Poetry: Sex Between Women
[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.
The main themes by male authors in this set of texts include original poems in the classical Greek style with a relatively neutral portrayal of lesbians, and the continuing depiction of decadent lesbian eroticism, with an additional subgroup involving the frustration of author-insertion characters who desire lesbians. We also get an example of the “queer tragic triangle” in which a man and woman compete for the affections of a woman (with the man, of course, winning).
In this set of works, women seem to have discovered the usefulness of fantastic and unusual imagery to disguise some rather intense eroticism in poetry. Subtle misdirection is also used in a novel to enable homoerotic scenarios. We also have a conventional work of romantic partnership. The male authors are largely sticking to sensational and decadent eroticism and misogynistic satire, with one set of poems lapsing to a more neutral, if voyeuristic, depiction.