the counter-culture and wanted to quote her on living in the age of radical feminism. After reading the material he told her, “This is great stuff! You should expand it into an article.”

“But who would publish such a thing?” she said. Personal journalism was still an oddity then.

The Village Voice might.”

The journal entries became Durbin’s first Voice essay, “Casualties of the Sex War.” It was a cri de coeur against the devolution of the women’s liberation movement into puritanical condemnations of heterosexuality (“We’d been living together for two years. As far as I know, only my parents and the movement disapproved”) and the devolution of the sexual revolution into the glorification of loveless fucking. The piece told its feminist, countercultural readers what we already knew and didn’t want to admit: that feminism had crested on the radical utopian wave of the ’60s, and two years into the new decade radical utopianism was on the skids.

Durbin’s title echoed that of an earlier Voice foray into this genre, Ingrid Bengis’s 1970 “Heavy Combat in the Erogenous Zone.” That essay and two sequels mulled, in graphic and intimate terms, the contradictions of female sexuality in a male-dominated society. Though pretty mild by today’s standards, at the time they made a sensation. You just didn’t read this kind of stuff outside hermetic movement circles. This was what the Voice became for many of us: the place where we could read about what we were feeling and thinking, and the arguments we were having, in the kind of language we actually used.

The Voice did pull its punches a bit, segregating Bengis’s and Durbin’s pieces under the rubric Personal Testament (“a department open to contributions from readers”). And after the label was discarded, the attitude remained. There was news — serious matters like city politics — and then there was this . . . what was it, exactly? In 1973 Durbin attracted a lot of attention for another highly personal piece, “On Sexual Jealousy.” A male Voice writer allowed that this was all very well, but when was she going to write about something real? “What’s real?” Durbin inquired. The writer suggested the Board of Estimate — a former city government structure that sexual jealousy has managed to outlast.

In those days, it seemed to me that half the feminists I knew were freelance writers, and half of those were writing for the Voice. Women like us gravitated toward freelancing (which of course paid badly — at the Voice it paid almost nothing) in part because journalism jobs were largely a male preserve. We were young, struggling to make our way in the world, a prime feminist constituency. The Voice already had a tradition of women writers — some, like Susan Brownmiller and Vivian Gornick, embraced the movement and found in it a compelling new subject. The paper’s willingness to let writers follow their obsessions, its emphasis on the individual writer’s voice, its laissez-faire attitude about subject matter and style were in sync with the let-a-hundred-flowers-bloom mentality of the early movement. From the consciousness-raising session to the pages of the Voice was not such a long journey.

My own obsession was picking apart culturally conservative arguments; my Voice debut tore into an anti-feminist book by Midge Decter. After that I wrote for the paper sporadically until 1979, when I became a staff writer and columnist. A few years later I was a senior editor whose self-chosen specialty was cultural issues. The radical-feminist presence on the paper loomed large. Karen Durbin was arts editor and the equally hard-nosed M. Mark had created the Voice Literary Supplement. A critical mass of female voices—writers like Judith Levine, Kathy Dobie, Debbie Nathan, Michele Wallace, C.Carr, Donna Gaines—wrote on everything from surrogate motherhood to black nannies to ritual sex abuse trials to teenage suicide.

The cultural backlash was going strong, but there was little point in attacking the Christian right or Ronald Reagan to Voice readers. As writers and editors the feminists at the Voice were more concerned with confronting the left — which increasingly defended “traditional values” and disparaged feminist concerns like abortion as an elitist distraction from “real” issues — and conservative trends in the feminist movement itself.

During the ’80s the Voice became the prime public forum for “politically incorrect” radical-feminist libertarians who continued to criticize marriage and the family, insisted on defending abortion, not just “choice,” and advocated what would come to be known (after a piece of mine called “Lust Horizons: Is the Women’s Movement Pro-Sex?”) as “pro-sex feminism.” We took on the anti-pornography movement, which had dominated the feminist conversation about sex: As we saw it, the claim that “pornography is violence against women” was code for the neo-Victorian idea that men want sex and women endure it.

During this period, internal tensions at the Voice ran high, in the latest version of the old battle between (mostly straight male) writers and editors of “real” political news and (largely female and gay male) purveyors of culture. We feminists saw the male politicos as hopelessly conservative. (Nat Hentoff, having decided to join the small left wing of the right-to-life movement, was a particular irritant, though in retrospect I see his presence as a useful challenge — it certainly forced me to rethink and sharpen my arguments.) They did not take kindly to our efforts to raise their consciousness about sexism in the office and in the paper: We might have thought of ourselves as sexy rebels against feminist party lines, but they called us “Stalinist feminists,” in a foreshadowing of Rush Limbaugh’s “Feminazi” label. We retaliated by dubbing them “the white boys.” The fights often spilled over onto the Voice‘s pages — yet another way the paper was unique in documenting the culture of the left.

The iconic example of these clashes was the Great Yam Furor of 1986. C. Carr, who was covering the performance-art scene, wrote a piece on Karen Finley, then an obscure performer working in small clubs. Carr called her “a raw, quaking id,” describing in riveting fashion her obscene, scatological monologues and penchant for smearing herself with food and other substances; in one such routine, called “Yams Up My Granny’s Ass,” Finley applied canned yams to her own butt. Men in her audiences often freaked out. “A filthy woman (in any sense of the word) has stepped further outside social mores than a man can possibly get,” Carr observed. The story made the cover and the “white boys” went bananas, nicely illustrating her point. In his column Pete Hamill sarcastically reassured his political writer friends that Carr’s piece had to be a parody rather than “vile, disgusting, contaminating,” as they thought. The letters about yams poured in.

Many years after leaving the Voice, I still think of the Karen Finley story as summing up what I most appreciated in the paper’s relationship to feminism while I was there: It captured the rawness of our urge to transcend limits. It’s a different publication now, in a profoundly different time—an era in which feminism has been assimilated as common sense even as its more dangerous impulses are forgotten or stylized to death. How fortunate to have that outrageous cover, those incendiary words, to remind us that the unsocialized woman existed, and will rise again.