Dorothy Allison, Skin: Talking Sex Class and Literature (1994)

What I have tried to do in my own life is refuse the language and categories that would reduce me to less than my whole complicated experience (213)

This is a compelling collection of essays.  Dorothy Allison shares with Joan Nestle an ability to make complex ideas and arguments accessible.  It’s interesting that both these writers come from poor working-class backgrounds and I suspect they brought their “no bullshit” attitudes with them into their feminism.  Allison is particularly good at getting to the heart of difficult issues.

She grew up in South Carolina, a member of what she calls “the bad poor”, the American underclass. She experienced horrific physical and sexual abuse from her stepfather. She came out as a lesbian in her adolescence and and got to university where she became involved in feminism.  Since then she has become notorious for being on the “sex positive” or “pro-sex” side of the feminist “sex wars” (she was a founder of the Lesbian Sex Mafia and has been open about her femme identity and interest in BDSM). She also writes fiction and poetry.

As you would expect, there are essays about dildos, pornography and BDSM in this collection, but I think it’s important that Allison is not simplistically reduced to the role she has been ascribed in the feminist “sex wars”.  The here essays show her interest in a wide range of issues, such as class, lesbian experience, abuse, violence, creative writing and science fiction.

‘A Question of Class’

This is about how her experience of coming from “the bad poor” has shaped her politics. It explains a great deal about Allison’s uncompromising attitude and insistence on speaking out about the complexities of identity.  Where she comes from, not speaking out is fatal:

I grew up poor, hated, the victim of physical, emotional, and sexual violence, and I know that suffering does not ennoble. It destroys. To resist destruction, self-hatred, or lifelong hopelessness, we have to throw off the conditioning of being despised, the fear of becoming the they that is talked about so dismissively, to refuse lying myths and easy moralities, to see ourselves as human, flawed, and extraordinary. All of us – extraordinary (p. 36).

I can see why this essay is the first in book – it is the basis for everything that follows.

‘Public Silence, Private Terror’

Here she talks about her experiences of the feminist “sex wars” and the impact they had on her. It is unapologetic, but makes it apparent that she honestly didn’t foresee that speaking openly about her views on sex would get her into so much trouble with other feminists. She took the radical feminist incitement to women to talk about their experiences very literally and then got burned in the process of doing just that. You might disagree with her views on sex, but I think this is an important essay to read:

The hardest lesson I have learned in the last few years is how powerful is my own desire to hang onto a shared sense of feminist community where it is safe to talk about dangerous subjects like sex, and how hopeless is the desire.  Even within what I have thought of as my own community […] I have never felt safe. I have never been safe, and this is only partly because everyone else is just as fearful as I am. None of us is safe because we have not tried to make each other safe. We have never even recognised the fearfulness of the territory. We have addressed violence and exploitation and heterosexual assumptions without first establishing the understanding that for each of us, desire is unique and necessary and simply terrifying […]

As feminists, many of us have committed our whole lives to struggling to change what most people in this society don’t even question, and sometimes the intensity of our struggle has persuaded us that the only way to accomplish change is to make hard bargains, to give up some points and compromise on others. What this has always meant in the end, unfortunately, is trading some people for others.

I do not want to do that.

I do not want to require any woman to do that.

I do not want to claim a safe and comfortable life for myself that is purchased at the cost of some other woman’s needs or desires. But over and over again I see us being pushed to do just that. (113 – 114)

‘Survival Is the Least of my Desires’

This is about writing as catharsis, something Allison seems to believe in very passionately. Some quotes:

I believe the secret in writing is that fiction never exceeds the reach of the writer’s courage. The best fiction comes from the place where the terror hides, the edge of our worst stuff. I believe, absolutely, that if you do not break out in that sweat of fear when you write, then you have not gone far enough’ (217).

It seems to me the only way I have forgiven anything, understood anything, is through that process of opening up to my own terror and pain and re-examining it, recreating it in the story, and making is something different, making if meaningful – even if the meaning is only in the act of telling (p. 218).

That’s what I believe to be the important of telling the truth, each of us writing out of the unique vision our lives have given us (219).

Her essay ‘Believing in Literature’ is also very good.

‘Skin, Where She Touches Me’

I found this the most disturbing essay in the collection. It left me feeling shattered and emptied out and it took me a little while to figure out why. It’s about her relationships with two of the most important women in her life: her mother and her first lover.  Both of these women betrayed her in extremely painful ways, her mother though her inability to leave Allison’s abusive stepfather, and her lover by not caring enough to give up the heroin that eventually killed her, so both chose other things over Dorothy. But I think that what’s so disturbing about this piece of writing is the truth it expresses about the way women can have such complex and painful relationships in which we commit terrible betrayals and yet at the same time carry on loving each other because we do understand why it happened.  This is not something we like to talk about.

All in all, I found it by turns a difficult, challenging and inspirational read.

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