Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
Chapter 3i: The Roman Period - Scientific Texts
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[Note: calling these texts “scientific” is stretching things a bit, but I’ll allow that the people writing them considered them to be scientific, in a sense.] This section of the chapter covers a handful of texts that fall generally in the category of non-fiction, as understood by their authors. A secondary theme to this section is “motifs that classical Roman texts do not support,” specifically with respect to physiology and gender role topics.
Boehringer takes a fairly strong position that no texts of the period under consideration support the idea that Greek or Roman cultures associated f/f sex with a specific physiology, in particular with clitoral hypertrophy. The interpretation of various of the Roman sources as supporting the “tribade with an enlarged clitoris” is, she asserts (and I’d go so far as to say, demonstrates) a back-projection based on later material in which that theme is clearly present. Boehringer reviews a number of authors who have interpreted the classical Roman use of tribas as indicating sexual acts involving a macro-clitoris (or at least, as indicating that this was a standard cultural motif at the time). She points out that texts that speak of women “penetrating” someone during sex are referring to f/m sex, not f/f sex. Medical manuals do cover the topic of women with a macro-clitoris, but do not associate it with sexual desire for women or with sex between women. (This also holds for Greek texts.) She specifically notes that the texts that come the closest to suggesting this motif do not hold up (or at least offer no concrete support), including the fable by Phaedrus of Prometheus attaching the “wrong” sexual organs (resulting in same-sex desire) and the epigrams by Martial that refer to a woman as a “fucker” of women. Boehringer reminds the reader that she has similarly previously addressed the topic of the olisbos (dildo) as a marker of f/f sex, and similarly discounted this as an ahistorical projection from later eras. That is, there are references to the use of an olisbos by women for sexual gratification, but not to the use of it by pairs of women for sexual activity. [Note: I’d be interested to see a specific analysis of the line in Lucian about women making love to each other “harnessed to this object built in the shape of licentious parts,” because that strikes me as highly suggestive.]
Manuals of dream interpretation (oneiromancy) include the meanings assigned to a variety of dreams about sexual activity. Although the dreamer is mostly assumed to be male, there are a few interpretations where the dreamer is female and dreaming about sex with another women. Two key points are crucial in trying to use dream interpretations as social commentary on sexual activity. Pairings that are clearly socially disapproved (such as incestuous pairings, or pairings where the male dreamer takes a passive role) are not associated with negative meanings. The interpretation of the dream (positive or negative) comes from other elements of the scenario and don’t systematically correspond to how the scenarios would be evaluated in real life. And with respect to male dreams about sex, there is no “natural category” of interpretations relating to the sex of the partner. Sexual motifs in dreams are categorized as those that “conform to morals,” those “against morals,” and those “against nature.” Incest and oral sex are “against morals,” while the category “against nature” includes sex with oneself, with a deity, with a corpse, with an animal, or a female dreamer having sex with a woman (the only scenario among the sexual dreams in which a female dreamer is mentioned at all). From this it can be seen that “against nature” isn’t by definition “bad” but perhaps more along the lines of “unimaginable, impossible.” All of the sexual scenarios in dreams are divided into those in which the dreamer penetrates the other participant and those in which the dreamer is penetrated by the other participant, with differing interpretations (but, as noted, not ones in which one group is entirely positive and the other negative). Dreams involving two women follow this pattern, specifying different meanings for the dreamer penetrating or being penetrated, however given the unreal nature of the context, it isn’t clear who what extent this indicates distinct sex acts. It’s entirely possible that the rhetorical listing of penetrating/penetrated simply follows the structure set up for the default case (the male dreamer) without consideration for the logistics of the act. [Note: compare, for example, to medieval punishments for sodomy in which women, in parallel with men, are sometimes sentenced to have the “offending member” amputated, without regard for actual anatomy.] Boehringer’s overall conclusion is that the key feature one can draw from the symbolic structure of dream interpretation regarding f/f sex is that such scenarios were entirely outside the sphere of what could be categorized coherently. Unlike m/m sex dreams that could be further sorted into types of acts and participants, f/f sex imagery involved only one relevant feature by which it was classified: the sexes of the participants. And that feature placed it into the category of impossible/unimaginable scenarios that.
Physiognomy was the system of attributing tendencies toward certain behaviors or desires based on anatomical features such as body configuration, facial features, color of eyes and hair, etc. While later manuals of physiognomy discussed features that were associated with f/f desire, Boehringer identifies no texts from prior to the 4th century CE that do so. Neither a propensity for f/f sex nor a “masculine” personality in a woman are included in earlier texts, although features that indicate an effeminate man are present. The earliest inclusion of f/f topics is in an anonymous 4th century CE text and is an addition to the base text it is drawn from which refers only to m/m desire. The male-related text discusses how certain anti-virile features are associated with a man who desires women, in contrast to the more exaggeratedly virile features of a man who “seeks men.” Following this, the 4th century author adds, “It is the same for women: the feminine type (species muliebris) bed down with women, but the virile type (virile speciem) are more likely to seek men.” Note that these correspondences are the opposite of the image of an effeminate man desiring men and a masculine woman desiring women. Rather, in both sexes, the gendered physiognomy “seeks its like” in a partner.
Medical texts from Antiquity do not make any connection with atypical anatomy and same-sex desire in women. Indeed, up to the 5th century CD, this genre doesn’t cover sex between women at all. The earliest known medical text that mentions sex between women (Caelius Aurelianus) covers both male and female same-sex desire as a moral sickness rather than a medical condition (reflecting the dominance of Christian attitudes by that time). The passage is difficult due to corruption of the various manuscript versions that survive, but refers to tribades as practicing “the two forms of love” who “come together with women rather than with men” and who “pursue the women in question with a jealousy almost worthy of men”. Boehringer interprets “the two forms” as indicating alternating or symmetrical roles in sex (as contrasted with an active/passive distinction in roles). She notes that the passage deserves more analysis that she gives it, but that it falls outside the scope of her study.
The final part of this section catalogs various motifs that recur across multiple genres discussing sex between women. A common theme is treating sex between women as something “new” or “never before seen/discussed”. Another is treating it as a paradox—as something inherently contradictory (as in “adultery without a man present”). A third theme is seeing f/f sex as something “prodigious” in the sense of surprising, mysterious, or “monstrous” (with the caveat that “monstrous” can also apply to miracles in this context). It is a spectacle causing surprise and fascination in the audience. A fourth theme is association with the supernatural or the practice of magic (though Boehringer offers only the example of Martial’s female couple engaging in sex alone at night under the moon, a context associated with magic). A fifth theme is association with gender ambiguity—of confusion or playing with images of gender-crossing or existing between gender categories. A sixth theme is that of love/desire that falls outside “natural” categories, associating f/f desire with inter-species love (as in Ovid). In general these discursive themes work to remove f/f sex from the realm of the “real” and into the realm of the fictional, the contradictory, and the purely hypothetical.
The chapter ends with a summary of topics that Classical Roman attitudes toward f/f sex do not include: a masculine appearance, an atypical genital physiology, the use of a dildo, a distinction into active and passive sex roles or maculine/feminine gender roles. Overall, what defines “women who have sex with women” as a single identifiable category is, in part, that such relations fall entirely outside the system of socially defined categories relevant to sexual relations and the illegibility of f/f relations within those categories.