Sex and sexuality in Spare Rib

Sex and sexuality in Spare Rib

Sex, orgasm, birth control, self-examination, lesbians, pregnancy, monogamy, pornography, sex work, the commodification of women – Spare Rib’s articles addressed all these subjects and more. Here Sue O’Sullivan discusses the magazine’s desire to help women take control of their own experiences of sexuality.

A new awareness

Sexuality wove its erratic and contradictory way (sometimes pleasurably, at other times more painfully) through Spare Rib from the beginning: in articles, images, fiction and poetry. The new Women’s Liberation Movement gave women permission to talk about sexuality. In small groups (later called consciousness raising groups) women collectively shared personal stories and found that each woman’s sexual life resonated with others: the personal was political. Our discoveries led to a growing determination to take control of our bodies and our sexual selves. All of this was reflected in the pages of the magazine.

In a sexist and patriarchal society what did taking control mean? At first it meant using newly sharpened feminist eyes to find and create information for ourselves. No more relying on doctors or other ‘experts’. One discovery was that many women had never touched themselves or experienced an orgasm. This reality rubbed unpleasantly against another when men declared that ‘liberated women’ should eagerly provide demanding men with sex. Feminists furled their brows and declared that they would decide what made a liberated woman, not sexist men.

Spare Rib magazine issue 039

Spare Rib magazine issue 39 p. 45

Poem using play of words to make a humorous point about one woman’s sexual experience.

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Usage terms: : Issue 39, p 45, poem: I have never had a climax by Margaret S. Chalmers
Usage Terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for I have never had a climax. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. Poems: Neruda and Neill by Sue Crockford; Women’s voices, sensible and bright by Barbara Day; Blues of the Wedding Bell Girl by Rebecca. Collage of photographs by Ron McCormack.
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Women enthusiastically addressed a long history of ignorance and fear. For instance, if women had never experienced orgasms, they could learn within woman-centred pre-orgasmic groups. Often this included learning how to orgasm through masturbation. This process would foster self-love and confidence.

Spare Rib magazine issue 042

Spare Rib magazine issue 42 p. 14

This article explores new feminist approaches to the subject of the female orgasm.

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Usage terms: : Issue 42 pp 14-16, The moon within your reach by Eleanor Stephens
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for The moon within your reach. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. Illustration by Alison Fell
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In ‘Don’t get too near the big chakra’, American film-maker Anne Severson recounted her experience of making a film about vaginas, exploring each woman’s attitude to her body. There was a new spirit of openness and honesty in these articles, with voices of ordinary women at their centre.

Spare Rib magazine issue 020

Spare Rib magazine issue 20 p. 7

Article about Anne Severson’s film, Near the Big Chakra which is about women’s vaginas.

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Usage terms: : Item 1: Issue 20 pp7-9 Don’t get too near the big chakra by Anne Severson
Usage Terms: © AliceAnne Parker (aka Anne Severson) Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 7 Photograph of Anne Severson
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Spare Rib magazine issue 104

Spare Rib magazine issue 104 p. 6

Article about women’s sexual self-determination.

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Usage terms: : Issue 104, pp 6-8 & p 19 Taking control of our sex lives by Angela Hamblin
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Articles addressing birth control, pregnancy, motherhood, female genital mutilation, sexually transmitted infections, HIV and Aids, pornography, sex work, self-examination, breast cancer – all necessitated looking at women’s sexual autonomy, at individual women’s identity and at society’s power dynamics. Spare Rib was intent on empowering women to take control of their lives, including their own experiences of sexuality. Providing women-centred information helped readers develop an understanding of their bodies and find new ways to examine their relationships and their feelings. Getting to know what our bodies looked like and how they worked was important. Articles on vaginal self-examination encouraged women to challenge the power doctors had over them and to feel comfortable with an area of their body which had previously engendered feelings of fear and mystery.

The magazine explored many different aspects of sex and sexuality, recounting real-life experiences of women from many different walks of life. In ‘Round in a Flat World’, (issue 78, January 1979), Tessa Weare talked about society’s changing attitudes towards her now that she was heavily pregnant. She was at once relieved and bemused by the fact that men no longer saw her as ‘fair game’. She had grown used to their chat up lines, the grabs at her breasts. Those same men now looked upon her and her swollen womb with ‘guilt, fear and disgust’; she was another man’s property.

Spare Rib magazine issue 078

Spare Rib magazine issue 78 p. 15

A woman’s first-hand account of how her identity and sexuality changed during pregnancy.

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Usage terms: : Items 1, 2, 3 : issue 78 p 9, Male violence female dilemma by Anny B; photograph of violence against protesters by Diane Bailey; poem: Out in the Open by Astra. Issue 78 pp 15-17, Round in a Flat World by Tessa Weare; a poem by Gillian Allnutt. Issue 78 pp 19-21, Don’t you know there’s a war going on? By Eileen Fairweather; photograph of Kathleen Stewart holding a plastic bullet by Newsline; P. 20, 21 photographs by Cass Breen
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Spare Rib never shied away from difficult topics, reaching out to women who felt isolated and alone in their experiences. An article on herpes initiated by a reader living with the condition was written by her with Spare Rib editorial support. She combined straightforward information about herpes with frank reflections about her attempts to find an accepting lover and to negotiate safe sex. This article led to the formation of The Herpes Society.

Spare Rib magazine issue 101

Spare Rib magazine issue 101 p. 16

Article giving the medical facts and a first-hand account of living with herpes.

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Usage terms: : Issue 101, pp 16-18, Living with Herpes by Sue Blanks & Annie Fursland; illustrations by Sue Blanks.
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The grimly persistent commodification of women’s bodies in all areas of public life outraged feminists. For a number of years, Spare Rib’s monthly column ‘Tooth & Nail’, invited readers to hold up for derision blatantly sexist adverts and in the process have a good sneer too.

Spare Rib magazine issue 078

Spare Rib magazine issue 78 p. 45

Example of regular page, ‘Tooth & Nail’ which exposed sexism in the mainstream media.

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Usage terms: : Items 1, 2, 3 : issue 78 p 9, Male violence female dilemma by Anny B; photograph of violence against protesters by Diane Bailey; poem: Out in the Open by Astra. Issue 78 pp 15-17, Round in a Flat World by Tessa Weare; a poem by Gillian Allnutt. Issue 78 pp 19-21, Don’t you know there’s a war going on? By Eileen Fairweather; photograph of Kathleen Stewart holding a plastic bullet by Newsline; P. 20, 21 photographs by Cass Breen
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Spare Rib magazine issue 072

Spare Rib magazine issue 72 p. 18

Article about sexism and exploitation of women in advertising.

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Usage terms: : Items 1, 2, 3: issue 72, pp 6-9, A real life story of true romance by Lucy Williams;  Jo Spence; Robyn Slovo; Lesley Ruda; Martin, Angie; Loftus, Val; Penny Hollow;  Liz Heron ; photographs by Jo Spence; Robyn Slovo; Lesley Ruda; Liz Heron; pp 18, 19 The Advertising Standards Authority’s Line on Sexism by Pat Moan & Jill Nicholls; pp 20-21 Images of Schoolgirls by Linda Sheppey; Abida Hashmi; Lisa Sutton;
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Making radical changes

Spare Rib’s approach to sexuality always challenged mainstream attitudes, confronting accepted ideas of what ‘real’ sex was and refusing male dominance. The magazine always went its own way, rejecting the likes of Cosmopolitan with their relentless banging on about how to sexually please your man. And Spare Rib often threw a fine dash of humour into its coverage of sexuality. One joking article described a ‘new’ form of male contraception, perfectly mimicking conventional reporting on contraceptive methods for women which shrugged off unpleasant side effects. The detailed ‘scientific’ drawing of male genitalia with the ‘device’ being inserted made readers squirm and laugh out loud.

Spare Rib magazine issue 093

Spare Rib magazine issue 93 intrapenile device

This ‘joke’ article sends up the complexities and inadequacies of contraceptive methods available in the early 1980s.

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Usage terms: : Issue 93 p 9, Breakthrough in male contraception; Illustration by Dawn Bracey.
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Putting sex in context

Increasingly feminists were aware that sexual liberation could only happen fully within the context of wider feminist aims. More than improved sexual techniques and bodily knowledge was needed in order to transform sexuality and sexual practice. Heterosexual tensions in particular went deeper than individual women achieving orgasms with a partner – or on their own. Learning sex techniques and gaining confidence didn’t address other forces, institutions and attitudes which shaped - and maintained - male domination in the sexual sphere. It didn’t necessarily tussle with intransigent desires or come to grips with unruly contradictions. And where did love fit in this powerful mix? If, for instance, a 1970s feminist believed monogamy was a bourgeois notion (as quite a few did) all too often in practice non-monogamy proved unbearable. In the following excerpt, one reader’s poem expressed this dilemma, describing her boyfriend being in another woman’s bed.  Jealous feelings (and many others) were not so easily exorcised by ‘rational’ beliefs.

Spare Rib magazine issue 141

Spare Rib magazine issue 141 p. 24

Humorous poem about jealousy in relationships.

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Usage terms: : Issue 141, p 24, ‘I think I’m gonna be sick’ by Katina Noble, Illustrations by Kate Taylor
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The psyche, the impact of early lives, emotional matters – all directed attention to what was complex in each woman’s sexual identity and practice. Our sexual selves, including our preferences/desires for women or men, criss-crossed with connections to, for instance, class, race, age and disability.

Spare Rib magazine issue 086

Spare Rib magazine issue 86 p. 14

A personal account by a disabled woman of her experiences of sexual relationships.

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Usage terms: : Item 1: issue 86 pp 14-15 Physical relationships and the disabled woman by Julie Mimmack
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for Physical Relationships and the Disabled Woman. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. Item 2: issue 86 pp 43-47 How did we get this way? By Susan Hemmings and Sue Cartlege
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Usage terms: © Jo Nesbitt Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 44 It’s a lesbian! By Jo Nesbitt
Usage terms: © Jo Nesbitt Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 45 & Causes of lesbianism: the distant father By Jo Nesbitt
Usage terms: © Jo Nesbitt Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 45 Causes of lesbianism: Disappointed wife transfers affections to daughter By Jo Nesbitt
Usage terms: © Jo Nesbitt Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P46 Take your pick dear by Jo Nesbitt
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In a later issue of Spare Rib, Cathy recounted her difficult relationships with men. And Julie, in the same feature, proclaims her fear of love and the power it has over her.

Spare Rib magazine issue 223

Spare Rib magazine issue 223 p 32

Article about women’s personal experiences of love and relationships.

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Usage terms: : Issue 223 pp 32-36, Looking for a new kind of loving; illustrations by Phyllis Mahon
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Too much stuff about lesbians!

Although lesbianism was largely (although never completely!) absent from Spare Rib articles before the late 1970s, after that the magazine carried important challenges to others’ unfounded nervousness that lesbians were taking it over. One reader’s letter criticised the magazine for too much coverage of lesbian issues. By this time in London (and elsewhere in the UK) lesbians were ‘out’ – especially within feminist cultural and political life (Spare Rib fundraising ‘bops’ for instance) - and in their own sub-cultures of clubs. Nevertheless, decades of invisibility and disapproval still hovered over the Women’s Liberation Movement, particularly in straight feminists’ imaginations. A lengthy editorial replied to that particular Spare Rib subscriber, pointing out that, actually, there had been relatively few articles about lesbians , noting that readers never complained when writers in the magazine referred to their male lovers.

Spare Rib magazine issue 116

Spare Rib magazine issue 116 p. 3

A reader’s letter complaining that there is ‘too much about lesbians’ in Spare Rib, together with the collective’s response.

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Usage terms: : Issue 116, pp 3,4, editorial by Spare Rib Collective
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Spare Rib magazine issue 095

Spare Rib magazine issue 95 p. 30

Cartoon reflecting on the subject of being a lesbian.

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Usage terms: : Illustration It’s a Lesbian
Usage terms: © Jo Nesbitt Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence

Spare Rib magazine issue 086

Spare Rib magazine issue 86 p. 43

An article looking at different theories and ideas about why some women are lesbians.

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Usage terms: : Item 1: issue 86 pp 14-15 Physical relationships and the disabled woman by Julie Mimmack
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for Physical Relationships and the Disabled Woman. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. Item 2: issue 86 pp 43-47 How did we get this way? By Susan Hemmings and Sue Cartlege
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for How did we get this way? Explanations of lesbianism is unknown. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item. Illustrations: P 43 2 girls arm in arm by Jo Nesbitt
Usage terms: © Jo Nesbitt Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 44 It’s a lesbian! By Jo Nesbitt
Usage terms: © Jo Nesbitt Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 45 & Causes of lesbianism: the distant father By Jo Nesbitt
Usage terms: © Jo Nesbitt Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P 45 Causes of lesbianism: Disappointed wife transfers affections to daughter By Jo Nesbitt
Usage terms: © Jo Nesbitt Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence P46 Take your pick dear by Jo Nesbitt
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Whose sexuality?

By the end of the 1970s the women’s movement was experiencing internal upheavals (as were many other radical social movements of the period) around questions of inclusion and exclusion and who held power. Black women foregrounded racism in a movement dominated by White women.

At the same time lesbians highlighted the dominance of heterosexual assumptions; working class women did not always feel welcome, nor did women with disabilities. Sexuality was never given the same meaning by women living in different geographical and cultural settings around the world. These criticisms pushed forward the recognition that sexuality was socially constructed. It necessitated asking a vital question: Whose sexuality was the magazine addressing?

So the confident articles dealing with sexuality, with their appeal to exploration and control, waned after the first more optimistic years. Nevertheless, the way female sexuality bled into other areas of life meant there were always outright (or more oblique) discussions of sexuality, sometimes in articles ostensibly about other, if connected, subjects. Often these other areas contained acknowledgements of the negative, uncertain aspects or more complex views of sexuality.

In ‘The Politics of Sexuality and Birth Control’, written in 1981, I tried to evaluate the social forces which had led to our uncritical use of the Pill and our abandonment of earlier ‘messy, unreliable’ barrier methods of contraception. I considered how consciousness-raising and feminist analysis of our sexuality started to resolve some of the feelings of ambivalence and confusion we’d had around sex in the 1950s and 60s.

Spare Rib magazine issue 105

Spare Rib magazine issue 105 p. 18

Spare Rib provided regularly provided readers with information about health and reproduction from a woman’s perspective. This article re-evaluates the merits of the cervical cap and looking at the politics of sexuality and birth control. Pat Kahn, the typographer for Spare Rib in 1981 remembers working with colleagues Sue O'Sullivan and Amanda Sebestyen to make text-heavy 'unillustratable' articles on sex and medical matters pleasant to read.

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Usage terms: : Issue 105, pp 18-21, Capping the cervix: rediscovering an old-fashioned method of birth control, by Sue O’Sullivan
Usage terms: © Sue O'Sullivan Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence

Spare Rib’s coverage of sexuality walked a tightrope, precariously balanced between optimism and hope and despair and rage.

Spare Rib magazine issue 016

Spare Rib magazine issue 16 p. 41

An example of how cartoonists and illustrators subverted images from popular culture to make a point about women’s liberation.

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Wild laughter, solidarity, and empathy helped to negotiate this difficult pathway, whether loving men or loving women or declining both. Whatever anyone else says, in the Spare Rib days feminists were deadly serious and uproariously funny. They refused unwanted sex. They were consumed with desire. They embraced sex. They revelled in their sexuality and cried in the night when things got tough. All these were often in flux. And all of this can be found in the often-unpredictable pages of Spare Rib in the changing years between 1972 and 1992. I know because I lived it.

Spare Rib magazine issue 211

Spare Rib magazine issue 211 p 25

Excerpt from a poem by Storme Webber.

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Usage terms: : Issue 211, p 25, excerpt from poem by Storme Webber
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  • Sue O'Sullivan
  • Sue O’Sullivan was deeply involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement from its start. She worked full time at Spare Rib from 1979 – 1984 after experience on various WLM newsletters and publications including Red Rag and Feminist Review. She later joined Sheba Feminist Press. Sue spent four years in Melbourne in the 1990s returning to London to work at The International Community of Women Living with HIV& AIDS until 2010. She edited a number of books, including a feminist cookery book and two editions of lesbian erotic stories. A collection of her writing was called I Used to Be Nice.

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