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Boston Marriages in the Modern Age?

Monday, September 4, 2017 - 13:00

The Monday holiday almost made me lose track of setting this post to go live! Such is the power of habit--my brain is in weekend mode. The next few LHMP entries are chosen to tie in with the August podcast "Beguines, Boston Marriage, and Bed Death: Historic Archetypes of Asexual Lesbianism". This week we look at a study of modern (well, at least 1990s) asexual lesbian relationships with reference to the historic concept of Boston Marriage.

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Full citation: 

Rothblum, Esther D. & Kathleen A. Brehony (eds). 1993. Boston Marriages: Romantic but Asexual Relationships Among Contemporary Lesbians. The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst. ISBN 0-8723-876-0

Publication summary: 

This book is primarily concerned with the dynamics of modern relationships, but it uses the historical concept of the Boston Marriage as a conceptual framework. 

Introduction – Esther D. Rothblum and Kathleen A. Brehony

This summary will cover only the Introduction and the chapter by Lillian Faderman on the history of Romantic Friendship. The remainder of the book is primarily personal memoirs of psychologists and some of their patients around the topic of non-sexual lesbian relationships.

The term “Boston Marriage” is useful in this context because it discusses asexual relationships in a positive way, in reference to publicly accepted (and even celebrated) female partnerships that were framed as being non-sexual (whatever the individual practices of the partners may have been). This book was written in 1993, well before any inkling that same-sex marriage would be legalized in our lifetimes. So it notes the problem in discussing relationships that—in the absence of a marriage certificate—the existence of a marriage-like partnership (as contrasted with a friendship) tends to be defined by the presence of sex. The authors acknowledge the problem of using sex as a defining characteristic when considering historic relationships, as access to knowledge about it is lacking. In considering the characteristics of “Boston Marriages” today, they note a tendency of the lesbian community to delegitimize partnerships that are known to be asexual.

Nineteenth-century Boston marriage as a possible lesson for today – Lillian Faderman

This chapter is largely a summary and recapitulation of Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Man. The term Boston Marriage reflects an era when pairs of women, typically feminists and career women, frequently chose to live in long-term devoted relationships. There was an often-unstated assumption that because they were “respectable” women, they did not have sexual relations. Nevertheless, they were perceived by friends and society as the equivalent of a married couple. In Henry James’ The Bostonians (which may have given its name to the phenomenon), he describes a couple of this type as “one of those friendships that are so common in New England.”

A professional woman of that era who wanted to avoid the distraction of repeated pregnancy and running the resulting household did not have the option of having a non-marital romantic relationship with a man, but there was no stigma associated with enjoying a romantic relationship with another woman. Faderman notes similar types of supportive same-sex relationships among women in China, India, and Africa. But when sexologists began conflating same-sex romantic relationships with a pathologized model of lesbianism, the institution of the Boston Marriage was no longer viable.

Faderman repeats her thesis from Surpassing the Love of Men that social expectations regarding female desire most probably were internalized such that women in Romantic Friendships did not participate in genital sexual activity. There is a quotation from the 18th century correspondence of Madame de Staël to Juliette Récamier expressing strongly passionate feelings for her. Such feelings were condoned in women, in part because they were not taken as a serious challenge to heterosexual marriage. Rather, intense passionate relationships between women were seen as an acceptable outlet for emotional needs that might not be satisfied through marriage. Faderman suggests that the stigmatization of female romantic bonds in the 20th century may in part have been driven by social shifts that allowed such relationships to challenge the need for marriage.

Suspicion of female same-sex affection grew in the 1920s, during the era of The Well of Loneliness and the increasing medicalization of homosexuality. The change in attitude can be seen, for example, in how romantic friendships at girls’ schools were treated. Simultaneously, the label “lesbian” provided a framework for women to identify their same-sex relationships as being meaningful and significant, if they were willing to claim that name. But lesbian relationships were expected to be sexual. Lack of interest in a sexual component implied repression and inhibition.

Faderman doesn’t challenge the validity of the theory of “bed death”, but explains it in terms of the historic socialization of women regarding sex drive (i.e., that men are expected to have one, and women are not), the lack of an obvious “on/off” signal of sexual arousal like that present for men, and a willingness to find satisfaction in “non-sexual” expressions of affection. She makes reference to a theory that difference/unfamiliarity are drivers of sexual desire which she sees as a motivation for a pattern of serial monogamy. [Note: the argument that desire between women is “vain” due to excessive similarity is heard in critiques of the possibility of female homoeroticism as early as the Renaissance.] Faderman interprets surveys of long-term lesbian couples with respect to sexual frequency as suggesting that a strong sex drive is incompatible with relationship stability.

[Note: I will reiterate that I often feel that Faderman is carefully defining her terms to make the facts fit her theories. But this is a summary of what the book says.]

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