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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #55a - Brooten 1997 Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (ch 1-2)

Full citation: 

Brooten, Bernadette J. 1997. Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-07591-5

Publication summary: 

Brooten provides part of the conversation in response to Boswell, countering both the position that early Christian sexual mores were qualitatively different from those of the surrounding Roman culture, and that female homosexuality can be studied obliquely via male-centered data. The first portion of her book surveys a variety of evidence for female same-sex desire and how it was understood in the culture of the larger Roman empire. The second portion looks at early Christian texts and commentaries that address concerns about sexual relations between women. The ultimate goal of the work is to provide a context for understanding early Christian writings about (or that have been interpreted as being about) erotic relationships between women.

I'll be covering Brooten in three parts: the Introduction and "miscellaneous data" chapters, the chapters on specific types of written genres that form the focus of her study, and the section of the work using the preceding data to understand Christian writings.

Chapters 1-2

* * *

Chapter 1

The focus on active versus passive sexual roles shaped Roman views of sex between women. Women were viewed as "naturally" passive. Thus one of a female sexual couple was assumed to be behaving "unnaturally" in an active role. This was a social role distinction, not a biological one, as can be seen by comparing with views on male sexual roles, where either an active or passive role could be considered "natural" depending on other factors. Attitudes towards sex between women show more continuity between non-Christian and Christian positions than attitudes on marriage or celibacy. Romans recognized a variety of sexual rules and orientations but they did not correspond to the modern variety. These roles varied with the gender, status, and age of the erotic object as well as that of the experiencer. These orientations could be viewed as fixed and "life-long" or as temporary (especially age-related roles).

Terminology for women in erotic relationships with women is varied and may differ in nuance. Greek used hetairistria (related to hetaira, perhaps in the sense of "companion"), tribas (plural tribades, meaning "one who rubs") and lesbian. Commentaries on the 2nd century writing of Clement of Alexandria specifically equate "lesbian" with "tribas" demonstrating a very early use of the word in a sense of erotic orientation. Latin writers borrowed tribas, as well as using the Latin equivalent fricatrix. Latin "virago" was sometimes used in this context but generally meant "a masculine woman" in a more general sense. Arabic sahaqa (also meaning "one who rubs") appears in some of the texts discussed. The terms tribas and fricatrix might be used for both partners or might indicate specifically the "active" partner. This is in line with asymmetric terminology for male sexual partners. For women this presented an interpretational dilemma, resulting in a focus on penetrative activities between women. But the animosity shown toward the "passive" female partner as well as the "active" one indicates that there was some acknowledgment of interpretations outside the phallocentic model.

The specific focus of Brooten's work is on erotic love between women and male responses to it (the latter, because female responses generally were not recorded or have not survived). Within the context of work on early Christian attitudes toward same-sex relations, the general disinterest in women's relations has led to false equivalence with attitudes toward men's relations, or an acceptance of theses that are easily falsified by female-centered data. Within the context of the historic sources, the exclusively male viewpoint (and one that generally focuses on high-status women) distorts our understanding of everyday experience. In the context at lesbian history, Brooten identifies a clear sense of a "lesbian concept": a woman who usurps male roles and is oriented toward women for sex. This concept is fairly stable across the time and cultural scope of her study. Further the reactions toward lesbian sexuality in early Christian times form a continuum with those up through the current day. The introduction concludes with an extensive discussion of the historiographic problems.

Chapter 2

The initial chapter reviewing evidence for female homoeroticism in the classical period contains Brooten's "other" category (to be followed by her core topics of love spells, astrological texts, medical texts, and dream analysis).


The "other" catch-all begins with Sappho. Sappho lived in the 7th/6th century BCE, well before the era being studied, but was familiar to Romans. In general, her poetry was praised, but there was increasing negative focus on her love for women. Roman commentary often referred to her as "masculine" perhaps both in praise of her literary skills and in condemnation of her sexuality. From the Roman era through the early modern era, Sappho's sexual reputation was used to smear women with intellectual aspirations, suggesting that female intellectuals were inherently immoral. This negative attitude in non-Christian Roman commentary becomes even stronger in early Christian critiques.

Early Greek Sources

The earliest clear reference to female homoeroticism in Greek is Plato's story of lovers seeking their previously conjoined "other half", using the term hetairistriai to describe those from a female-female pair. Asklepiades in the 3rd century BCE mentions two Samian women by name whom he condemns for turning their backs on Aphrodite and pursuing sex with each other.

These somewhat more neutral Greek attitudes are relevant because Roman society policed female gender expectations by portraying undesired activity as monstrous, masculine, and especially as foreign (and, in particular, Greek). (Of course, male gender expectations were also policed, especially for the upper class.) In this context, Brooten extensively summarizes the material and arguments in Hallett (1989) [see separate entry]. In contrast to Roman condemnation of female homoeroticism, there was a more nuanced view of male homoeroticism, as long as it involved an active-passive contrast that aligned with age and / or class in an acceptable way.

Greek writers in the Roman era took similar views but with noted exceptions. Plutarch has a passing positive comment on a Greek description of love between Spartan women. And a lost novel by Iamblichos tells of how Berenike, daughter of the king of Egypt, loved and married a woman named Mesopotamia. This is not the only reference to marriage between women. Lucian, in his satirical Dialogs of the Courtesans, describes the courtesans Megilla and Demonassa as married, though a great deal of emphasis is put on Megilla's "masculine' nature.

Less formal arrangements are described in Alkiphron's fictitious depiction of all-female erotic parties among Athenian courtesans and in a mocking debate by pseudo-Lucian asserting that if one approves of male-male love one ought to support love between women as well. (The argument seems meant to be a reductio ad absurdum.) All of these male authors begin from the presumption that women are lesser than men, therefore there is always a touch of incredulity at the very thought of love between women. But in contrast to the discussions of male-male love, which invariably involve age or status differences, love between women is mostly framed as being between equals in age and status with the distinction, if any, being in portraying one as more" masculine". This is not a strict "butch-femme" framing. One treatise on personality types catalogs a gamut of inherent desires among women where both lover and beloved may vary in leaning "feminine" or "masculine".

Greek visual art offers an assortment of erotic scenes between (usually nude) women, including a formalized courting gesture with the hand under the chin, a kneeling woman touching another's genitals, and two women in drunken embrace. An understanding of visual symbolism also points to a funeral monument showing two women (named on the monument) with right hands clasped, a gesture normally indicating a married couple.

Jewish Sources

Hebrew scriptures contain no prohibitions of sexual activity between women that would parallel those against men in Leviticus, but Roman-era Jewish writings parallel non-Jewish attitudes in viewing sex between women as appropriating a masculine role. Other commentaries explicitly prohibit same-sex behavior as "non-Jewish "and refer to marriage between two man or two women (among other combinations) as following the practice of Egypt or Canaan. This may simply stand in for "foreign" rather than identifying specific cultural practices, but other writers cite Egyptian examples of marriage between women. Other Jewish commentary discusses whether women who have sex with each other (literally "rub with each other") have committed harlotry or not. (Opinions were mixed.) Since the question arose regarding whether such women were suitable to marry into the priesthood, we aren't talking about acceptance of lesbianism as a life-long orientation but rather behavior that might involve women with otherwise typical life histories.

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