From 6th January – 28th January 2017 the exhibition ON OUR BACKS: AN ARCHIVE took place at NewBridge Project, Newcastle Upon Tyne. The exhibition, which was curated by Jade Sweeting and Janina Sabaliauskaite, was the first archival exhibition of its kind about the lesbian erotica magazine On Our Backs.
Also known as On Our Backs: Entertainment for the Adventurous Lesbian (1984 – 2006), this ground-breaking magazine was the first of its kind in the United States to depict lesbian sexuality, created specifically by and for lesbian women. Launched in the mid 80s within the context of the Feminist Sex Wars – which placed anti-porn feminists and sex-positive feminists in firm opposition – the title of the sex positive magazine On Our Backs was a satire of both the radical feminist anti-porn news journal Off Our Backs, as well as Playboy magazine’s subtitle ‘Entertainment for Men’.
On Our Backs strove to authentically represent a spectrum of lesbian desire and sexuality, especially within the queer BDSM scenes of San Francisco, and was ground-breaking in many ways: publishing one of the first articles on AIDS and the risks for lesbians, as well as Marcy Sheiner’s piece about trans and FTM identities in 1991.
Artist and writer Lizzie Masterton interviewed Jade, Janina and Phyllis Christopher – a former photo editor and photographer for On Our Backs – about the magazine, the exhibition, and their relevance to contemporary queer pornography.
LM: Jade and Janina – how did you meet Phyllis? And how did the idea for curating the exhibition at Newbridge Project come about?
Jade: We met Phyllis by luck after Janina travelled to Glasgow International Arts Festival in 2016 and came across the exhibition No Right Way 2 Cum (2015) which presented the CGI animation by Sidsel Meineche Hansen at Transmission Gallery. The production was made in response to the British Board of Film Classification’s recent ban on female ejaculation in UK-produced pornography. It drew inspiration from sex-activist workshops on female ejaculation run by pro-sex feminists such as Deborah Sundahl and Susie Bright who were the former editors of On Our Backs. When Janina returned to Newcastle and told me about the discovery, we started researching and tried to find the magazine online. Only one physical copy of issue Fall 1996 was available on e-bay. We bought it and, after receiving it, felt so inspired by its content that we started showing it to everyone. We then found out that Phyllis Christopher – previous photo editor and photographer at On Our Backs – lives and works in Gateshead and is in a relationship with my friend and filmmaker Kate Sweeney. A couple of days later we were in Phyllis’s living room, surrounded by many more magazines, portfolios of beautiful hand printed photographs, and related materials.
We knew from the start that we wanted to share On Our Backs magazine with a wider community and we felt that the content of the magazine is still very relevant today. So, we shared our discovery with Kuba Ryniewicz – both a good friend and a creative producer of NewBridge Books – knowing that NewBridge was the perfect place to host an archival exhibition.
LM: On Our Backs was one of the first publications to graphically depict and critically explore lesbian sexuality, especially in the kink and BDSM scenes in San Francisco at the time. Were there censorship challenges that the magazine had to face because of the explicit representation of BDSM practices specifically, or lesbian sexuality in general?
Phyllis: The problem with censorship was that the laws kept changing. On another level, it was hard to find a printer who would not feel offended. It wasn’t necessarily because of the BDSM aspect that the printer might be offended – in fact, the problem was that we just never knew… Sometimes lesbian content of any sort was the cause of ‘offense’. It was incredibly expensive to change the magazine at the last minute – advertisers and subscribers would be disappointed, and the whole schedule of putting out a bi-monthly magazine would get screwed up.
LM: Viewing the exhibition, I was struck by the magazine’s diverse representation of bodies, especially people of colour. This reminded me of a quote by queer pornographer, director and producer of Pink and White Productions, Shine Louise Houston: ‘There is power in creating images, and for a woman of colour and a queer to take that power… I don’t find it exploitative; I think it’s necessary.’ How involved were women of colour in the making of On Our Backs magazine, and was ‘whitewashing’ ever an issue the magazine faced?
Phyllis: The original publishers, and the staff that continued making the magazine were always very aware of being inclusive. The predominantly white office was very aware that On Our Backs needed to speak to many lesbians and as photo editor I actively looked for women of colour to contribute as photographers and models. One of the editors and I would often go out to clubs and find women that way – a real dream job!
LM: On Our Backs specifically sought to represent lesbian culture and identity. How did the magazine approach or view ‘queer’ identity and culture – or was the word ‘queer’ still viewed as a slur? Did On Our Backs ever address the experiences of bisexual or pansexual women? Phyllis, do you see attitudes towards the identities ‘lesbian’ and ‘queer’ as being different today, perhaps even different between the UK and USA?
Phyllis: In the early 90s, the term “queer” was being re-appropriated. Queer Nation, an organization that promoted LGBT visibility, was quite active at the time and so the term became widespread. I don’t remember anybody being offended by that word. The magazine was always open minded about all sexual definitions, and many of the contributors and staff were bi and all other sorts, but we were clear that the content was intended as a lesbian magazine.
LM: The magazine was one of the first publications to include non-sensationalised interviews with trans people. How accepted were transgender and non-binary people within the LGBT community at this point, and how involved were On Our Backs with trans activism in the 80s and 90s?
Phyllis: On Our Backs published the first article about the topic of FTM, written by Marcy Sheiner, in 1991. It was an exciting time of opening our minds to the continuum of gender identity. I think perhaps some readers did not consider this as a ‘lesbian’ issue, but it was the early days of trans discussions, and very ground breaking on the part of the writer and the magazine. It was of course, long before the internet and On Our Backs was one of the only magazines that would consider covering this topic in a respectful way.
LM: The portrayal of visible sexual identities and practices within the exhibition feel very relevant, given that the UK government recently banned the representation of certain types of consensual queer and BDSM sex in porn. How can pornographers work around these censorship laws? And in what ways can the representation of sex and desire become a form of activism?
Jade & Janina: That is a difficult question. Putting together the On Our Backs exhibition was a good response to the censorship laws because it facilitated conversations about censorship and the lack of lesbian sexual education available. We think that’s what artists need to do – continue discussing these issues and open it up to a larger diverse audience. The government can’t censor conversations after all.
LM: The final issue of On Our Backs was in 2006. What do you think about contemporary lesbian pornography – in video and print – made by queer women, for queer women? Now that the majority of porn is online, does this introduce new challenges for representations of queer and BDSM sexualities by the community and for the community?
Phyllis: If the internet existed at the time of On Our Backs I would never have made that kind of work. I made the work for the audience I knew and who wanted to see it. I don’t want my images used in ways I have so little control over – the internet makes you think about the consequent platforms of the work. This can be interesting but it is a lot of work to manage. It always has been a difficult thing to publish. Women never have the money to get it out there. While there are more forms of lesbian visibility now and maybe they sate the audiences more – there is less desperation for it, but I still think we need to talk about sex more and have more educational options.
Janina & Jade: It is important for queer women to have a platform to be able to explore their sexuality, especially from their own point of view. It was one of the main factors why we were so attracted to On Our Backs; because it was honest depiction of real women by real women, most of who knew each other, who explored each other’s sexualities both poetically and passionately and shared it with a wider audience. The internet can be quite overwhelming and we believe that it can possibly take the control away from artists, where their images are shown and in what context. Our research is definitely more led from printed matter than online.
To read more about the exhibition: http://thenewbridgeproject.com/events/on-our-backs-an-archive/