Fisting and feasting, or metamorphosis by the mouthful:
food, sex, power and the female body in the erotic fiction of Pat Califia
One of America’s most notorious sex/gender activists, Patrick (formerly Pat) Califia’s erotic fiction is notable for its violent, transgressive and minutely described sexual content, alongside continual challenge to cultural norms.1 1988’s Macho Sluts, with vividly detailed lesbian BDSM, essentially ‘buil[t] the community it celebrated’, and Califia has been credited with single-handedly transforming lesbian activism ‘from tofu [...] to leather.’2 Since then, he has published both fiction and non-fiction extensively, covering subjects such as transgenderism, parenthood, safe sex and identity politics. Whilst he challenges convention throughout his oeuvre, with particular success repudiating dysfunctional body ideals and deconstructing normative gender assumptions, this essay discusses these elements in Califia’s early work, written from and concerned primarily with femininity in its many guises.
Califia rejects stereotypical criteria for sexual attractiveness, particularly those imposed on women. He credits his own sexual adventurism, particularly participation in public sex, with teaching him to ‘enjoy and eroticise a wider range of body types’, and ‘appreciate [...] that even if sex acts are repetitive, the people doing them are unique.’ 3 Through fiction, he transmits these lessons to us. Bodies are infinitely various. In his various short stories, for example, whilst Jessie is ‘lean’, and Lena is ‘thin as a zither and as highly strung’, the narrator of ‘Jessie’ is ‘soft and round’, with ‘full curves’, and Kay is repeatedly referred to as a ‘big girl’.4 Bessy has ‘chunky, biteable calves’ and hips with a ‘viola curve’.5 All these shapes are eroticised. Power and sensuality frequently manifest themselves in size. In contradistinction to the vast majority of contemporary media portrayals, fat is not ugly, dangerous or grotesque; and often, it’s power.6 Mack, for instance, responsible for testing Jasmine’s orgasmic stamina in ‘Too Much is Almost Enough’, is ‘very much her [Jasmine’s] type’, ‘bigger around the waistline’ than Wolfe; her ‘fat’ makes her ‘capable of knocking a bouncer down with a single punch.’7 It’s important to stress, though, that no body size or shape is intrinsically connected to either any particular characteristic or appeal; fat can also be soft and inviting, just as (say) small size can articulate submissive vulnerability (Roxanne) or focused dominance (Reid or Doyle).8
Moreover, whilst the body is (unsurprisingly) most visible in a sexual context, its capacities for other pleasures are also significant throughout Califia’s work. Hunger and appetite are a given, intrinsically linked with sensuality, and bear no relation to body size or type. Characters eat as a normal part of life, joyously and unquestioningly. In ‘Too Much is Almost Enough’, Jasmine responds to her gruelling ‘exam’ in sexual and psychological resilience by ‘finding herself [...] very, very hungry’, appreciating the ham sandwich and sugary, creamy coffee she receives ‘even more’ than the complimentary speech her master Wolfe is making.9 In ‘Gender Queer’, Carleton sends Moss home and then prepares himself a microwave meal, confirming his transformation from ‘the anorexic girl who’d had to be hospitalised twice’ into a skilled lover with a more masculine body ‘he could accept, maybe even love’; choice of food confirms and reinforces his chosen gender identity, and his newfound peace and – yes – appetite for life is symbolised by having ‘eaten breakfast and lunch’ and eventually consuming ‘Hungry Man fried chicken’ for dinner.10 Elsewhere in Califia’s work, the same pattern is evident: before her sexual initiation with Johnny, Frankie ‘ma[kes] herself a bologna and cheese sandwich and [goes] upstairs to read poetry’. Afterwards, he ‘took her to one of the few places in town that was open late enough to give them something to eat’, a burger joint where Frankie ‘ate all her French fries and half of Johnny’s’ and a ‘hot, salty, bloody, greasy [...] wonderful’ hamburger, while her lover ‘just kept staring at her like she was indeed an angel that had perched in his lap.’11 Appetite is arousing, an enhancement of femininity rather than an unacceptable betrayal of it.
- A note on pronouns: I have used ‘he’ throughout, as representing Califia’s current pronoun of choice, although it is worth noting that during the writing of these stories he identified and lived as female. [↩]
- Patrick Califia, Speaking Sex to Power: The Politics of Queer Sex (Los Angeles: Cleis Press, 2002, p. 319), Ariel Levy, ‘Lesbian Nation’, New Yorker, (2009), p. 35. The term ‘BDSM’ is a compound of B/D (bondage and discipline), D/s (dominance and submission) and S/M (sado-masochism), and refers to consensual erotic engagement with these concepts. [↩]
- Speaking Sex, p. 214. [↩]
- Pat Califia, ‘Jessie’, Macho Sluts (Los Angeles: Alyson, 1988), p. 32; ‘Fix me up’, Melting Point (Boston: Alyson, 1993), p. 91; ‘Jessie’, p. 54, p. 52. [↩]
- Pat Califia, ‘Date Rape’, Boy in the Middle (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2005), p. 74; p. 76. [↩]
- For discussion of fat’s habitual implications in contemporary Western culture, see, eg, M. Gard and J. Wright, (eds.), Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality and Ideology (New York, Taylor &Francis: 2005); Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body (California: University of California Press, 2003), Jana Evans Braziel, Kathleen LeBesco, (eds.), Bodies out of bounds: fatness and transgression (California: University of California Press, 2001). [↩]
- Pat Califia, ‘Too Much is Almost Enough’, No Mercy, (Los Angeles: Alyson, 2000), p. 69; p. 41. [↩]
- Pat Califia, ‘The Calyx of Isis’, in Macho Sluts (Los Angeles: Alyson Publications, 1988); ‘Big Girls’, Melting Point, (Boston, Alyson Publications, 1996); ‘It Takes a Good Boy (to Make a Good Daddy)’, Boy in the Middle (San Franciso, Cleis Press, 2005). [↩]
- Ibid.. p. 71. [↩]
- ‘Gender Queer’, p. 119; p. 134. [↩]
- No Mercy, p. 93, p. 109. [↩]