What Can the Lesbian Handmaids Teach Us About Resistance?
There's a limit to how much the horrors exacted on the “gender traitors” of Gilead can suppress them because, as sexpert Tina Horn explains, queer sexuality inherently rejects the patriarchy.
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“Praised be, bitch,” reads a note to June/Offred from Moira at the end of the penultimate episode of the first season of Handmaid’s Tale, and those were three words could not have been more welcome. Because they spoke volumes to June and to us that not only does the resistance live on in Gilead, but in her best friend, Moira, a Black lesbian whom we last saw at the underground sex club, Jezebel’s, appearing degraded and resigned to her fate, all ready to give up. But herewith, a declaration of sorts (the note accompanies a package) to fight full force.
And that is one of the best things about the first season of Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, for this queer viewer: She’s reminded me that no one uses sex as resistance quite like us. We are made to resist, to lead the resistance, because our desire naturally undermines patriarchal control. And as a queer kinky woman, I know how it feels to be stigmatized and in some cases criminalized for my sex life, as Moira could be, and as Handmaid Ofglen/Emily and her Martha lover were.
In fact, I’m still reeling from episode three, when lesbian handmaid Emily is punished for exercising her right to intimacy with a member of the servant class, Martha 6715301 (whose real name we never learn). Through the gutting story of Emily’s “gender treachery,” Handmaid’s Tale moves beyond LGBTQ tokenism into a portrait of specifically queer oppression, and specifically sexual rebellion.
The only way I was able to bear watching the torture was by fantasizing that these two women stealing furtive fucks in the pantry—which, presumably, they were. I imagined them finding solace in the face of trauma, taking advantage of the fact that heteronormative constructions of prison rarely account for the freedoms that women can find with one another within its walls.
In the most harrowing scene in that episode, and among the most disturbing of the season, Emily’s lover is hung from a crane as she witnesses it, while being driven away in a van. The next time we see Emily, she awakens to discover she has been given a clitorectomy against her will. Because she can bear children, Emily’s punishment fits her “crime,” she is told by the tyrannical Aunt Lydia. The theocratic state believes they can take away her pleasure with a sentencing they perversely refer to as “redemption.”
“Things will be so much easier for you now,” Aunt Lydia tells her. “You won’t want what you cannot have.”
I’m not used to seeing desirous queer women on television, let alone watching such a knowing illustration of patriarchal homophobia. Their “gender treachery” punishment offers a more acute identification with the state violence borne by the handmaids. I did not feel that this was a tired “Bury Your Gays” trope; rather, that it was an extreme and affecting allegory for discrimination against dykes. So just as I fantasized about the crime, I also saw myself living out the punishment. This is the price of representation, I guess. You see yourself in a character and then you’re turned inside out by visceral nightmares.
I’ve actually always fantasized about living through tortures depicted by horror stories, from Silence of the Lambs to Death and the Maiden. Since I was very young, my fantasies have always followed an arch of defiance. Nick, Commander Fred Waterford’s chauffeur, tells June, “Everyone breaks.” In real life that may be true, but in my fantasies I suffer only to spit back, “Is that all you got?”
As I got older and discovered BDSM, I grew in my understanding of the connection between these endurance fantasies and my desire to experience pain with other queers. With kink, I can play with pain in a structured and loving way that does not ultimately destroy me. Maybe this is like introducing poison into your system over time to build up immunity. It relieves the tension of fear, although it’s unclear whether this practice would actually help me survive.
After watching Handmaid’s, especially episode three, I imagined my own inevitable punishment under Gilead. Like the defiant handmaid Janine, who lost her eye, her baby, and then her sanity, I’m certain I wouldn’t be able to keep my fucking mouth shut. Like Emily, I would not be able to resist the rebellion of dangerous queer intimacy with my fellow domestic prisoners.
Emily’s circumcision is not the only mutilation in this series. Janine’s eye is plucked out after she talks back. Another woman has a stump for a finger, and June expresses a well-founded worry that Moira’s hand will be cut off if she is caught writing.
Mutilation is not brutality. It’s precise. It harms but doesn’t destroy. The body of Emily’s lover is obliterated by hanging, in an instant that is as gutting for the viewer as it is for Emily. Emily’s punishment, by contrast, contains a crucial element of humiliation. Mutilation is pain designed to remain long after symmetrical bandages are removed and scalpel wounds have turned to scar tissue. The horror of mutilation is forcing you to get used to a new abject version of your body.
A friend of mine made this important point: “It’s only dystopia when it happens to white people.” Female genital mutilation, or FGM, is a very real procedure, defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as involving “partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” According to a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report, more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. WHO defines the practice as a human rights violation.
I wanted to speak with someone who has first-hand experience with this practice. My friend Sid Azmi, who owns Please, an “educated pleasure shop” in Brooklyn, was raised in Singapore, and was circumcised at birth, a procedure she tells me is traditional for Malay Muslims. She has dedicated her career to counseling cancer radiation patients, mothers, and Muslim women to reclaim ownership of their own bodies through sexual pleasure.
“I don’t have labia minora,” she says. “I don’t have a clitoral hood, and part of my clitoris is cut.” She tell me what remains of her clit is about the size of the head of a thumbtack.
“Girl, this ‘non clit’ gets so much action and happiness you have no idea!” she laughs, referring to her own sex life.
As for the possibilities of pleasure after a clitorectomy, she explains that self exploration is the key to moving through trauma. “Even with a reduced clitoris, there are still nerve endings there. We don’t know how much we’re left with until we sit down and take the time to feel. I can’t say for sure whether a circumcised women can have an external orgasm, but she can certainly try. “
While controversial cultural ritual is not the same as punitive state violence, the fact remains that many women are living today with the results of circumcision.
My clitoris is a wonderful thing. Being forced to live without one would be cruel and unusual.
However, if Aunt Lydia thinks that cutting off the head of the clitoris is the end of queer female desire, she’s only demonstrating the limits of the heteronormative imagination. Does Gilead realize the clit is a deep, bulbous little creature that responds to pressure in the cleft between the thigh and labia? Maybe Emily was always a stone top (I can kind of see it, can’t you?). Maybe she loves to be spanked. Maybe she loves role playing as a puppy, or maybe nothing satisfied her more than really depraved dirty talk. Maybe she has a thing for knives.
Emily’s punishment only reinforces the obvious: that a puritanical state would think of queer sex in patriarchal terms. As painfully illustrated by the Ceremony, Gilead believes that the function of sex begins and ends with an aroused dick in a vagina. Sexual punishment for a man is castration. No more balls, no more desire, no more sex, no more babies.
But queer sex is not procreative. It’s creative. We fuck with our hands, our fingertips, our tongues and teeth. We fuck with pressure on our urethral sponges (that’s the g-spot) and fullness in our asses. We grope and bite and caress and tease and hold each other. Our holes swallow hands, and if there are no silicon dicks to be found in dystopic bedroom drawers, you better believe we’ll get creative with hairbrushes and vegetables. We fuck, in short, with everything, not just our clits.
Queer female sex has always been both defiant and affirming, so why should resilience from torture be any different?
I was relieved that Sid echoed this sentiment. “They assume if they take the clit you cannot feel pleasure,” she said. “But female pleasure has so many venues. I can have orgasms without touching myself. Bitch, you’ll have to chop my whole torso off!”
It’s unclear exactly what happened to Emily in that surreal white surgery theater. Did they cauterize her labia? Infibulate her vagina? The Ceremony that Emily must endure every month as a handmaid may have gone from violating to excruciating.
Yet there is a light shining through Emily’s cracked life: Queer pleasure is beyond anything a tyrant could ever take away. It endures under enslavement, torture, humiliation, and rape. As long as they see our love as an abomination, they will never truly know how to cut it out. And so our very existence is an act of resistance.
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