Even for those of us with backgrounds as political activists who thought we had some handle on sexual anxiety and its variations in this society, the revelations of shame, fear, and guilt that occurred after the Barnard Sex Scandal and the period of public controversy that was its aftermath--since labeled the Sex Wars--were simply overwhelming. The women who kept talking and working as publicly identified sex radicals, or pro-sex feminists, began to engage in an expansive conversation that was in no way safe but was powerfully revealing...and convinced me that very few people in our society believe themselves normal, think that their sexual desire and behavior is like anyone else's. Women talked about years of celibacy, self-hatred, rejection, and abandonment by lovers, helplessness after rape or incest, social censure and street violence, family ostracism and--overridingly--the fear of what our desires might mean.
...It is difficult, in fact, for me to frame any questions about sex without getting caught up in endless considerations of the meaning of the acts, sometimes quite astonishing philosophical, political, and spiritual treatments of meaning that I cannot being down to the level that interests me most--my everyday life. All the impassioned rhetoric serves no purpose but to lead to greater obscurity if it does not originate and flow from an examination of the specific: how we all actually live out our sexuality. Without that detail, I have concluded, there are no valid generalizations to be made about sex and women's lives except for the central fact that we are all hungry for the power of desire and we are all terribly afraid.
...Throughout my life somebody has always tried to set the boundaries of who and what I will be allowed to be: if working class, an intellectual, upwardly mobile type who knows her place, or at least the virtues of gratitude; if a lesbian, an acceptable lesbian, not too forward about the details of her sexual practice; if a writer, a humble, consciously female one who understands her relationship to more "real" writers and who is willing to listen to her editors. What is common to these boundary lines is that their most destructive power lies in what I can be persuaded to do to myself--the walls of fear, shame, and guilt I can be encouraged to build in my mind...I am to hide myself, and hate myself, and never risk exposing what might be true about my life. I have learned through great sorrow that all systems of oppression feed on public silence and private terrorization. But few do so more forcefully than the systems of sexual oppression, and each of us is under enormous pressure to give in to their demands.
...A decade later, many of my questions from the early 1980s remain unanswered. I find myself continuing to wonder how our lives might be different if we were not constantly subjected to the fear and contempt of being sexually different, sexually dangerous, sexually endangered. What kind of women might we be if we did not have to worry about being too sexual, or not sexual enough, or the wrong kind of sexual for the company we keep, the convictions we hold?
--Dorothy Allison, "Public Silence, Private Terror," from Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature, 1993.