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LHMP #137c Faderman 1981 Surpassing the Love of Men I.A.3 Eighteenth-Century Fantasy and the Lesbian Image

Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6

Publication summary: 

A detailed and extensive study of the phenomenon of “romantic friendship” in western culture (primarily England and the US).

I.A.3 Eighteenth-Century Fantasy and the Lesbian Image

Faderman’s chronology and progression is again hampered by gaps in the literary record. If this work were simply an exploration of attitudes towards female homoeroticism, these gaps would be less of a problem. But her thesis is that those attitudes have evolved in specific and relatively linear ways. In this context, her thesis is undermined by the omission of earlier examples of attitudes that would disrupt that timeline, or that support a more circular understanding of attitudes toward lesbian characters. For example, Mairobert’s L’Espion Anglois (ca. 1777) could hardly be the original prototype for its literary subgenge given that Choriers’s Satyra Sotadica (which touches on many of the same themes) appeared well over a century earlier.

Faderman notes that Mairobert’s description of the nature and practices of a secret lesbian society were taken as documentary, rather than fictional, well into the 20th century. While this might seem improbable, I’d like to point out that “serious” medical and sociological literature about lesbians continued to be really awful well into the 1960s. I still recall reading David Reuben’s popularist (but serious) Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask (1969) in the early 1970s and miraculously failing to be traumatized by his credulous repetition of the 16th century myth that the epitome of lesbian sex involved finding a woman with a clitoris large enough to achive penetration.

With regard to Faderman’s conclusion about the nature and purposes of these satires (see below), I’m not certain how this conclusion proceeds from the evidence she presents. Certainly it seems to make too sharp a distinction between hostility toward women for gendered reasons, and hostility for sexual reasons. If an accusation of lesbian behavior was considered a practical tool for destroying a woman socially, then it seems that, by definition, lesbian sex must have been “taken seriously” by men, whether or not the specific women being accused were actually engaging in sex with other women. But this would conflict with Faderman’s overall thesis that lesbian sex was not considered an actual socially-condemned reality until the end of the 19th century.

* * *

In this chapter, Faderman moves on from 16-18th c male ideas of what lesbian sex might consist of, to the stock “lesbian narratives” in which those ideas appeared, and to the social and political motivations behind how lesbian sex was used as a literary tool or weapon. She uses Mathieu François Mairobert’s L’Espion Anglois (1777-8) as a prototype of pornographic treatments of lesbian sex in the 18th c and later. The tropes it uses will be echoed regularly up through the 20th century: an older woman seduces a younger (both beautiful and feminine in appearance) who will eventually be “rescued” by a man; sexual practices are diverse and shade into S&M; a secret formal organized club of lesbians who gather for pseudo-religious rituals and orgiastic practices; and a derogatory association of lesbians and Catholics. Fictional treatments such as this were treated as historic documentation by later writers.

Mairobert’s story follows a girl who is obsessed with sexual stimulation, runs away from home and is taken in by a madam who discover’s the girl’s large clitoris and trains her to satisfy a female clientele with lesbian tastes. (The girl is named--with no subtlety at all--Sapho.) The goal of the work is clearly titillation for the male reader, while ending with reassurance that hetersexuality will triumph.

A secondary purpose of the book was as a roman à clef, intended to harrass and embarrass specific contemporary women with thinly-veiled characterizations. This use of lesbian sex literature appears repeatedly, as in William King’s The Toast (1736), written as revenge against Lady Frances Brudenell for besting him in a business deal. Social and legal assertiveness is attributed to an unnatural sexual appetite that reveals itself in a pansexual libido, but with undue attention turned toward interactions with other women. The goal was to inspire others to shun the target of the satire, lest their own sexuality become suspect.

This same technique had been used earlier by Anthony Hamilton against a Miss Hobart at the court of Charles II of England in the fictionalized Memoirs of the Life of Count de Grammont. A more extensive and broad-based campaign accused the French Queen Marie Antoinette of lesbian relationships with the ladies of her court. As with the other cases, the underlying motivation appears to have been hostility to female social or political power and to the potential influence of personal bonds between women. In most of these cases, accusations were not confined to lesbianism, rather that accusation was simply one feature of an indiscriminate and voracious sexual appetite.

Aside from hostility to powerful women, accusations of lesbianism were a feature of anti-Catholic sentiment, especially in England. The classic example is Diderot’s The Nun, where an innocent girl, sent to a convent against her will, is the victim of sexually predatory and sadistic nuns. While anxieties about sexual activity in all-female institutions had featured in literature back into the 16th century [and even earlier, in penitential literature of the church itself] this new genre blended religious animosity with hostility toward women with authority, such as abbesses. (In Diderot’s case, his literary hostility also may have been inspired by jealously of his mistress’s close relationships with her sister and other women, though the answer may be even simpler as his writings show a streak of misogyny that stands out even for his day and age.) 

After relating this catalog of literature in which male authors use lesbianism as a means of expressing general hostility toward women with influence and power, as well as for exacting revenge against particular women, Faderman concludes, “Lesbianism itself was seldom the focal point of attack in these works. Eighteenth-century men do not appear to have viewed love-making between nontransvestite women with much seriousness. The most virulent depictions of lesbian (or rather pansexual) behavior seem to have been rooted in the writer’s anger at a particular woman’s conduct in an area apart from the sexual. Her aggressive sexuality was used primarily as a metaphor.”

Time period: 

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