Entertainment For The Adventurous Lesbian
Featuring Phyllis Christopher
On Our Backs (1984-2006)
In 1984 in San Francisco Debi Sundahl, Myrna Elana and Nan Kinney launched On Our Backs: Entertainment for the Adventurous Lesbian, with Susie Bright first as advertising director and then editor. The backdrop scenario was the 1970s-80s Feminist Sex Wars that inflamed and polarized feminist activism, cultural production, and academia on issues around sexuality in general and heterosexuality, pornography, penetration, BDSM, butch/femme roles, and sex work in particular. The name came as a takeoff on the Washington, D.C., radical feminist antiporn news journal off our backs, while the subtitle was a citation from Playboy’s subtitle ‘Entertainment for Men.’ The first issue’s centerfold with and by the photographer Honey Lee Cottrell as ‘Bulldagger of the Month’ was another pun on Playboy’s ‘Pet of the Month.’ Humour and social commentary were central as much as delivering political and aesthetic issues around sexuality, erotica, pornography.
Debi inherited the Samois – the lesbian feminist BDSM collective – newsletter and they started advertising the magazine for subscriptions. They strived to pay each contributor and worked tirelessly to achieve national distribution. Their trailblazing efforts culminated in historical milestones such as the publication of one of the first articles on AIDS and the real risks for lesbians and the pioneering piece about trans identities by Marcy Sheiner in 1991. In 1985 OOB embarked in a technological revolution that helped reducing the production costs. It was the first magazine published using an Apple PC and using Apple Desktop Publishing Software. In 1994 the magazine published one issue with Melissa Murphy at the helm and then disappeared the year after until 1998 when it was bought by Heather Findlay’s company and continued publishing until 2006.
OOB’s ethos behind its pioneering representations of sex was to photograph real dykes and real lesbian couples who had real chemistry on camera, who did what they wished to do in the way they wanted to do it, and who were depicted in the way they wanted to be. It was a way for them to participate in their own representation. Making desires visible was a political statement made from the community, for the community.
The magazine filled a giant hole in lesbian sex culture as it redirected the discussion on authentic representations of lesbian desires. It eroticized power and difference, challenged any notions around ‘natural’ sex, and showcased diversity. Also thanks to the readers’ participation, it helped the formation of an alternative sex positive community.
Ultimately, it provided accessible, ‘real’ and affirming representations of lesbian desires through photographs, erotic fiction, honest discussions, reviews, personal ads, sex ed pieces, and advice columns. It featured the ‘who’s who’ of queer culture – from Tee Corinne, Jewelle Gomez, Jil Posner, Sarah Schulman, Joan Nestle, Dorothy Allison, Phyllis Christopher, Pat Califia, Cathy Opie to Jackie Strano, Shar Rednour, Tristan Taormino and Jack Halberstam. It was a new beginning for feminist sex liberation. – Alessandra Mondin
Phyllis Christopher’s photographs document lesbian sexual exploration from 1987 through the mid-2000s in San Francisco. This erotic work was first published in “On Our Backs” magazine where she became photo editor from 1991-94. In an era that published few written words and images about contemporary lesbian concerns, these photographs were in collaboration with women exploring their desires, fetishes, gender identities, and lesbian visibility in front of the camera. Graphic, sexy, playful and honest, this work takes us on a journey through sex clubs, political protests, and private moments. Christopher and her contemporaries gave voice to a community that felt they were being ignored by mainstream politics and media – making the invisible, visible.
Censorship Then, Censorship Now
Through the years, On Our Backs dealt with issues around censorship that affected its own production, publication and distribution. The magazine critically reflected on its pages about the anti-pornography movement, the law, the complex relationship between the feminist and lesbian movements and representations of sex, and its own struggles and victories. Because of its content, in the beginning for instance it had difficulties finding a printer, getting fire insurance for its office space and only three women’s bookstores in the whole USA would stock it. In the UK, the magazine’s 1990 calendar was censored from the bookshops that stored it.
Curating this exhibition meant striving to reproduce the same aesthetic, political and educational values of the magazine while, at the same time, facing enormous legal restrictions in the country that has the highest level of censorship in Europe. Also, it involved dealing with the artistic, ethical, and political frustration of finding an uneasy balance between the interpretation and application of the UK obscenity laws and the respect of the very core identity, scope and history of the magazine. In this political climate that privileges heteronormativity, fear-mongering, art and media illiteracy, it is pivotal to show the cultural dissidence and the richness of On Our Backs and Phyllis Christopher’s astounding outputs – especially but not exclusively – in terms of representation of non-normative sexual identities, desires, pleasures, practices, and bodies. – Alessandra Mondin
Curated by Jade Sweeting and Janina Sabaliauskaite
Poster by Keano Anton
Original Illustration by Kim Larson
Accessibility: NewBridge Studios has limited accessibility, this event will take place in the Annex Space on the first floor of NewBridge Studios. We regret, due to the age of our building and its change of use we do not have a functioning lift. Please contact us prior to visiting if you require additional information regarding access and facilities.