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LHMP #120 Lanser 2003 “Queer to Queer: The Sapphic Body as Transgressive Text”

Full citation: 

Lanser, Susan S. 2003. “Queer to Queer: The Sapphic Body as Transgressive Text” in Kittredge, Katharine (ed.) Lewd & Notorious: Female Transgressions in the Eighteenth Century. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. ISBN 0-472-11090-X

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers concerning a variety of transgressive activities.

Lanser, Susan S. “Queer to Queer: The Sapphic Body as Transgressive Text”

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The paper opens with a consideration of the use of the term “queer” in modern academia, combined with a more literal meaning indicating deviance from the norm. But then it dives into a somewhat unusual use of the word in the diaries of Anne Lister (1791-1840) who appears to use “queer” as a name for female genitalia—a use that doesn’t seem to have a clear origin or parallels.

This brief exploration of historic vocabulary gives way to a more theoretical consideration of how awareness and discussion of female homoeroticism in the18th century traces a shift from an anatomical understanding (i.e., that sex between women derives from physical anomalies, such as an enlarged clitoris) to being viewed as social transgression, where a physically “normal” woman might have homoerotic preferences. This shift is not in the practices and understanding of the women themselves, but in the public discourse use to frame it. But in turn, this discourse created the potential for the development of a self-conscious “Sapphic identity” toward the end of the 18th century.

There is a brief historic survey of beliefs about the nature and causes of female homoeroticism, beginning with Greek and Roman writers and continuing through the 16-17th centuries, including the ways in which the image of the hermaphrodite came to subsume other forms of sexual ambiguity. The hermaphrodite, although representing a fluid and ambiguous gender and sexuality, was constantly assailed by the desire to assign a “true [binary] sex” to individuals so designated. In the context of the 17th century, with increasing negative attention to “female sodomy”, the physiological model of homoeroticism (i.e., that the desire and behavior stemmed from physical abnormality) created a space where hermaphroditism (or its lack) might be used as a defense for accusations of homoerotic behavior. A woman in a sexual relationship with another woman—especially if gender disguise were involved—might claim to have physically turned into a man. Conversely, a woman in such a position might be treated leniently if she could prove to have an unremarkable female anatomy. Curiously, despite the obsession with the defining and causative properties of the enlarged clitoris, the common terminology for homoerotic women as “tribades” and “fricatrices” would appear to emphasize (or at least recognize) non-penetrative erotic activity.

This anatomical fascination/explanation became difficult to sustain over the course of the 18th century, when anatomical research and skepticism made it difficult to continue to associate female homoeroticism with physical masculinity. The was a concurrent shift to notions of behavioral masculinity. Social anxiety over “masculine” women in the 16-17th centuries was rarely associated with homoeroticism, rather with the idea of heterosexually aggressive women. Similarly, the usurpation of masculine social roles and power was not yet associated in the popular mind with homoeroticism. “Masculine” women—whether the subject of the pamphlet Hic Mulier or the cross-dressing Queen Christina of Sweden, or any number of literary amazons—were portrayed or accused of wanton sexual behavior with men, not with women. (Particularly notable in the case of Queen Christina, for whom there is solid evidence of homoerotic desires.) These anxieties, then, had to do with policing gender, not sexuality.

The article explores an early 18th century treatise Tractatus de Hermaphroditus; or, a Treatise of Hermaphrodites which, despite the superficial trappings of science, was clearly prurient in nature (and published in combination with a treatise on erotic flagellation). Despite beginning with the image of an anatomically-driven homoeroticism, the three female “case studies” are diverse in their physical description, ranging from the stereotype of clitoral enlargement that allows for penetrative sex, to a couple who are assigned no physical abnormality but come together out of choice and preference.

As the 18th century progresses, there is a (perhaps unintentional) literary debate between the anatomical and preferential positions. The former side includes the pornographical Onania; or, the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution (1723), and a number of works that displace the “enlarged clitoris” motif to foreign territories. (E.g., Jane Sharp’s Midwives Book, the anonymous Satan’s Harvest Home, Travels into Turkey.) On the “preferential” side, are texts such as Jane Barker’s “The Unaccountable Wife” (1723) telling of a woman’s devotion to her female servant to the detriment of her marriage, and even an aside in James Parsons’s treatise on Hermaphrodites that suggests homoerotic activity is a practical choice rather than an innate inclination. The displacement of the anatomical model into foreign parts may have been a response to the increasing difficulty of maintaining it in the face of greater medical knowledge.

With this shift came a rise in literary treatments (or fictionalized biographies) where “mannish” behavior became a signifier of homoerotic inclinations, without any reference to, or reliance on, “abnormal” anatomy. The article explores several of these works in depth, specifically The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu (1744), Henry Fielding’s The Female Husband (1746), an English translation of Giovanni Bianchi’s Breve Storia della Vita di Catterina Vizzani Romana (1744), the anonymous poem The Sappho-an (1949), and Richardson’s novel Sir Charles Grandison (1753). (I won’t summarize the material here.)

The article suggests the erosion of a previous “innocence” regarding the potential association of masculine dress or behavior with homoeroticism. [Note: I’m not entirely sure I buy this argument, as it seems to selectively erase a large number of 16-17th century cases that combined cross-dressing and sexual relationships between women.] The argument continues that if there is no physiological determiner of homoerotic inclination, then in theory any woman could be a lesbian. This presumption then called for greater scrutiny of behavior in order to identify and exclude sexual deviation. “Odd” (strange, singular, queer) behavior then becomes taken as a marker for homoerotic deviance and is policed accordingly. Within more scandalous literary forms, such as Cleland’s Fanny Hill, this potential for homoeroticism in all women is exploited for entertainment, while being carefully hedged about with assurances that the women involved are properly feminine and will prefer men, given the opportunity.


The article concludes with returning to the language Anne Lister uses to describe her own personality and desires, including “peculiar”, “odd”, and “whimmy” [i.e., whimsical, given to whims]. This claiming of difference mirrors the external view of some women as inherently gender-transgressive in behavior, and this transgression as being implicitly tied to homoerotic inclinations.


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