Queer women have a dilemma on our hands. Literally.
I’m talking about long and/or fake nails. You know the kind “real” queer women are not supposed to have, because how straight and how porny and how dare you act as if there is more than one way to have sex as a lady-lovin’ lady!
Despite the absurd notion that all queer women keep nail clippers and files in our jorts for sex purposes (and that those who don’t are doomed to celibacy), stereotypes, even when wrong, can occasionally be revealing. What does this particular stereotype have its roots in? Let’s delve into the particulars that queer women can’t, don’t, or shouldn’t have sex with nails.
Can we blame porn or the male gaze?
Some point to mainstream porn as a reason for the negative nail association, as plenty of queer women reject porn’s depiction of “lesbian” sex as solely involving women with bejeweled French-tip manicures stabbing at each others’ vulvas with all the precision and gentleness of a camel wielding a pitchfork. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)
This begs the question: When have queer women ever looked to mainstream porn, created by men for a mostly male audience, to dictate our culture, sex life, and identities?
“It is always women sleeping with cis women who get shamed for their nails,” says actor and burlesque performer Maggie McMuffin, who notes that the stereotype doesn’t apply to feminine gay men, drag queens, nonbinary folks, or trans men. “I think this comes from the straight male gaze wanting to see women penetrate each other, and then in turn, other queer folks say, ‘In order to stand outside the male gaze, you must reject everything the male gaze enjoys because you couldn’t possibly also enjoy it on your own.’”
This kind of political correctness harkens back to the ’70s, when lesbian separatists rejected all vestiges of what they deemed to be “male” or associated with male privilege, including penetration, butch/masculine-presenting women, and even makeup and tight-fitting clothes. Though the personal is always political, policing queer sex on the basis that it is “male-gazey” is reductionist, and also objectively untrue, as lesbian sex by default involves no men.
We may seldom take our cues from mainstream porn, but plenty of us do listen to messages from TV and movies, including that most referenced and revered of shows: The L Word. The show wasted no time in pointing out who the “correct” lesbians were. In Season 1, Episode 2 concerned friends Shane and Alice coach the hapless Dana in how to “know” if someone is gay:
“Look at her fingernails,” Shane says, “are they long or short?” (Not to mention the even more absurd “test” later on, which was: Have Shane make awkward comments about the dessert potential of figs. If she doesn’t immediately fall into a scissor position, she’s obvs totes straight.)
“I think that this assumption is a vestige of an era in which it was very dangerous for queer women to misinterpret another woman’s intent,” says sex writer and self-professed Femme of the Talon, A.V. Flox. “Things like nails, haircuts, other types of presentation were a way to flaga way to let other queer women know it was safe to approach.”
Historically, butch/masculine-presenting women have been (and still are) subject to greater harassment and discrimination in the workforce and streets than femmes/feminine-presenting women, whose gender presentation and sexuality are rendered invisible by the culture at large. This “passing” and invisibility in the broader straight world paradoxically leads to discrimination of femmes in queer communities, who are not seen as “queer enough” or even queer at all.
Femme- and biphobia
To dismiss, police, or downplay someone’s sexuality on the basis of their gender presentation has its roots in femmephobia and biphobia.
“It says that femmes are unfit to sleep with other queers,” says Maggie McMuffin, “because our aesthetic tastes will get in the way of sex or cause harm through sex.”
The assumption that short nails = lesbian also presumes an awful lot about the kind of sex queer women can or should have.
“I hear from queer women that I register as straight because I wear all my nails stiletto,” says Flox. “It never fails to surprise me because it is so penetration-centric. Queer sex encompasses so much and we’re going to make assumptions on this one thing?”
Indeed, to think of nails only in regard to their penetration potential shows a marked lack of imagination in what nails can do in the sexual arena. Think of those who like to be caressed, touched, or scratched in certain places by a well-placed nail. Similarly, this fails to account for those who are stone (who only want to give pleasure) or pillow princesses (who only want to receive it), and for which, depending on a person’s proclivities, nails don’t matter in the slightest. Not to mention the potential eroticism of nails in kink-related contexts. For those who enjoy BDSM, the idea that pain (from nails or otherwise) can’t also be pleasurable is absurd.
No pain, no gain…ing admission to my nether bits
What about pain you don’t want, you ask? Don’t long or fake nails hurt one’s delicate lady bits?
Here’s a truism: ANYTHING can hurt ANYONE during sex if one is not careful.
There’s no sex that is completely risk-free, as the abstinence-only pearl-clutchers are always saying. But when it comes to unintentional pain, queer women with nails go above and beyond the usual precautions in order to minimize potential sex injuries.
“Acrylic nails are not sharp,” says Maggie McMuffin. “So people who get filled nails are less likely to hurt someone than a person who has shorter nails that are unmaintained. You know who has never scratched me? Women. You know who has? Straight men with shaggy cuticles who insist they know where my clit is but are actually stroking my urethra.”
Cotton balls do the trick for some who want to use their hands for penetration, as Kenzi, another femme, notes.
“Cotton balls or even just gloves, and/or not keeping them like razors. When I do keep them like razors, only doing so on my non-dominant hand,” Kenzi says. “ And flagging with one hand long and one short is even more noticeable.”
Raven also seconds the use of cotton balls, “along with two layers of nitrile.” She also points to the unexpected perks long nails bring to the sexual table.
“My nails are always against my palm when fisting,” Raven says. “How better to rub my knuckle against their G spot?”
“I use silly putty and sturdy rubber glovesor styrofoam balls I stab my nails into,” says Flox. “Cotton just doesn’t hold these sharpened claws!”
Despite these efforts, do accidents ever happen with long or acrylic nails?
“I have never torn someone up vaginally with my monster talons,” says Flox. “But I have poked my share of faces and necks in run-of-the-mill fails during sexual frenzies. I once poked my girlfriend in the vulva. It’s awful when that happens on accident. I’m a big believer in only hurting people with intent.”
Not only do queer women fuck with long nails, but many LOVE their long nails, take great measures to ensure their upkeep and the safety of their sex partners, and even explicitly flag as queer with those very same nails that render them invisibile in the broader culture.
Isn’t that wonderfully subversive? Don’t you have to, well, hand it to them?
Images via Getty