Poetry: Sex Between Women
The general topic of this article is the ways in which women who had sex with women in 17-18th century Britain were marginalized from the category of “women” via the imagined figure of the hermaphrodite, combining in the image of the tribade who was endowed with a penis-equivalent, either in the form of an enlarged clitoris or sometimes a prolapsed vagina capable of performing penetration. This article traces that image through various genres of literature, both popular and professional.
Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme (commonly referred to as “Brantôme”) was a French writer of the 16th century. He was a soldier and courier and wrote several volumes of memoirs and biography, but the most well-known (or at least, notorious) section is known as Vies des Dames Galantes (The Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies) which, contrary to the rather positive title, is a scurrilous gossip-rag focusing on women’s sexual escapades and especially on the topic of wo
[Note: the use of the word “hermaphrodite” and its definitions in this article and the texts it examines is in reference to a historic concept--one that reflected a specific social construction. It is acknowledged and emphasized that “hermaphrodite” can be an offensive term in modern language in the context of gender, sexuality, or physiology.]
This article looks at French historical terminology for women who loved women to consider whether changes in the prevalent terminology reflected social shifts in attitudes toward such women, on the basis that “naming grants recognition”. Unfortunately the article is deeply flawed by unfamiliarity with earlier examples of some terms, and by overlooking terms that were as common as the ones considered (if not more so). This results in conclusions based on faulty premises.
Chapter 1: Sex and the Middle Ages
Early Modern England (16-17th century) was developing a vocabulary and symbology to describe and express intimacy between women and female non-normative sexuality. This was taking place in various genres, including travel narratives, medical texts, and works of marital advice. At the same time, women were developing an evasive coded language to express such desires in their own lives. In this context, Sappho was invoked not only as a symbol of female lyricism, but also to represent and make reference to erotic bonds between women.
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.
The book opens with an examination of female homoerotics in “libertine” literature of the 16-18th centuries, that is, books written almost exclusively by men that depict women in erotic encounters with each other, primarily for the titillation of the (presumably male) reader. This includes works such as Brantôme’s Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies, which deals generally with the sexual exploits of women at the French court of Henri II, and includes a special section on “donna con donna” (woman with woman).
It makes most sense simply to list the bits of evidence that Dover discusses. He is largely providing a catalog, with very detailed citations of sources, but without the in-depth discussion of context and interpretation that we say, for example, in Lardinois 1989 with respect to Sappho.