Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6
A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).
I.A.2 What Do Women Do?
This chapter begins with the statement “If any women wrote lesbian sex literature during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, it has been lost to posterity. Had such literature existed, the descriptions of lesbian lovemaking would certainly have been different from the ones that are extant.”
Thanks to the research of others, we know of a number of such items that have not been lost to posterity. The anthology The Literature of Lesbianism (ed. by Terry Castle) provides a useful sampling, such as Delarivier Manley’s “The Ladies of the New Cabal” from The New Atalantis (1709) which describes the romantic and erotic adventures of members of an all-female society, or Mary Wortley Montagu’s (non-fictional) descriptions of sex between women in Turkish bathhouses (1716-18).
There is, perhaps, not a large enough volume of such work to make solid contrasts between how men and women addressed the topic. But Faderman’s assertion that the focus during this era on “missionary position” tribadism and on penetrative sex using a dildo was a creation entirely of male imagination also falls afoul of the legal testimony around women who were accused of lesbian sex. Both types of activity feature in real-life cases, although it’s true that the written record may focus on these activities in contrast to other possibilities precisely because they played to male anxieties.
My own anxiety around the conclusions of this chapter is in their circularity. If one excludes kissing and caressing from the definition of “sex” on the basis that they didn’t seem to provoke male anxiety, then it’s hard not to conclude that “sex” is defined only as genital activity. But this seems to presuppose that “sex” is defined as “those activities that provoke male anxiety when performed between women”. Starting from that point, you get an argument along the lines of “Men didn’t care what women did together as long as they only did things that men didn’t care about when women did them together.”
In this chapter, Faderman explores the types of sexual activity between women that were portrayed in literature written by men. Authors such as Brantôme describe tribadism, with one woman atop another rubbing the genitals together, or the use of a dildo to perform penetrative stimulation.
Male authors also emphasize that when penetrative sex (whether involving a man or an instrument) is absent that other types of activities, such as kissing, caressing, and embracing, must be by definition unsatisfying. This theme comes up in Sir Philips Sidney’s Arcadia and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.
The genre of medical literature that was beginning to take note of the role of the clitoris in female sexual satisfaction echoed this interpretation in imagining that sex between women necessarily either caused or was caused by a clitoris that was sufficiently enlarged to function as a penis.
Faderman’s conclusions--though based entirely on male-authored works--are that relationships between women that involved admiration, tenderness, and mutual concern never involved genital activity; that only genital activity was considered “lesbian” regardless of what other erotic components might be present; and that women would never have conceived of a definition of lesbianism that was defined solely by genital activity and in particular by penetrative sex.