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Radical Desire
Making On Our Backs Magazine


On Our Backs magazine launched in San Francisco in 1984 promising, per the tagline on the cover, “entertainment for the adventurous lesbian.” The title On Our Backs referred, tongue-in-cheek, to off our backs, a radical feminist newspaper whose anti-pornography stance situated it on the opposing side in the feminist sex wars of that decade.[1]

The women of On Our Backs set out to challenge a narrative of victimization and to create pornography on their own terms. Taboo-breaking sex, stereotype-breaking women, so-called “vanilla” traditional lesbian sex and romance, and other forms of lesbian intimacy all had room within the pages of On Our Backs. It was the first glossy magazine in the United States to reflect, cater to, and celebrate lesbian sexuality, and its editorials embraced the view that sexual fantasies and pleasurable, consensual sex could never be “anti-feminist.” 

The photographic images on the cover and throughout were central to delivering on the magazine’s promise of sexual content for lesbians. The photography also created the greatest difficulties for the magazine’s circulation, at a moment when many feminist leaders decried pornographic photographs and film as a form of violence against women.[2]

This exhibition presents original photographs created for On Our Backs during its first decade. Made by staffers and freelancers, professionals and amateurs, members of the magazine’s inner circle and its far-flung readership, they convey the fantasies, imagination, humor, rigor, radicalism, political engagement, and ethos of community building and inclusion that defined On Our Backs and made it a touchstone in the queer press. Additional photographs and documents elucidate the political and erotic contexts into which the magazine emerged, the women behind it, and their business practices and strategies. All materials are drawn from the archives of the Cornell Library’s Human Sexuality Collection.

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[1] On On Our Backs and the sex wars of the 1980s, see, for example, Elizabeth Groeneveld, “Letters to the Editor as ‘Archives of Feeling’: On Our Backs Magazine and the Sex Wars,” American Periodicals 28.2 (September 2018): 153–167.

[2] On the “problem” of photography in On Our Backs, see Susie Bright’s introduction to her and and Jill Posener’s Nothing But the Girl: The Blatant Lesbian Image (New York: Freedom Editions, 1996) and Laura Guy, “Wanting Pictures After Feminism: Re-reading On Our Backs,” Women: A Cultural Review 30.3 (2019): 319–341.