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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #59 Robinson 2010 “Pornographic Homophobia: 'L’Academie des dames' and the Deconstructing Lesbian”

Full citation: 

Robinson, David. 2010. “Pornographic Homophobia: L’Academie des dames and the Deconstructing Lesbian” in Lesbian Dames: Sapphism in the Long Eighteenth Century. Beynon, John C. & Caroline Gonda eds. Ashgate, Farnham. ISBN 978-0-7546-7335-4

Publication summary: 

The era covered by this collection begins at a time when female erotic relationships were viewed as "innocuous and impossible" (or perhaps, "innocuous because impossible") and extends to a period with a more anxious view of gender and of sexual transgressions, in a context of social changes around women's equality, marital choice, and a move away from a purely medical/physiological theory of lesbian desire.

Although most of the papers fall in the general category of literary criticism (and the language can be quite thoery-heavy), the evidence used is multidisciplinary. There is a discussion of the pragmatic and theoretical issues around the use of potentially anachronistic shorthands such as "lesbian" with a lean toward guarded pragmatism in labeling. The introduction concludes with a summary of the themes to come.

Robinson, David. “Pornographic Homophobia: L’Academie des dames and the Deconstructing Lesbian”

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Robinson uses the pornographic L'Academie des dames to explore the portrayal of sex between women and of non-procreative sex in general in the later 17th century. The work is structured as a dialogue between two women: the older, experienced Tullie and her younger cousin Octavie who moves from fiancée to wife in the course at the book. It is a French adaptation of Chorier's Latin Satyra Sotadica which was published two decades earlier. The book begins with Tullie providing sexual advice and coaching to the inexperienced Octavie and moves on to discussions between them of their experiences with the increasingly "kinky" sex they experience with their husbands and others. The text balances a libertine rejection of social norms with just enough portrayal of shock or disgust on the part of the women to give the reader a frisson of transgression.

Yet even within this tolerance and embracing of purely recreational sex, there are distinctions in how heterosexual and homosexual encounters are treated. In particular, although male-male sex is discussed and hinted at, it is never portrayed directly, despite ample opportunity. Sex between women, on the other hand, is plentiful and foregrounded (naturally enough, given that the main conversations are between women). It is introduced as a way to initiate the younger woman into sexual pleasure to prepare her for marriage (a common framing in lesbian-themed pornography of the times) but continues even as Octavie enters into heterosexual adventures. The women's activities are clearly framed as being irrelevant to their marriages. Lesbian activity is presented as not constituting adultery and furthermore as not deriving from any specific orientation or preference, but being available to (and typically desired by) all women.

Robinson's conclusion is that, by universalizing sex between women, the author erases the idea of lesbians as a distinct sexual group or orientation. Even aside from the opinions voiced by the protagonists, the story avoids depicting a woman who is solely or predominantly attracted to women as an acceptable option. He examines three figures who test this theory.

An anecdote is presented of two unmarried women engaging in a loving and sexual relationship who are surprised in the act by the brother of one of them who has been lusting after the other woman. He uses his knowledge of their activities to blackmail his target into agreeing to sex, and his sister into abetting the arrangement. Although the relationship between the women could be interpreted as an exclusive lesbian one, they are played for laughs and punished with heterosexual disruption of their relationship. The women in the framing story (Tullie and Octavie) view this as an appropriate outcome. A similarly “moral” story is offered of an aggressive, masculine-acting woman whose desire for another woman is turned into a joke. The third instance is similarly dismissive.

Another telling feature is the general absence of any sort of appropriation of masculinity in the portrayal of sex between the main female characters. In this text, sex between women is generally presented as non-penetrative and when penetration is hinted at, it is the only context in which an act between women is characterized as adultery. Robinson notes a contrast between the more satire-oriented original source text (Satyra Sotadica), which makes greater allowance for women with an active preference for sex with women and for the use of dildos, and the more pornography-oriented L'Academie, which appears to have been edited in ways specifically calculated to avoid anxiety in the (presumably hetero-male) readership.

Robinson concludes by noting the fairly subtle differences between his reading of the text as homophobic and the interpretation of other scholars that it is queer-positive, particularly in offering homosexual-oriented readers (both male and female) opportunities for identification.

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