Hand-Operated Shearing Instruments


I talk about scissoring a lot.

There are times when I’ve had a few beers at book club or at a bar or in my living room and my mouth runs before I can shut it off. Less like questions, more like incredulous statements. I’m not really looking for a discussion.

“Why does anyone think this position is comfortable?”

“Does anyone actually do this?”

I make funny remarks about the athletic ability one would need to achieve orgasm in this awkward position, and I joke about how lazy I am and how I’d pass out if I had to hold myself up for that long. Your upper body would have to be killer: arms shaking, nails digging into the mattress, the muscles in your torso stretched until you feel like your body might rip in half like a Barbie doll. As someone who has been to library school, formatting is everything to me, and scissoring puts data into all the wrong categories. Alignment of your clitoris against another clitoris is like inputting information into a bad record field—the results would prove for a faulty data set and subsequently a bad catalog record and/or a shitty orgasm.

To develop my theory further: I discuss the many ways lesbians are portrayed in pornographic movies. How their fingernails are long enough to force abortions, how their moans are choreographed to the point of shrieking operatic duets. Eyes focused on some faraway place inside their skulls, like they’re dreaming of easier orgasms. Nobody wants to hold up their body for endless minutes to achieve the kind of pleasure that could be had lying down. I know a lot about lesbian pornography because I’ve watched too much of it. I’ve taught myself what not do in an attempt to please a woman. I watch these movies and I think, Let me do the opposite.


Commiseration on the topic of scissoring is extremely high. I know that if I bring it up, I’ll get a good response, which is for people to agree with me. It’s mostly straight people agreeing with me, because I don’t have very many gay friends. I play the scissoring conversation constantly, loop it for every new audience, and it always gets a guaranteed laugh. After all, I’m the only lesbian they know. I’m talking with them about issues that they normally don’t have access to in their lives. Now they can talk about scissoring, too, because I’ve made the lesbian discourse available to them.

I think about scissoring all the time.

There are nights when I want to watch it just so I can catalog the non-response of the participants. Are these women gay? How can you tell? I don’t have enough gay friends to make an accurate assessment of whether I’m performing dyke better than the women in these pornos. Whose pleasure is more authentic? I live in a town where the gay population is hiding in plain sight. We only come out for Pride weekend or for the occasional trip to the burlesque show at the lone dyke bar on Saturday nights. This is how I maintain queer: by inhabiting my own space. I can be queer in my living room or at my job, where I am the only gay person on staff. Let me answer all of your questions about being out and femme and with child. It’s assumed that I’m here to answer everything in a calm, friendly manner. I’m not going to get angry when you ask who’s the man when we fuck. I will thank you when you say you have an uncle who’s gay or maybe a cousin. I’ll know you understand me because you’ve seen it secondhand.

There are a lot of performance issues when it comes to scissoring.

Everyone’s tried it, at least once. This is what I tell people when I have this conversation after two or three beers. It’s a lesbian rite of passage. After you’ve fumbled around with your limbs twisted up beneath your body, after you’ve pressed yourself against the other person until the nerves in your sides pinch and your back aches, after you laugh and finally admit defeat—that’s when you lie down in a heap and get real with each other. You don’t have to brace yourself on your hands until you develop arthritis for this public viewing, because isn’t scissoring really meant for an audience? Women juxtaposed at the perfect camera angle to show what’s really missing from the equation. Look how hard they’re working! Wouldn’t all this be easier with a dick?

People are always interested when I open this line of discussion. It gives them the freedom to pitch me lots of other pointed questions that they’d otherwise never ask. Now they’ll know what I think about gay marriage, and do I think I’ll ever get married? Who would wear the tuxedo at my wedding and who gets the big white dress? After sharing my coming-out story with one of my favorite undergrad professors, she said I should tell it to more people because it wasn’t like other gay stories. It was refreshing because it wasn’t angry or bitter. I agreed with her, because I’m not ever angry about anything. I’m self-deprecating and funny, and I don’t want to make anyone else feel bad. She said my story sounded a lot like hers and she’s straight and married with three kids. That response made me feel like I wasn’t telling it the right way.

Scissoring is logistically confusing.


I attended a writing conference where everyone was gay. The thing that scared me the most about the retreat was that I’d have to share my writing with this group of people and that maybe it wouldn’t be gay enough for them. How am I expected to look as a lesbian? Am I trying hard enough to promote queer? So much of who I am was formed from the roots of a Southern Baptist upbringing where I had to hide what I was and what I thought about everything. If gay is a sin that only prayer can cure, those prayers obviously didn’t work—but I still had to say the words, I still had to keep my eyes closed, I still had to make it look real.

How could I make myself look the most authentically Christian? There were ways to dress and to perform. I’d worn pantyhose since the fifth grade, and I knew how to fix my hair and put on lipstick without a mirror. Other things were harder. How could I make it seem like I really cared when everyone put their hands up for the worship songs and I couldn’t understand why they felt anything other than embarrassed? Even communion was mortifying. Here was Christ’s body, broken for me, and I was embarrassed that the wafers always got stuck in my braces.

Scissoring is embarrassing because no one ever knows what to do with their body.

I’d coordinated my wardrobe for the writing retreat to make me look the right amount of dyke, but I was still uncertain. What outfit says not too butch, but not too femme? Can I bring heels without anyone looking at me slant-eyed because I’m performing for a straight audience? What if I paired them with pants? At the writing conference I couldn’t make general commentary about being gay. These were lesbians who talked about gender theory, real queers who discussed political activism and how marriage is something that shouldn’t even factor into the scheme for authentication. They would know that I was uninformed and a fraud. I cried after a workshop for cisgendered authors writing trans characters because people were upset with each other and I couldn’t comprehend the language enough to understand their anger.

Scissoring: I’m never really going to be gay because I don’t know what gay means.

At the conference people, read aloud from their manuscripts. They wrote about issues that made my stomach clench up and discussed fucking in ways that I can’t even familiarize with my own sex. I don’t understand my body or what makes it aroused, and I don’t even want to look at it most of the time. It is not the body of gay woman; it is the body of someone who went through a teen pregnancy. My skin is scarred up, stretch-marked, breasts deflated from carting around big bags of milk even though I never breastfed, couldn’t make myself do it without crying. I had sex with a man and I made a baby when I was eighteen years old. My insides expanded to make room for another body to fit neatly inside of my own—first a penis, then a baby boy.


Here is a real question I have about scissoring: why do I care?

After drinking too much wine at the retreat’s closing party, I’m filled with love and a lot of regret. The people around me are so many different kinds of gay that I want to open up my insides and let them bleed out onto the floor around us. I want people to sing queer karaoke and dance together in the puddles of my love-vomit.

Because I’m drunk, the best I can manage is to talk about scissoring with another woman around my age. She nods and it’s like she understands what I’m saying when I regurgitate my stock phrases: “Isn’t it weird? Why do people think we like that?”

She is smiling and agreeing with me, and for a minute, I feel good enough to participate in queer with everyone. This isn’t a trick I’m doing for a straight audience; it’s something I can share with other members of my community. I am competently performing gay!

We sit down together at a table full of academics who have spent their lives collecting data and important information on queer space. In particular, there is a woman who has made a significant impact on AIDS activism and participated in politics that I’d never even heard of before this retreat. They ask what we’re talking about, and my companion reveals that we’re discussing the ridiculousness of scissoring.

There is such a palpable grossness to this phrase that I can’t even manage to breathe properly. It’s not activism. It’s not an important issue. It is two women wrapping their legs around each other so their vaginas can touch. In an awkward moment where I speak in a high, tight voice, I deny that we were talking about something so absurd, deny that I would ever talk about something like that. I try to fix my performance, but it’s too late—I’ve already broken scene. The mood becomes so uncomfortable that the conversation turns into people getting up to leave the table.

“I don’t know,” someone says. “It works for me.”

That’s when it hits me that some people do like scissoring. Maybe I’ve misunderstood the conversation because I’m looking for indicators of my own appropriate queerness in the gay community, and maybe there is no such thing. I’ve been examining scissoring through a microscope to gauge whether I’m performing well enough for an audience that isn’t even watching me. I don’t understand my own body and its relationship to gay, so I can’t understand why anyone else would be able to like it. And if I can’t understand why other people would like it, then maybe that means I’m doing lesbian wrong.

I go home from this trip and I think about scissoring some more. I think about the relationship between my body and other bodies, about intimacy between people and how it doesn’t necessarily have to relate to performance. I want to try scissoring again, because I want to like my body more, and I want to let my body be queer without contorting it into shapes that make me uncomfortable. In the same way I’ve assigned myself the label of librarian or mother, I have given myself the term dyke—and I’m not sure what to do with it.

Maybe I like scissoring and I don’t even know it.


Original Rumpus art by Lyndsey Lesh.

Kristen Arnett was a 2013 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction with Samuel Delany. She has been published in the Rollins Undergraduate Research Journal and Brushing literary magazine. She interned for Winter with the Writers Literary Festival in Winter Park and currently co-runs Literocalypse, a monthly reading series in the Orlando area. She is a Florida native, but she has yet to meet "Florida Man." You can find her on Twitter here. More from this author →