Forbidden Games: Daddy Is a Dyke
June 25, 1994
“Can’t we please go see The Flintstones??!!”
“Only if you’re good.”
“I’ve been good! I’ve been good!” The speaker, a twentysomething lesbian who at the moment is being an eight-year-old boy, chants. “Want to see The Flintstones, want to see The Flintstones!” None of this elicits the reaction she wants, so she begins to dance around her companion, singing: “Flintstones! Meet the Flintstones! They’re the modern Stone Age family!”
She’s only gotten to the third verse by the time Daddy — another lesbian — hauls the boy into the bedroom by his ear. “You’re going to make Daddy very angry,” she says in a menacing tone that barely masks a strong undercurrent of glee and lust.
Fifteen years ago, lesbians might have been thrown out of their collectives for even thinking about sex games like this. Lesbians eroticizing Daddy is about as taboo as straight men declaring that they want to be sodomized by Tinkerbell — it doesn’t mesh with the image we struggle to maintain. But in the past few years, Daddy/boy (or girl) erotic role-playing has emerged in the lesbian community — even among women who don’t normally walk on the wild side.
For three years, an annual Dyke Daddy contest in San Francisco has drawn crowds of women — “and not just leather women,” says the 1993 titleholder, Skeeter. A recent London émigré, she says Daddyplay has become popular among U.K. dykes as well.
In New York, a sexual backwater by Bay Area standards, an audience of primarily vanilla dykes erupted with lust and empathy when Peggy Shaw flaunted her identification with all things Dad-like in a one-woman theater piece, You’re Just Like My Father. Shaw’s character lost no opportunity to attach herself to maleness — binding her breasts, lathering her face, and scraping a razor across her hairless skin. (I, too, attempted to shave as a child.)
If there’s a presence that’s been repressed in feminism — the womb of lesbian culture after Stonewall — it’s the father as erotic object or, even more troubling, as a source of love. “This is dedicated to our mothers,” wrote the collective that produced a lesbian separatist issue of Yale’s feminist magazine Aurora in 1982, “not to our donors.” In the lesbian imagination, the symbol of selfishness, domination, and even violence has been Dad.
Yet a whole set of emotions has been repressed in the rush to resist the Law of Father. For many of us, there was a longing for connection mixed in with the fear and anger. Even more forbidden for lesbians in the age of feminism is hatred for the mother, whose status as the ultimate source of sustenance can arouse conflicting feeling in any child. Furthermore, mom’s overwhelming power in the home is directly proportional to her lack of power in the world. For some lesbians, even the remoteness of the father is preferable to that. “Being a lesbian can be seen as voting for Dad,” observes writer Pat Califia, who is editing a porn anthology called Doing It for Daddy. “It can be read as saying, ‘My life is going to be more like my Dad’s, I’m not gonna stay home and be taken care of.’ ”
Like the lesbian who plays Daddy/girl games in one of Califia’s recent stories, Peggy Shaw is repulsed by her mother’s unbounded nurturing, which becomes flirtatious and suffocating — almost a form of sexual abuse. Shaw flees to Dad for safety, not just love and power. Even his sexism and occasional smacks are preferable to Mom’s slavish devotions. Shaw appropriates his arched white shirts and summer ties, not just to access Dad’s power but to luxuriate in his way of life. Almost as if she could touch his skin beneath the clothing, she dresses herself in masculine finery: boxer shorts, an army uniform, and that ultimate patriarchy garment, a suit. She finally croons James Brown’s hit “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” in a voice that seethes with bitter irony longing and love.
Shaw’s reversal of traditional feminist economies is one of many torch songs to the father that lesbian culture has belted out this year. When Fatale Video, the only major lesbian-owned porn producer in the U.S., released a video called Dress Up for Daddy, you could practically see Adrienne Rich’s theory of the lesbian continuum spinning in it’s grave. According to this idea — which became a cornerstone of lesbian feminist politics when it was published in 1978 — lesbianism is a natural identity for women, and heterosexuality a false one, because all true erotic urges stem from a desire for union with the mother. In Rich’s schema, no one — not even gay men — could ever really want to unit with the father, understood as a withholding, punitive, and therefore unequivocally unattractive figure.
The open longing for women who evoke Daddy might appear to be a mere expression of the growing acceptance and erotic validation of butches in the lesbian community. But even a cursory scratch beneath Daddy’s false whiskers shows it’s much more than that. Women who go for butches can tell themselves they like masculine women, and that’s all. But looking for Daddy in another woman means explicitly acknowledging the erotic appeal of men. It means acknowledging something erotic — if only on a phantasmic level — about a population we frequently hate and fear. For many lesbians, the erotic appeal of men stems precisely from contempt — a sexual strategy not unlike some drag queens’ eroticization of a femininity they find contemptible. When Phranc impersonated Neil Diamond last year for an audience of wildly enthusiastic lesbians, half the kudos she got were for portraying Diamond’s offensive sense of male entitlement, and half were for how sexy the audience found that persona to be.
Admitting a fetish for Daddy means eroticizing patriarchy — literally. In this masquerade, Daddy means much more than our individual fathers and the roles they have played, for good or ill, in our own lives Daddy in the lesbian bedroom is an icon of male power and privilege in all its social vastness. “Daddy is King Shit,” says Lily Burana, editor of Future Sex. He represents the force on whose behalf dykes are derided and attacked all our lives, because we have refused the role assigned us in relation to it.
To many lesbians, the idea that any woman would fetishize sexism is as shocking as a rape fantasy can be. But it shouldn’t be surprising that a persona we resist at great cost, and from whom the threat of violence never completely abates, should provoke such intensely erotic feelings in us. “A typical scene would be me in a pretty white pinafore, and ‘Daddy’ brushing my hair with this total letch vibe,” says Burana.
Daddy-play is not always idyllic. How could it be, and still be true to the origins of the fantasy? “You’d like to suck my cock, wouldn’t you?” a dyke Daddy asks her lover in the Califia story. “You’ll get it later, little-girl whore.” Elsewhere, “Daddy” tells her” “This is my pussy. I made it. So it’s mine. I can do anything I want to it. Including fuck it. Or hurt it.” The words are so repulsive because they are the true life litany of rapists, bashers, and abusive fathers. Why would lesbians ever want to hear this in bed? Explains Califia, “People want to rub their secret private places on this horrible awful thing and get off on it.”
Anger and fear are not the only feeling aroused in lesbians by the sundry ways men dominate women. Envy is another. “When I’m Daddy, I’m a hot, mature, hairy, male, well-hung person,” says “Marc,” a Bay Area lesbian. A lot of what’s hot about Daddy play is that it makes room for a vicarious participation in the sleaziest and least defensible forms of sexism — in a community that makes a fetish of interpersonal ethics. Instead, these women are making a fetish of the indefensible, in order to manage it through arousal. Explains Dyke Daddy Jo Leroux, “For the majority of us, a male figure conjures up some type of abuse — emotional, sexual, or physical. For me, the word Daddy was a nightmare until I became one.”
My own father hardly ever took me in his arms the way most lesbian Daddies do. After a brief honeymoon before I’d reached the age of five, he almost never showed me tenderness. The last time I saw him was the only time I ever saw him cry. I was boarding an Amtrak train back to college and my father was dying of cancer. It’s one of the happiest memories I have of him, because it’s the only time he expressed grief at losing me.
All my life, it was impossible to reconcile the fantastic man who’d whirled me around in the air as a three-year-old with the father of self-loathing who replaced him. The Dad my father became could find no other way of touching me except with the back of his hand. This Dad was always defeated, smarting, worthless in his own eyes. He knew he deserved every belittlement he got. And I hated him so intensely for so long that I’ve only recently discovered that I wanted his love as much as he wanted mine. When I think tender thoughts about my father these days, I usually imagine him not as the Daddy who scared me, but as the scared, sweet little boy I would have liked to know.
“Good boy,” I say, stroking the hair of someone I want to shelter and keep watch on all night long. “What a beautiful boy you are.” The woman resting her head on my lap and her knees on the floor shivers when I say this. She presses her buzz cut even more fully into my hands, and I begin to melt.
Historians of queer sex say dyke Daddies emerged from a fetish promulgated by gay men in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when it was hyped by the s/m magazine Drummer. According to gay culture critic Michael Bronski, Drummer used Daddy stories as a way of broadening its appeal. “It filled a void for men who liked butch men, older men, tough men,” Bronski remembers. “All the guys in Blueboy, Honcho, and Playguy were not only vanilla, but slim and hairless.” In 1989, Daddy, and entire gay magazine devoted to this fetish, was founded. Soon, there were daddy porn films. A crossover fantasy had emerged.
In dyke hands, the fetish changed significantly, centering less on body type than on the combination of dominion and tenderness that the idea of Daddy was beginning to evoke in the lesbian psyche. This figure caught the interest of dykes outside the leather community last year, at the same time when lesbian chic became a hot topic in the mainstream media, Bronski has a theory about why: “In the late ’70s, gay men understood themselves to have more social power than ever.” Daddy fantasies became “a way for them to negotiate” anxieties about their own advancement. “No one is quite comfortable having it,” Bronski explains, “so you trade it back and forth. For lesbians in the ’90s, he proposes, “it’s the same thing, 15 years later.”
Any newly empowered social group might feel ambivalent about its prerogatives, but American lesbians are notorious worry-warts about power. Suspicious of social hierarchies, focused to the point of obsessiveness on our responsibility not to misuse whatever influence we have, lesbians have begun to register queasiness about the mainstream culture’s tentative outreach to us. Lesbian-chic cover stories generate great anxiety within the community because they raise the disturbing possibility of lesbian clout.
Cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s protagonist Mo speaks for every lesbian when she indulges her famous fears about the political ramifications of the most trivial decisions — like selecting a breakfast cereal at the supermarket. The bravado of the Lesbian Avengers, who speak of “fighting fire with fire”and prohibit all discussions of theory at their meetings, is the other side of this coin. The prospect of power makes lesbians so frantic that we typically face its contradictions either too attentively, or not at all.
The moral question for anyone who wants to wield power is how to manage its opposing faces: nurturance and chastisement, the willingness to defend and destroy. The character of Daddy encompasses both poles of this dialectic. It’s one of the few personae in lesbian culture that does.
Some lesbians want their Daddy’s affect to be brutal and heartless, others seek a gushy Dad who’ll cluck over their scraped knees. Most dyke Daddies combine the two. Their play usually involves some form of consensual physical discipline — a taboo in lesbian sex, and one that is symbolic of overarching lesbian fears about the corruptions attendant on power. It’s no accident that the sex-play lesbians are using to reconnect with an authority they have long mistrusted should often include spanking, a handy way to experiment with power and manage one’s ambivalence about it.
“When the rage rises from my gut,” says the autobiographical narrator of a Daddy story by Wickie Stamps, ”I know I am my father’s child.” A scene between Stamps’s narrator and her lover goes like this: “ ‘Daddy, please don’t hurt me,’ she says, and I do. ‘Daddy, please don’t fuck me.’ And I do.”
I never showed my father how angry I was at his violence. But I needed so badly to embrace the angry, sadistic Dad that still lives in me. All my tenderness was secreted behind a brutality I was too scared to touch. I couldn’t love a woman until I had made room for the part of myself that’s burning to correct a certain misbehaving boychik born in 1932.
As a lesbian Daddy, I can be the nastiest old man in the world and still keep my little lambkin safe — and loved — enough to want to see The Flintstones from the shelter of my arms. ■
Research assistance: Mocha Jean Herrup
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 24, 2019