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La Religieuse (Denis Diderot)

18th century French novel involving predatory sexual relations in a convent.

LHMP entry

This chapter would seem to undermine one of Faderman’s key themes: that people (especially, but not solely) women were completely in ignorance of the possibility of women engaging in sex together (however narrowly she is defining “sex”) until the writings of the sexologists educated them on those possibilities. Only then did women who had been convinced by their upbringings that they didn’t feel sexual desire suddenly begin engaging in genital sexual activity.

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.

There are no identifiably female authors in this set. Several works are anonymous, but unlikely to be by female authors. Sappho continues to be a theme, with approaches that range from a positive interpretation of her homoerotic themes to a satirical portrayal of her invention of lesbianism. Out and out pornography is well represented, presenting sex between women for the male gaze, in one case disguised as condemnation. And we have a couple examples of the blurring of gender categories in ways that could be interpreted as homoerotic (among other interpretations).

Literary women who love women often lament being "the only one" or consider themselves outside of nature, but in the 18th century this begins being transformed into a sense of monstrousness. Versions of Ovid's myth of Sappho's late-life conversion to heterosexuality begin to presage this shift in the early modern era. Though a straightforward reading of Ovid's tragic ending would be that heterosexuality was the death of her, it began to be framed as a retroactive punishment for her previous love for women.

Here Donoghue considers the literature that addresses sexual activity between women. In contrast to some claims, there are a number of home-grown English texts in this period that address non-penetrative sexual activities between women, and during the 18th century there seems to have been a regular dialog between French and English writing in this vein, with works in one language rapidly appearing in translation in the other.

There are many aspects of the history of homosexuality where an assumption of parallelism between the experiences of men and women leads to erroneous conclusions about what did and didn’t exist. For men seeking sexual experiences with men, there’s a fairly well documented history of networks, meeting places, and informal associations that helped them achieve their ends.

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