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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #55b - Brooten 1997 Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (ch 3-6)

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.

Chapter 3-6

The heart of Brooten's research are a handful of references to erotic relationships between women in literature that is not necessarily focusing on the social politics of sex (and therefore where the discussion is not as self-consciously polemical). Although the relevant content makes up a very small percentage of these writings, its existence -- and the ability to compare and contrast with discussions of heterosexual and male same-sex relationships -- is valuable for its very rarity. The literary genres may seem odd to a modern audience: magical texts commissioned by one party to control another person, astrological and medical determination of personality and behavior, dream symbolism. However one feels about the subjects, these were concerns of everyday interest to people of the time and indicate the topics and behaviors that they considered a part of the range of "normal".

* * *

Chapter 3 - Egyptian Love Spells

Although these magical texts were created for specific women and contain their individual names, the language is formulaic and reveals general societal patterns rather than individual situations. What they document is the existence of love and desire between women as part of everyday life, performed in a public manner. Recipes and texts for magic of this type were collected in handbooks used by specialists who would create the specific desired artifact and performance to match a clients needs. Brooten gives technical details of the format of these spells in general as well as the specific ones used by women toward women. And, of course, these items speak to only one aspect of erotic or romantic relations, just as the same spells used for heterosexual goals represent only one facet.

The basic thing they demonstrate is that there were women of this time and place (Egypt in the first several centuries CE) who desired erotic relationships with women and took action to achieve them. Furthermore, that non-elite women were part of this phenomenon and that such desires were considered "normal" enough that they would be supported by professional magical practitioners. The spells are inherently coercive acts, using the language of violence and control, but those used from one woman toward another are functionally identical to those used between heterosexual couples (where either party might be the instigator) or by a man toward a man. In fact, the three spells that name women as the participants are, if anything, among the tamer sort. Whether this parallelism is a function of the genre or an indication that the relationships were seen as equivalent is hard to tell.

The three spells discussed here come from rural Upper Egypt, a context not typically seen in urban Roman literature. The first is rather short and states an intent simply to "attract and bind" the target. The second is much longer with more vivid imagery, demanding that the target be inflamed with love and affection and that she surrender herself like a slave to her pursuer. There is a particularly intriguing demand that the object "cast herself into the bathhouse" and calls for the intervening deity to "become a bath-woman" for the sake of the petitioner, suggesting perhaps that bath-houses were a locus for erotic interactions and that bath-house attendants were used as go-betweens. The third spell is again brief and to the point "force X to fall in love with Y".

There follows discussion of the cultural and magical context in which the imagery of these spells would have been understood. What these texts don't tell us is what the lives of the women were like otherwise. Were they married to men? What form of interaction did they hope to achieve? A clandestine affair? A partnered relationship? Short or long term? References mentioned in the previous chapter suggest that marriage between women existed as a concept to Roman writers (and in some cases, specifically associated with Egypt). Other similar love spells used between heterosexual couples explicitly desire permanent and/or exclusive relationships.

Chapter 4 - Astrological Essentialism

Astrology was taken rather seriously in the Roman world and a wide range of astrological literature was produced. Among the characteristics that one’s birth stars might determine was sexual preference and behavior, and the literature discussing this provides the most frequent references to female homoeroticism of the time. The various axes along which sexual preference could be located include active/passive (coded socially as male/female), open versus secretive behavior, and other contrasts. Female homoerotic desire is regularly framed as negative (even though considered pre-determined).

The texts assume that a horoscope is being drawn up for a man, therefore all references to women are side comments on the main text. One result of this is that it is sometimes unclear how specific astral effects on a male subject would be paralleled in a female one. More possible variations on erotic orientation are described for men than for women, possibly a consequence of this focus, but possibly as a reflection of the narrower range of socially-licensed options for women. For men, the potential axes also included the age and status of partners. Brooten reviews the various treatises that mention lesbian orientation in great detail.

The same astral conjunction might cause a woman to desire women and men to desire men, indicating a parallelism not otherwise common in literature of the time. But generally the parallel arises from following the expected behavior of the opposite gender: women actively pursuing women, or men passively allowing penetration by men. But the female counterpart of a “passive" man could also simply be a sexually voracious woman, not specifically one who desires women.

A great many different astrological conjunctions could result in lesbian behavior. In addition to conditions that generated cross-gender behavior in both sexes, ones that increased masculinity in both could increase men’s virility while turning women to lesbian behavior. So for example, a certain conjunction that masculinizes Venus makes women secret tribades, but if both Venus and Mars are masculinized, then the women will live openly in relationships with women and call their partners lawful wives. In a few cases, the texts indicate that a woman will be attracted to other women who are also tribades, although in most cases the focus is specifically on the subject’s desires. Despite viewing sexual orientation as pre-determined by one’s birth circumstance, only a narrow range of possible orientations were considered “natural" and socially approved.

Chapter 5 - Medical Texts

Modern thought tends to date the “medicalization" of homosexuality to the 19th century, but the view that particular sex acts represent symptoms of an underlying disease can be found much earlier. Several medical texts from the Roman and early Byzantine era address “deviant" female sexual behavior, including lesbianism. This “disease" could be conceptualized as mental (and treated via mental control) or as due to physical abnormality, especially the “enlarged clitoris" trope (treated horrifically by clitoridectomy).

These treatises begin from an assumption that normal, healthy female behavior is passive, and therefore aggressive female sexuality (whether towards men or women) is inherently due to a disease state. The mental illness model describes a periodic alternation between “normal" sexual desires and “masculine" ones, at which time the women pursue women sexually and partake of other behaviors framed as masculine, including excessive drinking. This is viewed as parallel to a masculine mental illness which manifests as periodic bouts of passive behavior during which men desire to be the sexual object of other men. The common thread here is the equation of “male = active" and “female = passive".

The physical model of female homoerotic desire associates unrestrained sexual behavior with an overly large clitoris (i.e., one that could function as a penis, as well as symbolizing masculinity). Not only was this condition thought to promote (and enable) sexual desire in women toward women, but it was thought to make the woman reject heterosexual activity (as a more "masculine" woman would reject being a passive object). For this condition, surgical removal of the clitoris is prescribed. The possible medical causes that were proposed for these “conditions" were various. Singers and athletes were thought prone to them, but reduction of exercise was offered as a cure. “Warring seeds" at the time of conception was one theory.

Chapter 6-Dreams

Like astrology, dreams are an unexpected place to find an everyday acknowledgment of female homoerotic possibilities. The Roman interest was not so much on dreams as a reflection of anxieties (although those were noted) but on dreams with prophetic meaning. In dreams of this type, sexual content did not necessarily refer to waking sexual topics, but the ways in which dreams about female homoeroticism were interpreted provide a window on how those acts were viewed. The primary text examined here is Artemidoros' Oneirokritika, which drew both on earlier sources and on the author's own analyses. Although Artemidoros wrote in a literary style, his clients were not primarily among the elite.

Artemidoros divided prophetic dreams into those that directly represented a future event (e.g., a shipwreck) and those that were allegorical. The bulk of his work is on the latter as these are the ones that required professional interpretation. His theory assumed mapping of metaphorical similarities (e.g., the head representing a father and the foot a slave) and treated as auspicious those elements that aligned with the expected natural and social order, and as inauspicious those that didn't. Within this general framework, apparent contradictions might still appear. As with astrological literature, a male client is the default so overall female imagery is rare. Only two dreams in the sexual group involve women.

To provide a framework, Brooten reviews the range of meanings given to dream motifs of intercourse involving men. As seen in other contexts, male-male sexual activity could be viewed as ether acceptable or unacceptable depending on the characteristics and relationship of the participants, but female-female sex was always defined as unnatural (and thus potentially inauspicious). In describing female-female activity that might appear in dreams, Artemidoros uses the language of asymmetric penetration. The other axes of symbolism are whether the women are familiar or strangers, but include none of the details of age or legal or social status that are presented as relevant for men.

Brooten discusses what the relative context of this discussion might indicate about why sex between women was viewed as against nature. The lack of age/status distinctions may indicate that a default woman is being imagined who corresponds to a "free adult woman, a potential wife", in which case the relationship might be disapproved because the participants are considered too similar (i.e., that "natural" relationships involve a status difference). But alternately female relationships might be considered "unnatural" due to the presumption at one woman is taking a "male" role. One common thread is that female-female relations stand entirely outside the expected sexual schema that requires a contrast of active/passive, dominance, and above all else expects the presence of a penis.

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