Flora Dunster: 'We’re Reclaiming Dyke Completely': Legacies of the Lesbian Sex Wars

What happens when images, ideas and aesthetics are recycled, without retaining the beliefs or highlighting the context that gave them their initial charge? What happens when communities simultaneously forget and rediscover a shared history? This talk by Flora Dunster,  PhD candidate at the University of Sussex in Theatre, Drama and Performance Studies, considers the Sex Wars as a turning point for organised feminism, and situates them against a renewed interest in feminist politics and lesbian iconography.

From the late 1970s to the 1990s, the representation of women and the politics of pornography galvanized debate in feminist and lesbian circles. Sex radical dykes embraced what were seen as perverse desires, while radical and revolutionary feminists rallied against them. Known as the Sex Wars, these debates stretched to encompass other practices that could be understood as patriarchal, or mimicking masculine behaviour: S/M, butch/femme identification, and penetration were cast as liberatory and taboo in equal measure.

The art and imagery which emerged from the Sex Wars are linked to these politics. Increasingly, such images are being re-circulated through social media, or cannibalised for their slogans and iconography. Now shared through digital platforms and printed on t-shirts and badges, their histories are elided, while in the post-Trump and post-Weinstein resurgence of popular feminism, the debates they marked are reconstituted with new emphases.

To accompany the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards, a series of events have been programmed to further explore the themes and issues that are raised in the three artists’ body of works. Flora Dunster’s invitation to talk about the legacies of the lesbian ‘sex wars’ has been motivated by Alejandra Carles-Tolra’s engagement with the ‘Jane Austen Pineapple Appreciation Society’.

Flora Dunster is a PhD candidate at the University of Sussex in Theatre, Drama and Performance Studies. Her research considers ideas of fantasy in the art and imagery of the Sex Wars, with a focus on London in the late 1980s. A chapter on photographer Tessa Boffin and the development of British queer theory is forthcoming in the anthology Speak, Body: Art, the Reproduction of Capital and the Reproduction of Life.