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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #82f Lanser 2014 - The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830 (Ch 6)

Full citation: 

Lanser, Susan S. 2014. The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-18773-0

Publication summary: 

Lanser looks at how certain public preoccupations with women’s sexuality correlate with other historical phenomena, preoccupations, and movements.

Chapter 6 - Sapphic Sects and the Rites of Revolution, 1775-1800

For those who think pre-modern literature had no place for explicit (in all senses) depictions of sex between women, or that 18th century literature about desire between women was all about romanticism, the French satires describing (fictitious) sapphic clubs is a bit of an eye-opener. Some of the extracts in Merrick & Ragan (2001) cover this literature.

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In France in the later 18th century there arose the motif of secret societies of sapphists "more mysterious than the Freemasons" that existed to initiate women into lesbianism, to serve the pleasures of their members, and to achieve unsavory political ends. The existence of these formal organizations was purely fictitious. Their alleged membership typically included unpopular political and social figures. And their alleged purpose was ostensibly to disrupt the heterosexual organization of society, as an allegory for disrupting other social frameworks.

Hostility against fictitious sapphic organizations stood in for hostility toward both powerful women and toward the rising influence of clubs and secret societies of all types. Thus the sapphic society stood in for suspicion of the influence of elite secret groups. The coterie of women around Queen Marie Antoinette was a particular target of this motif, tying sapphic anxiety to concerns about class and about conspiracy versus collectivity. The furor over sapphic sects burned itself out via dystopic extremes by the end of the century, to be replaced by a focus on bourgeois domestic sexuality grounded in gender difference.

In contrast to themes of "newness," discourse around sapphic sects typically made recourse to classical models, though often emphasizing the blatant sexual practices as unprecedented. Although most extreme in France, the "sapphic sect" motif was also popular in English political discourse and satire. There, along with certain prominent social figures, the rumors often targeted actresses and intellectuals. The literature describing these fictitious sapphic sects sometimes served the additional purpose of pornography, envisioning brothels organized to serve the female members and lovingly describing the initiation of girls who served in them.

Lanser provides a background for the rise of social clubs of all types and the concomitant focus on similitude of interests in association as contrasted with associations based on class, family, and other static characteristics. Although sapphic satires often focused on groups of elite women, they also addressed the potential for "interest groups" of this type to bring together individuals of all classes and backgrounds as equals (a concern also aimed at the Freemasons) with their potential to disrupt stable hierarchies. This creates the interesting contradiction that sapphic sects were simultaneously coded as aristocratic and as inappropriately egalitarian.

The sentiment in post-revolutionary France against secret societies of all kinds helped paint feminist and separatist organizations in general as suspiciously sapphic. This, in turn, pushed upper class and intellectual feminists into an emphasis on anti-eroticism in relations between women, seen for example in the work of Wollstonecraft and the rise of the motif of "romantic friendship" among upper class women. The portrayal of sapphic eroticism is then shifted toward lower class women, framed as monstrous, and increasingly treated as criminal.

Time period: 

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