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Maybe We Should Think in Terms of Flavors of Lesbianism

Monday, June 15, 2020 - 17:00

This is the second article that is an earlier version of one of the chapters in Valerie Traub's The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. I keep thinking I should go back and compare these summaries to what I wrote about the same material in the full book. For that matter, I think I should see if the content changed substantially between these original articles and the later work. Or I could realize that I don't have time and leave that as an exercise to the reader.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

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

Publication summary: 

This collection of articles takes a broad view of “queering”. The articles look at the ways in whch “humanism” failed to recognize the humanity of many popuations, specifically those who were not straight white men. The research here encourages examination of the relationship of race, gender, and sexuality to notions of colonialism and imperial expansion.

Traub "The (In)Significance of ‘Lesbian’ Desire in Early Modern England"

This article is one of the components that went into Traub’s later book The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. I haven’t reviewed whether and how much it was revised for that 2002 publication (just as I didn’t for the titular chapter in GLQ covered in LHMP #275). Since my coverage of the eventual book was necessarily somewhat more cursory, I’ve gone ahead and summarized this article as if new.

* * *

Traub claims the title of this article is a “bait and switch” as she follows Halperin in treating “homosexuality” as such as only existing in the last 100 years, with “the lesbian” as an even more recent discursive invention.

[Note: I understand what the authors mean when they say this sort of thing -- that the concepts associated with the modern understanding of the category “lesbian” are only recently defined and codified -- but that leaves me wondering how they deal with the fact that the word “lesbian” was in regular use well before the last century in association with women who desired or had sex with other women. If “the lesbian” is a very recent conceptual invention, where does that leave the long history of the word and its associations? Do we just ignore that because it complicates our theoretical position?]

Traub compares the “asymmetrical representation” of three Early Modern figures: the French female sodomite, the English tribade, and the theatrical homoerotic “femme”. [Note: part of what Traub is trying to point out here is that sexualities are culturally grounded. The point isn’t that the words sodomite and tribade have different meanings, but that the specific manifestations those cultures applied those words to were different from each other.]

There is a discussion of the philosophical assumptions inherent in a 1729 book on “Ancient Laws against Immorality and Profaneness” that covers a wide variety of sex-related offences, encompassing categories of being (e.g., whores) as well as specific acts (e.g., bestiality). The author does not identify a common category for same-sex acts, grouping m/m sex with bestiality but omitting f/f sex entirely. Women may be whores (category) or may fornicate (act) but the possibility of being sodomites is excluded.

But was this an actual denial of the possibility of f/f sex or a byproduct of the author’s rigid approach to exclusive categorization? (I.e., that each person/act can only belong to one category of immorality.) After all, he also excludes the possibility of male whores, and yet those were clearly known and documented at the time. The book is a product of a period of gender instability and attempts to stabilize identities through artificial category boundaries. [Note: I feel like we’re going through a similar period currently. The early 21st century is a time of significant anxiety about shifts in older categories of gender and sexuality, and many people express that anxiety by trying to enforce rigid, artificial, and ill-fitting categories.]

It was the codification and normalization of sexual, psychological, and criminal categories in the 18-19th century that drove the legal regulation of same-gender desire. To a large extent, legal categories were seen to create fact: if no woman was prosecuted for sodomy, ipso facto, women did not practice sodomy.

It is only when one moves away from legal and theological discourse that we find texts that acknowledge f/f sexuality and attempt to regulat it, such as gynecology texts and stage plays. These genres were male-dominated, but show a distinct lackof anxiety about desire between women.

One must recognize geographic differences in attitudes toward f/f desire. Continental prosecutions for female sodomy emphasize the cultural difference from England. Montaigne’s anecdote about a cross-dressing woman (trans man) who married and had sex with a women shows contrasts between the law’s harsh response and the implication of a more accepting attitude of the couple’s neighbors, which is apparent in hints and wordings in the testimony. Within this French context, female sodomy is defined by the use of an artificial penis for sex. The focus is no on desire or non-penetrative sex, but only on the imitation of m/f sex.

Gynecological texts, both French and English, share this focus, being concerned specifically with the possibility of an enlarged clitoris that both caused and enabled women to have penetrative sex with women. See, e.g., Helkiah Crooke.

Despite the distinction in nomenclature and consequence for female sodomites (using dildos) and tribades (using a macro-clitoris), there is a unifying logic of supplementing female anatomy with male features. There is no consideration of distinction made in how these supplements may be used, only vague references to acting “like a man”. In masculinizing such women’s acts, authors failed to address what the acts may have meant to the women involved. Women’s agency in f/f sex is co-opted back into heterosexual forms.

Traub now turns to the question of finding evidence of f/f desire in other contexts. The nature and interpretation of this evidence is positioned within the framework of Judith Butler’s theories of gender as performance, and Derrida’s ideas of “difference”.

Early Modern women’s employment of anatomical “supplements” becomes not an imitation of man, but a replacement that emphasizes the artificiality of the gender binary, and indeed of men as a concept. The image of the enlarged clitoris becomes a cultural fantasy, apart from any possible biological reality, almost a fetish, in the same way that the image of the dildo became (apart from the concrete reality) and “object of desire” -- not necessarily for the women who were supposedly using them, but for the authorities who fixated on the phallus precisely in the context of its absence and displacement.

The focus of these texts is not on sexuality, but on gender; not on the pleasure the women experience, but on the usurpation of male prerogatives. So where do we see evidence of women’s erotic practices that do notinvolve a supplement for male anatomy? One place such practices are present is in Early Modern stage plays that feature what might be called “femme-femme love” as a viable, if unstable, state.

As with other literary genres, stage plays can’t be taken as representing real life experiences, but rather a discourse around how that possible experience was imagined, perceived, and regulated. Upon the stage, the popular motif of female cross-dressing can be viewed as representing similar cultural anxieties about gender identity as the fantasies of dildos and clitorises did.

The cross-dressing heroine becomes privileged as a representation of female homoeroticism because of her visibility. But -- aligned with Sedgwick’s “epistemology of the closet” -- are we as historians overlooking representations of female homoeroticism that did not generate the same obvious anxieties as cross-dressing? Are we focused too much on Viola (in Twelfth Night) the unwilling object of female desire due to her male disguise, and too little on Helena and Hermia, Celia and Rosalind, who express erotic sentiments for each other but whose destinies don’t challenge the marriage plot?

Shakespeare’s “femme-femme” couples always appear at the point of separation, simultaneously expressing homoerotic desire and placing the enjoyment of that desire safely in the past at the point of its betrayal. Female bonds become a point of anxiety when they threaten the patriarchal imperative (e.g., Titania and her handmaiden in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) or the prospect of marriage.

Shakespeare’s successors shifted female homoeroticism into the present, and depict it as explicitly erotic. (e.g., Heywood: The Golden Age; Shirley The Bird in a Cage) At the same time, they displace f/f love, not in time, but into a mythic, separatist female realm, such as Diana’s band. The Golden Ageis a reworking of the myth of Callisto and Diana. The Bird in a Cagealso uses classical myth as the setting for its f/f eroticism, and again uses the motif of Jupiter disguised as a woman to gain sexual access to an otherwise forbidden female object.

The use of f/f themes on the stage suggest an acceptability of f/f desire as long as male signifiers such as cross-dressing and dildos are not present. Though f/f love in he plays is replaced by heterosexual marriage, this is a resolution that must be forcibly imposed, rather than emerging as the “natural state”. May we posit that the gender of a woman’s object of desire need not be significant so long as the woman retains a “feminine” role?

Traub suggests the existence of (at least) two modes for female homoeroticism at this time: the omnisexual femme who did not challenge norms, and the tribade who usurped the masculine role and did not participate in the expected economy of female availability to men. Tribades were, to some extent, defined by their use of a phallic supplement. So what sexual practices might femmes have enjoyed? Stage plays make reference to kissing and caressing. Given that (heterosexual) marriage manuals of the time encouraged men to arouse their wives by caressing the breasts and genitals, surely these techniques were available between women as well?

Precisely because “femme” homoeroticism failed to challenge gender roles, it is rarely documented outside of drama. [Note: but see also a few rare examples of female-authored poetry of the time that express it.]