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Monday, February 19, 2024 - 07:00

I really really mean to get back on a regular schedule of LHMP blogs. Silly things like analyzing Hugo voting statistics and internet interruptions and processing the fiction submissions keep getting in the way. But each day is a new chance to get back on track.

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Full citation: 

Bohata, Kirsti. 2017. “Mistress and Maid: Homoeroticism, Cross-Class Desire, and Disguise in Nineteenth-Century Fiction” in Victorian Literature and Culture 45:2 pp.341-359

I read this article when working on the trope podcast about employment-related romances, but it’s taken a while to turn my highlighted copy into a useful write-up. People looking for pre-20th century sapphic-leaning fiction might want to check out some of the titles listed.

In addition to the economic dynamics of domestic employment, the mistress-maid relationship as depicted in 19th century fiction brings in themes of loyalty, devotion, and female alliance, although the last is mostly a fictional invention. When servants feature in fiction (which is rare) these conditions create a homoerotic potential. Two women, separated by class but existing in close physical proximity, invite images of unrequited love and yearning, and sometimes their fulfillment. Conversely, the appearance of an employment relationship may serve as cover for a queer relationship. Most of the stories examined in this article involve layers of misdirection, both cross-class and cross-gender.

Some novels may use the context of domestic employment in order to be able to address love between women, leveraging the allowance that women were offered for open homoeroticism (which is not to say, open lesbianism). Some authors may have intended to depict desire between women, others may have used the motif more obliquely to address other topics.

The texts examined here include Amy Dillwyn’s quasi-autobiographical novel Jill (1884), Sarah Orne Jewett’s 1897 story “Martha’s Lady”, Constance Fenimore Woolson’s 1880 story “Miss Grief”, and Edith Wharton’s 1902 story “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell.”

The potential for the hazards of cross-class intimacy was recognized in domestic handbooks that instructed on the proper relations between employers and servants. Female servants were often viewed as sexually suspect, either being available [note: this is an odd term for a situation often void of consent], or prone to lesbianism due to sharing beds, or engaging in erotic play with children in the household that they were responsible for. Outside the household, upper class people could find an erotic potential in deliberately crossing class boundaries (slumming). For women, the charitable impulse to help poor and “fallen” women might partake of this similar fascination with the other end of the class spectrum.

Within the mistress-maid relationship, several dynamics with erotic overtones are present: dominance/subservience, ritualized interactions especially around personal care access to private spaces—the ordinary activities of a servant can be hard to untangle from spying and eavesdropping.

Within the stories under consideration, the relationship between employer and employee takes various forms: unrequited desire, chivalry, spiritual sublimation, jealousy, and female marriage. The imbalance of class power within the relationship can be balanced by a tendency to masculinize the role of servant, thus creating a power dynamic at cross-purposes. In “The Grey Woman” this masculinization is overt, with the servant cross-dressing to rescue her mistress from domestic abuse, and then adopting the role of husband and protector. Servants are often depicted as stronger, more clever, and more resourceful [note: allowing the character of the mistress to fulfill the feminine ideals of passivity]. Conversely, the social power of the mistress may manifest as pressuring the employee for an unsolicited erotic relationship.

When the relationship between mistress and maid is too close, it is viewed as disruptive to the household and even sinister. The servant who dominates her employer is framed as a villain and their bond can make the danger concrete if they conspire against the man of the house. If such a bond is disrupted, then a jealous response may make the underlying nature of their relationship clear. Such boundary-crossing themes brought cross-class romance into the popular realm of sensational fiction.

Even as the vocabulary of sexology introduced ways of pathologizing desire between women, writers who wanted to address themes of same-sex love used the employment relationship as a framework to do so. In the story “Martha’s Lady” the yearning of a servant for the women she temporarily attends becomes a life-long spiritual ennoblement, finally requited when the two are reunited in old age. In “Miss Grief” the narrator mistakes a woman’s devoted companion for her maid, erasing their marriage-like relationship under the veil of a more conventional image.

The issues of how class differences stand in the way of potential romantic connections are brought to the fore in Jill, when a young runaway of good family takes on the role of lady’s maid in order to see the world. The title character is aware of her social equality with her employer, with the story focusing on the physical intimacy of their interactions, but Jill cannot take a further step or confess her desire without revealing the cross-class disguise and is left with what-if fantasies, until a dramatic and gothic climax breaks down the barriers when they are imprisoned together in a tomb. (The article returns to the motif of the servant character being masculinized, both in description and in agency.)

In summing up the themes of the article, the author notes that she has tried to avoid ahistorical assignment of lesbian identity, while noting that the disruptive potential of desire within a cross-class context allows for the subtle (or not so subtle) introduction of eroticism.


Time period: 
Sunday, February 18, 2024 - 10:44

I've received all the contracts and sent off the royalty payments so it's time to announce the 2024 Fiction series! In no particular order:

  • "The Font of Liberty" by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall - Set in 1830s France, the denizens of a publishing house deal with political activism and censorship. (I love the little "font" pun in the title.)
  • "A Very Long Malaise" by L.J. Lee - Romantic and political intrigue in Korea of the Joseon Dynasty (ca. 1790).
  • "Follow the Monkey" by Jamie McGhee - Survival and hope in colonial Brazil during the rise of Quilombo dos Palmares, a hidden society of escaped slaves who took up arms against Portuguese colonists.
  • "Daughters of Derbyshire" by Daniel Stride - When plague sweeps through 17th century Derbyshire, what does it mean to be a good neighbor?

One of the ways I measure the success of this fiction series is whether I've attracted a true diversity of voices and stories. This year I'm feeling very happy about that aspect!

It does mean that I'm going to need to work very hard to find the right narrators. In particular, I'm looking for narrators for the Korean and Afro-Brazilian stories. Ideally the narrator would not simply be comfortable with the language (proper names and some incidental vocabulary) but would also share that background. All help in leads for potential narrators welcome!


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Saturday, February 17, 2024 - 16:05

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 280 – Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 12: Bluestockings and Amazons - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/02/17 - listen here)


This rather short episode is part of our ongoing series “our f/favorite tropes.” As used in the romance field, a trope is a recurring literary device or motif—a conventional story element that carries a certain set of expectations, associations, and resonances that connect the story that uses the trope to other works that have used it. The trope can be a character type, a situation, or a sort of “mini script.”

The usual premise of this series is to examine how popular historic romance tropes apply differently when the couple are both women, rather than a male-female couple. But in some cases, you have a trope that is specific to female couples—whether it’s rooted in history or has arisen within modern romantic fiction.

Today’s episode is focused on one of the former: two character types that are specifically associated with sexually transgressive women, and that are sometimes intersected as a natural couple: the bluestocking and the amazon. In this case, by “amazon” I don’t mean the probably-mythical all-female tribe immortalized in Greek myth, but rather the “sporty” woman, the jock, if you will, who were nicknamed “amazons” in early modern Europe. As usual, I’ll add the disclaimer that my generalizations and examples will largely be drawn from western culture, so if you’re writing outside that scope you’ll need to check the assumptions.

Although this trope may feel like a special case of the butch-femme couple (which needs to be considered on its own), there are some important differences. Both the “amazon” and the bluestocking transgress against ideas of conventional femininity of their time.

The Athlete

The amazon is an athlete, often specifically associated with horseback riding, who partakes of physical activities that were typically considered unfeminine. We’re talking about women of the leisure class here, because obviously working class women didn’t have the choice to avoid intense physical activity. For those with the privilege to be physically idle, the choice to engage in sports was considered a risk to femininity—not simply on a behavioral basis, but also on a physiological basis. Too much exertion, it was feared, would damage the reproductive organs and thus make a woman unfit for her expected role.

It wasn’t simply that the active, horseback-riding woman set herself apart from conventional femininity, but she intruded herself into spaces that men might consider to be a private “old boys club.” She hunted. She raced. She drove her own carriages. She moved within male society to participate in those activities in ways that would be indecorous without the excuse of the sport. Or, in a somewhat later era, in the context of all-female schools, she might participate in field sports as part of a women’s team. She might expect to be admired and valued for her physical prowess in the same way a man would be.

The amazon often had a distinctive appearance, as I discuss in the show on the development of butch imagery. The amazon “uniform” often involved wearing masculine-style coats over their skirts. (And until the very end of the 19th century, skirts were still involved, even if a rider wore pants under them.) Even when not presently involved in riding, the riding habit was the default uniform of the amazon. This was not cross-dressing in the usual sense, but the clothing borrowed the tailoring of men’s active wear and the decorative details of military uniforms.

The amazon might be thought of as a grown-up tomboy. She might—if her social standing were solid enough—be treated as something of a mascot by the men in her social circle. Not accepted as an equal, but viewed as an approved exception, so long as things didn’t go too far.

The Intellectual

The specific term “bluestocking” wasn’t invented until the mid-18th century when Elizabeth Montagu presided over the English literary salon known as the Blue Stockings Society, named after the less fashionable blue woolen stockings of the 18th century contrasted with high-fashion black silk stockings. But women as intellectuals had been challenging gender stereotypes for much longer. As I discussed in the episode on various waves of feminist sentiment across the centuries, women who pursued learning, philosophy, and science were considered to be infringing on masculine territory and—just as with physical pursuits—might be felt to be endangering their mental and reproductive health. The intellectual world was supposed to be the provenance of men. Women simply didn’t have the chops, and if they tried—poor dears—they might sprain their brains.

The answer women found was to create social circles where they set the rules and the agenda. Within those circles, they could thrive and support each other. But creating a group identity also attracts group stereotypes, and in various ages the image of the intellectual woman became associated with certain characteristics and labels.

A common theme was that if women devoted their time and energy to learning, they must necessarily be neglecting the pursuit of beauty and fashion. So whether it was the précieuses of the 17th century, the French salon movement, the English bluestockings, or the late 19th century “new women,” such women were accused of being frumpy and unfashionable, or dull and pedantic, or frigid and undesirable. It was difficult for a woman to devote herself to learning if she married, so female intellectuals became synonymous with spinsters.

Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together

But now let’s introduce our two characters to each other: the sporty, freewheeling amazon and the brilliant, ink-stained bluestocking. The jock and the nerd, in an earlier age. They both stand slightly outside conventional society. They both reject the norms of femininity of their time. And they both long to find someone who accepts and appreciates them for who they are and the things they love—even if they both love different things. And perhaps even more relevant, they are both considered to have poor chances on the marriage market.

What more natural pairing than to bring them together? The bluestocking will admire the amazon’s energy and boldness. The amazon will be in awe of the bluestocking’s wit and conversation. And—for that matter—there’s no reason why their attributes need be completely separate. If you introduce them to an environment such as a women’s college, it might be a natural for both women to embrace both their physical and intellectual aspirations.

In the context of these character types, I’ve regularly trotted out the example of Charlotte Lennox’s 1790 novel Euphemia with the not entirely sympathetic depiction of what is clearly a romantic couple: the Amazonian Miss Sandford and bluestocking Lady Cornelia. Once you strip away the novel’s misogyny, we see Miss Sandford in her military-style riding habit, riding to the hunt fearlessly and declaring her firm intention never to marry, and her close companion the “learned and scientific” Lady Cornelia who refuses to be embarrassed by the depth of her learning.

I confess that I’m excessively fond of the amazon-bluestocking pairing myself, as readers might guess from the characters of Barbara and Margerit in my Alpennia series. It’s a way of setting up a romantic couple who are misaligned with the conventional expectations for a woman’s life, but in a way that draws on archetypes that are solidly grounded in the culture of their times. Introduce them to each other and watch the sparks fly!

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • The archetypes of the bluestocking and the amazon and why they make a natural romantic pairing

A transcript of this podcast is available here.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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Saturday, February 3, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 279 - On the Shelf for February 2024 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2024/02/03 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for February 2024.

Since it’s February, that means that submissions are closed for this year’s fiction series. But since I’m recording this in January, it means that I haven’t started reading the submissions yet and certainly haven’t made the selections yet. So watch the blog for that news. Based purely on what I’ve seen when logging in the submissions as they come, there are some interesting shifts this year. But there’s also a bit of disappointment that the numbers of submissions are on the low side. All this will be taken into account when I decide whether to continue the fiction series next year.

On the personal side, I dodged another layoff at work but this time I’m a bit disappointed, because the layoff package would have taken me out pretty close to my planned retirement date. Ah well, still another year and change to go. Also on the personal side, I have a change to a book that was in the January listings. The French translation of Daughter of Mystery got a title change, which required pushing the release date a bit later. So now it will be coming out in March as L’Héritière des Mystères. (Sorry about my French.) I also just signed the contract for a short story in an upcoming anthology from Bella Books, so more on that when a date is set.

Publications on the Blog

After pledging last month to get back on a weekly schedule for new articles on the blog, I only managed one last month: Liza Blake’s article “Dildos and Accessories: The Functions of Early Modern Strap-Ons” which was background reading for last month’s essay show.

But if you’re one of the folks who reads the blog, you’ll also see I’ve been posting some analysis on the rather peculiar data for last year’s science fiction and fantasy Hugo Awards. If you enjoy geeking out on statistics and data analysis, you might want to take a look. But behind that data is a community upset that a process that has always previously been relatively transparent and reliable has shaken our trust in the system.

Book Shopping!

I picked up one new book for the blog, though it will probably get just a brief high-level review. This is Kirsty Loehr’s A Short History of Queer Women. Loehr’s book isn’t meant to be serious academic history—more of a satirical and lighthearted survey of lesbian icons through the ages. Don’t go to it for research, but it might amuse you for an afternoon.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

Which brings us to the new fiction. I have a few catch-up titles from December and January, starting with Alice: A Ghost Story by Mats Evensson. Evidently this gothic tale uses the same setting as a previous book by the same author, The Beast of St Ender, however that one doesn’t have sapphic content.

1844, England. Alice Reed, a promising young reporter, is sent to interview the reclusive Baron Thornbow when her coach crashes. Barely surviving the accident, Alice finds herself in the baron’s ancient mansion, haunted by strange occurrences—and caught in a perilous game of cat and mouse with a vengeful spirit hellbent on her demise.

Amid this swirling nightmare, Alice finds friendship—and perhaps more—in the baron’s entrancing maid, Miss Poole. Together, they must stop the malevolent entity before Alice’s very soul is lost forever.

This next title appears to be erotica, which I usually filter out in my search terms, but the premise and setting are rather interesting. This is The Belle (One of the Outcasts #1) by Violet Knight.

Set against the backdrop of Queen Mary I's reign in England, this romantic tale follows Antoinette, a French gardener navigating the complexities of life in a foreign land. Battling the scars of betrayal from her homeland, Antoinette's world transforms when she encounters Lady Lavinia St. Claire, a Deaf noblewoman.

Before she ever meets her and knows her name, Antoinette calls Lavinia "the belle." Lavinia's intense beauty attracts Antoinette, but signing with one another makes her fall in love.

The Knowing by Emma Hinds from Bedford Square Publishers is a historic fantasy set in the later 19th century and inspired by real people such as Maud Wagner, one of the first known female tattoo artists.

Whilst working as a living canvas for an abusive tattoo artist, Flora meets Minnie, an enigmatic circus performer who offers her love and refuge in an opulent townhouse, home to the menacing Mr Chester Merton. Flora earns her keep reading tarot cards for his guests whilst struggling to harness her gift, the Knowing - an ability to summon the dead. Caught in a dark love triangle between Minnie and Chester, Flora begins to unravel the secrets inside their house. Then at her first public séance, Flora hears the spirit of a murdered boy prostitute and exposes his killer, setting off a train of events which put her life at risk.

Historical fiction takes a wide variety of approaches to dealing with the realities of past ages. Beards by Cheyenne Isles depicts one survival mechanism in the mid 20th century.

As soon as she was old enough to escape her prejudiced Georgia hometown, Audra Lynch ran away to New York looking for the freedom to be herself. It was there that she met the beautiful Vivian Porter whom she fell deeply in love with. Everything about her was perfect, except for one thing: she was married. The marriage, however, wasn’t what it seemed. Her husband, Nathan, was gay and in a relationship with his longtime partner William McMahon.

Five years later, in 1959, Audra and William find themselves following in their partners’ footsteps and preparing for a wedding of their own to help hide the truth about their relationships. As the date draws nearer, Audra begins to question their decision when she starts feeling as trapped as she did back in Georgia. While she contemplates her upcoming nuptials to William, Vivian and Nathan find themselves faced with a big decision: one that could impact all their lives.

Moving on to the February releases, we start with what might be characterized as “Biblical fan-fiction” in The Scrolls of Deborah (Desert Songs Trilogy #1) by Esther Goldenburg from 100 Block by Row House. I have to confess I find the cover copy to be a bit over-the-top dramatic, but I’ll read it as-is.

The Scrolls of Deborah transports us to the awe-inspiring landscapes of the past and uncovers the intertwined lives of Rebekah, a revered matriarch in Judaism, and her devoted handmaiden Deborah. In this mesmerizing tale, their strength, wisdom, and love take center stage, shaping their destinies amid a world steeped in tribal tradition.

With poignant vulnerability, The Scrolls of Deborah, a work of Biblical fiction and the first installment of the Desert Songs Trilogy, illuminates the hidden stories of these remarkable women, whose pivotal roles have often been overshadowed. Against the backdrop of the desert and the opulence of palaces, the narrative weaves a tapestry of captivating tales. Each page reveals stories filled with heartbreak and inspiration, leaving an indelible mark on the very fabric of religious thought.

Through the telling of Deborah’s day-to-day life, the book exposes the profound beauty of connection and community, showcasing the transformative power of shared experiences. It invites readers to witness the immense strength found in the bonds between women and how their choices reverberate across generations.

The Scrolls of Deborah is a testament to the enduring legacy of these extraordinary women whose stories challenge and reshape our understanding of history, faith, and the limitless possibilities of the human spirit.

In the current fashion for spinning off a sapphic novella from a primarily heterosexual historic romance series, we have Letters to Her Love (Northfield Hall Novellas #3) by Katherine Grant.

Louisa Hoggart is about to leave Northfield Hall. Her charge, Miss Caroline Preston, is fully grown and hardly needs a governess anymore. Even more exciting, Louisa plans to move to London as a children’s author. She just has one major task left: help Miss Preston host her first house party.

Opera singer Elena Zilio accepts her invitation to the Northfield Hall house party for the free room and board. She also hopes to find a new protector for herself and her eight-year-old daughter. When she hears Louisa Hoggart will be at the party, she is excited to reconnect with an old acquaintance.

It doesn’t take long for sparks to fly between the two women. Yet what Louisa recognizes as attraction, Elena labels as friendship. Armed with nothing but her pen and big dreams for the future, can Louisa convince Elena to take a chance on the feelings swirling between them?

This next book sounds like it’s a fantasy set in a turn of the 20th century re-named Paris, but it isn’t entirely possible to tell how rooted in real-world history it is: The Absinthe Underground by Jamie Pacton from Peachtree Teen.

After running away from home, Sybil Clarion is eager to embrace all the freedom the Belle Époque city of Severon has to offer. Instead, she’s traded high-society soirées for empty pockets. At least she has Esme, the girl who offered Sybil a home, and if either of them dared, something more.

Ever since Esme Rimbaud brought Sybil back to her flat, the girls have been everything to each other—best friends, found family, and secret crushes. While Esme would rather spend the night tinkering with her clocks and snuggling her cats, Sybil craves excitement and needs money. She plans to get both by stealing the rare posters that crop up around town. With rent due, Esme agrees to accompany—and more importantly protect—Sybil.

When they’re caught selling a poster by none other than its subject, Maeve, the glamorous girl invites Sybil and Esme to The Absinthe Underground, the exclusive club she co-owns, and reveals herself to be a Green Faerie, trapped in this world. She wants to hire thieves for a daring heist in Fae that would set her free, and is willing to pay enough that Sybil and Esme never have to worry about rent again. It’s too good of an offer to pass up, even if Maeve’s tragic story doesn’t quite add up, and the secrets could jeopardize everything the girls have so carefully built.

Other Books of Interest

Perhaps that last book should have been put in the “other books of interest” group instead, which has several entries this month.

The Fox Maidens by Robin Ha from Balzer + Bray gets the “other interest” category because it’s entirely too coy about the hinted queer content.

Kai Song dreams of being a warrior. She wants to follow in the footsteps of her beloved father, the commander of the Royal Legion. But while her father believes in Kai and trains her in martial arts, their society isn’t ready for a girl warrior.

Still, Kai is determined. But she is plagued by rumors that she is the granddaughter of Gumiho, the infamous nine-tailed fox demon who was killed by her father years before.

Everything comes crashing down the day Kai learns the deadly secret about her mother’s past. Now she must come to terms with the truth about her identity and take her destiny into her own hands. As Kai desperately searches for a way to escape her fate, she comes to find compassion, and even love, in the most unexpected places.

Set in sixteenth-century Korea and richly infused with Korean folklore, The Fox Maidens is a timeless and powerful story about fighting for your place in the world, even when it seems impossible.

Guide Us Home by Jesse J Thoma & CF Frizzell from Bold Strokes Books is a contemporary story with cross-time elements from an old book.

Nancy and Sam have no intention of playing nice. Each aims to win the bid for the abandoned Narragansett Island Lighthouse, and compromise isn’t in the cards. It’s preservation versus profit, but the lighthouse’s dissatisfied governing board insists on better from both women.

Ironically, a battered old book at the lighthouse just might provide the key to success. Inspiring parallels are discovered in the dog-eared pages: the struggles, dreams—and love—between two Danish women braving WWII’s desperate days, guided by a valiant lighthouse they know well.

The heroic tale could navigate Nancy and Sam to success, if they stop floundering long enough to see love coming to their rescue.

And finally, An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson from Redhook is decidedly unclear about whether it has a historic setting. The implication is there. And I think perceptive readers will spot the references to a gothic classic.

Deep in the forgotten hills of Massachusetts stands Saint Perpetua’s College. Isolated and ancient, it is not a place for timid girls. Here, secrets are currency, ambition is lifeblood, and strange ceremonies welcome students into the fold. 

On her first day of class, Laura Sheridan is thrust into an intense academic rivalry with the beautiful and enigmatic Carmilla. Together, they are drawn into the confidence of their demanding poetry professor, De Lafontaine, who holds her own dark obsession with Carmilla. 

But as their rivalry blossoms into something far more delicious, Laura must confront her own strange hungers. Tangled in a sinister game of politics, bloodthirsty professors and magic, Laura and Carmilla must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice in their ruthless pursuit of knowledge.   

What Am I Reading?

So what have I been reading? I seem to have a lot of books in-process at the moment: five different ebooks, two audiobooks, and a couple of hard copies. But only two titles that I finished in January.

First is Perfect Rhythm by Jae, which I confess I’d been putting off because I’ve had a bit of a reaction to the book being promoted as “the” book to read for lesbian romance with an asexual character. Unfortunately, I found the asexual representation to be decidedly unsatisfying. I have a lot of thoughts about this book, but I’ll save them for a different venue.

I also listened somewhat randomly to a historic mystery, A Dangerous Collaboration by Deanna Raybourn because it was in an Audible two-for-one sale and looked interesting. Alas, I found the heroine unlikeable, especially for how much latitude she was willing to give the awful male co-protagonists. So January was a bit of a wash. But somewhere in those nine books in progress, I’m sure to find something that hits the spot.

Show Notes

Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Thursday, February 1, 2024 - 10:10

Submissions are now closed for the 2024 fiction series. I'll start reading and making decisions over the next week and should have offers out by the weekend of Feb 10/11.

2024 tied for second place in the number of submissions. Based on what I've seen in people's cover emails, this may be the most diverse year yet in terms of author backgrounds and story settings. (I don't require author details in the cover email, so I'm basing this on incomplete information.) About 40% of the submissions arrived in the last 3 days of the month, which tends to make me nervous about numbers. There were 2 years when submissions came in at a more steady rate, but the last minute rush is a bit more typical.

I'll probably chat more about trends in the submissions after I've announced the line-up. And once again I swear that I'm going to work on lining up narrators well in advance, even though I know how that resolution has gone in the past.

Major category: 
Monday, January 29, 2024 - 08:00

In addition to covering academic publications, one of the services this blog offers is to review pop culture books that present themselves as covering lesbian or queer history. In some cases, I want to warn readers off of a book, but in some cases it's jusst a matter of "Look, here's what this is. It doesn't pretend to be anything else. Be aware." And that's the current case. This isn't a bad book by any means -- it's quite entertaining -- but it's not a history book and should not be relied on for factual information. Ordinarily I wouldn't prioritize covering a work of this sort, but I was processing it for shelving and figured I could take the 5 minutes to write up an entry.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Loehr, Kirsty. 2022. A Short History of Queer Women. Oneworld Publications, London. ISBN 978-0-86154-284-0

This is a light-hearted, pop-culture tour through lesbian icons (whether or not they were lesbians) and key historical turning points for women who loved women. It is not a history book and one should not count on any specifics or details being “true” in any meaningful sense. It does have a “sources” section at the end, which begins by promoting a number of other superficial tertiary sources, though it does also include a few scholarly sources among popular histories of specific individuals. (I refuse to be miffed by the book’s recommendations for two other podcasts on queer history but an unawareness of the Project. Podcast visibility is a patchy thing and the two shows the book mentions have larger budgets and a bigger publicity apparatus than I do.)

All that said, the writing is witty and amusing. And as long as you have enough historical grounding that your understanding won’t be contaminated by factoids that are intended purely for humor and entertainment, go ahead and enjoy. The book doesn’t pretend to be a history book so it’s fairly harmless.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024 - 21:08

ETA: See also Part 1, link to the combined Camestos Felapton/Heather Rose Jones analysis.

ETA 2024/01/25: I've added cross-links between the related posts and will continue to update as needed. I'm not used to people actually coming to read my blog! If you like the numbers geekery, consider checking out the rest of my website. I've written some books! I run the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog and podcast! I natter on about all manner of writing and fannish things!


Accessibility Note: I acknowledge that by using images of the graphs and of some tables, the full analysis is not accessible to the visually impaired. For this I apologize, however my time and the abilities of my website are limited.

This is a further exploration of population-level patterns in Hugo Award nomination data. While the first installment was primarily aimed at asking the question, “is there something hinky going on in this data and if so, what?” this second installment is stepping back and asking, “are there different typical nomination patterns for different categories, and are the anomalies in 2023 general or focused on specific categories?”

The spreadsheet with the data will be available on Google Drive. Feel free to play with it for yourself, but be warned that I haven’t bothered to add much explanatory apparatus in the file as it wasn’t designed for public consumption.

My analysis here is not aimed at examining nominees, although in some cases the outliers are perfectly understandable and rational once you look up what the specific item/person was. Instead, I’m interested in patterns of behavior independent of the specific content.

One variable that I can’t really control for is any differences in nomination behavior due to the combination of two different literary populations, either in the specific (i.e., different population behavior due to a specific literary culture) or in general (i.e., the interactions of combined nominations from two distinct literary cultures). To the best of my knowledge, even when Worldcons have been held in non-Anglophone countries previously, there has not been a significant presence of non-Anglophone works in the nomination pool. (On an individual basis, one can see some “favorite son” effects among the people categories, but I think these are negligible on the level I’m examining.) When I selected the comparison dates, I wasn’t specifically aiming to include or exclude non-Anglophone Worldcons. By chance I did include Helsinki (2017) because it was the first EPH year, which adds a mild confounding factor, but my perception is any unusual behavior in 2017 is more attributable to post-Puppy reactions.


To repeat the methodology as described in the previous installment:

Using the nomination statistics provided by each Worldcon, I tabulated the total number of nomination ballots cast for each category and the number of ballots that included each of the top 16 nomination-recipients. (Note: There were not always 16 items listed. Some years reported more than 16 items, but I truncated at 16 for a consistent comparison.) I ignored the question of "disqualifiations" or withdrawals -- the numbers represent what is reported as the raw nomination numbers.

From this, I calculated the percentage of the possible nominations that each of those 16 items received. That is, the number of ballots that listed an item, divided by the total ballots for that category, reported as a percent. This data is displayed as groups of columns, clustered by category. Because the data is reported as a %, the distribution is more easily comparable between categories with different numbers of total nominations.


I selected the following years to analyze:

  • 2011 - the earliest year I happen to have data for
  • 2012 - the last year before any Sad Puppy activity
  • 2015 - the year of the most intense Sad Puppy activity with known nomination slates
  • 2017 - the first year of E Pluribus Hugo
  • 2021 - a recent year
  • 2022 - a recent year
  • 2023 - the current year

I considered adding more years into the mix, but the project was getting a little unmanageable, and sometimes larger amounts of very similar data detract from understanding rather than adding to it.

This time I’m looking at all award categories. Of those, Series, Fancast, and Lodestar have less data due to being added at various points during the scope of my data.

In addition to examining the percentage of ballots that works appeared on, I also consider the percentage of available ballot slots in each category that can be accounted for by the long-list nominees, as presented. I may also be making reference on occasion to the total nomination ballots in a category. I would have liked to compare the total number of different works nominated in each category however, as that data was not available for 2023, this was not a priority.

Review of Patterns: 2022 vs 2023

To begin with, let’s review the most obvious distribution differences between 2023 and a comparable year, for which I’ve picked 2022. I’ll put the two graphs next to each other for easy comparison.

The 2022 data demonstrates across the board the sort of pattern we expect from a population-based popularity poll. We have a consistent and continuous falling off from the most-picked nominees to less-picked ones. It isn’t uncommon for there to be one or sometimes more runaway favorites that make the initial part of the curve fairly steep. For example, in 2022 we can see this particularly in Drama-Long, in Fanzine, and in Fan Writer. In general, however, the bulk of the long-list nominees have a highly similar percentage distribution with respect to ballots having any nominees in that category. (Not shown in this graph is the significant variation in the number of ballots with data in each category, with the most popular category having 6x the participation of the least popular category.

2022 All Categories

2023 All Categories

In contrast, the 2023 distribution patterns are more variable. Some resemble the “standard” pattern (e.g., Short Story, Editor-Short, Astounding) although the overall percentages uniformly run higher. Some show an extreme “cliff” phenomenon (e.g., Novel, Series, Fanzine) where a group of nominees appear on a high proportion of the ballots, with a substantial gap in distribution between them and the less popular nominees. We still see the phenomenon where there may be a runaway favorite (e.g., Novelette, Drama-Long) but there are fewer of these than in the 2022 data.

It’s a bit hard to make out the details when all 19 categories are on display so let’s move on to look at the data from another angle.

Patterns Evaluated by Category

I’m going to group the nomination categories by my evaluation of whether they fall in the following:

  • “Typical” distribution with nothing particularly interesting going on
  • “Typical” distribution but with something else interesting
  • Extreme “cliff” distribution
  • Non-typical distribution of other types

Typical distribution – not much interesting

Graphic Work

Historically, the distribution for graphic story has been highly consistent in terms of percentages. There is a slight tendency for years with larger overall numbers in this category to also have higher percentages – that is, when more people nominate, they have a slight tendency to cluster on the most popular works. 2023 shows a skew toward the more popular works being on a higher proportion of ballots than usual, but the long tail also falls off more steeply. 2023 did not have the largest number of ballots in this category. 2023 did have the highest proportion of available slots used (37%), but this is simply another way of stating that the percentage of appearances is shifted higher.

Drama Short

As we see, this category often has a standout favorite, but otherwise the distribution is relatively consistent from year to year. 2023 is slightly skewed towards the top picks, with the tail being lower than typical, but there isn’t any obvious discontinuity in the distribution. The combination of higher favorites, but lower percentage appearances for the tail means that the percentage of nomination slots used in 2023 is in the middle of the historic range at 26%. The total number of nominating ballots in 2023 is also in the middle of the historic range.

Editor long

Editor (long form) is an interesting category, not so much for 2023, but for changes across the scope of the study. In 2015 (peak Puppy) there’s a definite skewing towards the more popular picks and a slight flattening of the end of the tail, but in the years after there’s also an increase in the proportion of nomination slots filled. People seem to be more engaged with the category and familiar with more candidates. In 2023, there’s a strong shift upward for the most-mentioned candidates, resulting in 61% of the nomination slots being filled. But the distribution is still relatively smooth and continuous.

Editor Short

The story for Editor (short form) is very similar to long-form editor, even to the slight shift upwards in 2023. The proportion of available slots filled in 2023 is highest of all the years, but not by much (48%).


Semiprozine is interesting because there’s a shift in the basic pattern that is continued in 2023. Across the years studied, the concentration of interest in a group of “top picks” increases, resulting in a sort of “two mode” distribution curve – an initial higher cluster (that still trails off) then a less steep tail at the lower end. In isolation, the 2023 distribution might almost look like it’s edging toward a “cliff” distribution, except that 2017, 2021, and 2022 all have a similar pattern. I would suggest that this is a function of a relatively small number of semiprozines being exceedingly well known, in comparison to the general population. The percentage of slots filled in 2023 is, again, higher than other years (56%) but only slightly.


The Lodestar only began being given in 2018 so it only shows up in the three most recent years of my data. This makes comparison more tricky, but I’d say that (once more) the 2023 distribution is similar in shape to previous years, but with a shift upward in the percentage of ballots the most popular titles appeared on. One might speculate about what these consistent higher rates mean. (For example, is it the case that the people who are nominating are more “dedicated” that usual and therefore more likely to fill in more items?) Insufficient data to do more than guess.


The Astounding nominations generally have low percentages (which makes sense, because when you’re nominating brand new authors, you tend to be dealing with a more broadly distributed familiarity among nominators). The fall-off for 2023 is a bit more convex than in other years, but there isn’t a discontinuity in the distribution.

Typical distribution – but something interesting

So let’s move on to the next group: categories where the distribution is relatively typical (no gaps or cliffs) but there’s something more interesting going on.


In novelette, the “interesting” year is 2015. In the top group of highly similar (but still falling off) nominees, we’re seeing the effects of the slate nomination that year. In subsequent years the pattern returns to “normal.” In general, the nomination slots in this category are sparsely filled in, even though overall ballot numbers are high. 2023 has the highest percentage filled at 38%, but the trailing off from the clear favorite shows no gaps. And we can see that it isn’t unusual for there to be a standout favorite for novelette.

Short Story

Short story is notoriously a category with a very long, low popularity tail. We see the same slating effect in 2015 that we saw for novelette, but once again it simply pumps up the higher end of the distribution rather than creating a discontinuity. The distribution for 2023 is “typical” but the overall percentage appearances are relatively very high compared to previous years, even at the low end of the tail. This is striking because it suggests that people are nominating from a relatively smaller pool of familiar works (and therefore more people are mentioning the same works). In most years, the short story long-list only accounts for 15-20% of the available slots (and here I suspect that we aren’t necessarily seeing incompletely filled ballots, but lots of nominations that are farther down the long tail). But in 2023 the long-list nominations accounted for 66% of the available nomination slots for the category. (This is a place where it would be very interesting to compare the total number of individual works that got mentioned.)

Drama Long

Dramatic (long) is in the “typical but interesting” group almost solely for demonstration that having a “runaway favorite” can be part of the typical distribution. It’s more common than not for more than half the nomination ballots in this category to include one particular title for that year. Otherwise, not much to say except that 2023 once again has a slight shift upward in popularity for the most popular titles, but a suppression of popularity for the bottom of the long-list. Once again, it leads in percentage of available slots filled by the long-list (58%) but not by a significant margin over previous years.

Fan Writer

Fan Writer, much like several previous categories, has a similar “shape” of distribution in 2023 compared to earlier years, but the percentages are significantly elevated, resulting in the long-list accounting for 61% of available nomination slots (compared to a more typical 30% or so). In some years, Fan Writer has a clear favorite, but just as often no specific candidate stands out.

Extreme Cliff

Now let’s jump over to the most anomalous distributions – the ones with a “cliff” or “gap” in the distribution. When I posted my previous article, I had narrowed the analysis down to the fiction categories and the fan categories simply because it felt like they’d make a tidy comparison group. But as it turns out, all the “cliff” distributions are in these two groups.


Compared to some other categories, novel usually has a rather flat and low distribution. My interpretation would be that this is an expected outcome of a large number of titles and a very wide range of tastes in nominators. It’s rare for there to be a clear favorite, and even the slates in 2015 only gave a slight bump to the top end of the group. All that makes 2023 highly unusual. Rather than the most commonly mentioned titles barely making 20% of the ballots, seven titles each showed up on 47-21% of nominating ballots in this category, with the next title down only appearing on 9%. In previous years, the novel long-list titles accounted for 26-37% of the available nominating slots, but in 2023 they accounted for 77%. If you subtracted 600 nominations from each of those seven titles, you’d get a typical-shaped distribution that is elevated above the historic percentages about the same as for other 2023 categories. Seven unusually high titles, and with one invalidated, that gives us the six finalists.


Novella has been fairly consistent in the past, with the most commonly mentioned titles appearing on more ballots than the most common novels. This makes sense, given that fewer novellas get published than novels, so we wouldn’t expect the distribution to be quite as flat and long-tailed. And it’s a little more common for the most frequently mentioned novellas to stand up a bit above the crowd. But in 2023, five titles break away from the (otherwise typical) crowd, leaving a distribution gap of around 450 nominations. The 2023 long-list titles don’t take up quite as much of the available space as for novel, only 61%, but far and away higher than any other year. As only five titles are in this abnormally elevated group, all of them are finalists.


Series (for which I only have 4 years to compare) is the most extreme example of the cliff phenomenon. The three prior comparison years are all highly similar (differing only in the popularity of the top contender). But in 2023, we have six items each appearing on 58-66% of the ballots for this category. The gap between that group and the next item is around 750 nominations. And the 2023 long-list accounts for 81% of the available nomination slots. (For that matter, those top six items account for 77% of all available nomination slots in the category.) Coincidentally (?) “six” is the number of available places for finalists.


If you discount 2015 when slating more than doubled the expected numbers for a group of titles, and you discount 2023 (which we’ll get to), Fanzine nomination distribution is remarkably consistent, with a nice easy slope and usually one stand-out title at the top (though rarely the same title repeating). And then we get to 2023, where we have a whopping 7 items elevated above the crowd with a gap of about 150 nominations between them and the next candidate. Unlike the fiction categories, this group doesn’t quite dominate the available nomination slots, accounting for only 54%. But the “cliff” is still striking. And because none of the seven were invalidated for any reason, one of them didn’t get boosted onto the finalist list by that effect.

Fan Artist

Fan artist is the last category that I identify as having a significant “cliff” in the distribution. As you can see, the nomination distribution is usually very consistent in percentages, the only unusual thing about this category being that it’s not uncommon for a couple of people to be stand-outs at the top. Although absolute nomination numbers tend to be low, the percentage of available slots taken on the ballots that do address this category tends to be a respectable 20-35%. In 2023, the 6 “elevated” candidates (all of whom end up finalists) push that percentage to 41% of the available slots, but due to the overall low numbers, the gap is only around 35 nominations. This is one of the curious aspects of this “cliff” phenomenon: the gaps aren’t consistent, either in absolute magnitude or in proportional relation to the number of nominating ballots in that category. The “cliffs” are clearly artifactual, but they don’t give a good clue to the nature of the underlying cause.

Non-typical, Other

This brings us to the final analysis group “not typical, but interesting for other reasons than having a distribution cliff.”

Related Work

Related Work has Seen Some Things. In 2015, slating gave it the closes thing to a distribution cliff seen in previous years. I think part of this is that Related Work – being so diffuse in concept – has similar patterns to Novel in having a fairly vast field of candidates, is susceptible to stand-outs for whatever reason. We see this in 2017 when one particular work is massively popular relative to the rest of the field. But even so, 2023 has a discontinuous distribution, thought the high end of the field is a bit more sloped than in many of the “true cliff” distributions. The gap is only about 80 nominations, and overall the percentage of available slots taken isn’t vastly more than in other years.

Pro Artist

Professional Artist is somewhat similar to Related Work, in that there is a slight discontinuity in the distribution (with a gap of maybe 60 or so nominations) with 8 people in the upper group, but that group has a clear gradient, rather than being tightly clustered relative to the whole. The shape is reminiscent of the slate pattern in 2015, but more exaggerated.


Fancast only started in 2012, so we’re missing one of my comparison years. At the beginning (including the 2015 slate effect) there’s a very subtle “cliff” pattern, but in more recent years (and presumably with a wider range of familiar and popular podcasts) the pattern has settled down into the much more typical “gradual tail.” So 2023 stands out as unusual, even though it has some similarities to the first two examples. To the extent that 2023 has something of a “cliff” it consists of a gap of around 40 nominations, with five items above the line, but as you can see, that upper group has a definite slope to it – so, not a true “cliff.”


Once again, I get to the end of this and don’t have any clear conclusions. Possibly I should stare at this data for a while longer, listen to what other people say about it, and then come back for some final thoughts. At this point, I’m no longer setting out to “prove” anything, but only to present the data in a form that might spark other people to come up with interpretative inspirations. A couple things that I wanted to jot down in the mean time:

  • When there is a significant "cliff," the number of entries above the cliff is "around" the number of slots on the final ballot. Plus/minus. I counted seven categories that I classified as having a "cliff", with 5 (x1), 6 (x2), or 7 (x4) items above the cliff. Of those, there was only one category where, after invalidations, not all the "clifftop" entries were able to fit on the final ballot. However both in terms of the magnitude of the cliff and the type of category, there was no thematic consistency.
  • Another interesting thing that happened in the voting phase is that, in six categories, the first place winner was obvious in one or two rounds (and if it took two, the item only needed a few votes to go over the finish line). Those six categories were all either in my "typical but interesting" group or my "non-typical for reasons other than a standard cliff" group. I have no idea whether this is meaningful. It's just an observation.

Note that I’m posting this late on a Tuesday evening and Wednesday is my “work on site” day. So I won’t have much opportunity to participate in discussions or moderate pending comments until tomorrow evening.

Major category: 
Saturday, January 20, 2024 - 23:22

See also: Part 2, link to the combined Camestos Felapton/Heather Rose Jones analysis.

ETA: Some have requested a copy of my spreadsheet in order to work with the data further. With the caveat that the data hasn't been proofread and the spreadsheet is poorly documented, I've uploaded the folder with the spreadsheet and the graphics used below into Google Docs here. I will not be further modifying or updating the version in Google Docs. I have also corrected some typos below, thanks to the proofreading assistance of readers.

ETA: See some further thoughts at the bottom of the post, marked with the date added.

ETA 2024/01/25: I've added cross-links between the related posts and will continue to update as needed. I'm not used to people actually coming to read my blog! If you like the numbers geekery, consider checking out the rest of my website. I've written some books! I run the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog and podcast! I natter on about all manner of writing and fannish things!

Regular readers may be aware that my day-job involves pharmaceutical manufacturing failure analysis.This job often involves seeing an anomalous data pattern and then slicing and dicing the data and throwing it into pretty graphs until it starts to make sense. So when I looked at the newly-released 2023 Hugo Award nomination data, my reflexive response on seeing anomalous data patterns was to start slicing and dicing the data and throwing it into pretty graphs to try to make sense of it. (Other people are focusing on questions of why certain nominees were disqualified with no reason given, but large-scale data is what I do, so that's what I'm doing.)

The Observation

The anomaly that caught my attention was the "distribution cliff" in multiple categories, where there was a massive gap between the number of nominations for a small group of items, versus the "long tail" that we normally expect to see for this type of crowd-sourced data. The first question, of course, is whether this is truly anomalous. The second question is what a typical range of distribution patterns looks like. The third question is what the specific nature of the anomaly is. The fourth question is what the root cause of the anomaly is. I won't be able to do more than make a stab at some possible hypotheses for the fourth question.


In order to make the data processing more manageable, I decided to focus on only two groups of categories: the length-based fiction categories (novel, novella, novelette, short story, and series) and the fan categories (fanzine, fancast, fan writer, fan artist). My expectation was that these two groups might well demonstrate different behaviors, as well as there potentially being different behaviors within the fiction categories.

Using the nomination statistics provided by each Worldcon, I tabulated the total number of nomination ballots cast for each category and the number of ballots that included each of the top 16 nomination-recipients. (Note: There were not always 16 items listed. Some years reported more than 16 items, but I truncated at 16 for a consistent comparison.) I ignored the question of "disqualifiations" or withdrawals -- the numbers represent what is reported as the raw nomination numbers.

From this, I calculated the percentage of the possible nominations that each of those 16 items received. That is, the number of ballots that listed an item, divided by the total ballots for that category, reported as a percent. This data is displayed as groups of columns, clustered by category. Because the data is reported as a %, the distribution is more easily comparable between categories with different numbers of total nominations.

I selected the following years to analyze:

  • 2011 - the earliest year I happen to have data for
  • 2012 - the last year before any Sad Puppy activity
  • 2015 - the year of the most intense Sad Puppy activity with known nomination slates
  • 2017 - the first year of E Pluribus Hugo**
  • 2021 - a recent year
  • 2022 - a recent year
  • 2023 - the current year

**Because I'm looking only at "how many nominating ballots included this item" the difference in how those nominations are processed pre- and post-EPH should not be significant, except to the possible extent that it affects how people nominate.

Note that Fancast and Best Series were added at various times during the scope covered by this study and so are not present in all the graphs.

"Typical" Distribution

I take the data from 2011, 2012, 2017, 2021, and 2022 as potentially representing a "typical" distribution to use for comparison purposes.

2011 2011 Hugo Nomination Distribution

20122012 Hugo Nomination Distribution

20172017 Hugo Nomination Distribution

20212021 Hugo Nomination Distribution

20222022 Hugo Nomination Distribution

As we see from the above, it's not uncommon for one or two most popular items to extend well above what is otherwise a relatively consistent distribution curve. Although there are significant differences in the number of overall nominations in the different categories (not indicated in these graphs) the distribution by % is remarkably consistent across the categories in any given year. Perhaps more so in the recent years than the earlier ones, when the shorter fiction categories tended to have lower maximum distribution numbers.

If the "initial peak" numbers are excluded, the maximum % of nominations in these categories tends to run in the 10-20% to 10-30% range, with the maximum (including the peak outliers) ranging from 25% to 41%. Overall, let's consider the above to represent the typical distribution we'd expect across years and across categories.

Test Comparison: The Puppy Year

The past year that we might expect to represent the most atypical nomination behavior is 2015: the year most significantly impacted by slate nominations associated with Sad Puppy (and adjacent) nominators.

20152015 Hugo Nomination Distribution

We do see a difference in that--rather than the occasional one or two initial "peak" nomination percentages in a category, some categories have several items with significantly higher percentages than the bulk of the distribution curve. But although the initial slope of the distribution curve may be steeper, it's still identifiably a curve. And the range of results is solidly in line with the group we're considering "typical", i.e., with peak percentages ranging from 15-36%. Overall, the data does look consistent with a subset of nominees being "pumped up" above the expected shape of the distribution, but it doesn't seriously distort the overall picture.

The 2023 Anomaly

Now let's look at the 2023 distributions.

20232023 Hugo Nomination Distribution

Having previously answered question #2 (what does a typical range of distribution patterns look like?) we can now move on to question #1 (is the 2023 distribution anomalous?) and the answer is clearly "yes." In terms of the shape of the distribution curve, novelette, short story, fan writer, and possibly fancast look more or less like our "typical" pattern, even allowing for the initial "peak" outliers in novelette and short story. But novel, novella, series, fanzine, and fan artist all have a large group of highly similar % nominations, followed by a sharp drop to the "tail" with lower percentages. (This is what I'm calling the "distribution cliff.") The gap in each category falls between:

  • Novel: 47% to 9%
  • Novella: 44% to 11%
  • Series: 58% to 4%
  • Fanzine: 33% to 8%
  • Fan Artist: 25% to 10%

Furthermore, the maximum % of nominations across the board is double what we've seen in the "typical" distributions: 30-66%. So we have two obvious anomalies: the "distribution cliff" and the most frequently nominated items appearing on twice the proportion of ballots relative to any other year studied.

What's Going On?

Now we've answered questions 1-3. We've seen what the range of "typical" distributions are, even in a year with known manipulation of the nomination numbers. We've seen that 2023 distributions are clearly anomalous. And we've identified at least two measurable features of that anomaly. Now we come to question #4: What's the underlying cause of this pattern?

The best I can do is suggest some hypotheses and poke at possible support or contradictions for them. In no particular order...

Hypothesis 1: Large numbers of nominating ballots drew from a small "slate" of prospective choices, resulting in both the high percentages for the top nominees and the sharp drop to the remaining members. Pro: the "distribution cliff" does look somewhat similar to the slating dynamic in 2015, but in much more exaggerated form. Con: In several categories, the cluster of very high % nominations is larger than the number of nominees per ballot, and it would take massive coordination to create this tighly-clustered effect across the number of ballots involved for the fiction categories.

Hypothesis 2 (hat tip to JJ): The "distribution cliff" represents a significant range of nominees that have simply been omitted from the published statistics, leaving only a group of the highest nomination recipients and a set with relatively low nomination numbers. Pro: The data to the right of the "cliff" look like a typical "long tail" distribution. This hypothesis would be consistent with the omission of fiction titles that we might well expect to see in the long list, given the specific titles that are present in the high-percent group. (In some years, the statistics include the total number of different items nominated in each category. This would be useful data for evaluating hypothesis 2, but is not available for 2023.) Con: The math doesn't add up for there to be a chunk of missing "mid-range" nominees. For this, let's introduce another anomaly.

% of Available Nominations Accounted for by the Long List

For this, I calculated the number of "hypothetical available nomination slots" by multiplying the number of nomination ballots for each category by 5. Then I added up the number of nomination slots accounted for by the long list (as presented). The slots accounted for are presented as a percentage for each category. Note that in most categories, the proportion of available slots accounted for by the Long List data is about twice the typical proportion. It's typical for people not to use up all their available nomination slots in every category, so this data suggests that many more people use up all or a majority of their avilable slots (and--as we've seen above--used them to nominate from a relatively small selection of options).

Percent of Nominations Accounted For

When you look at 2023 categories like Novel and Series, there simply isn't room in the numbers for a substantial number of "missing mid-range nominees" from a normal distribution curve. That leads us to...

Hypothesis #3: The math is bogus. That is, the reported nomination statistics include large numbers of nominations attributed to the "top group" that do not arise from an actual nomination process. Two possible methods (related to hypotheses 1 & 2) could be at play. Either a fixed number of false nominations (proportional to the overall true nominations in the category) have been added to a variable number of the top picks, or the actual nomination numbers from a "missing mid-range" have been added to the items that are reported as the top picks. A third possible sub-hypothesis here is that there was a massive programming error in the software that was processing the nomination data that moved nomination counts around. I'm not going to do pros and cons on this one because I've introduced too many variables.


Well, there really aren't any conclusions other than the ones that were immediately apparent from the raw data. The 2023 Hugo Nomination Statistics are implausible and anomalous and as a result we don't actually know who should be on the Hugo Long List. (And--based on factors that I haven't discussed here--we don't entirely know who should have been on the Hugo Short List.)

ETA 2024-01-22

I had some further thoughts on timing and the reasons given for timing of the nomination stats. This was originally posted on Bluesky, and then expanded slightly as a comment on File770.

One quoted phrase [in an article at] got me thinking more deeply about something. One reason for the delay in releasing the nomination stats was quoted as “this delay is purely to make sure that everything I put out is verified as correct (and the detailed stats take time to verify, there’s lot of stuff going on there.” [McCarty]

But remember that unexpected delay when announcing the finalists, way back earlier? Surely that was the point when everything needed to be verified as correct? Like: making sure titles and names were correct and consistent so that nominations were tabulated and processed correctly? And an extensive verification process before the nominations were tabulated to generate the finalist list makes sense and is understandable. And that was what we all told ourselves at the time and tried to be patient because of it. But the Long List is not a separate entity from the Short List. It’s just a peek at a larger part of the same list.

That’s why the nomination stats are usually able to be released immediately after the award ceremony: the work should have been complete months before. The nomination stats document should be ready to release at the time the finalists are announced. [Note: "should be" in the sense that all the data is fixed and known at that point. But obviously the question of whether the people authorized to know that data and the people preparing the voting/nomination stats for release are the same people has an impact.] So what possible verification and correction could still be pending after the date of the announcement of the finalists? Much less after voting is complete? Much less for three months after the awards are given out? It doesn’t make sense.

Any errors or inconsistencies whose correction contributed to the 3 month delay after the con would be errors and inconsistencies that existed at the time the nomination data was processed to generate the finalist list.

Therefore, even if it were true that the long delay in getting the nomination stats out (not just 3 months, but 3 months plus the time between release of the finalist list and the time of the convention) were due to the need to correct errors and inconsistencies, that in and of itself indicates that the data generating the finalist list was deeply flawed.

On the other hand, I could propose a “hypothesis #4” to add to the ones above: The finalists were a semi-arbitrary selection–perhaps based on actual nomination data, but not determined by the prescribed nomination process–and the long delay was due to the need to create long-list data that supported the published finalist list. (Note that none of my hypotheses are intended to be taken as being solidly supported or being what I believe, they are simply models that could be consistent with the observed data.)

Major category: 
Saturday, January 20, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 278 – The Dildo Episode - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/01/20 - listen here)


In reading published research on the social history of dildos—which was not a thing I had actually expected to find—what struck me was how the questions and themes felt similar to the discourse back in the ‘70s when I first entered the lesbian community. In fact, one of the papers I read made that very point.

What does a sex toy shaped like a phallus “mean” with respect to erotic desire, sexual orientation, and social dynamics? Does it emphasize a phallocentric view of sexual intercourse or does it emphasize the irrelevance of living men to women’s sexual pleasure? When a dildo is used, is maleness present or absent? If a woman uses a dildo to give another woman pleasure, does that masculinize her in some way? If so, what does it mean when she uses it all by herself? Does it make a difference if she uses a strap-on or holds it in her hand?

Some questions that are specific to historic discourse include: how confident are we that an object made to represent a phallus can be interpreted as a sex toy? Regardless of whether it’s used solo or by couples, did historic societies categorize the use of a dildo more with masturbation or more with sexual intercourse? And how did societies react to the use of this type of sexual aid? Did it matter who was using it…and on whom?

Liza Blake, in her article “Dildos and Accessories: The Functions of Early Modern Strap-Ons” focuses on an interpretation that, during the 16th through 18th centuries, the dildo was a fashion accessory—much like a hat or a walking stick. She argues against Freud’s view of dildos as a sexual fetish, on the logic that a fetish displaces erotic desire onto an unrelated object, while the dildo has a direct functional connection with the satisfaction of sexual arousal. Both Blake and Ula Klein (writing in Sapphic Crossings: Cross-Dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature) note the awkward ambiguities when discussing wearable dildos in the context of people who trans gender presentation, as the object may be part of a masculine social presentation without being used for sexual purposes, or may be used as a sexual aid without necessarily being worn for everyday appearance. And even the presence of both functions may or may not coincide with a masculine gender identity. Furthermore, two women together may use a dildo—including a strap-on—for sexual purposes in the absence of any sort of masculine social presentation.

So in this presentation, rather than trying to categorize those various possibilities with respect to some sort of transgender continuum, I will include all evidence regarding the use of dildos by two assigned-female persons. But the question of combining that use with male presentation is salient because it strongly affected how societies reacted to such use.

As Klein notes, although the dildo, in one sense, emphasizes a phallocentric understanding of sex, it blurs the concept of sexual difference. Rather than people being divided into those who do, or do not, have a penis, the penis becomes an optional accessory. It contradicts the image of a “natural” body and becomes one more tool with which a constructed masculinity can be assembled.

Valerie Traub points out that Early Modern women’s employment of anatomical “supplements” does not result in an imitation of man, but a replacement that emphasizes the artificiality of the gender binary, and indeed of “man” as a concept. To the extent that the dildo did become a fetish object, it was not so much for the women who were using them, but for the authorities who fixated on the phallus precisely in the context of its absence and displacement. Early Modern discourse around the use of a dildo by female couples is not about sexuality, so much as it’s about gender; not about the pleasure the women experience, but on the usurpation of male prerogatives. And that usurpation of male prerogatives was precisely the reason why the presence or absence of a dildo became a flashpoint for how female homoeroticism was judged.

It is inescapable that most (though not all) of the literature depicting dildo use was written by men for male consumption. As usual, this makes it difficult to evaluate to what extent it represents reality. Even when dildo use is included in legal testimony, one must consider that it was part of the social mythology around sex between women, and therefore was a point of scrutiny and perhaps even pressure on defendants to shape their narratives to those social myths. But all that said, there is sufficient evidence from multiple genres—including material culture—to conclude that dildos have been used for sexual stimulation for at least the last couple millennia, and were one of the options employed by women to control their own pleasure, both individually and in couples.

One theme that runs through the literature—especially from male authors—is the premise that, to count as “sex”, an act must include a penis or a penis substitute. Therefore, in some cultural contexts, penetration is the defining attribute for a sex act, though the use of a dedicated object is not required. Pleasure might be experienced without penetration, but it might not be classified as “sex.”

Contexts that focus on penetration as essential for pleasure often downplay any emotional relationship between the women involved and focus on the dildo simply as a sex toy. In this genre, there is also a strong theme of women finding the dildo inadequate or at least less satisfying than the biological equivalent. But it could be a “make do” when men are unavailable, as in the Restoration play Sodom or the Quintessence of Debauchery, when the men of the court turn to homosexual pleasures, and the ladies turn to using dildos on each other in frustration. Another example in this vein is the anonymous novel A New Atalantis for the Year One Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty-Eight where a sexually voracious woman is served by her French dildo-wielding maid who, on proving inadequate to the challenge, brings in a willing footman to finish the job more organically.

But even when the dildo is framed as a dispreferred alternative, there can be suggestions that women are using it in the context of a genuine romantic relationship, as in an anecdote in the 1718 A Treatise of Hermaphrodites where two young Italian women, having lost their male suitors, set up a house together as inseparable companions and take turns pleasuring each other with a strap-on dildo. When used by women in a solo context, the use of a dildo can be framed sympathetically (if with a certain amount of mockery) as in the doggerel verse Monsieur Thing’s Origin: or, Seignior D---o’s Adventures in Britain, detailing the trials and tribulations of a French dildo’s visit to London. Regardless of context, there’s sometimes a nod to the preferability of dildo use because it has no potential to result in pregnancy.

With that introduction, this discussion is going to take on four topics. First, a history of evidence for dildos and similar objects, regardless of who is using them. Then a brief look at some social attitudes toward their use, followed by legal issues specifically regarding female couples, and finally a discussion of terminology and construction.

A Brief History

In classical Greek art and poetry we find depictions and references to an “olisbos” which seems directly equivalent to dildo both in form and function. There is a possible reference to one in Sappho’s poetry, although the text is too fragmentary for context. More overtly, in a poem of the Hellenistic period, two women discuss an elaborate chain of re-gifting an olisbos from woman to woman. Sandra Boehringer concludes that this and several other representations concern the use of the olisbos for solitary gratification and is unconvinced that there is support for its use by female couples. But Nancy Rabinowitz’s article “Excavating Women’s Homoeroticism in Ancient Greece: The Evidence from Attic Vase Painting” identifies two such possible examples, one involving a woman approaching another wearing a “strap-on”, and a sexual scene in which a double-headed dildo is present.

Roman art and literature have similarly ambiguous references. One wall-painting from 1st century Pompeii may show a woman reclining naked in bed being approached by a woman wearing a dildo, but the image is damaged and faded and the interpretation is uncertain. In Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans, when Megillus tells Leaena about having “a substitute of my own” for sex, this may be a reference to a dildo. More clearly, in the 2nd-4th century work Forms of Love (attributed falsely to Lucian), the author suggests, “Let women, too, love each other. Let them strap to themselves cunningly contrived instruments of lechery, those mysterious monstrosities devoid of seed, and let woman lie with woman as does a man.”

The evidence for dildos in the early medieval period primarily comes from penitential manuals that prescribe what sort of penance should be assigned for using one. Women who “practice vice” together are punished less severely than heterosexual adultery and much less severely than male homosexual activity, unless the women use an “instrument”. As noted in the 9th century penitential of Hincmar of Rheims, such women “do not put flesh to flesh as in the fleshly genital member of one into the body of the other, since nature precludes this, but they do transform the use of that part of their body into an unnatural one: it is said that they use instruments of diabolical operations to excite desire.” A version of Iphis and Ianthe revised into a moral lesson in a medieval text converts Ovid’s divinely-mediated change of sex into the use of an artificial penis substitute by the female couple.

In the 13th century, in an Italian legal record, we have an unusually detailed and candid description of the device used by Bertolina Guercia. Court testimony accused her of “using a certain mancipium with two silk testicles, conducting herself lustfully with women with this mancipium as men do with women.” The witness said that Bertolina showed him her silk virilia (i.e., dildo) and explained that she used it for sexual purposes.

Until we get closer to the 17th century, the evidence is similar to Bertolina’s case: testimony in court records where the presence or use of a dildo is taken as evidence of criminal sexual activity between two women. (Note that this only applies in countries where such use was illegal, which wasn’t the case in England.) As we’ll discuss later, this could be the key element in whether the relationship was considered criminal, and influenced the fate of the accused. While Bertolina used her virilia for sexual purposes, she was not accused of cross-dressing. Whereas in 15th century Germany, Katherina Hetzeldorfer used her strap-on in the context of cross-dressing, passing for a man, and sexually assaulting a woman—for which she was executed.

A turning point in our evidence for dildo use was the rise of pornographic texts, starting in the 16th century. Aretino’s illustrated sexual “dialogues” included women pleasuring themselves with dildos. An illustrated edition of Nicholas Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica shows a group of upper-class women shopping in a “dildo market” with wares hung up on display as if in a butcher’s shop. Brantôme’s Lives of Gallant Ladies goes into some detail about dildos at the French court, usually in a context that mocks the women or suggests that this practice will inevitably have negative consequences. He tells an anecdote about a ruler who, “having suspicions about two ladies of his court who made use of them, had them watched so well that he surprised them, so that one was found possessed of and fitted with a large one between her legs, neatly fastened with little bands around her body, so that it seemed to be a natural member.” In another story, the apartments of the ladies in waiting were being searched for contraband weapons, and “there was one who was found by the captain of the guards in possession in her chest not of pistols but of four large, neatly made dildos.”

Up through the 17th century, there was an expectation that women had an active sex drive and would naturally seek out a means of satisfying it. In this context, the dildo was depicted as a tool used by women of all classes and sexual orientations for their fulfilment. While court records highlighted the conjunction of dildos with gender crossing, popular literature was far more likely to associate them with femme women who simply happened to be over-sexed. Sexual practices of all types treated female pleasure as desirable and essential, both for successful impregnation and for a woman’s health. But the rise of interest in dildos, shifts the context from procreation to pleasure; from medical advice to bawdy humor. In this context, the image of two femme women instructing each other in the pleasures of non-procreative sex merges seamlessly with the image of lesbians, engaging in sex with each other for its own sake (though always—in the literature—for the purpose of the male reader’s arousal).

The early 18th century doggerel verse Monsieur Thing’s Origin: or, Seignior D---o’s Adventures in Britain, details the trials and tribulations of a French dildo’s visit to London, illustrating both solitary use by women frustrated in love, and one verse involving a female couple.

One of these girls tied Monsieur to her middle,
To try if she the secret could unriddle;
She acted man, being in a merry mood,
Striving to please her partner as she cou’d;
And thus they took it in their turns to please
Their lustful inclinations to appease.

In the anonymous 1735 poem “The Sappho-an” the Greek gods have been warned that the women of Olympus are sexually unsatisfied because the gods are all dallying with boys instead of paying attention to them. The mortal poet Sappho shows up and explains to the goddesses that there are other ways to get satisfaction. An extensive catalog of techniques and implements are discussed before Sappho settles down to displaying and demonstrating an ivory dildo.

While pop culture references to dildos were often simply salacious and mocking, there was also a streak of hostility. There is a running theme throughout western history that sex between women is inherently less satisfying because only penetrative sex is the “real thing.” But the use of a dildo raises anxieties that perhaps even that handicap can be worked around, making men entirely obsolete with regard to women’s pleasure. In some literature, anxiety about dildoes stands in for a shift in understanding that perhaps women don’t actually need men to have completely satisfying sex lives. The phallus becomes separated, not only from male bodies, but from the context of masculinity entirely.

But in the later 18th century, we begin seeing the notion that the idealized woman was sexually passive. In this context, active sexuality shifted to being viewed as inherently masculine (or low-class, or foreign) and the motif arises of the dangerous, masculine-appearing woman who seduces and satisfies her female lover with the aid of a dildo. We can see these contrasting themes co-existing in John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (or Fanny Hill), where the instrument is primarily a sex toy, and in the biography of Catherine Vizzani (introduced to England via Cleland’s translation and adaptation), where a young Italian woman with an exclusive sexual interest in women, cross-dresses and enjoys multiple sexual relationships with women, using a leather dildo.

While Vizzani achieved an unusual degree of acceptance and success, it is far more likely for the records to feature lives gone badly awry, in which the presence of dildo-mediated sex is only one aspect, but becomes a locus of anxiety and an excuse for harsh measures. The strap-on dildo used by Catharina Lincken in her marriage to Catharina Muhlhahn (as well as in her other previous relationships with women) was a central feature of the 1721 court case against her, although violent interactions with her mother-in-law and her habit of switching back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism were of greater legal significance.

Another German trial in 1802 followed similar lines. Ilsabe Bunck joined the army and twice married women while presenting as a man. Bunck’s use of a dildo for sexual relations became a major point of contention in court to determine whether it fell in the category of sodomy, but her execution was most likely due to other contributing circumstances.

The dildo fades from view in popular culture across the 18th century as it shifts from being viewed as a sex toy to being viewed as more closely associated with lesbianism. But at the same time, as a focus of social anxiety, the dildo was being displaced by the image of the lesbian with an enlarged clitoris that was capable of penetration. It was as if, once the dildo had been firmly strapped onto a lesbian body, the next step was to envision it as growing there organically. The dildo would only re-emerge into public discourse with the rise of the decadent movement’s fascination with lesbian sex in the later 19th century.

Social Considerations

As we’ve seen, social attitudes towards dildos shifted with changing perceptions of female sexuality, of the definitions of sexual acts, and of the ways in which female sexual independence challenged phallocentric assumptions and men’s relevance to women’s pleasure. When dildos are viewed as a “second-best” alternative for pleasure, used by femme-presenting women, they tend to be lightly mocked as harmless toys. But when they are viewed as a serious challenge to men’s position, the mockery becomes harsher and the spectre is raised that dildos will injure women’s reproductive systems—as Brantôme asserts—that their use will lead to licentious moral decay, or that their use represents an appropriation of male privilege.

The use of a dildo by women who transed gender placed them in the most heavily condemned group, even in places like England where the condemnation was social rather than legal. In contrast, even clearly articulated female same-sex desire was treated mildly as long as overt male signifiers were not present. At best, the dildo is depicted humorously as an independent male presence within women’s erotic space. Only occasionally, when appropriated more overtly as attachable masculinity do attitudes veer into unease. That unease becomes overt anxiety when the dildo serves as part of a more complete masculine presentation. Dildos destabilize masculinity from two angles: the ability to appropriate it, and the ability to render it irrelevant.

Another aspect of cultural response to dildos is in an element of xenophobia with the object being depicted as a “foreign visitor,” as in the poem Monsieur Thing’s Origin. This may partially motivate the peculiar fascination Europeans had with the use of dildos among secluded women in Islamic cultures, such as the story travelers told about the use of cucumbers in Ottoman harems. But such information is not limited to the writings of Europeans. In the 16th century, Ottoman scholar Deli Birader Gazali wrote, “In big cities, there are famous dildo women. They put on manly clothes, they ride cavalry horses, and they also ride kochis [covered wagons] for fun. Rich and noble women invite them to their houses and offer them nice shirts and clothing. These women tie dildos on their waist and grease them with almond oil, and then start the job, dildoing the cunt.”

Despite the focus of this present podcast, one important thing to keep in mind is that there has never been a fixed correspondence between dildo use and female homoeroticism. For every example of dildos in sapphic contexts, there’s a counter-example where the device explicitly stands in for a desired heterosexual activity that is unavailable or inconvenient. Furthermore, dildos are only one of a wide range of sexual techniques associated with female couples—though one that is highly salient because of the anxiety it produces in society. Nor is there always a close correlation between female masculinity and a preference for use of a dildo. Ann Lister—you knew I had to drop in a Lister reference at some point, right?—Ann Lister, for all that she envisioned her desire for women as partaking of some sort of inherent masculinity, never gives any indication that she used a dildo in bed and, in fact, expresses disdain for “sapphic artifices that create distance” which, in context, can be interpreted as a dildo.

Legal Considerations

Aside from social attitudes towards dildo use, depending on the era and context, there could be legal consequences that ranged from awkward to deadly. As noted previously, official anxiety around dildos was not so much about their sexual function as it was about gender appropriation. The church might frown on any sort of unauthorized sex—especially if it fit the shifting definition of “sodomy” at that moment—but the penances for women using an “instrument” for non-procreative sex demonstrate that this was considered more on the level of masturbation than adultery or fornication.

But when the use of a dildo was combined with other aspects of appropriating a male role, then both the religious and secular authorities brought out the big guns. Prosecutions for sexual activity between women are notoriously scanty in the records—far less common than for sexual activity between men. And, as noted previously, in some places such as England, there were no official legal prohibitions at all. But when we look at the legal cases addressing women’s sexual relationships, a common thread is that prosecution rarely occurs unless a penetrative instrument is involved, and the consequences are most severe when both a dildo and gender-crossing is involved.

In Louis Crompton’s classic study “The Myth of Lesbian Impunity,” reviewing legal cases in Europe between the 13th and 18th centuries, among the 6 cases he identifies where at least one of the women was executed, 4 involved both cross-dressing and the use of a dildo, one involved a dildo only, and one deliberately omits details of the sexual act from the record (but also involves other aggravating circumstances). Other researchers have added to this tally by searching legal archives. Sherry Velasco identifies a number of prosecutions for lesbian acts in Spanish records of the Inquisition, where a key element of the testimony and sentencing was whether an “instrument” had been used. If it was concluded that no instrument had been involved, there might be no prosecution, even when the women confessed to a sexual relationship. And if an instrument was used but there was no cross-dressing, the women were not always condemned. Further, cross-dressing alone—though penalized—does not appear to have resulted in execution in the absence of sexual elements. But when the two factors are combined, the default result was execution unless there were significant extenuating circumstances.

In countries where there was no legal basis for prosecuting “female sodomy,” cases where there was an intersection of gender-crossing and sexual relations using a dildo were usually categorized as “fraud” if someone took the trouble to make an accusation. In this context, the sexual aspect might be treated as a sensational “extra” but the primary concern was laying claim to a masculine gender role, including marriage to a woman.

Words and Materials

The earliest identified use of the word “dildo” for a sex toy is in Thomas Nashe’s 1592 poem “The Choise of Valentines.” Later references attribute the origin of the word to Italy, perhaps as an adaptation of diletto “pleasure.” But a competing theory notes that there’s a long tradition of English ballads using “dildo” and related words as “nonsense” refrains, including in sexual or suggestive contexts—a tradition that continued through the 17th century. This ambiguity between nonsense-rhymes and sex toys is sometimes deliberately employed to create innuendo.

But earlier, and outside the English-speaking world, what else were these objects called?

We’ve already mentioned the classical Greek olisbos. In Latin, a phallus-shaped amulet was called a fascinum from its other purpose in protecting against magic or witchcraft, but the word also appears when its used as a sex toy, as in the Satyricon of Petronius. Medieval Latin sources tend to describe it simply as an instrument or device, and we see this tradition continued in Bertolina’s mancipium using a word meaning “possession, property.” Bertolina also describes her sex aid as a virilia, simply indicating a male sex organ, and this is another strand of vocabulary where the object may be labeled with the same language used for the body part. Catharina Vizzani’s instrument is described in Italian as a piuolo which appears to mean “peg or stake.” A late 19th century source indicates that other Italian terms are passatempo (past-time) and diletto (delight), but it’s unclear how early these were used. In French the later term is godemiche, supposedly from Latin gaude mihi meaning “please me” and it may well be that this is the word represented by the abbreviation “g” in Brantôme’s late 16th century writings. Two lesbians in early 16th century Spain were called by their neighbors baldresera in reference to their dildo use—a word that (based on a very cursory search) may refer to a type of very soft leather, presumably meaning the material involved in the dildo’s construction. So, in general, terminology seems to be descriptive, with only a few contexts offering a dedicated word for the object.

We find a great deal more information on materials and even specific shapes in some cases. Leather is the most commonly-mentioned material. The early Greek poem that talked about a dildo being passed around among women described it as “beautifully stitched red leather.” The 15th century trial records of Katharina Hetzeldorfer include a fairly detailed description of her “instrument.” One of her female partners described it as “a huge thing, as big as half an arm. She thought it was like a horn and pointed in front and wide behind.” Katharina then confesses that after penetrating her partner first with her fingers and then with a “piece of wood what she held between her legs,” she said she then “made an instrument with a red piece of leather, at the front filled with cotton, and a wooden stick stuck into it, and made a hole through the wooden stick, put a string through, and tied it round.” Spanish records of 1502 and 1603 describe an instrument made of lambskin and one of leather, though the user of the latter said she stopped using it because it was painful. In 1721, Catherina Linck engaged in sexual relations using “a penis of stuffed leather with two stuffed testicles made from pig’s bladder attached to it.” Also in the 18th century, Catterina Vizzani used “a nice leather dildo, stuffed with rags” which was belted on. An archaeological find of a leather dildo from an 18th century site in Poland is about 8 inches long, stuffed with hair, has a carved wooden tip, and has two testicles attached at the base. The trial records of Ilsabe Bunck in 1802 allege she used an artificial penis made of leather or fabric, though the testimony was contradictory.

Fabric of various types is the next most common material mentioned. In addition to Ilsabe’s fabric dildo just mentioned, Bertolina’s 13th century Italian one was made of silk, with attached silk testicles. Two late 17th century literary references describe a dildo sewn from velvet and stuffed with bran, and one made from satin and velvet. Liza Blake’s article includes a photo of a surviving cloth dildo with cords for attaching it to the body, but there is no provenance attributed to it.

Two records refer to wooden implements, not counting the use of wood as an internal stiffening agent. In the 15th century, Katharina Hetzeldorfer said she used a piece of wood held between her legs before making one of leather stiffened with wood. Two Spanish women in 1603 were said to use a dildo made of cane, although they testified they used leather instead.

At a higher level of luxury, ivory had its supporters. The reference to an ivory dildo in the 18th century poem The Sappho-an may have been literary hyperbole, but there is a surviving ivory artifact of the same century, possibly French, that is hollow and includes a “squirting mechanism” as well as coming with an embroidered cloth storage bag.

Similarly smooth, but less luxurious, there are several literary references to dildos made of glass. Thomas Nashe’s 1592 poem “The Choise of Valentines” describes one as “almost two handfuls high, straight, round, and plumb” with “one eye,” made of “congealed glass” and nourished with water or milk that spurts forth. At a similar date, John Marston’s poem “The Scourge of Villanies” describes a woman using a “glassie instrument.”

Some commentaries on dildos compare them favorably to alternatives such as candles, fingers, or vegetables such as carrots and parsnips. And then, of course, there’s the infamous reference to cucumbers in travelers’ tales about Ottoman Turkey. So if we’re being expansive, we can add vegetables and candles to the catalog of more temporary dildo materials.

Part of Liza Blake’s thesis about viewing dildos as dress accessories has to do with the shift to attaching them to the body with straps. Katherina Hetzeldorfer described a simple system with a string passed through a hole in the wooden handle of the dildo and tied around the body. The majority of references to attachment methods come from the 18th century, including the use of ribbons in the Treatise of Hermaphrodites, the “new-invented belt” mentioned in The Sappho-an, and Caterina Vizzani’s use of a belt for attachment. In Emma Donoghue’s book Passions Between Women she mentions a variation where the dildo could be attached with straps to the jaw rather than the crotch, perhaps suggesting it was designed for simultaneous oral sex. I haven’t been able to track down the source of this particular example.

In addition to the basic function of being stiff enough to insert and of an appropriate size and shape, dildos might have any of a number of additional features. Some are described as having attached testicles, which may be a design feature if used for gender crossing, but in other cases simply seems to be an aesthetic choice. One description mentions “rowels to heighten delights” which is somewhat hard to envision if we’re talking about something resembling spur rowels, that is, a rotating spiked wheel used to goad a horse. A regularly mentioned feature is a mechanism for squirting warm water or milk, perhaps held in a hollow reservoir in the dildo, to simulate ejaculation. The surviving possibly-18th century ivory dildo includes just such a mechanism, and this feature is mentioned in Nashe’s “The Choise of Valentines” and in the poem “Portsmouth’s Returne.”

There are a few mentions in the context of gender-crossing of phallic devices used for urination. Katharina Hetzeldorfer used an object “like a horn” that she was said to urinate through. In the 18th century, Christian Davies said that finding a “little silver tube” that a cross-dressing solder used for urination was the inspiration for Davies to do the same. But there seems to be no evidence that the same object would also be used for sexual purposes


Bringing this topic back around to the purpose of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, if you’re writing sapphic characters into history, would they have considered using a dildo for sex? What would they have thought about it? What would others think if they found out? Would it cause legal problems for them? As we can see, the answers are all over the map. Although there are large gaps in the nature of the historic evidence, there does seem to be a fairly continuous tradition of dildos being an available option, either for solitary use or for couples, and when used by couples, there seems to be a fairly continuous tradition of attaching them to the body for use. Although dildo use would fall outside of approved sexuality under the usual Christian emphasis on procreative sex, there were eras and contexts where it was considered nothing worse than a harmless amusement, if perhaps one that a woman might be teased about. Furthermore, throughout most of history there was no special association of dildos with lesbian sex. Not all lesbians used dildos and not all dildo users were lesbians. So possessing such an instrument would not be evidence about one’s sexual orientation as long as the user was not also cross-dressing. But in a significant subset of times and places, the combination of cross-dressing and dildo use could put the user in legal jeopardy, up to and including execution—not so much for the sexual transgression as for the challenge to male privilege. It’s up to you, the author, to decide where to go with all that.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • The cultural dynamics of dildo use
  • A history of dildos in western culture
  • The social and legal consequences of dildo use
  • Terminology and materials of construction
  • Sources used
    • Arvas, Abdulhamit. 2014. “From the Pervert, Back to the Beloved: Homosexuality and Ottoman Literary History, 11453-1923” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8
    • Auanger, Lisa. “Glimpses through a Window: An Approach to Roman Female Homoeroticism through Art Historical and Literary Evidence” in Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin & Lisa Auanger eds. 2002. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 0-29-77113-4
    • Benkov, Edith. “The Erased Lesbian: Sodomy and the Legal Tradition in Medieval Europe” in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages. ed. by Francesca Canadé Sautman & Pamela Sheingorn. Palgrave, New York, 2001.
    • Blake, Liza. 2011. “Dildos and Accessories: The Functions of Early Modern Strap-Ons” in Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories. University of Michigan Press. pp. 130-156
    • Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
    • Bon, Ottaviano. 1587. Descrizione del serraglio del Gransignore. Translated by Robert Withers (1625) as The Grand Signiors Serraglio, published in: Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes edited by Samuel Purchas.
    • Borris, Kenneth (ed). 2004. Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-1-138-87953-9
    • Brantôme (Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme). 1740. Vies des Dames Galantes. Garnier Frères, Libraires-Éditeurs, Paris.
    • Burshatin, Israel. “Elena Alias Eleno: Genders, Sexualities, and ‘Race’ in the Mirror of Natural History in Sixteenth-Century Spain” in Ramet, Sabrina Petra (ed). 1996. Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. Routledge, London. ISBN 0-415-11483-7
    • Castle, Terry (ed). 2003. The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-12510-0
    • Clark, Anna. 1996. "Anne Lister's construction of lesbian identity", Journal of the History of Sexuality, 7(1), pp. 23-50.
    • Clarke, John R. 1998. Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100 B.C.-A.D. 250. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-20024-1
    • Crompton, Louis. 1985. “The Myth of Lesbian Impunity: Capital Laws from 1270 to 1791” in Licata, Salvatore J. & Robert P. Petersen (eds). The Gay Past: A Collection of Historical Essays. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 0-918393-11-6 (Also published as Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 6, numbers 1/2, Fall/Winter 1980.)
    • Donato, Clorinda. 2006. “Public and Private Negotiations of Gender in Eighteenth-Century England and Italy: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Case of Catterina Vizzani” in British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 29. pp.169-189
    • Donato, Clorinda. 2020. The Life and Legend of Catterina Vizzani: Sexual identity, science and sensationalism in eighteenth-century Italy and England. Voltaire Foundation, Oxford. ISBN 978-1-78962-221-8
    • Donoghue, Emma. 1995. Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. Harper Perennial, New York. ISBN 0-06-017261-4
    • Eriksson, Brigitte. 1985. “A Lesbian Execution in Germany, 1721: The Trial Records” in Licata, Salvatore J. & Robert P. Petersen (eds). The Gay Past: A Collection of Historical Essays. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 0-918393-11-6 (Also published as Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 6, numbers 1/2, Fall/Winter 1980.)
    • Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6
    • Halberstam, Judith (Jack). 1997. Female Masculinity. Duke University Press, Durham. ISBN 978-1-4780-0162-1
    • Haley, Shelley P. “Lucian’s ‘Leaena and Clonarium’: Voyeurism or a Challenge to Assumptions?” in Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin & Lisa Auanger eds. 2002. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 0-29-77113-4
    • Hubbard, Thomas K. 2003. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 978-0-520-23430-7
    • Karras, Ruth Mazo. 2005. Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-415-28963-4
    • Klein, Ula Lukszo. 2021. Sapphic Crossings: Cross-Dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville. ISBN 978-0-8139-4551-4
    • Krimmer, Elisabeth. 2004. In the Company of Men: Cross-Dressed Women Around 1800. Wayne State University Press, Detroit. ISBN 0-8143-3145-9
    • Lansing, Carol. 2005. “Donna con Donna? A 1295 Inquest into Female Sodomy” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History: Sexuality and Culture in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, Third Series vol. II: 109-122.
    • Lardinois, André. “Lesbian Sappho and Sappho of Lesbos” in Bremmer, Jan. 1989. From Sappho to de Sade: Moments in the History of Sexuality. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-02089-1
    • Linkinen, Tom. 2015. Same-sex Sexuality in Later Medieval English Culture. Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam. ISBN 978-90-8964-629-3
    • Matter, E. Ann. 1989. “My Sister, My Spouse: Woman-Identified Women in Medieval Christianity” in Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, eds. Judith Plaskow & Carol P. Christ. Harper & Row, San Francisco.
    • Michelsen, Jakob. 1996. “Von Kaufleuten, Waisenknaben und Frauen in Männerkleidern: Sodomie im Hamburg des 18. Jahrhunderts” in Zeitschrift für Sexualforschung 9: 226-27.
    • Mills, Robert. 2015. Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-16912-5
    • O’Driscoll, Sally. 2010. “A Crisis of Femininity: Re-Making Gender in Popular Discourse” in Lesbian Dames: Sapphism in the Long Eighteenth Century. Beynon, John C. & Caroline Gonda eds. Ashgate, Farnham. ISBN 978-0-7546-7335-4
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    • Rowson, Everett K. 1991. “The categorization of gender and sexual irregularity in medieval Arabic vice lists” in Body guards : the cultural politics of gender ambiguity edited by Julia Epstein & Kristina Straub. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-90388-2
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    • Traub, Valerie. 1994. “The (In)Significance of ‘Lesbian’ Desire in Early Modern England” in Queering the Renaissance ed. by Jonathan Goldberg. Duke University Press, Durham and London. ISBN 0-8223-1381-2
    • Traub, Valerie. 2002. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-44885-9
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    • Velasco, Sherry. 2011. Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville. ISBN 978-0-8265-1750-0
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  • This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: Dildo

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Sunday, January 14, 2024 - 10:26

Sometimes a topic for a podcast has been waiting for just the right research material to come along. When I included this article in my most recent library "shopping trip" I figured it was time to take a stab at doing a podcast on the topic of lesbians and dildos. While Blake takes more of a "lit crit" approach than one focused on material culture or a history of sexual practices, this article was a wealth of references that I might not otherwise have encountered.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Blake, Liza. 2011. “Dildos and Accessories: The Functions of Early Modern Strap-Ons” in Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories. University of Michigan Press. pp. 130-156

Blake is looking at the history of the dildo in early modern culture not as a physical object, but as fulfilling the function of a fashion accessory. This, despite opening the conversation by stating that she is not viewing it for its symbolic purpose, but for its functional one. In passing, she notes that philosophical arguments about the function on the dildo in history have resonances with modern arguments about the symbolism and function of dildoes in lesbian relationships. Fortunately, the initial discussion that invokes a lot of Freud and Derrida soon moves on to more practical matters both physical and literary. In viewing the dildo as a “accessory” Blake is examining it, both in terms of being an assistive device, and as being a fashion statement—as a “thing” on its own rather than as a symbolic substitute for something else.

One of the values of this article are the extensive and detailed references to dildos both in legal records and in popular culture. For my own purposes, I’ll include something of a bullet point list of those references at the end of the summary.

The practical examples open with an illustration from the Marquis de Sade’s 1795 La philosophie dans le boudoir, depicting various uses of the dildo both as a freestanding object, and as a strap-on. The dildo as a “prosthesis” for a disabled man is suggested facetiously in one 17th c poem, but more typically it is an enhancement for sexual pleasure, either in addition to, or as an alternative to, the male member. This may include devices for producing a spray of warm water or milk to simulate ejaculation. (Although it is regularly emphasized in the literature that one benefit of a dildo is that there is no risk of pregnancy.) A regular motif is the use of straps to attach the dildo to the lower body—typically associated with female use.

A comparison is made between the symbolic/practical parallels between the codpiece and the dildo as fashion accessories. The codpiece had purely symbolic function as a fashion accessory and fell out of fashion due to changing images of masculinity, whereas the dildo—even if inspired as a symbolic analog to the penis, retained popularity because its practical uses were distinct and separable form its symbolic reference.

Blake asserts that the dildo and strap-on become “culturally visible” in the last quarter of the 17th century in parallel with their development as “luxury commodities” dissociated from being representations of a penis. Earlier examples of “fake and detached penises”, she claims, did not have this aspect. [Note: I’m not sure I’m buying this argument, unless earlier references to use of penetrative sex toys are being considered in a different category entirely.] To the extent that I understand her argument, she is asserting that only in the Renaissance did people start strapping dildos on for use, which is the distinction that make them an “accessory” (as opposed to a tool?).

The legal visibility of strap-on dildoes when used between women emerges on the Continent rather than England, due to differences in the legal codes. Multiple prosecutions from France and Spain are mentioned in which a woman both cross-dresses and uses a strap-on dildo to have sex with a female partner. The multiple functions of the device to enhance cross-dressing, to enable standing urination, and to engage in penetrative sex are discussed.

But the dildo could be viewed as a sexual rival for a man even when used solo. Satirical poems warn men that women who are unsatisfied will take their own pleasure in hand using a dildo. The purpose-made dildo could be viewed as a sign of sophistication when used in place of more everyday penetrative objects such as candles and vegetables. Poems list it as a luxury object that can be bought alongside other accessories such as gloves and perfume. And in addition to references to luxurious materials, some descriptions indicate additional features such as “rowels to heighten delights” as well as the previously-mentioned ability to eject warm liquid as desired.

Lest one think that luxury materials are a literary motif only, a surviving carved ivory dildo (possibly dating to the 18th century) includes a squirting mechanism and a cloth storage bag. In a somewhat confusing description of materials (leather, velvet filled with bran, wax, horn, ivory, wood, glass) Blake suggests that “soft covers could be made for ease of carrying, cleaning, or cushioning” or for “resizing” as in a poem describing “…a slender glass all covered with satten or such like most curiously and by our caves form just is measured.” Or the reference in The Sappho-an, “if too rude the polished engine seems, the velvet cov’ring keeps it from extremes…for to your choice they shall adapt the size.” Whether substance or storage case, there are references to a personified dildo being “dressed up” as in the ballad Monsieur Thing’s Origin that M. Thing might at first be considered “no person of note, because he’ll appear in a plain leather coat,” but later when taken up by the nobility they “cloathed him in satin and brought him to court.” Similarly, the dildo in Nashe’s poem is “attired in white velvet or silk.” [Note: I do wonder if some of the references to “covers” for dildos that Blake is interpreting as part of the substance of the instrument itself might not be references to carrying cases instead. It’s hard to imagine the durability and comfort of a velvet one!]

Blake explores the vocabulary of dildoes including various theories on the origin of the word “dildo.” Most attribute the first unambiguous use of the work in a sex toy sense to Thomas Nashe’s “The Choise of Valentines” in 1592. Later references attribute the origin of the word to Italy, perhaps as an adapation of diletto “pleasure”, but there’s also a long tradition of English ballads using “dildo” and related words as “nonsense” refrains, including sexual or suggesting contexts—a tradition that continued through the 17th century. The ambiguity between nonsense-rhymes and sex toys is sometimes deliberately employed to create innuendo. Although Nashe’s poem was not publicly printed at the time, it was evidently well known in circulation as other authors make reference to it. The original, full poem is clearly about “male sexual inadequacy and female sexual autonomy” but several expurgated versions were also in circulation that keep the initial sexual content but remove the references to the dildo, thus assuaging male anxieties and denying women’s autonomous pleasure. Rather than serving to focus women’s pleasure on the male member (even when the man isn’t present), the dildo can be interpreted here as representing a displacement of the male ego. [Note: Blake is referencing Valerie Traub’s interpretation here, so this isn’t necessarily a contradiction of her own position that the dildo is not a symbol.] Blake instead views it as contributing one more “choice” to the sexual options. But the poem also acknowledges that access to this option allows women to “scorn Cupid” and disdain men, which parallels one of Nashe’s themes that love poetry of the time dwells too much on frustration and pain rather than pleasure.

Scattered among various end-notes to the article are references to materials that dildoes might be made of, including velvet stuffed with bran, glass, and leather. Another note offers more vocabulary, quoting Burton’s Arabian Nights in 1886: Latin phallus and fascinum, French godemiche, Italian passatempo, diletto. Separately, French godemiche is traced to Latin gaude mihi (please me).

The article includes several figures. In addition to the illustration from the Sade book, there is a photo of an undated cloth dildo with cords attached, and a photo of a carved ivory dildo that includes a mechanism for emitting liquid, together with a cloth storage bag, attributed “possibly French, possibly eighteenth century.”

List of dildo references and descriptions in the article

  • 14th c. – unspecified record – Description of a wax model of a penis made as a votive offering, presumably as part of a religious charm against impotence or infertility. No implication of direct sexual use.
  • 16th c. - (unspecified legal records) – women caught and prosecuted for using a strap-on dildo with another woman.
  • 16th c. – Antonio Gómez (legal commentary) – Reference to a woman having sexual relations with a woman using a “material instrument.” A reference to two nuns condemned for this act.
  • 16th c. – Pierre Brantôme Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies (book) – Describes dildoes as gentiment faconnés “nobly fashioned.”
  • 1502 – Spanish legal record – A person appearing to be a man was arrested as a thief in Valencia  and discovered to be female-bodied and wearing “a thing of a man, between her legs, made of leather” which she confessed to having used for sexual relations with a woman.
  • 1533 – France (legal record) – Two women tried but acquitted for having sex using a dildo.
  • 1580 – Michel de Montaigne (diary) – Description of a woman who passed as a man and married a woman using “illicit devices” to engage in sex.
  • 1584 – Reginald Scot The Discoverie of Witchcraft (book) – Description of the use of a wax image of her husband’s supposedly bewitched penis as a religious counter-charm against impotence. No implication of direct sexual use.
  • 1592 - Thomas Nashe (poem) “The Choise of Valentines” – A tale of a man who, after various sexual endeavors with his mistress with variable success, is dismissed in favor of a dildo. The poem then includes an extensive description of the object (not included in this article however the poem can be found online: The object is “almost two handfuls high, straight, round, and plumb” with “one eye,” made of “congealed glass” and nourished with water or milk that spurts forth. (Description not from Blake.)
  • 1598 – John Marston The Scourge of Villanies (genre not mentioned) – Describes a woman who scorns her husband, evidently for providing her with insufficient pleasure in bed, and satisfies herself “with glassie instrument.”
  • 17th c. – “News from Crutchet-Fryers” (ballad) – Description of a group of women throwing dildoes over a neighbor’s wall in order to harass her.
  • 1656 – “To a Lady Vexed with a Jealous Husband” (poem) – Warns a husband that even if he locks up his wife, “she’ll make thee cuckold with an instrument.”
  • 1672 – Samuel Butler (poem) The Dildoides – Suggests that, just as military amputees are offered artificial limbs, men whose sexual performance is impaired by venereal disease or drunkenness might strap on a dildo instead.
  • 1674 – John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester “Seigneur Dildoe” (poem) – Describes the dildo as being an improvement over the use of “candle, finger, or thumb.”
  • 1682 – “Portsmouth’s Returne” (poem) – Describes a woman shopping for “elaborately fashioned dildoes” made of “satin and velvet” with “furling water to draw’t up streight, and rowels to heighten delights.”.
  • 1684 – anonymous Eve Revived, or the Fair One Stark-Naked (novel) – Description of two girls making a dildo out of velvet, stuffed with bran.
  • 1718 – Treatise of Hermaphrodites (non-fiction book) – Describes a female couple where one fastens the dildo onto her crotch on with ribbons.
  • 1722 – anonymous (poem) Monsieur Thing’s Origin: or, Seignor D---o’s Adventures in Britain – Satirical verses describing various women using a dildo, including one verse involving a female couple.
  • 1735 – (poem) The Sappho-an – Sappho describes the historical origin and evolution of the dildo. Mentions in passing the sexual use of objects such as candles, carrots, and parsnips. References use with a “new-invented belt.”
  • 1795 - Marquis de Sade (book illustration) La philosophie dans le boudoir – An illustration of a woman using a strap-on dildo on a man, who in turn is wielding a freestanding dildo on a woman who is also interacting with other men. All dildo-mediated interactions are between a m/f pair.


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