Femme on the streets, butch in the sheets

Femme on the streets, butch in the sheets

[original publication 1995, this version 2013 – see ‘backlist’]


Being both a lesbian and a sex worker involves conflicts and convergences, and acting differently in different situations. Sex work as a job is still generally stigmatized [including by many lesbians]. At the same time women who aren’t lesbians act like they are for the price of a male fantasy: the ‘double’. Working and pimping have their place in working class butch-femme subcultures, although they were denied and drowned by some streams of 1970’s feminism. Meanwhile genderfuck and sado-masochistic [SM] chic suggest new performances of the old game, across sex and genders.


‘this knowledge makes me dirty. /pro found knowledge’. [Fallon 1989,201][1]

Early 80’s scene: Sydney [2]

First day with a new escort service: you are visiting Dick Loony in a motel room [he says his name is not pronounced like that but you can’t help laughing]. You are wearing a short dress and lacy underwear. He asks what a nice girl like you is doing in a job like this. He asks what time you knock off and if you want to meet him after work. He asks if he can fuck you up the arse. You give him a look like, ‘are yous gay or what?’ and he doesn’t pursue it.

Mid 80’s scene: Jakarta

femme on the streets butch in the sheets
You are drinking in a bar with a female Javanese friend. You are wearing jeans and a leather jacket. One of the bar girls warns your friend not to talk to you as you are Rosie’s girl and a few heads might be cracked. When Rosie doesn’t show and the bar closes another Indonesian girl asks you home. She wants to fuck in the bed where her white husband is sleeping, but you refuse so she takes you upstairs. Afterwards she gives you a chunk of money for a ‘taxi fare’ even though your motorbike is parked outside.

Late 80’s scene: Cairns

You are shooting up junk in a bathroom in a tropical town where you came to dry out. Your girlfriend’s Canadian mother is watching soap operas on TV. She didn’t say anything two hours ago when you and your girlfriend got dressed up in black dresses and stilettoes, leather and studs and drove off in a rented Mini Moke. You performed a humiliation scene in a motel room for a client who just sat in the corner watching: he was a businessman and had brought all his own equipment with him in a special suitcase.

As Valentine [1993b] notes, lesbians develop strategies of time-space and appearance to adapt to different contexts, such as home, a lesbian bar or public [ambiently heterosexual and implicitly homophobic] space. Lesbians establish their identity through their images and how they perform them [cf Butler 1990], both for themselves and for a changing audience; while an audience can use these performances to make rigid categorisations of exclusion and inclusion, making stereotypes something to avoid: ‘I had these fears that I might have to have cropped hair, an earring through my nose and wear a pair of army boots. And so now I think it’s laughable’ [quoted in Valentine 1993b,240].

Alternatively, stereotyped images can be exploited, played with and used to confront: you can use the image to look the part [of a dyke], or you could be straight, or a sex worker, or an academic, or all of these, or something else – and still wear cropped hair and army boots. Lipstick femmes since the 1990s have often adopted a hyper-feminine image which makes it harder for homophobes to point out ‘lezzos’, but as Bell et al argue [1994,42], the femme image is not designed to destabilize heterosexuality so much as to confront stereotypical lesbians. It is a ‘political backlash against the ideological rigidity of lesbian feminism and androgynous style’ [3].

While dykes can choose to adapt to or resist both the mainstream and each other, dykes who are also sex workers are more likely than most to make changes in their performance according to the space they are in [the client’s space; the girls’ room; the street; the dyke bar; the prison]. Being a sex worker is first and foremost an act, and this audience is paying. Changing clothes after the shift/show makes a personal distinction between work and not-work, and is perhaps a strategy to avoid labelling and stigma.

Joan Nestle has written about the ‘historical sisterhood’ of lesbians and sex workers, where both have a similar experience of being subjected to surveillance, official and unofficial policing. Both know a history of fear, loss and hiding, and talking about ‘going straight’: ‘whore and queer are the two accusations that symbolize lost womanhood – and a lost woman is open to direct control by the state’ [Nestle 1992, 245, see also 1987b]. Labels of deviance like ‘lesbian’ and ‘prostitute’ are used to keep ‘good girls’ in line, but it’s not only the state who controls: lesbians do it to themselves:

‘It would be great to think that lesbians have gone beyond the tired old stereotypes of sex workers as sad [junkie/victim], bad [immoral nympho slut] or mad [acting out unresolved childhood abuse], but unfortunately this is not so’ [O’Sullivan 1994,40] [4].



sexuality is onanism/ playing for keeps/ fellating for advancement & profit [Fallon 1989, 208]

Sex work encompasses many, many acts, and people, and the ‘sex’ [as labour] which is exchanged for money is not necessarily about male penetration, ‘high-risk activity’ or the invasion of a passive female body. Workers who perform ‘straight sex’ have their own strategies to minimize the amount of actual fucking that goes on, while clients are limited by their sexual vocabulary for the ‘pleasure’ that they pay for: this means there’s always the potential to talk them into something else.

Something else can be called extras, and cost more, the point being that as the worker and owner of a valuable commodity, you aim to go easy on your own body while encouraging activities that sound much more sexually adventurous than the garden/missionary variety. The traditional menu of the international sex industry includes lesbian performances and ‘doubles’, as Pheterson [1989, 155] explains: ‘“trio” is the Dutch prostitutes’ term for two working women and one male customer. In the States we call it a ‘double’, because we don’t count the customer.’ Plenty of female sex workers who don’t identify as lesbians are fucking each other for money, and plenty do it for fun too, like some of the Jakarta bar girls who picked me up.

You don’t have to tell male clients about your personal life, or anything – they are usually happy with whatever story you think they might like to hear…. But they can be especially happy if you tell them you’re a dyke – it can make them feel like they’ve made a real sexual conquest, depending how well you fake it. They might want to see you again with a girlfriend, too. They are just as confused as some feminists about the differences between sex as work and sexuality as identity:

‘we used to do shows together and we thought this was hysterical, because we were both stone butches, so we would never have anything to do with each other sexually; but we’d just put on these great shows that we’d make a lot of money for – and I can just remember laughing in her cunt while all these guys would think we were sexually excited’ [Doris Lunden, interviewed in Nestle 1987b,114: ‘stone butch’ was a 50’s term for butch dykes who got off on pleasuring their femme lovers without wanting reciprocation].

Lesbians are also involved in the sex industry as owners, managers and a small but growing number of clients [such as wealthy women paying for escort services in Sydney, or the commercial lesbian scene in Jakarta: see Sunindyo and Sabaroedin 1989]. It’s not only men who can pimp, and it seems like mainly economics that prevents more women from paying for casual sex, or whatever takes our fancy. That certainly doesn’t mean that lesbian workers would prefer female clients – they can be a lot more demanding – but people still make assumptions that desire is necessarily part of a sex worker’s job. In another area, Mathew [1988] criticizes the assumption that most male sex workers are gay. These assumptions ignore the complicated links and dissonances between sex and desire, identity and sexual practice: just as you can’t assume that a self-identified dyke wouldn’t get a kick out of sex work and the power relations of commercial sexual practice.

‘[M]any lesbians hate anything other than vanilla sex or mutual masturbation, they cannot handle diversity… Regardless I am proud to be a pervert and have always been attracted to the power plat of dominance and submission and that is why I am in this profession….  We rarely see female clients, which is unfortunate, but on the whole gender is irrelevant. Just because we identify with the lesbian community doesn’t mean we can’t play with men. [Castel 1994,9].



If you see me with my girlfriend/please don’t say hello/she’s very jealous [Fallon 1989,201]

The ‘lesbian community’ can seem a sorry splintered thing. Since the arrival of lesbian feminism, to some factions, ‘Whores, and women who looked like whores, became the enemy… Lesbian prostitutes have suffered the totality of their two histories as deviant women – they have been called sinful, sick, unnatural and a social pollution. In the decade of lesbian feminism, they have not been labelled because they are invisible’ [Nestle 1987b, 232,243].

Lesbian communities remain fairly small, and experience would suggest that they include a disproportionate number of sex workers, although that’s rarely been analysed. Kimberley O’Sullivan [1994,40] made a plea for a lesbian sex worker float in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, while also mentioning the ‘collective dyke cold shoulder’ for whores [5]. In my experience, a girlfriend who is also a worker makes for a much more mutually supportive relationship, without dumb questions and dumber jealousies in the mix. Having a lover who is also working avoids having to deal with inappropriate or unsympathetic attitudes at the end of a hard night.

Being in the business of sex, workers are among the best informed people about their sexual health and the most accepting of the gamut of sexual practice. Coming out as a dyke to a bunch of workers is an awful lot easier than telling dykes that you work. Disclosing about sex work experience, for instance through being an HIV/AIDS peer educator, can be social suicide outside of the sex industry – although still a long way from the angst that can arise from exposure as an unrepentant junkie.

Lesbians are divided and workers are stigmatized by those feminists who argue that the sex industry supports patriarchy. They emphasise coercion, sex slavery and child prostitution to stir an emotive response against the whole industry, and they reinforce the anti-pornography campaigns of Andrea Dworkin and Catherine Mackinnon, who cannot see that nothing is inherently wrong with the commodification of sex, whether for capitalists or for penguins.

Lesbian separatists with utopian fantasies seem unable to come at the idea of any sex with men at all. Unfortunately, as Biddy Martin suggests [1992,118], some academic studies have legitimated these ideas by institutionalizing them. The academy has progressed from women’s studies to gender to sexuality, getting closer to the cunt of the matter while continuing to marginalize class, race, and alternative subject-voices.

Early 90’s scene: a conference on ‘Feminism in the 1990’s’, Canberra

In a paper on sex work, the non-sex worker speaker has discovered in her research that some workers actually enjoy the job: ‘a worker said to me that more women should realize that they have a goldmine between their legs – but don’t all go rushing out the door!’ A complaint is heard from the floor, ‘we’re going back to the days of selling our looks and not all of us can do it’. The speaker responds, ‘Oh, you’d be surprised – there’s even a demand for pregnant women!! I know that’s squeamish, but… ‘



‘I think there are a lot of lesbians who are really hostile to butch and femme because they have this incredibly literal reading of what butch and femme means, and they simply equate it with heterosexuality and with sort of mimicking heterosexuality, I think, so that’s how they’d explain their hostility to butch and femme, I actually think there’s sort of another layer of explanation, which is that I think a lot of lesbians are actually really scared of sex, and really scared of sexuality, and particularly lesbians who became lesbians through feminism and the rejection of men, actually get very freaked out at the idea of women being sexually powerful.’ [in Carr 1993]

‘Political’ Western lesbians in the 70’s didn’t believe there should be butch and femme, and so everyone was androgynous, which really meant that everyone with their short hair and mechanic’s overalls ended up looking butch – but not the aesthetic butch of the 50’s and 60’s: ‘Skilfully, seemingly carelessly, the butch fingers her pompadour and casual curl into place. Then, with a flourish, using a comb followed by the fingertips of her other hand, she creases the duck’s ass down the middle of the back’ [Mushroom, ‘How the butch does it: 1959’, in Nestle 1992,134].

This subcultural style, and what butch-femme stood for, was an embarrassment to the 70’s lesbian theorists:

‘Indeed, because it is a gender system, butch-femme has come to occupy the position of ‘whore’ relative to lesbian feminist ‘marriage’, not only in a literal sense, where the whore is the woman with whom sex is illegitimate and unspoken, but in a more symbolic one, wherein butch-femme, particularly because of its class and race associations, has become another manifestation of the ‘whore stigma’: that portrait of uncontrolled sexualness given groups deemed ‘other’ by a dominant culture.’ [MacCowan 1992,327]

The history of butch-femme has been working class, or at least it is imagined and imaged as such and blended with the concept of ‘whore’. However I would personally argue that in comparison with the rigid class structures of Europe and elsewhere, ‘working class’ is not downtrodden in contemporary Australia. So many lesbians seem to be downwardly mobile: they have comfortable lives but wear ‘working class’ [e.g ‘dad had a blue collar job in the Western suburbs’] as a badge of honour. While working Aussies are historically fairly egalitarian: tradesmen can earn similar wages to the Prime Minister and the number of obscenely rich people is obscene, but still relatively small.

The people who are impoverished, are an under-class of people disadvantaged by multiple forms of marginalization and prejudice: due their skin colour, [especially if Indigenous], lack of English, adherence to Islam or other ‘non-Okker’ beliefs and cultures, tyrannies of distance, generational ‘sit-down money’, and use of addictive substances to escape feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, that are then linked to criminalization and entrapment in the criminal ‘justice’ system. Sex work, and butch-femme, and very visible among the street drug using and prison populations, not so much in academic queerdom/whoredom:

In Sydney, some of the old-time workers in Kings Cross will tell you how some butches were pimps, but many butches also had some experience of working themselves when they needed the money. That scene carries on among street and drug injecting workers, through into a prison system that crushes women into the deviant stereotype of dyke/whore/junkie/criminal – whatever you were like or were put in prison for in the first place [6].

In the ‘community’ of lesbian literati, there is an othering attached to the criminalized butch that means they are either ignored or fantasized:

‘The typical stereotype is that the butch is a working class woman, she’s a diesel dyke… the real pimp, gigolo type of butch woman, and the thing that attracts me to that image is not just the clothing or the image but the fantasy of like, the working class girl who’s sort of like built herself up by pimping off the earnings of a femme’ [in Carr 1993].

Mid 90’s scene: the Philippines

You are drinking in a karaoke bar with some butches who have formed a working-class lesbian group. ‘We are not ready for femmes in the group yet. If they came in now there would just be a fight’. Two nights ago the group trashed this bar in Davao City, but tonight they are mellowing out. One leans over: ‘There are some beautiful chicks in here, but you can’t trust them. They will leave you for a customer’. A moral is being implied: you can take the girl out of the bar but you can’t take the bar out of the girl.

Early 90’scene: Western Sydney

You are on outreach in jeans and a hoodie, giving out condoms and pamphlets in the girls’ room and talking about immigration raids. The Vietnamese manager wears overalls and drives a black BMW. One of the workers is her girlfriend and has powdered her face whiter than white. The other workers say they aren’t lesbians and they giggle about doing doubles. One of them went out on a date with a dyke but she didn’t know what to do: ‘When we got home and she touched me I got goosebumps’. The manager gets word of a raiding crew in the area and the girls without visas run out and over the back fence, to return when the coast is clear. The immigration officers want to see my passport as well, but leave empty handed.

Practices and identities vary so much that it’s difficult and maybe pointless to try and define who is a lesbian, who is a worker, what is the overlap? People enter and leave sex work and lesbian relationships, and may deny that they ever existed. Butch-femme is just one set of possible images to be adopted at particular times and places, places found in Asia as much as the West. The cultural contexts vary and in some cases such as 50’s USA, the butch-femme scene might currently seem to be the only option.

Making that choice is influenced by the availability of space that can be ‘owned’ for the performance of style. People marginalized and stigmatized by rigid laws and social attitudes claim spaces in the city where they can, and share them.

Early 80’s scene: South Jakarta

It’s night-time under a concrete flyover and people have emerged from the shadows to set up amps blaring the music from the gamelan band: cross-dressing and underage singers gyrating on the makeshift stage in traditional costumes are available for sex for a few bucks. The jigging and lounging crowd includes sex workers, butches, trans, unemployed youths and street fighters, me and some actor friends… later the police clear the whole scene away. [see Murray 1993]

For alienated people to create an alternative scene, finding your own space helps. It might be alienated land under a bridge, or a derelict building, or temporary use of space like a street at night. It’s inevitably an urban scene – not a lesbian utopia but the streets of the city. ‘I stand knowing in my bones this city of tired workers. I have enough to cherish in just the courage of these days and nights. This is my land, my ancient totems, this tenacious grip on life’ [Nestle 187a,15].


[thinking] so camp, so S&M, can’t/stand the heat but will she get out of/ the kitchen? Nope [Fallon 1989,138].

It seemed by the early 90’s all dykes were now SM dykes: ‘For self-respecting lesbian sado-masochists, the ante has been upped considerably in terms of what it might take to be a s/m lesbian’ [B. Martin 192,99]. Dykes of the 1990’s played around with categories like gender, butch and femme, dominance and submission – playing with morality and the ‘straightness’ of vanilla dykes: ‘the desire to practice the dangers of sex needs protection and the massive supply of rubber/lubrication/imagination’ [Munster in Bashford et al 1993,27].

Early 90’s scene: Sydney

At a lesbian SM wedding at the old Mortuary station, being documented by Wicked Women zine, the mistress wears a wedding dress and has her slave on a chain. The slave wears an antique military uniform…. They carry out these roles as well at the mistress’s commercial dungeon club nearby.

As well as the shake-up of styles and stereotypes, the time of HIV/AIDS also brought some convergences of interest between sex workers and lesbians, and sat them both under the umbrella of a predominantly gay male AIDS bureaucracy. AIDS, HIV and the politics around the disease has brought the invisible and the deviant to the surface for inspection. HIV is transmitted through intimate exchanges of blood and cum – surveys have been done, and it is no longer a secret that lesbians sleep with men, inject drugs and play with a variety of blunt and very sharp instruments.

Dykes are among the most politicized sex workers, especially around AIDS issues. As mentioned, being a ‘peer educator’ for an HIV/AIDS agency can be a hassle when it means disclosing as a worker to people you don’t know, when there is still so much stigma attached. It means changing how you perform your identity in that context: it can be a nakedly stressful experience to say your whore lines without the costume and backdrop.

The choices people make about sexuality and sexual practice involve nature and nurture and what choices are available at the time: the increasing range of queer identities has widened choice, blurred boundaries and sets up trends that come and go, so to speak. Sex worker performance artists have led the way in demolishing dyke antipathies and dichotomies like good and bad, abused and empowered [S Bell 1993, Juno 1991]. As SM became more a part of the lesbian scene, so more dykes began working commercially as mistresses. The sex industry has its own inherent status distinctions, with some BDSM mistresses believing themselves on top of it, and being admired as such in some lesbian circles and texts. The perception is of an elite who can choose not to have sex with clients: dominatrices can shit and piss on men, grind their stilettos into men’s balls, and get paid stacks for it.

Some ‘political’ lesbians argue that power games and genderfucking ignore the struggles of the past to make lesbians visible: but adventures in queerdom and whoredom  [Jeffries op cit] are also political: dispersing power relations and breaking down the state’s capacity to control by splitting up convenient categorisations of deviance [such as lesbian and sex worker]. When the margins become illusory, the centre itself lacks definition:

Straight is not heterosexual or gay. Straight crosses into both these worlds. Straight is the fact that a lesbian tells me I’m straight because I fucked a man. Because I fucked a man for money or sport or whatever, that makes me straight, does it?… I’m straight because I cream my pants when I see a woman shove, yeah I said shove, her black cock up another woman’s arse who’s loving it [Munster in Bashford et al 1993,11].

Dykes who are whores have long been invisibilised in mainstream feminisms; under-class junkie dyke whores are still in the background, but politicized dyke whores have come out loud in a babble of deviances. New games to play, new refs with the whistle.

Notes on this revised version, June 2013:

–          [1] I was very enamoured of Mary Fallon’s 1989 book Working Hot at the time… which was 1993-1995; I am resurrecting this paper as it seems that the crossover between sex workers and queers, and ‘butch-femme’ continues to evolve. Strippers and peep-show workers have re-visioned their work as forms of performance art, and burlesque acts blurring erotic fantasy with the physicalities of sex work have become increasingly accessible . I use ‘lesbian/dyke/queer’ to refer to identity and ‘sex work’ to refer to, well, sex work. I’m not trying to interrogate sex and gender diversity or re-inform this paper with more recent conceptualisations.

–          [2] I used ‘you’ in these personal scenes to try and convey the sense of disassociation created by performing roles: being in the scene and simultaneously outside, watching.

–          [3] The concepts and performances of femme, in and for itself, including subversive interpretations, have continued to develop. They were explored explicitly at the Unpacking Femme conference, 8-9 Feb 2013 in Sydney. Queers on the margins oppose heteronormativity, while comparing it with the kind of ‘homonormativity’ that seeks mainstream acceptance [the obvious current example being demands for gay marriage] rather than setting apart a progressive queer world-view [see E Jeffreys 2013, Queerdom is Whoredom, paper at the conference, ‘After Homosexual’.] E Jeffreys has also documented queer/whore creativity and performance art such as at Mardi Gras in Sydney: ‘Embracing sexual hedonism and exploration, within and outside of sex work, and rejecting both the homonormative and sex wars version of history, queer sex worker culture is clearly incredibly productive. Sex worker floats in Mardi Gras, Pride Parade in Perth, Pride March in Brisbane, Feast Festival floats and ‘Fantasy Brothel’ installations, Midsumma Festival Pride March contingents, Cairns Pride March, Tasmanian Pride March: sex workers are holding the red umbrella high and proud’ [ and see note 5, below]

–          [4] Addressing the junkie worker as a ‘sad’ stereotype has bounced around for years in queer and sex worker groups but always seems a bridge too far when it comes to funding [see 5, below: QEWU was never funded]. Nestle’s account of double-deviation doesn’t mention drug use, hardly anyone does. Every year a survey is done of drug users, as in: how much do you use? [$300 a day/$2,100 per week]; what do you earn? [$170 a week from Centrelink]. Sex work is an unspoken absence in that recurring dialogue,go figure?

–          [5] I must have written this around 1993: about then some of us formed the Queer and Esoteric Workers Union for sex workers who were queer/trans*, working in BDSM, injecting drugs, or otherwise feeling sidelined in the AIDS-funded sex worker organisations in Southeast Australia at the time. QEWU was a member of Scarlet Alliance and by 1995 we were taking our performance art to Sydney, Canberra and Berlin: thus only a year after O’Sullivan’s discussion of a lack of whores in the Mardi Gras, the hole was filled.

Mid 90’s Scene: Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

You are wearing rubber, hanging off the back of a scrap-metal chariot created in Canberra, hauled by slaves in intricate rope bondage, whipped on by others pirouetting their leather, chains and enormous strap-on dildoes [offered up for sucking], while yet others are puking in the gutter, or riding junk unicycles in random uncontrollable circles…  In the chariot is your girlfriend in high mistress regalia, joined by the comedian Julie McCrossin reporting, as the whole whirling catastrophe is caught on ABC video.

–          [6] see WIPAN report 2012

One thought on “Femme on the streets, butch in the sheets

  1. Pingback: This is Not Your Bathroom! | Sapphic City

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